A baker’s dozen . . . and a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!

A baker’s dozen¹. That’s how many National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties—spanning more than 4500 years of history—Steph and I visited recently during the course of a 10-day and 1337 mile holiday in the south of England. We stayed at a cottage in the New Forest, near the village of Beaulieu in Hampshire, almost 300 miles due south (as the crow flies) from where we live in North Tyneside, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, but almost 380 miles by road.

At the end of this piece I’ll also tell you all about that extraordinary close encounter that occurred on the last day.


We took two days each way, stopping off in Banbury, Oxfordshire on the way south, and Leek, in North Staffordshire (and my ‘home town’) returning north. And on each of these four days we visited one NT or EH property, and the other nine during six days in Hampshire. The round trip took in 19 non-metropolitan and metropolitan counties². And over the course of our break we managed to walk, on average, more than four miles each day.

Click on the map below to view the NT and EH icons for each of the 13 properties.

In this post I’ve made little attempt to provide a comprehensive description of each property. Rather I have selected a few highlights that caught my attention. But there are links to National Trust or English Heritage and other sites for each property where you can find much more detail. I have however included links to the photo albums I have created to display the many photos I took during this trip.


Nostell (photo album)
Looking for somewhere to visit, about half the distant to Banbury on the first day, I came across Nostell in the National Trust handbook. Located in West Yorkshire, a few miles south of the M62 (roughly between and south of Wakefield and Pontefract)  it was a convenient spot to break our journey after 110 miles on the road.

And we weren’t disappointed.

Dating from the 1730s, it was built, in Palladian style, for the Winn family who continued to live there until the property and contents were given to the National Trust in 1953.

Nostell is renowned for several treasures: an impressive doll’s house made for Susanna Winn and her sister in the 1730s; a fine collection of oil paintings including one by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and a copy of a Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore; and perhaps one of the finest collections of furniture designed and made by Thomas Chippendale.

The Nostell collection also includes a wooden clock, made in 1717, by John Harrison, the clock-making genius who made the world’s first marine chronometer.

We enjoyed a walk through the park (which covers more than 300 acres), around the lake and in the walled garden which had a stunning display of tulips.

Leaving Nostell by mid-afternoon, we headed south on the M1, M42, and M40 motorways to arrive at our Premier Inn for the night in Banbury, a distance of 142 miles.


Basildon Park (photo album)
After a satisfying Premier Inn full English breakfast (highly recommended!), we set off south again, covering the 53 miles in under 1½ hours, and crossing the lovely landscape of the Berkshire Downs close to Basildon Park which overlooks the River Thames near Pangbourne, west of Reading.

Basildon Park has had an interesting history. Built in the Palladian style and decorated inside by Robert Adam, between 1776 and 1783, it served as a convalescent hospital during WW1, a barracks for a US airborne division in WW2, and fell into disrepair thereafter. It was rescued by Lord and Lady Iliffe, who gave the property and estate to the National Trust in 1978.

Among the most impressive are the dining room, the octagonal room, and the extraordinary shell room. Much of the house has a homely feel, and apparently the Iliffe’s stipulated that each room should be displayed as though the family were still living there.

We also enjoyed a walk around the park of almost 5 miles, and came across the most wonderful display of bluebells I think I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the disease ‘ash dieback‘ has taken hold quite seriously across the estate.

Then we headed back to the A34 and south to the New Forest, and our ‘home’ for the next six nights.


The Vyne (photo album)
This is located in the north of Hampshire, a round trip of almost 120 miles from our accommodation near Beaulieu.

The Vyne, on the edge of Sherborne St John, is a Tudor mansion built for William, 1st Baron Sandys who was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. At the time of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, the Sandys family found themselves on the wrong, Royalist, side of the conflict, and they lost The Vyne which passed to the Chute (or Chewt) family. And there it remained until bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956.

The classical portico on the northwest face was added in 1654 by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones.

Among the treasures of The Vyne are the Palladian staircase, in a classical Greek style added in the mid-18th century, the Oak Gallery (the most significant surviving Tudor room in the house), the Soho tapestries woven in the first two decades of the 18th century (and which had just been returned to The Vyne after years of conservation work), and the chapel, unchanged from its original Catholic origins, i.e. pre-Reformation.

Henry VIII visited The Vyne on several occasions with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. All around the house Catherine’s pomegranate motif can be seen on many carvings.

There are good walking opportunities at The Vyne taking in the gardens, lake, woodland, and wetlands. We covered just over 3½ miles.

Sandham Memorial Chapel (photo album)
That same afternoon we traveled west from The Vyne to the village of Burghclere, about 17 miles, to view the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Externally, the chapel, constructed in the 1920s, is nothing particularly special to look at. It was commissioned as a memorial to Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham who died from an illness contracted in WW1.

Inside, however, is something quite altogether different. The walls are covered in a series of frescoes painted by the English artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, that were inspired by his own experiences during the war. The paintings took him six years to complete between 1926 and 1932.

These next images are courtesy of the National Trust.


South Harting (West Sussex), Harting Down, and Uppark House and Garden (photo album)
On the Saturday we made the first of two forays into West Sussex, aiming for the village of South Harting, just east of Petersfield. Why? Well, there are two National Trust properties close by: Harting Down on the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs National Park; and Uppark House and garden. But, more importantly, South Harting is where some of Steph’s Legg ancestors come from. Her grandfather, Sidney Legg, was born there in 1893, and her mother Myrtle spent some years as a child living with her grandmother in ‘Rose Cottage, which we searched for but were unable to find.

Sidney’s father, Frederick (Steph’s great-grandfather, born 1858) was a gamekeeper, and it’s highly likely that he was the gamekeeper, or one of a group, working on the Uppark estate.

We drove up on to Harting Down, affording great views over the surrounding countryside, down into South Harting, enjoying a picnic lunch then driving on to Uppark, just a couple of miles further on.

Uppark is a late 17th century perched on the top of the down with marvellous views to the coast and even as far as The Solent and the Isle of Wight to the west on a clear day.

Only the ground floor and basement are open to the public. The Featherstonehaugh family that purchased the house in 1747 still has interest in upper floor apartments. No photography is permitted in the ground floor rooms. There are some real treasures there. But all was nearly lost in 1989 when a fire ravaged the building and destroying the upper floors. Much on the ground floor was rescued, however, and is on display today.

The dairy was not open during our visit, but the game larder (presumably where Steph’s great-grandfather spent much time) is now the tea room, and is (like the dairy) connected to the main house by a tunnel.

Another exquisite dolls’ house is on display in the basement, an equal of the one we saw at Nostell a few days before. These two dolls’ houses are certainly among the priceless treasures of the National Trust.


On the Sunday, we decided to make an easier day of it after so many days previously on the road, and spent time along the coast nearby at Lepe Country Park (with great views across to the Isle of Wight), and at King’s Hat and Hatchet Pond in the New Forest.


Mottisfont (photo album)
Mottisfont is an interesting house which shows its historical colors in different aspects of its architecture. It had been an Augustinian priory before the Reformation, and afterwards was given by Henry VIII to his Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Sandys (who we heard about at The Vyne).

It stands beside the River Test, a quintessential chalk stream full of trout, near Romsey, and west from Winchester.

It was during the 1930s that Mottisfont took its final turn, so to speak, with the arrival of Maud and Gilbert Russell, who completely refurbished the building, remodeling it in parts and exposing its medieval origins in some rooms. It came into the hands of the National Trust in 1957.

I suppose the pièce de résistance must be the Whistler Room, painted by renowned artist Rex Whistler over a period of several years. But not completed by the time he went to war (and was killed) in 1939. We’d seen work of his (much more vibrant) at Plas Newydd in Anglesey in 2017.

Hinton Ampner (photo album)
Overlooking the Hampshire countryside a few miles east of Winchester, Hinton Ampner is essentially a ‘modern’ house rebuilt from the charred ruins of a much older one that stood on the site until it was severely damaged by fire in 1960. It was originally a Georgian mansion built in 1793, remodeled  in the late Victorian period, and by 1936 had been ‘restored’ to its Georgian appearance by its last owner, Ralph Dutton, 8th Baron Sherborne. With no heirs, Hinton Ampner was bequeathed to the National Trust on his death in 1985.

There is a glorious view from the terrace.


Petworth House and Park (photo album)
Petworth, in West Sussex, is one of the National Trust’s jewels, and must also be one of its most-visited properties, conveniently located to London (about 52 miles southwest towards the coast).

For us it was 130 mile round-trip from our New Forest accommodation. But it was worth it, given the treasures on display and the extensive park and gardens to enjoy.

It’s a late 17th century house that underwent alterations in the 1870s.

But it’s perhaps best known for the treasures accumulated by George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837): paintings by Titian, Van Dyck, and many by Turner who was a frequent visitor to Petworth and on display today for everyone to enjoy, many in the Somerset Room. In fact, Petworth has one of the National Trust’s most extensive and, I guess, valuable collections. In the North Gallery there is also a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman marbles, as well as several that were contemporaneous with Wyndham’s occupancy of Petworth. I found that gallery rather overwhelming.

After our visit, I posted a tweet about the visit, and someone from the National Trust replied, asking which aspect had impressed me most. Not fair! There really is a cornucopia of artistic delights. But while the Somerset Room and its oils is predictably impressive, there are two other parts of the house which caught my attention.

First is the Grand Staircase, perhaps one of the best examples I have ever had chance to appreciate.

Then there is the Carved Room, with a large portrait of Henry VIII taking center stage, but surrounded throughout the room by wall carvings by the master craftsman, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). We had first appreciated his work at Sudbury Hall when we visited in 2017.


Portchester Castle (photo album)
On our last day in the south, we decided to venture much closer to home, as it were, taking in two English Heritage properties on the east side of Southampton.

At the head of Portsmouth Harbor, Portchester Castle has stood guard since the Romans erected the first walls between AD 285 and 290. In the post-Roman era it was occupied by the Saxons, but it came into its own after the Norman conquest of 1066, when a fortified keep was erected in the northwest corner of this extensive walled enclosure.

In the subsequent centuries it underwent extensive modifications under kings such as Richard II. In the 18th century it became a prison for French prisoners from the Caribbean captured during one of the interminable conflicts with France.

English Heritage has opened many parts of the keep, even with access to the roof from where there is a panoramic view over the castle and the harbor, all the way to the naval base (where both of the UK’s aircraft carriers were currently docked).

Netley Abbey (photo album)
This is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, under four miles east from Southampton city center. I was quite surprised how much of the monastery is still standing. During the 16th century Reformation it was seized by the crown and parts were added to or converted to a residence. Some of those Tudor influences can be seen in some of the windows.


Stonehenge (photo album)
Just under 40 miles northwest from our New Forest accommodation, the ancient monument of Stonehenge still stands proudly overlooking Salisbury Plain after more than 4500 years.

The stone circle was constructed from huge sarsen sandstone blocks that were strewn over the chalk landscape after the last Ice Age, which were also used to create other stone circles like Avebury that we visited in 2016. Unlike Avebury however, the stones at Stonehenge were dressed. What is also remarkable about Stonehenge is the presence of the so-called bluestones that were quarried in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, some 140 miles to the west. How they were transported to Stonehenge, and more importantly perhaps, why they were even chosen is somewhat of a mystery to this day, even though Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape has undergone extensive archaeological research. Much more is known, but there are still issues to be uncovered.

Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site, receiving more than 1 million visitors a year. It wasn’t too busy during our visit, and I was able cleverly to use the stones themselves to block any ‘rogue’ tourists in my photos. Take a look at the album.

The line of midsummer sunrise and sunset.

This was my second visit to Stonehenge, after more than 60 years! Returning from a caravan holiday in the New Forest with my parents and elder brother Edgar, we stopped off at Stonehenge. Back in the day, complete and close-up access to the stones was permitted. No longer; they are behind a rope, but you can get as close as 5 meters, unless you subscribe to a sunset or sunrise special tour limited to about 20 persons.

From Stonehenge, we headed north towards Swindon, crossing the M4 and traversing the Cotswolds, and arriving at Birdlip Hill (with its panoramic view over the valley of the River Severn) for a late picnic lunch.

From there we headed north to Leek as I mentioned earlier for our final night away.


Quarry Bank (photo album)
After a pleasant overnight stay in Leek (and an early morning stroll around the center of the town when we bought a dozen oatcakes), we continued our journey north, just 25 miles to Quarry Bank on the outskirts of  Wilmslow and south of Manchester, where the National Trust cares for one of the most important relics of the Industrial Revolution, a cotton mill where machinery to spin and weave cotton can still be seen in action.

Built in the 1780s by Samuel Greg, who came to England at the age of 15 from Belfast in Northern Ireland, he chose the site for his mill along the banks of the River Bollin in a steep-sided valley, where the power of the river could be harnessed to turn the machines in the mill.

At nearby Styal, Greg built a small community of cottages for his workers. Greg and his wife were Unitarians. Even so, their ‘philanthropy’ smacks of a form of slavery since workers were tied to the mill though their housing and where they could spend their wages to buy food in the company shop.

The grounds (woods and gardens) are extensive and we must have walked almost 5 miles around the estate and mill. What was a little disconcerting to discover was the main runway for Manchester Airport just a short distance behind the trees at Styal, and to watch large jets gather speed as they lumbered into the air.

Inside the mill there’s much to observe. With just one or two of the looms in action, the noise was deafening. You can just imagine what a whole floor of these machines must have sounded like, how it affected the workers’ hearing, and what other accidents occurred as workers, even children worked around and under the machines and all their moving parts.

Anyway, our interesting visit to Quarry Bank was over all too soon, and we hit the road again to take us on the next and last stage of our journey (some ) north to Newcastle and home.

We covered a lot in miles, years, art, and culture. It was a great break, and nice to be able to get away, even for a short while, as the pandemic restrictions are eased.


The close encounter
Steph and I had completed our walk around the woods and gardens at Quarry Bank, and were making our way to the mill entrance over the bridge through a gate.

I was vaguely aware of another couple with a spaniel as we passed through the gate. And immediately afterwards, someone behind me—the man—called my name. Momentarily confused, I turned around but didn’t recognize him or his wife.

‘It’s Alan Brennan’, he said. And with that you could have knocked me down with a feather. I hadn’t seen him in 63 years! Let me explain.

I was born in Congleton in November 1948; Alan a year later in December 1949. We lived a few doors apart on Moody Street and were best friends. My family moved to Leek in April 1956, and I lost touch with Alan, although he has since reminded me that we did meet up in Congleton in May 1959 when I came over from Leek to take part in a village fête at Mossley just outside the town.

Here we are Coronation Day in June 1953. I’m on the extreme right, Alan on the left.

And from the late 1950s until the other day, we had never met since. After Steph and I visited Congleton in September 2013, Alan came across that blog post and got in touch by email. It was from my blog photos that he recognized me as our paths crossed at Quarry Bank.

What were the chances of that happening? I’m sure a clever mathematician could devise some formula or other. But it must be millions to one that we’d be in the same place at the same time after more than 60 years.

Me and Alan – after 63 years!

Steph, me, Alan, and Lyn

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay chatting for too long since Alan and Lyn were coming to the end of their visit to Quarry Bank, and we had to complete our tour of the mill. We also needed to get on the road before the afternoon traffic build-up around Manchester. After all, we still had almost 170 miles to cover, and as it turned out, a slower journey due to hold-ups on the motorway.

Meeting Alan and Lyn was undoubtedly the icing on the cake as far as our holiday was concerned. Certainly a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!


¹ A baker’s dozen, i.e., a group of 13. A dozen plus one, from the former practice among bakers and other tradespeople of giving 13 items to the dozen as a safeguard against penalties for short weights and measures.

² Starting in North Tyneside (Tyne & Wear) where we now live, we traveled south through County Durham, North Yorkshire. West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, West Midlands, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Greater Manchester.

 

Southampton @ 15

29 April 1952. A memorable day. Hartley University College, Southampton was granted a royal charter by Her Majesty The Queen (the first of her reign) to award its own degrees, and became the University of Southampton. As Her Majesty celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, so does the university with an interesting of program of events next month, on 14 May.

The University of Southampton is my alma mater. I graduated in July 1970 with a BSc combined honours degree in environmental botany and geography, after three very happy years there.

Studying at Southampton, 1967-1970

Anyway, having written in detail about the academics, I thought I’d put together a few anecdotes and tales of being a student at Southampton in the late 60s.


Mid-afternoon, late September/early October 1967. Almost 55 years ago, and I was searching for a seat on the train chartered by the university’s Student’s Union taking freshers from London’s Waterloo Station to Southampton.

Finding the last empty seat in one compartment, I sat next to Neil, a law student from Hemel Hempstead. Like me, Neil was heading to South Stoneham House, one of the university’s halls of residence on Wessex Lane, about a mile east of the Highfield campus, as were several others in the same railway compartment. Neil and I remained firm friends over the course of our degrees, and are still in touch today.

South Stoneham House – in its heyday.

Swaythling station, on the outskirts of the city, was the first stop where those joining South Stoneham, Connaught, and Montefiore halls were taken by coach the short distance to their destinations.

I had a room on the 6th floor as did Neil. Next door to me was John, also signed up for botany and geography. A couple of days later we discovered there were only five of us on that particular degree course.

Thus was my introduction to hall life, and looking forward to the next three years at the university.


So why had I chosen and ended up at Southampton? The university was not my first choice when I sent in my UCAS application the previous December. That honor went to King’s College, London to study for a degree in geography.

Back in the day, it was normal practice for all applicants to be interviewed. But, in February 1967, when the call came through to attend several interviews, I went down with the flu and had to reschedule all of them. Southampton was extremely accommodating. I contacted the university to say that I’d be in London on a certain day, and could I come on to Southampton the following day.

So, several weeks later, and on a bright, sunny, and quite warm day for the time of year, I was interviewed for about an hour by Dr Joyce Lambert, an ecologist and Reader in the Department of Botany, and Dr Brian Birch, a biogeographer and Lecturer from the Department of Geography.

I met them in the Geography department that, in those days, was based in the Hartley Building on the first floor at the rear, above the university administration offices and behind the university library.

The Hartley Building on University Road, Highfield, now the university library only.

I felt the interview had gone well. It’s hard to explain but I knew the moment that I walked through the doors of the Hartley Building that I could be very happy at Southampton. It just felt right! And a week or so later I received a generous offer of 3 Cs (in biology, geography, and/or English literature/general studies.


The first week at Southampton, Freshers’ Week, passed by in a blur. For many of us, this was our first time away from home. Freedom! Not only did we have to get used to the hall of residence regime, make new friends, there was the whole of the university to explore, very much smaller than it is today.

It was probably by the end of that week that we had our first introduction to the departments and our personal tutees. Joyce Lambert was my tutor in Botany, and Brian Birch in Geography, thus renewing directly my acquaintance from the interview. And also meeting the other members of the botany and geography cohort: Jane, Stuart, and Michael.

(I later learned that one of the combined honours students in the year ahead [1966 intake] reputedly was or became an infamous Mossad agent and assassin. I have had that ‘confirmed’ by someone who knew her).

Our course structure was explained, and in the case of geography we had to sign up immediately for a weekend of field trips around Southampton at the end of the first week of teaching. On one of those days we were taken to the northern outskirts of the city, and then as a group of more than 50 students, walked back into the city with the physical and historical geography features explained along the way. All in the pouring rain! Welcome to geography fieldwork.

Also at the end of Freshers’ Week, the Students’ Union organized the annual ‘Bun Fight’, where all the societies made pitches to recruit and welcome new members.

I signed up to join the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society, although I’d never danced a step before then. And dancing remained an enjoyable pastime during my three years.

Dance as if no one is watching . . .

From that initial folk dancing experience, I helped to found the university morris dance side, the Red Stags, at the beginning of my second year in October 1968.

Sticks and hankies – a tale of Red Stags

The Red Stags are thriving 54 years later, as a mixed male/female Border morris side, but no longer associated with the university.

One other thing I remember about Freshers’ Week were the short trips around the city in the Toastrack, a 1929 vintage Dennis bus, owned and maintained by the Southampton University Engineering Society since 1958.

In the late 60s, Southampton was engineering-heavy, and about one quarter of all undergrads were studying for one engineering degree or another.


In South Stoneham House there were shared rooms in the original Queen Anne mansion but single occupancy ones in the 16 storey tower block erected in 1964. It was all male, fewer than 200 students all told. And woe betide any student with a girl in his room, or attempting to smuggle one out, after the curfew hour of 9 pm. Each room had a wash basin, and there were two baths and toilet/showers on each floor.

The accommodation included breakfast and dinner Monday to Saturday, and breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea on Sundays. Dinner was always formal, and we had to wear a black gown. A bit pretentious, I guess; Southampton trying to emulate an Oxbridge college in some respects.

I enjoyed life in South Stoneham, and when, towards the end of my first year I discovered I’d not secured a place for my second year, I decided to stand for Vice President of the Junior Common Room (JCR, as opposed to the Senior Common Room comprising the Warden and several faculty members who had rooms in hall). Being duly elected, I was automatically allocated a room, moving up to the 13th floor, with a south-facing view over the gardens and the banks of the River Itchen, and all the way down to Southampton docks.

As Vice President I took responsibility for various entertainments, including the Stoneham November dance and fireworks, as well as the May Ball. Neil and I also took on the firework display, and I had a budget of £20 or so (almost £400 today) to source appropriate display fireworks. I was called before the Bursar who gave me a ticking-off for storing the fireworks in my room, and ordering me to put them safely in the basement under lock and key.

For the May Ball, we developed a Parisian theme and review. A great success. I wonder if anyone recognizes a few faces.

In my third year, Neil and I moved into digs at No. 30 University Road, just down from the recently-opened University Administration Building and bookshop (now the Student Services Centre). After I left Southampton in 1970 many of the houses on that side of University Road were taken over by the university as departmental expansion space. No. 30 has now been demolished.


In the late 60s the university was beginning to expand, and new buildings were being put up. Just a year before I arrived there, Botany moved from an old building (now demolished I believe) that stood next to the Hartley Building to Building 44 (now named the Shackleton Building and housing the Geography and Psychology departments) along with geology. Of course Botany no longer exists as a separate department, merging with Zoology (and others?) after I’d left Southampton.

In my second year, Geography moved from the Hartley Building to the new Arts II, which now houses the Southampton Business School and the Music department (formerly located around the Nuffield Theatre).

And talking of the Administration Building. The late 60s were a radical time at Southampton, and rumors abounded that the new building would be occupied within days of its opening. And it came to pass, with the Vice Chancellor (Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS) having to remain in his old suite of offices until the students were evicted and the extensive damage repaired. Not the best of times.

Professor Mather came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham where he had been head of the Department of Genetics. He taught a course on population genetics to a class of third year botany and zoology students, and often claimed he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor in the country. After retiring from Southampton, he returned to Birmingham, keeping an office in the School of Biological Sciences. By 1981, I was also a faculty member at Birmingham, and Professor Mather had an office just down the corridor from mine. We often shared Southampton anecdotes.


During my first year I had to attend two field courses. The geography course was held in Swansea in late March 1968 just after the end of the Spring term. We stayed in one of the university halls of residence there, making field trips to see the legacy of the industrial revolution in the Swansea Valley, and the physical geography of the Gower Peninsula. The weather was mixed. It was warm enough on some days for bathing suits on the beach, but on the final morning we woke to almost 12 inches of snow!

I attended two botany field courses. The first, in July 1968, was based near the Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland. We had a great time.

“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

A year later, we spent two weeks in Norfolk, which coincided with the first Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin.

The Man [on] the Moon (updated 20 July 2019)

I guess I was lucky to attend both botany field courses. Until 1970, the university did not allow any students to resit exams they had failed. One strike and you were out, even if the failed course was an ancillary one. And large numbers of students were asked to leave, even at the end of their second year. I scraped my first year ancillary geology course by a whisker.

It all came to a head in 1969 when a very large number (almost 50% if my memory serves me right) of second year chemists failed one or more exams and were expelled. That was a step too far. There was a student uproar. The expelled students were not re-admitted but resit exams were introduced the following year.


Apart from the folk dancing, I guess I spent more than my fair share of time in the pub or the Student Union bar (in the old building), sometimes playing squash in the new Students’ Union building that had been opened in 1967. There were two pubs close to the university on Burgess Road, both now closed perhaps even demolished. I favored the Crown & Sceptre (above) over The Gate, and held my 21st birthday party there in November 1969.

In the summer term, we often had lunch on Saturday at a pub on Woodmill Lane (they did an excellent ploughman’s) on the bank of the River Itchen. It looks as if it’s no longer there. Across the road was a pitch and putt course.

Not having a car, I hardly ever went to the New Forest, but Bursledon on the Hamble River was much more easily accessible by train. My girlfriend Liz and I often missed Friday evening dinner in our respective halls for a pub meal at The Jolly Sailor overlooking the river (where they had an amazing selection of fruit wines). This pub featured several times in the BBC production Howard’s Way over six series from 1985 to 1990.


I joined the Folk Club that was held every Sunday evening in one of the Union bars. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (later of Steeleye Span fame) were frequent performers at the club.

I even performed once or twice myself. And in February 1969, the Red Stags made their debut at a ceilidh that I organized, attended by several hundred students

I can remember attending only three rock concerts, and all during my first year, held in the Old Refectory.

The first was the Alan Price Set (former keyboard player with The Animals) on 25 November 1967. Then there was Pink Floyd on 26 January 1968 (without Syd Barrett) and supported by T-Rex. I can’t find a gig date for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown; in fact Southampton University is not even listed on several web lists. But he did perform because I remember him launching into his iconic Fire, and setting his hair alight!


Anyway, these are just a few of my Southampton memories. Good times, and an excellent launch pad for a later career in international agricultural research and academia.

On graduation in 1970 I moved to the University of Birmingham to study for an MSc in genetic resources conservation, and then completed a PhD on potatoes from Peru in 1975. I spent more than 8 years with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica from January 1973, and another 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines from 1991. In between, I spent a decade teaching botany at Birmingham.

Returning in 2010, I now just have happy memories of my time at Southampton and the successful career that stemmed from those first years. In 2012 I was awarded an OBE for services to international food science, and I like to think that in many ways it was a culmination of a career in science that began at Southampton in 1967.


 

The importance of being Ernest

Ernest Marples

Ernest who? Ernest Marples. Minister of Transport in the Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home Conservative governments between October 1959 and October 1964.

As Minister of Transport he introduced parking meters, the provisional driving licence, the MOT test, yellow parking lines, and traffic wardens. He also oversaw an expansion of the road network and the opening, in November 1959, of the first section (53½ miles) of the M1 motorway, between Luton and Crick (although it had been inaugurated a year earlier).

The M1 was not the country’s first motorway, however. That honor is given to an 8¼ mile section of the Preston by-pass, opened in November 1958, and which became part of the M6 motorway.

I remember the first time my father took us on the recently-opened first section of the M1. It must have been around 1960. What an experience on such wide carriageways, and very little traffic. That’s hardly the case today. More like Chris Rea’s The Road to Hell, released in 1989, supposedly about the London Orbital Motorway, the M25, although, to be fair, it could be about any of our motorways.

So much congestion, lines of juggernauts traveling nose-to-tail. I never relish having to take one of the motorways for my journeys, but they are a necessity. Many motorways were constructed with three lanes in each direction, but some like the M5 (opened in 1962 and connecting the West Midlands with the southwest of England) had only two for much of its length, but later widened to three.

From those humble beginnings more than 60 years ago, the motorway network in Great Britain (not including Northern Ireland) now extends over 2300 miles (out of a total of 247,500 total road miles). Another 29,500 miles are A roads, major routes connecting cities, but only about 18% are what we in the UK call dual carriageways (divided highways in the US).

Originally there was no speed limit on the motorways. In December 1965 a temporary speed limit of 70 mph was introduced and made permanent in 1967. That remains in force today on motorways and dual carriageways, with 60 mph the limit on other A and B roads. The limit in urban areas is generally 30 (maybe 20) mph.

But if you want to really explore the countryside, as Steph and I like to do, then you have to get off the main routes and take the B roads, as you can see in this video, which I made recently as we crossed Northumberland (in the northeast of England). In any case, for me it’s never about the trip itself but the many interesting places and sights along the way.

I passed my driving test (at the second attempt) in May 1966, six months after my 17th birthday, the earliest age when one can apply for a driving licence here in the UK. I got to drive my father’s car from time to time, but while away at university between 1967 and 1972 I didn’t have much opportunity to drive, until I had my own car (in October 1971), a rather battered Ford Anglia. In September 1972 I bought a new left-hand drive Volkswagen Variant to export to Peru, where I moved in January 1973.

Between 1973 and 1981 we lived in Peru and Costa Rica (in Central America), and from 1991 spent almost 19 years in the Philippines (from where we traveled to and down the east coast of Australia). We also made two road trips around Ireland in the 1990s while on home leave from the Philippines. Our road trip experiences were very different.

Since retiring in 2010, however, Steph and I have enjoyed several road trips around the UK. taking in Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and Sussex and Kent in 2019.

And, since 2010, we have (until the Covid pandemic struck) visited the USA every year and made some epic road trips that are described briefly later on.


Touring Peru
A couple of months after I arrived in Peru, the ship carrying my Volkswagen finally docked at Callao, the port for Lima. It was just the right sort of vehicle for the rugged roads that Steph and I traveled exploring that fascinating country. Solid suspension (although I did add heavy-duty shock absorbers) and an air-cooled engine.

Almost five decades ago, there were few paved roads in Peru, the main one being the Panamerican Highway stretching the whole length of the country, just a single carriageway in each direction. And the Carretera Central from the coast to the central Andes at Huancayo, crossing the high pass at Ticlio on the way.

Most elsewhere, apart from in the towns and cities, the roads were unpaved. And through the Andes, these roads followed the contours of the valleys. Often you could see your destination in the valley below, but know there would be many kilometers to travel as the road snaked down the valley, as you can see in these photos.

Then there was the ever-present danger of landslides which might take hours if not days to clear, or precipitous drop-offs at the side of the road. I remember on one occasion driving along one road (in fog) in the north-central part of Peru, and afterwards checking the maps to discover that the drop was about 1000 m.

Three of the most interesting trips we made were to Arequipa and Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca in the south of the country, to Cajamarca in the north, and to Ayacucho and the central Andes on another occasion.


In Costa Rica
Many of the roads in Costa Rica were paved when we lived there in the mid-70s, with some notorious exceptions. Turrialba, where we lived, lies 41 km due east from Cartago (San José lies a further 19 km beyond Cartago). From Turrialba to Cartago, there’s a climb of almost 800 m, passing through a cloud zone (zona de neblina) on a narrow and twisting road that was, back in the 1970s, unpaved for most part.

Further this was the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón on the east coast to San José, and was always busy with one juggernaut after another. Not to mention the tractors towing a dozen or more sugar cane carts along sections of the road, without any hazard lights whatsoever.


The Philippines
Mostly, the Philippines has good roads. It’s just the congestion and the lack of driver discipline that makes driving in that country stressful. Also, farmers drying their rice or maize harvest along one side of an already narrow road.

Drying maize along the highway in Nueva Ecija, north of Manila. The more numerous rice farmers do the same.

We lived in Los Baños, the Science City of the Philippines, location of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, the Institute of Plant Breeding, a local office of PhilRice, as well as the headquarters of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) where I worked for almost 19 years.

Los Baños is sited along the shore of Laguna de Bay, and on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling. It’s almost 65 km south of Manila and, on a good day, a little under 90 minutes by road. Back in the day we used to joke that it took anywhere between 90 minutes and a lifetime to make the journey. Major road improvements took almost 15 years to complete and with traffic congestion (caused mainly by tricycles and jeepneys) the journey could take several hours. Here’s a short video of a trip to Tagaytay (a town that overlooks the Taal volcano), about 50 km west of Los Baños by the quickest route (map).

In 2009, my staff, Steph and I made a long-weekend trip to the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao-Mountain Province of northern Luzon. Staying in Banaue, we took a jeepney to the end of the trail leading to the Batad rice terraces.

From there we had to hike for well over an hour deep into the valley.

Steph and I would also spend about eight weekends a year on the coast at Anilao (map) where I scuba dived and she would snorkel.

When we first visited Arthur’s Place in March 1992, there was no passable road from Anilao to the resort, and we had to take a 30 minute outrigger or banca ride. By 2009, the road had been paved.


Touring the USA
I really enjoy driving in the USA, once I’d become familiar with a number of the driving norms and the various road signs. Our elder daughter lives in Minnesota so our trips have begun or ended there. Thank goodness for the interstate highways whose construction was begun under President Eisenhower in the 1950s. We prefer to follow the US or state highways mostly if we can, even county roads.

These are the trips we have taken:

  • 2011 – the southwest states of Arizona and New Mexico, taking in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, among other wondrous sights.

Monument Valley, AZ

  • 2015 – since we had already traveled round Scotland earlier that year, we visited Chicago by train instead.
  • 2016 – I’d broken my leg in January, so when we visited in September, we spent a few days seeking out the source of the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota.

Mt Washington, NH


And, along these travels, one thing that caught my attention. In the UK, road construction has involved the building of just a few major bridges, over river estuaries, the most recent being a second bridge crossing the Firth of Forth west of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Not so in the USA. East-west or north-south, immense bridges had to be constructed across the many rivers that criss-cross that vast country. Some of the most impressive have been along the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers.

Here are a few more over which we drove.

A few weeks ago I read a novel that was set on the Lincoln Highway, the first to connect the east and west coasts from New York to San Francisco. I have traveled parts of the highway during the trips I’ve already outlined, but wasn’t aware of that at the time.


 

 

 

Nine towns and cities, four countries, four continents . . .

Do you remember all the places and houses where you have lived? I do. Such varied and (mostly) happy memories.

I left my parents’ home in Leek (a small market town in North Staffordshire) at the beginning of October 1967, almost 19 years of age, to study at university; I only went back for short visits during vacations. Less than six years later I was headed for new adventures overseas living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines (with a break in between of 10 years back in the UK) over the next 40 years.

Early days in Congleton
I was not born in Leek however, although to all intents and purposes I consider it my home town. We moved to Leek in April 1956 from Congleton in Cheshire. I’d turned seven the previous November.

In Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street just a few minutes walk away from the offices and print shop of the Congleton Chronicle newspaper on the High Street where my father worked as staff photographer. No. 13 was owned by the Head family, then proprietors of the Chronicle.

It is a three-storey property. Back in the day, the attic rooms on the top floor weren’t furnished, and we used them as play rooms on wet days. On the ground floor, it seems to me that we hardly ever used the front parlor. A room, the width of the building at the rear of the house, served as dining and living room, with a kitchen and larder off to one side.

Taken in Congleton in about 1952 or so. L to R: Mike, Martin, Margaret and Edgar

My best friend Alan Brennan, a year younger than me, lived just a few doors further up Moody Street. But we didn’t go to the same school. I was enrolled at Mossley C of E village school, a couple of miles south of the town, like my two brothers and sister before me. Each weekday morning, my elder brother Edgar (just over two years older than me) and I took the bus together from the High Street to Mossley. Sometimes, in the summer, I’d walk home on my own (something that parents wouldn’t even contemplate today).

In the early 1950s we made our own entertainment. We didn’t have television. (In fact my parents didn’t own a B&W TV until about 1964). During the summer we’d play outside until dark, even walking the mile south to the Macclesfield Canal where we had fun on the swing bridge (now replaced by a static bridge), or hiding in the old air raid shelter near the cemetery on the way to the canal.

May Day, early 1950s. The kids of Moody Street. That’s me on the extreme left.

In the winter, we tobogganed on Priesty Fields nearby. We also had the Saturday matinee at one of the local cinemas, the Premier on Lawton Street (now demolished and the site of Congleton in Bloom Community Garden) enjoying Laurel and Hardy, or B movie westerns with the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy, to name a few of the movie stars we emulated in our games. Happy days!

Thinking of my early years in Congleton makes me realize we did not have the luxury of central heating either in the house or at school. In fact, at home, we must have sat around a small fire in the living room to keep warm.

At school, we actually had a large coal fire in the classroom. Can you imagine? No Health and Safety Executive to put a stop to that. All that separated us from the inferno was a large fire guard. Even when I was in high school in the late 1960s each pupil was entitled to a small bottle (1/3 pint) of milk daily. I doubt that continues today. Anyway, at Mossley during the winter, we would place our frozen bottles of milk in front of the fire to thaw.

65 St Edward St, Leek

Moving to Leek
My parents decided to set up on their own in Leek, and took over an existing photographic business at 65 St Edward St, on the edge of the town center. Not an ideal location, but as an ongoing concern, I guess it was the most appropriate approach to enter the retail trade.

It was by no means a large property, for a family of six. We three brothers shared a bedroom on the front of the property (the top window in the photo on the right). My parents had their bedroom at the rear. That property didn’t have central heating either.

On the first floor was the bathroom/ toilet, and at the front of the house, an L-shaped living room. My sister Margaret (then 15) had her own private space and bed in the ‘L’ of that room. Not an ideal situation, but there was no other alternative. In July 1957 my eldest brother Martin left  to join the Royal Air Force, and thereafter we saw him at home only on leave.

The kitchen was located on the ground floor, behind the shop and we ate most of our meals there, only moving to the first floor room for special family meals like Christmas. My father converted the cellar into his photographic dark room.

A side entrance led to an enclosed yard, Court No. 3, with three or four cottages, none with toilets or bathrooms, but probably just one tap of running water. These were demolished not long after we moved into No. 65, and we then had a large open space to play in.

With my best friend Geoff Sharratt (who lived at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away) playing with my Hornby clockwork train set.

Winter fun and games with my brother Ed (center), me (crouching), and one of our friends, behind 65 St Edward St, after the cottages had been demolished.

I remember well-attended Christmas parties at No. 65, Christmas lunches around a table in the first floor living room.

Around 1960 or 1961, the lease came due on No. 65 and my parents decided not to renew the tenancy, opting to try and find a better location in the town. That took a couple more years.

In the interim, they moved the shop across St Edward St to No. 56, that was a fine porcelain retailer at the time. When we visited Leek in 2019 it was once again the premises of a photographer, and we discovered other earlier historical links.

My dad took on that fine china business, moving his photographic business there. For about six months we didn’t actually have a house. We had a room behind the shop, and a small kitchen, and a caravan on a farm a few miles north of the town. Somehow we managed, until an apartment became available at the top of the Market Place, at No. 26, above a building society.

No. 26, the red-brick building on the right at the top of the Market Place. We occupied the two upper floors.

We stayed there about two years, even over the coldest (and longest) winter I can remember, 1962/63. Everything froze and we had no running water for almost 10 weeks. Dad’s business was still operating from No. 56 St Edward St.

Then, a semi-derelict property (formerly a watchmaker’s) came on the market at No. 19 Market Place. Despite considerable trepidation on the part of my mother, Dad sold her on the idea of purchasing the property because of its central location in the town, and renovating the two upper floors into a comfortable apartment.

No. 19, with the yellow and black ‘Jackson’ sign, in between Jackson Optician (no relation) and Victoria Wine in the early 1960s. No. 26 is the building on the extreme right at the top of the Market Place.

The renovation was no easy task. There was only one tap in the property, in the cellar. No bathroom or toilet, and no central heating. These all got added and we must have moved in by late 1963, since my sister Margaret had married David by then and they took over the tenancy of No. 26.

The views over the Market Place from both No. 26 and No. 19 were great, being right in the heart of the town. Each Wednesday there was a busy market (you don’t see many of those any more, and I don’t think Leek market runs in the same way any more).

And both were great vantage points to watch the Club Day (or Walking Round Day) procession each July, which I used to take part in when a small boy.

Assembling in the Market Place on Club Day. This was taken around 1960 or so. The awning over the premises of  J Cosgrove (watchmaker) is clearly seen at the top of the image. That is No. 19 Market Place before it became my father’s premises.

University days
Mum and Dad lived at No. 19 until 1976 when they retired. But I had moved out almost a decade earlier, when I headed south to study at the University of Southampton from 1967 to 1970. For the first two years I lived in South Stoneham House, one of the halls of residence just under 1¼ miles from the campus. I lived in the 16 storey tower block, not the original Queen Anne house to which it was attached. I’ve since learned that the grounds were designed by 18th century landscaper, Capability Brown. The tower was condemned for occupation in 2005, partly because of the asbestos in the building. But also the fabric of the tower (built in the 1960s) had deteriorated, and conditions for students were described as ‘squalid’.

South Stoneham House

It was due to be demolished earlier this year. This is how it looked until then, shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Very sad. We had happy days there.

In my final year (1969-70), I moved to digs (half-board accommodation) at 30 University Road, just down from the newly-opened university administration building and bookshop on the southeast side of the campus. Within a year or so of leaving Southampton many of the houses along University Road had been bought up by the university and became annexes to university departments. No. 30 was demolished.

This is No. 28. No. 30 to its right has been demolished and stood where the trees now stand.

In September 1970, I moved to Birmingham to begin a 1-year MSc course in genetic conservation. I rented a room in a house on Portland Road in the B16 Edgbaston area of the city, and a 2 mile walk to the campus. I think it was the one on the extreme left. But it was more than 50 years ago, and many properties along Portland Road look different today.

After one year, as I started my PhD research, I joined two engineers in an apartment south of the campus on Abdon Avenue. It was certainly one of the apartments on the left of the entrance, but I don’t remember if it was the first or top floor.

I stayed there until December 1972 when I prepared to leave the UK and head to warmer climes, in Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist.

Off to South America
Arriving in Lima at the beginning of January 1973, I lodged for about three weeks in the Pensión Beech (now demolished it seems) on Calle Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of the city. Then I had to start looking for an apartment to rent.

I found a furnished one-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor of a tower block on Los Pinos in the Miraflores district, close to the Pacific Ocean coast. I don’t have any clear images of the building. I’m not sure it’s even still standing after 50 years. In 1973 it stood apart beside a vacant lot, and next to a Todos supermarket (long since disappeared).

Steph joined me at the beginning of July that year, and very soon we decided that the apartment was too small. We married in Miraflores in October that same year.

At our Los Pinos apartment, just after Steph arrived in Lima in July 1973.

We quickly found a furnished two-bedroom apartment on Avenida Larco just around the corner. Parking was on the first floor, accessed by a lift from the street. At street level, there was an ice cream parlor, Veinte Sabores (20 Flavors), now replaced by a commercial outlet named Mardigras.

The apartment was on the top (12th) floor, on the rear of the building with a view to the coast.

A view to the Pacific Ocean over the Miraflores rooftops.

In October 1974, the coast of Peru was hit by a major earthquake, more than 8 on the Richter Scale. Living on the 12th floor was not so comfortable then, and for many weeks there were countless aftershocks which didn’t do much for our nerves.

So by Christmas that year, we’d moved out to house-sit for several colleagues while they were on home-leave, until the following May when we were returned to the UK for six months. I had to complete the PhD residency requirements at the university and defend my thesis.

We landed in Birmingham at the end of May 1975 having returned to the UK via Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico. We found a one-bedroom apartment in a large house on Farquhar Road close to the campus, which had been converted to about five apartments, with the owner occupying the ground floor.

The ‘bridge’ connecting the house to the garage was our bathroom.

We stayed there until the end of the year before returning to Lima, spending a few months in the CIP Guesthouse. But we didn’t remain in Peru for much longer. CIP asked me to move to Costa Rica in April 1976 to set up a potato breeding program focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Moving to North America (actually Central America)
CIP signed an agreement with CATIE, a regional research and training center in Turrialba, some 70 km east of the capital, San José. It was a campus institute, nestling below the Turrialba Volcano, and was the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) from 1942 until 1976 (when it moved to San José).

The Turrialba volcano from the town below.

Initially, we stayed in CATIE’s guesthouse, then moved into a rather run-down house in the #109 sub-division just outside the campus before eventually moving on campus. We rented a two-bedroom detached house with a lovely garden, full of fruit trees, and the most wonderful wildlife: birds, mammals, and reptiles (some very venomous). Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978, so these were very special years we spent in Turrialba.

I don’t have any decent images of the house that we occupied until November 1980 which, after we left, became additional space for the international school nearby.

Hannah visited Costa Rica in 2002, and took these two photos of the house. The upper image shows the car port and rear door to the house (which we used as our main entrance). The lower image shows the front door and living room to the right and Hannah’s bedroom left of the door.

By the end of 1980 I was looking for a new challenge and asked CIP’s director general for a new posting. We returned to Lima and several more months in the guesthouse. In the meantime, however, I had successfully applied for a teaching and research post at the University of Birmingham. I resigned my post at CIP, and we returned to the UK in March 1981 in time for my 1 April start date at Birmingham.

We then set about finding somewhere to live. Within a week of so we had put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, a market town in north Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the campus.

Back in the UK – Bromsgrove
Located just under a mile east of the town center, our three bedroom house was built in 1975. In 1982, just before our second daughter Philippa was born, we extended the kitchen on the front of the house. In 2015 we installed an electric garage door and had the front drive re-paved.

The garden was Steph’s pride and joy, that she carefully nurtured over almost 40 years.

Growing up, Hannah and Phil attended the local schools, and had a wide circle of friends living close by. The house always seemed filled with a small group of girls. And each year there were two birthday parties to organize.

Philippa’s 6th birthday party in May 1988. She is sitting facing the camera on the left, and Hannah is standing.

But that’s not the whole story. Yes, we owned No. 4 for 39 years, but for 19 of those, we lived in the Philippines, only returning to the UK in May 2010. In fact, our stay in the Philippines has been, to date, the longest continual period I have lived anywhere.

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, some 70 km south of Manila. From the outset we decided to keep No. 4 empty but fully furnished, which we could occupy when we returned to the UK on our annual home-leave. We thought having tenants and the like just wasn’t worth the hassle. In any case, we had a ‘bolt hole’ should our assignment in the Philippines not live up to expectations or the civil/political situation deteriorated to an extent that we might have to leave.


Asia calls
IRRI provided houses for its senior, mainly non-Filipino staff in a gated community about 10 minutes drive from the research center, across the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).  IRRI Staff Housing or ISH as it became known, was developed on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling that dominated the skyline over the town.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI Research Center.

Founded in 1959/60, the construction of the IRRI research center and housing began in 1961.

ISH takes shape in July 1961, with Laguna de Bay in the distance.

On the lower slopes of Mt Makiling, ISH takes shape in December 1961, and almost ready for occupation. Our house, No. 15, is the fourth from the bottom, middle column.

Los Baños has grown along the shore of shallow Laguna de Bay (911 km²) that stretches all the way north to Manila, a little over 65 km by road. (Click map to enlarge).

The video below (from my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel who has retired in the Philippines near Los Baños) shows the panoramic view over the volcano and lake.

By 1991, ISH was unrecognizable from the site thirty years earlier. Mature trees covered the compound, and everywhere was lush with vegetation. The houses however, were beginning to show their age, and some of the facilities, like the kitchens had never been updated, and that remained the case for House #15 that we occupied until we left the Philippines almost 19 years later.

We had the use of a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and the ISH compound was a safe place for all the children to play, often inventing their own games that were passed down from year to year over the decades. I guess an important downside of living in Los Baños was schooling for the children, most of whom attended the International School in Manila, entailing for many years a two hour journey each way, and an ungodly start time (by the end of the 1990s) of 4:30 am!

While Peru was a country of earthquakes, Costa Rica had its volcanoes, the Philippines had both of these AND typhoons. Several would sweep in from the Pacific Ocean each year and cross the country leaving a trail of destruction in their path. These images show some of the damage around ISH and the UPLB campus in the aftermath of Typhoon Milenyo in September 2006, which passed almost directly overhead, with winds approaching 150 mph.

As often as we could we’d get away to the beach, at Arthur’s Place south of Los Baños where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive.

8 Dec 2002: in front of Arthur’s Place

All things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided not to seek another full contract, just extending my current one by a year and then retiring. We returned to the UK and our Bromsgrove home in May 2010.


However, by the end of 2019 we had eventually decided to leave Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle upon Tyne where our younger daughter Philippa and her family live. (Our elder daughter lives in Minnesota).

So, in January 2020, we put No. 4 on the market, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. By the beginning of June we’d received an offer that we accepted and began making plans for the move.

We completed the sale on 30 September and moved out that same day.

The removers on their way north!

Goodbye to No. 4.

The following day we moved into a 3-bedroom detached house that we rented for the next six months in the West Allotment area of North Tyneside (east of the city center) while we looked for a new home to buy.

Move-in complete at Cloverfield by 15:55 on 1 October 2020.

We took a week to get ourselves settled and find our local bearings. But then began the search in earnest for a new home. And found just the house almost immediately, viewing it one morning and putting in an offer that same evening. The conveyancing to purchase the property was not as straightforward as we and the vendors expected, but the sale/purchase was finally completed on 15 February last year. We moved in on 6 March.

Finally settled.

Yes, finally settled. A warm, well-appointed home. Only the garden to sort out, and almost from Day 1 Steph has been busy designing, planning, and developing her new garden.

April 2021 and beyond.

And although we enjoyed living in Worcestershire, the prospect of many more treats to come in beautiful Northumberland is something we look forward to.


 

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside . . .

. . . Oh, I do like to be beside the sea.

So sang Florrie Forde in her November 1909 recording of the popular 1907 British music hall song of the same title.

A few days back, the weather being the warmest and sunniest of the year so far, Steph and I took a walk along the coast south of the River Tyne here in the northeast of England, and about 11 miles from home. And as we sat down on Marsden Beach to enjoy our picnic lunch, I told Steph that I still had to pinch myself that we now lived so close to the coast.

The magnesian limestone cliffs at Marsden Bay.

We moved to North Tyneside (just east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center) 18 months ago, and whenever we get chance, we head off to the coast to enjoy a bracing walk along the beach, the dunes, or cliffs. At its closest, the coast is less than 4 miles as the crow flies.


I hail originally from Staffordshire in the north Midlands, which is almost equidistant from the west and east coasts. So, when I was growing up, a trip to the seaside was always a treat, and holidays with parents were almost always spent camping at or near the coast.

Steph, on the other hand, comes from Southend-on-Sea and the closest beach to her family home was just 5 minutes walk.

Moving away to university in 1967, I chose Southampton on the south coast in Hampshire. However, apart from the odd day trip or field excursion connected with my botany and geography degree, I didn’t see much of the coast at all. Not so a decade earlier. Southampton is a major seaport, from where my father sailed when he worked for the Cunard company in the 1930s. And he took us visit the docks in the late 1950s/early 1960s just when both of Cunard’s Queens were in port.


When Steph and I moved to Peru in 1973, we lived just a few hundred meters inland from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Lima suburb of Miraflores. During the ‘summer’ months between January and March, we’d spend at least one day each weekend on the beach at one of the resorts about 50 km south of Lima.

Moving to Costa Rica in 1976, we made only two trips to the beach in the northwest of the country to Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of the Guanacaste peninsula (map). It was about 350 km (almost 7 hours) by road, but new routes have probably made the journey quicker since then. And just one trip to the Caribbean coast at Limón.


In the Philippines, we made about eight or nine weekend visits each year (over almost 19 years) to Arthur’s Place, a dive resort at Anilao on the Mabini Peninsula (map), a drive of just under 100 km south from Los Baños that, in 1992 (until about 2005), used to take about 3 hours. I’d go diving and Steph would snorkel.

In December 2003 we traveled to Australia and drove down the east coast from Sydney to Melbourne, around 1000 miles, enjoying each stretch of coastline every day. At Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria we stopped off at Tidal River, the furthest south (at almost 39°S) I’ve ever traveled. Antarctica next stop! And that same evening, New Year’s Eve, we sat on the beach near Wonthaggi and watched the sunset over the Indian Ocean (map).


Since retiring, we’ve visited the west and east coasts of the USA in Oregon and California, and Massachusetts and Maine, the coast roads right round Scotland, the coast of Northern Ireland, as well as Cornwall, and the southeast of England in East Sussex and Kent.


While here in England’s northeast (North Yorkshire, County Durham, and Northumberland) we don’t enjoy tropical temperatures, the region does boast some of the finest stretches of coastline and beaches in the country.

Dunstanburgh Castle and Craster
This is a rocky coast and the castle itself was built in the early 14th century on the Whin Sill, an outcrop of igneous dolerite that cuts across Northumberland. The castle is a walk of about 1¼ miles from the fishing village of Craster; there’s no road into the castle.

Craster itself has ample parking away from the harbor. The village is also famous for its smoked fish, especially kippers.

At Dunstanburgh a healthy population of kittiwakes nest on the cliffs.

To the north there are excellent views of Embleton Bay that we have yet to visit.

View north from the Great Gatehouse

Alnmouth
A tricky pronunciation. Some say ‘Aln-muth’, others ‘Allen-mouth’. I have no idea which is correct. It’s a pretty village at the mouth of the river of the same name. There’s good paid parking behind the beach for a couple of hundred cars.

Warkworth
We’ve only visited the beach once, back in April 2018. It’s a nice long stretch of beach accessed from the north side of the town, which is more famous for its 12th century castle.

Looking north along Warkworth beach towards Alnmouth.

Warkworth Castle

Amble
Standing at the mouth of the River Coquet, we’ve found the beaches very pleasant on the south side of the town (where there is free parking), and facing Coquet Island which is now a bird reserve with an internationally important colony of roseate terns in the breeding season.

The view south along the Amble beach with the Lynemouth power station in the far distance.

Coquet Island.

Druridge Bay and Hauxley Nature Reserve
This must be one of the longest beaches in Northumberland, with massive dunes at the rear of the beach in its southern portion.

At the northern end, and just inland is Hauxley Nature Reserve, owned by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. When we visited last week, we observed 37 different bird species in the space of two hours. It really is a wonderful site, and we must go back there on a regular basis. There’s no entrance fee, but parking costs £2 all day. There’s also footpath access on to the dunes and beach, which lie just beyond the reserve’s perimeter fence.

The Tern Hide from the West Hide at Hauxley Nature Reserve.

The North Sea can be seen in the middle distance beyond the dunes and reserve perimeter fence.

Cresswell Bay
This was one of the first ‘northern’ beaches that we viisted in 2021, just 17 miles from home. It’s both sandy and rocky, and we saw somone collecting sea coal that had been washed up on the shore. All along the Northumberland and Durham coast there were once extensive coal mines. Waste from the pits was dumped in the sea. In places the beaches look quite black.

Blyth and Seaton Sluice Beaches
These are the closest to home, but are in effect a singe beach. Both are very popular with dog walkers, and we enjoy often heading there on a Sunday morning, weather permitting, for a late morning stroll.

At the Seaton Sluice southern end of the beach, there is a small harbor, that had originally been constructed in the 17th and refurbished in the 18th century to handle coal shipments from local mines.

Seaton Sluice harbor, showing ‘The Cut’ in the middle distance.

St Mary’s Lighthouse and Whitley Bay
The lighthouse was built in 1898, but there had been lighthouses on the island for centuries. This lighthouse was decommissioned in 1984. The island lies at the north end of Whitley Bay, a popular resort.

The island is approached across a causeway that is submerged at high tide. On the visits we have made we’ve often seen the grey seals that bask on the rocks.

King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
This is a small bay that lies beneath the headland on which Tynemouth castle and priory (now owned by English Heritage) were built.

From the headland there are magnificent views north along the Northumberland coast.

To the immediate south is the mouth of the River Tyne, and beyond the shore at South Shields and the coast south into County Durham.

Souter Lighthouse and the Whitburn coast
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988. It stands on the edge of magnesian limestone cliffs, that stretch both north and south.

To the south of the lighthouse, there was a colliery and this area has been reclaimed and opened (under the National Trust) as a recreational area.

Immediately outside the walls of the lighthouse to the north is the site of a former mining village, Marsden, that was demolished soon after Whitburn Colliery closed in 1968.

The longer grass indicates where the two lines of terraced cottages once stood.

Marsden beach was very popular holiday or day-out destination in the early 20th century.

The cliffs are home to colonies of cormorants (one of the largest in the UK), herring gulls, kittiwakes, and fulmar petrels.

Whitby Abbey
The abbey, built in the 13th century, occupies a headland that juts out into the North Sea above the town of Whitby. It’s the furthest south we have ventured over the past 18 months.

The approach from the north along the A174 high above the coast affords the most spectacular views over the town and right along the North Yorkshire coast. Most impressive.


I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting the seaside. There’s something magical, inspirational about the interface between land and sea. Solid and liquid.

Time for a national reboot . . .

I – and many others it would seem (if Twitter traffic and other media are to be believed) – have lost (or are rapidly losing) faith in this nation of ours.

The (Dis)United Kingdom.

We’ve been on a downward spiral ever since the Brexit referendum in June 2016 when just 32% or so of the electorate (52% of those who actually took part) took us out of the European Union. It’s unbelievable that even today the Tories (who have been in power since 2010) are still unable to quantify the benefits of Brexit, apart from taking back control – of our descent into insignificance.

I’ve written elsewhere in some details about Brexit and I’m not going to rehearse those comments here. This tag will open all the posts I’ve written about Brexit and why it was such a bad decision.

Since 2019, the country has had to suffer under the embarrassment of a mendacious **** Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported by a coterie of the most inadequate and mediocre cabinet members I think I can ever remember. Totally lacking in talent!

What a ridiculous man at the helm of this nation’s affairs during the Covid (ongoing) pandemic and at a time of international crisis with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Just last Saturday, when no-one thought that Johnson could sink any lower, he did precisely that comparing the plight of the citizens of Ukraine to the vote to leave the EU when this country ‘took back control’ and ‘gained its freedom’.

This is what he told the Tory Party Spring Conference in Blackpool:

I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom every time. I can give you a couple of famous, recent examples. When the British people voted for Brexit, in such large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners, it’s because they wanted to be free.

He has been roundly condemned from all sides and from abroad as well. His remarks were not only inappropriate but deeply offensive.

And he’s still under investigation for apparent breaches of lock-down rules and guidelines in 10 Downing Street. When will that ever be resolved? It’s time that Johnson was removed from office and the narrative reset. But having reached this nadir of pessimism in our political system and prospects, I have (reluctantly) come to the conclusion that some radical changes are needed. But I’ve never been one for really rocking the boat – until now, tending towards left of center politics.

Get the Tories out
The next General Election is not due until 2024. That will be the opportunity for Opposition parties to reclaim the ‘Red Wall’ seats of the North that were captured by the Tories in 2019, and overturn the 80 seat majority that Johnson won, even though his party received only 43.6% of the popular vote (or less than 30% of the electorate). That’s the concern with our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system.

Scotland notwithstanding, where the Scottish National Party (SNP) overwhelmingly won the popular vote and constituencies, it is essential, in my opinion, that the Opposition parties in England at least (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens) form an electoral pact, because it’s in England that the election will be won or lost.

Proportional representation
Once the Tories have been given their marching orders, then it really is time to think seriously about proportional representation. Although I’m not certain just how interested the Labour Party would be in this constitutional change. The Lib Dems are, as far as I recall, the only political party that has consistently supported proportional representation.

I know it can lead to lots of post-election haggling, as we have seen in other European countries, to form coalition governments. We had one in this country after the 2010 election when the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories. It wasn’t all bad. And, in any case, proportional representation would at least ensure that all votes count. That’s not currently the case.

A new parliament
Let’s move Parliament outside London into a bespoke facility that would bring conduct of our democracy and government into the 21st century. The current set-up in the House of Commons does not cater for all 650 Members. It’s anachronistic that votes are cast by Members passing through the lobby and counted rather than cast digitally. It’s adversarial rather than consensual.

MPs should receive an appropriate salary. I would support an increase over the £81,932 basic salary that MPs receive, plus allowances. But with the proviso that they do not take on second or even third jobs, like we have seen over the past year with MPs like Geoffrey Cox (former Attorney General) apparently earning almost £900,000 in legal fees and spending time away from Parliament.

I would abolish the House of Lords. Appointment to the HoL has been abused by many Prime Ministers, and Johnson is no exception appointing some of the most despicable individuals like ex-MEP Daniel Hannan or the son of a former Russian KGB operative, Evgeny Lebedev!

I’m not certain whether we even need a second chamber. Some countries operate quite nicely, thank you, without one. But, unlike the UK, members do not sit for life!

Beyond devolution
I did not support Scottish independence when a referendum was held in 2014, not that I had a vote. I just thought the breakup of the UK was not desirable.

Now I’m not so sure, post-Brexit. It’s clear now that a majority of Scots see their future outside the UK and rejoining the EU as an independent nation. I think the view from Westminster, and the Johnson factor has only increased the Scottish desire for independence. Now, I would agree that if that’s what they want, allow them to pursue their own destiny.

I’m not sure the same can be said for Wales, although Plaid Cymru would have us believe there’s the same level of support there for independence. Could Wales survive as an independent nation? It doesn’t have the same demographic or size of economy as Scotland.

As for Northern Ireland, I do believe that the province will, sooner or later, unite with the republic to the south, even though the Unionist dinosaurs will be dragged kicking and screaming into such an arrangement. I think it’s inevitable, but whether it occurs in my lifetime (I’m 73) remains to be seen.

The monarchy
I’m neither republican nor anti-monarchist. In fact, I guess I’ve been happy (perhaps apathetic) to accept the status quo. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is inevitably drawing to a close; she is, after all, approaching her 96th birthday, and celebrating her Platinum Jubilee this year.

I think the monarchy is now past its sell-by date, and recent shenanigans in the royal household have certainly diminished the esteem with which the Royal Family was once held. Charles III? William V? I think not. Let’s cut our losses.

So what to replace the monarch as head of state? I’m certainly not advocating an executive president, USA or France style. No, we have a parliamentary democracy that needs to be held on to, albeit with reforms as I indicated. Other countries like Germany and Ireland have a figurehead president as head of state. I think the same would work just fine for a diminished England/Wales. And would cost a fraction of what taxpayers are currently paying for a bloated and dysfunctional monarchy.


I’m afraid there are too many vested interests to permit radical change over the short term. But unless change is brought about, this once proud nation (currently a Johnsonian embarrassment on the world stage) is unlikely to prosper.

Prince of trees . . .

Take the humble sycamore. Acer pseudoplatanus L. It’s a common-enough woodland species, not native to this country, but introduced into these islands 500, maybe 1500 years or more ago, perhaps even by the Romans, according to the Woodland Trust. Not a tree that stands out in particular.

However, location is everything. And the tree I’m thinking about has it all. 2016 England Tree of the Year. And ‘star’ of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yes, it’s that tree, at Sycamore Gap in the heart of the Northumberland National Park. It featured near the beginning of the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, and the late Alan Rickman (as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham). I’ve also read that it appears in the video of Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do if for you, the theme song from the film, but I’ve not yet been able to verify that. It’s a great song, so have a listen here.

Now, the screenwriters stretched things a little far for Robin Hood to travel from Jerusalem to Nottingham (in the English Midlands) via Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. But that’s where you can find Sycamore Gap, some 40 miles due west from our home in North Tyneside.

Traveling east along Military Road (B6318) from Once Brewed, this is the first glimpse of Sycamore Gap. Keep looking left.

Immediately due north from where I stopped the car there is the famous sycamore, reputedly several hundred years old, standing proudly against the sky in a dip on the Whin Sill, an outcrop of igneous dolerite that stretches across the county and out to the North Sea.

Dunstanburgh Castle was built on the sill, north of Craster on the north Northumberland coast.

However, perhaps the most impressive section of the sill is at Crag Lough, with Hadrian’s Wall running along the top, which we visited earlier this week in order to walk to Sycamore Gap from Steel Rigg car park, a round trip of about 3 miles.

The Whin Sill at Crag Lough, Northumberland.

Taking the path along the ridge there are some impressive inclines to navigate, although the return was along a more or less level track below the ridge.

Just to the west of Sycamore Gap stand the remains of Milecastle 39, one of the sentry posts along Hadrian’s Wall.

And then, you come upon the tree. I’m sure it’s as majestic in full leaf, as it was at the time of the filming of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But somehow, I think I prefer its winter skeletal self, as you can really appreciate the architecture of this lone tree.

Two miles further east Housesteads Roman fort and settlement are located just below the crest of the sill.

At this time of the year there were few visitors to Sycamore Gap, but probably not so in the summer months, when you might expect a constant stream of walkers. Fortunately I was able to take all the photos I wanted without being interrupted by other walkers.

The views south across the Northumberland countryside are quite magnificent.

One small feature that caught my eye, and which I don’t think I’ve seen in quite the same way elsewhere was the construction of the dry stone walls. In the area of Steel Rigg these had a couple of layers of flat stones separating the round or square/rectangular stones. I wonder how many of those were filched from Hadrian’s Wall over the centuries.

I count this visit to Sycamore Gap among the best walks we’ve made since moving to the northeast 18 months ago. Yes there’s still more to explore. Northumberland is such a beautiful county, as I’m sure you will appreciate in the video below, which shows part of the homeward journey east from Steel Rigg to Chollerford, just over 11 miles away on the banks of the River North Tyne,


 

Birding in the northeast . . .

We couldn’t have asked for better weather yesterday. Even though a little on the cool side, accompanied by a blustery wind, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. A perfect early Spring day.

So we headed for the National Trust’s Gibside estate, about 11½ miles southwest from where we live in North Tyneside, as the crow flies (or just over 15 miles by road).

Covering 600 acres (just over 240 hectares), Gibside provides excellent walking. While the old house lies in ruins, and the chapel is not open every day, there’s plenty to explore on foot. We covered almost five miles.

Taking my trusty binoculars along (a pair of Swift Saratoga 8×40 that I’ve had for about 60 years) we hoped there might be some interesting wildlife to observe. On one of our previous visits, we’d come across a pair of roe deer among the pine trees. I was hopeful there might be some interesting birds along the River Derwent, the northern boundary of the Gibside estate.

And we weren’t disappointed. As we were leaving the Trust cafe after enjoying a refreshing regular Americano, a solitary grey heron flew low overhead, buffeted by the gusting winds, and crabbing to make headway. It’s one of the largest birds in this country, and doesn’t look designed for flying in high winds.

Grey heron

Then, as we walked down to the banks of the Derwent, we came across a pair of dippers on a shallow cascade; and further on, a pair of goosanders in full breeding plumage. What a magnificent sight!

Dipper

Goosanders

We’d seen a dipper a few weeks back alongside Seaton Burn in Holywell Dene close to home, the first I’d encountered in more than 20 years. And I’d seen my first ever goosander just a couple of months back on a local pond, so seeing a breeding pair yesterday was a real delight.

At the bird hide we watched great, blue, coal, and long-tailed tits, and as we sat having a picnic in the early afternoon sun (quite warm out of the breeze), beside the fish pond below the 18th century Banqueting Hall (not National Trust), we enjoyed the antics of a trio of little grebes, another species I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

Little grebe

Then, as Steph was finishing her lunch, and I was taking a photo of the view, a red kite swooped overhead; we saw another one later in the walk.

Red kite

Then, just before we continued on our walk, I happened to look up at the Banqueting Hall and spotted a single roe deer grazing in front of the building. What luck!


Since moving to North Tyneside from the West Midlands around 18 months ago, I have revived my interest in and enjoyment of bird watching.

Compared with our garden and surrounding countryside in north Worcestershire (some 230 miles south of where we now live)—and which I wrote about in one of my early blog posts in May 2012—there seem to be more birding opportunities here in the northeast: in the garden, on the coast (which is less than five miles as the crow flies), and the river valleys, moors, and hills of Northumberland.

Close to where we now live, the land has slowly recovered over the last four decades since the coal mines were closed. A mosaic of streams, hedgerows, scrub land, reed beds, ponds, arable and grassland, not to mention woodlands in various stages of development, has now replaced what had been a desolate industrial landscape, supporting an abundance of bird life and even some large mammals like roe deer. The routes of the former mine railways—the waggonways—have been left as footpaths and bridleways, serving as excellent wildlife corridors across North Tyneside and connecting urban sites with the surrounding countryside.

To date, my northeast bird list comprises about 80 species observed and one, a grasshopper warbler, heard but not seen (according to a more experienced birder than me).

Some species, like goldfinches (left below) or bullfinches (right) which I saw only occasionally down south, are quite common here, often in flocks of 20-30 birds.

Herring and black-headed gulls are ‘as common as sparrows’ (which we don’t actually see very often, although I did come across the more scarce tree sparrow just a week ago while on one of my walks).