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Silves

Silves

This is the second part of our Portugal trip.  You can read the first post here.

Silves Castle courtyard with palm trees

‘So, is it a pool day or is there somewhere else to see?’ asks Madam the following morning.

‘Silves sounds interesting,’ I tell her, ‘it has a castle and an archeology museum.’

You may be thinking from my previous descriptions that Madam would be more focused on shopping and eating but that is a tad unfair.  She likes old things, even me.  I can always tempt her with an archeological site or something historic.  As long as it has a gift shop.

We considered taking a trip on the Barca Arade up river to Silves but it would have been an hour each way on the boat and only left us with an hour and a half in the town. An Uber costs less and gets us there in twenty minutes.

Silves Castle walls

Silves castle is at the top of a long steep hill above the town and the taxi was able to drop us off opposite the gates.  The gates are guarded by a giant statute of Sancho I, whose forces conquered the citadel in 1189.

The original castle on the site was built around 200 BC when the Romans conquered Silves.  In the 8th century it was taken over by the Moors who extended and reinforced the castle.  There followed a period of a few centuries where Christian and Moorish forces took turn occupying it, until the 13th century until it was taken and retained by what was, by then, Portugal.  The sandstone walls of the Moorish fortress still have their towers but inside there isn’t much left of the old citadel. 

We spent a couple of hours walking the ramparts, exploring the grounds and taking pictures.  Click on the Travel Photography link at the top of this page to see a few.

‘I wonder what’s down there?’ asks Madam.

She is looking at a long set of steep and narrow steps that lead down into a dark interior.  I suspect it led to the original dungeons of the castle.  ‘Careful!’, I say as she starts to climb down, ‘you could break a hip at your age.’

Her reply is lost in the echo of the walls.

We manage to negotiate the steps to find… an exhibition of cats.  To be fair, they are all about the lynx, but a cat is a cat.  I hoped to find a proper dungeon, maybe with a few instruments of torture or a skeleton hanging on the wall. 

‘Was it worth the climb?’ I ask Madam as we reached daylight.

‘No,’ was her terse reply.

We want to visit the nearby Silves cathedral but find it closed for refurbishment, so we head to the archeology museum, a few yards down the hill.  

Silves Archeology Museum and well

The Silves Municipal Museum of Archeology is built around the Poço-Cisterna Almóada – a 13th century well which was discovered after archaeological excavations in 1980.  The museum’s collections, mostly from excavations in the city and surrounding area, covers finds from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, the Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the Roman and the Medieval periods. 

Chalcolithic is a new term to me and also to the spell checker on my word processor.  The internet tells me that is was a brief period of using copper tools between the stone age Neolithic and the Bronze Age.  It was only a phenomenon of the eastern Mediterranean regions and occurred around 3,000 BC.  

The most interesting part of the museum is the well.  It is around 2.45 metres wide and surrounded by a 1.5 metre spiral staircase with narrow doors cut into the side walls at intervals right down to the water table 18 metres below.  I walk down to the first doorway and peer down into the murky water far below.  I would have taken a picture down into the well but had a sudden vision of dropping my new phone into the water.  I don’t think they would have sent down divers to recover it.  There are some less impressive pictures of the outside of the well in the Silves album in the photography section.

We stop in a nearby restaurant for a lunch of tapas and ice cream and I ask Madam what else there is to see in Silves.  She looks on her phone and says ‘there’s the Cruz da Portugal.’

‘What’s that?’ I ask.

‘No idea, but it’s mentioned on Trip Advisor,’ she says.

We walk a mile along a busy and dusty main road and cross a large roundabout.  ‘There it is,’ says Madam.

It is a 3 metre high limestone cross, in the florid Gothic style, under a wood and tile canopy. On one side of the cross there is a Pietá, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, on the other a crucifix. It must have been very impressive once but weathering has dulled any fine detail.  It would be more appreciated, and better preserved, if it was displayed in the museum.

‘We walked a mile to see that?’ I ask Madam.

It’s from 1499,’ she says defensively, ‘and there’s a cemetery next door.’

Silves Cemetery

Silves cemetery is far more interesting and almost worth the walk.  All gleaming white marble, the graves crammed together with scarcely space to walk between them.  Framed pictures of the deceased are on many of the graves.  It is very much still in use, as we are leaving a procession of thirty people follow a hearse into the cemetery.  They are dressed in casual clothes.

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Portugal I

Portimao

It is a little before 7am and Madam is poking me awake.

“Come on, wake up and go and make some tea! It’s packing day!”

“Packing day?” I say.

“Yes, get a move on, we are going to Portugal tomorrow.”

‘We are? Oh.’ I say.

There isn’t anything useful I can add to that statement.

I do have time to download a few books to my iPad in between packing. One if them is “Why Does E=mc2?” by Brian Cox, a man so smart his brain crosses entire time zones. The aim of the book is to describe Einstein’s theories on space and time in the simplest way. The book is 218 pages long so it may take some explaining.

I did try to read Einstein’s original paper on special relativity while I was at university and thought I was smart enough to understand it.  I wasn’t.  I got to page two and realised I was way out of my depth.

I’ve always had an interest in science. When I was nine years old I received a chemistry set which sticks in my memory as the best birthday present ever. I started with the included book of experiments which involved things like dropping sodium bicarbonate into a weak acid to produce a few innocuous carbon dioxide bubbles and testing different compounds with litmus paper. This wasn’t what small boys craved. What I wanted was small explosions or an invisibility elixir so that I could hide and didn’t have to go to school.

After a few days plodding through the listed experiments, I got bored and tried mixing a few random chemicals into a flask.  I gave it a good shake and stood back to admire the results.  

There were no explosions thankfully, but I did manage to produce a large and fast spreading cloud of hydrogen sulphide. This is the gas that used to power stink bombs before they banned such things. It spread rapidly to every corner of the house. There was a howl of rage from my father. He picked up the cat and ejected the poor thing with some force through the back door, followed by a string of choice expletives. The cat, claws extended, climbed over the six foot high back fence and disappeared from sight. We didn’t see him for three days.  The poor cat always got the blame for bad smells.  To be fair, he was often the cause.   I sat quietly in the corner, the incriminating flask still in my hand, awaiting the inevitable while my mother ran from room to room opening windows.

The cat never worked out that I was to blame but thereafter kept some distance from my father.

The remains of my chemistry set were confiscated and I was told to find a new hobby. I settled on electronics. I made a few crystal sets then progressed to transistor radios and light operated switches. I suppose I was about twelve years old when I came across instructions in a book to build a shocking coil. 

A shocking coil, or to give it its proper name induction coil, is an electrical transformer designed to deliver a high voltage electric shock but with a very low current. It’s harmless. Unless you have a heart condition. Or a pacemaker. Or are elderly. Or in poor health. Or happen to be standing in a pool of water. They were marketed as a practical joke in the 1960’s.

The instructions involved winding one primary coil of about 100 turns and a secondary coil of 2,000 turns of thin wire. I wound and wound and finally reached two thousand turns. I had a load of wire left on the reel. It seemed silly to stop there, so I wound some more. I guess I had three thousand or so turns in the end. Maybe a few more.

I connected an old 1.5 volt battery and touched the terminal. It gave me an oddly pleasing tingle and made several arm hairs stand on end. I knew the 1.5 battery was almost dead, so I replaced it with a new 4.5 volt dry cell.

I figured I would try it out on my long suffering mother. She was sitting at the table, enjoying a well earned break with a cup of coffee. 

“Touch this,” I said.

They heard her scream three doors away. The coffee stain was still on the ceiling when we moved out two years later.

I had to promise to build nothing more dangerous than a radio in the future.

There is a taxi driver waiting for us when we reach Faro airport. All arranged by Tui. I’m sure we are paying for it all somewhere but it all seems very organised. The taxi driver, who speaks excellent English, tells us that the hotel is very nice and has been newly converted from an old fish canning factory. I immediately have a vision that there will be a smell of fifty year old fish wafting up through cracks in the warped wooden floorboards. We arrive at the hotel and wave goodbye to the driver.

‘No, sorry we don’t have any reservation under your name,’ says Luis, the receptionist.

‘But we have the confirmation email from Tui,’ says Madam.

He poked at his computer screen with a stylus and pressed a few keys. He frowned. ‘No we definitely don’t have your booking. Did they bring you to the wrong hotel?’  

Madam fumbles on her phone. ‘Here, here,’ she says, poking at her phone, ‘look, we definitely booked!  I have an email!’. A note of desperation was creeping into her voice.

Luis and Madam continue poking and mumbling for several minutes while I look at the sofas in reception and wonder if they will let us sleep there. Eventually Luis calls his manager and after a long conversation in Portuguese accompanied by much shaking of heads and poking at computer screens, he says ‘We don’t have a booking for you but we have one room available, out by the dustbins.’

He doesn’t really say by the dustbins but Madam isn’t happy with location of the room and he promises to move us to another as soon as they talk to Tui tomorrow.

The room was fine with a great view of the car park. It turned out that they had demolished the canning factory and built the hotel on the same site and the only smell is new carpet.

They move us to a new room in the morning and Madam is happy.

After breakfast the next day, we head along the river front into Portimao. The hotel is halfway between the old port and the beach at Praia da Rocha (Rock Beach). An easy fifteen minute walk in either direction. Portimao was a fishing port until the fish stocks dwindled and tourists discovered the Algarve. Now, the fish processing plants and canning factories have been replaced with hotels and ten storey apartment blocks. There are still remnants of the old lifestyle dotted around the town, kept as tourist attractions. Cranes and baskets for unloading the fishing boats are along the harbour front. Giant chimneys remain from part demolished factories, each topped with a giant nest and resident pair of storks. One former canning factory has been converted into a museum.

We wander around the town somewhat aimlessly, with no particular destination in mind. We stop for a smoothie in a harbour side cafe and look in a few shop windows. Soon enough, it is lunch time and Madam looks on her phone for the top rated restaurants. I peer over her shoulder and point out the cheapest.  We compromise and find the two budget top-rated but there are no tables free and a queue outside of both. It starts to rain, a few drops at first but soon gets heavier. We run into a random restaurant with a free table, dripping water.  

‘Its review is only three and a half stars!’ says Madam.

I had a piece of salmon that almost filled the plate for twelve Euros. It was very nice.  I’m never sure about these reviews.  I suspect half of the good reviews are from friends of the owner and half the bad reviews are from the competing restaurant next door.  

We were back in the hotel by 3.30pm. We had walked over five miles around Portimao but it is one of those hotels that is just hotel. There wasn’t anywhere comfortable indoors to sit apart from our room so, after a brief rest, we head down to Praia da Rocha.  

There is a wide sandy beach with sun loungers and umbrellas set up in neat rows along the foreshore. All are deserted. It is late in the season and the daytime temperature only reaches 20C.  

The town is mostly tourist bars, gift shops and restaurants. Madam heads into the nearest gift shop.  

‘We said no gift shops this trip,’ I say.

‘It doesn’t count,’ she calls over her shoulder, ‘it says souvenir shop above the door.’

We walk along the main street and stop for a drink in a empty bar above the beach and look out over the sea.

‘It’s not very blue,’ says Madam.

The hotel runs a shuttle service between the beach and hotel every two hours.  The next shuttle back is in twenty five minutes.  We look up the hill towards the hotel.  It is a fifteen minute walk.  We look down at a nearby low wall and back up at the hill.

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ I ask Madam.

Without replying she sits on the wall and rubs her feet.

A welcome bowl of fruit and a coupon for a free session in the spa appears in our room while we are at the beach which hints that the lack of a booking may have been a hotel screw up. 

We see the Tui rep and she assures us it is recorded on their computer. The rep asks us several times if we are happy with the resolution which may indicate that it was their screw up.

I blame it all on the computers.  

I ask the rep about local buses. It soon becomes clear that she has never been on a bus but tries to be helpful.

‘There’s a bus stop down the road,’ she says, ‘sometimes the buses stop and sometimes they don’t…’

‘Is it a flat fare?’ I ask.

‘Oh the driver will tell you the fare,’ she replies.

If he happens to speak English I think.

‘They stop at a big roundabout outside of Alvor…’ she volunteers, ‘but sometimes they don’t stop. Alvor is really nice.’

‘They do have Uber,’ she adds.

We go up to the rooftop bar in the evening. There are views across the river to Pateiro on the opposite bank and we sit drinking wine and watch the town and harbour lights come on one-by-one. They are playing traditional Portuguese music. It is so loud we cannot hold a conversation, so we head back downstairs for an early night.

The next morning Madam announces that we are going to spend the day lying by the rooftop pool. She spreads out her towel on a lounger and lays down. Two storks are nesting on a tall chimney next to the pool. They make a loud clacking sound anytime somebody moves. I lay there for a while but get bored and stand up thinking I will go for a walk.

‘You can fetch me a drink if you are up,’ says Madam, ‘a Mojito would be nice.’

I fetch her a drink and try to leave.

‘Put some sun block on my back please,’ says Madam, ‘did you get me a bottle of water?’

I apply sun block and fetch water.

‘See if you can put up the sun umbrella before you go,’ says Madam.

I pull on cords and push on umbrella spokes without any results. I stick my head inside and tug on anything that looks like it might move. I twist on anything that looks like it might turn. It stays down.

‘We couldn’t do it either,’ says a man on the neighbouring sun bed, ‘you have to get someone from the bar to help you.’

I fetch the barman who reaches up inside and pulls on a lever and it goes up effortlessly.

I start to leave.  

‘I need my hat. I left it the room,’ says Madam, ‘can you get it for me if you happen to be passing the room in the next few minutes… but only if you are passing.’

I fetch her hat.

‘I seem to have finished my drink…’

I get her another drink.

‘Before you go, can you turn the page on my book please…’

And so passes the day. I never get my walk.

‘What are we doing today?’ asks Madam the next morning.

‘How about going to Alvor?’ I reply quickly, hoping to avoid a repeat of yesterday.

I look on the internet for information on local buses but I cannot make sense of anything even though the sites are in English. The best I can work out is that we walk ten minutes along the main road towards Portimao, catch a bus to Praia da Rocha, then another to Alvor, where it may, or may not, stop.  

I call an Uber which arrives in three minutes and costs less than nine Euros.

The town of Alvor lies on the banks of the river Alvor estuary, about six kilometres from the hotel.  It is a small town and retains narrow cobbled streets and white-washed houses. It has a wide, palm tree lined riverfront with small fishing boats moored along the bank. At the edge of the town are extensive dunes, threaded with elevated wooden boardwalks. We head out on the boardwalk which Madam informs me is the top rated attraction.

‘We might see flamingoes,’ she says.

We walk a mile or so along the boardwalk over salt marshes and sand dunes. We see lots of walkers and cyclists but no flamingoes. We take a side boardwalk which splits off to the left and it leads us to a wide sandy beach. It is almost deserted. Madam immediately takes off her sandals and wades into the water. We walk along the beach to Torralto, Madam wades through ankle-deep water and I stay on the sand. It is hard to persuade her to leave the water. 

We head inland back to Alvor and stop on the harbour front for a coffee.  I order a cappuccino.  I figure this is a standard drink the same the world over.  ‘Would you like cream with that?’ asks the waiter.

I’m not sure how to respond, so I just nod.  Cream with cappuccino?

It comes in a small cup with a large mountain of cream on top.  It looks like, and probably has been, squirted from a can. I eat the cream with a spoon and reach something brown underneath.  It is the colour of watery mud.  If colour can have a taste, I found it.  It tastes of brown.

‘How is your coffee?’ asks Madam.

‘Different,’ I reply.

I later learn to ask for a coffee with milk.  No cream.

We walk back into the town and through the tourist areas of bars and restaurants. A bar is playing Pink Floyd, so we stop for a drink. The barman brings me a beer and the music changes to a style which I believe is called Thump Thump Disco. We leave and walk up the hill to the 16th century Igreja do Divino Salvador (Church of the Divine Saviour), then down to the remains of a 13th century Moorish castle. Much of the castle was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755 and the stone was used to help rebuild the village. Today all that remains are a few walls which are are now home to a children’s play area.

It’s time for a late lunch, so we head back down to the harbour to find a restaurant. Madam looks on the internets and we find one with a good rating. We take a seat at a table outside, overlooking the water.  Madam orders sardines and I order golden bream from the daily specials board.

‘Would you like that filleted?’ asks the waitress.

‘Umm, yes I guess so,’ I reply.

I’m not sure I have ever been asked that question before. The guy in the chippie just dunks the fish in batter then throws it into hot oil before licking his fingers. Isn’t it delivered filleted?

I imagine they will do something mysterious with sharp knives in the kitchen before cooking, but no. The waitress brings the whole cooked bream on a plate and presents it to me. She then takes a fork and spoon and removes bones and other bits that I assume are inedible. She does it so methodically, occasionally glancing in my direction, that for a minute I think she is going to put a bib around my neck and feed it to me one piece at a time. Another waiter brings a bowl of salad and another of potatoes before they both leave us to eat.  

After lunch we head towards the bus stop. I look at the crowd of bored people waiting and order an Uber back to the hotel.

The next day we are up early and eating breakfast by 7:30.

‘There are caves along the coast,’ says Madam, ‘we need to book a boat trip to see them.’

There is a line of kiosks along the harbour front offering tours varying in length and destination. Touts stand outside of each trying to convince you why their tour is better than all the others. Madam is convinced that we need to be there early to get a seat. She wanted to book a week ago but I want to wait and see the weather forecast.  We get to the line of kiosks a little before 9am. They are all closed so we walk to a supermarket to get bottles of water for the room. The hotel is, of course, happy to supply bottles for two Euros each but I quite like the taste of the supermarket fifteen cent bottles.

We are back in the hotel by 10am and Madam looks on the internet at local boat tours. 

‘They leave at 11:30am most days,’ she says.

‘Why don’t we walk down and see if we can get one directly from the boat?’ I ask.

‘No chance, they will be sold out,’ she says.

‘It’s the off season, we can always book for tomorrow if they are full,’ I say.

By the time Madam has tried on seven different outfits and rearranged her handbag it is 11am.

“This is pointless,’ says Madam, ‘we needed to book last week.’

We rush down to the boat dock and find the Barca Arade waiting, half full with passengers. We take two seats. Vera, the guide, doesn’t seem bothered about us paying. 

The Barca Arade was built with the collaboration of the Maritime Museum and is a replica of the vessels that sailed the river in the 15th century. They have added a pair of outboard motors at the stern as a nod to the modern preference of not having to row everywhere. I am glad this boat is here as the other tours have you strapped into a hard plastic seat in a rubber inflatable boat which bounces alarmingly from wave to wave. The Barca Arade isn’t large, but there is room to move about and change position. They even have a hobbit-sized toilet in the bow. The door to the toilets is three feet high.

Vera comes round to each family individually and tells us it will be a two and a half hour trip and that there are toilets at the front. She is carrying a bunch of plastic bags and tells us to ask for one if we feel ill. I look around at the other passengers. They all look fine but we are still tied up at the dock.  

We travel down the river and out into the sea. The sea isn’t rough but there is a noticeable swell and we hang onto the sides to steady ourselves.

We head out to the coast at Benagil, stopping in the entrance of the larger caves. The boat bobs up an down with the larger waves near the cave entrances. The promotional photos made the caves look massive but most were shallow impressions ten or twenty yards deep. The last cave, Algar de Benagil, is known as Benagil Cathedral due to the arches it formed which give it the appearance of a cathedral. There is a round hole in the ceiling that shows the blue sky from inside. The Michelin guide describes it as one of the most beautiful caves in the world. I agree with them. There is a sandy beach inside the cave and people are sitting on the sand watching the constant procession of boats visiting the cave. We don’t stay long and I wonder how we could reach it by land for a proper look.

We leave the caves and head back towards the port.

‘He looks green,’ says Madam.

She is looking at the young man sitting opposite. He is very still and staring at the floor. He does look green. His wife was holding his hand, looking concerned. 

I try to judge the distance between us. Five feet? How far can projectile vomit travel? Just as I am thinking of moving, or maybe jumping over the side and swimming to shore, a young woman comes to sit next to me. She has a grim expression and is noticeably pregnant. She motions to Vera for a bag. Would it be impolite to move to a different seat I wonder.  Just as my feet are stirring, she grabs the plastic bag and rushed back to the front of the boat. I still keep an eye on the man opposite but he seems to recover. Maybe he is always green.

Vera hands us an invoice as we pull into the dock but doesn’t seem much bothered to collect the money. I have to wait on the dock for everybody to leave before handing her the cash.

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Kos

Kos Greece

‘Cause!’ snaps Madam.

Since living with Madam I have learned that words often have many meanings. I examine her statement from both ends and in the middle. I turn it inside out and give it a good shake. I am none the wiser. I try hard but I cannot think of anything I have done wrong this week.

‘Umm… because what my sweet?’ I asked.

‘Not cause! I said KOS!’

‘As in the Greek Island?’ I ask by way of confirmation.

‘Yes. I’m not leaving you to decide after the Izzel of Wigget,’ she said, ‘two weeks, lying by a swimming pool in Greece. No arguments.’

We are more than halfway through September but it is a slow start to autumn this year. I was still wearing shorts and a t-shirt the weekend before our flight. The trees are reluctant to shed their leaves. Flowers are in full bloom. People are still heading to the beach on sunny afternoons.

Madam is sitting with her knitting, fanning herself and complaining it is too hot. ‘Why are we going somewhere even hotter?’ I ask.

‘I won’t have to make the bed. I won’t have to cook. I won’t have to do any laundry, and I certainly won’t be doing any ironing.’

Madam is insistent that this trip involves a lot of lounging by a pool. Personally, I am not so keen on laying prone in the sun and slowly blistering. Compared to, say, a filling at the dentist or the moment the England cricket team lose the Ashes (again), it is not so bad. Throw into the equation a visit to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris or a Pink Floyd reunion concert then it isn’t even in the rankings.

I have tried lying in the sun with Madam. I really have. I read somewhere that you should let your mind go blank as a sort of sun worshiping meditation. I will manage it for five minutes then get bored and ask her ‘Do you need anything from the shop? Can I get you a drink from the bar? What do you think is behind that wall? Where do you think that path goes? Do you fancy a walk?’ I will look at her expectantly and she will say something tender and romantic like ‘shut the fuck up, I’m working on my tan.’

This time I have loaded half a dozen ebooks onto my iPad. I intend finally finishing “The Calculus Diaries – How Maths Can Help You Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.” I will be ready, calculator in hand when the zombies get here, ready to save the human race. You can thank me later.  

Did you know that Archimedes came close to inventing integral calculus when he considered how to calculate the area under a curve? He had trouble grasping the concept of an infinite number of ever smaller squares and triangles so never quite perfected the theories. Being killed by a belligerent Roman with a sharp sword didn’t help either. The Greeks didn’t have a concept of zero, so it’s no surprise they struggled with infinity. I’m talking ancient Greeks here of course. Modern Greeks are quite aware when you leave them a zero tip.

Kos Swimming Pool

It is our first morning and we are up before 7am in spite of a two hour time difference. Three housekeepers are cleaning around the pool and wiping the sun beds. They glance up at the Turkish coast, a few short miles away across the Aegean Sea, as though watching for invading forces or to check that it isn’t creeping closer rock by rock.

There is no love lost historically between the Greeks and the Turkish. They have had four major wars since Greece became an independent nation in 1832. They nearly went to war again in 1987 and 1996 over sovereignty in areas of the Aegean Sea. Since 1998 relations at an official level have improved through diplomacy. Things seem calm to an outsider – several boats offer day trips from Kos to Bodrum in Turkey and there are several boats in Kos harbour flying the Turkish flag.

The breakfast buffet included something labelled “Greek Delight.”

‘That looks like Turkish Delight,’ I said to Madam.

I tasted some. ‘Mmm, nice,’ I said, ‘it tastes like Turkish Delight.’

Maybe there is still a bit of suspicion left between the neighbouring nations.

Breakfast is billed as an American Breakfast between 7:30 and 10:30. They have American style waffles but it was otherwise a standard, if expansive, breakfast buffet with the addition of a few Greek specialities.  Madam asked a waitress if they have vegetarian sausages. She is confused (the waitress, not Madam obviously) and fetched another waitress who listens intently.  She repeats slowly, the word ‘vegetarian, followed by a long pause, then ‘sausages.’  She thinks for a while then shakes her head.

‘It is like a proper American restaurant then’ I say.  

Some years ago, when we were in Texas, we were heading into a small town diner for breakfast. Several pickup trucks were parked outside. All of them displaying bumper stickers with uplifting messages such as “God and Guns – Two Things You Can Still Believe In”, “Keep Honking – I’m Reloading” and “If You Can’t Speak American Get The F***k Out of My Country”. We walked through a cloud of smoke to a table near the back. Republican talk radio was playing in the background. I looked at the menu. “Pork chops and eggs”, “Pork chops, sausage, bacon, and eggs”, Double pork chops, bacon and grits” and “Pork chops, eggs, home fries, sausage and bacon” were offered on the menu.

I may be paraphrasing as it was a long time ago but you get the idea.

‘Umm, could I have the Pork chops, eggs, home fries, sausage and bacon, but without the sausage, bacon or.. err the pork chops?” I asked the waitress.

She paused, her pencil hovering above her notepad. Her brow furrowed. I heard the gentle sound of brain neutrons popping.

‘So what kind of meat do you want?’

‘No meat, just the eggs and potatoes please,’ I replied.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T WANT NO MEAT!?’

A deathly hush fell upon the room. Cigarettes were put down. Guns were cocked. Hats were removed.  Texas folk are real polite.  They always remove their hat before killing someone.

I’m going to die in a Texas diner I thought. I braced myself for gunfire.

Madam jumped to my rescue. ‘He’s very delicate, it’s his digestion.’ she said, ‘Get me the double pork chops with extra grits and he can have some of mine.’

Guns were reluctantly holstered, hats replaced and conversation resumed.  

‘Awww you poor thing,’ said the waitress giving me a look of sympathy. She patted me on the shoulder and said ‘I’ll make sure your eggs get fried in plenty of pork fat.’

I spend the morning exploring the resort and walk along the beach a little way while Madam lays in the sun by the pool. I check in on her now and then and she tries to persuade me to put on my swim trunks and join her. ‘No, not my thing,’ I say and head off for another walk.

In spite of saying we would only have a snack for lunch we head to the buffet for lunch and then back to the room for Madam to change back into her swimsuit.

She asks if I want to lay by the pool all afternoon. ‘No, I’ll be bored and get sunburnt,’ I tell her.  

‘You sure?’

‘Yes, I don’t enjoy laying in the sun with nothing to do.’ I insist.

I pull on my shoes and pick up my phone while Madam looks out towards the pool.

‘You’re absolutely sure? I saved you a sun lounger,’ she said.

‘Yes I’m sure, I might see where that path up the mountain leads.’ 

She looks out of the window and says ‘There’s a young woman wearing the skimpiest thong bikini I’ve ever seen sitting right next to your sun lounger.’

I stop halfway through tying my shoelace and ask ‘Is the pool water cold?’ 

‘Fine once you are in the water,’ she says.

‘I suppose I could try it this once I say as I reach for my swimming trunks.

The water is colder than she intimated, so I sit in the shade of an umbrella and open my book. The afternoon drifts onwards, with only the odd interruption to check that Miss Thong Bikini isn’t getting sunburnt or to drink a cocktail. It isn’t so bad.

Kos beach

‘Is it Thursday today my sweet?’ I ask Madam.

‘Yes… no… maybe… how long have we been here?’

I think for a minute. ‘I’m not exactly sure…’ I say.

She does something on her phone. ‘Yes, it’s Thursday,’ she says.

It was starting to blur together. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Cocktails, one by the pool and one before bed. One or two between. Beer and wine with dinner.

‘We should set an alarm or something for the day we have to go home’ I say.

‘Mmmm, maybe,’ she replies. She looks out over the blue Aegean Sea and smiles.

‘We don’t want to miss our flight,’ I say.

‘Mmmm, maybe.’

After breakfast, I leave Madam lying in the sun by the pool and walk down to the beach. There is a very important task to perform.

The day before we flew here I read an article in a right-leaning newspaper about how Kos and other Greek islands were being flooded with migrants crossing in small boats from Turkey. The other tabloids took up the mantle and warn us how Europe is being overrun by migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa.  Africa is a single country in tabloid terms. Most of the migrants were then heading to England to overwhelm our NHS, claim benefits and steal our jobs. All migrants are given a large detached house in the Tory shires, £35,000 a year allowance and preferential access to a top job according to one report.

I walk a long way along the beach, past the hotels and around rocky coves while I keep a close lookout for migrants flooding across from Turkey. I don’t see a single overloaded dingy. Not a solitary swimmer. I wanted to hand out bottles of water and a bag of pastries from the breakfast buffet, just to piss off a million Daily Mail readers.

Disappointed, I spend the rest of the morning with Madam sitting by the pool a couple of beds away from Miss Thong Bikini. I read my calculus book to take my mind off things. I recommend it. It does appear though that the best advice it can offer for the zombie apocalypse is to run away. You can only use calculus to determine the best time and speed for your escape. I will trade in my calculator for a shotgun should the apocalypse be confirmed. I have every confidence that the tabloid press will mention it first.

Madam is upset that the frozen drink machine at the bar isn’t working and she can’t have a Strawberry Daiquiri. I consider fetching her a pastry and a bottle of water but I see she isn’t in the mood.

Kos archaeology

After breakfast on Friday we head into Kos town, a few miles to the north. I know it is Friday because Madam looked at her phone. We arrive at the bus stop in time to see the bus pulling away, leaving only fumes behind. I look at the timetable and the next bus is in 45 minutes. ‘We may as well sit in the bar and get a coffee rather than wait in the sun for the bus,’ I say.

We start heading back towards the hotel when another bus appears on the horizon. ‘It’s either the 9:35 that’s eight minutes late or the next bus 45 minutes early’ I say, ‘the one that left must have been the 9:15… or maybe the ten o’clock… but I’m not sure that runs on Fridays…’

‘We are in Greece,’ she says which needs no further explanation.

The final stop of the bus is along the harbour front in Kos town. The tour guide had given us a hand drawn map of the town highlighting the major attractions.

‘We need to see the Tree of Hippocrates’ I tell Madam.

According to legend, Hippocrates of Kos (considered the father of medicine) taught his pupils the art of medicine under the tree. Paul the Apostle purportedly taught here as well.

I look at the map. I look around and all I can see are massive restaurants and gift shops. I turn the map upside down and look again. Nothing has changed. ‘I think it’s this way,’ I say, pointing to my left.

It wasn’t, so we went the other way. It wasn’t there either so we returned to our starting position. I screwed up the map and put it in my pocket.  

Madam poked at her phone a couple of times and it led us to the tree.   It turned out to be a couple of hundred yards from the bus stop. It’s a big tree, the crown is about twelve metres in diameter and  is said to be the largest plane tree in Europe. The current specimen is only 500 years old but may be a descendant of the original tree which stood there 2400 years ago. We stand there for a couple of minutes but there is only so long you can look at a tree, however historic.

‘I need to buy souvenirs,’ says Madam.

She is determined to visit every gift shop in Kos. I don’t know how many there are. I lose count somewhere in the mid twenties. We walk up through the old town to see more gift shops and stop at St. Paraskevi’s Church. The church is now closed after extensive damage from an earthquake in 2017. It doesn’t look too bad from the front but when I walk round to the back, massive cracks make it looked like it is in imminent danger of collapse. A new small shrine, not much larger than a telephone box is opposite the entrance. Here, the faithful can pray and light candles as well as asking God why the church walls are beyond repair while the residential buildings nearby are undamaged. In the interest of religious equality, the nearby minaret of the old Defterdar Mosque was also toppled during the earthquake.

Madam is finally stocked up on essential Christmas ornaments and a selection of expensive souvenirs to stick in a box in the bottom of the cupboard so we head to the Western Archeological Site.

A major earthquake in 1933 unearthed a number of sites, mostly by destroying the buildings above. Archaeologists carried out extensive excavations in the years leading up to the war. Most are the remains of Roman buildings, in turn built on the ruins of Hellenistic houses, from the third century. We walked along a paved road which runs through the western site. Some of the stones were worn from iron cartwheels. Mosaic floors are intact in some of the houses. We took a lot of photographs and spent a long time admiring the mosaics. Madam bent down to touch a corner.

‘I’ve touched a Roman mosaic! A real Roman mosaic!’ says Madam excitedly as we leave the site.

It is hot in Kos town. It isn’t much above thirty degrees but there is no breeze and the narrow lanes are packed with tourists and there is little shade. In spite of drinking a litre of water I start to feel unwell by 1pm, so we have a light lunch of dolmades and chips (you have to maintain some standards, even in foreign parts) in the old town and head towards the bus stop. We get there as the bus back to the hotel pulls out.  

‘This seems to be a habit,’ I tell Madam.

I look at the timetable and the next bus is another thirty minutes at 3pm. ‘I’ll get tickets’ says Madam.

She comes back and tells me ‘the next bus is in forty-five minutes at 3:15. The woman in the ticket office insists it isn’t until then.’

I looked at the timetable again. ‘It definitely says 3pm,’ I told her.

‘No 3:15,’ she insists.

We find a somewhat shady spot and sit down to wait.

‘There’s Miss Thong Bikini’ says Madam, pointing with her head.

‘Where?’ I say, looking around.

‘Right there, over by the ticket office.’

‘Oh right, I didn’t recognise her with her clothes on.’

I’ve always wanted to say that, I thought.

The bus pulls in a few minutes before 3pm. ‘It’s supposed to be 3:15!’ said Madam.

‘We are in Greece,’ I say.

The bus pulls out, right on time at 3pm, and leaves Miss Thong Bikini standing at the bus stop looking confused.

‘A real Roman mosaic!’ says Madam as the bus drops us off at the front of the hotel.

It is Saturday morning and I walk down to the beach and around the curve of the bay. I walk past the hotels and the beach club for a mile or so, keeping a wary eye of for the thousands of migrants flooding across from Turkey. I don’t see any. Surely the tabloid press can’t be lying to us? Further along the beach there are steps up to the main road and I trudge up the long hill back to the hotel. There is a line of flags flapping outside in the wind. An EU flag at the end, followed by those from Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Spain and several other European countries. The UK flag is conspicuous by its absence. With Britain due to leave the EU at the end of October we are already written out of the European community.

It is windy today. White caps top the waves. Sun beds are blowing into the pool, hats and towels are being chased into the distance. Bikini tops are blown off with a twang and disappear into the sea. Even shoes are sliding across the ground as though propelled by invisible feet. I may have made up the bit about bikini tops but we are struggling to keep our cocktails from sliding across the table which is about as bad as things get here.

I try to persuade Madam to come and sit on the beach. It is sheltered from the wind and much quieter with only the relaxing sound of the waves hitting the shingle. She tells me she is quite happy by the pool.

The waitresses have gotten friendlier as they start to recognise us. One in the main bar, Gina, stops to chat and always smiles when she sees us. Only one waitress, the one by the pool has maintained a hostile demeanour and is reluctant to take any orders. Madam smiles and says good morning and is ignored. She hasn’t been close enough for me to read her name so, in full sarcasm mode, we call her Miss Congeniality.

I half open one eye. Madam is already up and looking at her iPad.

‘What time is it? I ask.

‘It’s gone seven!’ she says as she pulls open the curtains.

‘Any idea what day it is?’ I ask.

‘It’s a funday!’ she replies.

My brain isn’t awake yet and I try to process this information.

I open both eyes and try to sit up. ‘But every day is a funday. You get to sit by the pool and drink cocktails all day, then last night there was belly dancing in the bar and tonight is a cabaret…’

‘Not funday! I said SUNDAY!’

‘What are you going to do today? I ask.

‘Sunbathe by the pool of course.’ She looks at me as though it is a stupid question.

‘I guess I will go for a walk along the beach then.’

‘The beach?’ she asks suspiciously, ‘what’s on the beach that’s so interesting?’

‘Stones, volcanic sand, the sea and stuff.’

‘Stuff?’

‘Sun beds, a bar and a boardwalk…’ I couldn’t think of anything else. I just like walking by the sea with the sound of the waves.

‘Sun beds and a bar? I’ll come with you.’ she replies.

We end up walking a long way along the beach, clambering over rocks and dodging incoming waves, until we find a steep path back up the hill. We hadn’t intended to walk so far so didn’t bring water or put on sunblock. My watch, which usually underestimates, tells me I had climbed the equivalent of seventeen floors and walked two miles. My knees agree. In spite of keeping a constant lookout we don’t see any of the horde of migrants flooding into the island.

We spend the rest of the day sitting by the pool, but I don’t need to tell you that, do I?

A line of sparrows sit on the railing and watch us eat. We are having dinner in the al-la-carte restaurant overlooking the pool and sea. It is sunset and we are watching the sky glow red, then darken and the constellations come out star by star.

‘Have you seen any seagulls here?’ I ask Madam.

‘Not one,’ she replies.

We have become so used to the constant piercing cry of seagulls at home that they become background noise. We only notice them when they are especially aggressive or swoop down to steal our food. If we eat outside we have to cover food with both hands. Leave a plate unattended and it is covered in gulls within seconds. I always tell Madam that if we lived in Texas I would be able to shoot them. ‘No you wouldn’t’ she insists, but I’m not convinced. You can shoot anything in Texas, even road signs. I’m going to buy a gun if we move there, just in case.

I don’t begrudge the sparrows a few crumbs and have no desire to shoot them unlike the greedy and voracious seagulls.

We normally eat in the buffet restaurant. The food there is good without being exceptional. We discovered the other day that we could eat in the a-la-carte restaurant for no extra charge and be waited on at the table.

George is our waiter and is assisted by the beautiful Maria, whose name tag informed me that she is an assistant waitress. I imagine that to be only a minor step above housekeeper in the hospitality pecking order. Maybe she is employed for her heart-melting smile rather than her ability to balance laden plates.

George turns out to be the friendliest waiter here and comes to chat with us between every course. Before long he and Madam have exchanged life stories and are about to exchange addresses for Christmas cards when he asks ‘what’s the best dessert in Texas?’

‘Banana pudding!’ we both say simultaneously.

Before long, Madam has given him the recipe and said that if she can find the ingredients in Kos she will come into the kitchen and make it.  

The food turned out to be fine, much the same standard as the main buffet restaurant. It was nice being waited on but it was a bit like being on a production line. We had to order all three courses at the start and each one came out as we put our fork down on the last. We will stick with the buffet in future as all three courses was too much food at our age. Maria was pretty though – did I mention that?

The hotel has entertainment most evenings of varying quality. An elderly woman, the first drunk we have seen, decides to join in with the cabaret dancing. She is wearing a cheap pastiche of western wear and looks as though she has been ridden hard and put away wet, as the Texans might say. She staggers and swings her denim jacket around her head, cigarette in hand, and generally gets in the way of the professional dancers. 

Before we booked an all inclusive resort holiday I had visions of hordes of drunken Brits seeing the included alcohol as a challenge rather than an opportunity. I imagined young men in England football vests staggering unevenly, vomiting copiously, and falling into the pool to the cheers of onlookers. People are drinking cocktails, us included, but space three out over a day and we are hardly noticing the effects. Most of the guests are couples in their twenties more intent of sunbathing than drinking. Maybe the lager-louts are all in Ibiza or Sunny Beach.

‘What are we going to do today?’ I ask Madam.

‘Sit by the pool of course!’

‘We could sit on the beach. It’s lovely down there.’

‘The pool is closer. And the beach has stones.’

I spend most of the morning sheltering under the shade of an umbrella by the pool with Madam. Bikini clad young women are spread on the sun beds in front. ‘Nice scenery,’ I say to Madam absentmindedly.  

‘You mean the sea? It’s so blue,’ she replies.

‘Umm, yes, and the sailboats,’ I say.

We go into the main restaurant for a late lunch and immediately see George our friendly waiter from last night.

‘I was dreaming about making banana pudding last night!’ she tells him.

She turns to me and says ‘wasn’t it odd that I dreamed about banana pudding?’

‘I’m sure I dreamt that Maria the (assistant) waitress had slowly removed her clothes and was giving me a massage. Unfortunately I don’t remember it.’ I replied.

She didn’t look amused.

Kos cat

We are walking back from breakfast when Madam says ‘Do you think that cats say “I’m not really a people person to each other” ?’ 

There are a dozen or more stray cats that wander the hotel grounds. Signs dotted around request that guests only feed them the special dry food sold in the hotel shop. The hotel has a cat house with nearby donation box if you wish to leave money for their care. Most of the cats ignore us but a few look expectantly as though they might allow us to pet them.  

We step around a woman stroking a cat and making cooing noises. Another (cat, not woman) is drinking from the corner of the swimming pool. One little push I think as I walk behind it but I manage to resist. I am definitely a dog person.

The speedometer is reading 17 Kilometres per hour. I poke at various buttons and try to change it to MPH but it remains stubbornly stuck on Kilometres. I have travelled 0.7 of a Kilometre. My thighs are aching and my knees are creaking like they need a can of WD40. I am working on the theory that a few minutes on a stationary bike in the gym each day may strengthen my knees so I am putting it to the test.

The gym has four treadmills, three stationary bikes, some free weights and a few other machines whose purpose I cannot determine. I inspect them from all angles, up close and from a distance. They are all ropes and weights and pulleys. I tug tentatively on a few levers but nothing moves. They could be instruments of torture for all I know. They may turn the gym into a BDSM dungeon at night although they don’t mention it in the hotel guide. I will have Madam ask at the front desk.

I don’t want to overdo it on day one so I get off the bike and walk over the the free weights. I try to lift the 20Kg barbell. If I hold it by one end I can lift it off the stand. I move down the weights. I try the 15Kg, then the 12.5Kg. I settle on the 5Kg and practice a few curls. It hurts. There is a man who looks like he might live in a gym at the other end of the room. He is lifting 75Kg above his head. He looks at my weight and smirks. I put down my weight and head up to the library to see if they have any new books. That was a great workout I think as I head up the stairs.

The library has a small selection of paperbacks in a variety of languages and a large collection box for the island’s stray cats. People have left two ten Euro notes and about a hundred Euros in coins. I guess you have to be a cat person.

I walk down to check on Madam at the pool. There is a list of rules posted by the pool. One rule has a picture of a high heeled shoe with a crossed red line. Avoid swimming with your clothes it says. I keep well away from the edge of the pool even though I’m not wearing high heels.

Madam gives me instructions to bring her more water and complains again about Miss Congeniality. ‘She completely ignored me this morning! She gave everyone else a drinks menu but not me!’

‘We could sit on the beach. It’s lovely down there and the bar is only a few yards away.’ I tell Madam.

‘No, I’m fine by the pool. ‘Miss Congeniality could be a model you know.’ she says.

Madam thinks for a while, then adds ‘if she was taller and thinner.’

‘And a lot better looking,’ I offer.

‘Precisely!  She could be a model.’

I walk up to the the bar area in the main building and order a cappuccino. The waitress says hello and gives me a big smile. Maybe it’s Madam they don’t like but I’m not telling her my theory. You tell her if you like. The waitress brings my coffee and I lean back in my chair. I look out over the pool and wonder what it would cost to stay another week.

I open the sliding glass door and walk out onto the balcony.  It rained overnight and the sky is filled with dark clouds. A maid is mopping rain puddles from the deck around the pool. She stops to pull on a cardigan and continues mopping. The maintenance man is sweeping the bottom of the pool with a long broom. I hear three shotgun blasts from the hills above the hotel. A flock of birds wheel into the sky, presumably three less in number.  

We walk up the steps to the buffet restaurant for breakfast and find a table near the window. A sparrow watches me from the back of a nearby chair. He tilts his head and chirps ‘crumbs? crumbs? pretty please? crumbs?’

Madam comes back from the buffet with a laden plate. ‘You’re having pork sausages? I ask.

‘I thought I would try them, they are very small.’ she says.

‘Size isn’t everything’ I say.  

‘So you keep telling me,’ she replies as she stabs a sausage with her fork. 

The sparrow flaps his wings and flies away.

Dark clouds are already disappearing to the east as we leave the restaurant. Fluffy white clouds from the west have appeared on the horizon.

After breakfast, I head to the gym for another session on the exercise bike. I get up to 19KPH and manage 1.1 Kilometres. I can feel my right knee clicking with every turn of the pedals and it hurts. Two days in the gym should be plenty. No need to do it again. I step on the weighing scale on my way out of the gym. It tells me I have gained two kilograms in a week. I stop in at the hotel reception to report the faulty weighing scale.

I’ve only been sitting in the bar area for a couple of minutes when the waitress comes up to me and smiles, ‘Cappuccino?’ she asks.

I am starting to feel like a regular. 

Many people who have known me for months fail to recognise me, never mind remembering what I drank yesterday. Most mornings Madam looks at me as though she can’t quite place me.

The waitress brings my coffee with another smile. I manage to see her name tag this time. Her name is Georgia.

The rain clears in the afternoon so Madam announces that she is going to go and sit by the pool.

‘I bet the beach isn’t busy,’ I say, ‘it’s lovely with the sound of the waves and lots of people go swimming.’

‘The pool is closer, it might get cloudy again,’ she says.

kos

‘Is it Wednesday or Thursday today?’ asks Madam.

I think for a minute. ‘Who was dancing last night?’ I ask.

‘The tall graceful woman and the two men.’

‘Then it must be Thursday.’

I sit out on the balcony while Madam gets ready to go to breakfast.

A young woman is by the pool running through several poses while her boyfriend takes photographs. She lays on the edge of the pool, one hand behind her head, a leg gracefully bent. She then sits on the wall of the infinity pool and gazes wistfully over the sea. She jumps in the pool and tries to get the perfect amount of water dripping from her body as she pulls herself out.  He struggles to follow her commands. ‘No! My hair can’t be over my face! Take it again! I didn’t spend two hours putting on makeup for nothing! I need a thousand likes on this!’

I’m glad I missed out on being in the Instagram Generation, having to pretend I have the perfect lifestyle, posting selfies every five minutes. Mind you, she probably has half a million followers and gets free trips and sponsorship deals so I guess it isn’t all bad. Makes my 965 followers look a bit sad. I will start posting selfies instead of boring travel pictures.  I can have Madam take pictures of my bronzed and muscular torso by the pool. I may have to work up from the 5Kg weights in the gym and go out in the sun first.

We catch the bus into Kos town for a change of scenery. There is a reconstruction of a Roman villa on the edge of the town that I hope will interest Madam. The bus starts from the hotel so we find a seat with plenty of legroom.  As we get closer to the town the bus gets more and more crowded until there is standing room only.  The driver eventually stops more people from boarding. The next bus is 45 minutes away and he leaves people standing at the bus stops. I wonder if they have considered running more buses.

We walk around the harbour looking at the millionaire’s yachts and gin palaces. One massive catamaran is flying the Australian flag. The couple on board are washing down the decks. ‘You’re a long we from home,’ says Madam as we pass.

‘We are! But we spend eight months here and the go back to Australia for three months.’

‘That must be wonderful,’ says Madam.

I wonder what they do for the other month.

Madam turns to me and says ‘we should do that. Buy a yacht and sail around the Mediterranean.’

Does she have a spare million pounds she hasn’t told me about? 

We walk to the end of the harbour and out to the ferry port and back towards the town. The sun is shining and the waterfront thongs with people. Touts are thrusting leaflets towards us offering boat trips. Fishing boats have brought in their meagre catch and a woman is cleaning fish by the side of the harbour.

It is said that elephants can sense water up to twelve miles away. Dogs a mere mile away. In fact, most animals can detect the smell of water, it is only humans that lack this ability. Nature has not neglected us however – it has given women the skill to detect gift and jewellery shops hundreds of yards distant.

‘Look!’ says Madam, ‘More shops! We haven’t seen those!’

She is pulled by an invisible force towards them.

‘I still need olive oil and honey,’ she tells me.

I think I am in for a fun night ahead until she asks the shop assistant which oil is the best for salad dressing.

We get back to the hotel in time for a late lunch then Madam gets ready to lie by the pool. There is only a couple of sun beds left, both of them in full sun and close to the pool bar. They are playing loud music so I finally persuade Madam to sit on the beach.  She looks dubious but wades into the sea.

‘This is wonderful! It’s so much warmer than the pool! I can see the bottom! There are fish! I’m going to stay right here! I’m never leaving the water! Why didn’t you tell me about the beach earlier?’ she says.

I bite my tongue and say, ‘Sorry my sweet, I guess I forgot to mention it.’

‘Is it too early to book another trip?’ is her only reply.

It is Friday and we only have four more days left in Kos. Madam heads to the beach soon after nine o’clock.

‘Come down to the beach and put sun lotion on my back,’ she says as she opens the the room door, tucking a towel under her arm. She closes the door behind her before I have time to reply.

I do as instructed then head up to the main building and sit with my iPad. Georgia brings me a cappuccino without me asking. 

I sit drinking coffee and watching a long line of people dragging heavy suitcases up the steps, ready to check out.

When we arrived at the hotel the porter loaded our suitcases onto a golf cart and drove us to our room. He lifted the heavy suitcases with a grunt. Madam doesn’t believe in travelling light. He took them into the room and made sure everything was to our satisfaction. I wasn’t looking forward to a long climb up sixty steps bumping cases from step to step. 

I collect Madam from the beach and we head up the long climb to lunch. A couple lying by the pool are reading. He is reading “Retail Banking”, her book is “How to be Happy.”

‘We are in Greece! How can she not be happy!’ exclaims Madam.

I suspect that Madam is still harbouring a Shirley Valentine fantasy. I half expect to turn around at the airport check-in to find her missing, off in search of a Tom Conti look-a-like and a trip on his boat.

There is a splash of green and silver as a fish jumps from the water grabbing at a crumb floating on the surface. I am standing in two feet of water and breaking up a piece of stale pitta bread . There are dozens of fish swirling around my legs. They are too shy to take food from my hand but there is a mad rush as soon as I lift my hand above the water.

We had seen a woman feeding fish yesterday evening and saw them thronging and jumping out of the water. And we thought all those people were only standing in the sea for a wee.

It is Saturday morning and I sit in the bar drinking my habitual cappuccino.

An Irishman in a Guinness t-shirt nearby is discussing astronomy with a colleague. I strain my ears but can only catch a few words. It is something about integration with limits and determining star positions from planetary orbits. The hills of Kos get several mentions on the internets as a great place for a spot of stargazing away from the light pollution of modern cities. I will see if I can get Madam to walk up the nearby hill before bed.

A French couple to my left are arguing. The only word I recognise is ‘fromage.’ They say it several times, more stridently each time. Only the French could argue about cheese.

We go into lunch and Madam asks George about the species of fish we are feeding. He says something starting with “S” then fourteen syllables later ends with an “A”. Our mouths sag open and we both look at him. He smiles and says ‘I only know the Greek name, but the fish expert is here.’

He finds a picture on his phone and takes it to a nearby table where the head maintenance man is having lunch. He comes back and says “Sarpa.” The Google tells me that Sarpa Salpa is a variety of sea bream that reportedly causes hallucinations similar to LSD. It is known as “the fish that makes dreams” in Arabic. In certain seasons, the fish eats an algae that render their flesh hallucinogenic. The fish round here seem to exist on a diet exclusively of left overs, so I suspect eating them would be less interesting.

‘I’m exhausted,’ says Madam as we sit down to eat, ‘I have been lying in the sun all morning and swum in the sea twice. I read several pages of my book. I even had to walk along to the bar to get a cocktail!’

‘Do you need a nap? I ask her.

‘No, I will just lie in the sun this afternoon.’

‘Make sure you don’t over do it,’ I say.

I join her on the beach for the afternoon and manage to get a few fish to take bread directly from my hand. The secret is to hold it just below the surface of the water with your hand above the surface. I spend ages just watching them darting around searching for missed crumbs. This is the most fun I have had on holiday. I may get some goldfish when we get home.

‘This is our last day in Greece,’ I tell Madam.

‘There’s tomorrow morning. We don’t check out until noon. The beach until 11:55, back to the room by 11:57, a quick shower and pack by 11:59. Check out at 11:59 and 59 seconds. We will be a whole second early.’

‘Don’t forget we have to drag our suitcases up several flights of steps.’

‘We will be fine,’ she tells me, ‘I’m off to the beach.’

 

Madam is obviously smarter than the many guests dragging their suitcases up several flights of steps and calls the front desk to ask them to send a golf cart.  

‘Be there in five minutes,’ was their quick reply.

Right on time the porter came, loaded the two 20 kilo suitcases onto the cart with a smile and drove us and the cases up to reception.

It was hard to fault the staff in the resort. Nothing seemed too much trouble and, apart from a couple of exceptions, the staff were warm and friendly. Madam even gained a couple of new Facebook friends from the staff here. None of them wanted to be my friend but my secret special power is my semi-invisibility so they may not have noticed me.

The pool and beach bar staff had received special training that prevents them from smiling even under extreme provocation but they still served us without complaint. They just didn’t look happy about it. We later found that the liberal application of a handful of small coins slightly improved their demeanour. But only a little.  

I would be happy to stay there again and we were sad to leave. There were handshakes and hugs when we told people we were leaving and you don’t get that in a Premier Inn.

Kos airport, on the other hand, was awful. Hot and crowded with only enough seats for a quarter of the people waiting.  Our flight was delayed and water had been discarded before going through security. Our flight was delayed by almost an hour and we had over two hours to stand and wait in the heat. I joined the line at the food concession. A bottle of coke was ambitiously priced at 4.50 Euros but I could not see a price on the water. I had visions of having to upturn and shake out my wallet for two bottles. They were only 75 cents each which may be the best bargain I have had at any airport

‘It’s sad that our last memory of Kos is the airport,’ says Madam, ‘but the sea was so blue.’

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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

Seville

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‘We need to go to flamenco dancing’ said Madam.

I was lying in my recliner and had fallen asleep.  I was glad she woke me as I was worried I was going to have that nightmare again.  The one where I’m chased by Scarlett Johansson and, just as she catches me, she turns into Jacob Rees-Mogg.   I woke up screaming the last time.

‘Flamenco, my sweet?  I don’t think it is that easy to learn.’ I replied.

‘Learn?’, she said, ‘I just need to see it!  Where are the best dancers?’

‘Umm, Spain I guess.  I think maybe Seville.’

‘Right then, we’ll go tomorrow.  Book some tickets.’

Lonely Planet rated Seville the best place to visit in 2018.  The city is known for its beautiful Moorish architecture, flamenco dancing, monuments and artistic heritage.  Lonely Planet also rated Detroit as number two, so I guess their ratings may not be to everybody’s taste.

We were staying at a “boutique” hotel.  The entrance was on a narrow street, one car wide. The taxi driver dropped us off and stood, blocking the road and insisted on explaining at length where the best bars and tapas were and which direction for the cathedral and old town.  It must have been the one Euro tip I gave him.

We checked in and the receptionist offered us a glass of Cava and insisted on pulling out a map and pointing out all the tourist sites and best areas.  By the time she had finished circling all the attractions the map was covered in pen.  There was going to be a lot to see.

While Madam unpacked, dismantled the bed to check on the condition of the mattress, counted the pillows, tested the lights, opened and closed every drawer and complained that the air conditioner wouldn’t go below 16C, I looked in the bathroom.

They had supplied the usual soaps and shampoos but there was also a shaving kit,  two toothbrushes, a shower cap and a comb.  ‘So that is what makes a boutique hotel’ I thought.  I am always pleased beyond the modest cost of these items when I find them in a hotel bathroom.  Like everybody else, we empty all of them into a suitcase before we leave.  I have a big bag of them somewhere in the bathroom at home.  Does anybody have a use for thirty-nine shower caps?

I returned to the bedroom to find Madam with her bottom in the air and her head under the bed.

‘Are you okay my sweet?’ I asked her.

‘Mmmpphh mmm  phffmmm’ she replied.

I knelt down and joined her under the bed.

‘I was checking for dead bodies,’ she repeated.

‘No, my sweet, this is a boutique hotel.  Neither bodies nor dust will you find.  They even have a pillow menu.’

‘A what?  A pillow menu?’ she asked.

And it is true.  They did.  

There was a selection of seven different pillows including Fibre –  a medium strength pillow for those who sleep face up or change their sleeping position frequently; Active – a soft pillow for those who don’t fidget all night and an Active Cervical – a soft anatomic pillow.

After much study we decided that whatever three pillows each they had left on the bed would be fine.

By the time Madam had rearranged the room to her satisfaction it was a respectable time to start drinking so we walked around the corner to the tapas bar recommended by the taxi driver.  I think it may have been owned by his brother-in-law.

We ordered a few tapas and some Sangria.

‘How much is the Sangria?’ asked Madam.

‘€2.50’ I replied.

‘This could be dangerous,’ she said as she drained her glass and held it up to the waiter for another.

She was halfway though her second glass when she said ‘Look! Across the square!  A Choclateria!  They have Churros!’

‘They look closed.’ I said but she had already bounded across the square and was resting her chin on the counter and pulling on the shutters.

They eventually opened and Madam asked the price.  

‘Two Euros for the Churros, and another two for chocolate sauce.’ said the server, ‘they are really good! We will need a few minutes to heat up the oil.’

She seemed almost as excited as Madam.

Madam looked at me and said ‘Will one serving be enough?  Do you want any?’

I was never a big fan of them and said ‘I may have one of yours if you don’t want them all.’

She thought for a moment and said ‘I’ll start with one serving then.’  She gave me a warning look and continued ‘but I may get another one later.’

A Churro, for those of you disadvantaged by culture or geography, is a fried-dough pastry usually served with a rich chocolate dipping sauce. They made by piping dough from a pastry bag into hot oil.  Hot, greasy and remarkably filling.  The sort of food you can still taste the next day. They are traditional in Spain and Portugal but can be found throughout the world.

One Churro turned out to be massive, at least six feet long, conveniently cut into six inch lengths with a pair of scissors. 

She avidly tucked into them, a look of ecstasy on her face.  

‘These are so good!’ she said, ‘I may have to get more!’

She continued dipping them in the chocolate sauce and savouring every bite, a dreamy look on her face. 

Halfway through she finally slowed down and said ‘you have some.’  

I had a couple which was enough for me.

‘Have more,’ she said.

I gave a Churro flavoured burp and said ‘No, I’m done.’

She dutifully ate a few more and stopped, staring at the last two sections.

‘My belly hurts.’ she said, ‘please have one more.’

I ate another and we both looked at the last one.

‘My belly really hurts.’ she said.

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The next morning, we walked to the cathedral through narrow winding streets and around the old Jewish quarter.  Madam stopped every few yards to photograph the buildings and streets.  

‘I feel like I’m wearing out the word wow,’ she said, ‘everything is so… wow.’

The architecture was indeed stunning, the cathedral is the largest Gothic building in the world, the narrow lanes and passages all around are lined with moorish influenced architecture, bars and appealing restaurants.  Most streets were lined with orange trees, heavy with ripening fruit.  Bubbling fountains in squares were surrounded by tiled seats under shading trees.

I’ve been to Spain many times but the last time was fourteen years ago.  Walking around Seville, I realised how much I missed Spain. The people, the architecture, the way of life.  I’ve missed it a lot.  I could live here, I thought.  Then I remembered Brexit had screwed up that opportunity and was sad.

Madam felt an invisible pull as we passed every gift and souvenir shop and there were dozens of them.  I generally waited outside.  She came out of one shop waving a couple of Christmas ornaments.  ‘Look!  They look like they are ceramic but are made of plastic!  Only seven Euros!’

I sighed and wondered if I needed to get more cash.

She rushed into another shop and bought a ceramic plate that looked like it was made of plastic for €14.

We walked on down to the river.  They had a group of flamenco dancers in an open area next to the river.  I never quite got flamenco.  I have a memory of sitting through what seemed to be several hours of a dancing during a visit to Spain with my parents when I was twelve years old.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in my life.  It’s like it is the same dance that goes on forever.  All twirling skirts and waving fans. 

I read in one on the tourist guides that you get a shiver down your spine when you are watching and start to understand flamenco.  As we stood in the square I did feel a shiver but I think it was the cold.  We had expected warmer weather in southern Spain although it was December.  It wasn’t exactly cold but it was rare if we were outside without a coat.

Madam was getting hungry so we headed to the Alameda Hercules Plaza around the corner from the hotel.  It was an attractive square with a Christmas market in the centre and restaurants and bars on either side.  We walked the length of both sides but every place was packed.  Not a table to be had.  We ended up heading down a side street and found a table at the back of a seedy looking locals bar.

The waiter handed us a menu entirely in Spanish.  Normally we can scan it with the translate app on a phone and get a rough translation but this was in a weird italic script that our phone couldn’t decipher.

‘You listened to a Spanish language tape a few years ago.  Order something!’ said Madam.

‘I’ve no idea what anything is’ I said, I only listened to the first Spanish language tape.  I can ask for directions to a hotel and get our laundry done.  I think food was on the second tape’.

Madam was getting hungry grumpy by this time.  ‘I don’t care, just choose something!’ she snapped.

‘No, really, you choose, you lived near Mexico. You must have picked up some Spanish in the school playground.’ I said, handing her the menu.

‘I only learned the swear words. Just try and remember something from your tape,’ she said as she handed back the menu.

The waiter stood expectantly, his pencil poised.

I peered at the menu trying to work out how to avoid a meal of pigs testicles or sheep’s eyeballs.

The waiter started tapping his pencil impatiently.

I cleared my throat and said in my best Spanish ‘Por favor déjame tener el nombre de una buena tintorería.’

‘Que?’ said the waiter.

‘What did you order? said Madam.

‘Umm, I asked him for the name of a good dry cleaner.  I was the only phrase I could remember’ I replied.

Madam sighed and looked at the waiter who looked back and repeated ‘que?’

She snatched the menu away and pointed to some random items on the menu.  The waiter shrugged and pointed at something else.  Madam shrugged and said ‘No carne.’

‘What did you order?’ I asked.

‘No idea,’ she said, ‘it may well have been one of everything. But no meat… I think.’

We ended up with rice and mushroom starter and swordfish and cold potatoes main course.  Madam seemed happy and I had two large beers so it turned out well in the end.

We had noticed a display of unlit Christmas lights near the cathedral so headed there as it started to get dark.  What we had not realised was that it was the day of the official opening and everybody in the city had turned out.  It was packed.  We waited amongst the crowds for thirty minutes, more people were flooding into the square every minute.  Eventually the lights came on and the crowd turned into a sea of arms waving phones.  The lights were okay but I’m not sure they were worth the wait and fighting the crowds. 

We managed to find an ice cream shop not far from the lights and sat on the step of one of the cathedral buildings eating ice cream and watching the strolling couples and families.

‘I like Seville,’ said Madam.

‘I like it too,’ I replied.

‘No, I REALLY like it,’ she insisted.

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We wandered, somewhat aimlessly through the old town and down towards the river.   When a feast for the eyes is around every corner, what does it matter which direction you head?

We found, by accident, the delightful Jardine de Murillo (Gardens of Murillo).  Giant magnolia trees towered over fountains, ceramic tiled benches and, of course, the ubiquitous orange trees.  In the gardens is a 23 metre (75 feet) high monument to Christopher Columbus, known as Christobel Colon in Spanish. Two tall columns topped off with a lion with a claw on a globe, symbolising the Spanish empire. In the middle of the two columns is a caravel inscribed with the names of Isabella and Ferdinand, the sponsors of the journey to America.  On the pedestal are a portrait of Columbus and the coat of arms of the king.

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Every guide about Seville told us to get a combined ticket for both the cathedral and Iglesia de El Salvador (Church of the Saviour) at the latter to avoid queues at the cathedral.  We bought our ticket and walked into the church and both stopped dead.

‘Wow’ I said.

‘You too,’ said Madam.

‘Wow,’ I repeated.

I’ve been to a lot of churches and cathedrals around Europe but this one was stunning.  Words to describe it escape me so you will just have to look at the pictures in my Seville Photography  post.  In fact, the photographs don’t really do it justice, so you should just go there yourself.

We walked a couple of blocks to the entrance of Seville Cathedral. A beggar on crutches stood by the door, hand outstretched.

The cathedral was much larger  – it is the largest gothic cathedral in the world- but somehow not as impressive as Iglesias de El Salvador. Much that is worth looking at is behind heavy iron bars and seemed shabby and neglected.  It was like it needed somebody with a scrubbing brush and a bucket of soapy water.   Areas were roped off.  Priceless paintings lined the walls but had to be viewed from twenty or thirty yards away. The gold and silver was tarnished.  A film of dust lay over the displays.  

I couldn’t help but wonder if they should take a Euro or two from the entrance price and spend it on a few cleaners. Perhaps I am being unfair and they are about to embark on a massive restoration project and restore it to its former glory. I hope so.

One of the major attractions in the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. His tomb is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain.  It was surrounded by visitors posing for selfies, many of them American, for obvious reasons.

Columbus seems to have travelled further in death than in life. Originally interred in Valladolid Spain in 1506, his remains were later moved to Seville on the orders of his brother. In 1542 they were again moved to the Dominican Republic. In 1795, they resumed their journey, this time to nearby Cuba. A hundred year rest was followed by their final journey back to Seville. Probably.  I say probably because in 1877 a box was discovered in the Dominican Republic inscribed with the words “The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”  So, are his remains in Seville or in the Dominican Republic?  Nobody really knows.  Either way, it is an impressive and fitting monument.

Attached to the cathedral is the Giralda, a tower originally built as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville in the twelfth century.  A long winding ramp leads up to the top with views over the city.  These ramps were created with enough width and height to accommodate “beasts of burden, people, and the custodians,” according to one twelfth century chronicler.  Somebody involved in the design didn’t like the idea of climbing 35 levels on foot.  Unfortunately on foot was the only option available to us, so we trudged, along with dozens of other visitors, up the steep and winding slope stopping several times to admire the view.  And what a view it was.  The tower reaches 98 metres (320 feet) and Seville is almost flat so we could see the whole city laid out before us.

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Madam can never resist a royal palace so a visit to the Real Alcázar was on our agenda.  The Alcázar of Seville is a royal palace built for King Peter of Castile on the site of an Abbadid Muslim residential fortress destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville.  I should have found it more interesting or attractive judging by the glowing online reviews.  Perhaps it was my mood but it just seemed a mass of tiled rooms and courtyards.  They were nice enough but all seemed so similar.

The 60,000 square metres (almost 15 acres) of gardens, on the other hand, were spectacular and worth the price of admission (discounted for over 65s).  They are arranged in different sections and reflect various historical periods.  Each area is packed with plants and trees.  The ubiquitous orange trees of course, but also lemon pomegranate and palm trees.  I left Madam to explore the palace and spent most of my time happily wandering the gardens.

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 Just when you think Seville couldn’t possibly get any more beautiful, you come across the Plaza de Espana.  This massive building is Seville’s most impressive after the cathedral, for its sheer scale and grandeur. Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929 along with the pavilions around the building.  In front of the building is a 500-metre canal crossed by four bridges, reminiscent of Venice.

Flamenco dancing were performing by one of the bridges, musicians were singing on one side of the plaza, children were running, trying to catch giant bubbles blown near the fountain.  It was wonderful and I could have happily sat there all day.  There’s a slideshow of pictures on my Seville Photographs post.

All too soon, it was time to head home.  Our return flight uneventful.  Had it been a few hours later we would have been affected by the Gatwick chaos caused by some numpty flying drones over the airport.

I read the news about cancelled and diverted flights the following morning and said to Madam ‘That was lucky, we could have been diverted to Cardiff.’

She thought for a while and said ‘or Amsterdam.. or maybe still in Seville.’ 

She had a point.  Sometimes your glass really is half full.

It was a good trip.  The hotel was clean and comfortable, the staff friendly and efficient.  We ate a lot of tapas and drank some wine.  Seville was, in the words of Madam, “wow,“ or should I say ‘WOW!’  Amazing architecture, friendly locals, good inexpensive food and wine. You should go there immediately.

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Budapest Travel Blog

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‘We are going hungry,’ said Madam. 

I was a little confused by this as we had just had dinner.

‘Hungry, my sweet?’ I queried.

Were we going on a diet?  Some weeks ago she suggested joining a gym and eating healthier food but I pretended not to hear and she hadn’t mentioned it since.  I had a sudden disturbing vision of getting half a grapefruit for breakfast and a bowl of weak cabbage soup for dinner.  

She reads a lot of magazines for women of a certain age and they invariably have glossy pictures of the latest fad diet together with svelte models promoting its benefits. 

Was it going to be Dukan or Atkins?  Paleo or Ketogenic?  None of them seemed appealing.

Madam sighed and looked at me.  ‘HUN GAA RY!’ she snapped.

‘Hungary?’  I asked by way of confirmation.

‘Yes, Hungary.  We are going to Budapest.  Go and start packing.’

I was very disappointed in Southern Rail.  We can normally rely on them to have cancellations or delays resulting in us being able to claim at least part of the fare back.  Leaves on the line.  A light rain shower.  Wind blowing in the wrong direction.  A mouse in the points.  Pheasants on the line.

We caught the 11am train for the hour-long journey assuming we would get there just before our 4:20 pm flight.  No such luck.  We rolled in right on time at 11:56, so no delay repay for this trip. 

Through security we still had almost three hours before the flight.  We bought a sandwich and walked around the overpriced shops.   A group of a dozen bikers clad in all leather were wandering the airport.  ‘They will look silly on the bus in Budapest’ I thought.

A Harry Potter store was opening soon.  Safety helmet wearing workers were furiously wielding hammers and saws.  I was tempted to stick my head in and ask why they weren’t just using their wands but I resisted.  Madam would have been cross and they were bigger than me.

There used to be a problem with dishonest and unlicensed taxis in Budapest but the city has clamped down and now only one taxi company is permitted to pick up airport passengers.  They are required to use a meter and have fixed rates.  The procedure now is to check in with a kiosk with details of your destination and they give you a printed ticket with the destination and approximate fare.  A designated taxi then picks you up.  It’s a good system that other airports could use.  Our metered fare was less than the estimate.

On the road into Budapest we passed several soviet era grey concrete apartment blocks interspersed with lots of international stores.  McDonald’s, H&M, Tesco, Burger King, Aldi and Lidl lined the main road.

A blast of hot air hit us as we entered the hotel room.  Madam immediately rushed to the air conditioning controller and turned it down to 12C.  ‘It won’t go any lower’ she snapped, ‘it isn’t blowing cold air!’

I opened the window to let in some cool air.

Madam checked with receptionist who told her that it wasn’t air conditioning season.  Now it was heating season.  I know it was November but it was still 20C outside and the hotel heating seemed to be turned to maximum.  A thermometer in the lift told us it was 27C.

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Breakfast in the hotel was buffet style with labels of everything solely in English. If you were a non English speaker, you had to lift the lids to find out what was in the warming pans.  There were several nationalities in the hotel, I heard French, Spanish and German being spoken but everybody communicated in English.  

The signs throughout the hotel were all in English.  I guess we English speakers got lucky in the language lottery when ours became the de-facto second language of the world.  It could just as easily have been French given the shifting winds of history.  Sacré bleu to that.

The hotel had one of those automatic coffee machines where you just put your cup under a spout and press a button.  I was waiting for it to dispense a cappuccino when I overheard the American woman at the machine next to me say to her husband in a loud and strident voice, ‘where’s the rest of it?  Where’s my coffee?’

He had a hangdog expression that told me he knew he was going to get the blame for everything anyway and just accepted his lot.  His mouth opened to form words but none had time to escape.

‘Mock… mack.. macchiato.. what’s that?  She snapped.

Her husband started to open his mouth but gave up halfway and he just shrugged and looked at the floor.

Is macchiato European for a really small coffee?’ she asked.

We were out early, keen to explore the city.  The streets were almost empty.  There was still an early morning chill in the air. 

‘What are we planning on doing in Budapest?’ I asked Madam.

She looked confused and said ‘No idea.  My friend said it was really nice so I booked tickets.’

‘Did she say what was worth seeing here? Any museums, historic buildings, art galleries?’ I asked.

‘No, I don’t think so. She just went to the dentist.’ she replied.

‘The dentist?’ I asked thinking I must have misheard.

‘Yes, the dentist.  It was cheaper here than in England.’

I could see that this line of questioning wasn’t going to be productive vis-a-vis sightseeing plans so we asked the Google.  

‘One of the top attractions is the Terror Museum.  They say it’s really grim so you should go to the Pinball Museum afterwards,’ said Madam.

That sounded interesting.  A hundred and thirty pinball machines and play on them for as long as you like.  No money needed.   I looked at their website.  It was closed for a special event over the weekend and didn’t reopen until 4pm next Wednesday, five minutes before our plane was scheduled to leave.

‘Closed,’ I told Madam, ‘anything else?’

‘Well, there’s the Parliament Building, some bridges and ummm, stuff…’ she said.

We don’t normally bother with the ubiquitous open top tour buses when we visit a new place but we were clueless as to navigation and what was worth seeing so we made an exception and bought two three-day passes.

We sat on bus for the complete city tour, passing Heroes’ Square, several Danube bridges, the Basilica and the Parliament building.  We passed Freedom Square which had both a Soviet Monument honouring those in the Red Army who died liberating the city in 1945, and a statue of Ronald Reagan.  Make what you will of that.

We got off the bus at Great Market Hall.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a larger indoor market.  I didn’t attempt to count the number of stalls but there must have been at least thirty different greengrocers as well as butchers, fish stalls, wine merchants and an alarming number of stalls just selling paprika.  The ground floor was firmly aimed at local residents but the first floor catered for the tourist market.  Every stall had the same selection of Hungarian dolls, lace shawls and fridge ornaments.  

The narrow gap between the stalls on the first floor was packed with tourists.  There was hardly room to move.  Madam immediately plunged into the crowd and shouted ‘Christmas ornaments!  I can get Christmas ornaments!’

I quickly lost sight her amongst the crowds and, since I had no need of any tourist tat, I headed back down the stairs.  Madam followed a minute later complaining she couldn’t get near the ornaments for American tourists.

We stopped in at the cafe on the square opposite the market.  It was sunny and mild and the outside tables were packed, waiters dashing between them with trays held at shoulder height.  I only wanted a cup of coffee but Madam saw some traditional Hungarian Dobos torte layered cake being delivered to a nearby table so we had to have cake. It was a very sweet layered cake with a hard caramel top. I later learned that it was supposed to be a brittle top but ours seemed to be cast in sheet metal.

I had been to the dentist just  the previous day with a chipped tooth and was worried about causing further damage so bit tentatively into the caramel, then a little harder.  The faintest impression of a tooth was left but it remained stubbornly intact.  I carefully ran my tongue over my teeth to check for damage.

Just as I was examining the caramel and pondering whether it would be impolite to offer it for road construction, Madam said ‘This cake is really nice but how do you cut the top?’

Not wishing to explain a damaged tooth to my dentist as being caused by cake I tried stabbing it with a fork, which left only the faintest impression of the tines.   

I looked at Madam and she looked at her cake and shrugged.  I stood up and leaned in with all my weight, pressing hard on the fork.  

Success!  

The caramel broke into two, one half flying across the table and knocking over the salt shaker. 

Shame about the broken plate but you can’t have everything.

Back on the bus we went up to Heroes’ Square. This is one of the major squares in Budapest, noted for its iconic statue complex featuring the Seven chieftains of the Magyars as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a vast and open pedestrian area busy with tourists taking selfies.  Madam took several.  Selfies, not tourists.  I’m sure you have seen them on Facebook by now.

Adjoining the square  is a massive outdoor ice rink.  It was empty but being prepared for winter. I later learned that the skating area is 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) and is the largest and one of the oldest in Europe.  

We were both tired by late afternoon, in spite of spending much of the time sitting on a bus so headed back to the hotel. We ended up walking back from the square and my knees were complaining and my feet aching as I collapsed on the bed.

 ‘Where are we going for dinner?’ asked Madam, ‘Make sure you pick somewhere nice.’  

Madam spends a lot of time focusing on food when we travel. 

I opened up a web browser on my iPad and typed in “Restaurants near me.”

The closest was an Italian restaurant called “Al Dente.”  The reviews were mixed, one complained that they were Italian and didn’t speak Hungarian, although the reviewer claimed to be from Texas.  Another review said the food came out too quickly.  I guess you can’t please everybody.

‘It needs to have good reviews’ she reminded me.

The internet apparently assumes I have a car when it lists  ‘near me’ results.  Their top choice was over two miles away.

‘There’s an Italian.  It has, um, reviews and it is just round the corner’  I told her.

Al Dente had only half a dozen tables and was empty.  It is usually a bad sign when the staff are looking forlornly out of the window for customers but I had the best pizza I’ve had outside of Italy.  Better than anything in England.  Madam had a carbonara pasta and practically licked the plate.  The bill with two drinks came to 5,600 forint (£15.30).  You should go and eat there immediately.  

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Madam was indisposed on Sunday morning so I found myself wandering the streets and squares of Budapest alone with no location in mind.  I walked down past the indoor market and across Freedom Bridge, stopping to watch the boats cruising along the river Danube, and over to Buda.

Budapest is a combination of two cities, Buda and Pest.  Well, technically it’s a combination of three but Obuda (old Buda) got lost in the combination in 1873.  It’s a good thing really as Budaobudapest would have sounded silly.

I walked for a long way along the river.  Cruise boats were crowded and a steady stream of joggers ran past me.  The road was noisy with the sound of several lanes of traffic.  A man was fishing from the river bank.  

I hopped on a tour bus which took me back over the river past the parliament building and grim Soviet era buildings which had housed anonymous communist government agencies.  The recorded guide on the bus explained how little freedom people had during communist times and how bleak their lives.

I needed to use the facilities and get a drink, so I got off the bus at the railway station and went into the nearby McDonald’s.  The sign told me the toilets were in the basement so I walked down the stairs and got my own taste of the Soviet era.  A grim woman of indeterminate age blocked my entrance.  Her grey hair was in a severe bun and she had the beginnings of a respectable moustache on her top lip.  Her eyebrows met in the middle and she had a frown that would curdle milk. She was probably an attractive woman once if you always fancied the female shot putters at the olympics.  She crossed her arms, looked at me  and said ‘Nyet!’  

She then banged her fist on the wall by the sign that said something along the lines that toilets were for customers only and I couldn’t proceed without showing my receipt.  She had obviously been to that special Soviet charm school where they teach you that anybody not Hungarian must be Russian.  

She repeated ‘Nyet! Nyet!’ For emphasis, banging the sign again with her fist.

I thought about arguing that I was a customer just hadn’t bought my drink yet but she had a heavy wooden mop in her hand and looked ready to use it in an offensive manner.

I certainly wasn’t going to outwitted by some angry harridan of the east and returned to the top of the stairs, grabbed a receipt from a discarded tray and returned to the babushka.  She snatched my receipt and studied it carefully.  She looked at me and again at the receipt, then at my stomach.  Had I spoken Hungarian or Russian she might have asked me how I had eaten two cheeseburgers and a chicken sandwich in less than a minute but she grudgingly let me pass.

I walked past studiously ignoring her tip saucer.  I was tempted to tell her not to mess with an Englishman but she still had her mop. 

To be fair, she was the only Hungarian who was even slightly unpleasant during our trip.  Most were friendly and happy to chat in English.  

I was concerned about Madam being unwell, so was back in the hotel by early afternoon.  We sat and read for a couple of hours until Madam decided she was hungry and sent me out to McDonald’s  for food.  

McDonald’s meals always leave me with a strange craving for chocolate, so I looked in the hotel mini bar.  Two sticks of Kit-Kat would cost me 300 forint (84p) and if I wanted a beer with that it was 1050 forint (£2.92).  A weedy little Kit-Kat wasn’t going to cut it so I walked a hundred yards to the corner shop and bought a family sized bar of fruit and nut chocolate and a litre of beer for 527 forint (£1.46).  Budapest was starting to grow on me.  A two day supply of two of the essential food groups for less than £1.50 can’t be bad.

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Madam was feeling better by the following morning so we resumed our exploration on the tour bus.  Our first stop was St Stephen’s Basilica.  It was named after Stephen, the first king of Hungary who died in 1038.  His supposed petrified right hand is housed in the reliquary and it’s not often you get to see a thousand year old dried up hand in a glass case.  We stood outside and took a few pictures but realised that, since we had lost a day on our three day bus pass, we would have to come back to see the inside tomorrow.

Back on the bus, our next stop was the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge spanning the river between Buda and Pest.  It was designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark and built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark and opened in 1849.  You just couldn’t keep those Victorian engineers down.  At the time of its construction, it was regarded as one of the modern world’s engineering wonders. Its decorations, made of cast iron, and its construction have elevated the Chain Bridge to become a major tourist attraction.

Just along the river from the Chain Bridge was The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial.  It was created to honour the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were forced to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. Many people had left pebbles, flowers and candles amongst the shoes.  

Over 437,000 Hungarian Jews were either killed or sent off to concentration camps between the fascist takeover in 1944 and liberation in 1945, most of them never to return.  Just before we came to Budapest a USA home-grown fascist had stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue shouting ‘All Jews must die’ and killed eleven worshipers in a twenty minute attack and this was on our mind as we looked at the shoes.

I sat for a long time looking at the memorial, watching the river flow past  and thinking about those who had lost their lives during that terrible period and those that continue to do so.  I wished I had bought a pebble or two from our own beach.  

We walked across the river on the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side of the river.  An open-sided shuttle bus took us to the top of Castle Hill with far-reaching views over the Danube and Pest.  

Castle Hill is now a World Heritage Site with eighteenth-century Baroque houses and cobblestone streets.  Cars are supposedly banned with only people who live and work here permitted to drive but both sides of most of the narrow streets were lined with parked cars.

Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion sit on top of the hill.  We took a lot of pictures of the views over the river and walked around the town.  There was a small open air market where Madam bought a Christmas ornament and two postcards.  It was a lovely area and we would have been happy to spend more time there but it was getting late and we needed to fit in a river cruise, so we headed back to the shuttle.

The shuttle was an open sided affair with no seat belts.  We were sitting in the back seat hanging on to a flimsy side rail.  We were bounced around in an alarming fashion and the shuttle drove down the steep and winding cobbled streets which added a certain frisson to the journey.  ‘I wonder what their safety record is’ said Madam.

‘Remind me to Google “Budapest Castle Shuttle Death Crash” when and if we get back’ was all I could reply, my knuckles white from gripping the rail.

A 75 minute river cruise was included in the price of our tour bus ticket and we made our way to the dock with a few minutes to spare.  There was an option to add on a pizza and beer for €20 a person.  During this trip I realised that anything priced in Euros instead of Forints was aimed at tourists and probably a bad deal.  It didn’t take a maths genius to work out you could buy three pizzas and two litres of beer for that money.

 It was a pleasant enough cruise, passing the Parliament building for photo opportunities from the top deck and back south on the river to an area away from the normal tourist attractions. We had seem most of the buildings from the river bank and they didn’t look a lot different. It was starting to get cold towards the end of the cruise so we headed to the enclosed lower deck and watched through the windows.  

One family was eating indifferent looking pizzas.   They didn’t look happy.

‘I wonder if they have any life jackets’ asked Madam.

‘There’s one on a chair over there, but I think the crew will get to it first,’ I replied, ‘remind me to Google “Budapest Cruise Ship Death Sinking” when we get back.’

We were tired by the time we got back to the hotel so we picked a local upmarket restaurant near the hotel.  ‘Will you have the grilled grey cattle steak’ I asked Madam as I read the English menu, ‘or would you prefer the dijon in piglets ripened with mustard and a spicy jus?’

‘No, I think I will have the Beef cheek goulash with egg barley and sausage’ she replied.

We both thought goulash was a sort of stew but it came on a plate with a knife and fork and was pronounced delicious by Madam.  Mine was supposed be ginger salmon with spiced potatoes but tasted of neither ginger nor spice.  The bill was around £40.  Not as good as my £4 pizza I thought, as I handed over my credit card.

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On the outside of the Terror Museum wall is a line of portraits of those who were executed or tortured to death by the Soviet regime during or soon after the Hungarian uprising of 1956.  Below the portraits people have left dozens of candles, ribbons and lamps, many of them still alight.  Inside of the museum are rows of portraits of Hungarians who perpetrated the torture and murder of their fellow countrymen.  

For reasons known only to the custodians there is a ban on photography inside which was disappointing.  It’s hard to summarise the museum.  It’s moving certainly, detailing the inhumanity of man but I found it disjointed and confusing.  Many of the exhibits were either unlabelled or only described in Hungarian or Russian.  There were strands of barbed wire in a glass case, tattered items of clothing in another, but no explanation as to their origin or meaning.  Rooms have things like a reconstruction of cells and gallows, uniforms of the police and photographs of some of the victims but there never seemed to be a coherent theme.  

It was also packed with visitors and hard to get close to anything which didn’t help.

There were several pages of handouts in English which gave a history of fascism and communism but very little information on the exhibits.  I was left with a powerful image of the horrors but no real understanding of the history.

We left the museum and walked randomly through a pleasant area of bars and restaurants, which turned into a slightly less nice area, then into a decidedly grim area.  Graffiti clad doorways were used as toilets, the few shops amongst the boarded buildings were offering adult entertainment, tattoos or Thai massages.  Two red curtained areas at the front had a spot for the masseuse to stand.  Both were empty, the masseuses were either busy or maybe still asleep after a long night of muscle kneading. 

‘What’s next?’ I asked Madam.

She thought for a while and said ‘the Hungarian National Museum is close to the hotel and doesn’t close until 6pm.  It’s near the hotel, so we won’t have far to walk afterwards.’

I liked that idea.  The not far to walk bit.  I wasn’t so sure about the museum.  A visit to Budapest was a one off. Neither of us felt the need to come to Hungary again.  What did I need to know about the history of the country?  I had seen enough of their horrors of the last century.

Madam was of course right.  It was fascinating and absorbing from the 720 square feet Roman mosaic in the basement to the piano on the first floor used by both Beethoven and Liszt (not simultaneously), and made by John Broadwood of London. I almost forgot my aching feet and we ended up staying until closing time.  I think we were the last visitors there.

We started in the vast basement filled with Roman mosaics, gravestones and statues.  ‘I suppose they were the selfie of the day’ said Madam as she looked at the statues of long-dead dignitaries.  She held up her phone and took a selfie in front of a minor caesar. 

Different periods of history were covered on different floors.  The section covering the WWII and the communist era was far better presented then the Terror Museum and almost empty of visitors.   I would have liked to linger longer but Madam was keen to see a dress or something embroidered by nuns a thousand years ago.  We searched several sections to no avail and ended up asking one of the custodians.  It was in a small side room which he had to open and turn on lights.  I got the impression that we were the only visitors that day and he was pleased that we had wanted to see it.

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Our plane home didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for one last attraction.

‘Where would you like to go?’  I asked Madam.

‘I don’t know,’ she replied, ‘where would you like to go?’ 

‘I don’t mind, you decide.’

‘No, it’s up to you.’

We went on in this manner for several minutes until Madam suggested seeing the inside of the Basilica. My mind was already imagining sitting in the lounge with a cup of coffee and reading the papers, so I replied ‘The Basilica?  How far is that?’

She looked on her phone and said ‘two point two miles, but we have an hour to get there before it opens.’

My ankle still hadn’t fully recovered from being twisted the week before while we were in Oxford and it gave a little complaining twinge.

I wonder if we could get a taxi back? I thought.

‘We can always get a taxi back’ said Madam.

We had briefly passed the Jewish Synagogue yesterday without realising what it was, so we took a slight detour for a closer look.  It was twenty minutes before it opened but a queue was already forming.  We sat outside for a while admiring the architecture and looking through the iron gates into the gardens.

I had previously looked at reviews for the Basilica and although many of them were positive, several reviewers said the staff were rude, it was almost dark inside and it was just like every other cathedral in Europe.  I still wanted to see a thousand year old withered hand though.

‘Would you rather go in here?’ Asked Madam, ‘into the synagogue?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘where would you like to go?’ 

‘I don’t mind, you decide.’

‘No, it’s up to you.’

‘You decide.’

‘The reviews for the Basilica are a bit mixed,’ I offered.

‘I’ve never seen the inside of a Synagogue,’ said Madam.

‘Me neither,’ I replied.

And so it was decided.  We joined the queue, which turned out to be mostly elderly women from New York.  

And what a good decision it was. After passing through a cursory bag search and metal detector (and who can blame them?) we passed into the Synagogue. We both stopped dead and just stared, mouths agape.  I don’t think I have ever seen the inside of a building as stunning, as beautiful.  Having been to museums and cathedrals where photography was discouraged or banned, Madam asked the guide if it was okay to take photographs.

‘You must.  You must take photographs.  I insist you take many, many beautiful pictures,’ he replied.

We sat in the synagogue pews and listened to the guide who told us about the history of the synagogue and the Jews who worshiped there.  It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world with capacity for 3,000 worshippers.  It was designed by a non Jewish architect so has a large organ (which was played by Franz Liszt at the opening ceremony) and naves based on a typical cathedral design.  You have to wonder about architects sometimes.  The guide told us that Jews were not allowed to play the organ on the sabbath so ‘we have to bring in a goy to play on the shabbat, God bless him.’

Outside of the synagogue there is a memorial garden with the Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Emanuel Tree.  This is an artificial weeping willow tree with the names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust inscribed on each leaf.  Also part of the memorial are marble plates, commemorating many non-Jewish Hungarians who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Prominent was a plaque to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who gave protective passports to thousands of Jews. Wallenberg survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary only to be captured and imprisoned by Soviet forces in 1945.  He was never seen again.

 

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Oxford and a Glimpse of Heaven Travel Blog

Christchurch Meadow, Oxford

Oxford travel blog with a visit to the Weston Library, Christchurch Meadow, the Museum of the History of Science, the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean Museum.

‘We should go away,’ said Madam, ‘Oxford. We can go to Oxford.’

‘We could go on the train’ I replied, ‘no driving, no parking issues. We could be there in three hours. Stay in the city centre.’

‘We could drive,’ she said, no luggage to carry, no replacement bus service. ‘

‘I quite like trains…’ I replied.

‘What about the wrong sort of snow?  Leaves on the line?  RMT strikes?  Cows on the line?  Birds in the trees?

I looked on my iPad.

‘No delays reported my sweet,’ I replied.

‘That’s settled then.  We will drive.  How long will it take?’ she asked.

I looked at my iPad again.

‘Hmmm… well..  there’s roadworks on the M40, a contraflow on the M25, there’s been an accident on the A22…’

‘We aren’t going for two days,’ she said, ‘an accident today won’t hold us up!’

‘These things take time to clear,’ I told her.

‘So how long?’ she asked.

A seagull flew past the window.  Low grey clouds were threatening rain.  A car alarm went off in the distance.

‘Well, taking into account the roadworks and contraflow, rush hour traffic on the M25 and finding parking… I think that if we leave at 5am we will be there by dark.’ I said.

She stared at me with suspicious eyes.  I scratched my nose and said ‘looks like rain, my sweet.’

She looked out of the window.  The first raindrops were blowing against the glass.

‘I know!’ she exclaimed, ‘we could go by train!’

I told her that was a great idea.  She always has the best ideas.

We caught the 10am train towards London then on to Oxford.  The weather was sunny with a few fluffy clouds.  The thermometer read 19C.  The train journey uneventful.  I was secretly hoping for a delay as they refund part of your train fare if there is a delay over fifteen minutes, but it was not to be.  The temperature had dropped by the time we reached Oxford and the skies grey.

‘What are you planning on doing in Oxford?’ asked the hotel receptionist.

A good question, I thought.  I looked at Madam.  She looked at me, then at the ground.   She thought for a while and said ‘Shopping!’

‘Museums probably,’ I told the receptionist.

‘There’s a Tolkien exhibit on at the Weston Library,’ he told me. That’s a possibility I thought.  ‘It’s free’, he continued.  That’s a definite, I thought.

We carried the suitcases along the short corridor to the room where Madam went through her lengthy unpacking routine.  She moved chairs around, shuffled the bed sideways, checked the top of the wardrobe for dust, opened and closed all the drawers, dismantled the internal double-glazing (don’t ask), looked under the bed, counted the towels and pillows, carefully read the fire escape instructions (During the night put on your dressing gown and house shoes before evacuating), tested the hair dryer and hung clothes in the wardrobe.  

I stood by the door, foot tapping impatiently.  Finally she was ready and we headed towards the city centre.

We stumbled, mostly by accident, across the new Westgate shopping mall.  Needless to say all the stores were identical to just about every other city mall.  The food court was called Westgate Social maybe in the hope it would become a hang out for the local teenagers.  Four security guards were wandering aimlessly around but no sign of the teenagers, nor many other customers.  

We walked through the rest of the central shopping streets with even more chain stores.  Buses ran through what were otherwise pedestrian streets. It was crowded, dull and soulless and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of even three nights here.  I thought of a line from Arnold’s poem “Thyrsis”:

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires”

Maybe there wasn’t an Ann Summers, a WH Smiths or an Argos in the city centre in 1875.

We walked past the central post office and I noticed a sign to Christchurch Meadow.  Anything would be better than breathing in diesel fumes. ’This way,’ I said to Madam who was busy taking photographs of a postbox.

Thirty Chinese tourist were blocking the entrance busy taking selfies, their guide waiting patiently at the gate.  We weaved through them, smiling and photo-bombing as we went.  Once into the meadow the change was astonishing.  

Christ Church Meadow Oxford

The meadow is a rare and beautiful open space in the heart of Oxford with spectacular views of Christ Church and Merton colleges, Magdalen tower, and the river.  It is enclosed by the Cherwell and Thames rivers and thus subject to seasonal flooding which probably explains why it has survived since the seventeenth century.  

If you have read any of the previous blogs you may have detected that I am not a big fan of town planners.  You may or may not agree with me on this so I will leave you with the fact that planners had the meadow earmarked as the site of a new road to relieve traffic congestion in the city.  The city council asked the Minister for Local Government to conduct an inquiry into Oxford’s road problems. At the end of it, the inspector, Sir Frederick Armer, concluded that the construction of a road across Christ Church Meadow was “inescapable”.  His main criteria seemed to be to minimise journey times for motorists.

The plan for the bypass was dropped after a public outcry which in turn led to the formation of the Oxford Civic Society.  The landscape architect of this plan was later given a knighthood.

We walked alongside the college student’s Gothic accommodation block and through the meadow.  It was lovely.  Every corner, every turn and path was a photo opportunity. The leaves on the trees were turning brown and starting to fall. Couples and families were strolling along the paths, stopping to look at the flowers and buildings.  My mood and impressions of Oxford improved as we walked through the meadow.  

We went through a narrow iron gate and up a path between Corpus Christi and Merton colleges.  The grey skies had been threatening all day and heavy rain started as we left the meadow.  We sheltered in the doorway of one of the colleges on Aldgate.  ‘Coffee shop or Pub?’ Asked Madam.

‘Whichever we see first,’ I replied, glancing around.

‘There’s a pub right over the road,’ she said.

‘That’s handy,’ I said.

The pub had everything a historic city centre pub could hope for.  A building dating from 1630.  Multiple wood panelled rooms.  Hobgoblin on tap.  Unfortunately the barman was surly and miserable, the prices ambitious, the beer stale.  It was almost empty apart from two vicars sitting at the bar.  There’s probably a joke in there but it escapes me.

We sat for a while hoping the atmosphere might improve but it never did.  I looked on my phone and noticed a pub called “The Four Candles.”

‘We need to go to the Fork Handles, my sweet,’ I told Madam.

She looked at me blankly.

‘Four Candles… Fork Handles.’ 

Another blank look.  I directed her to the Two Ronnies sketch on her phone but I guess you had to be there.

The Four Candles turned out to be Yet Another Wetherspoons.  It was packed with young people, mostly students.  We managed to find the last available table upstairs where we ordered two drinks from our phone and a bowl of chips delivered to our table for £2 less than I had paid for two drinks in the previous pub.  No wonder it had been empty.

Ok, I just remembered one:

A priest, a rabbi and a vicar walk into a bar.

The barman says, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’

A building near to the pub was originally the Oxford’s High School for Boys. Ronnie Barker was a former pupil and later one of the Two Ronnies, hence the name.

Natural History Museum Oxford

We had booked into a hotel near to the station with a ten minute walk into the city.  We were out early, intending to be at the Weston Library as soon as the ticket office opened.  The Tolkien Exhibition was free but had a timed ticket.   

On the way into the city we passed a massive office building which seemed to be built entirely of black glass.  It wasn’t ugly in itself but stuck out against the older buildings like a blot on the landscape.  That wasn’t a simile, it really was a blot on the landscape.  I don’t know the architect or if he ever visited the site, but surely he could have given some sort of token nod to the classical architecture of the surrounding buildings?  

We walked over Hythe Bridge.  The Castle Mill Stream below was chocked with rubbish.  A single traffic cone sat in the middle, partially submerged.  

The Weston Library was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert in the 1930s and opened in 1946 before being extensively refurbished in 2015.   It is built of Bladon stone and blends perfectly with the original 17th Century Bodleian Library opposite.  Somebody needs to drag the architects of some of the modern buildings in Oxford by the ear and show them what can be done.

Tolkien tickets in hand, we walked across the road and wandered around the outside and courtyards of the Bodleian Library.  And what a beautiful building it is.  “SILENCE” signs were placed in every entrance as this is still a working library.  An American man was reading aloud the paragraph on Oxford from a guidebook entitled “England” to his wife.  Tourists were taking selfies in front of the Latin inscriptions on the doors. We walked out of the courtyard and around the Radcliffe Camera, built to house the Radcliffe Science Library.   A lone gardener was pushing a lawn mower over the grass.  Bicycles were chained to the railings.  I would have liked to explore further but it was time to head back to the Weston.

Our tickets to the Tolkien exhibition gave us timed entry between 10:00am and 10:30am and we were in the queue five minutes early.  

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth includes over 200 items from Bodleian’s and Marquette University’s J.R.R. Tolkien archive, as well as from a number of private collections.  The manuscripts, pictures, maps and letters have been gathered from around the world, and many were reunited in Oxford for the first time since the death of Tolkien more than 40 years ago. Tolkien spent most of his adult life in Oxford, first as a student of classics and later as professor of English language and literature.

And what a fine exhibition it was.  Madam had read The Hobbit some years before but had never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and only seen bits of the films, but she was equally impressed.  I walked round the entire exhibit twice examining everything on display.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

They had some of Tolkien’s personal effects: his desk; chair; briefcase; wartime identity card and pipe.  More interesting were his hand drawn and coloured maps of Middle Earth along with handwritten pages from his manuscripts.  He would write first in pencil, the go over the document in ink adding and correcting, before typing the finished manuscript.  Just think what he could have achieved with a word processor. 

There was a second exhibition in the Weston library: Sappho to Suffrage – Women who dared, which celebrated the achievements of women through the ages and the history of the Suffrage movement in Oxford.   It marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act and includes fragments of Sappho’s poetry written on papyrus, Ada Lovelace’s 19th century notes on mathematics and the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.   We were the only visitors.

We crossed the road from the Weston, heading towards the city centre.  As soon as we got to the other side I saw the narrow entrance to Blackwell’s bookshop.  ‘We should look in there,’ I told Madam who was marching smartly towards a souvenir shop.  

‘I need Christmas ornaments,’ she replied, but I was already opening the door.

A few weeks ago when we were on a guided tour of Wells cathedral a couple of weeks ago, the guide told us that the beauty of the inside of the cathedral was supposed to represent a glimpse of heaven.  She was wrong.  Blackwell’s basement was a glimpse of heaven.  They may not have every academic book in publication but it must be close.  I’m not sure how a narrow shop could have such a vast basement.  It was like the Tardis.  It was magic.  ’Just leave me here, my sweet,’ I told her, ‘come and fetch me when it’s time to catch our train home.’

But it was not to be.  We had a full schedule today and souvenirs to buy.

Our first stop was just over the road from Blackwell’s.  The Museum of the History of Science houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building.  It was the original site of the Ashmolean Museum when it opened in 1683.  It covers almost all aspects of the history of science and includes astrolabes, sundials, quadrants, microscopes, telescopes and cameras, together with apparatus associated with chemistry, natural philosophy and medicine.

Items, some 20,000 of them, were crammed into display cabinets over the three floors.  Madam wasn’t interested so my time was limited. She went outside to make a phone call while I quickly explored a few of the cases.  In 1931 Einstein gave a lecture in German on relativity and somebody with great foresight saved one of the blackboards where he calculated the size and age of the universe.  The blackboard, safely preserved behind glass, is mounted on the wall of the basement.  He proved that the universe is very big and very old if you are interested.  Unless you are a creationist, then it’s only a few thousand years old, the earth is at the centre and probably flat.

‘I like Oxford,’ I thought.  ‘Would you like to live here?’ I asked Madam.

‘No, it isn’t near the sea,’ was her immediate reply.

I pointed out that neither was central Texas but she never replied.

Our next stop was the Ashmolean, my favourite museum.  It is believed to be the first modern museum opened in 1683 to house the collection of its founder Elias Ashmole (1617-1692).  It has an eclectic mix. Archaeological collections ranging from prehistoric Europe, through ancient Egypt and classical Greece to the Roman period.  It has a coin collection ranging from ancient Greek through to modern British coins.  An art collection covering ceramics, textiles, sculpture and paintings.  It had a number of impressionist paintings from Camille Pissarro, mostly from his Pointillism period.

‘I can feel the shade!’ said Madam as she stood in front of Pissarro’s painting of Eragny Church.  

It’s odd how you can see a photograph of any classic painting and not feel particularly moved.  See then real thing and it’s almost as if you can walk into the painting and be there, right in the middle of the scene.  Feel the heat and breeze, smell the trees.  Sit under a shady branch. That takes some talent.  We spent a long time in the picture gallery.  If there was anybody else there, we didn’t see them.

There was a display of Roman tombstone carving down on the ground floor, which was more interesting than it sounds.  To save both space and a lot of hammering the Romans would abbreviate well know terms.  For example, “HMDMAE” stood for “May wicked wrongdoing be far away from this tombstone.”  I stood for a while trying to work out the acronym.  H can’t be “May”, E certainly isn’t “tombstone”.  After a while I realised it would have been in Latin.  Some days my brain just doesn’t fire on all cylinders. After a bit more thought, I realised that the Latin “Sit ut impius procul ab his quae facit hanc conterebat.” (I think that’s right) doesn’t make anymore sense as an acronym.

I do have a really good joke for you though:

JCELJMSXHUE

NJKNCLERT!

They have a few tablet fragments on display with Linear B script.  This a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest form of Greek. It script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries.  Tablets were discovered in the late 19th century but the meanings remained a mystery until they were decoded in 1952 by self-taught linguist Michael Ventris.  He became fascinated by the scripts and pursued the decipherment as a personal vocation for many years. The tablets turned out be be just a list of goods and chattels.  There is an older script Linear A which has never been decoded.  After spending years working out what was, in effect, a shopping list he may have lost heart.  Unfortunately he was killed in a road accident in 1956 so we will never know.

“We need to go to the Pitt Rivers Museum!’ said Madam.

I looked up from the Linear B tablet where I had been trying to match a tiny squiggle to “Buy cabbages” and replied ‘What’s that my sweet?’

‘I don’t know but we need to go!  It’s a museum!’ she said.

‘What sort of museum?’ I asked, perhaps a little intemperately.

‘No idea, but my friend went there!’

‘Did she say it was good?’ I asked.

‘No, she never said, but I want to go!’

Well, okay then.  Off to the Pitt Rivers it is.

We followed Madam’s watch to the entrance of the museum.  That may sound a little odd but she has one of these new watches that will give you walking directions, the weather forecast and read your messages.  I think it will also tell you the time but she hasn’t found that button yet.

We walked through the doors into what turned out to be a natural history museum which pleased me greatly.  When I have time in London I like to go to the London Natural History Museum but am so often disappointed.  I’m not sure if it is because it is always crowded and noisy or that it seems to be turning more to entertainment than to education.  The Oxford version was everything a museum should be.  Small enough that you could see everything and comprehensive enough to cover the more interesting areas of natural history.  They have whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling, Mary Anning’s fossilised Ichthyosaur discoveed on the Jurassic coast, display cases of insects, a Trilobyte wall, dinosaur bones and eggs, skeletons of modern and extinct animals, rocks and minerals and even the remains (including a few bits of soft tissue) of a dodo.  I wandered happily around the different sections and was testing the sharpness (very) of a crocodile tooth when Madam found me and said ‘This isn’t the Pitt Rivers Museum!  It’s next door!’

Further enquiries determined that Pitt Rivers closed at 4:30pm.  It was 4:25pm.

‘We have to come back tomorrow!’ She told me.

After dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, we returned to our hotel room to find a note telling us off for messing with the internal double-glazing. I passed it to Madam.

Bodleian Library Oxford

I was spreading a thin layer of marmalade on a piece of toast at breakfast when the waitress came up to our table and said ‘We need your room. We have to fix the double-glazing.  No hurry, but he’s standing there with his hands in his pockets,’ she said.

‘He likes standing with his hands in his pockets, no rush, finish your toast,’ she added by way of conciliation as she snatched my plate away.

It was 8:30 and we were out of the hotel by 8:40 and heading towards the centre.  It was a chilly morning and I zipped up my coat for the first time since the spring.  The pavements were crowded with commuters wearing backpacks or carrying briefcases, the roads chocked with cars, lorries and buses.

The museums didn’t open until 10:00 so we stopped off at an outdoor street market that was already open.  The market specialised in antiques and curios.  There was a second hand clothes stall with several signs saying “Vintage Clothes.”  It looked to have the same clothes as a charity shop but with higher prices.  The row at the end of the market had food stalls which Madam examined closely although none were open for business yet.  

A nearby barbers advertised “Cheap Haircuts” for £15.  Personally, I would have to go and lie down in a darkened room at even the thought of paying that much for a haircut.  I never pay more than £6 OAP rate.  I’m still hoping to find somewhere that will give me a trim for less than £5.  The worst case is that I get a bad haircut and have to wear my flat cap in public for a couple of weeks.    If it was really bad I have a hat that covers my ears.

We passed a war memorial on the way to the Pitt Rivers.  There were three stone plaques, the first inscription said that it was dedicated to the dead of the 1914-1918 war.  The second, underneath and with a slightly newer carving, was dedicate to those who died in 1939-1945.  The third was left blank, ready for the next inscription.  I couldn’t decide if this showed great foresight or extreme pessimism.

After the briefest fondle of some fossilised dinosaur eggs and a look at some early hominid skulls in the natural history museum, we walked in through the door of the Pitt Rivers museum to be met by a cacophony of sound.  Small children were running around and screaming.  It was gloomy and crowded with dark wood display cases.  I wasn’t impressed but headed to the displays with the least number of loose children, intending to have a quick look round and go back to Blackwell’s.

How wrong I was.  After a couple of cases I became completely absorbed.  I even managed to filter out most of the noise from the screaming children.  They had an amazing selection of objects from around the world, all labeled and organised.  They had model ships, masks, a whole cabinet of betel chewing equipment (who knew it needed equipment), opium pipes, snuff taking equipment and an enormous totem pole.  They had every type of musical instrument including trumpets, flutes, lutes, lamellaphones, zithers, lyres and pluriarchs.  I had never heard of many, let alone seen them.  Every case was densely crammed.  They had a case dedicated to the treatment of dead enemies with shrunken heads and decorated skulls.  The first floor had a selection of primitive surgical instruments should you be in need of a spot of blood letting or having a hole drilled in your skull.

‘It’s leaky!’ exclaimed Madam.

I wasn’t sure if one of the exhibits was shedding moisture or if Madam had a personal problem.  We were looking at a bunch of stone axes and it seemed unlikely that they were the problem.

‘Leaky my sweet?’  I asked in the hope of eliciting further information, ‘do you need medical attention?’

‘LEAKEY, not leaky.  You know, Louis Leakey.  The Kenyan paleoanthropologist.’

I didn’t know.  I wasn’t even sure I knew what a paleoanthropologist was.  Madam explained the Leakey’s work was important in demonstrating that humans evolved in Africa, particularly through discoveries made at Olduvai Gorge with his wife, palaeontologist Mary Leakey. Madam was even tempted at one time to become a paleoanthropologist because of his work.  You learn something new every day, including that your wife is jolly clever.

 If you have enjoyed reading this Oxford travel blog, feel free to add a link from your own blog.

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The Journey West

Causeway leading to St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

This is a combined post of previously published individual posts.

“We should go on a road trip,” said Madam.

I looked up from my iPad.  I had been reading one of the right-leaning newspapers online telling me how, after Brexit, the rainbows would be brighter, we would have zero crime and would start seeing unicorns in our woodlands again. 

“Well…” I replied, somewhat hesitatingly.

“We could go out west, maybe even Cornwall.” She said.

“Ummm…”

“A couple of weeks would be enough.” She said

“I don’t know…”

“Great!  I’ll go and pack, you find the maps.” She said.  

“Unicorns?” I said to myself.  

That would be great, I thought, but I would have to see it on the side of a bus before I believed it.

Bournemouth to Durdle Door

Due to Madam’s impressive driving skills, we arrived in Bournemouth two hours before we could check into the hotel so we found a multi-story car park close to the pier where I parted with £4.50 for two hours parking.  We left the car park via an enclosed and gloomy set of concrete stairs which seemed to serve as the local latrine.  The pungent smell made my eyes water.  This is what happens when you charge people 50p to use the toilet, never mind £2.25 an hour to park.  They use whatever doorway or stairwell is available.  I was tempted to have a discrete wee in a corner myself to get my money‘s worth but Madam was in a hurry to get lunch.

We had lunch on the upstairs balcony at the Hot Rocks restaurant overlooking the pier and beach.  A Dotto land train ran along the seafront below us.  A Ferris wheel opposite the pier turned slowly. The beach, packed with families was soft sand from the promenade down to the sea.  Couples strolled along the seafront past the pier.  

Madam said, “The people are younger here.  Younger than in Bexhill.”

There is a belief that people move to Bexhill and wait to die.  It isn’t true.  They move to Eastbourne.  Bexhill is where their parents live.

We checked into the hotel, high on the East Cliff and walked down to the beach.  The tide was partly out.  Madam took off her shoes and walked along the waterline. As soon as her feet touched the wet sand she jumped up and down with joy and said: “I’m on holiday!”  

It’s true.  We were.

She continued walking alongside the water towards the pier and picked up a weird looking seashell which we later identified as a slipper snail.  It looked like a claw or hand with six fingers.  I’ve lived by the sea for many years and seen nothing like it.  She put it in her bag to add to her souvenir collection.  She walked on past the pier and I suspect she would have carried on until the next town had I not promised her a ride on the Dotto land train that ran along the seafront towards Boscombe.  I’d wanted to visit Boscombe because it had a pier.  I have a weakness for piers that Madam will never understand.  

“What’s the point?” She said.  “You are just walking out over the water.”

“That’s exactly the point,” I replied.

“Boring.”  

We got to the Dotto stop only to find that the last departure was at 15:10.  On a Sunday.  During the summer.  A major tourist attraction stops running at ten past three on a Sunday.  Sometimes you wonder who organises these things. 

We went into the tourist information office to see about a trip on the open-top bus but found that stopped at 5pm. 

Bournemouth is divided neatly into two by a succession of fine parks running from north to south. They were created in the mid-1800’s and remarkably have survived to this day.  They were originally known as the Lower Pleasure Gardens, The Central Pleasure Gardens, and Upper Pleasure Gardens.   The former name proved too much for the genteel folk of Bournemouth.  The combination of both ‘pleasure’ and ‘lower’ in close vicinity to each other was just too much for ladies of a delicate disposition and they are now known simply as the Lower, Central and Upper Gardens.

We walked up through the Lower Pleasure Gardens.  Sorry, forget I said that.  We walked up through the Lower Gardens.  Whoever is in charge of the gardening does a wonderful job.  The flower beds were a blaze of colour even at the tail end of summer when you expect things to have died down ready for autumn. Large groups of foreign students and young couples had spread themselves over the grass enjoying the late afternoon sun.  

We sat for a while admiring the flowers and watching people strolling through the gardens.  It was a lovely setting and even better to find such a large park in the town centre.

The Lower and Central Gardens are separated by an attractive pedestrian square with a restaurant and outdoor seating. We wandered through the square and up into the Central Gardens where they had the largest war memorial I had ever seen.  The memorial was built in 1921 to remember the dead of World War I. It features two lions, one asleep and one awake, based on Canova’s tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St Peter’s. This enormous stone and marble memorial is now Grade II listed and was later extended to commemorate the dead of both world wars.

The upper gardens seem to be mostly sports fields so we stopped our journey and, it being a respectable time to start drinking, returned down to the square to find a suitable hostelry.  With a combination of random searching and Madam peering into her phone looking at TripAdvisor we found ‘The Moon on the Square’ which turned out to be a Wetherspoons. 

There’s a tradition in all Wetherspoons that there has to be a large group of men drinking lager hovering near the bar and having a shouting match.  It is invariably regarding which footballer has the most knobbly knees.  I think that’s right.  Something to do with football anyway.  It requires them to wave their arms exuberantly and spill copious amount of beer on the carpet.  This pub was no exception.

Still, where else can you get somewhere to sit down, books to read, free WiFi and two drinks for less than a fiver?  

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay for the Evening Standard newspaper describing his perfect pub.  He called his pub ‘The Moon Under Water.’  It should have he said, amongst other things, that it be quiet enough to talk; the barmaid should know your name; that it sells cigarettes, aspirin, and stamps; it never serves beer in a handleless glass; and you can get a good lunch for three shillings.

Several Wetherspoons pubs have ‘Moon’ in their name since they feel that is a good link to Orwell’s fictional pub.  I’ve never been to a Wetherspoons where the barmaid knew my name, nor have they have ever served me a beer in a glass with a handle.  I’m not sure how I feel about them linking to one of my favourite authors for commercial purposes.  Maybe I will order lunch one day and proffer three shillings (15p) in payment then ask for an aspirin.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

We got back to the hotel and were laying on the bed reading when Madam said, “What was that noise?”

“What noise my sweet?” I asked.

“That noise.” She said.

I listened.  I could hear cars outside and a murmur of distant conversation.

I shook my head. Madam sighed.  “A sort of slurping noise.”

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.  

She looked to the dresser on the far side of the room and shrieked “It’s alive!  It moved!”

It turned out that her seashell was still very much in use and the resident mollusc was wondering why the sea was so far away and how come the tide hadn’t risen.

“We have to take it back to the beach.” She said.

“It’s late.  We’ll take it tomorrow.” I told her.

She put it in the bottom of the bath lest it develops impressive locomotive powers in the night and crawls into bed with her.

“He needs a name. Think of a name,” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” I said, “Shell?  Shelly?”

“Shelly is a girl’s name,” she said.

I went into the bathroom and reached into the bottom of the bath.  I carefully turned Shelly upside down.

“Yup, it’s female,” I told her.

I had a look at the Google to see if there was anything else worth doing in Bournemouth and, amongst the dozens of pages of advertisements offering me hotels and tours, was a brief piece from the official tourism website that told me, amongst other things, that it was a prosperous town with a population of almost 200,000 and that tourism remains an important industry.  

And boy, does it milk its tourists.  Parking for two hours was £4.50.  A stroll along the three hundred metre pier is £1.20.  An ice cream?  That will be £3.70, please.  Need a bottle of Coca-Cola with that?  Another £2.50.  A one-mile taxi ride back to the hotel £6.00.

We had considered staying a couple of nights in Bournemouth, it was nice enough, but we resented the demands for money at every turn.  Even the park had signs suggesting you sent them money.  Besides, Madam wanted to get to tick another location from her bucket list.

We were packed and on the road by 9am and heading towards Durdle Door.  Shelly was safely wrapped in the back seat.   

As we drove along the B3070, there was a large sign ‘WARNING Sudden Gunfire!’ 

Madam glanced at the sign and said, “Just like in Texas.”  

I was glad she got to feel at home. 

We parked above the footpath down to Durdle Door.  £4 for two hours.  A sign informed me they had over one million visitors a year.  It wasn’t hard to do the maths.  Four million pounds for a scree car park and footpath is a nice little earner for somebody as Arthur Daley would have said.

We started down the steep and rough footpath towards the beach.  Loose scree made it difficult to avoid slipping and falling.

“Did you remember Shelly?” I asked Madam.

“Oh no!  I’m a terrible mother!” She shouted as she ran back towards the car.

She laid Shelly carefully at the water’s edge and starting talking quietly.  I’m sure it was something profound but the wind took most of her words away.  All I caught was “I’ll miss you so much” and “send me a shelfie.”

We wandered down the beach along the chalk cliffs and water’s edge, stopping to take pictures of the Door and cliffs as we went.  Madam was under strict instructions not to touch any shells, dead or alive.

As we started up the long and steep path back to the car Madam said, “Shelly was very lucky really.  She can cross Durdle Door off her bucket list.  It would have taken her years to crawl here.”

We headed towards Weymouth through the village of Lulworth which had more pretty thatched cottages than you would have thought possible.  I’d have liked to stop and take pictures but the roads were narrow and lined with no parking signs.

Weymouth

Weymouth was on an attractive sweeping bay ringed by elegant townhouses, most of them now converted into hotels and guest houses. It is a pleasant old-fashioned seaside resort.  The sort of place my grandparents would have visited on holiday.  Down on the train for a week in a B&B.  Fish and chips for lunch.  Sit on the beach and eat ice cream.  Rented a deckchair as an extravagance.   My grandad would have rolled up his trouser legs and put a knotted handkerchief on his head to keep off the sun.  They would have gone home happy and talked about it for months.

Nowadays, people go to Majorca or Magaluf and feel hard done by if they aren’t blind drunk by tea time. 

Weymouth has one claim to fame that you’ll not find in many tourist brochures.  In 1348 the Black Death entered England in the port of Weymouth, then known as Melcombe Regis.  The plague had been spreading from the far east and crept across Europe, reaching France in 1347.  

According to a contemporary account: 

‘…two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of a terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first to be infected.’ 

The victims would only develop symptoms six days after infection so would often travel some distance unwittingly carrying their infection to new areas.

In case you need to know the symptoms for a future outbreak they include black necrotic pustules on your skin, fever, delirium, and an unbearable headache.  If that isn’t bad enough your lymph nodes will swell to the size of an orange.  You only have a 70% chance of dying so it’s not all bad. 

The Black Death would go on to kill somewhere between 30% and 40% of Britain’s population.  The worst of the effects were over by 1351 but occasional resurgences would appear right up to the end of the 17th century, notably in 1665.

We checked into our hotel, Somerset House, which was above a pub and in a bit of a rough area.  It was opposite the railway station, just across from “My Amazing Fantasy – Licensed Adult Shop” and just down the road from an off-licence whose main selling point seemed to be the strength of their lager.  

Despite some misgivings about the area, the room was lovely.  The best we had stayed in for some time.  The bathroom was the largest and most elegant I’ve seen in any hotel.  It had a massive two-person shower, a bathtub with a TV built into the wall and many strangely coloured unguents lining the shelves.  Bathrobes and slippers were hanging on the back of the door.  Madam declared she wanted to move in and stay there, or at least take the bathroom home.

“I’m having a bath,” said Madam.

“I thought we might have a look round the town first,” I said.

But she was already tipping random coloured liquids into the running bath.  It foamed in an impressive and exuberant manner.  She turned on the TV and closed the bathroom door.

We walked down to the seafront, around the sweep of the bay, and along to a building at the end of the promenade optimistically described as the pier bandstand.  There was an attractive Art Deco building but no sign of either a pier or a bandstand.  

There had been a bandstand on the site, built in 1939 and extending 200 feet out to sea, but it was demolished in 1986 to save a £300,000 repair bill.  A competition was held to determine who would press the button to start the destruction.  They gave two schoolgirls from Birmingham that dubious honour.  The demolition left only the land building which was eventually refurbished and taken over by a Chinese restaurant in 2002.

The 1980s have a lot to answer for.

We sat on a wooden bench, overlooking the sandy beach and watching the seafront strollers.  The vibrantly coloured and decorated clock tower was to our right. A man walked past with an owl on his arm.  Two heavily tattooed shaven-headed men with a staffie walked past and glared at anybody who looked their way.  Older couples walked slowly past, leaning on sticks, watching the sea.

A cruise ship sailed gracefully out of the harbour from around the corner in Portland.  We found out later that this was a Disney ship catering mostly to Americans that started in Barcelona and sailed around Spain and Portugal to Dover.  They had stopped in Portland for a day trip to Stonehenge. An inside cabin a snip at only £4,592. 

Just off the seafront was a large double-fronted fossil shop.  I was entranced. I went in and picked up a heavy 68 million-year-old dinosaur bone.  Fondled ammonites by the score.  Examined echinoderms.  Thought about buying a dapedium or maybe a pholidophorus.  I’ve seen a lot of fossils over the years but they were all behind glass cases in museums.  Here, I get to hold them for free.  I would have been happy to stay for hours touching and examining every item in the shop but Madam was bored after a minute and we needed to check the other gift shops for tea towels and Christmas ornaments.

 We meandered slowly down the main shopping street.  It was pleasant enough and pedestrian friendly but with lots of cash converter style, betting and pound shops.  A sign outside one shop offered a Mr Whippy soft ice cream with a flake for £1.  Madam was asked a couple of times if she was from the cruise ship.  It would be a sad if the cruise passengers had shelled out all that money and Weymouth was all they saw of England. 

Like a lot of seaside towns, Weymouth has suffered a reversal of fortunes as people holiday abroad.  There were still pockets of the town doing well with some businesses obviously thriving but also with areas of deprivation that gave it a seedy air.  I know I’ve probably said enough about the precipitous and seemingly irreversible decline of seaside resorts but it just makes me very sad.  I had better stop there as I can feel a moan coming on and Madam will tell me off. 

Still, where else can you park your car and get an ice cream with a flake for a pound along the South coast?

Madam looked online and picked the top two restaurants from Trip Advisor and we walked down to look at their menus.  

I forget what they were called – I think it was something French and pretentious.  Madam pressed her nose against the window of the first and looked at the tablecloths and elaborately laid tables.  She looked at me and said, “They are a bit posh.  I don’t think we are properly dressed for these places.”

I rolled down my trouser legs and took the hankie off my head and presented myself for inspection.  Madam just rolled her eyes and said: “You don’t have a jacket.”  

Instead, we went to a cafe bar around the corner and had a nice tapas selection for under a tenner a head.  Not having a jacket with me saved me £50.  Something to remember for future trips.

I woke up to loud chanting outside the hotel room at 3:30 am.

This wasn’t the calming chant of monks at morning matins or Buddhists preparing for meditation but the tuneless incoherent noise that comes from the strange physiological reaction you get when you mix small brains with strong lager. 

“I don’t think I would want to live in Weymouth,” I thought as I lay awake watching stray beams from the street lamp dancing on the ceiling and waiting for the chanting to fade into the distance.

In the morning we got to shower together in the hotel’s fabulous bathroom and I checked Madam carefully for any signs of necrotic pustules or enlarged lymph nodes.  There were none so, after only a brief delay, and a lovely breakfast at the hotel we were on our way to look for fossils.

Charmouth and Lyme Regis

We headed to the Charmouth Heritage Centre and had a polite look round at the locally found fossils on display.  The centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils from the local beaches.  They run guided fossil hunting walks on every day except Tuesday.  It was Tuesday.

They had an impressive display of fossils, both in terms of size and quantity.  So numerous were the 195 million-year-old belemnites that they were just piled in an apparently haphazard manner in a recreation of the sandy shoreline.

The Jurassic Coast stretches from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, a distance of about 96 miles.  It spans 185 million years of geological history covering the Triassic and Cretaceous periods as well as the Jurassic. At different times, this area has been desert, shallow tropical sea, and marsh.  

The many sedimentary layers on this coastline are rich with fossils which can be found in abundance as sections of the cliff crumble and landslides occur. Fossil groups found here include crustaceans, insects, molluscs, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles and even a few mammals. 

How hard could it be to find fossils, even without a guide?  Just pop down to the beach and pick up a few handfuls. A walk in the park.  Well, a walk on the beach I guess.

A stiff breeze blew from the sea and waves were crashing on the beach.  Small groups of people were spread out along the shoreline looking down at the ground. Some down by the water following the receding tide and some up by the crumbling cliffs.

I had forgotten to bring the hammer from my toolbox and was too cheap to buy a proper geologists hammer for £20, so we walked along the beach, occasionally smashing two rocks together looking for fossils.  I walked a long way down by the water in the hope of finding a washed up belemnite or two.  I randomly kicked at pebbles and scraped my shoes through the wet sand.  All I got was wet feet.

I tried searching up closer to the cliff but discovered that the cliffs are mostly made up of layer upon layer of soft mud, silt and clay.  Wet this with a drop of seawater and it makes an astonishingly sticky mud that adheres to shoes in an enthusiastic and expansive manner.

After much walking up and down the beach, we realised we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so we returned to the car and I spent the next ten minutes scraping the mud from my shoes.  

After a brief visit to the facilities, I decided one last time to go fossil hunting while Madam waited in the car.  I popped into the gift shop and bought a (very small) 120 million years old ammonite for 50p, which I presented to Madam with a flourish.  

Lyme Regis is smaller than I expected.  Unless I missed something it consists of one steep hill with the usual chain stores plus a few gift shops and a single fossil shop. 

It is more famous than its size indicates.  The harbour wall (The Cobb) features in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Persuasion’, and in John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. The 1981 film of the latter was partly shot in Lyme Regis.

The town is situated at the heart of the Jurassic Coast. It was in the cliffs nearby that an  Ichthyosaur was discovered by self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning in 1918.  She later found a complete Plesiosaur and the fossilised remains of many other creatures.  Anning became known around the world for the important finds she made in the fossil beds in the cliffs along the coast. Her discoveries contributed to important changes in knowledge of prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society and she never received full credit for her scientific contributions. The gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found often neglected to mention her name. 

To be fair on the Geological Society, when Anning was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1846, the society raised money from its members to help with her expenses.  Did anybody say too little too late?

I popped into the fossil shop at the bottom of the hill to fondle a few more fossils while Madam looked in an outdoor shop at Nordic poles.  I keep telling her I will never agree to go skiing or hiking over glaciers but will she listen?

We strolled down to the seafront.  Along the front was a combination of small cottages, mostly holiday lets, amusement arcades and tourist restaurants.  A stone harbour arm at the end of the bay provided a sheltered anchorage.  The tide was out and bilge-keeled sailboats were resting on the mud.  Two paddle boarders were trying to get through the shallow surf into deeper water.  A narrow street ran behind the harbour with gift shops and fish restaurants.  The promenade was crowded with visitors walking in the sunshine.

The possibilities of Lyme Regis were quickly exhausted so we returned to the cart and set the SatNav for Exmouth.

Exmouth

We checked into our room in a chain hotel close to the seafront in Exmouth where we had a lovely view of the car park all the way over to the pub next door.

Exmouth had more than its fair share of charity shops, bargain everything a pound or less, tanning salons and betting shops. The Conservative Club, squashed between ‘Bargains Galore’ and a gift shop selling buckets and spades and children’s fishing nets, was looking tatty with weeds growing from the roof.  

To be fair on poor Exmouth, it also had some pleasant pedestrian areas and leafy squares with more upmarket restaurants.  It had a compact well-managed park with thriving flower beds and hanging baskets. We walked around the park admiring the flowers and eventually found a wooden bench.  We sat and watched a balding man in his 40s feeding squirrels from a Fortnum and Mason bag.  

I looked at Madam and she looked at me.  “I think he still lives with his parents,” said Madam.

“I was thinking exactly the same thing,” I said.

While we watched the squirrels a young odd looking couple walked by.  Possibly the product of multiple generations of distinctly unbiblical sex.  They proudly showed us a large bag of nuts they used for feeding squirrels. They told us in great detail where we could purchase our own bag, how much they cost, and what fun it was.  

Some towns have cinemas.  Some have bowling alleys.  Most have pubs and clubs.  Exmouth has nuts.

A tea room nearby was selling Devon cream teas. Not just cream teas, but Devon cream teas.  

A cream tea, for those of you disadvantaged by geography, consists of a pot of tea together with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. Traditionally a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, cream teas are now offered in most parts of England.  If you like to live on the wild side you can have a scone baked with currants or sultanas.  

There is a rivalry between Cornwall and Devon as to their cream teas.  The Devonshire method is to split the scone in two, cover each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. With the Cornish method, the warm ‘bread split’ or a ‘scone’ is first split in two, then spread with strawberry jam, and finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.  

Madam insisted we try both as we journey through Devon and into Cornwall.  Being partial to a scone or two I quite liked the idea.  

A little later that day she told me she didn’t really like cream teas so I wasn’t going to get one.  

Dartmoor

We left Exmouth soon after 10am and headed towards Dartmoor.  When we planned this trip we would travel along the South coast stopping wherever we fancied in seaside towns.  Realising that we had seen enough run-down seaside towns, fishing harbours and sandy beaches for the week, pretty as they might be, we craved a change of scenery.  And you don’t get much different than a windswept desolate moor. 

We were passing Buckfast Abbey so stopped for a quick look round.  I was vaguely aware they made tonic wine and things with honey but didn’t know much else.

The abbey forms part of an active Benedictine monastery.  They started the current abbey building in 1906 but only finished it in 2013. You need to sell a lot of jars of honey and tonic wine to pay for an abbey.

Having seen a lot of different cathedrals and abbeys over the years I am used to seeing stone steps and floors worn down by thousands of feet over centuries.  It was nice to see something that new. The stonework was immaculate. The carvings looked like they were completed yesterday. They were, in cathedral age terms.

There was a small exhibition, nicely done, about the lives of the monks living at the abbey.  I got the, probably accurate, impression that it was mostly praying and keeping silent. Since we had no desire to pray and Madam does not have the ability to be silent, we returned to the car and headed to the Dartmoor Visitor Centre.

We climbed winding steep lanes heading inland. The lanes got narrower.  One car wide with only occasional passing places. Ferns where whipping against the sides of the car.  I tightened my seatbelt. My ears straining, listening for the sound of any car coming the other way. My eyes bulging as I tried to peer around corners. Perspiration glistened on my brow.  I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter, my knuckles white, my arms shaking.

“Let go of the steering wheel Honey,” said Madam, “I can manage the driving on my own.”

We climbed higher still.

Finally, the road opened up and it presented us with the most amazing views of the moor.  Gorse dotted the hillsides with bright yellow flowers. Dry stone walls enclosed neat fields.  A few intrepid walkers were silhouetted on top of one peak. Cattle and sheep were wandering unhindered in the road and along the verges.

We parked in a small car park near the top of a hill and stood and gazed out over the moor. Serious looking hikers with Gore-Tex coats, backpacks and poles were heading in all directions.  Rocky outcrops were dotted on the hillsides. Craggy granite peaks topped the hills. The hills were green and every shade of gold and brown. It was wild, desolate and jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Madam walked for a while up a steep incline following the hikers while I sat and kept the car company. I was concerned it might be frightened out there all alone.  

The visitor centre in Princetown had an exhibition based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘Hound of the Baskervilles.’  The visitor centre was formerly the Old Dutchy Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed and was inspired to write his novel.  Many of the locations featured in his book are nearby: Great Grimpen Mire, where the hound was kept; the tomb of Squire Cabell, reputedly the inspiration for Hugo Baskerville; and Hexworthy, the village of Grimpen in the novel.

Dartmoor is the largest area of upland and open space in southern Britain with peaks rising to 2,000 feet. Mostly granite (or more specifically adamellite for any geologists reading) covered by a  layer of peat.  

Far more interesting is that the area is home to the world’s largest slug, the ash black slug, which grows up to eight inches long.  You can only find it in dense woodlands in remote valleys, otherwise, I would have insisted we go search for one to take home as a pet. Much easier to care for than a Norwegian Blue.

Many places we visited on this trip left only vague and hazy memories. Others were just “Bleh,” no need to ever come again.  Some, like Dartmoor, left a lasting impression and vivid memories. Definitely a place to re-visit and spend more time. But time was pressing and we had a hotel booking for tonight so we headed to Plymouth.

Plymouth

We had booked into a Premier Inn in Plymouth which turned out to be in a grim semi-industrial area.  A tyre and exhaust centre was opposite with a car crushing plant next door. The map showed a long walk via busy roads and roundabouts to the city centre but I noticed on the satellite view of Google Maps there was a cobbled path hugging the side of the docks. After some exploratory wandering in backyards and car parks, vaulting walls and studiously ignoring ‘Private’ signs, we found the path and reached the Pilgrim Steps away from the busy roads.  

Madam rushed to the steps which may, or may not, be the departure point of the Mayflower to America.  

“Take my picture… take my picture … take my picture,” she shouted as she pushed a couple of Japanese tourists aside.  

The steps are commemorated with a stone arch with a Union Flag and USA flag flying either side.  There is a small museum above the tourist information office which gave a brief history of the Mayflower and her passengers.  

The Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, now known as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to America in 1620. There were 102 passengers, with a crew of about 30.  

Some cargo choices were odd.  You would think that a ship bound for a colony would focus on seeds, farming and hunting equipment.  A few sacks of dried foods.  A return ticket in a back pocket.  One passenger, William Mullins brought 126 pairs of shoes, 13 pairs of boots, hose, stockings, haberdashery and stuff breeches amongst other items.

It must have been a miserable experience.  The cabins were cramped — the total area was only 25 feet by 15 feet.  Each person had a space less than the size of a modern single bed. The headroom below decks was less than 5 feet.  The cargo included pigs, goats, and poultry. Some passengers brought family pets such as dogs, cats and birds.  They were at sea for 65 days, much of it in rough weather, so add in seasickness for extra fun.

After arrival in America, the harsh winter climate and lack of fresh food caused more problems.  Several of the colonists developed scurvy and the cramped conditions led to other contagious diseases.  Between the landing and the following March, only 47 colonists and half the crew had survived. 

Not the best start for a new country.

We wandered around the harbour for a while, had dinner and helped fish the Japanese tourists out of the harbour, then headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Into Cornwall

It was a bright sunny day as we crossed Brunel’s Tamar Bridge into Cornwall.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has a lot to answer for.  The first tunnel under the Thames, The Clifton Suspension bridge, most of the major bridges and tunnels for the Great Western Railway, The SS Great Britain, the Renkoi hospital amongst other engineering masterpieces.  What an amazing list of achievements for one man — many of them were considered impossible at the time.  Many of his bridges and tunnels are still in use today, 150 years after their construction.

We parked in the massive car park in Looe and walked down to the harbour.  Three people were crabbing from the harbour wall.  One man had a bucket almost full with small crabs.  We asked him what he did with them as they looked too small for eating. “I just put them back” he replied.

Shops lined the road alongside the harbour.  Bakers, chemists, estate agents and banks.  Narrow lanes led away from the harbour.  Every street away from the harbour had nothing but gift shops and cafes.  They were packed with tourists stopping to look in every shop window and at every restaurant menu.  Try as I might I could never understand the appeal.  Every shop had the same selection of postcards, buckets and spades, t-shirts, sun hats, key rings, ornaments and tea towels.  Most of the visitors were elderly.  Even older than me.  Maybe life gets like that.  You reach a certain age and all you want to do is shuffle down crowded streets with other old people buying tea towels and ornaments.  

Madam went into a gift shop and bought a tea towel. 

Cars were moving through the narrow lanes, some not much wider than a car, forcing pedestrians into doorways.  It was crowded and chaotic.  We fought our way through the crowds to a small sandy beach, briefly admired the scenery and the packed  beach and said, “Let’s go to Polperro.” 

We got back to the car and Madam looked at her phone for directions to Polperro.  After much sighing and poking at her phone she said, “It looks as though we needed to book a parking space last April. Most of the websites said don’t even think about driving, they say to take a taxi or the bus.” 

She poked a bit more and said  “There’s a bus next Tuesday I think,”

I looked at an old-fashioned paper map and said: “Let’s go to Fowey instead.”

The only parking in Fowey was at the top of a very steep hill.  The town website helpfully told us that it was an easy five-minute walk down to the town and just a little longer back up.  Very steep wasn’t an exaggeration.  It was ski-jump steep.  It was don’t fall over or you will roll 300 yards into the river steep.  We staggered crab-like, hanging on to any rail down to the harbour.  

It was a lovely setting and worth the walk.  Sailboats were bobbing about on the river harbour.  Hanging flower baskets and boxes were full of a dazzling profusion of petunias, red, white and purple, reflecting in the water below.  Tables outside of the pub and coffee shop were packed with people watching the river and enjoying the September sunshine.  

We walked through the town but the crowded narrow streets only had the usual fudge, pasty and gift shops.  I wonder where all the locals go for their shopping.  There were no grocers, no hardware shop, no regular clothes shops.  Unless you live on pasties and wear beach clothes all the time you are pretty much out of luck.  When I think about it though, that doesn’t sound such a bad life.  

The local council had thoughtfully provided a shuttle bus back up to the main car park so we headed towards the bus stop.  Unfortunately, every other tourist had the same idea and the queue for the bus stretched halfway down the street.  We didn’t have enough time left on our parking to wait in line for a space on the sixteen-seater bus, so we trudged up the long, steep hill pausing many times to catch our breath and admire the scenery.

St Austell

We stayed for two nights in St Austell so that we had time to visit both the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. I’d wanted to see the Eden Project since I first heard of it fifteen years ago and Madam had the Lost Gardens on her bucket list.

The only hotel I could find with availability was a budget chain on the main road next to a McDonalds and KFC.  The room was hot and without air conditioning, so we had to sleep with the window open and got to listen to the local boy racers showing everybody how fast they could drive until the early hours.

I woke in a state of some anticipation for today as we are going to the Eden Project.  I had wanted to visit for several years but due to a certain geographical inconvenience had never managed to get here.

In 1996, about three miles from St Austell, there was once a very large hole in the ground.  It was a disused china clay pit that had reached the end of its useful life.  It briefly courted fame when it was used by the BBC as the planet surface of Magrathea in the 1981 TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but otherwise it just did what holes do and sat there being holey.

Later that year, a chap by the name of Tom Smit came along with a rather grand idea.  I should probably call it a Grand Idea.

Fast forward to 2018 and it has two huge enclosures consisting of adjoining biodomes that house thousands of plant species from around the world.  The largest of the domes simulates a tropical rainforest and the smaller a Mediterranean climate.  It also has an outside botanical garden that is home to plants native to Cornwall and the UK

A young man in the ticket office cheerfully relieved us of £55, gave us a membership card and told us we could come back just anytime we wanted for the next year.  He even took our photograph.  It was like going through US immigration but without the fingerprints and unbridled hostility and aggression. 

There was a long walk down a winding path to the tropical dome.  It was hot and humid, not surprisingly in a tropical forest.  We wandered happily around the dome looking at the luxuriant foliage, beautiful vibrant flowers, and spotting exotic birds and other wildlife living in the undergrowth.  We stopped for a baobab smoothie which tasted a lot like pineapple.  We drank from a water fountain where a guide told us we were losing a litre of water an hour in the dome.  

I spotted a viewing platform high up in the centre of the dome.  At the entrance to the steps leading up to the platform we were presented with a printed sign with a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t even think of climbing to the platform.  Were either of us pregnant?  Did we suffer from vertigo?  Back problems?  Mobility issues?  Are we prone to sudden heart attacks or strokes?  Could we cope with extreme heat?  Are our knees a bit creaky?  Did we eat breakfast?  Remember to clean our teeth?  Turn off the gas when we left?

Madam looked at the list of warnings and up at the steep and swaying steps and viewing platform suspended by steel cables and decided she wanted to go to the lower levels and look for a certain frog.  I suspect she really snuck in another baobab smoothie.

I climbed up and up with a couple of stops to admire the scenery.  The platform hovered just above the tops of the tallest trees, I could have almost reached down and touched them if I hadn’t been gripping the handrail quite so tightly.

The platform was hanging from steel cables and swayed gently which added a certain frisson to the experience.  The guide told me that it was 34C on the platform and they closed it when the temperature rose above 37C. She said we were 100 feet above the ground but a normal tropical tree canopy reaches up 150 feet so still had some distance to grow.

I stood for a long time, sweating liberally, and looked down at the trees and the people walking below.

We had a look round the Mediterranean dome and the outside botanical gardens and in at an exhibition hall which had a smoke ring blowing machine.  No really, it did. They were all nice and worth a visit but the tropical forest was the big highlight for me.  

I’m sure you have already seen (and liked and shared) my pictures on Instagram or Facebook by now.

After another night listening to the boy racers, it was time to head to Heligan gardens.  

It was a mild and sunny Saturday and we waited behind a long line of cars to enter the car park.  I blinked when I saw that it was going to cost £14.50 each to look around.  I blinked again to clear my vision.  It was still £14.50.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan were created by members of the Tremayne family from the mid-18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The gardens were neglected after the First World War and restored only in the 1990s.  They include aged rhododendrons and camellias, a series of lakes fed by a ram pump, flower and vegetable gardens, an Italian garden, and a wild area filled with subtropical tree ferns called “The Jungle.” 

We headed first to the kitchen gardens where they were growing a large quantity of beans, squashes, pumpkins, brassicas and numerous other vegetables that I neglected to note.  There were all in very neat rows and well tended and mostly weed free.  Far better than my allotment ever looked. Pens held turkeys, geese, chickens and pigs.  

We moved on to the flower gardens to find that the flowers were also growing in neat rows.  

It was like visiting a well-ordered and especially neat smallholding.  

In the hope of finding something more interesting, we headed to the Jungle, a wooded area with subtropical tree ferns and a much-advertised rope walk.  The rope walk was, I guess, about 40 yards long and suspended above a small valley.  It swayed from side to side in an interesting manner and rather reminded me of a children’s adventure playground. We were a dizzying ten feet above the ground.  I stood on the walk and Madam took my photograph.

After the excitement we needed a sit-down, so we sat for a while overlooking a pleasant pond on one side of the valley. Two loud, amply proportioned, older American women on the other side of the valley were discussing their trip to England and Scotland and how wonderful it was.  

One confided to the other “The only problem is the size of their seats.  Why do the British have to make their chairs so small?”

Penzance

We reached Penzance and I went up to the hotel reception to check in.  We had booked into a more expensive hotel for tonight, mostly due to a lack of availability on a Saturday night rather than a desire for a better hotel.  The hotel was probably upmarket fifty years ago.   The world has moved on since then but the hotel hasn’t seen the need.  The decor was… how can I put this delicately… dated.

The receptionist looked me up and down and said, “We had better put you in the wing… the furthest wing.”  

She handed me a large iron key and I fetched the luggage and Madam.  

We went slowly up to the first floor in a stuttering and clanking lift.  Along a long corridor, around a bend and up a further corridor.  Down some steps,  around a bend and down some more steps.  A short corridor then up some stairs, along a dark corridor and down some stairs.  Another long corridor and more steps down.  Through a gloomy subterranean tunnel, pushing aside cobwebs. Down alongside the sea, holding the luggage above the fast encroaching tide.  Up some slippery stone steps, through a disused garage and along a carpeted corridor.  Around another bend and up some steps. The floorboards creaked and sagged.  The lights flickered. Water pipes wheezed and groaned.  Down at the far end of another corridor was our room.

“How much was this room?” asked Madam.

“£162 a night my sweet.” I replied, “It was a special rate. I got a great deal with a coupon.”

She didn’t look impressed. 

“Hello Grandma, we’re home!” she called as she entered the room, brushing off the last of the cobwebs.

It was decorated in the style much favoured by grandparents and furnished with the cheap mass-produced 1970s furniture that Grandma bought after she sold all the old-fashioned quality Victorian stuff that had been passed down from her parents.  The bed was probably older than Grandma. 

I lay down on the bed and felt like I was sinking into the basement.  There was a sudden ‘Twang!’ from a spring in the mattress.  I carefully and tentatively felt my nether regions in case their integrity had been breached.  

“The ceilings are high,” said Madam, trying to strike a positive note.

I looked up at the cracked ceiling and nodded.  

I opened a drawer and found a part used tin of Altoids. 

“Isn’t it sad when you look forward to staying in a Premier Inn?” she said.

She opened the wardrobe and found two well-used neck pillows.  

I looked out of the window at the access road and bins.

“Time for dinner I think,” I said.

We walked further along the seafront to a fish and chip shop for an early dinner, then for a walk along the promenade.  There was a large swimming pool at one end with a solitary swimmer.  The water temperature was 16.8C.  Notices around the pool were about how they were trying to raise money to heat the pool by geothermal energy which should raise the temperature to 35C.  You might even tempt me into the water at those temperatures. 

We walked up through a churchyard into the town and back down through Morrab Gardens, a lovely three-acre park featuring palm trees and Mediterranean plants.  It is billed a sub-tropical but was distinctly chilly on this September evening.  

We went back to the hotel and looked around the reception area.  There was a Ladies Cloakroom,  a women-only area with comfy chairs where ladies could sit away from coarse men discussing politics and other weighty matters that women were not capable of understanding.  I looked in vain for a billiards and smoking room where I might have a glass of port and a cigar away from the chatter of empty-headed women discussing knitting and babies.

Adjacent was a reading room, a large restaurant and separate bar.  Incongruously, the bar had a large screen TV with a football match at full volume.  A fruit machine sat opposite the bar.  

We tried sitting in the bar for a drink but the mindless football chanting from the full volume television and shouting from one individual at the bar drove us out.  I don’t follow football so I have no idea who was playing.  I think it may have been Germany as the chap at the bar kept shouting the player names Dom Fokker and Fuchen Kant in a simultaneously both strident and dismissive tone.

We wandered the cavernous foyer and found a nice glass enclosed terrace overlooking the sea at the front of the hotel.  Madam asked the receptionist if it was okay if we took our drinks out onto the terrace who confirmed that it would be fine.  My thoughts were that for £162 I would bloody well sit where I wanted.

I’ve often walked past these old grand but faded seafront hotels and looked in at the old people sitting and eating or drinking on the veranda and thought, “that looks nice, I wonder what it’s like to stay there.” 

Now I know.

Land’s End

The sea spray splattered my glasses and the wind tugged at my hair causing it to stick up in an unusually expressive and interesting manner.  I looked like a cross between a mad scientist and just plain mad.  I zipped up my jacket.

“Amazing! It’s like something from National Geographic!”  Madam shouted above the wind.  

She was pointing her phone in every direction furiously taking photographs as fast as she could.  

“I’m glad I bought my windproof jacket,” I said.

“There’s no internet!” She said as she peered into her phone.  

Her selfie would have to wait.

We were at Land’s End.  The end of Cornwall and the end of the country.  The end of our westward journey.  This was as far as we could go.  Next stop America, over several thousand miles of ocean.

We had parked the car and walked to the southern side.  Steep twisting paths led down towards the cliff edge.  We had the area almost to ourselves. It was wild, windswept and desolate, everything we had expected, more than we had hoped. 

Sheer craggy cliffs cascaded down to the wild seas below.  Waves crashed against the cliffs below, inaudible over the wind.  Boulders were balanced so precariously on the side of the cliffs that it looked like the slightest breeze would send them crashing down into the sea.  Windswept gorse and heather gripped the thin soil.  Lichens and mosses lined the rocky hollows.

“This… this… this…” 

I looked at her expectantly. It isn’t often that Madam is lost for words.  

“This alone is worth all that driving! Amazing, magnificent, awe-inspiring, breath-taking!”

I think she liked Land’s End.  

Small signs reading ‘WARNING – Cliff Edge – Risk of Falling’ were positioned a few yards from the sheer cliff edge.

I don’t know about you but I like to think that any adult allowed out without close supervision would have the sense to not stand on the edge of a cliff, peer over and say “I wonder what will happen if I lean forw…”

Do we really need ugly yellow signs spoiling the view?  I may sound callous but I think that we might be doing the gene pool a favour if we let people discover for themselves.

But of course, a trip to any destination wouldn’t be complete without checking the tea towels and Christmas ornaments, so we headed to the northern side, past the Land’s End Hotel.  Coaches were disgorging hordes of tourists and a steady stream of cars were pulling in to park.

There was the obligatory gift shop of course, but they have added an entire shopping and entertainment village.  You can buy a Land’s End Doughnut, visit a small animal farm, watch a 4D film experience, visit the Wallace and Grommit exhibition and check out Arthur’s Quest which uses ‘the latest interactive technology and special effects to conjure a magically scary world.’  Brian Blessed’s voice was booming from the speakers in the entrance.

It was mind-numbingly awful.  It was packed with throngs of visitors who seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Their children all had the crazed look that comes from a diet of sugar and E numbers.  It seemed that people had driven miles to a setting of natural splendour – probably one of the best in England – and then sat indoors to watch a film, eaten junk food and visited the gift to load up on tacky souvenirs to prove they had been.

I picked up a leaflet from the information centre and it informed me ‘When it comes to retail therapy Land’s End provides a charming shopping experience…’

Seriously?

Retail therapy?  

Even the iconic Land’s End direction signpost was a commercial venture.  It was roped off and only available for the official photographer. You want a picture by the sign?  £12.50, please.

If we had visited that side first we would have turned tail and given it a miss. What do they think they are doing, and who gave planning permission for this development at such a beautiful site? 

Madam rushed to the gift shop.  She spent a long time going through the entire shop but managed to restrict herself to two tea towels, both with a map of the shipping forecast areas.

“Um, why are you buying tea towels with shipping forecast areas my sweet?” I asked her.

“I love the shipping forecast!” She said with some vehemence. 

You can know somebody for more than twenty years and still discover something new.  Isn’t that great?

A small child pointed to my hair and ran crying to his mother.

“Is there anything you need from the gift shop?” Madam asked, eager to check out and do whatever women do with tea towels.

I looked around the shop, ignoring the tea towels, t-shirts and key rings, but was tempted by a snow globe with the Land’s End signpost. I gave it a shake and watched the fake snowfall over the sign.  I gave it another shake and watched it again.  It was strangely calming.  I felt like it was sucking me in, absorbing me.  Another shake and I could become one with a snow globe.  I looked at the price tag.  It cost £7 and I could buy two pints of Doom Bar in Wetherspoons for that.

“No, I’m good.  There’s nothing I need,”  I replied.

Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount

Madam was sitting on Thracian Horses 1969 and I was on King Richard III 1969.  I moved to Twelfth Night 1970 for a better view of the practising orchestra and she came to sit beside me on South Pacific 1970.

We had stopped at the Minack Theatre on the way back from Land’s End.

In 1929, a local drama group put on an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a local meadow.  It was a great success, and they decided to perform The Tempest a couple of years later. 

Rowena Cade decided that the cliffs below her garden would be a perfect setting and over the winter of 1931 she and her gardener moved granite boulders and created a little theatre on the side of the cliff.

There were performances at the Minack every summer pre and post-war, and during the winters Rowena and her gardener and builder continued to extend and improve the theatre.

Fast forward to the present time and the Minack Theatre holds multiple performances every summer, the spectators perched on steep stone and concrete seats overlooking the stage with the crashing seas behind.

You have to be some kind of crazy to even consider building a theatre on the side of a windy cliff on the Cornish coast, but what an achievement.  What an amazing legacy to leave.  The world truly owes a debt of gratitude to Rowena Cade. 

We sat for a long time on the theatre seats watching the rehearsal and gazing out to sea.  We moved seats several times for different views of the cliffs, the sea and the theatre.  Each seat had the name of a production and year inscribed on the back.

“I could just sit here all day,” said Madam.

I thought so too.  Actually, I struggled to think much at all.  Such was the marvel of it, I mostly just sat there in open-jawed wonder and admiration. 

But we couldn’t dally.  Time and tide, especially tide, waits for no man and it was time to head along the coast to St Michael’s Mount.

St Michael’s Mount is a small rocky island a few hundred yards from the mainland.  It is crowned by a medieval church and castle with the oldest buildings dating from the 12th century.  The island is only accessible by boat or, by an hour or so either side of low tide, by a stone causeway.   

It’s an odd mix of National Trust and private enterprise.  In 1954, the third Baron gave the mount to the Trust with the family retaining a 999-year lease to inhabit the castle and a licence to manage the public viewing of the historic rooms.  As a result, the staff are employed by the family and not the Trust.  Due to the association with the Trust, entry was free with our membership which always pleases me out of all proportion to the small amount of money saved. 

The tide was too high to walk across the causeway, so we took the short boat ride to the island.  There was a long steep and winding path up to the castle, much of it over rocky and uneven ground.  

“I need some sticks,” said Madam.

My knees were creaking and my legs ached by the time we reached the summit.

 There was a guide at the entrance and she gave us a brief overview of the building and told us that Lord St Levan was away for the weekend. She gave his name in a hushed respectful voice and, I’m sure, gave a small involuntary curtsy.  I’ve always astonished that simply being lucky enough to pop out of the right womb at the right time gets that sort of response.  

There were a few rooms, a library, a refractory, a smoking room and study.  I can’t pretend it was particularly interesting compared to some other National Trust properties.

An exit from the rooms led out to a terrace with lovely views of the terraced gardens and out to sea.  I was staring out to sea lost in my own thoughts when I became vaguely aware of a bell ringing somewhere in the building.

“Quick!  Hide!” said Madam, “they might not see us.”

I wasn’t quick enough, and the guide ran out and waved us towards a door and said “Fire Alarm!  We need to leave immediately!”

The approved fire exit was through the private family residence, down several flights of stairs.

As we walked down the stairs there were bookcases just out of reach along the painting lined corridors.  I yearned to stop and see if they were reading the latest torrid potboilers and maybe tilt a few paintings to a slight, but annoying, angle but the guide shooed us on whenever we slowed.

Somebody, somewhere, decided that the fire assembly point was at the bottom of the hill.  Down we went, crocodile fashion like a school party of six-year-olds, shepherded by guides at the back and front.

After a few minutes and no sign of smoke, it was declared a false alarm, and they told us we could go back.  I looked up at the steep rugged path and down the gentle slope to the cafe and harbour.  The tide was heading out and the causeway nearly open.  The cafe was serving coffee and tantalisingly close.  Several paid ticket holders were grumbling and demanding refunds.

“Are we done?”  I asked Madam.

“We haven’t seen all the rooms yet!” she snapped, “I want to get my money’s worth!”

I told her we didn’t have to buy a ticket as it was free, apart from a £2 boat ride but she had already set off up the hill and my words were lost in the wind.  I dutifully followed her up the steep path on weary legs.

There were a few more rooms and a small medieval church, vaguely interesting but barely worth the climb.

After our final descent, the causeway was open.  It was oddly satisfying to walk along a rough stone road which, only a couple of hours before, was under water.  I lingered looking at the rock pools on either side, turning over the odd stone and watching startled baby crabs scuttle away.

When we reached the mainland, I looked back at the path, stretching all the way to the island.  “I enjoyed that more than the castle,” I thought.

I was tempted to wander back towards the island to poke around in some more rock pools but Madam was already halfway to the car.  She was excited about our next destination…

Padstow and Newquay

Madam had wanted to visit Padstow for some time, mostly because it is the home of a celebrity chef.  I couldn’t find a single hotel in Padstow with availability that wouldn’t make my credit card squeal with pain so I booked one in nearby Weybridge for a couple of nights. 

After checking in to the hotel, which turned out to be on the edge of town in a dreary industrial estate next to a timber merchants, we were both too tired to travel any further so we ended up having dinner in the attached restaurant, an experience neither of us wishes to repeat. 

It was a cloudy but warm day as we drove into Padstow. I had set the SatNav to the postcode of a car park near the town centre.  On the way into town, we passed a park and ride offering all-day parking for £5.  I wondered why such a small town would even have a large park and ride as we continued into the town.  The first two town car parks were full.  The third had a narrow space that, after much manoeuvring, we managed to squeeze into. I started to see the wisdom of the park and ride.

Madam told me that the town was often referred to as Padstein due to the presence of the businesses owned by Rick Stein, the aforementioned celebrity chef.  We walked from the car park into the centre and passed a restaurant with his name, then a bakery, then another restaurant.  Even the tourist information office has a book of his recipes.  I checked with the Google later and learned that he owns four restaurants, a cookery school, a patisserie, a hotel and holiday rentals in the town.

The streets were packed with tourists. It was impossible to walk on the crowded pavements, we were forced into the road to make any progress. We had a look around the pretty harbour and I took a few photographs.  A fisherman was unloading lobsters from his boat.  A light breeze blew from the river.   A passenger boat was busy ferrying passengers between Padstow and Rock on the other side of the River Camel.

The streets were well kept and pleasant but I just couldn’t see enough to attract the masses of visitors.  A gift shop had a sign in the window that read ‘Anyone who tells you money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop.’ 

I stepped over an extending dog lead stretched across the pavement.

“So who is the Stein chap then,” I asked Madam.

“You’ve seen him on TV,” she replied, “he does the seafood dishes.”

I thought for a while.  “The one from Essex that whizes and wazzes stuff?  I like him.”

“No, that’s Jamie Oliver.  Stein does seafood.  Travels a lot.”

“Oh, I remember now,” I said, “the one that owns the fat ducks.”

Madam sighed, shook her head and pulled me away from a Spaniel about to use my leg as a lamp post.

“He wrote the ‘How to Cook’ series?” I asked.

Madam sighed.  “No, that was Delia Smith.  Stein is a really popular chef.  He has a seafood restaurant here.  Expensive but very good. We should go and look at the menu. It might be a good place for lunch.”

“Expensive you say?” I asked in a small but controlled squeak. 

We watched the ferry disgorge more passengers while I thought about our lunch plans.  A small fishing boat chugged into the harbour.

“Those £3 pasties in the bakery looked really nice,” I said.

I’ve never seen so many dogs in one town.  They were everywhere.  Most of them looked stressed and unhappy in the crowds. They were urinating on every available lamp post.  Many people had two or three dogs. We passed two specialist dog accessory shops.  Even the gift shops were selling dog bandanas. 

A dog was leaving a steaming deposit in front of one of Stein’s cafes.  We popped into a gift shop nearby as Madam needs more Christmas ornaments, apparently.  They didn’t have any but we asked the owner why there were so many dogs.  

He hesitated a while then said “I like dogs, I really do…. but it’s just out of hand.  Some of the shops started putting up dogs welcome signs.  Then they all did it. Word got out and everybody started bringing their dogs here.”

He rearranged a rack of t-shirts and said “I’m fed up with dodging piles of crap on the pavements.  One of my friends even calls this place Dogstein.”

He looked at Madam and said, “Would you like a tea towel with a Labrador picture or do you prefer the Scottie?”

We had enough of tripping over dog leads and jumping puddles ourselves and couldn’t see anything in the town to further detain us, so we headed towards Newquay.  I was upset at leaving as we still had 45 minutes on our parking.

We stopped off at Mawgan Porth on the way.  It was a small sandy cove with a surf shop and a couple of cafes and, more importantly, free parking.  

Surfers were fighting the waves to get further out to sea.  An RNLI boat was on the beach, close to the water.  The wind was picking up and fine sand was blowing in the air. A few people were walking dogs on the beach.  The dogs looked happy, running in all directions, tails wagging furiously.  

And so on to Newquay.  As we passed through the outskirts, signs were advertising cheap wetsuits and slick boards, whatever they are.  We drove in along a high cliff road lined with hotels and parked close to the town centre.  A man was sitting on a sleeping bag by the car park entrance rolling a cigarette and enjoying a morning aperitif.   We walked past pound shops, charity shops, betting shops and an off-licence.  Several shops were closed with faded ‘To Let’ or ‘For Sale’ signs.  

The attractive and photogenic sandy beach was small and focused on surfing.  Two RNLI trucks stood by on the beach.  Two men in wetsuits were standing at the waters edge holding boards and looking forlornly at the lack of any surf.  There were two surfing shops overlooking the beach, one of them looked as if it had closed down.  A bakery-cafe and a fish and chip shop stood alongside them.

Six people were lying on boards on the sand, their instructor standing over them. Their lesson must have been ‘how to fall asleep on a board’ as none of them moved while we were there.

“Look at that sea,” said Madam “It’s so blue.”

“You can go for a swim if you like” I replied.

She looked out at the fast receding tide and said: “Let’s get something to eat.”

I bought my first Cornish pasty of the trip and sat eating it on a wall opposite ‘Rip Curl Surf Threads’.  Next door, the library had signs outside in both English and Cornish.  A total of 400 people claim to be fluent in Cornish, while another few thousand can speak a little.  It isn’t recorded how many of them live in Newquay but I’m guessing they could hold a party in a phone box and still have room for the buffet table.

We added Newquay to the list of places we never needed to visit again.

We were back in the hotel by mid-afternoon and I needed something cold to drink.  The vending machine in the lobby of the hotel was empty so I asked the receptionist if there was another machine.  She shrugged and said no, implying it wasn’t her problem and why was I bothering her. 

I walked into Weybridge along a busy main road in the hope of finding a convenience store or supermarket.  It was longer than it looked on the map, about a mile or so. I walked down a long busy main road, over a 15th century stone bridge above a shallow river, and into the town centre.

I was halfway up the pedestrianised main street when I realised there was something different about the town. There was a complete absence of chain stores. No WH Smith, no Boots with their glaring plastic and glass shopfronts. No Starbucks, no Next or New Look.  There were independent butchers, stationers, clothes shops, even a locally owned bookshop. 

It was like being back in the 1960’s. It was wonderful.

Cheddar and Wells

“It doesn’t taste anything like American cheese!” exclaimed Madam.

We were heading to Wells in Somerset for a couple of days and stopped off at Cheddar on the way and, after a brief look at the end of the gorge, had gone into the only cheese shop to actually make Cheddar cheese in Cheddar. 

They had a wide range of samples and we worked our way around them from mild to mature.  The first cheese sample was the mild, matured for only a few months.  Madam savoured it slowly and said “Mmmm… nice.”

The second was more mature with a stronger taste.  Madam’s breath quickened and said, “This is NOTHING like American cheese.”

When the cave-aged Cheddar touched her tongue her breath became heavy and she let out a long soft moan.  Several women standing behind looked on with interest.  I wasn’t sure if I needed to guide her from the shop for fear of embarrassment or just buy her a wedge of extra-mature and leave her alone in a room.  

After much sampling, we settled on a cave-aged mature Cheddar and an oak smoked Cheddar.  I’m not big on hard cheeses, preferring a soft French cheese, but even I could see how much better this was that the average supermarket offering.  I should hope so for the prices they were charging.

“I’ve eaten Cheddar cheese in Cheddar!” said Madam excitedly as we headed back towards the car.

“I’ve eaten American cheese in America,” I thought.  It was bright orange and tasted of nothing much at all.  It was weirdly soft and sticky all at the same time.  

But I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I kept the thought to myself.

“I’ve never seen a television that small,” I said as I opened the door.

We had booked a self-catering “cottage” for three nights which was on a caravan park.  It was more chalet than cottage.

I opened a cupboard and the knob came off in my hand.  The ceiling was Artex.  Madam turned on a table lamp.  “Let there be light,” she said.

There was darkness.  

I pulled on a knob to open the wardrobe.  But you know what happened.  I put the two spare knobs on a shelf.

It had a tiny lounge with a two-person sofa,  a TV just a little larger than my iPad, a two-person dining room, a slide in sideways kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a bedroom just big enough for a bed and a wardrobe. 

“It’s better than a hotel room,” said Madam.

Which was true, once you got used to moving sideways.   It was clean and comfortable with everything we needed for a few nights.   

We drove into Wells for dinner but we ended up passing the cathedral on the way from the car park.  We popped in and had a quick look round. The guided tours had finished for the day, so we planned on coming back later this week.  We had a really enjoyable tour in Salisbury cathedral and I hoped this would be as good.  It was almost deserted, for a cathedral, so I wandered around happily taking a few photographs unobstructed by other visitors.  I’m sure you have seen them on Instagram by now.

It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we walked down the High Street looking for somewhere to eat.  Wells is billed as the UK’s smallest city.  It is certainly compact, you could walk across the centre in 20 minutes and still have time to pop into the bank, chat to a friend and change your library books.  

Unfortunately, its compact size hasn’t kept the chain stores at bay. All down the High Street was a succession of the likes of W H Smith, New Look, Costa, Nero’s, Vision Express, Carphone Warehouse, Waterstones and Greggs.  I’ve nothing against any of these – I can often be found frequenting them myself but it’s sad when you see family-owned businesses, who have probably served the town for years and live locally, closing down to be replaced with yet another identikit store.  I just get fed up when almost every town we visit looks the same as all the others.

We popped into Costa for a coffee.

We struggled to find a restaurant serving food at 5pm.   They were either lunch cafes that closed at 4pm or pubs serving food from 6pm onwards.  Eventually, we wandered down a side street and found a family run Italian restaurant by the name of Da Luciano which was both happy to rustle up a couple of pizzas and excellent. Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.  Madam wanted some weird combination, not on the menu involving artichokes, swede, onion, basil, dandelion, elderberry, porridge, grapes and marmalade.  The staff were happy to oblige and Madam said it was the best pizza she had had for years. 

I may have got a couple of the ingredients wrong.  I was hungry and forgot to make notes.  

The next morning found us back in Cheddar for a proper look at the caves, now called Gough’s cave after Richard Gough, the man who found, excavated and opened them to the public.

The cave system stretches for over two miles but only a small section of this is open to the public. During the excavation in the 1800s, a number of human skeletons were found along with human brain cases which appear to have been prepared as drinking cups.  DNA taken from a skeleton dated to 7150 BC has been matched to a retired history teacher living locally.  Now, that is something to impress people at dinner parties.

The caves were pleasant enough, but once you have seen one limestone cave you have seen them all.  They are a constant temperature of 11C which, I am told, is the perfect temperature to mature cheese.  Just inside the entrance was a store of cheeses from the factory across the road.  The air had a musty unpleasant smell close to the cheese.  I don’t know if that was the cheeses or simply because it was the lowest section of the caves.  The guide said there was often an unpleasant smell when they opened the doors in the morning.

We stood and looked up at the wire cages, high up on a rocky shelf, containing hundreds of wheels of cheese.

“You ate some of that cheese yesterday, do you want some more?” I asked Madam.

She gave a small shudder of pleasure and said: “I certainly do!”

As we walked further into the cave we climbed higher into the limestone cliffs and the air became fresher.  I noticed that there were small pockets of plants growing near to the electric lights.  There were hearts tongue ferns, mosses, and lichens wherever there was water and light.  The guide told us that spores and seeds were carried in by a colony of a hundred or so resident horseshoe bats.

“This is way more entertaining!” said Madam as the snarling wolf lunged forward. 

“This is brilliant!” she continued as the brown bear tore through the rocks into our tiny cave.  We were trapped by a rock wall at the back and a cascading waterfall to the side.  Luckily the Mesolithic hunters in front had some pointed sticks, so we were saved.  You can do a lot with a pointed stick in the right hands.

We were in ‘Dreamhunters – The Adventures of Early Man’ in Cox’s Cave, just down the road from Gough’s Cave.  According to their promotional  leaflet: 

‘This multimedia experience allows guests to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.  Discover the ingenuity that saw our forebears master tools, weapons, and fire to overcome fierce predators and a changing climate.’

And very well done it was.  The caves were small, we were shuffling sideways through narrow passages, crouching under low overhangs and dipping fingers into pools of freezing water.  I was so entranced by the whole experience that I completely forgot to take any pictures so you will just have to go and see it for yourself.

The exit from Cox’s Cave led us to the foot of Jacobs Ladder, a steep set of 274 stone steps that take you directly to the top of the gorge.  About halfway up I reached the startling conclusion that I was no longer thirty years old.  I stopped, panting and struggling to recover my breath.  I took the last section slowly on wobbly legs, listening to creaking knees and complaining muscles.

After the steps was a further long climb along a steep and slippery rocky path.  Black and white goats were sitting alongside the path unconcerned by the steady stream of passing walkers. The full trail is three miles but that was more than either of us wanted, so we reached an open point above the gorge and stopped to admire the views.

The view stretched over green fields with compact tidy farms towards the Mendip Hills.  Nestled in the valley below was the city of Wells, the cathedral clearly visible.  On the far horizon was Glastonbury Tor standing high above the other hills.

“Worth the climb?”  I asked Madam, but she was already heading back down the trail to the cheese shop so I never received a reply.

Glastonbury

We’ve been lucky with the weather the last two weeks.  We have had the odd shower but it has been mostly dry and warm.  As we headed into the outskirts of Glastonbury the following morning the rain started.  It was a steady light rain that signalled its intention to go nowhere fast.

We parked at one end of the High Street and walked down towards the market and Abbey ruins.  A homeless man, dressed in purple, green and orange was sitting on the bench outside the church.  

Two girls of about seven or eight were standing in the rain handing out leaflets to Hempfest – Celebrating the Magic and Potential of Hemp.

Walking down the hill we could have shopped at ‘Happy Glastonbury’ for rainbow makers, or maybe ‘Lady of the Silver Wheel’ for sacred symbols.  ‘Crystals’ had half price mystical pendants or we could have gone into ‘The Library of Avalon’ for a spot of esoteric learning.  Further up the road, we could have picked up some of The Best Quality CBD from the ‘Chocolate Love Temple.’

Unfortunately, it was only ten-thirty in the morning and new agers are not early risers so the shops were all closed.  One of them gave their opening time as GMT (Glastonbury Maybe Time).

Had we been staying a bit longer we could have taken a course reclaiming the ancient myths of the Gnostic Goddess for healing, guidance, and devotion.  Possible with a quick trip to meet Merlin and the Angels of Awakening.  Madam could, I’m sure, have made time for a class of Women’s Womb Wisdom and unlocked the boundless creativity within her womb.  Maybe next time.

One website informed me that several Ley lines (lines of power) cross through Glastonbury and if you stand in the right place you will get a ‘balanced energy message from the earth’ due to the higher frequency of energy.

Luckily I was wearing my tinfoil hat so I was completely unaffected.

The Abbey ruins wanted £7.50 each to go in and look at some old walls in the rain, so I just stretched my arm over the spiked gate and took a picture.  It seemed to be deserted.

We trudged back up the hill towards the car and debated catching the bus to Glastonbury Tor.  A steady rain was falling and the temperature had dropped several degrees overnight so we decided it would be a lot drier and warmer in Wells.

Why oh why cannot those in charge of car parks list their postcode as a street somewhere in the vicinity of the entrance, rather than the street behind or some random road half a mile away?   We entered the postcode of the long stay car park and it led us down a residential cul-de-sac.  We attempted it from another direction with the same result.  In the end, we just gave up and drove at random looking for a large blue “P’ sign.  We eventually found a Waitrose car park where we were allowed to park for £5.40.

Our first stop in Wells, right after extending our mortgage to pay for parking, was the Bishops Palace.  We purchased our tickets for £16 a little afternoon and were told that the palace was closed from 1pm onwards for a wedding but we were welcome to explore the cafe and gift shop after this time.  I was going to hone my sarcasm skills and tell her that my favourite hobby was exploring cafes but Madam was already heading to the palace entrance.

There turned out to be only half a dozen rooms, many of them being prepared for the private wedding, so thirty minutes was more than we needed.  

I took a few pictures of the palace and adjoining chapel but neither was of any great interest.  

It was still raining but we ventured into the fourteen acres of gardens which were well designed and lovely, even in the rain.  Statues were scattered about and the palace walls and building made a fabulous backdrop.  It was (almost) worth £16.

We crossed to road to Wells cathedral, had lunch in their cafe and joined a tour group in the cathedral.  It was probably informative, inspirational and all round awe-inspiring.  Probably.  Unfortunately, the guide was mumbling and turning her back on the group and we heard very little.  

The tour was hijacked half way round by a prayer group so we made our escape and had a look round at some bits we missed yesterday.  

A narrow spiral stone staircase led up to a library containing books from the 18th century, some of them chained to the bookshelves.  I found these fascinating, just looking at the spines of the books on the shelves and their chains.  How I wanted to jump over the low gate and open a few books but of course I didn’t.  Madam would have been cross.

In spite of its quirks and minor maintenance issues, we became quite attached to our little chalet.  We weren’t disturbed.  It had everything we needed for a few nights. An equipped kitchen.  Electric heaters and hot water.  Separate rooms so Madam could knit or watch television and I could read or write.

But it was time to head back. A four-hour drive, all on main roads and motorways.  It rained intermittently and we were glad when we reached home.

I opened the front door and we carried in the suitcases.

“Hello Alexa, we’re home” called Madam.

“Welcome home.  I hope you are having a good day.”

And we were.  And we had had a very good two weeks indeed.

We had climbed the equivalent of 410 flights of stairs, walked a total of 63 miles and driven 885 miles.  I realise that this is the normal distance that Americans will drive for a decent burrito but it was a long way on English roads.

It was time for a sit-down and a cup of tea.  Maybe listen to some music.

“Alexa, play surf sessions from Spotify,” said Madam

“Playing acoustic music from Spotify”

“Alexa!  Stop!”

“Alexa play SURF… SESSIONS… from Spotify.”

“Playing songs by the Smurfs from Spotify.”

“Alexa!  Stop!”

“Alexa!  PLAY… Oh never mind.”

Madam sighed and said, “I think I’ll go and unpack.”

She stopped by the door and turned to look at me. “where are we going next?”

That’s a good question I thought.

 

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Copenhagen and a Hat with Horns

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Many people born in the USA consider themselves something other than just American. They may be Italian-American, German-American or Irish-American, even though their ancestors emigrated to the USA in 1878. They are still uniquely proud of their heritage. Try telling an Italian-American, who has never been within a thousand miles of Sicily, he isn’t Italian and you may wake up next to a horse’s head.

Madam had an ancestor born in Denmark. I forget the exact relationship but it was something like her great great great great grandmother’s cousin twice-removed was from Copenhagen. With all that Viking blood coursing through her veins, she is clearly Danish-American. Unfortunately, this sounds like a breakfast pastry.

“I’ll take a grande half-fat latte macchiato with an extra shot please. Oh, and throw in one of your tasty Danish-Americans. Make that to go.”

I hope there are no real Danish or Italian-Americans reading this, or I may be in trouble. I loved the Cannoli I had in Little Italy. Honestly. It was the best squirty pastry I’ve ever had.

Hoping that Madam will recognise a long-lost relative from amongst the crowds, off to Copenhagen we shall go. I have to admit it wasn’t high on my bucket list of places to visit but whatever keeps Madam happy. I suppose there is the off chance that I might find a Viking hat with horns.

The World Happiness Report has, for the last several years, had Scandinavians, including the Danish, rank as the happiest people in the world. Both the UK and the USA are much lower. The survey uses both objective data such as levels of crime, income, access to education and health care, along with subjective questions like “how do you rate your life?”

Scandinavia has, to put it bluntly, crap weather for much of the year. Snow carpets the ground throughout the winter with temperatures struggling to get much above freezing. It gets dark by 4pm. It will be windy and cloudy. Summer is better but seems over in the blink of an eye. Taxes in Denmark are amongst the highest in the world. Personal income tax rates can reach 60%. VAT (sales tax) is 25%.

So what is there to be happy about?

If we believe the media hype, it’s all about the Hygge (pronounced Hoo-gah). This is a difficult word to translate but means something like ‘comfort’ or ‘cosiness’. It’s a glass of wine with friends or a cup of cocoa in front of the fire. It’s being in, and appreciating, the moment. Treating ordinary moments as special.

Hygge has spawned an entire new industry. Retailers, never slow to jump on the fad gravy train, are offering Hygge Tealight Holders (£49), Hygge Stonewashed Blankets (£115) and Hygge Cushions (£40). Publishers join in the fun with more than a hundred books on the hygge lifestyle. Many of the books have only a few dozen pages. I sympathise with the authors. After all, how many different ways can you say “We have friends coming round, open a bottle of wine”?

If a packet of cocoa and a pile of firewood was the secret of happiness, we would all be in a state of eternal bliss. I think there is more to the Danes happiness than a cosy evening in front of the fire.

Every Dane, from the moment of birth, gets free high quality healthcare and education. They are paid to go to university. Public transport is widespread, efficient and affordable. They get ten months of maternity or paternity benefits. They retire with absolute security and a generous pension. Vacation time is around seven weeks. Denmark has one of the lowest gaps between rich and poor in the world with the minimum wage of around $20 an hour. In effect, they are all middle class. They do not celebrate ambition and the constant striving for promotion or more money. Danes believe it is more important to pursue a career you love rather than one with a larger paycheck. Time spent with family and friends is more important than the size of your car.

Some claim the Danish model is socialism but successive governments have committed themselves to free markets, private ownership and free trade. It has a low level of bureaucracy and encourages business start-ups. Perhaps it is socialism with a small ‘s’ and capitalism with a small ‘c’. Either way, it seems to work.

But enough of the politics. Copenhagen calls.

Our flight landed in Copenhagen airport just before 5pm. When we booked the flight and hotel as a package, they offered us a private car transfer from the airport to the hotel and back for £148 per person. Having looked at a map before booking I could see that the airport was only a few miles from the centre of Copenhagen so I declined their kind offer. The local train ran direct from the airport terminal into the city. From there we walked only a few minutes to the hotel and had completed check-in within 40 minutes. Cost for a single journey £4 each. Even a taxi from the rank would have only cost £35. A transfer for £148 leaves a tidy profit for somebody. I splashed out on a 48 hour city pass (£17 each) which gave us unlimited travel throughout the city, including from the airport.

Our room on the first floor overlooked the harbour. A pedestrian and bicycle path was below our window. A little further out into the harbour a section was partitioned off and swimming lanes and a diving board added. Several hardy souls were swimming. The water temperature was a toasty 19C (66F). I asked Madam if she fancied a dip but she declined. I’ve no idea why.

I sat and watched the bicycles passing below the window for an hour while Madam went through her extensive unpacking and checking routine. So many bicycles. So little Lycra. It is the chosen transport in Copenhagen for young and old. Businessmen with briefcases balanced on the handlebars. Mothers with children in a seat on the back. One man had an old wooden Carlsberg beer crate fastened on the front with his dog sitting in there watching the world go by.

By the time Madam had finished checking under the bed for dust and reorganising the pillows and towels to her satisfaction, it was too late to do much else but pop into the mall conveniently located next door to the hotel. As soon as we walked in the front door, Madam saw a Tex-Mex restaurant, so our dinner choice was set.

Whenever we spoke to people who had visited Copenhagen, they would tell us how expensive it was. We were mentally prepared for a week’s bread and water diet with just the occasional ice cream. You have to have ice cream. Prices were certainly higher in the tourist areas. A lot higher. Once you moved into the areas the locals used it wasn’t quite so bad. The first meal we had in the local mall, with two entrees and three drinks (Madam insisted on two margaritas) came to 327Kr (£39). You would struggle to pay less in London.

Other things were pricier. A cup of coffee in a chain coffee shop was 45Kr (£5.35). A non-chain cafe 35Kr. A beer in a bar or restaurant was 55Kr (£6.55). On the other hand a bottle of Danish pilsner beer from the local supermarket was 3.5 Kr (42p).

Would you like to know the cost of sending a postcard from Denmark to the UK?

I bet you would. I’ll need a small drum roll please. If you don’t have any drums handy just use a couple of pens on a desk.

Ready?

Good.

Sending a single postcard to the UK costs 27Kr (£3.21, or $4.35). Don’t expect any postcards from Madam.

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Day 2.

I stood watching out from the open window while Madam went through that long and mysterious process that women have to do before declaring they can leave the room. After many years of marriage I am still clueless what is involved. I shower, dry and dress. I’m ready. What she does? I’ve no idea. All I know is it takes a long time and involves many electric appliances and odd-smelling substances in small pots and tubes.

I watch the pedestrians and bicycles pass below. A young man stopped and looked at the ground and shook his head. He picked up a discarded coke bottle and deposited it in the bin. A woman by the swimming lanes dipped her hand in the water and recoiled as though touching a hot stove. Two young blonde women jogged by, ponytails bouncing. Dozens of cyclists wearing office clothes. A group of Japanese tourists jumped into an unmanned boat moored to the harbour wall for a selfie. It was 8am.

We headed into the centre on the local train. It was only a twenty-minute walk but the station was opposite the hotel, and included in our pass and I don’t think we ever had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train. The central station has four entrances and, being new and clueless, we managed to pick the one that led into the former red-light district. At least my guidebook said it was former. It wasn’t. We walked some distance into the district, becoming increasingly lost. We finally found a bus stop and the bus, fortuitously, dropped us back at the station entrance we should have taken in the first place.

There is a local ordinance that all tourists must visit The Little Mermaid. They won’t let you back on the plane until you have shown them a selfie with the statue in the background. It is the iconic attraction that everybody associates with Copenhagen.

The crowd spread along the railing overlooking The Little Mermaid was ten deep. Many more were scrambling over the slippery rocks to get their picture taken in front of the statue. Japanese selfie stick were being waved menacingly in the air. A steady stream of tour buses disgorged more visitors. Souvenir shops and stalls were doing a roaring trade, selling miniature replicas of the mermaid. Madam bought a £7 ornament.

The Little Mermaid has had a rough life since she was unveiled in 1913. In 1964, her head was sawn off and stolen by artists from the Situationist Movement. If you, like me, have never heard of this movement, I offer you this explanation from Wikipedia:

‘The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism. Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.’

I wonder why that never caught on.

Her head was never recovered, and a duplicate was made and installed.

In 1984 on a warm evening in July, two bored young men sawed off her arm, returning it two days later. In 1998, she was decapitated once again but this time the head was recovered and reattached later that year. In 2003, explosives were used to blow her off her base. She has variously been covered in red paint, a dildo attached to her hand and dressed in a burqa. I could go on, but you get the idea. Strictly between you and me, it has always been just a copy – the original is kept hidden away, quite wisely, by the descendants of the sculptor Eriksen. Please don’t tell the throngs of tourists.

Everybody says the statue is smaller than they expected. I heard this so many times, I somehow imagined it would be a foot tall at best. In fact it is only slightly smaller than life size, larger than I expected, which I think is just the perfect size. The stains running down from the top of her head suggest that it is a favourite perch for pigeons when the tourists leave them in peace. Some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue as they say.

We followed the harbour south along the waterfront through an obviously affluent area, eventually reaching the Amalienborg Royal Palace. The Danish royal family are big on palaces and official residences. Summer palaces, winter palaces, second summer palaces and palaces just for eating their dinner.

Amalienborg is the official winter residence of the family. It is not just one, but four different palaces flanking an open square. The four were built by four different aristocratic families in the middle of the 18th century as private residences. Following a fire at the then current royal place at Christiansborg in 1794, the royal family took over the buildings. Accounts differ whether the king paid for the buildings or merely gave tax exemptions and promotions. Madam explained who lived in what building but it was all a little lost on me. I think the queen lives in one, the crown prince in another and their dog in a third. I may have got the bit about the dog wrong. Flags fly at various buildings depending on who is home, who has popped out to the corner shop for bacon, or who is walking the dog. You may need to ask Madam for the exact details.

There is a changing of the guard at noon every day and propitiously we arrived at a few minutes to twelve. Crowds already lined the square, cameras at the ready. A sole policeman stood guard in the centre of the square. Excitement mounted as noon approached. The buzz of conversation got louder and tourists jockeyed for prime position at the front. Twelve soldiers, wearing black bearskin hats, marched smartly into the square and did a right turn directly in front of Madam. It was all over in two minutes.

Nyhavn is Copenhagen tourist central. It’s the one with all the brightly coloured houses either side of the canal. Historic wooden boats line the quay. Most of the buildings are now restaurants with rows of outside tables almost reaching the water. It was lunchtime and every table was packed.

King Christian V opened the canal in 1670 to allow ships access to central Copenhagen. The oldest house dates from 1681. After a bit of a tiff with the British in 1807 and a spot of, probably well-deserved, naval bombardment, the wealthy merchants moved out. The area then became well known for sailors, pubs, prostitutes and general debauchery. 

Coincidently, or perhaps deliberately, Hans Christian Andersen moved into the street at this time, living in three different houses over the next twenty-odd years. We didn’t bother to scramble over dozens of diners and tables to see the memorial plaque at number 67. We did stroll the length of the street amongst the tourists and frantic waiters dodging between tables. It would have been nice to linger and look at the boats but there was barely standing room on the quay, let alone anywhere for a sit down.

Our guide book told us that Copenhagen was walkable and we wouldn’t need public transport. Amble across the centre in an afternoon it said. Even with our city pass, taking buses and trains where possible, we had walked over five miles by 1pm. The guide book also had no mention of The Little Mermaid. You have to wonder who writes these guides and whether they even visit. To moan a bit more, just a random glance at their recommended restaurant list included Noma as one of their top choices. I’m sure this two Michelin star restaurant serves amazing food but you have to book weeks or months in advance and pay them £275 per person to even get a reservation. Hardly a sensible suggestion for somebody spending a weekend in Copenhagen, is it? Other sections, I found later were completely wrong. Anybody need a guide to Copenhagen, going cheap?

EDIT: I eventually found a brief reference on page 103 and I quote: ‘The Little Mermaid … must rank as one of the most overexposed and overrated pieces of sculpture in the world.’  There was no mention in the index nor the contents of the guide.

Being hot and knackered, we headed back to the hotel for a rest. Just as we left the train, a pigeon flew close overhead and left me a little present. Today I was the statue. Some people believe a bird pooping on you will bring good luck and riches. I suggest that those people have never had to clean pigeon shit from their ears. I decided I don’t like pigeons.

After a brief rest, we headed back into the city and I had a £15 sandwich in the Tivoli food hall. The menu was in Danish, so I had no clue what each cost before I ordered. It was all looking and pointing. It was a nice sandwich – one of those open face ones. They call them Smørrebrød so they can charge more than a regular sandwich.

I’m being a little unfair in calling it a sandwich. The filling is piled high enough to make half a dozen British Rail sandwiches. The Danes have a reputation for design and they have turned the humble sandwich into an art form.  They are often a delight to the eye as well as the palate.

Smørrebrød includes countless open-face sandwich combinations, from basic to lavish. The word derives from smør og brød, or “butter and bread.” The basic bread is rugbrød or rye bread. This is buttered and toppings added. Traditional ingredients include pickled herrings, thinly sliced cheeses and meats, cucumber, tomatoes and smoked fish.

I think it worked out at about £1.50 a bite.

One of the waitresses yesterday recommended a visit to Strøget. This is one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets stretching to almost a mile. After a struggle to find the start, we spent an hour or so walking its length. Pleasant enough but very crowded and with more gift and souvenir shops than is either healthy or desirable. Madam bought two postcards 7 Kr each (84p).

We stopped off at the local mall on the way back to the hotel for some sushi. Due to an ordering cock up by our waiter, there was a long delay before our meal arrived. Hunger gripped me by then and I gulped down a roll. I like wasabi. It clears the sinuses. The roll was 90% wasabi. Strong wasabi. My eyes bulged and watered. My glasses misted. My nose ran, dripping into the soy sauce. My throat constricted. I gasped for breath. I drank a pint of water. I mopped sweat from my brow. My sinuses shrivelled up into a small ball and retreated, whimpering into a dark cranial recess. I may never hear from them again. I do not recommend the wasabi tuna roll.

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Day 3.

This morning started with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. There were just a few people strolling or walking their dogs – a pleasant change from the crowds of yesterday. It was nice enough but just lots of different trees and shrubs, rather than flowers. A walk amongst 50 shades of green. There was a butterfly house and a palm house I wanted to visit but it was hot and the sun was beating down. Spending an hour in a glasshouse didn’t appeal.

We picked one of the hottest weeks during a heatwave that had spread across the northern hemisphere. It wasn’t as bad as California which recorded a high of 49C, or Algeria at 51.3C but it was still uncomfortably hot. Walking in blazing sunshine in high temperatures was more tiring than we expected. When you visit a traditionally hot climate, you can often pop into a shop or cafe to cool down but the Danes have never embraced air-conditioning. Their focus is on keeping warm in subzero temperatures. If was often far too hot to spend a lot of time in museums or restaurants.

In search of a cooling breeze, we headed to Amager Strand beach on the far eastern coast of Copenhagen. You can see the bridge to Malmo in Sweden a little further along the coast, fading into the distance but I couldn’t make out the Swedish coast. The sandy beach was a popular area with the locals and was already packed by noon and a steady stream of new visitors were arriving from the train station or on bicycles. We sat on a bench for a while but there wasn’t much to do apart from sunbathe or swim.

A proper seaside town would have slot-machine amusements and a pier. Tacky gift shops selling buckets and spades. Pubs selling two-for-one cocktails and a promenade with interestingly shaped slicks of slippery vomit. Sticks of pink rock with an alarming quantity of E numbers. Kiss Me Quick hats and donkey rides for the children. Spilt beer and broken bottles. Cheap tattoo parlours where you can get ‘Carpa Diam’ tattooed on the back of your neck along with unusual intimate piercings. Feral ten-year olds on bikes boasting about their lastest ASBO.  A brawl every evening at 11pm sharp.

These Danes just don’t know how to have fun.

A short metro ride back towards the city found us in Christianshavn. Our guidebook promised us cobbled streets and charming houses and courtyards. After much searching, we found one street with a couple of old houses but that was about it. We caught a bus back to the hotel so Madam could take a nap.

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Day 4.

Our first visit of the day was to the Danish National museum in the centre of Copenhagen. I was mostly interested in the Viking exhibits which were wonderful and absorbing. Vikings in these parts had a habit of making offerings to the gods by dumping them in the local bog. These included jewellery, weapons, boats, animals and the occasional human sacrifice. The lack of oxygen in the bog preserved many of these and they are on display in the museum.

Having been to Jorvic museum a couple of weeks ago, I found this ten times better. I know it was Denmark, so it probably should have more stuff but the way it was displayed was far more thoughtful. More about education than entertainment. Sadly, the Jorvik museum with its long queues probably makes ten times as much money as the National Museum and that, after all, is what counts nowadays. I could have happily spent all day in there, but they didn’t have air-conditioning and they didn’t believe in opening any windows. We were both sweating liberally by the time we had finished the Viking exhibits.

It was a lovely museum spoiled only by the two young women on the ticket office booking us onto the 2pm tour of a seperate Victorian house that Madam had specifically wanted to see. We waited several minutes after 2pm, only to be told that the last tour for a week had been at 1pm. Madam was a little grumpy to hear this and remonstrated with any of the staff that would listen. Their response was to shrug their shoulders as if to say “We are blonde, what do you expect?” This made her very grumpy indeed.

The afternoon visit was to Rosenborg Castle. The Visit Copenhagen website tells me:

‘A royal hermitage set in the King’s Garden in the heart of Copenhagen, Rosenborg Castle features 400 years of splendor, royal art treasures and the Crown Jewels and Royal Regalia.’

It was all gold and gilt and twiddly bits of decoration, along with a bunch of tapestries and picture of deceased royals. After the first couple of rooms, they seemed to blur together. How many pictures of 18th century monarchs or how many elaborate carvings can you take?

I don’t remember much more of the castle apart from the King’s toy soldiers in the basement. There were 250 in all, in gilt silver. I couldn’t help wondering how many of the starving poor outside the palace gates all that gold and silver would have fed. I’m sure the ruling class would argue that the poor would just breed faster if you fed them. More poor at the gates and the king wouldn’t have had any toy soldiers to play with. That would never do.

The vault in part of the basement held the Danish crown jewels. Madam loves that sort of thing and I had to hold her back from asking if she could try on the crown. There was a young guide giving a private tour to four American tourists in the jewel room. We caught the last couple of minutes of his talk. At the end, one of the Americans asked “If the queen rules Denmark, is the Prime Minister just for show?” I tried to suppress a laugh. I really did.

Day 5.

“Mmmmm…” said Madam “These bananas taste just like the ones in England.”

She pondered this profound thought for a minute and continued “I like Copenhagen but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“Why not?” I asked.

She gazed out over the harbour enjoying her Danish-just-like-English banana and thought for another minute and said “I don’t speak Danish.”

I did wonder about our complete lack of knowledge of the language when we booked the trip. Normally we attempt to learn a few words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘do you speak English’ and ‘If I speak loudly and slowly in English will you understand me?’ Due to two other trips in the weeks before, we didn’t even get round to that. We need not have worried. Try as we might, we couldn’t find a single Dane that didn’t speak English. Some of them were so fluent you would have sworn that they were a native of an English speaking country. I later flipped through the TV channels in the hotel and many were in English.

Spoken Danish still sounds something like “fladen laden dahden dodle due nic den naden noodle” but after a week there we started to understand some of the written signs and menu items. It helps that some of the words sound similar even if the spelled words have weird and joined up letters like æ and ø. For example In and Out are Ind and Ud. Cold is Kold. Forty Six is Seksogfyrre (think six and forty). Parking is Parkering. Free is Fri. Give me a month there and I think I could manage to order a pizza in Danish if the server was very patient. It helps that the Danish word for pizza is pizza.

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Today we planned a trip to Roskilde to see the Cathedral and the Viking Ship Museum.

Roskilde is about 22 miles from the centre of Copenhagen. Travelling in England such a vast distance by train needs serious planning. You’ll need to check if there is a strike this week. Engineering works and a bus replacement? Cancelled trains due to management ineptitude? A signal failure somewhere in Scotland? Is it a full moon timetable? Has it snowed in the last two weeks? Leaves on the line? Bizarre restrictions on times you can travel on a specific ticket? Can I catch the 9.24 do I have to wait for the 10:00? Is there a remote chance of there being a seat, or will I have to stand for 40 minutes? Can my credit card handle the fare? Which of sixteen discount cards do I need to use? Then you give up and drive because you want to get there before teatime.

In Copenhagen you get on a train. The seats are wide and comfortable. There are no time restrictions. Travel when you like. It is all one fare. Trains run 24 hours a day every 10 or 15 minutes. There are lots of empty seats. There is fast, free and unrestricted WiFi. You can use the same ticket on a train, bus, metro or boat. Nobody is shouting into a mobile phone or screaming at their children. You get there in 23 minutes.

Is there anybody at Southern Rail listening?

We had a bit of a late start and it was almost 11 am by the time we reached Roskilde Cathedral. The cathedral, on a small hilltop overlooking Roskilde Fjord, was the first gothic cathedral to be built from brick. It was started in the 1170’s but took a hundred years to build mostly due to the lack of cheap flights to bring in bricklayers from Poland.

The cathedral gets 125,000 visitors a year from around the world. There was a large entrance sign and arrow on one side of the building pointing around the corner. We walked all round the building looking for a ticket office and front door. Having done the complete circuit and reached the sign again we stood and checked the Google to see if it was open. It was, the Google assured us. We started round the building again, together with another couple who had done the same. Tucked into a shady corner was a plain grey closed door which, it transpired, was the entrance. They used to have 250,000 visitors a year until the ‘Enter Here’ sign on the door fell off.

Like any church in continuous use since first built, Roskilde Cathedral has undergone many changes. Chapels within the cathedral were demolished and rebuilt. The occasional fire has led to restoration and reconstruction, often with major stylistic changes. Around it, the structure of the medieval town is still visible, with some medieval buildings and a few fine 17th and 18th century houses remaining.

The cathedral had a bit of a fall in fortunes during the Reformation of the 1530’s. The king decided he, not the church, owned the building and contents, slapped around the odd bishop, and helped himself to anything he fancied, which was most of the contents. Still, it did give him plenty of space to create tombs for him and his descendants. And did they take it seriously. The next several hundred years was witness to the most extreme bout of willy-waving known to man. Every succeeding king tried to make his tomb larger and more ornate than the last. And some of them are very large and ornate indeed. The later royals have calmed down a little and the recent tombs are simpler and stylish. Almost forty kings and queens of Denmark are buried in the cathedral.

We spent a couple of happy hours here with Madam checking off her list of every king and queen. I knew that she had an encyclopedic knowledge of every minor member of the British royal family. I did not know that this knowledge also extended to the Danish royals. She rattled off a long list of Federick this or Christian that and their various brothers, sisters and illegitimate children but the details blur a little in my memory. All I remember is that the current queen Margrethe’s husband had a bit of a hissy fit and decided he didn’t want his remains in Roskilde since he was only given the title of Prince and not King. When he died earlier this year, he had his wish granted and half his ashes were scattered in Danish waters and the other half at Fredensborg Castle north of Copenhagen. He was French, a bit chubby and had a penchant for goose liver pate, so nobody was much bothered.

A walk through the park behind the cathedral led us to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde harbour. This museum has the remains of five original Viking ships from the 11th-century. The five vessels originate from a blockade about twelve miles north of Roskilde. They were sunk into harbour inlets to prevent invaders reaching the city by sea. The boatyard specializes in reconstructions of Viking boats using the tools and materials available at that time.

I was really only there in the hope of finding a Viking hat with horns in my size but alas only the usual pens, guide books and tacky souvenirs were available in the gift shop. I did ask the woman serving but she was a bit sniffy and said that was just a myth. There is no such thing, she said. I don’t believe her. I have seen the pictures.

We had hoped to take a tour of the harbour in one of the reconstructed Viking ships but they were fully booked by the time we got round to it. Instead, we took a brief tour of the shipyard where the guide explained at length how they were at the forefront of experimental archeology, creating nails from bog iron ore and planks from felled oak trees. Due to the immense amount of labour used smelting iron and splitting oak logs, each boat cost many hundreds of thousands of Euros to build. The on-site blacksmith created an iron nail while we watched and the carpenter hacked half-heartedly at an oak plank to demonstrate the techniques used.

We wandered around the remains of the ships, located in a specially built hall. It was directly on the water so you could see the sea behind the ships. It was well presented but there is only so long you can look at lumps of 11th century wood without needing a cup of tea. On the way out I noticed a workshop with an open door. I poked my head in and saw a very large and impressive table saw, an electric bandsaw and a lot of modern tools and perfect machined planks of wood.

Tivoli Gardens is listed as the number two attraction in Copenhagen by TripAdvisor. The park opened in 1843 and is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world, after Dyrehavsbakken in nearby Klampenborg, also in Denmark. It has one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters built in 1914 along with more modern rides that promise 4G forces and one which will turn you upside down at 100 km/h.

It’s probably great if you have deep pockets and young children with strong stomachs. Admission is over £14 then each ride costs between £3.60 and £10.70. Games of chance, with decidedly poor odds, were available if you needed a giant bar of chocolate or a stuffed giraffe. Not a real giraffe obviously.

There is a central lake and gardens and many restaurants and bars. In the evening it is lit by thousands of bulbs and we were promised a light show if we stayed until 10:45. We got there at 8pm and were bored by 9pm. It was nice enough, the gardens were pleasant and there were plenty of deckchairs if you could get over the smell of raw sewage wafting from the central drains. They seemed to be having a problem and there was a tanker with an impressively large hose down a drain in the center of the seating area.

Since neither of us had any desire to hang upside down seventy feet above the ground after dinner, or hang about by the drains, we strolled round the gardens a couple of times then sat in a bar waiting for the light show. I had a Danish beer served in a German beer-hall glass in an Irish Pub.

The light show? Oh dear. Somebody needs to go to Vegas to get some tips.

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Day 6.

We splashed out on two Copenhagen cards which gave us entrance to the city’s major attractions as well as travel on all public transport for one price. One of those included was the land train which is a 45 minute tour around some of the more interesting areas of the medieval city. The first train we tried to board was full so we had an hour to kill.

What else do you do for a spare hour but go to a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, also included in the card. Their website breathlessly tells us that it is only place in Copenhagen where you’ll find the Taj Mahal built from 300,000 matches and a picture of Queen Margrethe produced from pocket lint, and metal junk art. I’ve seen these “Odditoriums” in various cities around the world and often wondered about them. They did indeed have a matchstick Taj Mahal and a picture of the queen, along with deformed stuffed animals, distorting mirrors and optical illusions. As we were leaving, I asked Madam what she thought of it. “Cheesy” was her succinct and accurate reply.

There was plenty of room on the second train. It was better than I feared and took us around some areas we hadn’t seen. Even nicer when we got to sit down instead of walking. It was only marred by five loud and annoying tourists. I’m not sure if they were Japanese or Korean. They demanded the ticket seller took their photograph sitting on the train, then spent the entire trip peering into their phones and shouting loudly to each other. I don’t believe they looked at anything on the tour. They could have saved money by giving the driver a few Krone tip for a picture then left the rest of us in peace. Madam got very excited about halfway around the tour when she saw an American Pie Shop. I stopped her from jumping from the moving train by promising to go back later that afternoon.

Our next stop was the Glyptoteket Art Gallery. They had a large advertisement on the outside of the building which promised Manet, Van Gogh, Monet, and Gauguin. I think I saw a couple from Monet and two from Van Gogh, one suspiciously unsigned. The rest were from, shall we say, lesser known artists. There were a large number of paintings from Gauguin, probably more than I’ve ever seen in one place. Madam examined them and immediately suggested we planned a trip to Tahiti.

The pictures were oddly arranged over three floors. A couple of rooms of paintings then you had to go up to the next floor to see more. Then again up another floor to see the rest. I have a bit of a weakness for French impressionists, so had only intended to see those but we wandered around some of the statues and the Golden Age of Danish painters (1800-1860) exhibition which was almost empty of visitors.

We watched a young French couple go from room to room, stopping only long enough to take each other’s photo in front of the largest picture in the room. They didn’t pause to look at a single picture. All they needed was a photo to prove they had been there. Everywhere we go we seem to be seeing selfie tourism. Whether it is Stonehenge or The Little Mermaid. People who rush from attraction to attraction pausing only long enough to take a selfie or a photo of their friends before rushing to the next. I just can’t seem to see the point. Are they just trying to impress their friends, real or online? Get Instagram likes? Make the world think they are seasoned travellers?

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut that said ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be’. This was decades before social media and the Instagram selfie age. Our image we present to the world via our Facebook or Instagram accounts is not us. It is just a collection of data on some remote server. To try and present ourselves as art lovers because we have a selfie in front of a Monet or two does us, or our friends, no favours.

Our Copenhagen card included a canal boat tour. At this point we were willing to do most anything that involved sitting down and not walking.

I’m always a bit suspicious about canal tours – so many of them just cruise past a few apartment blocks telling you how much they cost, then start hinting they would like a tip at the end. This one restored my faith. The young woman guide started asking if anybody would like the tour in Danish. A few raised their hands. Then she asked in English. Most of the rest responded. Then she asked in Spanish. One family said “yes please.” Obviously they said “sí por favor.” but you probably already worked that out. The tour included views from the canals of the Opera House, the Royal Palace, Christiansborg Palace and, of course, the Little Mermaid. The guide was the most entertaining we had in the city. Fun and knowledgeable and perfectly fluent in all three languages. And just a little bit cute.

My feet were still a bit sore, even after a 45 minute sit down. Madam astonished me by almost running down the road. Her feet were a blur. She was darting in and out of groups of meandering tourists. Ducking under selfie sticks. I struggled to keep up. I called after her. All I heard was “pie… pie… pie… pie”. I had completely forgotten about the American Pie Shop. We made it there just a few minutes before they closed and she selected a large slice of “S’Mores Pie” to take back to the hotel.

For those of you unfamiliar with this peak of American culinary expertise, this is a sickly sweet confection consisting of cracker crumbs, heavy cream, sugar, chocolate, eggs and marshmallows. 

We made our way back to the hotel for the evening and Madam started on her pie. I asked how it tasted and she just said “Mmmmmm.. Mmmmm …. Mmmm… mmmm.”

I wasn’t sure if that meant it was good, or that her teeth had stuck together.

DSC05094

Day 7.

We were up early and took the 8:30 train to Hillerod some 24 miles from Copenhagen.

Madam wanted to see yet another royal palace, Frederiksborg Slot. Literally translated this is Frederiksborg Castle. This summons up images of battlements, a moat and portcullis. In practice it was another palace with endless rooms of royal portraits and over-ornate furniture. Eighty-three rooms of it. I summoned interest for the first twenty or so rooms but my enthusiasm and my body flagged by thirty and I was frantically searching for a cafe by room forty. There wasn’t a cafe and their coffee machine was broken. I would have had much more fun with a bow and arrow shooting invading armies from the battlements of a proper castle, or prowling through castle dungeons.

An exhibition in the basement did make the entire visit worthwhile. There were dozens of portraits by the Australian-born visual artist Ralph Heimans. Several of the Danish royal family were featured as well as English royals and actors. And boy, can the man paint. You could get close and see the brush strokes. Stand back and you would think you were standing in front of the subject. Give me a thousand years and a mountain of paint and canvas and I could never come close to being half as good as Heimans.

After a short ferry ride round the lake, we headed back into the city and walked down Strøget looking for somewhere to eat. We had managed to book our week during the annual jazz festival as well as the hottest week of the year. It would have been lovely to sit in the square and listen to the outdoor concerts but every place with outside tables was packed. Sitting inside in the heat wasn’t an option.

We headed back to the hotel and the buffet in the neighbouring mall. Buffet food is often disappointing but this was probably one of the nicer meals we had in Copenhagen and half the price of eating in the square.

Our Final day.

Our flight home wasn’t until 5.25pm so we arranged a late check out and planned to do one last excursion. Another royal palace if Madam had her way, or maybe a canal cruise if I had mine. In the end we just looked at each other and realised we were just about Copenhagen’d out. It is a wonderful city packed with amazing sights and lovely people and I could have happily spent another week there, but we had walked 55 miles during the week, often in almost unbearable heat, and it was starting to show. Instead, we just lounged around in the hotel room for a few hours, packed and took the train to the airport.

We were reluctant to eat at the airport but we ended up there at lunch time and the first place we saw served Smørrebrød sandwiches. There wasn’t much else that we fancied so we settled on this. My experience of airport food is that it is usually overpriced and often dire. What I hadn’t counted on was the Danish ability to deliver quality. The Smørrebrød were so good that Madam was picking them apart and studying the menu description, trying to work out how to recreate them at home. Have you ever had a meal that good at Gatwick or Heathrow? You don’t need to answer that – it was a rhetorical question.

I had a few Krone left after lunch and a couple of hours to kill. Rather than sit at a bar or read, I had a wander around the mostly expensive shops. There was a gift shop with the usual fridge magnets, keyrings and ornaments. The sort of stuff you buy then look at it when you get home and say “What on earth did I buy that crap for?”

My eyes wandered to an upper shelf and I saw it.

Oh yes I did.

Oh yes.

A VIKING HAT WITH HORNS!

hat with horns

 

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York – Trains, Vikings and Harry Potter

As we left the train in York, or detrained as our transatlantic cousins would have it, I realised that this was the furthest north I had ever been in England.

Growing up in the south, we all believed that anywhere much north of Oxford was covered in year-round permafrost and patrolled by fire-breathing dragons. Older maps always had the inscription “Here be Dragons” in that Old-English script that was hard to dispute. Any suggestions to our elders that maybe we should explore to the north of London were met with a sharp intake of breath and a shake of the head.

Somehow life, and the lack of a crossbow to deal with the dragons, got in the way of exploring much of the country. Now was the time to start rectifying that insular existence with a few days in a city that had often been recommended to me. Besides, the National Railway Museum was here and who can resist a steam train or two?

Being directionally challenged, I generally just follow the crowds leaving the train on the assumption that they are mostly heading to the exit. Oddly, for a busy city, only a few other people left the train and by the time I had gathered my bags, searched through several pockets for my ticket, checked I still had my spectacles and re-tied my shoelaces, the platform was deserted. The exit sign was a diagonal upward facing arrow. Did that mean we went simultaneously right and forward? Up and sideways? After much confusion and wandering around the platform looking lost, we realised that we needed to take a lift down to a subway, along a dark and dank corridor, which doubled up as a latrine judging by the pungent aroma, then up in another lift to reach the exit. I am not entirely convinced that a diagonal arrow is quite the appropriate symbol for that procedure.

We checked into our hotel just outside the city walls, conveniently close to the railway museum. Madam likes to completely unpack, test the shower, check under the bed for dust, closely examine the little bottles of shampoo, search, often in vain, for an iron and trouser press, and see how many TV channels are available. She will then count the towels and pillows, invariably calling reception, demanding more of each. I prefer to just drop my bags in the nearest corner and go out exploring. As a result, I am invariably standing by the door hopping impatiently from one foot to the other by the time she is ready.

Finally, we set off to explore York. After a few wrong turns we managed to find The Shambles. This is one of the city’s major tourist attractions with some buildings dating from the fourteenth century. A narrow cobbled street with many beautifully preserved overhanging timber-framed Elizabethan buildings. The name Shambles is derived from an old term for a slaughterhouse and meat market. As recently as the 1870’s, there were twenty-five butcher’s shops lining the street but it now consists mostly of gift shops and hundreds of Japanese tourists carrying their mobile phones on long sticks.

The Shambles was said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Entrepreneurial shop owners were eager to cash in on this connection and there are several shops at one end selling magic wands and other paraphernalia. Most of them were full of excited chattering teenagers trying on Gryffindor scarves or Quidditch sweaters.

York also has a historic connection to the Vikings following an invasion by Ivar the Boneless in 866 or thereabouts. There are a number of explanations as to his odd moniker. One is that he may have had a genetic condition which resulted in recurrent joint dislocations. Another is that it was simply a euphemism for impotence. None of this seems to have slowed down some serious burning and pillaging, although the raping may have suffered. Needless to say, there are shops selling Viking souvenirs and t-shirts. I was rather hoping to get myself a proper Viking hat with horns, but without success.

The Viking legacy has led to many unusual street names in York. We have High and Low Petergate, Swinegate and Stonegate. Even a Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate. These are derived from a Scandinavian word gate, simply meaning street. Just to confuse everybody, the historic gateways to the city are called ‘Bars’. Walmgate Bar, Monk Bar, Micklegate Bar and Bootham Bar guard the city walls. A number of street names were changed in Victorian time to avoid upsetting those of delicate sensibilities. Grope Lane was once the heart of York’s red-light district but became Grape Lane. Mucky Peg Lane, which led to the red-light district in now Finkle Street. Even Beggergate became Nunnery Lane.

The shops were starting to close and, it being a reasonable hour to start drinking, we popped into a pub in the main square, fortuitously just as it decided to start raining. Not just a shower but a gulley-washing downpour. The packed square emptied within seconds. A river formed down the centre of the road. Lakes formed in the gutters. The drains gurgled and bubbled and overflowed. I watched the rain cascade from the rooftops and said to myself ‘That will melt the permafrost.’

Finally, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We happily wandered the now far less crowded centre, dodging puddles, eventually finding a sushi restaurant called Sushi Waka which was excellent. I won’t bore you with details of everything we ate, but it was all amazingly good. Even the “100% Secret Recipe Tempura Ice Cream” was wonderful. If you are anywhere near York you should go there immediately. Go on. What are you waiting for?

Day 2.

A few weeks ago I managed to simultaneously embarrass my wife and achieve a certain amount of respect in our pub quiz. The question concerned the locomotive number for the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive in the 1930’s. It’s 4472 if you are interested. The pub was impressed that I had such obscure knowledge and my wife embarrassed to be married to somebody who secretly knew about steam trains.

I should hasten to add that I am not one of those people that stand on the end of the platform with a notebook collecting train numbers. Nor do I stand on railway bridges jumping up and down with excitement when an 800 hp Class 16 D8409 locomotive with a Paxman 16YHXL engine passes underneath. Not that I would recognise one if I saw it of course. Not at all.

I just point this out to show that I have a rudimentary knowledge and passing interest in trains. I was therefore pleased that the National Railway Museum was today’s planned outing. I had developed a certain amount of anticipation since I have wanted to visit the museum for a long time. Several people had told me how great it was and that we should allow a full day. It was also free entry which I always find hard to resist.

So how was it? Honestly, a bit disappointing. It may have been that I had built up too high an expectation. Maybe I had a subconscious view that I would be soon donning a driver’s hat and piloting a puffing steam train around the track, or at least pulling some signalling levers. In the event, it was like somebody had driven a few trains into a shed and left them. Put a few rail related items in cabinets in random order and closed the door. Just to pick one example at random, the Mallard, which holds the steam locomotive speed record (126 mph in 1938) was there but without any label or description. How was anybody supposed to know the significance of this amazing locomotive? Maybe there was a guidebook somewhere, but I never saw one for sale. The young lady on the front desk was mostly interested in telling us that although entry was free, we really should make a £5 donation each. A few more labels with descriptions or an audio guide could have turned it from average into great. Still, there were a few interesting items. Queen Victoria’s carriages, a mail sorting wagon and a reconstructed signal box spring to mind. To be fair, we did spent a couple of passably enjoyable hours there and Madam certainly enjoyed her flapjack in the cafe.

Much more interesting was our second attraction of the day which was the Treasurer’s House situated in a small close near the Minster. This has something of a chequered history, architecturally speaking. Parts of it, or at least a few stones, date from the 12th century. It was then rebuilt, and generally messed about with, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Frank Green,the son of a successful industrialist, purchased the house in 1897. He then spent several years doing some serious mucking about, moving walls hither and thither until it reached the current, slightly uneven, structure, which he then promptly gave it to the National Trust, complete with contents. During one of the structural changes, four Roman column bases were uncovered, one of which remains in the cellar. Several ghosts reportedly haunt the house including a group of Roman soldiers. We spent a couple of hours happily wandering from room to room. Enthusiastic volunteers in each room were knowledgeable about the somewhat eclectic collection of antiques, art and textiles, many of them of dubious taste and quality. There was a guided tour of the haunted cellars but we managed to miss this by five minutes. I was tempted to revisit the next day, just for the tour, but we never made it back.

According to an app on my phone we had walked over seven miles, so we were, to say the least, a bit knackered. You have to remember that OAP miles are like dog years. You multiply them by eight to get normal miles, so we really walked over fifty-six miles. No wonder my knees were aching.

We were too tired to explore further, so we just spent the evening in the hotel bar listening to that well known album “Most Annoying Songs Ever Recorded (Volume 3)”. It was the sort of album you give to the relative or friend that you really do not like but you feel you have to give them something at Christmas. The sort that give you an absolutely hideous jumper or scarf one year and then make comments when you aren’t wearing it the next. I did a quick search on Spotify for the album using the terms “annoying”, “irritating” and “my head hurts” but could not find anything listed. Mind you, the WiFi was a bit crap, so it kept timing out. I may have been a little grumpy on account of my sore feet.

Day 3.

We got to the Jorvik Viking Museum at 9:45 and the queue was already fifty yards long. The museum opened at 10:00 and we all shuffled in slowly two-by-two. It was a bit like standing in line at Disney World. You just hope the ride is worth the wait.

On Coppergate, the site of the current museum, there stood a confectioner’s factory from 1803. This was demolished prior to redevelopment of the site as a shopping center. The York Archaeological Trust managed to get access to the site and conducted extensive excavations in the area over a five year period. Well-preserved remains of timber buildings were discovered, along with workshops animal pens, privies and water wells, together with many artefacts, including pottery, metalwork and bones.. Unusually, wood, leather and textiles remains were preserved in oxygen-deprived wet soil. In all, over 40,000 objects were recovered. This was a major discovery and added to our knowledge of Viking history. The trust recreated part of Jorvik on the site with a view to bringing the Viking city fully to life.

After buying tickets (£9 OAP rate) we shuffled slowly further forward and were eventually loaded onto a carriage suspended from rails that did look remarkably like a Disney ride. We then traveled at a sedate pace past animatronic displays that depicted Viking life in York in the 10th century. It was sort of interesting but it wasn’t long before we were disgorged into an area with a few displays of Viking artifacts and a couple of skeletons. I’m not sure it was really worth the cost and the wait. I understand that they were trying to make history accessible and enjoyable to the general public but I would prefer a regular museum with time to poke around and have a good look at the exhibits. As is compulsory with all tourist attractions we found ourselves in short-order in the gift shop. I was still hoping for a proper Viking hat with horns but alas, none were on sale. Madam did point out that I would just look foolish on the OAP bus into town and that I should probably stick to my flat cap. On reflection, she was probably right. She often is.

Our afternoon excursion was York Castle Museum which, I have to say, was the highlight of the trip so far. It was all amazing and wonderful. It was how all museums should be run. Interesting and informative, we spent four hours there totally absorbed. This one would have been worth queuing for, but there were no queues and no crowds. It has a number of rooms throughout the ages but the highlight is Kirkgate. This is the re-creation of an entire Victorian street complete with cobbles and waiting Hansom cab. Each shop and business is named after a real business that operated in York between 1870 and 1901. Just about every type of shop is there. Milliners, Saddlers, Confectioners, Cutlets, Printers, Tobacconists, Pharmacy, and many more, even a Hot Cocoa Room. All filled with genuine items from the Victorian period. Volunteers are in period dress in many of the shops and are happy to chat about their particular shop, or just about anything else.

A second wing of the museum is currently “1914: When the World Changed Forever”. The fascinating and often moving stories of those that lived and died in what was supposed to be the war that ended wars. The museum is housed in the 18th century prison buildings and down in the basement you can seen the cell that held Dick Turpin before he went off to have his neck stretched on the local gallows. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in York.

We stayed in the city centre for a couple of drinks and dinner then walked back to the hotel on the mostly pedestrianised streets. The weather was pleasant. Couples were strolling hand in hand. Buskers were playing, occasionally in tune, and I thought ‘I quite like York’.

Day 4.

We had planned to visit York Minster, or technically the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, the seat of the archbishop of York. The forecast was for wet and windy weather and we thought this would at least keep us out of the rain. By the time we had breakfast the forecast had changed to just very windy and we spent several minutes trying to decide what to do. Although we normally visit the cathedral in any new city, we are fast coming to the conclusion that they must have all used the same architectural plans. Kind of if you have seen one, you have seen them all. Maybe they download the plans from the internet. The admission to the cathedral and tower was an eye-watering £16 each which also persuaded us to give it a miss. It will still be there should we come again, lightning strikes permitting.

So our final day in York found us walking part of the city walls to the Museum Gardens which house the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, one of the many victims of Henry VIII’s take on the Reformation and his penchant to change wives every year or two. It was a lovely walk, in spite of Henry VIII, and almost deserted. The gardens contain the ruins of a Roman tower as well as part of the original Roman wall. There was also a Hospitium. When I saw the sign pointing towards the Hospitium I assumed it was a hospital spitoon of some historical importance. Maybe still harbouring the odd plague bacterium or some dried up smallpox virus. It turned out to be a building used for housing abbey guests and now in use as a wedding venue. Far less interesting.

We rejoined the wall as it passed behind the Minster with fantastic views over some impressive gardens towards the Minster. It was also free which I always find hard to resist. We had picked a spectacularly windy day which added to the frisson as we hung on to the more exposed sections with a vertiginous drop to the side.

After a morning happily exploring the area around the Minster, we had lunch from a street food stall in the Shambles market. A falafel wrap from Los Moros, which was excellent and full of interesting flavours and textures. Certainly many things have improved in this country with food near the top of the list. When I was a boy, any hint of flavour was frowned upon in respectable circles. Vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives, often long after any nutritional value had been leached into the water, which was then discarded. Cookery experts insisted that children could only digest bland food. It was considered that the addition of spice in food would inflame unhealthy passions and lead to a downward spiral of depravity and crime. Throw herbs into the mix and you would end up in the gutter injecting heroin into your eyeballs. My grandmother once saw my uncle being a little too liberal with the pepper at dinner. She frowned and said ‘He’ll come to no good that one’. Being young and impressionable it was many years before I would go near condiments of any description. Needless to say my uncle went on to lead a life of temperance and respectability.

In the afternoon we took a tour of a small chocolate factory. It was interesting as I had no idea how chocolate was made. I somehow assumed it involved saucepans and jugs of measured ingredients. A bit like baking a large cake but with extra cocoa. It turned out that it is an industrial process that involves lots of different, impressively large, stainless-steel machines with numerous spouts and handles. Depending on which handle you turn, or which spout goes where, you get different flavour chocolate. I think that is right. I’m a little hazy on the details. I was focused on the chocolate tasting at the end, which is why I was really there in the first place.

I liked York. It is compact and walkable. It has decent pubs and a number of bookshops. Some good restaurants and street food. The young people only rarely elbow OAPs into the gutter. It has good, well run museums. Interesting architecture and odd street names. Even a Harry Potter shop or two. What else could you ask from a city? It isn’t perfect, many streets are choked with buses and lorries belching diesel fumes and traffic seems to have priority over pedestrians, but it’s a living, working city and has to cater to its residents. I would even consider living here if it wasn’t for the permafrost and fire-breathing dragons.

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