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

Seville

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Budapest Travel Blog

‘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.’

Read about our other trips on our Retirement Travel blog.

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pictures from the trip can be found here</spa

Oxford

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.  

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.

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.

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.
Pictures from the trip can be found here
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Glastonbury and Wells

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 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 after noon 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 were 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.

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

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.

Eden Project and Lost Gardens of Heligan

I woke in a state of some anticipation for today 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.

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 pleasant young man in the Eden Project ticket office cheerfully liberated us from £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 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?  

Madam looked at the list of warnings and up at the steel 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 on the way to admire the scenery.  The platform hovered just above the tops of the tallest trees, I could have almost touched them if I hadn’t been gripping the hand rail 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 Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall.  

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 Lost Gardens of Heligan admission 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 World War I 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 wooded area with subtropical tree ferns.  

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, the wooded area with the 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?”

Pictures from the trip can be found here