Deck the halls . . .

Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).

I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.

We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.


Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.

On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.

Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house. 

I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.


At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.

And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.

So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!

Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2013), Worcestershire


Baddesley Clinton (19 December 2014), Warwickshire


Charlecote Park (16 December 2015), Warwickshire


Greyfriars (14 December 2016), Worcester


Croome (28 December 2017), Worcestershire


Coughton Court (30 November 2018), Warwickshire


Hanbury Hall (9 December 2019), Worcestershire


In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.

On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).

Wallington (10 December 2021), Northumberland


Ormesby Hall (28 November 2022), North Yorkshire


 

We saw the Fairies Caves but no lonesome pines

Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.

Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.

Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.

To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.

It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.


Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.

At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (established in 1848, with the red doors) are based here.

At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.

And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.


At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.

In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.

Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.

In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.

The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.

King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.

We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.

Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.

There’s even a Back Front Street!

Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.

On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.

And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.


You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.


 

Not necessarily in the right order . . .

I enjoy writing. And on this blog, I’ve now published 668 stories since 2012, and probably around 700,000 words.

Some stories come easily, others take a little more working once I’ve had an idea. Rarely do I complete a story in one session. I often begin a draft and then let the ideas swirl around my mind for a few days before returning to it and begin some serious editing.

I hope my writing style is accessible. I try to make it so. Having been trained as a scientist, back in the day we were taught always to report our work in the passive voice, almost as if we hadn’t been involved at all. Times are changing, and even when I was still actively publishing (more than a decade ago) I tried to lighten the style by referring to my/our efforts.

So with this in mind, I was amused a few days ago when one of my Facebook friends posted this cartoon. I can relate to that.

It made me chuckle and reminded me of one of the best comedy sketches I’ve ever seen on TV.

Morecambe and Wise were among the UK’s best-loved comic duos from the 1940s onwards. They appeared regularly on TV in the 1970s and 80s, right up to Eric Morecamble’s death 1984.

Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe

Their Christmas Specials were always eagerly anticipated, and they were never short of guest celebrities appearing on the show, often to take part in one of Ernie’s ‘plays’.

Anyway, the particular sketch I’m thinking about was first broadcast in 1971, featuring world-famous pianist and conductor André Previn.

Enjoy the next 13 minutes of exquisite humor and, in particular, the interaction between Eric Morecambe and Previn around 10’56”. Classic comedy, and relevant to the initial theme of this blog post.

And while this sketch is considered one of the all-time classics, it had its origins in 1963. The film of this performance only came to light 50 years later.

Morecambe and Wise recycled the sketch to greater effect with André Previn, to the delight of both orchestra and audience.


 

Glass is performance art (Thomas Phifer, architect)

I couldn’t agree more. Take a piece of distinct Bristol blue glass, or an 18th century air twist glass, for example. Glass is such a beautiful medium—organic even—that when cold and solid seems to retain a fluidity only achieved at high temperature.

I enjoy a wee dram of whisky from time to time. There’s nothing quite like drinking whisky from a finely-cut crystal glass. Taste and touch combining to enhance the overall sensory experience.

If I ever tune into Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, it’s with the hope that glassware expert Andy McConnell (right) might be on the show, and has found an interesting piece of glassware. His enthusiasm for all glass is infectious.

I lived in the West Midlands until two years ago, and knew that Stourbridge was one of the country’s most important glass making centers for centuries. It wasn’t until we moved to the northeast that I discovered just how important the glass industry was in this region since Anglo-Saxon times.

Last Friday, we decided to find out a lot more about glass making and visited the National Glass Centre (NGC), that was opened in October 1998 on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie campus at St Peter’s, on the banks of the River Wear opposite the Port of Sunderland.

So why did Sunderland become such an important center for glass making?

Well, you have to go back to AD 674 when Bishop Benedict Biscop sought help from craftsmen in Gaul to make windows for his newly-founded monastery, the remains of which are still seen in St Peter’s Church (with its original Anglo-Saxon tower) near the NGC. This was where one of Britain’s most famous scholars, the Venerable Bede, grew up.

Between AD 800 or so and 1615, glass making had all but ceased in the northeast. Then King James I banned the use of wood as a fuel for glass production. Given the plentiful supply of coal in the northeast, and that sailing ships coming from the Continent carried ballast in the form of quality sand, glass making was revived here, companies founded, and they prospered well into the 20th century. Sunderland became famous for Pyrex.

Most of the bottle and glassworks have disappeared, closed down, demolished.

But the remants of the industry continue to be washed up along the shore. At the end of August, Steph and I traveled to Seaham, south of Sunderland, to find sea glass on one of the beaches south of the town’s harbor.

Today, the National Glass Centre celebrates the history of glass making in Sunderland and along the Durham coast. When some of the glass makers closed down a couple of decades ago, craftsmen from those companies were hired at the NGC and today offer daily demonstrations of glass-blowing and the like in its workshops, one of which we enjoyed watching after lunch.

Exhibitions are mounted in the main gallery on the upper entrance level. And at the time of our visit, there was a display of many of the pieces that have emanated from the studios of Neil Wilkin and Rachael Woodman. Such remarkable artistry, use of color. I was blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pieces are also offered for sale, with the smallest and cheapest being merely expensive (£1800) to other larger pieces beyond my pay grade, several times over. They are remarkably beautiful. Here is just a small selection of the pieces on display.


We opted to take the Tyne and Wear Metro to Sunderland, changing lines (from yellow to green) at Monument on the outward journey, and Heworth on the return.

Our closest station, Northumberland Park is just a few minutes’ walk from home. St Peter’s at the other end is just over half a mile (and 10 minutes) from the NGC.

Nothing could have been more convenient, and much less hassle than driving there.

It was about 45 minutes or so each way, and on the return journey I managed to snap the Tyne bridges in the afternoon sunlight.


 

 

To the ends of the earth . . .

Recently, I was asked what was the farthest I’d ever traveled. Now, if you have followed my posts here on A Balanced Diet, you will know that I have written a good deal about road trips that Steph and I made in Peru during the early 1970s, in Australia in 2003, in the USA since 2011, and around Scotland in 2015.

I’ve also written about my love-hate relationship with aviation, and some of the flights I’ve made.

So, in the context of the question I was asked, I think it has to be a trip (or several) that I’ve made over the past 50 years. And how aviation has changed during that period.

The Boeing 747 made its maiden flight on 9 February 1969 and changed aviation forever, so it’s rather sad realizing that for most airlines, the Queen of the Skies is no longer operational as a passenger aircraft. The Covid pandemic essentially killed commercial passenger travel for two years. With the introduction simultaneously of more efficient jet liners like the Boeing 777 or 787, and the Airbus A350, the 747 became, except for a handful of airlines, an aviation white elephant. Notwithstanding that Emirates Airlines has reaffirmed its commitment—for the foreseeable future—to the Super Jumbo A380.


Before 1973, when I made my first intercontinental flight, I had flown only three times: from Glasgow (GLA) to Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides in 1966; from London Heathrow (LHR) to Glasgow in January or February 1969 to attend a folk festival at Strathclyde University; and in April 1972 to attend a conference in Izmir, Turkey flying from Birmingham International (known as Elmdon Airport back in the day) to London, and on to Izmir (IGL, now a military airbase) with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul-Yesilköy (IST, now closed to passenger flights, I believe).

Then, on 4 January 1973, I flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Lima, Peru (LIM) with intermediate stops at Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, and Bogotá (BOG) in Colombia, before touching down, late at night, at a rather sultry Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima.

This flight, just over 6500 miles, was operated by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways, using a Boeing 707 like this one.

The Boeing 707 had a range of just over 4000 miles, and the stop in Antigua was necessary for refueling. Today, flights from Europe can easily reach Lima non-stop, and in July 2016 I flew from Amsterdam (AMS) on a Boeing 777 operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, taking about 13 hours if my memory serves me right.

I first flew to Asia in the 1980s, to attend a conference in Jakarta (HLP), Indonesia from Birmingham via Amsterdam. The AMS-HLP flight, operated by KLM was a Boeing 747 (probably 300) and there must have been an intermediate layover, but I don’t remember where. There were no non-stop flights into Asia then, a distance of over 7000 miles. And since I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, and remained there until April 2012, I have flown from there all over the world. Such as the trip I made around 1994 to South Africa on Singapore Airlines: 6855 miles and almost 11 hours flying time from Singapore (SIN) to Johannesburg (JNB) across the Indian Ocean.

We stayed in the Philippines for almost 19 years, returning to the UK each year on home leave. For the first decade we traveled with KLM through Amsterdam and with intermediate stops in either Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bangkok in Thailand. Then, in 2001, when Emirates began operating out of both Manila and Birmingham, we could fly home on a wide-bodied 777 with a short layover in Dubai of a couple of hours or so. The BHX-DXB flights were a little under 7 hours, and between DXB and Manila, a little over 8, with a total distance of more than 7700 miles.


It was a flight around 2005 that was my longest both in terms of miles and hours in the air. I had flown into Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) from Manila (MNL) to spend a weekend with my elder daughter Hannah who was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Direct flights to the USA (via a Tokyo hub) were operated by Northwest Airlines (NWA, now Delta Airlines). And I’d expected to continue all my internal flights on NWA. However there was a major strike and I had to scrabble around to find alternative flights on other airlines that would accept my NWA ticket. Eventually all was sorted, and the trip went ahead without any other hitches.

After my last stop in New York, I flew from New York-La Guardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United flight to Hong Kong-Kai Tak (HKG), with yet another connection on Canadian Pacific to Manila.

My intercontinental flights on NWA had been booked in Business Class (First on US domestic flights). United honored these tickets, and I was upgraded to First on the ORD-HKG flight, much to my relief. I knew it would be a long haul, but hadn’t appreciated just how long. Just under 7800 miles, and 17½ hours.

It was a 747-400, and every seat was taken. We were heavy! In fact, as we taxied out for take-off, our captain advised us there was a better than even chance that we would have to make a stop in Beijing to refuel given the anticipated headwinds. I can remember willing that aircraft into the air; what a long roll before rotation. As it transpired we didn’t have to land in Beijing, but the final couple of hours we must have been flying on vapor, or gliding into Hong Kong. The total trip was just under 9300 miles.


However, the longest trip of all was from BHX to Melbourne (MEL), Australia via Dubai (DXB) on Emirates Airlines (EK) in November 2016 when I had to attend a 3-day meeting of a genebank program I was reviewing.

I was joined by my good friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd. We met up in the Emirates lounge at BHX before setting off to DXB on a Boeing 777-300 ER, and connecting, after a layover of an hour or so, with an A380 flight to MEL.

Brian and me enjoying a wee dram on one of our A380 flights.

The flight to DXB took about 7 hours, a distance of 3500 miles. The connecting flight was 7200 miles and about 14½ hours. The return flights were slightly longer due to headwinds.

In total then this trip to Australia was the farthest I’ve traveled: more than 21 hours flying time, and around 10,700 miles.


 

 

I have a confession . . .

Indeed. I voted Conservative (the Tories for my overseas readers). Just the once mind you, and it was more than five decades ago. 18 June 1970. A General Election.

I’d turned 21 the previous November and was, for the first time, eligible to vote, even though this was the first election in which people could vote from the age of 18. My studies were over and done with, and I was about to graduate from the University of Southampton.

The Labour Party, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been polling favorably and was expected to win the election. But a late swing of just under 5% to the Conservatives gave them an overall majority in parliament of 30 seats. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. I cast my vote in the Southampton Test contest for the Conservative candidate James Hill.  Maybe it was a reaction to Wilson. I just don’t remember.

However, I’ve never voted Conservative since! And I never will again!

In fact I have voted in very few elections, even though I have always exercised my democratic right whenever possible, in both national and local elections. That’s because I spent January 1973 to March 1981 in South and Central America, and from July 1991 to April 2010 in the Philippines. I’ve voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, even the Green Party rather than supporting any Conservative candidate.

Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire where we lived until two years ago) is a true blue constituency, and the sitting MP is former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid. Given the UK’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, my anti-Tory vote has essentially counted for nothing in every election, given the weight of Tory support throughout the constituency. Javid was re-elected in the 2019 election with an increased majority of more than 23,000.

Sajid Javid and Mary Glindon

Now that we have moved north, to North Tyneside (east of Newcastle upon Tyne), I can happily support the Labour MP, Mary Glindon and my vote will count.


They say that the older you get, the more right-wing you become. Is that so? Not in my case, and I’ll be 74 in just over three weeks.

In fact I’ve always been a ‘left of centrist’. And if you evaluate, in detail, what New Labour achieved under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I’d be proud to cast my vote again for their sort of politics. Notwithstanding, of course, Blair’s loss of reputation during the Iraq War and his close relationship with US President George W Bush.

Don’t let the Tories claim otherwise.

Which brings me on to the current standing of British politics that have certainly been turbulent recently. Three Prime Ministers in as many months.

The Three Brexiteers: Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

Not to mention three Home Secretaries, and four Chancellors of the Exchequer, and five Secretaries of State for Education.


I, like many, was delighted when Boris Johnson was finally forced from office in July.

Only to be replaced by perhaps the most incompetent Prime Minister ever to hold that position, Liz Truss, a perspective held by members of the British public.

And her tenure lasted a mere 46 days. Her only achievement was to crash the economy. So when, at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) last Wednesday, Truss declared that she was ‘a fighter, not a quitter‘ (in response to taunts from the Labour benches encouraging her to go), I guessed the writing was on the wall. She resigned the following day.

That brings me back to Boris Johnson. With the prospect of another election for leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister, Johnson quit his holiday in the Dominican Republic and headed back to the UK, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and save the Conservatives. They are currently about 30 percentage points behind Labour in nationwide polling, and were a General Election to be held today, could see themselves virtually wiped out.

A disheveled Boris Johnson seeking support after arriving back from the Caribbean last Sunday.

Writing in ConservativeHome on 23 October, editor and former MP Paul Goodman wrote: Johnson Derangement Syndrome consumes his enemies, who can see no good in him, and his friends, who can see no bad, or none that isn’t outweighed by his jokes, animal spirits and zest for life.

Barely three months since he was forced to resign, at least 60 MPs (including some Cabinet members who had sought his resignation) nailed their colors to the Johnson mast, but were soon found with egg on their faces.

By Sunday night, after having marched his troops to the top of the hill and then down again (just like the Grand Old Duke of York, according to one Conservative MP), Johnson withdrew from the race, leaving the election to just two candidates: Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons (the first to declare her candidacy) and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Moments before the 2 pm deadline for nominations last Monday (24 October) Mordaunt withdrew, leaving the way open for a Sunak coronation. How bizarre! This made Sunak the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years.

Tories in disarray and riven by factions ranging from the European Research Group (ERG) on the right (and vehement Brexit supporters) to centrist (and perhaps more traditional) One Nation Tories.

And appropriate that Johnson was no longer involved. This was a Prime Minster who resigned in disgrace. The first Prime Minister to be convicted of a criminal offence (for breaking a Covid lockdown law that he introduced), and one who is still under investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee for having ‘misled’ the House, a convenient euphemism for having lied.

This is what the British public think of Boris Johnson.

Yesterday, Sunak assumed the reins of government, after having been appointed by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Source: Creator: Aaron Chown Credit: PA; Copyright: PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking to the nation outside No 10 Downing Street afterwards, Sunak committed himself to lead a government that would earn the trust of the British people. He went on to say: This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.

That didn’t last long. By mid-afternoon he had reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just six days after she had been sacked by Liz Truss ostensibly for breaking the Ministerial Code by using her personal email to send an official document. I’m sure there was more to it than that.

Braverman is an evil woman, gloating on camera that she had a dream—an obsession even—of seeing refugees/migrants to this country being flown to Rwanda under the asylum plan initiated by her equally-appalling predecessor at the Home Office, Priti Patel.

And bringing back losers like Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson even, and transferring former Health and Care Secretary Thérèse Coffey (who admitted to breaking the law about the illegal use of antibiotics) to the environment department, DEFRA.

So although Sunak’s words pointed his government in one direction, his actions suggest something rather different.

Yes, it’s remarkable that a colored son of immigrants, a Hindu, has become Prime Minister, and I think we can all applaud that. He’s one of the richest persons in the nation (with a portfolio worth around £750 million, and married to the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest individuals). I don’t begrudge him that wealth, if it was acquired legally and he pays his fair taxes. Whether, as many commentators have suggested, he just cannot relate to the man in the street, time will tell.

Some of his comments on the election trail earlier in the summer when he was up against Liz Truss for the post of Prime Minister, don’t bode well.

Given that a General Election won’t be held soon, I guess Sunak was the best option for the nation, to try and stabilize the economic crisis caused by Truss and Kwarteng. Sunak has kept Jeremy Hunt on as Chancellor. Commentators will have to be careful referring to a Sunak-Hunt partnership – although that may well be an apt description for both.


I’ve just watched today’s PMQs and Rishi Sunak’s first outing at the Despatch Box, grilled by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, hopefully Prime Minister-in-waiting. It was interesting that some of the specific points I made earlier in this post were also raised by Starmer, and it’s clear that many are outraged at the re-appointment of Braverman as Home Secretary.

Come the General Election, will it be Starmer who emerges victorious? I hope so, although I think the general public has yet to warm to him, while recognizing qualities that I believe will make him a good Prime Minister. What a contrast to Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

As with Joe Biden in the USA, ‘boring’ could be a welcome relief for a while. What we need is a General Election – now!


 

The carnival is over . . .

The music of The Seekers, an Australian group formed in 1962 in Melbourne, was a backdrop to my early teenage years.

L-R: Judith Durham, Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger, and Athol Guy

Comprising guitarists Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, Athol Guy on bass, and female singer Judith Durham, The Seekers became one of Australia’s premier acts, and they enjoyed celebrity status abroad with hits like The Carnival is Over (released in 1965) and Georgy Girl (in 1966, the title song to the movie of the same name starring Lynn Redgrave, and nominated for an Oscar).

I hadn’t thought about The Seekers for many decades. They went out of fashion (outside of Australia, at least) and, in any case, my musical tastes had evolved. Then, a few months back I saw an item in the news that Judith Durham had died on 5 August at the age of 79. But beyond reading her obituary in The Guardian, I didn’t think any more about her or the group.

Until earlier this week. Just by chance I came across this video on YouTube of The Seekers in a farewell concert in 2014 (all members would have been in their early- to mid-70s by then), performing I Am Australian. Co-composed by Bruce Woodley in 1987 it has become, so I’ve come to understand, something of an anthem in Australia. Some have even been suggested it as an alternative national anthem.

Since I heard I Am Australian just a few days ago, it has become an ear worm. It’s a pleasant enough composition, somewhat saccharine—sentimental even—to my taste. But something has made it stick in my mind.

Just listen to Judith Durham’s vocals. In this performance her voice was as strong and pure as back in the 1960s. What a voice! And even more remarkable since she had an illness-induced lung/respiratory condition (bronchiectasis) from about the age of 5 that affected her breathing, and which contributed to her death this year.

Beautiful and powerful voices like Judith Durham’s don’t come along very often. And now that I have reconnected with The Seekers, so-to-speak, I can appreciate just how special she was as a singer.


 

On Kielder side . . .

Nestling beneath the England-Scotland border in the far west of Northumberland in the northeast of England, Kielder Water (owned by Northumbrian Water) is the largest man-made reservoir in England by capacity (Rutland Water has a greater surface area), holding 200 billion liters, and with a maximum depth of 52 meters.

It took six years (1975-1981) to construct the reservoir, which was first flooded in 1982. The River North Tyne is the primary inflow.

The Kielder Water dam.

The view east down the valley of the River North Tyne from the Kielder Water dam.

View from the dam across Kielder Water towards the England-Scotland border on the hills in the distance.

Kielder Water is surrounded by Kielder Forest, the largest woodland of its kind in northern Europe, managed by Forestry England (an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission).

We have been waiting for a break in the weather to make a return visit. We first visited this area in 1998 during a touring holiday in Northumberland. And then again in December 2017 when we spent a couple of nights in one of the cabins (with our daughter Philippa, husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix) at the Leaplish Waterside Park along the western shore of the reservoir.

There are paths for walking and cycling right around Kielder Water.

Kielder Water on a cold and calm December morning, looking east towards the dam.


From our home in North Tyneside, it’s just under 60 miles by road to Kielder Water, taking in much of the awe-inspiring Northumberland landscape along the way. Talk about big skies!

We stopped at the Kielder dam to enjoy a welcome cup of coffee; our journey had taken a little over an hour. Then we crossed the dam to a viewpoint on the far side before heading back and continuing our trip north on the western shore.

Less than a mile from the dam we made a slight detour to view the reservoir from Elf Kirk Viewpoint (it’s marked on the map above). What a delight to see the Autumn colors beginning to shine through, particularly all the golden bracken.

The view northeast from Elf Kirk Viewpoint, looking over the small marina at Merlin Brae.

This was the view southeast from the northern end of Kielder Water, with the dam in the distance.


However, the main focus of our trip was the Kielder Forest Drive, a 12 mile toll road (£3) from Kielder village northeast to the A68 road (Newcastle-Jedburgh) just south of Byrness village.

About a mile in, we stopped to take a stroll up the hillside, which ended up being a three mile walk, and climbing maybe a couple of hundred feet. But the weather was glorious, and it was most enjoyable.

Here is a short video taken along the Forest Drive. It’s really remote, and on the day we visited virtually no other travelers apart from some Forestry England employees.

The rough gravel roads reminded me of traveling around Peru all those decades ago, fifty years come January. The Forest Drive certainly passes through some wild landscapes, made even more ethereal in those parts of the forest that have been felled but not yet replanted. A torn landscape. No cellphone signal.

And there was one object we saw on the hills marking the border between England and Scotland. A container with fire retardant fluid to combat any forest fires, perhaps? Or maybe a defence installation, and early warning system the Scots have installed to repel English encroachments once they gain independence. What do you think?

Fire prevention or defence?

Having reached the A68, it was a smooth and direct drive back down to the coast. Here are a couple of videos (below) traveling through glorious landscapes near Otterburn and Elsdon. Why not listen to Kathryn Tickell, an acclaimed exponent of the Northumbrian pipes (and fiddle); the first tune is Kielder Jock.

Northumberland never fails to inspire!


 

Plants deserve more than five minutes of fame . . .

I’m currently enjoying Frozen Planet II, broadcast on Sunday evenings on BBC1, presented and narrated by that icon of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.

Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen Planet not Frozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.

Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.

Proud to be a botanist

The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.

On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening

Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.

It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.

For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S 178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.

Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

    Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.

  • The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
  • The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
  • Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
  • Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.

It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.

I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.

Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.

Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?


 

A gong by any other name . . .

There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.

And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.

Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.

Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.

The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.

The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.

The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.

Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.

The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.

On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.

Receiving my OBE from the Prince of Wales, and afterwards in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace with my younger daughter Philippa and wife Steph.

In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.

A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.

I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.

A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:

It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.

However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.

In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.


 

A day out in York . . .

York is an historic town, founded by the Romans in AD 71 and known as Eboracum. It was one of the most important settlements in Roman Britannia, sitting at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, and navigable inland from the North Sea.

Just over 80 miles south of our home in North Tyneside, we enjoyed an excursion to York last week.

From the magnificent York Minster (completed after several centuries in 1472) to the city walls dating mainly to the 13th century (but built on earlier earth banks), and the bustling and narrow streets of the medieval town around Shambles, York has a lot to offer any tourist. And even in the middle of September after children had begun the school year, the city center was extremely busy with visitors from the four corners of the world (if the languages I heard spoken were anything to go by).

While we appreciated the Minster from outside, walked through Shambles, and enjoyed a section of the city walls circuit west of the River Ouse (from Baile Hill, past Micklegate Bar, and back to the Ouse) we had traveled to York to visit the Treasurer’s House (a National Trust property behind the Minster), and Clifford’s Tower (an English Heritage property near the confluence of the two rivers, with a magnificent 360º view over the city). More images of York can be viewed here.

The journey south, on just the A19 the whole way, took around 90 minutes. Just outside York we parked at Rawcliffe Bar Park and Ride on the northwest of the city before 10:30, and took the bus into Museum Street close-by the Minster, and a 15 minute journey costing just £1.20 return (with our concessionary travel cards).


The Treasurer’s House sits just behind York Minster (off Minster Yard) and was the residence of its Treasurer (a position established in 1091) until 1547 when it was abolished during the Reformation.

The Grade 1 listed house we see today, from the early 17th century, was previously much larger comprising several additional wings that are now part of Grays Court hotel. Roman remains have been found beneath the house.

In the fading years of the 19th century, Treasurer’s House was bought by eccentric industrialist Frank Green (born 1861, right), who filled it with exquisite paintings, ceramics, and furniture. So none of the interior is contemporary to the house per se, rather a reflection of Green’s eclectic collecting passion.

The family wealth was founded by Green’s grandfather Edward, who established the an engineering firm in Wakefield in 1821. Edward Green patented (in 1845) a design—Green’s Economizer—to increase the steam-raising efficiency of boilers. The company is still in operation today.

Frank’s father, Sir Edward Green was Conservative MP for Wakefield from 1895 to 1892. He married Mary Lycett, introducing that surname into the family although it was not used by Frank but by his elder brother Edward who became the second baronet. Edward Lycett Green, 2nd Baronet took no interest in the engineering company.

L-R: Edward Green (grandfather), Sir Edward Green, and Mary Lycett (parents)

Frank Green never married. He was an irascible individual, obsessed by cleanliness and hygiene. Even down to the placement of furniture in the house, marking precisely where each piece should be replaced if it was ever moved for cleaning. And woe-betide any of staff who didn’t follow his instructions – to the letter! He even sent his laundry each week to London for cleaning. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, a genial host of York society, celebrities, even royalty.

He extensively remodeled the house, and opened the central part to create a great hall – because he thought all ‘good’ houses needed a hall (and a gallery). The magnificent staircase to the first floor was a purchase from another house, and none of the paintings displayed there have any connection with the house whatsoever.

A full album of images from our visit can be found here.

By 1930, and his health declining (perhaps because of the damp conditions in York), Frank Green moved away from the Treasurer’s House and set up home in Somerset. He gave the Treasurer’s House and all its contents to the National Trust which has faithfully looked after the property ever since. Even making sure that the furniture is always replaced on the marks on the floor! He is also reputed to have left one of his Rolls Royce limousines to his chauffeur who set up a taxi business. In Somerset, Green was instrumental in saving the Exmoor pony breed during World War II.


Clifford’s Tower stands atop a very steep mound – the motte, and until recently visitors could only enter and gaze up at the blank walls. That is until English Heritage constructed a framework inside that takes visitors on to the roof and affording those panoramic views over the city.

There are more photos here.

This Norman tower was built on the orders of William I (the Conqueror) in 1068, and rebuilt a year later after it was destroyed by Vikings.

York or Jórvík had been the Scandinavian capital in northern England. In 1190 the Jews of York died in a pogrom inside the tower.

By the 18th century the tower was being used as a gaol and continued as such until the 1890s. Across the River Ouse the remains of York’s second castle can be seen at Baille Hill alongside the city walls.


By the time we had walked that section of the wall, it must have been 15:30 and catching the bus in Museum Street back to Rawcliffe Bar we were on the road home by 16:00, arriving around 17:20. York is a fascinating city and has lots to offer, and we’ll have to make plans to return again.

 

 

“The august but elderly testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent . . .”

King Charles III signs the document to uphold the Protestant faith in Scotland, at yesterday’s Accession Council.

Yesterday, at a Accession Council in St James Palace—broadcast live on television for the first time—Charles III was proclaimed King.

He made a personal declaration about the death of the Queen and an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland—because in Scotland there is a division of powers between church and state.

For anyone interested in ancestry, genealogy, and genetics a simple question remains: Is Charles the true king? And if not, who should be?


Back in 2004, a Channel 4 documentary presented an alternative theory of succession of the British crown from George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), and elder brother to Richard III (1452-1485). The claim was based on the supposed illegitimacy of Kind Edward.

The ‘rightful heir’ should have been Michael Edward Abney-Hastings, 14th Earl of Loudon, a British-Australian farmer, now succeeded by his son the 15th earl. The documentary was a bit of fun, and certainly not taken seriously by Abney-Hastings. However, besides this Plantagenet ‘claim’, there are other alternative successions to the crown.


Charles III has an impressive family tree that can be traced back to the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and even earlier it seems. Of course the line of descent through each monarch was not always direct, father to son or daughter. Some sovereigns never had children.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The key person in that family tree that links the monarch today with the Plantagenets and earlier is Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. Her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, and daughter of Henry VII. Henry VII had married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby linking the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties.

Mary’s son became James VI and I (1566-1625). As we enter a second Carolean Age it’s interesting to note that Charles III is not a direct descendant of Charles I or Charles II, the son and grandson of James.

Charles II (1630-1685) had several bastard sons (who were ennobled) but no legitimate children. However, if and when William, Prince of Wales (and now heir to the British crown) becomes King, there will be a ancestral link back to Charles II through his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

After Charles II’s younger brother James II (1633-1701) was deposed in 1688, and to exclude his Catholic heirs from throne, the crown was offered to James’ Protestant elder daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William III. They had no children, and in 1702, the crown passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who reigned until 1714. It was during Anne’s reign that the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union in 1707.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but only five live births. None of her children survived to adulthood. So, on her death in 1714, Parliament had a dilemma. It would not support the stronger claim of the hated Catholic Stuarts to the throne, instead turning to George, Elector of Hanover, and great grandson of James VI and I through his second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. George became George I of Great Britain, thus founding the Hanoverian dynasty that lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.


George I was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, and in 1760 by his great-grandson George III, who reigned until 1820. George III had fifteen children, some of whom never married, or never had legitimate children. The notorious eldest son became George IV in 1820, and the third son William IV in 1830.

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn

George IV had one daughter who died in childbirth. William IV had a bevy of illegitimate children, none of whom could succeed to the crown.

Once again, the country was faced with a dilemma. The next in line, so to speak, was Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) fifth child and fourth son of George III. He married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861) and they had one child—a daughter—born in 1819 who succeeded to the crown in 1837 (on the death of her uncle William IV) as Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after Victoria’s birth.

But was he Victoria’s father? And this is where the story becomes really interesting, and genetics comes into play.

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children, several of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

Albert, Victoria and their nine children in 1857.

And they took with them a deadly genetic disorder: haemophilia, the ‘bleeding disease’. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the haemophilia gene, but before her there was (apparently) no record of the disorder among the Hanoverians or the families they united with through marriage.

Victoria and Albert’s eighth child and third son, Leopold, Duke of Albany was a haemophiliac. He married Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont; they had a non-haemophiliac boy and a carrier girl. The tragedy of the gene in the Russian Imperial Family is well known.

So where did the haemophilia mutation arise? How had Victoria become a carrier? The gene is carried on the X chromosome. Here’s a simple diagram to explain the genetics.

Well, there are two answers. Either, as distinguished geneticist Professor Steve Jones FRS has so eloquently put it (writing in The Telegraph in May 2011), a mutation of the blood-clotting disease haemophilia . . . originated in the elderly and august testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent; or Edward was not Victoria’s father. If so, then Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a haemophiliac lover, and Victoria was their illegitimate offspring.

Supposition, of course, but still a genetic mystery. DNA tests could solve the mystery, but that would require a comparison of Queen Victoria’s DNA with that of a confirmed relative of George III (or close relative). Just as was achieved when the late Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. And testing the DNA of a descendant of the sister of King Richard III to confirm the identity of the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester.

If a match was not found, what should have been the succession? Presumably the younger brother of the Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and his descendants. However, these German descendants were deprived of their peerages and honors for having sided with Germany in the First World War.

Charles III was confirmed as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, fourteen other countries, and a host of territories. Should he be? It remains one of the intriguing ‘what ifs’ of British royal history.

Long Live the King!


You may be interested in this further reading:

 


 

The Queen is dead, long live the King!

Thus, the traditional proclamation as one monarch passes and another assumes the mantle of Head of State.

Official portrait of HM The Queen (on her 80th birthday) which was released on the announcement of her death on 8 September 2022.

It’s hard to imagine this country without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, so to speak. She reigned for more than 70 years, and could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror in 1066 and beyond. I was only three when she became Queen on 6 February 1952 on the death of her beloved father, King George VI, and too young to remember. Her coronation 16 months later was a different matter, however, when there were nationwide celebrations. Even in Congleton (where I lived at the time) the local children got in on the act.

Children from Moody Street and Howey Lane in Congleton celebrate the Coronation on 2 June 1953.

Head of State of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was also Head of State of 14 other countries¹, as well as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations (the ‘Commonwealth’) comprising 56 member states.

Fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom served during her reign, from Sir Winston Churchill (on her accession) to Liz Truss, appointed just three days ago at the kissing hands ceremony at Balmoral Castle where Her Majesty passed away yesterday at the age of 96.

In fact it was this and other photographs of Her Majesty welcoming Liz Truss, published later that day or the following day, that caught my attention in particular.

Her Majesty had been looking increasingly frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. At breakfast on Wednesday (the 8th) I remarked to Steph just how the Queen appeared to have gone down hill over recent weeks, perhaps her final chapter. Little did I realize.

Then, yesterday morning as I was scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I came across this news story about the Cambridges and their children, and I asked, on Twitter, why this was news at all.

Earlier this year, in the face of increasing political controversy, I wrote a blog post calling for major reform across government and society in this country. And although I’m neither republican or anti-monarchist, I expressed an opinion that the monarchy as such was past its sell-by date. Thus the last point in my tweet, little knowing that Her Majesty would pass away later that same day.

I did see Her Majesty in person on one occasion. In 1975, the University of Birmingham (originally the Mason Science College) celebrated its centenary. I and a group of fellow graduate students from Biological Sciences were among the crowds to welcome her to the Edgbaston campus. I was just a few feet away from her. I will always remember her warm smile.

When I was awarded my OBE in 2012 it was conferred by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. My good friend John Sheehy was also made an OBE but attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace two weeks earlier. We both thought it would have been nicer to have met Her Majesty. But, as John reminded me, Prince Charles would be King sooner or later.

Receiving my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales on 14 February 2012

So what sort of King will Charles become? Known for his strong and often outspoken (and sometimes misguided from a scientific point of view) opinions, he has vowed—so I have heard just now in a BBC commentary—not to carry these across to his new role as King. But I cannot help thinking that he won’t be able always to hold back. And if he chooses the right issues, that might not be a bad thing after all. Our politicians need holding to account. He has already indicated that he wants to see a smaller royal family (those who are working royals and therefore supported by the state), and that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s the end of an era, the start of a new one. Rest in peace Your Majesty. I wish King Charles well, and although my sentiments are to abolish the monarchy, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime or the King’s. Charles is just four days older than me.


¹ Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.

Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below to enlarge.

We had come across the Umfraville family on one of our earlier trips, in Upper Coquetdale, at Harbottle castle. And like the castle at Elsdon, Harbottle was built on a steep mound, the motte. At Elsdon the slopes must be 60° at least, and after struggling up the sides (before we found a much easier exit) I could imagine just how easy the site would have been to defend against unwanted visitors.


Having spent around 30 minutes exploring the remains of this interesting castle, we left Elsdon, and headed southeast to the last stop on that day’s tour of Northumberland: Winter’s Gibbet.

(10) Winter’s Gibbet High on the moors southeast from Elsdon, and with a magnificent 360° panorama, stands a sinister reminder of a late 18th century crime.

Winter’s Gibbet stands out clearly against the skyline. It a replica of the one first erected in 1792.

It was here that the body of one William Winter was hung in chains and left to rot following his execution (in August 1792 in Newcastle, along with two women accomplices) for the murder a year earlier of an old woman, Margaret Crozier who lived in a nearby Pele tower. It was the custom back in the day to leave the body of a murderer in a place overlooking the scene of their horrific crime. Click on the image below to enlarge.

William Winter was the only criminal to be ‘displayed’ at this gibbet.

From Winter’s Gibbet we headed home, passing on the way Wallington Hall, the village of Kirkharle, and Belsay Hall.

(11) Wallington This is a late 18th century mansion in the Palladian style, that replaced a medieval Pele tower on the estate (the cellars of which are still visible in the basement). It passed to the Trevelyan family in 1777.

We have visited Wallington on several occasions, and enjoyed not only walks in the garden and parkland, but also understanding the links of the Trevelyan family with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 19th century. I have written about our visits in three blog posts.

Capability Brown

(12) Kirkharle Just west of the A696 and about two miles south of Wallington, lies the village of Kirkharle. Birthplace in 1715/16 of the famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who I wrote about after a visit to the National Trust’s Croome in Worcestershire. Brown received one of his earliest commissions from Earl Coventry to redesign the landscape at Croome and dig a large lake, the ‘Croome river’.

(13) Belsay Hall and castle This was one of the first English Heritage properties we visited even before we moved to the Northeast. It lies about 14 miles northwest of Newcastle.

Besides the Regency style house built in the early 19th century, the Belsay estate includes an impressive garden within the quarry from which stone for the house (and castle?) was taken, and the ruins of a 14th century castle, original home of the Middleton family.

There is access to the roof of the tower with good views over the estate and the Northumbrian hills to the north.


Northumberland has something for everyone. I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of its history. And although we have traveled quite extensively already throughout the county, there is still plenty more to explore. After all, it is 1820 square miles (or 4716 km²).

 

 

 

 

Are you a picky eater?

I guess many of us have, at one time or another, taken one of the many quizzes (like the one below) that appear from time to time on social media platforms, testing whether we are picky or fussy eaters.

When you consider this list, it’s pretty anodyne. ‘Western’ even.

As for me, there’s just one item on this particular list—snails—that I would balk at completely. And it would have to be cooked oysters. I have no real issues with any of the others. There are a couple of others items. namely liver and raw fish, that I’m not overly fond of but would eat.

Yesterday evening, as Steph and I were enjoying a barbecue with chicken, sausage, burgers, salad, and grilled vegetables, I asked her whether there were foods she had refused to eat when growing up in the 1950s. I’m not sure how this came up in conversation. Maybe my memory was stirred by a piece of avocado that I was about to eat. More of that later.

I am fortunate that I have never faced hunger. Even when I was very young and my parents were raising four children, there was always food on the table.

One food item we both agreed that we ate quite frequently when young was liver, usually fried. I quite like fried liver but I haven’t tasted it for years. Chicken livers on a stick (anticuchos) were a particular favorite at a restaurant near Lima where we used to dine we lived in Peru. Delicious!

But how picky would you be if the list was rather more wide-ranging, not western diet biased? Very, I’m sure. Given that so many food preferences are cultural, I have to say there are many foods I could bring myself to try. Here are a few examples.

However hard my colleagues in the Philippines ‘encouraged’ me to try balut (a fertilized developing duck egg embryo), for me that was a step too far. Likewise on my first visit to China around 2005, I declined the ‘exotic’ dishes typical of Cantonese cuisine, becoming vegetarian for the duration of my visit to Guangzhou.

Let’s not even think about insects, especially large juicy grubs. Shivers.

As for very spicy food, I have my limits. So, much as I enjoy Mexican and Indian dishes, I much prefer a delicate blend of spices to the searing heat of chillies.

I’ve always enjoyed trying new fruits, although my favorites are apples and bananas, both of which I eat daily. Until I lived in the Philippines I’d never enjoyed mangoes. But the varieties widely available there are succulent and sweet. Fruits to die for!

But there is one fruit that I have tasted just the once. And once was almost one time too many. The durian! If you can get past the smell the flesh doesn’t actually taste too bad, but is rather rich. However, it was the after-effects. It certainly was the fruit that kept on giving, as I wrote in 2014.

So, provided with a different picky food list, I’m certain my score would be very high indeed.

I mentioned avocado earlier in this narrative. Until I moved to Lima, Peru in January 1973, I’d never tasted this particular food item. And my initial experience put me off it for decades to come. It wasn’t the avocado itself, but the chicken salad (or similar) stuffing of palta rellena that made me violently sick. Steph suffered exactly the same experience when she arrived in Lima some months later on, and for many, many years afterwards, neither of us could face tackling an avocado. However both of us are now enthusiastic avocado aficionados.

I can’t say I was particularly impressed when faced with ceviche for the first time, raw fish marinated in lime juice. It’s a very typical Peruvian dish. However, washed down with a pisco sour or two, what a delight it is.

So, if you ever come across one of those quizzes, try and put it in context, and think about all the cultural differences we experience with regard to what foods we consume – and enjoy.


 

Beach-combing along the Durham coast

When we lived in Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire), we were about as far from the coast as it’s possible to be in England (if you discount stretches of the Severn Estuary).

In fact, the small community of Meriden (yellow icon on the map) near Coventry (just 19 miles north east of Bromsgrove) claimed for hundreds of years, to be the geographical center of England. However, when I did a search online, I came across this Ordnance Survey website. The center of England and Wales is, apparently, on a farm just outside Sutton Coldfield (green icon), about the same distance away from Bromsgrove as Meriden. Almost two years ago, Steph and I left Bromsgrove and moved to the eastern outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, and just over 5 miles (or 10 minutes) from the North Sea coast.

We love it up here in the northeast, and take every opportunity of exploring Northumberland and its glorious coastline. Northumberland boasts some of the best beaches in the country, although the sea is much too cold for the likes of me to even dip my toes.

We’ve spent less time south of the River Tyne, but have enjoyed the various visits we have made to the Magnesian limestone cliffs at Whitburn, Marsden Beach, and Souter lighthouse.

However, earlier in the week we headed a little further south, beyond Sunderland, to explore one of the beaches near Seaham on the Durham Heritage Coast (DHC).

The DHC  is a 20 mile stretch of coast from Sunderland south to Hartlepool having emerged from its industrial past to an area worthy of Heritage Coast status with one of the finest coastlines in England. Click on the map to enlarge. Here is a pamphlet.

Viewing the coast today it’s hard to believe that for decades it was heavily polluted, and almost all wildlife was wiped out. All along the coast there were coal mines, and the waste from the collieries was simply dumped over the cliffs (a continuation of the Magnesian limestone found north of the River Wear).

We headed for Nose’s Point and Blast Beach less than a mile south of Seaham harbor. This was the site of the former Dawdon Colliery. It was one of the most efficient and productive pits in the Durham coalfield. Indeed one of the most productive in the country. It finally closed in 1991.

Dawdon Colliery above Nose’s Point and Blast Beach, in 1934.

Blast Beach was once so polluted that it was used as a location for the opening sequences of the 1992 movie Alien 3. It looks very different today.

Blast Beach from Nose’s Point.

Nose’s Point from Blast Beach.

So what is its history? These sign boards tell something of the industrial story of the coast. Click on the image to enlarge.

The wildlife has returned, the sea water is clean, and this has been repeated all along the DHC.

And as much as we just enjoy being out and about, our visit to Blast Beach had a purpose. We came looking for ‘treasure’ – sea treasure. Sea glass, in fact. The beaches north and south of Seaham are world famous for the quantity and variety of sea glass that is washed up with almost every tide.

The northeast is famous for its glass-making industry, and has a long and illustrious history. Today the National Glass Centre is located in Sunderland.

The Londonderry Bottleworks were opened in 1853 on a site close to Seaham harbor, and remained in production until 1921. Vast quantities of waste glass were dumped in the sea close to the beach, and later on in deeper water. Over the decades this glass tumbled with the tides, becoming smooth pieces, almost jewel-like.

Let Paula Newman from Peblsrock in Seaham explain more about sea glass and its origin.

As it turned out, Blast Beach was not the best location to find sea glass, but wherever you are beach-combing for sea glass, it’s not so easy to spot the small fragments of glass among the shingle.

Here’s our small haul for about 90 minutes of combing as we strolled along the beach.

Eventually we reached Frenchman’s Cove towards the southern end of the beach, and made our way up the steep steps to the coastal path that encompasses the whole of the DHC.

Back at the car park, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the North Sea, and then marveled at the Dawdon fossil.

Hunting for sea glass is very compelling; it could almost become obsessive. So I’m sure that it won’t be too long before we find ourselves once again strolling along one of Seaham’s beaches, backs bent, peering at the shingle and hoping that the one piece of glass we hoped for was there at our feet.


 

One of the most beautiful places I have visited . . .

Recently, I was asked to choose one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Well beauty lies, as the saying goes, in the eyes of the beholder. What one person finds appealing leaves another cold.

However, to choose just one place, that really is a challenge. But I’m up for it!

I have visited more than 60 countries, and whenever possible, took a day or so from my busy schedules (mainly at weekends) for some sightseeing. So there are many candidates to choose from.

I lived abroad for almost 28 years, in Peru and Costa Rica between 1973 and 1981, and in the Philippines from 1991 to 2010. Our elder daughter lives in the USA (in Minnesota) and Steph and I have visited each year since 2010 and traveled extensively across that vast country. Until Covid put paid to our plans, that is.

In the Americas, I could choose Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Arizona, or the giant redwoods of northern California. Not to mention the many spectacular rivers we have crossed or the mountains like the Tetons and Appalachians we have traveled along.

In Central America, we visited the Aztec temples north of Mexico City, the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. In Peru, there’s the awe-inspiring Machu Pichu, and well as the beauty of the Andes mountains.

In Europe, I fulfilled a life-long ambition to see the Matterhorn, and almost anywhere you travel in Switzerland is chocolate box beauty.

My travels in Africa have taken me to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east, and the magnificent Rift Valley, and to regularly to Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the west.

Water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya

Traveling around Asia, I spent many happy times in Laos, and on one occasion Steph and I managed to snatch a weekend away in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, and take a trip up the Mekong River. In Cambodia, we’ll never forget our visit to Angkor Wat, while the beauty of the Bali landscape and beaches is firmly embedded in my mind. In the Philippines, we visited the coast at Anilao as frequently as possible, about nine visits a year, where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive over some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. And again, there’s the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains.

Heading further south, our travels have taken us on several occasions to Australia and one memorable road trip of 1000 miles from Sydney to Melbourne taking in the spectacular coastline.

Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, Australia

And not to miss out on locations closer to home such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, or the landscapes and beaches along the Northumberland coast where we now live.

But how can I distill all these experiences down to just a single choice? It’s very hard indeed. But in doing so, and I will reveal my choice shortly, I have also taken into consideration not only its intrinsic beauty, but the location, history, and emotions it stirred. And when I combine all these elements, I have chosen the one place (not yet mentioned) I would return to tomorrow, given half the chance.

And where is this particular jewel? Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced Canyon de Shay), in northeast Arizona. Just zoom out on the map below to reveal its location.

It’s certainly not on the same scale as its ‘near’ neighbor the Grand Canyon. But there’s something about Canyon de Chelly that really caught my imagination. And Steph and I have the good fortune to visit there in May 2011.

So how did I come to learn about Canyon de Chelly? It’s not a name that rolls off the tongue.

Well, in early 2011 I came across a book in the public library in Bromsgrove (in Worcestershire where I used to live) about US army officer, Indian fighter, explorer and adventurer, Colonel Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson (1809-1868). Kit Carson was a western ‘hero’ of my boyhood, a figure in popular western culture and myth.

In 1863, he led an expedition into Canyon de Chelly to vanquish the resident Navajo tribe, killing more than 20 persons, stealing 200 or more sheep, destroying their homes (known as hogans) and their precious peach orchards. Not something to be proud of or remembered for as a hero. Anyway, this biography of Carson had me intrigued, and as I began to plan our road trip to the American Southwest for May, I decided to see if it would be possible to include Canyon de Chelly in the itinerary. It fitted in just right.

Landing in Phoenix, we headed north through Sedona Valley to Flagstaff, and on to the Grand Canyon the next day via Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. After a couple of nights at the Grand Canyon, we headed east to Chinle (the nearest town to Canyon de Chelly) via Monument Valley.


The Canyon de Chelly National Monument actually comprises three interconnected canyons: Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. It was designated a national monument in 1931. It’s the ancestral home of the Navajo, but throughout there are the relics of Ancestral Pueblans or Anasazi built into the cliff faces.

Access to the floor of the canyon is limited, with just one trail—to the White House—open to the public (although currently closed due to safety and ‘law enforcement’ issues). Otherwise, visitors must take one of the guided tours to travel along the canyons.

However, there are rim drives on the north and south sides of the canyon, with several overlooks providing spectacular (awe-inspiring even) views. Steph and I set out early from our motel, before the day became too hot, to explore as much as possible along both rim drives.

The approach to Canyon de Chelly from Chinle is not particularly impressive. In the canyon bottom there are groves are cottonwoods springing up beside the creeks that run through.

But it’s not until you begin to climb further along the rim drives that the true nature of Canyon de Chelly reveals itself, with sheer sandstone cliffs rising from the canyon floor.

In places these cliffs are 700 feet or more high.

Among the impressive Ancient Pueblan ruins are Mummy Cave and Antelope House (seen from the north rim drive), and the White House from the south.

Mummy Cave

Antelope House

White House

There is also a cave, fairly close to the rim on the north side known as Massacre Cave where, in 1825, the Navajo were slaughtered by invading Spanish troops.

Massacre Cave

The drive along the south rim eventually brings you to the Spider Rock overlook. Spider Rock is a free-standing sandstone pillar, over 700 feet tall, named after Spider Woman, a prominent character in Navajo lore.

Spider Rock, with the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border on the horizon.

There were few people visiting at the same time as us, and it felt as though we had the whole canyon to ourselves. While we didn’t descend to the canyon floor, the overlook points along both the north and south rim drives provide excellent visual access to the canyon from above.

Spider Rock overlook

Now I’d like to return, taking several days to really explore, understand better the Navajo relationship with Canyon de Chelly, how they came to occupy it, and how their agriculture has evolved over the centuries. In fact, I’d like to understand more about the evolution of human societies in the American southwest.

The grave of Col. ‘Kit’ Carson in Taos cemetery, New Mexico.

Canyon de Chelly has featured in at least 26 movies or TV specials, among the most notable being The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp, Wild Wild West (1999) with Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Kline, Mackenna’s Gold (1969) with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, How The West Was Won (1962) with a host of ‘Western’ stars, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.

Heading east from Arizona, we found ourselves in Taos in northern New Mexico where I visited the grave of Kit Carson.

If you ever find yourself on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, make a beeline for Canyon de Chelly. You won’t regret it.

Mind my Ps and Qs? More like Ws and Cs for me.

I’ve never been one for puzzles of any sort. Crosswords, Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube, even jigsaws. They all leave me cold. Not for me either (in the main) the many online challenges and quizzes that can absorb so much of one’s time.

Until recently, that is.

Many months ago, I noticed that a group of my Twitter friends (all ex-University of Birmingham in one capacity or another) were attempting the daily word puzzle Wordle. Despite their encouragement for me to join in, I replied—rather smugly—that I didn’t waste my time on such pastimes.

Little did I realize that once I had tried to solve the daily word riddle, I would be hooked. Not quite obsessive I hasten to add, but I’m definitely now a devotee of this daily brain teaser.

And not only that, but I found the country quiz Worldle, and that’s become almost as compulsive.


Devised by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle as far back as 2013, Wordle went online publicly in October 2021 becoming an instant craze (perhaps cooled somewhat since then). In January 2022, Wordle was purchased (for a reported seven figure sum) by The New York Times, and is published free online daily. There was a concern that once the NYT acquired the app it would be placed behind a paywall. That hasn’t happened yet.

Anyway, the aim of the game is to guess a five letter word, over six attempts. Correct letters (in the correct position) appear green. Correct letters, but in the wrong position are yellow.

Everyone has their own approach, some having a few ‘starter’ words with which to attack the problem. I take a more haphazard approach, taking the first five letter word that comes into my head, and working from there. The most frustrating challenges are those where there could be several solutions. Just like today’s puzzle (below). Or words that are common in American English but not British English, as has been the case from time to time recently.

So, how have I done? This is my score today (24 July 2022). I’ve never hit on the correct word at the first attempt, and there are few successful second or third guesses. Mostly fourth and fifth guesses. As well as sixteen complete failures.

However, when it comes to Worldle, I’m in much safer territory. Must be all those hours spent, as a child, pouring over maps and wondering which countries I might visit when I grew up. Just like Wordle, you have six attempts to recognize the outline of a country.

Some outlines are a complete mystery since they are never to scale. So a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for instance can appear as large as large country.

Anyway, my success rate on Worldle is quite good, with almost half on the first correct on the first attempt.

My morning routine is a cup of tea at 06:00 listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 for 15 minutes, then attempting both Wordle and Worldle over the next fifteen. Suits me, and gets my brain working ready for the day ahead.

But I’ve not been tempted to move on to spin-offs like Dordle, Sexaginta Quattuordle, or Nerdle. Those would be a step too far.


 

Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.