Marsaxlokk

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!’

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.

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.

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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Cheddar Caves

A journey to Cheddar Caves (Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave) and a climb up Cheddar Gorge.

This 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 really is something to impress people with 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.  There were small pockets of plants growing near to the electric lights.  Hearts tongue ferns, mosses and lichens were in patches 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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

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 Duck.”

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 Yorkshire Terrier 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 if 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 “Lets 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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Minack Theatre to St Michael’s Mount

Travel from Minack Theatre to St Michael’s Mount, a fire alarm and a lot of hill climbing.

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 practicing 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 nearby 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 Theatre 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.  It is invariably sold out weeks in advance.

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 felt like a badly set jelly 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…

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Land’s End and a Snow Globe

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.  I was quite taken with it myself.

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 shop to load up on tacky souvenirs to prove they had been here.

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 snow fall over the sign.  I gave it another shake and watched it again.  It was strangely calming.  I watched the snow settle, looked closer and the scene grew, becoming my whole world. I felt like it was sucking me in, absorbing me.  Another shake and I could become one with a snow globe.  My hand reached out then I saw the price tag.  £7 could buy me two pints of Doom Bar in Wetherspoons. I lowered my hand.

“No, I’m good.  There’s nothing I need,”  I replied.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Grandma’s Bedroom in 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 a up 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 1970’s 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 church yard into the town and back down through Morrab Gardens, a lovely three acre park featuring palm trees and Mediterranean plants.  It is billed as 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.” 

Now I know.

Looe to St Austell

It was a bright sunny day as we crossed the Tamar Bridge into Cornwall.  A few fluffy white clouds scudded across the blue sky. The river below sparkled in the sunlight.  Being a bit geeky, I was more focused on the Royal Albert suspension rail bridge which ran alongside the more modern road bridge.  A plaque in large white letters on one end reads ‘I K BRUNEL, ENGINEER, 1859.’

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 considered impossible at the time. Many of his bridges and tunnels are still in use today, 150 or more 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.  It was something to do, I guess.

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, keyrings, 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 handrail, 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 back into 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 ice cream 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.

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 near a McDonalds and a KFC.  The drab corridors smelled of frying. 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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Charmouth to Exmouth and Jurassic Coast Fossil Hunting

Charmouth to Exmouth on our West Country road trip.  Hunting for fossils along the Jurassic Coast and a trip to 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 fossil collecting part of the Jurassic Coast stretches from Charmouth to 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 a wet foot.

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-year-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.

I saw two older men independently wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts of impressive vintage.  Early 1970s tour shirts if I’m not mistaken.  Like the mythical elephant’s graveyard where you will find a treasure-trove of ivory, I think I have discovered where old rockers go to die.  Somewhere in Lyme Regis there is an enormous pile of valuable Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster guitars just waiting to be found. 

Since we were far too young to hang out with old rockers, even if they were Led Zeppelin fans, we climbed up the steep hill to the car and set the SatNav for Exmouth.

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 scone is first split in two, then spread with strawberry jam, and finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.  

“We need to try a cream tea in both counties,” said Madam, “we can see how they differ.”

Being partial to a scone or two I quite liked the idea and licked my lips in anticipation.

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

Bournemouth to Durdle Door

First stops at the Durdle Door, Dorset, the beach and Bournemouth on our road trip to the south-west.

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 the enclosed and gloomy stairs which seemed to serve as the local latrine.  The pungent smell made my eyes water.  This 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 promenade.  

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 walked 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,”  was all she could say.

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.  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 (mostly) good natured 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 in 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 relaxing and reading when Madam noticed a gentle slurping noise. She looked at me and I looked at her.  “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 develop impressive locomotive powers in the night and crawl 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?  A mere £2.50.  A one mile taxi ride back to the hotel £6.00.

We were packed and on the road by 9am and heading towards the Durdle Door arch in Dorset.  Shelly was safely wrapped in the back seat.   As we drove along the B3070, there was a large sign ‘WARNING Sudden Gunfire!’ 

“Just like in Texas,” said Madam.  

I was glad she got to feel at home. 

We parked above the footpath down to Durdle Door beach to see the famous Durdle Door arch.  £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 slippery footpath towards the beach.

“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 at Durdle Door beach 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 Durdle Door 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 and the Jurassic Coast off her bucket list.  It would have taken her years to crawl here.”

Stuttgart Germany

We managed to pick one of the hottest weeks in a summer heatwave that had gripped Europe for our time in Germany.  Glaciers were melting in Sweden.  Britain faced a shortage of brussel sprouts.  Worse still, mon Dieu, France was suffering a  shortage of snails due to heat and lack of rain.

Parts of Spain and Portugal experienced temperatures of 48C as blisteringly hot air swept in from Africa.  It was marginally cooler in Germany, reaching only a high of 37C, still bad enough without air-conditioning. 

The heatwave and unseasonably dry weather has also affected America. It was the third hottest summer on record in Texas.  The tinderbox conditions led to several fires across the south-west. Sixteen of the largest wildfires burning in California have burnt over 320,000 acres and led to many deaths.  

Researchers have found that the ‘signal of climate change is unambiguous,’ and heat waves will become more common.  You will be hard pressed to find any climate scientists who do not believe climate change is real and man-made.   

Meanwhile,  a Republican state senator stood within sight of the fires in California and claimed climate change has nothing to do with man and blamed the fire on environmentalists.  The gist of his argument was that if you cut down all the trees, they wouldn’t be there to catch fire.  I suppose that argument has a certain logic.  

But enough of me bitching about stupid people.  This is supposed to be about Germany.

We caught the train in to Stuttgart from Vaihengen.  Like a lot of European local rail networks the city is divided into zones and the ticket you need depends of the number of zones crossed. There was little information on the station on which ticket to buy or where to zone boundaries started and ended. I struggled with the machine for a while trying to make sense of the different options and just ended up buying a group day ticket for four zones, which I suspect was more than we needed.  

After an interesting diversion through the suburbs to the wrong part of town, we eventually found our way to the central station and wandered up Königstrße, the main shopping street, towards Schlossplatz, or Palace Square.  Since Germany has not had a monarch since 1918, I am not sure why it has a Palace square, but it is a lovely open area with grass, fountains and a central statue of Concordia, the goddess of harmony, on a high column.  

There is a small area of Stuttgart, around the market square, that retains a few older buildings. They have a busy open market with greengrocers and other food stalls outside and a covered indoor market. Being of advanced years I can never remember the exact details of places we visit (I make up most of the stuff in this blog), so I looked at the German tourist website for a description of the indoor market. I present a few extracts for your delectation:   

“Behind the heavy entrance doors of this grand art nouveau building a paradise of lucullan pleasures is hidden.” 

 “. ..in abundance, diverse and colorful, the market hall presents the impressive offers artistically and appetizingly arranged, native products harmoniously lie next to international and ecological-biological products.”

“But how nice it is to simply stroll through the hall without a goal, to smell, to look and to taste!” 

I have to agree with the last sentiment.  It was lovely to stroll through and look at the amazing range of appetising foods on offer.  Had we timed things a little better it would have been a great place to eat.  Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Stuttgart.

We had a wander round Stiftskirche, a church dating from the thirteenth century.  This was extensively damaged during bombing raids WWII and rebuilt in the 1950s. There is a slightly odd mix of some of the historic features and some more new designs with modern stained glass windows and roof.  

Close to the Stiftskirch was the  Landesmuseum  with exhibits from Württemberg ranging from Neolithic to the early 20th century.  I was primarily attracted to the admission price (free) and Madam to the fact it had air-conditioning.  Even though it was free, we had to queue to get a ticket which was scrupulously checked on every floor.  They could have saved themselves a lot of work by eliminated this pointless procedure.

It was all well laid out although the guide insisted that we started vaguely in the middle ages, then to later periods, before we saw the Neolithic exhibits. I’ve always had an interest in anything stone-age.  It is surprising to see that stone tools throughout the world are made in the same shapes using the same techniques.  We forget that the Neolithic period lasted for several thousand years – long enough for travellers and traders to spread knowledge.  I did try to create an axe head from a flint a couple of years ago, firstly using another stone then, when that did not work, with a hammer.  All I ended up with was a bruised thumb and an undamaged flint.  I read somewhere that a Neolithic hunter would have created an arrow head in 20 minutes using only an animal bone and a lump of flint.  I’d like to see that.  

Both Madam and I both felt that we were being followed by the museum guides.  Every time we looked round a guide would be just behind us.  Maybe they thought we might be up to something.  About to tuck a small statue under my arm or scratch “Romani ite dominum” on a Roman column.  I hope that they were just bored and thought we might have questions. There were only a few other people in the museum which was a shame as it was well worth the visit.  I suspect all the tourists were busy in the BMW car museum posing for a selfie in front of an exhibit of indicators through the ages sponsored by local BMW dealers.  Car dealers always have a lot of optional extras left over.  

There are several motor manufacturers based near Stuttgart. The area is considered to be the birthplace of the petrol engine motor car.  Pioneering engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were both born near Stuttgart.  Benz developed the first 3-wheeled car in 1886 and Daimler the first 4-wheeled (a modified horse-carriage) in the same year.  

Due to its importance as an industrial area, the city suffered extensive damage during air-raids during World War II.  A total of 53 air raids between 1940 and 1945 destroyed 40,000 buildings.

Post-war planning and rebuilding during the 1950s has preserved the few remaining historic buildings and large parks.  Now the city has an open feel with wide streets, squares and green parks.

Before this trip, I had a look on the internet for the top attractions in Stuttgart.  Most of them seemed to involve cars. The second top attraction was the Stuttgart public library.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a library ranked number two in any city.  It turned out that this was due to the impressive and unusual architecture including a roof observation area from which you can see the entire city of Stuttgart.  Clearly, this deserved a visit.

We tried to get to the library on the local metro.  There were five train lines from the central station passing the Stadtbibliothek station.  How hard could that be? We got on the right train but it went along a different line.  It stopped at Budapester Platz, right next to the massive Milaneo shopping mall.  A bit like getting on the central line at Oxford Circus and the next stop is the Elephant and Castle. We went back to the central station and tried again.  We studied the map closely. Double checked the train. Triple checked the train.  We definitely got on the right train this time. It stopped at Budapester Platz.  We gave up on the library and went to the mall.  Malls are the same the world over, so we just headed up to the food court on the top floor for a late lunch. I asked Madam where she would like to eat. She chose Mcdonalds.

It may seem an odd choice to eat at an American fast-food restaurant while travelling.  I guess it is just easier sometimes.  The menu is broadly the same the world over.  It comes with pictures that bear a passing resemblance to the finished product. We looked at a few German restaurants but it was hard to decipher the German menu.  I have a translate app on my phone but it often gives bizarre translations.  You never quite knew if you were ordering a haloumi sandwich or a pig trotter and ox-brain sausage.  The Germans are big on sausages.  You go into most any restaurant and they will hand you a menu of twenty dishes. The first nineteen will be sausages.  They will have names like Schweinfoot und Grissel or Kalbsbrain mit Grosserbits.

The last item on the menu will be something disturbing like a veal cutlet with an aubergine and turnip sauce, served with raspberry ice cream if my translation app is to be believed.

After a brief wander around the mall which was indeed identical to every mall everywhere else in the world, even down to the same chain stores, we went back to main square.  We sad for a while admiring the fountains and gardens. We watched Japanese tourists pose for selfies in front of the fountain.  A group of five arranged themselves in every conceivable combination and variety of poses.  It took them twenty minutes to get every pose covered.

It started raining, and we briefly considered a car museum but realised it was 6pm somewhere in the world, possibly central Russia, so we went into a brauhaus to drink beer. 

Out of curiosity I looked at the food menu and had another go with my translate app.  The first item, according to the app, on the dessert menu was:

‘Homemade Oven Slipper A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’

Madam, being much smarter, asked the waiter for an English menu.  The first choice on the dessert menu was 

‘Homemade Oven Slipper. A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’

The rain had stopped, so we sat in Palace Square for a while. It was early evening by now and people were laying out blankets on the grass and settling in for the evening.  I was not sure if there was some event planned for a Tuesday night, or if that was what passed for entertainment in Stuttgart.  

Stuttgart was clean and prosperous, obviously thriving with many high-end stores in the shopping centre.  You have to admire the Germans.  Through sheer hard work and a large amount of cleverness they have turned a country of rubble and destitution into a thriving industrial powerhouse.  They are the fourth largest economy in the world with full employment.  The highest trade surplus in the world worth $310 billion. The biggest capital exporter globally.  The third largest exporter in the world.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile politicians (and the voting public) in Britain seem determined to turn the country into the nation state equivalent of a pound shop.