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Cotswolds and Beyond

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Cotswolds Travel Blog: Including Highclere Castle, Avebury Stones, Marlborough, Bibury, Chedworth Roman Villa, Bourton on the Water and a spot of Shakespeare.

“So, you want to go to Norfolk next?” I asked Madam.

“I guess so…” she replied somewhat hesitantly.

“It’s very flat,” I said, “you can wave to people in Birmingham.”

“Really?  You can see that far?” asked Madam.

“Well… maybe not quite that far but it is very flat and there isn’t a lot to do there.”

“But you said you wanted to go there,” she insisted.

“Me? No I never said that. You said you wanted to go!”

“No I didn’t, it was your idea!”

It was definitely something you wanted to do! I remember you telling me!”

This conversation continued in a similar vein for some time and in the interests of brevity we shall withdraw to a discrete distance for an hour of so before we rejoin the protagonists.

“I distinctly remember you saying that was our next trip!” she said

“Only because you said you wanted to visit Norfolk ages ago.  So where do you want to go?”

She crossed her arm and was silent for a moment.  She waved expansively and said “what’s up there, north of Bath?

“The Cotswolds mostly, until you get to the Midlands… Wales if you turn left.” I replied.

“Can we go to Highclere Castle?  It’s on the way.”

“Only if we can go to Avebury to see the standing stones afterwards.”

Highclere Castle is the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and has been the seat of the family for over 300 years.  The current building was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1842.  He was also the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament and there are external similarities between the two buildings.

Before we left home, I looked online for ticket prices and their website told me that admission was going to cost us over £30 and only by pre-booked timed ticket.  It also informed me that they were fully booked for the next ten days.  I was about to tell Madam the bad news when I noticed that, deep in the FAQ, that they welcomed Historic Houses Association members to the castle free of charge and there was no need to pre-book.

We reached the castle a little before 2pm, waved our membership cards at the ticket-seller on the gate and were queuing for entrance to the house five minutes later.

It is an interesting building in its own way, but is mostly famous since it was used as the location of Downton Abbey in the TV series of the same name.  The castle has fifty bedrooms and several of these were used as locations in the series as well as the outside and gardens.  We shuffled through, I don’t know how many rooms, following groups of mostly elderly visitors.  All of them were talking about Downton Abbey.  “Ohh, look it’s Lady Edith’s Bedroom!”, “This is were they carried the body!” and “This is where Lady Sybil died!”

It was furnished with antique furniture and elaborate wall-hangings and oil paintings on the walls.  Piles of magazines were artfully arranged, ‘Country Life’, ‘Homes and Gardens’ and ‘Harpers Bazar.’  A book by Piers Morgan was on a bedside table.  The library contained over 5,600 books dating from 1538.  We passed an American woman, who may not have seen Downton Abbey, complaining to one of the guides about the lack of air-conditioning in the building.  The guide shook her head and said “It’s Grade I listed, we can’t even have central heating.”

They wouldn’t allow photography inside the building, so you will have to use your imagination or take a look at their website.

We spent the night in Marlborough in a room above a 15th century pub with sloping creaking wooden floors and low black beams and ceilings.  I made a cup of coffee and put the cup on the bedside table.  I watched it slowly slide towards the edge.  I tried a table near the window.  It slid the other way.  I thought about going downstairs to get a pile of beermats to prop under the table leg, but instead I just sat on the edge of the gently sloping bed and balanced the cup on my knee.  I drank my coffee and watched the traffic in the street below our window.

Marlborough is a tidy and prosperous town with a large church at each end of the High Street.  There was a Waitrose and a Rick Stein restaurant nestled amongst the charity shops.  According to an information book in the pub it has the second widest High Street in the  country (Stockton on Tees has the widest) and was a popular stopping point of horse-drawn stage coaches travelling from London to Bath.  Unfortunately those in power decided to use the width of the road for additional parking in the centre as well as along each side.  It made the street look cluttered and untidy.  How much different and nicer it would have looked with trees, grass and flowers down the centre, but then the locals would all be bitching about having nowhere to park.

After dinner downstairs in the pub, we walked along the High Street and looked in an estate agents window.  “We could buy a nice pied-à-terre for only £695,000,” said Madam.  I pulled her away before she started getting ideas.  We walked through the town pausing to look in a few shop windows before finding our way down to the river.  I had hoped to find a riverfront walk but the only access we found was a wooden bridge along a footpath crossing the river.  I had imagined it would be at least be a navigable canal, but it was shallow and weed-chocked with clouds of midges hovering over the surface.

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Avebury standing stones have been on my travel wish list for several years, right there after Stonehenge.   I had pushed it to the back of my mind, maybe onto that list of maybe get there one day but probably not, so I awoke in a state of some anticipation at today’s agenda.

The Avebury area was populated by Neolithic farmers around 6,000 years ago.  Around 4,000 years ago, somebody decided to erect something like 600 stones and dig a whole bunch of ditches and earthen banks. Such was the scale of the enterprise, it must have taken several generations to finish.  In fact, the building time was probably measured in centuries.  One of the stones weighed 100 tons and was buried seven feet into the ground.  Try shifting that with an animal bone and ropes made from plant fibres and see how long it takes you.

The Avebury monument is a henge, which is a type that consists of a large circular bank with an internal ditch. The henge measures roughly 348 metres in diameter and over 1,000 metres in circumference.

Nobody knows why it was built.  Really, not a clue.  Lots of guesses, a religious temple of some kind, a site for meetings or ceremonies.  Maybe aliens landed and gave the locals a plan and helped with some heavy lifting.  One of the dafter theories voiced in the 19th century, and bear in mind that these theories include aliens, was that Native Americans popped over from the Appalachian mountains to build it before returning home.

We know nothing about the people that built the monument.  What they looked like, what they wore, their religion, if they had one.  We have no idea of their language or whether they were farmers or traders, whether they kept slaves or it was built by volunteers or for payment.  We don’t know what happened to them.  All we know is that somehow there was a culture with sufficient organisational ability and longevity to build something a dozen times bigger than Stonehenge.  It’s initially not as impressive a sight as Stonehenge – the stones are not as high and spread out further – but given the scale must have been a similar mammoth undertaking.

In the Middle Ages the locals created a road through the middle and built a village, using many of the stones as building material.  Other stones were buried around 1300 AD either for religious reasons or because they spoiled the view.  By 1900 only 23 stones were left standing.

In the 1930’s archaeologist Alexander Keiller, he of Dundee marmalade so to speak, had a poke around and liked it so much he purchased Avebury Manor and spent a great deal of his fortune digging up and restoring stones to their original positions.  Concrete markers indicate the position of stones lost.  Thanks to Keiller, there are now 74 stones standing.  Some of the remains of others can be seen in the walls of houses in the village.  Keiller lived in Avebury Manor until his death in 1955, when the site passed into the care of the National Trust.

It really is an astonishing creation  It is the largest circle of standing stones in the world.  It contains the heaviest standing stone in the UK.  Nearby Silbury hill is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe.

The standing stones started to appear on the verge of the road, and in the fields behind, as we approached the village.  Sheep grazed amongst the stones, we saw only the occasional dog walker.  We parked in the vast National Trust car park with half a dozen other cars and walked around a couple of fields, taking photographs and marvelling at the scale.  Roads and houses are spread throughout the site, so you have to cross busy roads and take paths behind houses to see the whole thing which rather spoils an understanding of the scale of the monument.

We had it almost to ourselves.  Unlike nearby Stonehenge, you can go up and touch the stones, scratch your initials, chip of a bit to take home.  I got out my hammer and chisel but Madam told me off, so instead I sat in a cleft in one of the stones and made these notes while Madam pushed on a stone trying to feel vibration in the hope of being transported back to 1745.  If you haven’t seen the TV series Outlander you may have missed that reference.

Nearby is Avebury Manor, also under the care of the National Trust.  The building dates from the 16th century and has each room furnished and decorated in different periods ranging from the 1550’s, through 1712, 1798, 1912 to 1939. Unfortunately it was spoiled for everyone visiting the house by two women and half a dozen unruly children who were running around screaming and shouting.  Every room we visited, they seemed to follow us.  They were not, as the Queen Mother might have said, of the lower orders, but appeared to be educated and wealthy.  As we were leaving the children were running up the exit-only stairs, still screaming.

“Do you think the mothers don’t notice, or just don’t care?” I asked Madam.

“They probably think nobody matters but them,” she replied.

“In that case, the children will probably grow up to be Tory MPs. He could be Conservative Prime Minister one day.” I said, pointing to the child pulling a picture off the wall.

The car park was almost full when we left the site at lunch time and lots of people were wandering amongst the stones.  I was glad we got there early and could see the stones in isolation.

We drove around the corner to Silbury Hill, an artificial Neolithic hill constructed over a period of 2400 to 2300 BC.  It is 130 feet high, about the size and height of one of the smaller Egyptian pyramids.  It has no known purpose.  It’s not a burial tomb as was first thought, it’s just a great big man-made hill.  Archaeologists have calculated that it took 18 million man-hours to move and shape the 248,000 cubic metres of earth and chalk.

You can’t climb the hill nowadays due to its fragility, you can only admire it from 100 yards away or so. I stood and looked at it for a while and said to Madam “Why on earth would a bunch of people spend a hundred years building an artificial hill.  The site is surrounded by natural hills.”

“You can ponder all day and still be none the wiser,” she replied, turning to walk back to the car.

I took this to mean she was hungry and needed her lunch, so we started the car and headed into nearby Royal Wootten Bassett, which must have been the winner of a competition to name a town with the most double letters.

“This isn’t what I expected,” said Madam.

Unless we missed something the town consisted of a busy main road with shops down each side.  I wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Maybe based on the royal prefix she expected a palace or two.  Perhaps a few minor royals shopping in a branch of Fortnum and Mason or walking a brace of corgis.  All we saw were discount stores, charity shops and bookmakers.

We found a small cafe down a twitten and took the last available table.  There are two reasons why a cafe is crowded.  One, it is really good and all the locals eat there.  Two, it is the only place open.  In this case it was reason two.  Still, on the plus side, parking was free.

Refreshed by a Tesco value scone, a dob of cream and a cup of tea (£3.60) we got back in the car and continued to our hotel for the night in Cirencester.

We were staying in Cirencester for a couple of nights but didn’t have a specific agenda for the next day.  I looked on the Google using such search terms as ‘Places to visit in the Cotswolds’ and ‘Prettiest villages in the Cotswolds.’  I skipped past several sites offering to book me a hotel in London or a tour to Stonehenge.  Most of the rest of the results were near-identical ‘listicles’ all of which mentioned nearby Bibury as a place to visit.

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Wikipedia tells me that William Morris once called Bibury “the most beautiful village in England.” The village, known for its honey-coloured seventeenth century stone cottages with steeply pitched roofs, is popular with Japanese tourists, largely attributed to Emperor Hirohito having stayed in the village on his European tour.  One row of cottages, Arlington Row, is currently featured in the UK passport adding to its popularity.

It is a bad sign when you pass four parked coaches as you enter the village.  “Park anywhere,” I told Madam.

“Just as soon as I see a space I will,” she replied somewhat testily.

We drove through the village.  Every parking space was taken.  We reached the outskirts and started to head out of the village. “What now?” asked Madam.

“Try down here,” I said, pointing to a narrow lane leading to the village church.  We managed to find what was probably the last parking space in the village, right outside the church, and walked back down into the village.  A sign pointed to Arlington Row and we headed down the footpath.

I tried taking some photographs of the cottages in Arlington Row but it was crowded with tourists,  mostly Japanese, who were all insisting on taking numerous Instagram worthy pictures.  Every time I raised my camera someone would jump in front of the cottages and start the first of dozens of poses and extravagant twirls.  I ended up standing at the back and taking recursive pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures.  If you look closely, you can see the cottages in the background.

We walked further into the village along the busy main road dodging tourists and cars.  Two smiling Buddhist monks dressed in orange robes were feeding bread to ducks in the river.

“Have you seen enough of Bibury,” asked Madam.

“Some time ago,” I replied, as I dodged a coach which seemed intent on running me down.

“Let’s go and see some Roman remains,” I said. “Buildings, not people,” I added by way of clarification.

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We drove to the Chedworth Roman Villa through some of the nicest countryside that England has to offer.  Golden fields of wheat nestled alongside dark green woodland copses, all fringed by rolling hills.  Thick luxuriant hedgerows and honey-coloured dry stone walls divided fields.  Purple wildflowers grew in the verges.  One field was a deep brown where the farmer was ploughing after the wheat harvest.  A flock of seagulls was following behind the tractor.

We drove down narrow lanes, many of them only one car wide with passing places every few hundred yards.  We only saw a handful of other cars during the seven mile journey so I expected the villa to be deserted.

A guide was standing at the entrance of the road leading to the Villa.  “The main car park is full.  You will have to go and park in the overflow area.  It’s a bit of a climb I’m afraid,” he said.

It was obviously more popular than I thought, maybe everyone was avoiding the coach tours in the villages.  We went into the ticket office and the women on the desk said “there’s a guided tour at 12:00… or maybe 12:15… it really depends when the volunteer turns up… you’ll have time for a coffee in the cafe.”

We did have a cup of coffee in the small crowded cafe – there’s a rule that all National Trust properties have a cafe, however small and remote – and looked for the guide.  12:15 came and went with no sign of anyone guide-like appearing, so we had a wander round ourselves and very interesting it was too.  It wasn’t as busy as the crowded car park implied – maybe they were all still in the cafe waiting for the guided tour.

Chedworth is one of the largest Roman villas in Britain.  The villa was discovered in 1864 by a gamekeeper who was digging for a ferret, as you do, and it was excavated and put on display soon afterwards and acquired by the National Trust in 1924.

It was built in the 4th century AD, arranged around three sides of a courtyard. It includes two heated bathing suites – one for damp-heat and one for dry-heat, heated by underfloor heating.  Only the outline and small sections of the walls remain but you get a good impression of the scale of the buildings and the use of each room.  You can see the pillars supporting the raised floor and part of the mosaic covering the floor above in the pictures on my photography page. Mosaics were installed in a dozen of the rooms and some of these can be seen via a covered walkway.

A few yards away on a small hill above the villa is a natural spring, still flowing, which was the source of water for the villa. The Romans installed an apsidal shrine to the water-nymphs by the spring including a two metre high wall which was unearthed by the excavations.

Soon after we left the Roman Villa, we drove through a village just as pretty as any Cotswold village we had seen but completely empty of tourists.  It had obviously escaped mention in the guidebooks and listicles from the internet.  “Don’t tell anybody about this place!  It will be ruined by hordes of tourists if you mention the name!” said Madam.

I think she overestimates the reach of this blog so I think I will be safe in telling my seven readers the name of the village.  Just don’t mention it to anybody else, okay?  The name of the village is {REDACTED}.

We checked out of the hotel in Cirencester and headed north, intending to take in a couple more towns from one of the listicles before spending the night in Stratford Upon Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare.

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Our first stop was Bourton-on-the-Water.  The road started to get busier as we reached the outskirts. A mile from the town there was a large sign outside of a pub.  It read ‘Mousetrap Left, Tourist Trap, Straight on.’  It proved propitious.

We drove through the town slowly in bumper to bumper traffic, finally reaching the only town car park on the far side of the town.  We found one of the few remaining spots and I went up to the pay and display machine.  Several people were standing around frowning, their phones in their hand.  ‘Out of Order.  Please Use Another Machine’ said the succinct message on the machine.  In small print underneath was a phone number where we could pay by credit card. “The other machine isn’t working either,” somebody volunteered, “and they aren’t answering their phone.”

Directly opposite the car park was the local cricket field, a sign outside said ‘Parking £3 All Day,’ adding rather oddly ‘Ideal for Picnics.’

Two young men were collecting money from the steady stream of cars driving into the field.

“I wonder if they broke the machines?” asked Madam.

The town was packed.  Nowhere to sit and hardly room to walk.  We reached the first of many gift shops.  One man said excitedly to his wife “we’ve not been in this one yet!” before dashing inside.  A couple were trying to get their dog to sit still while they took a picture of him on a stone bridge.

Bourton-on-the-Water straddles the river Windrush and has been described as the Venice of the Cotswolds with its series of low stone bridges that cross the gently flowing river.  It was pleasant enough, crowds aside, but every shop, practically every building, was targeted at tourists.  There were tea rooms, restaurants and gift shops, all of them packed.  Madam looked in a couple of gift shops while I waited outside.

We passed a shop with a large sign advertising a model railway layout.  “Do you want to go in there?” asked Madam.

It was £3 and looked crowded so I passed.

We crossed the river and walked down a less slightly crowded side street.  “There’s a motor museum,” I said, “do you think it’s free?”

Madam gave a snort of derision and said “of course not.”

I looked.  It was £6.25 each.

It started to rain so we headed to the closest coffee shop and, by some miracle, found two seats near the window.  We sat and watched the rain, glad of a rest from dodging the crowds.  I swatted away a wasp trying to eat the remains of my scone and said “Is there anything else to do in Bourton, apart from the tourist traps?”

Madam looked at the Google on her phone.  “There’s a cemetery that gets good reviews,” she said, “one of the top reviewers says her grandparents are buried there.”

I looked out of the window.  The rain had stopped and there was a hint of weak sunshine showing through the clouds.

“I’m going to look at Stowe,” she continued, “there’s a church with doors there that gets good reviews.”

I’m not sure how many more crowded Cotswold villages I could take in one day, pretty as they were.  Even if I got to see a church with doors.

“How about National Trust?” I asked.

Chastleton House.. It’s…” she started to say.

“Sounds great! Let’s go!”

We drove north along the Fosse Way, a Roman road that linked Exeter in the South West to Lincoln in the North East, via Ilchester, Bath, Cirencester and Leicester.  The word Fosse derives from the Latin word for ditch (Fossa).  It was the western boundary of Roman controlled Britain and was indeed a defensive ditch running in an almost straight line between the cities.  We don’t know if the road was built to run alongside the ditch or whether the road was later built over the filled ditch.

Luckily it has been re-surfaced once or twice since then and we encountered neither ditch nor cobblestones.  The outskirts of Stowe-on-the-Wold flashed by in a blur of Cotswold stone. We passed a couple of other villages, just as attractive as any other, but free of tourists and gift shops.  When I looked on the internets I saw the same half dozen towns and villages repeated again and again in the listicles.  They were no better or worse than many others that never had a mention. What are the chances that the authors actually visited the Cotswolds, or did they just copy from some out-of-date guidebook they found in the library?

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Chastelton House was built of Cotswold stone, around a courtyard called the Dairy Court, by a chap by the name of Walter Jones in 1607.  It is reported that Walter was the first and last of the family to have any money, so the house stood largely unchanged for the next four hundred years.  It was inherited by Alan and Barbara Clutton-Brock in 1955.  Alan was a professor of fine art at Cambridge and was more concerned with his painting than upkeep of the house, so it continued to decline.  Following Allan’s death in 1976, Barbara continued to live in the cold and draughty house with her twenty cats and pet parrot while the house fell into further disrepair.

In 1991, she handed the keys to the National Trust with the words “don’t move anything.  Once you have disturbed the dust, you won’t know where to put anything back.”

The neglect has left something of a Jacobean treasure house.  None of the family had enough money to alter the structure or replace the contents. Flemish tapestries from the sixteenth century hang in the bedrooms, Pewter plates and original kitchen equipment remain on the shelves in the kitchen.  In the library of 4,000 books and journals are fourteen books from the 16th century.  The earliest, printed in Venice in 1513, is a volume from Macrobius on Cicero and the Roman feast of Saturnalia.

In one room, safely ensconced in a glass case, is a Juxon Bible – one of a set of only fifty printed in 1629 and given to bishops.  This one is said to have been used by Charles I in the last days of his reign.  Legend has it that the Bishop of London read from it to Charles I on the morning of his execution.

Apart from some essential maintenance and repairs – it took them six years just to make it safe for visitors – the National Trust have left it unchanged apart from the lightest of dustings. They left plenty of dust and unpolished surfaces to deliberately give a feel of arrested neglect rather than restoration.

It’s a slightly disconcerting mix of family stuff from the 1950’s and original untouched contents inherited with the house.  One minute you will be walking past a pile of Tatler magazines from 1956, then the next past a 17th century copy of Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire. I enjoyed it a lot more than shuffling around Cotswold gift shops.

I asked Madam what she thought of the house.  “It was… weird… and a bit creepy.  I didn’t enjoy it really.  It was all a bit sad.  The National Trust could do so much more with the house… as could the family.”

“But I’m glad they got rid of the cats” she added with a shudder.

Madam sneezes at the very thought of dust or cats.

A few miles after leaving Chastleton, the houses were built of brick instead of stone.  We were out of the Cotswolds and into self-styled Shakespeare country.

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Our hotel was ten minutes walk from the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon and we were standing outside of Shakespeare’s birthplace soon after it opened the following morning.  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a combined ticket to visit all of their properties for only a couple of pounds more than a single entry ticket.

This wasn’t just his birthplace but the house he grew up in and spent the first five years of his married life.  There is a modern visitor centre next to the house which has detailed exhibits of Shakespeare’s work and life. The visitor centre is very well done and we spent some time lingering here watching and listening to an audio-visual presentation of extracts from his works.

The house itself, although small by modern standards, would have been quite substantial for the late 16th century.  His parents bedroom, assumed to be the birth-room, is upstairs next to his childhood bedroom.  Each is populated with period furniture.  The reproduction of his childhood bed is about the size of a modern single bed but would have been also for his two brothers.  I guess it was one way of keeping warm on the cold nights.

His father John was a successful glove maker and part of the house reproduces a glove-making workshop in a downstairs room.  In another room is the original window from the birth room inscribed with the signatures of visitors to the house over three centuries.  Apparently it was the fashion to scratch your name on the window of places you visited.  And who says graffiti is a modern phenomena.  Amongst the scratched signatures are Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.

Outside in the gardens are a resident group of Shakespearean actors taking requests from the audience.  Madam requested the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and I a speech by Lady Macbeth.  I’m not at all sure what that says about our respective personalities.

Once Shakespeare started to make some money from his skills, he purchased his own, very grand, house nearby called New Place.  Think about that for a minute.  One of the greatest poets and playwrights of all time.  One who was known for having a bit of a way with words and his new home is called… New Place.

Our ticket included admission to New Place so we walked a few minutes down the road and stood by the entrance.  It quickly became apparent that, not only was its original name a touch unimaginative, but the name is now completely misleading.  It should be called New Space.  It’s an empty space, well, actually a very nice garden, where the house used to be or not to be.

We had a look round the gardens and tried to imagine a house where there was now only an empty space,  We listened to a guide tell us how the house might have looked had it been there.  He admitted that nobody really knows because there were no pictures.  They have placed a large ornate bronze chair in the garden that might have looked like Shakespeare’s writing chair where his writing room might have been and where he might have sat should the room have been where it might have been where the house might have stood.  I sat down in the chair, perchance to dream of something interesting to write, or maybe just to rest my feet.  Then I realised that the metal chair had been in the hot sun all day and I could smell my leg hairs burning.

Included in our ticket was Hall’s Croft, a 16th century timber framed house owned by John Hall, who married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607.  Hall was a local physician and the house contains a number of exhibits on Tudor medical practices as well a furniture of that period.  I looked round the medical equipment and cures on offer in the 17th century and decided that anybody with any sense would have kept well away from doctors of the time.

Popular cures included blood-letting, either with leeches or by cutting a vein with an unsterilised knife.  Rheumatism was treated by the patient wearing the skin of a donkey.  Smallpox was treated by hanging red curtains around a victim’s bed and jaundice by drinking lice mixed with some ale each morning.

Little wonder that only 10% of the population lived beyond their 40’s.

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Hall, according to the information boards in the house, seems to have been a little more enlightened and used mostly herbs as a treatment.  Diagnosis included inspection of the patients urine.  The look, the smell and the taste of it giving clues as to the patient’s ailment.  I might have stuck to the lice and ale.

Nearby was Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church.  There’s a welcome sign at the door and no charge for admission… until you get closer to the grave.  An elderly woman, credit card reader in hand, sat at the start of the passageway to the grave, waiting for a ‘voluntary’ donation of £4 each.  The grave itself is marked by just a flat stone up by the alter.  You would miss it had they not surrounded it with a decorative black cord and a large sign.  His wife, Anne’s grave is beside his.

I was standing in the shade of a tree in the churchyard.  It was hot and my feet were tired.  “How far is it to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage?” I asked Madam.

“A couple of miles I think,” she replied.

“That’s a bit of a walk,” I said.

“I wonder if they have Uber here?” asked Madam somewhat rhetorically.

Madam did something clever and Ubery with her phone and 20 minutes later we were walking into the cottage.

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Anne’s family home before her marriage was a timber-framed thatched cottage that remained in her family until 1892 when it was purchased by the Birthplace Trust.  It has been preserved as it was when she lived there.  It is likely that Anne’s family were well-off judging by the twelve rooms in the cottage – large by Elizabethan standards.  The house has been furnished in the style of the Elizabethan period, using original furniture where possible. An upstairs bedroom contains a wooden bedstead believed to be the bed of Anne’s birth.  In a downstairs room, next to the fire, is a settle which Shakespeare is said to have sat on while he courted Anne.

“Back to the hotel then my sweet?” I asked as we left the cottage, “Can you do the Ubery thing with your phone again?”

She poked at her phone and frowned.  “No cars available,” she said, “I’ll try a taxi company.”

“Nope, nothing available.”

She called another.  Same story.  I started looking around for bus stops and wondering quite how we were going to walk the two miles back into town.  Normally not a problem but we had been on our feet all day and were exhausted.

Finally, after the fourth try she got the reply, “Sure!  Be there in ten minutes!”

It was closer to twenty minutes but we sank into the taxi seat with a sigh of relief.  He turned out to be the friendliest taxi driver we’ve ever had.  The meter read £5.30 when we stopped and he quickly turned if off and said “Call it £5.”  I tried to offer a tip – I would have happily paid £10 to save my legs but he refused to accept a penny more.  If you find yourself needing a taxi in Stratford, call ‘Ideal Taxis’ and ignore the rest.

“We’ve been in one place too long when you know the traffic light sequence,” I said to Madam as we were watching the traffic and waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green.

She smiled and said “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Where to next,” I asked.

“I was thinking Milton Keynes,” she replied.

“Milton Keynes?  Home of shopping centres, concrete cows and 130 roundabouts?  I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“I was thinking Bletchley Park,” she replied.

“I like the sound of that,” I said.

But first we had two other places to visit.

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Sulgrave Manor is a Tudor house built around 1550 by direct ancestors of George Washington.  Madam tells me that Washington was something important in the colonies.  The link is somewhat tenuous as Washington’s great-grandfather emigrated to the Virginia colonies in 1656 and it’s unlikely that George ever saw the house and perhaps was even unaware of it.  That doesn’t stop them from stressing the connection in the house.  There is a George Washington exhibition by the entrance with a handle from his coffin, a tiny scrap of material from his wife’s wedding dress and what may be – or may not be – an ink stand he used.  Portraits and busts adorn the walls.  There were seven other visitors while we were there and it only took an hour including a fifteen minute talk on Ladies Who Lunch by an earnest guide.

“How far is Althorp from here?” I asked Madam as we were leaving.

“I was just wondering that myself,” replied Madam.

We were planning on visiting Althorp in the morning before we travelled down to Bletchley Park, but it was only a little after 1pm so we headed there now.

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There’s no parking in the grounds of Althorp for commoners like us, so we parked in a bumpy field opposite and walked up the entrance.  Extensive grounds spread out from each side of the driveway.  Those would make a great car park, I thought as we trudged up the half mile or so up to the house. Two entrance tickets were £37.50, a guide book £5.95.  A sandwich and a drink for each of us another £11.40.

Althorp is the current home  of Charles Spencer, the ninth Earl Spencer.  The house and estate run to about13,000 acres and contain 28 listed buildings and structures, including nine planting stones.  The 500 year old home is filled with antiques and paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough.  It is perhaps more famous though as the teenage home and final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales.

“She danced on this floor!” exclaimed Madam excitedly.

“She walked down this corridor!” she continued.

I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was.

Piles of hardback books were artfully arranged in several rooms with Charles Spencer books on top, as though casually left there by the last reader.  A sign on each table in the cafe had suggested we should buy books by the ‘best selling author Charles Spencer.’

We left the house and walked down to the lake where Diana is buried.  A Doric-style temple with Diana’s name inscribed on top is situated across from the lake, and was receiving a steady stream of visitors.  People were queuing to pose for pictures in front of the memorial. Her tomb is on an island in the middle of the man-made lake.  It was like she had her own moat.  It was a sensible arrangement as otherwise they might have a stream of women of a certain age prostrating themselves on the grave and wailing inconsolably.  I kept a close eye on Madam as the lake looked fairly deep, but she seemed more interested in finding an oak tree planted by Nelson Mandela during a visit to the house.  I am pleased to report that the tree is doing well.

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A pleasant young man with a booming voice cheerfully relieved us of £36 and welcomed us to Bletchley Park.  “You can come back anytime in the next year with those tickets.  We would love to see you again,” he said, “but you’ll need to sign them.  We’ve had people selling them on eBay!”

Now, there’s an idea, I thought.

Bletchley Park housed the codebreaking operations during World War II and was the birthplace of modern computing.  Historians believe the work there shortened the war by two years, saving many millions of lives.  At the peak of operations some ten thousand people worked there intercepting and deciphering enemy radio signals.  Although very much a team effort, a few individuals stand out:  Alan Turing, John Tiltman, Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and Dilly Knox to name but a few.

Bletchley Park was crowded with visitors and we shuffled round the displays of Enigma machines and equipment used at the site.  One of the Enigma machines was stamped with ‘Made in Germany’ in English.   There is a reproduction of a Bombe machine (the original machines were dismantled after the war), designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, which was used to help break the Enigma machine code.

There is a special exhibition in the park dedicated to Bill Tutte and a larger one to the life and work of Alan Turing.

Turing is considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.  Despite his accomplishments at Bletchley and afterwards, he was not fully recognised in his home country during his lifetime, partly due to his homosexuality and because much of his war-time work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.  In 1952 he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts.  He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. His conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and barred him from entry into the United States.  On the 8th June, 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead at the age of 41 from cyanide poisoning. The verdict was suicide.

In 2009, following an internet campaign, the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated” and he was pardoned posthumously.  It was recently announced that Turing would be depicted on the new £50 note which pleased me immensely.

When I started to learn about computers in the 1960’s and early 1970’s all of the books told me that the first computer, technically just a digital electronic calculator, was the American made machine called ENIAC.  It wasn’t, but information about one built at Bletchley two years previously, the Colossus, was kept secret until the 1970’s.  Ironically, information about Colossus came from the USA.  In 1995 the American National Security Agency was forced by the Freedom of Information Act to release thousands of World War II documents, including one by Albert Small which was a complete description of Colossus.

Non techies may want to skip this paragraph.  Colossus was a two-bit (in its literal, not colloquial sense) computer capable of reading 5,000 cps from paper tape. With its 1700 valves it could perform a hundred Boolean calculations simultaneously.  Due to these parallel calculations it was probably as fast as a modern desk PC albeit with a very specialist hard-wired program.  It was used to break the codes of the German Lorenz cipher machine that was used by the German High Command and played an important role in breaking coded message between Hitler and his generals.

We had hoped to go to the computing museum on the same site but it was almost 4pm by the time we had finished at Bletchley and we were tired, so I just added it to the travel wish list for a future visit.  I’m putting my ticket, valid into 2020, in a safe place, just in case.

We spent the night in Milton Keynes and planned to head home that day.  “Do you need to go into the town?” I asked Madam.

“Is there anything worth seeing there?” she asked.

“Lots of roundabouts,” I said, “and some concrete cows.”

“No, let’s go home,” she said as she pulled closed the zip on the suitcase.

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Izzel of Wigget

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“We could go away,” Madam suggested, “you have a week between appointments.”

“But I’ve been in hospit…” I started to say but she gave me a look that spoke of daggers and I fell into silence.

She stared at me a little longer then said, “You’re looking much better today. We’re going to run out of decent weather soon.”

It’s true that  spring was a memory and summer was passing quickly, but I was still getting breathless if I walked upstairs.  “I have all these tests scheduled at the hospital,” I told her, pressing my hand against my heart for added emphasis.  Then I remembered it was my lungs and moved my hand.

We can go somewhere warm,” she suggested, “maybe an island in the south with lots of beaches.  It will be good for you. Book somewhere.  You choose but remember: South.  Island.  Beaches.”

“Do you have the right translate app loaded on your phone?” Asked Madam when I told her everything was arranged a couple of days later.

“No need my sweet,” I replied, “most people there speak English.”

“Like Malta you mean?”

“Sort of…” I replied.

She gazed into the distance distractedly. She thought for a while,  smiled and said “the sea… it’s so blue.”

“How about foreign currency?” she asked.

“They will take British pounds” I replied.

“So, is it Gatwick or Heathrow?” she asked.

“Neither my sweet, we leave from Portsmouth.”

She looked at me suspiciously.  “Portsmouth has an airport?”

“You need to start packing my sweet, we leave tomorrow.”

Isle of Wight ferry

She peered at the sign at the ferry terminal and said “We’re going to the Izzel of Wigget?” 

“Yes, my sweet, it’s south and definitely has beaches.  It has a really lovely royal palace as well.  You won’t find that on remote Pacific islands.” I told her.

When Victoria married Albert in 1840, they only had three palaces to live in: Windsor Castle, the 775 room Buckingham Palace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.  The guide book to Osborne House informed me that these were unsuitable for the parents of a growing family, so in 1843 they sought a country house.  They purchased the estate in 1845 along with 2,000 surrounding acres and promptly set about building the current house.  I did search the guide book to see how many rooms it had but it is either a secret or there are way too many to count.

Entrance to Osborne House was ambitiously priced at £39 or we could have a fifteen month membership of English Heritage for £93.  The pleasant young woman at the entrance attempted to persuade us to join and assured us that it was very good value.   She told us that the money would only be sucked from our bank account at some vague date in the future.  Maybe September, or even October. Quite possibly sometime next year.  “We may even completely forget,” she said vaguely.   “I can give you a membership card right now.  It’s very good value,” she said as she handed me a pen and an application form.

Madam agreed that an annual membership was much better value, but we would just HAVE to see lots more royal palaces to make it worthwhile.

The house consisted mostly of an endless succession of extravagantly decorated rooms full of royal memorabilia and paintings of dead royals.  It was packed with visitors and we moved slowly through the rooms behind old people taking photos on aged Nokia phones.  To break the tedium, groups of ebullient ten-year olds elbowed past us followed by harried looking teachers. Madam of course loved every room, ornament and picture.  

They had a special exhibition on Victoria and Albert’s birthdays at Osborne.  The pocket guide told us that they had lots of empty rooms to furnish and they used their birthday gifts to do this.  What a hard life it must have been.  Their gifts to each other seemed to consist mostly of paintings and statues of scantily clad or naked women.  Eighty of the gifts remain in Osborne House.

 My feet were aching and I was tired tired after two hours of trudging through seemingly identical  rooms.  “Is there a coffee shop anywhere,” I asked Madam.  

“Later!” she said, “we still have another twenty rooms to get through yet.”  

I made small whimpering noises and alternately clutched my knees and chest.  She relented after a few more rooms and we headed out to the cafe in the grounds for a snack and a welcome sit-down.

“£3.50 for a scone?” asked Madam, “did Queen Victoria bake them herself at those prices?”  

I poked at the dry edges and replied “quite possibly.”

Swiss Cottage, a nine room Swiss-style chalet was built in the grounds of Osborne House in 1854 as a gift from Albert and Victoria to their children.  The children would grow vegetables in the garden and sell them to Albert at market prices.  They would also play at being servants and serve lunch and tea to visitors. .  No doubt the servant’s children were simultaneously playing at being rich, dressing up in fine clothes and eating eight course meals.

We had a quick look round the cottage then walked down through dense thickets of rhododendrons to the beach. Signs along the path told us to watch out for Red Squirrels. The Red Squirrel used to be widespread throughout Britain until the Grey Squirrel was introduced from North America in the 1870’s by collectors.  The Grey carries a virus fatal to the Red which has led to the decimation of the latter.  Red populations now only exist in isolated areas, on offshore islands and in Scotland.  We stopped several times, hopefully peering into the trees, but never saw any.

Prince Albert was a firm believer in the health benefits of sea bathing and the nearby beach was instrumental in their choice of location.  The queen had her own bathing machine which ran down to the sea on stone rails.  After her death the bathing machine was was used as a chicken shed.  I wonder if she would have been amused.

There was a long line of deckchairs, all empty, looking out over the water.  We headed towards the chairs then noticed that everybody close to the water were flapping their arms and feverishly brushing their face and clothes.  Even for the Isle of Wight this seemed strange behaviour.  

“The locals can be a bit weird,” I told Madam, “just try to ignore them, I’m sure it’s not contagious.”

As soon as we reached the chairs, thousands of tiny beetles, smaller than a grain of rice, were swarming and covering our clothes and in our hair.  They were trying to get up my nose and in my mouth and crawling in my ears.  I started flapping my arms and feverishly brushing my face and clothes.  We abandoned any thought of sitting and gazing over the Solent and headed to the nearby cafe.  I bought an ice-cream, only to calm my nerves you understand, which quickly turned into a vanilla and beetle crunch.  It’s probably not vegetarian any more, I thought, as I picked out beetle remains from between my teeth.

“Let’s go back to the house,” suggested Madam, “We’ll be away from these beetles and I’m sure there’s a few rooms we haven’t seen.”

Shanklin to Sandown, Isle of Wight

“What is there to do on a Saturday in Shanklin,” I asked Madam.

We were staying in a three bedroom holiday rental house in Shanklin for the week which worked out much cheaper than staying in a hotel.   The Isle of Wight is only 25 miles by 13 miles so we figured we could reach anywhere on the island by car easily.  The house was advertised as being five minutes walk from the beach.  

Madam peered into her phone.  She pursed her lips, her finger flipping up and down the screen.

“One of the top rated attractions is the Shanklin Chine.  It opens at 10:30.” she said.

“Umm, what’s a Chine?” I asked.

She peered into her phone again.

“It looks like a path through the woods,” she said, “it has trees and rhododendrons…maybe a waterfall.”

“We might see a red squirrel,” she added hopefully.

“A bit like walking in Osborne yesterday then,” I asked, “is it free?”

“No, it’s £3.50.”

“£3.50 for a walk through the woods,” I asked by way of confirmation.

We both agreed that we didn’t need to spend seven pounds to see a few rhododendrons and a waterfall, so we walked down to the beach instead.  It was only a little after 10am when we reached the sea after a 15 minute walk down a long steep winding hill.  

There wasn’t much to the seafront.  A large play park and a few souvenir shops.  Deck chairs and loungers were set up on the beach but had no customers.  

“Only £10 for two loungers,” said Madam, “we could lay on the beach all day.”

Laying baking and blistering in the sun on a beach ranks lower than royal palaces as far as I’m concerned.

“Lets walk a bit,” I suggested,  “Sandown isn’t far.  It has a pier.” 

It didn’t look that far – I could see a hazy outline of the pier in the distance – but it turned out to be two miles.  The weather forecast was for a high of 16C so we were wearing jackets.  Empty sandy beaches and a bright sparkling sea to our right stretched onwards to Sandown.  The tall brown sandstone cliffs to our left reflected the heat and before long we were carrying our jackets and were hot and thirsty.  There was nothing much between Shanklin and Sandown but for a succession of colourful beach huts and we were glad to finally reach the pier so that we could sit in the shade and get something cold to drink.  The cafe on the pier was still closed when we arrived but there was a young woman bustling about behind the shutters, getting ready to open.

“Donuts!” Shouted Madam, “they have donuts!  Will eight be too many?”

“I’ll probably only want one, maybe two if they are small.” I told her.

“Are they full sized?” Asked Madam as the server pulled open the shutters.

“Yes, full sized.” She replied.

“Just four then.”

They were hot and sugary, just as donuts should be, but not particularly large.  We had two each which was plenty.  We walked the length of the pier and through the amusements, and into the town.  We got an indifferent cup of coffee in the town and looked around a couple of shops. It was just before 1pm and we had exhausted Sandown’s attractions.

“What now?” Asked Madam.

I looked at the island map.

“There’s a train to Ryde,” I said, “they have a hovercraft terminal so it might have a bit more to see.”

Ryde Pier train

“You normally pay a lot more for heritage trains,” I told Madam as we took our seats on the train. 

The line was opened in 1864 and electrified in 1967 and, apart from the occasional light dusting, seemed little changed from the latter date.  Madam didn’t look happy as we lurched from side to side in the rattling and shuddering carriage.  I later read that they were still using London Underground trains built in the 1930’s which explained a lot.

“Think of it as a fairground ride” I told her, but she still didn’t look happy.

She was first off the train at Ryde station.  She stopped by the station exit and turned to look back at the train and said “is there a bus back?”

Ryde has the second-longest seaside pier in the country. Only Southend pier is longer. The original wooden structure opened in 1814 and was extended in 1824 and 1842 to reach its present length of nearly half a mile.  It  is actually three piers in one.  The one on the left is for cars and pedestrians, that on the right for the train which runs out to the catamaran ferry to Portsmouth.  The centre pier was built in 1864 to support a horse-drawn tram. This was abandoned in 1969 and lies rusted and part derelict.

We had a nice late lunch at the Farmhouse Pantry opposite the pier.  In spite of the name, it was an American themed diner with red plastic booths and Route 66 posters on the walls. There were pictures of 60’s film stars all along one wall.  It was so authentic they had freezing cold air-conditioning and we had to wear our jackets while we were eating.  

American restaurants have a lot going for them.  Ample portions, friendly service and free soft drink refills amongst them.  In the spirit of more is better, they all seem to have their air-conditioning turned up to somewhere approaching freezing.  It would be 40C outside and we would be dressed in shorts and t-shirts.  As soon as we stepped inside, the sweat would freeze on our skin and we would soon be fighting hypothermia.  I may be exaggerating a tiny bit but we soon learned to carry coats to wear indoors in Texas. And maybe a sweater, some gloves and a hat.

Madam had fried shrimp in the Farmhouse Pantry and declared them to be the best she’d ever had in this country, so if you find yourself passing pop in for a few.  Just remember to take a jacket. 

Carisbrooke Castle

We drove down narrow country lanes towards Carisbrooke Castle.  A red squirrel ran across the road narrowly missing our front wheel. We passed through Godshill with its pretty thatched cottages, model village and tea rooms.  There was a 20 mph speed limit through the village and it was already busy with visitors dodging the steady stream of cars.

“We should stop there on the way back” said Madam.

There has been a fortress at Carisbrooke since before the Norman conquest in 1066 but the current fortifications was begun around 1100 when Richard de Redevers was made Lord of the Isle of Wight by Henry I.

In the late 13th century the last of the de Redvers family, Countess Isabella de Fortibus transformed the castle into a magnificent residence.  The Countess Isabella married an older man and found herself a rich widow at the age of 23.  Two years later her brother Baldwin died, possibly from poisoning, and she became both richer still and found herself owning the Isle of Wight as well as lands in Hampshire and Devon at the age of 26. 

After her death in 1293 the estate passed to the Crown since she seems to not have had any descendants left.  I’m sure there was nothing underhand going on though.

Madam was waiting, her face pressed hard against the iron gates, when the castle opened at 10am.  

We had a look around the small but well-run castle museum first.  This is independently run by volunteers and cares for over 30,000 items connected with the Isle of Wight including a JMW Turner painting of the castle gatehouse and an embroidered linen nightcap worn by Charles I on the eve of his execution.

Madam looked round briefly then walked up to the elderly custodian and demanded to know the connection of the Woodville family to the castle and whether they were related to Elizabeth Woodville.  He looked flustered, his mouth sagged open.  “Ummm…” was all he could manage.

I know exactly how he felt.

Many years ago, when I was a custodian at Battle Museum, two elderly ladies marched in and stood squarely in front of me.  One crossed her arms and said “you must know the names of all the Cinque ports!” and stood waiting for an answer.

“Ummm..” I said, “Hastings definitely, Dover I guess… I think Hythe…”

“I would have thought that somebody working here would have known that!” she snapped.

I was about to explain that I was just a volunteer that only minded the till one day a week but she had already stormed out.

I made a point of learning the five Cinque ports but was never asked again.  They are Hastings, New Romney, Dover, Hythe and Sandwich if you are interested.  Similarly, Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of Edward IV and the mother of Edward V.

Above the museum is the room where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution.  He had a fairly comfortable imprisonment, more house arrest than dank and dingy cell, until he tried to climb out of a bedroom window in an escape attempt.  He is famously quoted as saying “where my head goes, my body shall follow.” 

Unfortunately for the king, his knowledge of anatomy proved lacking and he became firmly stuck and had to abandon his escape. Security was increased after this attempt, and increased again after a second attempt, until he was taken to London to have his head removed in January 1649.

We walked around the castle outer wall for fine views over fields and woodland then up steep and narrow steps into the remains of the keep.  We sat on a wooden bench by the castle bowling green where Charles I played bowls during his enforced stay and tried to imagine his time here.

“I wonder what is happening in the 21st century,” I said.

I checked my phone. No signal.  I held up my phone at different angles.  Still no signal.  “You would think with all that money, the Countess Isabella would have installed WiFi” I said.

“And comfy benches,” replied Madam.

We drove back to Godshill which the ‘Visit Isle of Wight’ website describes as ‘.. the quintessential English Village,… charming thatched-roofed cottages and a winding main-street lined with traditional tearooms.’

It was crowded with visitors and slow moving traffic.  We found our way to a vast car park.  It had massive signs telling us that the car park closed at 5.30.  I was already getting the impression that it was ‘spend your money then bugger off and leave us in peace.’

Every house in the village seemed to have been turned into a tea room or a gift shop.  There were no pavements so walking down the main street meant being inches from passing cars.  We had a late lunch in one of the tea rooms and Madam looked in all the gift shops at every ornament and knick knack.  I was bored after the third gift shop (they all had exactly the same stuff) and noticed a sign pointing to the ‘Old Smithy and Gardens.’

I wasn’t expecting much but the garden was packed with garden gnomes, miniature cottages, cockatiels in an aviary and  animated dioramas of village life.  Somebody must have spent many hundreds of hours and as lot of money setting it up and maintaining it.  There was no entry fee, just a small polite notice to donate to a local charity if you enjoyed the garden. Madam wasn’t impressed but I thought it was wonderful.  I even dropped a coin into the plastic collecting box on the way out. There was a dull thud as the coin hit the bottom.  It was 3pm and mine was the first donation of the day.

Fog obscuring Needles, Isle of Wight

We were driving through narrow country lanes fringed with flowering Wild Mustard, Cow Parsley and bright red Poppies. Tall hedges and banks on either side prevented much of a view beyond.  Suddenly, and without notice, the road opened up to reveal dramatic brown sandstone cliffs a few feet from the side of the road plunging down into the sea below. 

“Wowser,” said Madam as she looked out towards the sea.

“Is that a word?” I asked.  

“Definitely,” she said.  

She paused and pursed her lips.  “Probably,” she said with less certainty.  

We were heading to the far west of the island to see the Needles, a row of three stacks of chalk that rise 30m out of the sea.  The Needles Lighthouse stands at the outer, western end of the formation.  The Needles takes its name from a fourth needle shaped pillar called Lot’s Wife (don’t ask me why) which collapsed in 1764.  The remaining chalk columns are not at all needle-like but the name has stuck.

“There’s a pound off for National Trust members,” the car park attendant said, “just £4 then.  It’s a twenty minute walk up the hill to the needles viewpoint or there’s a bus.”

He seem immensely pleased to be saving us a pound.

As bus I thought.  That sound good.  I closed the car door and looked over at the side of the bus, already waiting at the stop.  It was £10 each for a return ticket.  

“I feel like a walk,” I told Madam.

It was a long climb uphill along well-trodden paths over chalk cliffs.  We saw only a couple of other people on the walk.  A crowded bus passed us halfway along the road, faces peering from the windows.  It was misty when we started and more fog rolled in over the sea as we walked further towards the summit, forming a dense impenetrable blanket that reached almost to the top of the cliffs.

We walked up to the New Battery and out to a secret rocket testing site but all we could see was a white bank of fog.  Nearby is a small exhibition and a recreation of one of the control rooms, revealing the story of Britain’s ‘race for space’, when British-made rockets were tested. It was a top-secret site but rumour has it that it was so well know about on the island that locals would line the cliff tops to watch the firings.  It was more interesting than it may sound but you will have seen the pictures by now.

It’s probably still officially a state secret, so please forget I ever mentioned it.  

We waited a long time for the fog to lift but it scarcely thinned. “Let’s get a cup of coffee,” I suggested, “it may have cleared by then.”

The cafe was in one corner of the smallest National Trust shop I’ve ever seen.  The middle aged server looked startled when we walked in.  “Do you have soy milk” asked Madam.

“No, I’m afraid not.  They may have it down in the Old Battery Cafe.  It’s much bigger.”

Madam wasn’t to be dissuaded so she looked around at the closet sized gift section. 

“Do you take credit cards?” Asked Madam.

“Oh no, they may take them down in the main shop in the Old Battery. I’ve only been here an hour and a half.  My scanner isn’t plugged in yet.”

“I have cash,” said Madam.

“Oh, I can’t open the till yet, I’ve only been here an hour and a half.  I’ll have to recharge my scanner.” 

“I’ll have a cappuccino while we wait,” I offered.

“Oh, you will get much better coffee down at the main cafe. They have china cups and everything.   And you will get a much better view of the needles from the other site.”

 We took the hint and headed down the hill to the Old Battery and wandered around the small museum feigning interest in the war time exhibits, but there is only so much time you can spend looking at old ration cards and powdered milk cans.

We were told that the best viewpoint was from a searchlight position cut deep into the cliffs and overlooking the Needles.  I walked down a steep metal twisting circular staircase and along a long, low and narrow damp tunnel.  The floor was slippery and I had to steady myself against the walls.  I eventually reached the viewpoint and could see… a close up view of a dense bank of fog.  I could hear the blare of the lighthouse foghorn a few hundred feet away but couldn’t see even the nearest chalk column.

We hung around for a while, hoping the fog would lift but it refused to even thin a little, so we headed back down towards the car park. They have built a Needles Landmark Attraction right next to the car park with a 4D Cinema, a chairlift to the beach, an adventure golf course, children’s rides, food stalls and of course the obligatory gift shops. It was crowded with visitors.  We could ride the chairlift to the beach for £6, watch someone glass blowing for £2 and see a sweet making demonstration for another £2.

“Gift shops!” shouted Madam as she disappeared into the nearest. 

I wandered round the attraction, dodging overweight coach trippers and trying to summon some interest.  There was annoying canned music everywhere.  It reminded me of the Land’s End Experience.  I hated it.

Madam had finally had her fill of the gift shops and we stood by the cliff overlooking the beach hoping for a glimpse of the Needles through the fog but it wasn’t to be. It seemed to thin briefly before another dense bank drifted in.

“Look on the bright side,” said Madam,  “we got to hear the fog horn.”

Dinosaur

“Your turn to decide where we go today!” said Madam.

I looked in my iPad at the island’s top rated attractions.

“There’s a dinosaur and geology museum,” I told her, “that sounds interesting.”

I think she was hoping for another royal palace or maybe an exhibition of dresses.  

“Dinosaurs?” She queried by way of confirmation.

“It’s highly rated,” I told her.

“Dinosaurs?” 

“Lots of dinosaur and local fossils.” I told her.

“Dinosaurs?”

I could see this circular conversation could have lasted some time so I added, “there’s a zoo next door.  We could look in there as well.”

“I’ll bring my knitting,” said Madam.

The museum was small but very well run.  It was packed with models of dinosaurs, not exactly life-sized but big enough to be interesting, and was full of excited, and apparently unsupervised, children.  There was an overlying sound track of what dinosaurs might have sounded like which seemed to consist of a loud roaring designed to appeal to children. I wandered around every fascinating case of fossils and dinosaur bones found on the island while Madam found a seat in the corner.  “This is brilliant!” I told Madam.

She didn’t reply.

“Let’s go down to the beach to look for fossils,” I suggested.

Nearby Yaverland beach is well known for dinosaur bones, reptile and fish fossils, and many of those on display in the museum were found there. We walked along the beach, kicking at stones and trying to look as though we knew what we were doing.  Madam found a couple of interesting rocks that may or may not have contained fossils.  There was a school trip of teenagers following along behind us who were running up to their teacher showing him their finds.

“They have better eyes,” I told Madam.

Better knees as well I thought as they powered passed us, their hands diving down to pick up rocks from the beach.

Empty handed, we walked back up to the road.  Madam held out a large shopping bag and said “I brought this to carry home all your fossil finds.”

“Umm,” I said.

She pushed the bag towards me and looked at me expectantly.

“Umm,” I repeated.

She can be so cruel sometimes.

Madam stopped to talk to somebody in the car park about knitting, while I went ahead to the zoo entrance.  I let out a small squeal of pain when I saw that it would be a shade under £30 for the two of us.  Madam finally joined me by the entrance.

“Exactly how keen are you on going to the zoo?” I asked her.  

“It’s not very big,” I said, “and almost certainly full of screaming children,” I added before she had a chance to reply. 

Madam doesn’t like screaming children.

“I think it’s a bit cruel keeping animals in cages.” I said.

“I think I can hear the children screaming from here,” I added helpfully.

I finally ran out of reasons not to spend £30.

“I’m not that bothered,” she said.

We did stop in at the zoo cafe for coffee and I noticed that there was another entrance at the far end of the cafe that led directly into the zoo bypassing the ticket desk.  I was tempted to leave that way for a quick look round the zoo but Madam wouldn’t let me.  Besides, it was full of screaming children.

“We could go to the garlic farm,” I suggested,  “I think it’s free.”

wildflowers

I imagined the garlic farm to just be rows of garlic but right by the car park was a large wildflower meadow with a profusion of wildflowers including Cornflowers, Poppies, Daisies, Corn Marigolds and Corn Cockles as well as several I couldn’t identify.  Signs told us they were trying to replicate how a field of corn might have looked before the days of herbicides to control weeds. 

“Have you ever seen a prettier field of wildflowers?” asked Madam.

I had to agree that I had not.  How the countryside must have looked a hundred years ago I thought.  I know that yields have increased dramatically following the introduction of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides but what have we lost in return for higher yields?

“Turn right onto Beacon Alley,” said the SatNav.

“Alley,” said Madam, “what’s an alley?”

“It’s like a lane but narrower,” I told her.

“Fudge!” she said in a loud voice, gripping the steering wheel tighter.  She really said “Fudge.”

She thought for a moment and said “Do you realise that in a week we have driven less than the distance between Austin and Fort Worth?  We seem to have been in the car all week.”

AFW is a unit of measure that Madam often uses.  Astronomers have astronomical units, sailors have knots, computer scientists use nibbles and bytes.  Madam uses the distance between two Texas cities as a single unit of a distance that can be comfortably driven in half a day.  

I looked at the SatNav.  “Only three miles to go,” I told her,  “it’s estimating eighteen minutes.”

Mottistone Gardens

We were heading towards Mottistone Gardens.  It wasn’t high on our list of must-see attractions but it was listed in the National Trust handbook and we like to get our money’s worth from our annual membership.

“Oh no, we can’t possible do that!” Exclaimed the woman in the ticket office. She had a look of horror on her face, as though I had just questioned her parentage or maybe strangled her cat.

We have started to store membership and loyalty card barcodes on our phones which by some magical feat of technology transfers then to our watches.  Nowadays we just hold our wrist out to be scanned in everything from supermarkets to coffee shops to historic houses. The younger staff scarcely notice and the older staff are impressed and asked how they can get one.  We have been using them at National Trust properties for several months.

“No, no,” she continued, “we must see your cards.  Just anybody could show us a barcode.” 

Like the barcode that is printed on our plastic membership cards I thought.

“I’ll have to ask somebody,” she continued.  She gave us a sideways glance and looked as though she was about to call the police to arrest us hardened criminals.

She fetched a younger assistant who I though might have more sense but no, she insisted on seeing our cards.  “we can look you up on the computer if you don’t have your cards,” she added helpfully pointing to an elderly machine.  

If you can ‘look me up’ you could scan our watch barcode and see exactly the same information as a search on your computer I thought, but I kept quiet as I was worried too much information all in one go might overload her brain.  I may be getting old and grumpy but sometimes I just feel like poking people in the eye and demanding they take an IQ test under the threat of euthanasia to improve the species.  Mostly I just let Madam deal with people, she has far more patience and skill.

The gardens, by contrast to the staff, were lovely.  You should go there immediately – just don’t expect to use any technology from this century.

We wandered round the gardens admiring the herbaceous borders and displays.  We climbed up a steep hill and had the gardens to ourselves.  All we could hear was bird song and the sound of the wind in the trees. 

“This is nice,” I said.

Madam nodded and said “It’s been a good trip,” she said, “this Izzel of Wigget.”

And it had.

Scotland

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Suitcases by train

Scotland blog from our recent trip.  Includes Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness, Culloden, Ben Nevis, the West Highland Line and a few misadventures.

“We have ten days before your next hospital appointment.  We need to go away!” said Madam, “we could go on a road trip.  Maybe Norfolk?”

“It’s very flat,” I replied, “and there isn’t a lot to do there. Scotland is really nice this time of year.  Apart from the midges obviously.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Norfolk.  I’ve heard it’s really nice.“

“If we go to Scotland we can go on the train.  I’ve always wanted to go on the West Highland Line.  People say it has fabulous scenery.”

“Norfolk isn’t far to drive.  We could go to Great Yarmouth.”

“I think all Scotsman wear kilts in the Highlands my sweet.”

“Kilts?  Scotsmen?  With nothing under their kilts?”

She went silent for a while then added “Will Billy Connolly be there?”

“Oh, almost certainly my sweet.”

I purchased two return tickets to Edinburgh for an eye-watering £225 and we passed through the ticket barrier and onto the platform.  Madam immediately stopped and arranged the two suitcases next to the train for a photo.  “I have to update all my public social media right away!” she said.

She is very considerate like that.  She likes to give all of the local burglars plenty of notice as to our destination and how long we will be away.  

Our train was on time and we were at London King’s Cross station by noon.  Which is when it started to go ever so slightly downhill.  Trains to Edinburgh run every thirty minutes, on the hour and half hour.  Except when they don’t.  The 12:30 wasn’t running so the 1:00 had all the passengers for both trains and every seat was reserved.  We couldn’t get on that train so we ended up waiting for the 1:30 and the one carriage on that train with unreserved seats had no working air-conditioning.  The sun streaming through the windows turned the carriage into a passable imitation of a large oven.  Still, we had a seat for the five hour journey.  We removed as many clothes as we could without frightening the children.  Madam pulled out her knitting and I tucked my legs behind my ears (leg room was extra) and watched the view from the window.  

We sped past a grim industrial area on the outskirts of London, then several estates of identical box-like houses, but were soon passing through open farmland and copses of vibrant trees. Rows of electricity pylons stretched across the fields.  I read somewhere that, following privatisation of the electricity companies, had they been forced to invest a tiny percentage of their profits on putting cables underground, we wouldn’t have pylons blighting the views across the landscape by now.  Everything would be underground. Still, you can’t let the beauty of the countryside stand in the way of greed.

I stared vacantly out of the window, lost in my own thoughts or indeed with no thoughts at all.  I may even have nodded off once or twice.  Madam continued to knit and we eventually reached Edinburgh soon after 6pm.

scotland

“Don’t mention the cricket!  I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it!”  I told Madam.

We had arrived later than intended, so just went down to the hotel bar for an evening snack.  The bartender was from New Zealand and it was the day after the cricket world cup final where England beat New Zealand in a nail-biting finish by the narrowest margin possible.

I did mention it when I went back to the bar for a second beer – some things are just too hard to resist –  but he was sanguine about the result.  They were still playing highlights on the TV news such was the astonishing result.  I made sure to tell him that New Zealand played really well and should have won but for a fluke, which was true, so he didn’t spit in my beer.

I knew we were in Scotland when I looked at the breakfast menu in the local Wetherspoons the following morning.  In place of the normal English Breakfast was a Scottish Breakfast with two black puddings, eggs and a potato scone.  You could add haggis for another pound.  On the vegan breakfast you could add black pudding as an extra.  Maybe blood counts as vegan in Scotland. 

After breakfast we walked through Princes park, the castle  towering above us. We climbed steep hills with numerous stops to admire the views.  We strolled down the Royal Mile which was noisy and crowded with tourists.  Almost every store was a gift shop of some sort.  Bagpipe players were busking on every corner.  There’s nothing finer than Amazing Grace played by a competent bagpiper but these buskers all seem to be playing the same tune.  I think it was called ‘Play fast and don’t worry about the order of the notes’.  I started to get a headache before we were halfway down the street.

We found the shop selling deep fried Mars bars – supposedly the inventors of the concept – but it was shuttered and closed with a ‘To Let’ sign above.  

When we were last in Edinburgh, many years ago, I sampled this delicacy.  A Mars Bar (Milky Way in the USA) is covered in a thick batter and deep fried in hot oil.  I took the first bite.  Not bad I thought.  And a second.  Quite filling but a bit greasy maybe.  I took a third and realised that the first two were sitting immobile in my gullet as though my stomach was saying ‘no way is THAT coming in here.’  I managed to finish it but it just sat there, not moving, a stand-off between gravity and a reluctant stomach.  Some hours later I realised that it was still there, warm and slightly unpleasant, like a small furry animal had taken up residence. I think gravity won eventually but I was still emitting toffee flavoured burps a week later.

I was secretly glad the shop was closed lest I be tempted to repeat the experience.

There was a 10-foot bronze statue of Adam Smith nearby with a seagull on his head.  I tried to get a picture without the adornment but as soon as the seagull moved, a pigeon took his place.

We passed the National Library and on an impulse went in to their exhibition on the Scottish Enlightenment.  It was mercifully calm and quiet after the clogged streets and a whole lot more interesting than it sounds.  They had a first edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as well as one of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  One of the information displays stated the the Acts of Union in 1707 deprived Scotland of its sovereignty – an odd take on events since England and Scotland had shared a monarch, initially Scottish at that, since 1603. English history books have a different view of the union.

We walked down to the Greyfriars Bobby statue and had a look around the graveyard, larger than I expected, then on to the Scottish National Museum.  The technology section of the museum is wonderful with a working cloud chamber and random parts of the hadron collider. We went up to the roof terrace for some amazing views over the city skyline and up to Arthur’s Seat.  When we were considering this trip I thought it would be nice to walk up to the seat but seeing the height and rough terrain I realised that I had left it a few years too late.

dsc09177

It was raining as we left Glasgow Queen Street station, so we headed towards the city centre looking for shelter.  The rain stopped for a while, then restarted.  This proved to be the weather for the rest of the day.

“I want one!” shouted Madam as we passed a shop window, “look!, look!, it’s a print signed by Billy Connolly, it can be my anniversary present!”

Since our anniversary was some months away in either direction I was a little confused.  I looked at the price tag.

“It’s £895” I told her, thinking that would end the discussion.  

“But I want one!” she snapped, “you have a MacBook.”

I thought for a while but couldn’t see any connection between my laptop computer purchased last year in a fit of uncharacteristic extravagance and a £895 print.

“It’s £895 just for a print,” I repeated in case she hadn’t heard the first time.

“But It’s signed by Billy Connolly!” she said.

For that sort of money I would want it signed in blood by every monarch since Henry VIII.

“It’s £895” I said with what I hoped was a note of finality as I pulled her away from the shop, “let’s get a cup of coffee instead.”

There was a pound shop opposite the coffee bar or, since we were in Scotland, it was probably called a pooned shop.  I had a quick look round to see what I could buy for a pooned but the stock was identical to the shops in England.  Not even haggis flavoured crisps.

Madam was peering into her phone.  “There’s a Billy Connolly mural.  We have to go there right now!” she said.

I readily agreed in the hope that it wasn’t going to cost £895.  The mural was in a seedy back street above a car park but Madam managed to get a selfie in front of the mural without getting mugged.  Always a plus in Glasgow.  

Glaswegians have a reputation for being a mix of aggression and friendliness.   You never know if the one approaching you on a back street is going to smash a glass in your face and steal your wallet, or offer you a wee dram from their hip flask.  The men are even worse.  To be fair, everyone we encountered was far friendlier and more helpful, and generally nicer than those back home.  Which just goes to show to can’t trust stereotypes, but we still tried to keep to the main streets just in case.

A short cut towards the main shopping area led us through a narrow covered alley that seemed to have been repurposed as the local toilet.  And I’m not just talking urinal here.  Madam kept her mouth firmly closed and clenched her fingers over her nose, stepping over discarded syringes and human waste, until we reached the main road.

“What now?” asked Madam. 

I looked all around.  All I could see was identikit chain stores and rain soaked pavements.

“Let’s walk down to the river,” I said, “I’ve never seen the Clyde.”

We headed down to the river past graffiti covered walls, tattoo parlours (monthly payments available), tanning salons, and massage parlours.  I stepped over an impressively large pile of dog’s mess, kicked aside a discarded empty Irn Bru can and said “so, what do you think of Glasgow?”

“It’s a bit grim.” she said.  

She thought for a while then added “But Billy is from here!”

“He moved away” I told her.

“But he comes back sometimes,” she said.

You can’t argue with Madam about Billy Connolly.

We walked along a narrow path alongside the river dodging cyclists and joggers.  We found another Connolly mural by accident and Madam squealed and ran up to it for another selfie.  At least this is cheaper and marginally more interesting than most royal palaces I thought as Madam posted her picture on Facebook.

Astute readers may have noticed by now that Madam has a bit of a thing for Billy Connolly.

We ended up on Buchanan Street which Madam informed me was the place to be.  More chain stores and no public seating left me less than impressed.  I sat on some steps leading up to a church to give my aching feet a rest while Madam peered into her phone and counted the number of likes on her selfies.  I had barely sat down when Madam shouted ” Oh oh oh, we’ve got to find the other one! Oh no!  It’s way out of town!”

She sat down with a slump, her thumbs working her phone.

“Fourteen minutes! It’s only a fourteen minute walk!  We can get a taxi if you are tired. Come on, I need another selfie!” she said as she jumped up and starting walking.  I dragged my weary feet behind trying to keep up.

The mural was next to a car park – I was getting to see something of a theme here – and we stood in the rain while Madam posted her selfie online.  

She needed feeding after all the excitement so we headed back to the shops and ended up in a McDonalds in the absence of seeing anything else we fancied.  Restaurants with a more demanding menu were a little thin on the ground.

The metro line ran right under our table and the vibration on the seats was oddly pleasant.  Madam was smiling by the time she had finished eating.  I don’t know why.  

“Are you ready to go?”  I asked Madam.

“No rush,” she replied, “we can sit here a while.”

The restaurant, and I’m using the word in its loosest sense here, had lots of flies buzzing around trying to settle on the food. I shooed three of them away and watched them settle on a burger at a neighbouring table.  

“They probably count as a garnish in Glasgow.” I said.

Madam just nodded and smiled again.

Ben Nevis

“This is the prettiest train journey in the UK,” I told Madam as we passed dirty grey tower blocks and cluttered industrial units, “if not the world.”

She didn’t look impressed.

“There was a vote and it won for the whole world in 2009 and just about every year for the UK.” I told her.

Having had problems finding a seat on the journey from London to Edinburgh I figured I would book tickets and seats in advance for Edinburgh to Fort William.  I won’t bore you with the details but I spent two hours on both the National Rail and the Scot Rail websites.  I was given prices ranging from £123 down to £32.  When I tried to book tickets I was told none were available.  Sometimes the website just hung or got stuck in a loop.  One time they tried to sell me a bus ticket to Bangladore, although I might have clicked on an ad for that one.  Advertisements on a national rail ticket booking site?  Seriously?

In the end I gave up and resigned myself to buying tickets at the station and standing on the train for four hours.

I did work out that it was cheaper to buy a single from Edinburgh to Glasgow, then a day return from Glasgow to Fort William.  The day return was cheaper than a single.  Splitting the journey also saved us £15.  Tell me again why someone thought it would be smart to privatise the railways.

In the event there were plenty of seats – most potential passengers were still searching the website or on a bus to India I expect –  and we both got to sit by the window.  Within twenty minutes the tower blocks were a memory and the view was simply amazing.  Inlets from the sea and lochs fronted a view of rolling tree covered hills with cloud topped mountains behind.  It gets my vote for the prettiest train journey.  You should go immediately – just make sure you set aside several days to buy your ticket.

As we climbed higher, silver birch trees gave way to pines and wildflowers to bracken and peat bogs.  Granite outcrops protruded from heather covered, low scrubby hills. Sheep and wild deer scampered away in a panic as the train passed.  We passed rocky streams and waterfalls pouring over the granite.  

It was inexpressibly beautiful.  It would have been hard to find a spot that wasn’t worthy of a photo or a painting. 

The train ran quickly around a bend giving us vertiginous views of a loch two hundred feet below. We stopped at halts in the middle of nowhere where gore-tex clad hikers with muddy boots and oversized backpacks joined the train. 

Eventually the trees stopped completely and we travelled over dozens of miles of boggy ground with only the occasional abandoned and roofless crofters cottage.  How anyone ever made a living from farming this desolate windswept peaty landscape is beyond me.  I guess the ruins show that it wasn’t really possible.

Opposite one halt there was a small group of crosses.  “Probably from the last train crash,” I told Madam, adding “not everyone on the train was killed,” by way of reassurance.  

There wasn’t really a crash there, I just like to make up stuff to add a little interest to Madam’s life.  

The line actually has a very good safety record considering the rough terrain and extreme weather conditions.  A train was derailed in 2010 after hitting boulders following a landslip but this resulted in only minor injuries.  Passengers sitting in a derailed carriage hanging fifty feet over an embankment might have needed clean underwear and a stiff drink but it could have been much worse.  Apart from that I couldn’t find any major mishaps on that line.

The train started heading downhill after Corrour.  We left the heather and peat bogs behind and trees reappeared along the embankment.   Neat farms appeared, with pigs, sheep and cattle in square fields, as we reached the outskirts of Fort William.

As lovely as the scenery was we were glad to get off the stuffy and overheated train after four hours. 

There was a fine view of Loch Eil, with steep tree-clad hills beyond, from our hotel room. Supposedly a ‘Superior Room’, we had to shuffle sideways around the beds to move from one side to the other.  If we needed to turn around we shuffled sideways out into the corridor, performed an about turn manoeuvre, then back in through the door.  This was fine most of the time but a little disconcerting for other guests passing in the corridor when we were clad in only a skimpy towel, post shower.   

It was £350 for the two nights.  That’s over a hundred pints of beer in Wetherspoons for those keeping count.  

“I got us a great deal!” said Madam, “the normal rate is £360!”

There was a a splattering of dead midges on the window. I didn’t know if they were blown there by a strong wind or died in a kamikaze attempt to get at the previous occupants. “I suppose there’s a collective noun for midges” I said, really just thinking out loud.

Madam looked at her phone.  “it’s a bite.  The collective noun for midges is a bite” she said chuckling to herself.

That makes sense I thought.

The hotel in Fort William had a rain water shower head.  Unfortunately their idea of rain was a light summer shower rather than torrential downpour.   As a result I had several minutes waiting for the water to reach my feet and could do a little light reading.  

The hotel supplies small bottles of shampoo and body wash.  The bottles look identical.  The contents look identical.  I won’t bore you with the long list of ingredients (there were twenty) but they were also identical. The budget hotels have now started to add a single dispenser in the bathroom described as hair and body wash.  All of which gave me an idea.  Why not add, say, cat repellent, deodorant, sun block, maybe an analgesic for muscle aches and something to keep the flies and midges away to create one single product that does everything?  All your daily needs taken care of in one simple application. It makes sense to me.

Breakfast was included in our room rate (I should hope so at that price) and was one of the better breakfasts we had on this trip so I forgave them for their room sizes and weedy shower.

Ben Nevis

It was raining on and off as we left the hotel.  We pulled up our rain hoods and walked alongside the loch into Fort William and  stood by a marker telling us that this was the official end of the West Highland Way, a ninety-six mile footpath running from just north of Glasgow to Fort William.  We stood and admired the sign from several different angles and wondered what there was to to in Fort William on a rainy day.  A raindrop dripped from the end of my nose.  Madam sneezed.

Suddenly Madam shouted “There’s a gift shop!” and ran across the road narrowly missing a speeding cyclist.

Fort William bills itself as the outdoor capital of the UK which, in practice, means that just about the only things to do are to look round outdoor shops, drink coffee in the cafes, or buy overpriced souvenirs in the gift shops.  

Madam bought a porridge stirrer. 

“It’s a Spurtle!  It was only £3.95!” she said.  

I examined it carefully from several angles.

“It’s a wooden stick” I replied.  

“No, it’s a special stirrer.  You have to stir clockwise or your porridge will be ruined.”

And to think I’ve been cooking porridge for fifty years with a metal spoon and stirring whichever way my fancy took me.

“My porridge will never be the same again!” she announced triumphantly.

It still looks like a wooden stick I thought.

I dutifully visited every outdoor shop and Madam every gift shop but even by adding a couple of charity shops into the mix we had our fill of shopping by 11am.  “What now?” I asked Madam.

“There’s a gondola up the mountain.” she said.

The mountain in this case being Aonach Mor in the Nevis range, right next door to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.  

“A gondola?”  I said.

She took this as acquiescence and rushed into the nearest outdoor store to ask for directions.  Being Fort William this wasn’t far away. “Number 41 bus” she said a few minutes later.  “Come on, let’s find the bus stop.”

The rain stopped and the sun came out as the bus climbed the foothills up to the Nevis range.  It dropped us right by the gondola entrance where a pleasant young woman cheerfully relieved us of £36 for the gondola ride.  “You can ride it all day for that,” she said by way of consolation.

A 12 minute ride on the gondola took us 650 metres up Aonach Mòr, the UK’s 8th highest mountain, conveniently situated next to Ben Nevis. The woman on the ticket desk told us there were two trails from the top for the best views.  The shortest would take twenty minutes each way.  “It’s a bit steep,” she said, looking at me like I was old or something.

Madam shook her head, “he can’t do hills,” she said.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.  I wasn’t going to be defeated by a silly Scottish hill. 

I did stop a few times on the walk – only to admire the view you understand – and it was certainly worth the climb.  There were spectacular views over Loch Lochy (yes, I think it’s a silly name too), Loch Linnhe and Lock Eil.  In the distance were other peaks in the Nevis Range including Geal Charn, Glas Bheinn, Beinn, Bhan Gairich and many more that I struggled to pronounce let alone spell.  

The air was thinner and fresher far away from car exhausts and factory emissions.  A breeze tugged at our jackets.  Lots of people were sitting on the rocks admiring the view or maybe just having a rest from the climb.

“Which one is Ben Nevis?” asked Madam.

“I think it’s that one,” I said pointing at a likely suspect behind us.

“Or maybe that one,” I said pointing to another.

“It could be that one,” I said with less certainty, pointing to a third.  They all seemed to look alike.

“I’ll look at Google maps” said Madam.

It turned out to be the first one I pointed out.  It isn’t a lot higher than surrounding mountains.  In fact it isn’t that high at all as mountains go, it tops at 1345 metres (4411 feet) and would probably would be an insignificant unnamed hill in the Rockies or Alps. I had expected something high and craggy.  Something difficult to climb and maybe even snow capped but it looked more like a big grassy hill with one slightly rocky face.   It was still lovely to see but more hill walking than mountain climbing.

inverness castle

When we got to the bus stop forty-five minutes before the scheduled departure for Inverness there was already a small knot of people smoking, their rucksacks leaning against the wall.  The bus was there but the driver refused to acknowledge anybody.  Madam gave him a cheery good morning and he snapped back ‘not loading yet’ and closed the door. 

She pushed her nose against the door and said “I have to have a seat at the front!  I have to!”

Madam doesn’t like buses.  She would really like to squash up next to the driver and help with the steering.  The driver, unfortunately, continued to be surly and unhelpful and wouldn’t let Madam touch any of the controls.  

We did get to sit in the front seat directly behind the driver so that she could give him helpful instructions and guidance should his driving not be up to her exacting standards.  In the old school bus days, from this pole position, you could amuse yourself by counting freckles on the drivers bald head or maybe tweaking his ear during a sharp bend in the road to add a certain frisson to the journey.  Unfortunately they now have a heavy grey steel bulkhead directly behind the driver so my only visual stimulation for the two hour journey was by reading a poster four inches from the end of my nose, announcing fare changes from March 31st.  It was late July.  This became a little dull after the fifth reading.  The poster expanded at length about revisions and changes.  It never used the word increase.

If I craned my neck I had an oblique view from the side window but anything worth looking at had long flashed by before I had a chance to focus.  Madam assured me there were lovely views of lochs, rolling hills, stone cottages and herds of wild deer.

And so passed two hours in the Scottish highlands.

We had a brief look around Inverness and liked the look of it so much were went back down to the hotel reception and told them we would be staying a third night.  We looked on the Google to decide what to do during our two full days here.  Inverness Castle?  Culloden Battlefield?  A cruise on Lock Ness including Urquhart Castle?  A bus to Urquhart?  A walk along the river?  A whisky distillery?  So many choices, so little time.

“Let’s find somewhere to eat while we think about it,” I suggested.

I looked on Trip Advisor.  “One of the top rated restaurants is just down the road.  It has views of the castle.” I told her.

It was only 5pm but, being old, we like to have dinner early.

We walked in and the young waiter told us that they were having a staff meeting but could seat us in a minute.  As soon as he turned his back the manager walked up and slowly looked us up and down.  He raised his nose in the air and said “I can probably squeeze you in at 9:15, there may be a table by the toilets by then.”

“I have a coupon for a £1.99 meal at McDonald’s” I told Madam but she was already heading for another restaurant by the river where we had a nice dinner and a multi-coloured rainbow cocktail for a mere £67.50.  

A post-dinner stroll along the river front took us past the brown stone cathedral, not much bigger than a parish church.  I walked up to the entrance with a view to seeing how badly we would be shafted for entrance charges tomorrow.  

I could hear singing.  Maybe the choir was rehearsing.  It turned out to be a free concert by an orchestra and choir from Switzerland playing pieces from Mozart and Beethoven.  We found a seat on a pew near the back and enjoyed it so much we ended up staying for the rest of the concert.  Their final number was Auld Lang Syne sang in English with a German accent.  And it’s not often you get to hear that in a cathedral. The small but enthusiastic audience numbered less than the performers.  I felt bad thinking they would be charging for entrance and here they were offering free concerts.  In fact, I felt so bad I was tempted to toss a coin in the collection tin but I managed to resist.  You can’t let temptation win all the time.

A furious knocking followed by a young woman shouting, and I mean shouting here, “Natasha!  It’s Rebecca! Let me in!  I can hardly wait to get in my bed!” at 3am isn’t something you want to hear under normal circumstances.

We had seen several scantily clad young women, their secrets all on view so to speak, heading out from the hotel the previous evening for a 21st birthday celebration. I would have liked to give you a more detailed description of the young ladies but Madam only allowed me the tiniest and briefest of glances before she snapped “stop staring!  I think they are in the room opposite ours.”

And she was right.

Coupled with what sounded like a motorcycle doing wheelies in the lane outside our room several times during the night and a ghostly creaking from the floorboards of the room above, neither of us slept well.  Mustn’t grumble though, we had a lovely big room in a river front hotel with a massive bed and a fine view of a row of dustbins.

We had the hotel book us a guided minibus trip on Monday to some local attractions including Urquart Castle and Culloden.   I looked at the price of taxis to the outlying attractions and it would have come to far more than the cost of an organised tour.

“Make sure the guide is wearing a kilt!” said Madam as she booked the tour.

With Sunday to ourselves, we walked along the river towards the Botanic gardens, stopping frequently to admire views of the river and take photographs.   The River Ness is shallow but fast flowing as it passes through the city.  A cool breeze blew up from the river.

“Brrr” said Madam, as she looked out over the water.

A man was sitting motionless in the river, submerged up to his neck.

“It’s part of the Highland Games”, I told her, “it’s the final of the How Long Can You Sit Naked in the Freezing River Ness” challenge.

“A naked Scotsman?  Really?”

She started to walk down the bank.

“It will be a while before he comes out my sweet.  He’s been in there since last Friday.”

The Botanic gardens were wonderful.  Far better than any naked Scotsman. The outside area had borders planted to demonstrate a wide variety of growing conditions, almost all had an explosion of colour.  A tropical glasshouse mimicked the hot, humid regions and was packed with tropical plants from around the world.  The adjoining arid glasshouse had hundreds of species of cacti planted amongst 75 tonnes of rock.  It’s free to visit, relying on volunteers, plant sales and the attached cafe for support.  I liked it so much I even put 20p in the donations box and bought a drink in the cafe.

“There’s a midge in your hair!” said Madam as we left the Botanic Gardens.

“Really?  I haven’t noticed any here.”

She picked through my hair like a monkey looking for fleas.

“Well, at least one,” she said, looking at the end of her finger.

Before our trip everyone had warned us that the midges were bad this year and we would need a strong insect repellent and probably netting face guards.  Madam researched the internets for the most effective midge repellent and ordered the recommended Smidge online after a fruitless search of local stores.  I fully expected the last words I would hear would be ‘fe fi fo fum I smell the blood of an Englishman’ before a million midges descended on me and stripped the flesh from my bones while I rolled screaming on the ground.

Before we left the hotel on our first day in Fort William, Madam stripped naked and sprayed herself liberally from head to toe with Smidge.  I have pictures which can be posted online for a suitably large consideration.  We walked through Fort William and trekked the hills around Ben Nevis for most of the day and only saw a single insect.  Since then we were outside  in four different areas of Scotland and were never bothered by midges.  We didn’t use the repellent after the first day.  I’m beginning to think the whole midge thing is an invention by the Scots to keep the English away.

We crossed the river on one of the swaying metal pedestrian bridges and walked through the town past the museum (closed on Sundays) and the Victorian Market (mostly closed) to Inverness Castle (closed to visitors).  There are fabulous views from the castle grounds over the river and city.  

Just below the castle walls there is a rectangular  grey building all along one side.  Try and think of the ugliest building you can.  Now double the ugly factor.  I suppose there are worse buildings in the world but this is beside the river, right next to the castle of one of the most attractive cities in the UK.  How could this ever have happened?  An architect must have though it would look in keeping with the surroundings.  A town planner must have agreed.  Even the builder could have looked at the plans and thrown them in the river.  The sad fact is that somebody probably got an award.

Clan Fraser market at Culloden

The guided tour conveniently started right next door to the hotel at 9am and the guide, wearing a kilt of course, shook everyone’s hand as we boarded the minibus.  There were only six of us on the tour which took us to Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns, Beauly Priory and to see some Highland Cattle, all in eight hours.  It sounds a lot to see all in one day and it was.  Probably too much.  Everything was a bit of a rush and I would have been happy to see just two or three things and get to spend some time at each.  Two of the visits were very obviously  just to garner commission which left something of a sour taste.  

Our kilted guide was great though and he did linger longer at the Culloden Battlefield which, for me, was the highlight of the trip.  There can’t be many people who have stood in the middle of Culloden and heard a Scotsman recite word-perfect Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis.’

The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745 where the forces of Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) were decisively defeated by the government forces commanded by the Duke of Cumberland. The battle lasted only an hour, with the Jacobites suffering a bloody defeat. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the brief battle. In contrast, only about 300 government soldiers were killed or wounded. The conflict was the last pitched battle fought on British soil.  Stone markers to each Scottish clan of those killed sit, weathered and fading, alongside the paths through the battlefield.

The Duke of Cumberland earned the sobriquet  ‘Butcher’ following his orders to kill the wounded and captured Jacobites.  The following year the duke was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. Make of that what you will.

delayed train

“We can do this!  We can push through! We can make it!” said Madam.

We weren’t running a marathon or climbing a mountain but travelling from Inverness to Eastbourne by train all in one day.

“As long as we don’t have to use the Tube.  It’s far too hot for the Tube” she added as an afterthought.

“It’s over eleven hours my sweet” I said.

“I want to sleep in my own bed tonight!  We can do this!” She replied.

She was silent for a while, then looked at me and then added “remember, no Tube.  I can’t do the Tube in this heat.”

Had we had some insight as to how our day would turn out we might well have booked another night in the hotel, pulled the covers over our head and refused to leave our room.

We caught the 9.44 train from Inverness to Edinburgh, found a seat and sat back to enjoy the scenery.

A steam train was sitting, belching black smoke, as we pulled into Aviemore station.  This was the starting point for the steam heritage Strathspey Railway which runs from Aviemore along the Speyside Way to Broomhill, some ten miles away.  For a mere £23.75 I could travel ten miles each way in a rickety carriage on hard seats, which made my £30 for 150 miles in an air-conditioned carriage something of a bargain.

The regular rail line skirts the edge of the Cairngorm National Park.  Although the West Highland line is billed as the most picturesque, this line isn’t too shabby.  Rocky streams meander through fields along the line.  In the distance are the craggy peaks of the Cairngorm mountain range.  Open heathland and pine forests line much of the route through the park.  An osprey flew low over the treetops.  Occasionally the road would run parallel with the rail line giving us a glimpse of a slow moving line of cars and camper vans. An elderly man was standing by a parked van and waved as the train went by. You take your excitement where you can at our age. 

As we neared Edinburgh the land became flatter.  We ran alongside vast sandy beaches, the tide in the far distance.  There were small towns and villages every couple of miles.  They all looked so attractive that I wanted to stop at every one, explore the streets, sit on the beach for a while.  Maybe stay a day or two.  But it wasn’t to be, the train hurtled past every village and we had a connection to make at Edinburgh.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Edinburgh at 13:20.  It was seven minutes late, not so bad considering it was a three and a half hour journey, but enough to make us miss our 13:30 connection to London.  No problem, there’s another train at 14:00 we thought.

We found a seat on the 14:00, always a plus on this busy service, and settled back for a four and a half hour journey.  We pulled into Newcastle right on time and sat.  And sat.  Thirty minutes later there was an announcement that there were problems with the overhead cables further down the line and that this electric train was cancelled and we needed to move to a diesel train on platform four.    We waited, watching the information board.  No train appeared.  Another announcement.  The diesel would now be from platform two.  We ran over a bridge to the new platform struggling with heavy suitcases and, by some miracle, managed to get two seats.  Several people were forced to stand in any available space.  

After a few minutes the diesel train lurched forward and we travelled slowly to York, where we stopped and even more people boarded the train. 

We waited.  And waited.  Eventually an announcement told us that the train was overcrowded and some people would have to get off.  A couple of people did but most refused to move.  This turned out just to be an excuse as commuter train are normally even more crowded.  We sat there for over an hour.  Every member of staff seemed clueless as to the problem.  Eventually they all ran away and hid.  Finally another announcement told us that the train would be continuing to London but would have to divert via Lincoln due to the line blocked as they were repairing the power cables at Grantham.  This was going to take an extra hour and we should arrive in London at 22:10.

We had at least another three and a half hours before we would reach London.  The train was crowded.  We were hemmed in by suitcases.  It was hot and stuffy.   The toilets were blocked or didn’t flush.  There was no water to the washbasins.  A Scotsman at a neighbouring table had drunk five cans of Stella Artois and was becoming louder and more raucous with every passing mile.  To even get to the buffet car for a coffee would have meant wading through dozens of sweaty bodies apologising to every person you trod on or elbowed on the bucking and swaying train.  I tried to think of worse place to spend the next three hours.  Maybe at a Barry Manilow concert but even then it was close.

Madam became increasing unhappy and kept muttering that we wouldn’t have this problem if we had driven.  She was even less happy when I told her we would have less than thirty minutes to make the last train out of London at 22:46 and the only hope we had was to go via Tube.  We ended up running with our suitcases in a panic across half of London and a mercifully short Tube journey and managed to make the train with a single minute to spare.  

Just when we thought it couldn’t possible get worse, they announced that there was a replacement bus service from Lewes to Eastbourne.  We arrived home hot, sweaty, exhausted and just a little grumpy a little before 2am.

“So how was your day?” I asked Madam as I got into bed.

The only reply was a soft snoring.

 

I hope you enjoyed this Scotland blog. As always, there are pictures from the trip at Missed Pixel

 

Loch Ness monster
Featured

Marsaxlokk

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Almost every guide we read about Malta told us that the Sunday morning fish market in Marsaxlokk (pronounced marsa-schlock – meaning Southern Port) shouldn’t be missed.  The market closes at midday so we were up early and caught the bus into Valletta just as the direct TD10 bus to Marsaxlokk arrived.

We joined the long queue and a few tourists boarded the bus.  A group of locals stood, blocking the entrance but didn’t attempt to board.

Madam asked one of them if they were waiting for that bus.

‘No, no,’ they said ‘It’s twice the price of the slow bus.’

€3 instead of €1.50.  They should see how far €3 gets them in England I thought.

The market was vast.  It followed the line of the harbour stretching probably half a mile.  We joined the throngs wandering between the stalls.  It soon became apparent that it was just the usual market stuff you find in every other market in Europe. Cheap clothes, batteries, toys and kitchen equipment.  There was nothing we needed so we walked past the stalls, pushed and jostled by the crowds.

Madam did buy a bag of sea salt that promised “a taste of the Mediterranean.”  I knew what salt tasted like but realised that I had no idea how the Mediterranean tasted.

I looked on the internets which may have been a bad idea.

A recent study found 58 different chemicals in samples taken of the surface water of the Mediterranean including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and artificial sweeteners. Among them the herbicide terbuthylazine, carbamazepine, naproxen and paracetamol, the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole, the antibacterial triclocarban and the two artificial sweeteners acesulfame and saccharin.

Throw in “record levels of pollution from micro-plastics threatening marine species and human health” according to a WWF report released last June.

I’m sure the salt will be free of all those nasty impurities but I may hide it at the back of a cupboard and see if it glows in the dark or anything.

We did find half a dozen fish stalls in the centre of the market but then realised we had no use for fresh fish.  Whilst it might have been amusing to pack a few fresh sea-bass in our carry on plane luggage for a 3 hour flight, we might have been invited to take our future travel business elsewhere.

‘Will all passengers please check under their seats – there is a bad smell on the plane and we may have to divert to Brussels.’

The Belgian capital was, incidentally, voted the most boring city in Europe in a recent TripAdvisor poll.

But I digress.

The market got more crowded the further we walked.  I’d had enough of being bumped by the crowds so I found a shaded doorway and leaned against the wall while Madam went to look at the rest.  She was gone a long time. I was just about to send out a search party or set off a flare or something when she came back and said ‘More of the same.  I’ve had enough of all these people.  Get me out of here!’

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We headed back to the restaurants near the centre and found a cafe called ill Bukkett with a vacant table outside.  I was tempted to ask the waiter if it was pronounced “bouquet” but he looked rushed, so I just ordered a cappuccino and Madam a bitter lemon.  The weather was much warmer today so we were happy to sit in the shade under the cafe umbrella for a while away from the jostling crowds. A bus full of nuns drove by, parting the crowds as it moved slowly along the harbour road.

Sitting at one of the nearby tables was an American family.  I noticed a lot of American voices in Marsaxlokk for the first time in Malta.  It’s probably not a destination that immediately pops up when planning a trip to Europe so I guess it surprised me to hear them now.

Malta, or indeed most European cities, with their winding streets and undisciplined passageways must drive Americans mad.  You often find couples on a street corner, wearing bum bags and baseball caps, looking around baffled. They will have a camera around their neck and a windblown map in their hands. He will mutter ‘Gee Honey, why aren’t their roads straight and where are the street signs?  Anyway where the heck are we?’

Americans aren’t allowed to say “hell “so they substitute “heck”.

She will look confused for a while then say something along the lines of ‘Umm, if it’s Saturday we are in Italy but if it’s Sunday, then it’s Malta.’

I later found out that Marsaxlokk was included in an excursion from one of the Mediterranean cruises aimed at the US market.  I couldn’t find out from the internets how much the cruise passengers were paying for their bus trip around the island sights (you have to book the cruise before they tell you) but I bet it was a heck of a lot more than €1.50.

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You can’t go to Marsaxlokk and not go on a boat trip around the harbour.

Well, you can obviously, but you shouldn’t.

These seem to be the main industry apart from the crowded restaurants and market stalls. Several boat owners were touting for business offering cheap trips just around the boats moored in the harbour, or to attractive bays further afield.  One of the bays is even called Pretty Bay.

‘We should go on one of the boat trips’ said Madam.

I looked at the small wooden boats and out beyond the harbour at the rolling waves.

‘Well…’ I started to say but Madam took this as a yes and rushed to the nearest owner’s stall.

She asked the elderly boat owner the price.  It was €10 for a single bay or €15 for all three.

‘Well, all three of course,’ she said.

I suspect it was the best news he had heard all day and he quickly cleared two folding seats.

‘My name is Tomas.  Please sit here in the shade and make yourselves comfortable.  It will just be a few minutes,’ he said.

A few minutes came and went without so much as a hint of a customer, then more minutes came along and disappeared into the distance like feathers in the wind.

Tomas was standing by the pavement waving his arms, desperately trying to drum up a few more passengers.

‘So, how long do we wait?’ I asked Madam, ‘there are several other boats offering the same tour.’

Tomas must have heard and before Madam could answer, he came rushing over and said ‘I’ve found another couple but they only want the €10 tour, so I will do all three bays for €10, okay?’

Like buses, boat passengers seem to come in threes and we ended up with nine people squashed into the tiny wooden boat.  We were first on the boat and took the front bench seat.  We thought we had the bench to ourselves until three young Brazilian women joined the boat.  The most attractive woman squashed in alongside me and smiled.

‘Good idea, this boat trip’ I told Madam.

She didn’t reply.

‘Put on your life jackets please.  Everybody must wear lifejackets… except me.  I’ve been married 52 years and my wife won’t miss me,’ said Tomas.

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We headed out from the harbour and the boat started bouncing up and down with the waves.  Spray came over the front of the boat.  I gripped the seat and wondered if anybody in the row behind me suffered from sea sickness.

One of the Brazilian women turned towards Tomas and asked  ‘Where are we going?’

‘We are heading towards Libya’ Tomas replied with a straight face.

She looked like he had just told her she was being sold into white slavery.

They won’t get much for me, I thought.

Just as she was about to jump out of the boat and swim to shore, he turned the boat towards St Peter’s Pool, a beautiful natural inlet pool surrounded by blue deep waters and natural limestone rocks. It was packed with young sunbathers and swimmers diving from the rocks.

‘Can you drop us off here?’ Asked the woman sitting next to me.

‘Maybe on the way back,’ he replied with a look that said it would be breaking all the rules to return to the dock with three less passengers.

We continued to the other two bays, I don’t recollect the names but they were all beautiful with deep-blue water and limestone cliffs.

He did return to St Peter’s Pool to drop off the Brazilians.

‘You will have to walk back to the village,’ Tomas warned them as they clambered onto the steep rocks from the boat.

Madam looked at the group of young men standing watching with interest and the line of cars on the road above the pool and said ‘I don’t think they will have to walk back.’

She looked at me and in a sharp voice said, ‘sit back down!’ ‘You would have to walk and it’s a long way with your knees.’

‘That was brilliant!’ Said Madam as we left the boat, ‘well worth €10!’

And it was.

Featured

Malta Part I

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I was reading an article on a right-leaning website explaining that right after a hard Brexit, probably as soon as March 32nd, we would have sunshine everyday, there would be unicorns roaming free in the woods and beer would only cost 35p a pint.  I had just got to the bit telling me that if we did not leave in two weeks, then EU bureaucrats were getting ready to force us to wear Lederhosen and eat sauerkraut for breakfast every day, when Madam interrupted me.

‘Where was Game of Thrones filmed?” she asked.

‘All over I think.  Northern Ireland, Iceland, Malta.’ I replied.

‘Malta?’ she asked, ‘is that warm and sunny?’

‘Probably. It’s in the Mediterranean, below Sicily.  It was the setting for Kings Landing I think.’ I replied.

I knew what was coming so I tried to distract her.

‘How do you make a Maltese Cross?’ I asked her.

She gave me a look that didn’t appear overly friendly and said ‘I don’t know, how do you make a Maltese Cross?’

‘You step on his toes!’ I said.

She didn’t laugh.  She just looked through the window at the low grey clouds and said, ‘Book some tickets.  We are going to Malta.’

It used to be – and I am going back many years here – that once through security at the airport you were dumped out directly into the departure lounge where you might, if you were lucky, find some cheap plastic chairs and could join the long queue at the stall selling a cup of instant coffee and a stale bun.

Later they introduced a duty free shop (where the stuff really was duty free and worth buying) and maybe a couple of useful travel shops and a half decent restaurant. Those of us of a certain age might consider that, at this point, it reached its peak.    

Nowadays it seems that no airport is complete without a vast indoor mall with dozens of gift shops, restaurants and clothes shops.  Should you be completely brain-damaged and forgot to put on a pair of trousers and a shirt before heading to the airport, or are perhaps in desperate need of a Harry Potter keyring, you are well catered for.  Such is the volume of brightly coloured advertisements and glaring signs offering five kilograms of chocolate in a special gift box, or two for one underwear, it is hard to actually see useful stuff like the sign leading to the toilets or departure gates.  

While I’m on the subject, wouldn’t it make sense to sell clothes in the arrival hall after the airline loses your luggage, rather than before you fly?

Unfortunately a recent introduction is that they now lead you through the entire “duty free” shop via a winding path like a snake with no sense of direction.  You are forced through vast displays of whisky, perfumes, cigarettes and sunglasses just to get to the rest of the shops in the lounge, never mind the departure area.  Sales assistants stand by the side of the path ready to pounce should you show the slightest interest.  

We eventually made it through and found a seat and Madam pulled out her knitting.  The seats were crowded.  People were looking at their phones or trying to sleep.  I had a desultory look round the shops, more to pass the time than anything.

A line of travellers were standing, clutching the handles of wheeled suitcases, staring up at the departures board as if waiting for a sign from the heavens.  Occasionally, someone would jump up and run to their departure gate, their case clattering behind, as though getting to the gate an hour early would get them to their destination more quickly.

But enough of the grumbling, we are going on holiday.

We picked a date right in the middle of storm Gareth buffeting the whole of Europe. Sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts of 70 mph.  Madam was a little stressed at the thought of take off in strong winds. 

The pilot telling us that the plane was slightly delayed due to some bad weather and that the take-off might be “a little bumpy” didn’t help Madam’s disposition.

I had managed to develop a chest infection a couple of days earlier and the doctor had prescribed some codeine based medicine so my brain was already floating several hundred feet above the earth and I wasn’t much concerned.

Just before landing the pilot turned on the intercom and told us that the strong winds we had left in England had followed us all the way to Malta and that the landing might be a little rough. I looked out of the side window and watched the wings swaying up and down as the plane rocked in the wind.  I suddenly had a worrying thought. What would happen if one of the wing tips touched the ground before the wheels, and who would feed the chickens if I was incinerated in a fiery crash?  Then I remembered that I didn’t have chickens and I was calm again.  Codeine does that to you.   The landing was fine of course but there was an audible collective sigh of relief from the passengers as the plane slowed to a halt.

To quote Madam’s own words it was “the bumpiest, swayiest descent I have ever experienced.” 

‘No, the seatbelts don’t work’ and ‘I am driving illegally at the moment’ are probably not the first words you want to hear from a taxi driver.  Compared to say ‘I will take you by the shortest route’ or ‘no, please, no tips’ those phrases leave something to be desired.  

He was a pleasant young man who, to be fair, delivered us in one piece from the airport to the hotel with only a few damaged wing mirrors along the way.

‘These streets are really narrow,’ he said without any obvious concern as he hit the third mirror.

As he pulled up outside the hotel he told us he would be happy to drive us around Malta tomorrow for only €25 an hour.  He assured us he could drive really quickly to minimise the time we needed.  Madam took his phone number and involved him in a discussion about national foods in Malta (Rabbit Stew and Pea Pasties) while I went to buy two seven-day bus passes.

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We caught the bus into Valletta on our first morning and wandered the steep and narrow streets in a fairly aimless fashion, stopping to take photographs and look in shop windows.  We walked down to the edge of the city wall, around the peninsula and back up a steep hill along a busy main road.  

Malta is an odd mix of Britain and a Mediterranean island.  The streets are narrow, the buildings look Italian or Spanish but the shops are distinctly British.  We saw Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Matalan, Peacocks, Zara and many more.  The phone boxes and post boxes are red.  There is a statue of Queen Victoria in the main square. They drive on the left.  English is an official language of the island along with Maltese.  Sensibly, most restaurants and cafes are locally owned apart from the ubiquitous American fast-food outlets.  

‘This is amazing.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s so blue’ said Madam.

‘Yes, it’s the Mediterranean’ I replied.

‘But it’s so BLUE!’ she said, ‘it’s like the pages of National Geographic!’

We were standing in the Upper Barakka Gardens overlooking the Grand Harbour, waiting for the daily noon canon salute.  There was a soldier wandering between two canons doing soldiery things with levers and wire pokey implements.  We stood in a line of people four deep, directly above the canons waiting in anticipation.  Most people were holding phones above their heads ready to record a video, Madam included.

I stood braced, ready to cover my ears.

He pressed a button on the first canon and there was a brief “phut”.  I looked at Madam and she looked at me.  She almost put her phone down.  I’ve probably had louder farts.  The soldier, without any sign of embarrassment, moved to the second canon and pressed a button.  This time there was a proper bang and a cloud of white smoke.  The crowd dispersed more quickly than the smoke. 

‘Was that it?’ I asked Madam.

She was equally underwhelmed and just shrugged and said ‘There’s a cafe over there, we can sit in the sun and watch the sea.  It’s really blue.’

We had walked almost five miles around Valletta, much of it up and down steep hills so, after a nice lunch at the extravagantly decorated Caffe Cordina, we headed back to the hotel.

‘Make sure you check Trip Advisor’ I told Madam.  

We were looking for somewhere to eat dinner.   After a bad experience in Brugge we rarely go into a restaurant without checking reviews.  We were in Brugge for a few days many years ago and picked a restaurant on the main square at random.  It was probably the worst meal we had ever had outside of school dinners.   No, correction, it was worse than most school dinners.  We complained to the waiter who just shrugged and walked away.  We pulled up Trip Advisor on the way out to leave an appropriate review only to find it had the lowest rating of all restaurants in Brugge.  It was so bad we even stood outside for a while to warn other potential customers.

There were several eating establishments along the harbour front of Sleima, close to the hotel but were mostly of the pizza, beer and burgers variety. 

‘There’s a tapas restaurant that has good reviews’ she said.

‘Spanish food in Malta?’  I asked.  Why not, I thought.

The restaurant, La Vida, turned out to have the best tapas we’ve had anywhere, including any in Spain.  You should go there immediately.  The owner, who was Irish, told us they were a fusion of Spanish and South American cuisine.  

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Madam opened the hotel curtains and said ‘It’s so BLUE!’

Our second day was scheduled for a trip to Mdina by bus.

There’s an amazing bus service in Malta.  Well, amazing compared to the UK.  Buses are frequent and cover the whole island.  You can travel the length of Malta for only €1.50.  We rarely waited more than five minutes for a bus from our hotel in Sleima into Valletta, a service which ran 24 hours a day.  It isn’t perfect.  Buses are often crowded and aren’t useful if you are in a hurry.  But then the roads in crowded Malta seem to have a near  permanent traffic jam so nothing moves quickly.

As is the nature of public transport many routes run into and out of the capital so we travelled into Valletta, changed buses, then onto Mdina.  Fifty minutes to go fifteen miles probably isn’t that impressive by modern transport standards but no wing mirrors were destroyed and everybody could afford the fare.

Mdina is a fortified medieval town enclosed in bastions, located on the island’s highest point in the centre of Malta.  According to legend it was here that in 60 AD that the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived in a cave after being shipwrecked on the Islands.  Why he would walk several miles inland to the top of a hill rather than, say, wave down a passing ship to be rescued, is not recorded.

The town was the old capital of Malta, and with its narrow streets, few inhabitants (a permanent population of only 250 people), and a limited number of cars it is known as the Silent City. There is a horse-drawn buggy that takes the tourists around the narrow streets but this is required to have rubber rimmed wheels and the horses have rubber shoes.  Silent, except for the hordes of tourists of course.  We were there in March, out of the main season, but it was already busy with noisy tour groups and a steady stream of visitors.

We walked through narrow lanes but each seemed to be a wind tunnel.  The temperature had dropped since yesterday and we were shivering after a few minutes. The high walls cast a heavy shade over every street.  Yesterday we were basking in warm sunshine so neither of us had brought coats or a sweater.

‘Are you cold?’ Asked Madam.

I don’t want to be over-dramatic here but my lips were turning blue and my teeth were chattering so much that small flecks of enamel were spraying over the pavement.

I wrapped by arms around my body and said ‘I am a bit.’

‘We can go and buy some more clothes!’ She said brightly.  Madam can never resist a chance to go clothes shopping.

Rabat is a more modern town with a population of 11,000, built around the gates of Mdina.  It is served by precisely two clothes shops, one for men and one for women.  We found two anorak-style body warmers, one red and one green which Madam assured me were the very height of fashion.  For someone who last considered fashion during a purchase sometime in the 1970’s this seemed an absurd concept to involve but mine was half-price on the sale rack so I let it pass.

We donned our red and green coats and finally stopped shivering.

‘We look like Christmas,’ said Madam.

I pulled the zip up to the top of my coat and said ‘I’m more concerned with being warm at the moment.  Besides, these are very fashionable you know.’ 

We headed back into the historic walled city and spent an hour wandering the narrow lanes and city walls.  Several streets were used in the filming of Games of Thrones.   We looked for recognisable locations but never saw anything specific, most of the lanes looked the same.  A builder, high up on scaffolding, was busy with a hammer and cold chisel distressing a new stone wall to match the older walls.

Mdina has a history that goes back almost 3,000 years.  It was founded as Maleth in the 8th century BC by Phoenician settlers, and was later renamed Melite by the Romans. The city adopted its present name, which derives from the Arabic word “Medina” during the Byzantine period.   Quite why they dropped the “e” from the name is not clear  One story is that the “e” from the entrance sign on the gates blew away one windy day and was never replaced.  

There were several restaurants in Mdina, obviously aimed at tourists.  We stopped for lunch at a one on a side street.  Madam looked on her phone at Trip Advisor. 

‘It has a four,’ she said, ‘there is one with a four and a half, I think it was the really expensive one on the square.’

Whenever Madam says the word “expensive” I break out into a cold sweat.  My heart pounds and my stomach muscles tighten, often leading to a sharp egress of gas.

I pushed my wallet further into my pocket and tightly crossed my legs.

‘Four isn’t bad,’ I said.

‘They have rabbit on the menu.  I want to try rabbit,’ said Madam.

I had a Margherita pizza.  It tasted just like a frozen supermarket pizza.  I suspect it may have been just that.  Madam had Rabbit Bolognese.  I asked her how it tasted.  She looked into her empty bowl and thought for a minute.

‘Thumper,’ she said, ‘it tasted like Thumper, and a bit like chicken, or maybe beef, but mostly Thumper.’

She continued gazing into her empty bowl and muttered ‘Thumper… I just ate Thumper…. I don’t think I will eat rabbit again.’

She pushed her bowl aside and picked up her phone.  Her fingers flicked on the screen from side to side. Suddenly, she thrust it towards me with a picture of the Mediterranean.  ‘Look, it’s so BLUE!’ she said.

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I opened the hotel room curtains and stopped half way. 

‘You didn’t bring a raincoat did you?’  I asked.

‘No, need,’ said Madam, ‘the forecast was dry and sunny all week.’

She picked up her phone.  ‘Just a 1% chance of rain today.  I won’t need a coat.’

‘I wonder why all those people walking on the promenade are wearing raincoats and huddled under umbrellas’ I said.

Madam frowned and check her phone again.  ‘No, definitely no rain today,’ she said.

We sat by window in the hotel restaurant and ate our breakfast watching the sheets of  rain. I looked out towards the sea.  ‘It’s so GREY.’ I said.  

Madam didn’t look amused.

By the time we got back to the hotel room it had stopped raining but there were low dark clouds scudding across the sky, threatening more rain.

‘We could go to the mall.’ I suggested, ‘It’s just a couple of stops on the bus and the rain may have stopped by then.

‘They have clothes shops and…’

I was about to tell her they probably had shoe shops as well but she was already out of the door and halfway to the lift.

There were just a few spots of rain as we left the hotel.  We walked the hundred yards to the bus stop and the rain restarted with a vengeance.  Madam wrapped a flimsy scarf around her head and ran for shelter under a cafe awning.  She looked at her phone.  

‘It still says a 1% chance of rain’ she said.  

Water was pouring from the cafe awning. People were running for cover. I thought for a while about probability and statistics but then I realised water was getting into my shoe so I stopped thinking and said ‘We’ll just get the first bus.  It may go somewhere interesting and at least we will be dry.’

The rain only lasted another thirty minutes, the sun came out and everything dried so quickly you wouldn’t have known it have ever rained.

Madam had downloaded a Malta guide book onto her phone and she looked at the sections on Sleima and St Julians.  It described them as one of the island’s most sought-after areas with swish apartment blocks, boutique stores and a hubbub of excellent restaurants.  Clearly this warranted further exploration.  

We caught a bus to what appeared to be the centre of town.  All we found were shuttered shops and run down buildings. We wandered somewhat randomly down a few streets but everything looked the same.  Most streets had a building site or two forcing us into the road, dodging cars and lorries.  We walked up long steep hill looking for the Sleima described in the guide book.  The road was chocked with cars.  Everything was dusty and dirty.

‘I’m not so sure about your guide book’ I told Madam.  ‘Either we are in the wrong area or they haven’t built it yet.’

I jumped aside as a rushing builder pushing a wheelbarrow tried to gain traction up the hill.  

‘Can we go somewhere flat next time I am getting too old for all these hills.’ I said.

Madam stopped to catch her breath and said ‘Lubbock.  Lubbock is flat I think.  It’s brown and dry and sort of… square… but it is flat.’

‘As in Lubbock, Texas?  What’s in Lubbock?’ I asked.

She looked at the Google on her phone and found a guide to the city. ‘Well, there’s a Buddy Holly statue and the American Windmill Museum.. and…  Prairie Dog Town.’  she said.

‘Prairie Dog Town?’ I said.

‘Yes, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Lubbock according to the internet.  It’s the fifth most visited attraction in the city.’ she said.

‘Prairie Dog Town?’ I repeated, ‘as in the small burrowing rodent?  They have a whole town of them?’  

I briefly thought about asking about the top four most visited but I was worried they were going to be something like a snakeskin shoe museum or an exhibition of belt buckles that would have Madam excitedly demanding an immediate trip.

I may not have conveyed a feeling of excitement at the thought of visiting the city, so she said ‘or there’s the Norfolk Broads, they are flat and might be more interesting than Lubbock.’

I nodded in agreement.

We caught another bus to try and find all the delights from the guide book but it ended up in a massive traffic jam.   We sat on the bus as it inched slowly along the road.  After thirty minutes we gave up with the bus and tried walking to St Julians,  Every road was steep, chocked with parked cars and traffic. We were both becoming tired and frustrated at finding only decrepit areas and dusty building sites so we gave up and headed back down the hill to La Vida (still excellent) for a late lunch.

We had planned on going to the Three Cities, an area on the far side of Valletta, that afternoon but we were tired, dirty and frustrated so we ended up just going back to the hotel.

’I need a shower,’ said Madam.

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Madam opened the hotel curtains and said ‘The sea is so BLUE!’

And it was.  No sign of rain and the sun was shining brightly.  The sky was a clear, bright blue. The weather forecast was still stubbornly stuck on 1% chance of rain.

Our third day was scheduled for a trip to Birgu, one of the Three Cities.  These are directly across the Grand Harbour from Valletta.  They are one of the oldest areas of Malta, built by the Knights of St John who settled here in the 16th century.  Despite being only a few minutes from the busy capital the narrow streets have neither the crowds of visitors nor the busy traffic of Valletta.

The bus dropped us on outskirts of Birgu.  A steep hill led down into the centre.

We passed the Inquisitors Palace on the way into the town centre.  Madam can never resist anything with palace in the name and she started tugging on my arm.  I looked inside the entrance towards the ticket office.

‘Six Euros each!’ I exclaimed, ‘There is a war museum up the road that looks far more interesting.’

The truth was that my memories of a recent trip seemed to be an endless succession of royal palaces, most of them identical.  I wasn’t quite ready for another, even though it promised a history of the inquisition rather than rooms full of portraits of minor royals.

‘Let’s see what else is in the town,’ I said.

We walked down to the town square and wandered down streets at random with no destination in mind. Tall golden-stone buildings jostled together along the narrow lanes and passageways. Pots of shrubs or flowers were outside every doorway.  It was mercifully quiet with only one small walking tour disturbing the peace.   Locals were shopping, talking with friends and neighbours or just sitting outside enjoying the sun.  

I liked Birgu a lot.  The architecture was similar to Mdina but the latter was aimed at tourists and full of tourists.  Birgu was full of ordinary people doing the things that ordinary people do.

‘Fifty cents! That’s more like it.’ I said.

A faded sign outside of a low narrow doorway announced the presence of a haunted house with an entrance fee of a mere fifty cents.

It was an 18th century house haunted by the ghost of a sixteen year old servant Marianna (allegedly) murdered by her employer, 56 year old landlord Lugrezio Cremona, who feared she was pregnant with his child.  For some reason he was worried his wife might notice, so he strangled poor Marianna and cut her into pieces in a futile attempt to hide his misdeeds.  His attempts at a clumsy cover up came to naught though and he was executed shortly thereafter.  Ghostly shadows can still be occasionally seen in the house (allegedly).  

The house, really just a basement room, was furnished in 18th century style with a narrow bed, table and chairs, a row of books on the bookcase, dried food and herbs hanging from the ceiling, glass bottles, pans, pots and utensils.  Even a small writing desk complete with a quill pen and candle.  It was all done incredibly well, better than many professional museums.  We were the only visitors. 

Nobody was guarding the room or the valuable artefacts, or indeed collecting money.  There was just a small box by the entrance asking for donations.

I was so taken with the house, and indeed the enterprise and trust of the owner, that I was happy to drop a Euro in the donation box.

We headed back towards the Inquisitor Palace, as I knew we would. 

‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition,’ I said as we walked into the entrance.

Madam shrugged and said ‘I expected you to say that earlier.’

I was only slightly mollified to find a €4.50 senior rate instead of €6.

It turned out to be all about the Roman Inquisition, rather than the Spanish, although I suspect there may have been a spot of collusion between the two branches.

The building was originally intended for use as the Civil Law courts but was taken over by the Inquisitor and incorporated his private residence and prison complex. The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 to guard against the spread of the heresies of Protestantism and other religions.  It lasted over 250 years until 1798.  The inquisitor’s private quarters and chapel on the first floor are lavishly decorated and furnished unlike the spartan prison cells below.

Activities that had to be reported to the Holy Office for investigation included heretical opinion, magical activities, blasphemy, bigamy, love magic, witchcraft, superstitions, and cultural morality, possession of prohibited books and texts, and solicitation during confession.  

I thought that the latter was probably some obscure religious term but I looked it up later on the Google and it seems there was a bit of a problem with priests requesting sexual favours of the penitents. 

The mind boggles.

‘Hmm. Blasphemy…. that’s a tough one. How about three hail Mary’s and a blow-job?’

Visitors to the island were also prohibited from carrying any books, “printed at any heretical city, such as Geneva, Amsterdam, Leyden, London, or the like.”

A couple of rooms had facsimiles of torture equipment used and a looping film of the equipment in action. The display assured us that torture was only rarely used and then only consisted of a bit of muscle stretching.  A doctor was on hand to make sure the victims were healthy and it was limited to only thirty minutes.  Yeah, right.  I’m sure it was followed by 15 minutes in a sauna, a nice massage and maybe a bit of gentle tickling to finish.  The displays also assured us that most punishments were spiritual – a couple of prayers and maybe a leaflet to take home. 

‘What else is there to do in Birgu?’ Asked Madam.

‘The War Museum is just up the road.’  I told her.

She sighed and said ‘I suppose we could see that… if we must.’

When we started travelling we researched every intended destination and had a list of places to go and things to do.  We even spent money on a paper guidebook (which turned out to be useless) for our first overseas trip. I generally had some idea of the local history and geography.

Standing outside of the war museum I realised that I had no idea how Malta had fared in WW II.  I had somehow assumed they were on our side due to having been a British colony but then they were physically close to, and had connections with, Italy.  Had they been invaded and forced to live on rabbit sausages for five years?  

The Malta at War Museum was pleased to rectify my ignorance.

‘Go to the far end and start from there.  That way it will be in chronological order,’ the woman in the ticket office told us.

It seemed an odd idea and I was tempted to suggest putting the displays the other way round but we followed her instructions.  It meant walking along a narrow passageway through all sorts of interesting looking display cases in a sort of reverse time order.  It was like reading the last chapter of a book first.

Malta’s strategic location made it centre stage for the war in the Mediterranean as a  key base in the North African campaign.The island suffered a severe bombardment during the war. Some 6,700 tones of German and Italian bombs fell on Malta over 154 days.  A heavily damaged supply convoy managed to reach Malta in August 1942 saving the island.  It later became the launch pads for the Allied invasion of Sicily. 

The Maltese people ended the war with the distinction of being the only entire country’s population to be awarded the George Cross.  

The museum, housed in an 18th century army barracks, sits on top of a massive underground rock-cut air raid shelter which offered refuge to hundreds of people. This shelter has been restored and forms part of the museum experience.

We donned bright yellow hard-hats and pushed through the plastic curtain.  The rock passages narrowed quickly.  My shoulders were scraping the sides of the walls, my head hitting the ceiling.

‘I see why we needed the hats now,’ I told Madam.

‘That is way better than the Inquisitors Palace!’ said Madam.

I crouched, bent over double, to get through a low doorway.  The walls closed in on us from all sides.

‘I wonder when the last earthquake was?’ asked Madam.

‘You should worry more about the baked beans I had for breakfast.’ I told her.

I don’t suffer from claustrophobia and small places rarely bother me, but after a while I had had enough.  There were maps and signs at strategic locations but I knew I could never find my way out if the lights failed.  We made it almost to the end of the tunnels, shuffling sideways down the last of them.  I was glad when we returned to the entrance and I could stand up straight and rub my aching knees.

I can only imagine how the people sheltering in the war felt, hundreds of them crammed in for hours at a time with only oil lamps and candles, listening to the bombers and vibrations overhead.  Wondering if their home would still be there by morning.

In a thoughtful mood, we headed back to the bus stop.

Madam had noticed one of the highest rated restaurants, Anciova was only a few hundred yards from the hotel. Their website listed the opening time as 7pm, but we headed that way early and arrived at 6.50pm.  It was already open and people were eating.  We walked in and noticed that every table had a reserved sign.  In a spirit of optimism rather than expectation we asked if they had a table for two.  The waiter frowned but led us to a table that I can only describe as being on the end of the corridor leading to the kitchens.  

Luckily the table behind finished early and with a bid of judicious shuffling of tables and chairs while the waiter wasn’t looking we found a spot where I could eat without my elbow getting knocked.

We ordered a “mixed starter for two”, mostly to avoid having to make a decision, together with a bottle of local red wine.

The starter was caponata (a Sicilian dish of aubergines, tomatoes, raisins, capers and pine nuts), calamari, fish cakes, baked mussels and anchovy salad.

Madam took a bite of the caponata.

‘Oh my God that was so good, oh my God that was that was amazing.’ she said between gasps of pleasure.

Several nearby diners looked over with interest.  There goes blasphemy I thought.  

She took a bite of the fishcake.  

‘This is so good.  This is amazing, oh my God this is SO GOOD!’ She said with another gasp of pleasure.  A woman at the neighbouring table stopped eating and craned her neck.

Everything else on the starter was equally good as was the swordfish main course and desserts that followed.  

‘Oh my God that was so good, do we need to book for tomorrow? I’ve had half a bottle of wine!  Don’t under any circumstances let me pick up my knitting.  I need to go straight to sleep,’ said Madam in one long stream without pausing for breath. 

There goes solicitation as well I thought.

 

Pictures from the trip can be found here