I’m no petrolhead . . .

Petrolhead? Me? Am I a car enthusiast, or even someone who is overly reliant on the use of my car, resisting any suggestion to use other means of transport? Never! (But I am a secret Top Gear fan).

But, as with most folks, I do have a car – a sensible Peugeot 308 1.6 Sport HDi, which we bought just prior to returning to the UK in 2010 (but that’s another story).

I started to learn to drive just after my 17th birthday – 18 November 1965 (a Thursday), so it must have been a few days later at the weekend, maybe the 21st. The family had just returned a couple of weeks earlier from my eldest brother Martin’s wedding to Pauline in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, in northeast Scotland. And it was my sister Margaret, a few years older than me who gave me my first driving lesson – along a straight and quiet lane, Devil’s Lane, above Leek in north Staffordshire. The whole lesson consisted of me trying to rid the vehicle of ‘kangaroo petrol’, i.e., learning to control the clutch smoothly, instead of lurching along as I applied the accelerator while letting the clutch out. I was also instructed to wear a pair of leather-soled shoes, not rubber, so that I would be better able to feel the vehicle responding. I asked Margaret to give me my first lessons since I thought she’d handle me better than maybe my Dad would have (I found to my cost, many years later, when letting Hannah and Philippa behind the wheel of our car at IRRI, and driving around the IRRI farm, that my patience – not very good at the best of times – was particularly strained when assuming the role of driving instructor).

In 1964, my father had an Austin A35 van, similar to that illustrated here. As you can see, there were no rear windows, apart from that on the rear door, so I had to learn very quickly how to use the wing mirrors properly – and safely while manoeuvering the vehicle, especially reversing. As I gained more experience, and before I passed my driving test, I would often go out with my Dad, and since he often had to drive into Hanley (in the Potteries) about once a week, he’d let me drive to school in Trent Vale, drop me off, and then go about his business, usually picking up photographic supplies for his retail business or dropping off photographs for publication in the local north Staffordshire newspaper, The Sentinel.

I failed my driving test at the first attempt in April/May 1966. In those days there was no written test on the Highway Code, just a few questions asked by the examiner at the end of the driving session. I was failed on my three-point turn, but as he’d chosen a road frequented by trucks returning to the local butter distributor, Adams Butter, I sort of panicked when straddled across the road, attempting to reverse, and seeing this juggernaut heading towards me. Feeling rather deflated, I immediately applied to take my test again, and was surprised when allocated a new date, just three weeks later in May. Today you have to wait weeks because of the pressure of applications. But at my second attempt, I passed! Over the next couple of years I gained more driving experience before I went off to university in Southampton in 1967, and by then my father had acquired a secondhand Ford Anglia (I don’t remember if it was a 2- or 4-door saloon), but one was grey and maroon, and a second a little later on, maroon.

I didn’t have my own wheels at university – I couldn’t afford a car or the running costs, and didn’t get my first car (a maroon Ford Anglia), bought from my Dad, until I’d completed my MSc degree at Birmingham in September 1971. It was a bit of a rust-bucket, but it generally ran well, but eventually had to be pensioned off because of bodywork (and chassis) rust problems.

For a few months I inherited an old dark blue Renault 4 from my Dad in mid-1972. By then, however, I was already scheduled to leave for a new life in Peru from January 1973, and as part of my contract with the International Potato Center (CIP), I was allowed to import a brand new car (shipping costs being met by CIP).

After taking some advice on what vehicles and makes were available in Lima, I opted for a Volkswagen Variant station wagon 1.6, similar to the one shown here, but a rather bright (not lurid) green, and my first new car.

I bought it through the VW dealership in central Birmingham that had to specially import it from Germany (left-hand drive, of course). I remember having an appointment with my bank manager at Barclays in Leek to ask for a loan, £1,200, to purchase this vehicle. I had no assets, just a firm contract – but that was enough to secure the loan I needed.

I had the opportunity of using it for about six weeks in the UK before it was collected for shipping to Lima-Callao from Liverpool. In those six weeks I made two trips to Edinburgh: the first to take Steph up there with all her belongings as she was starting a new job at the then Scottish Plant Breeding Station at Pentlandfield, just south of Edinburgh, and a few weeks later for a visit, just before it was collected for shipping. It took a couple of months or more before my car arrived in Lima, with one of the rear lights smashed and the bodywork dented. But that was quickly repaired, and we used this car until May 1975 when we returned to Birmingham for a few months for me to complete and submit my PhD thesis.

The Variant was a great car – well-built, sturdy (I eventually replaced the shock absorbers with heavy duty ones) and we took it all over the Andes, mostly on rather rough dirt roads. We only had one serious problem, during a trip with our friends John and Marian Vessey to Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas in central Peru, Chavín de Huántar, and then over the Cordillera Negra to the coast, and north to Cajamarca. On the trip to Chavín I’d hit a rather large boulder lying in the road. I checked for damage but didn’t see any, so we continued with our journey, and returned to Huaraz that afternoon. The following day, as we were climbing out of the Callejón de Huaylas from Huaraz, I could hear some creaking from the rear. Checking underneath I saw that one of the shock absorber supports was cracked. Returning to Huaraz, we found a local mechanic who jacked the car in the air, whereupon the shock support just fell off! With some judicious welding, it was made secure and safe again, and our trip was delayed by only a few hours.

During the six months or so we were back in Birmingham in 1975 we had a secondhand Mini estate (a sort of dirty mustard color) that my parents had ‘reserved’ for us through a local mechanic dealer in Leek. It did us fine, but there was nearly a disaster shortly after we took possession of it. Steph had gone down to Southend to stay with her parents (presumably on the train), and I set off the following weekend by road. Incidentally although Steph and I had been married since mid-October 1973, this visit to Southend would be the first time I’d met her parents! Anyway, to get back to the Mini. Traveling down the M6 towards the M1, just east of Birmingham I heard a funny whirring noise coming, as far as I could tell, from one of the front wheels. I pulled over, did some rudimentary checks, couldn’t find anything untoward, and carried on my way. Arriving in Southend I decided it would be wise to have a further check, and removing the hub cap, noticed that the castle nut holding the front wheel on was about to fall off. A mechanic who had done some work on the brakes had replaced the castle nut but not the pin that secured it. So with the movement and vibration the nut had worked itself loose, and I hate to think what might have happened on the motorway had it – and the wheel – come off.

When we returned to Lima just after Christmas 1975, we’d already sold our VW to CIP, and during the few months we stayed in Peru from January 1976 until moving to Costa Rica in April we were assigned whatever car was available in the center’s motorpool.

We lived in Turrialba in Costa Rica, about 75 km east-southeast of the capital San José. The research station CATIE was about 4 km from the town of Turrialba, and wheels were a necessity. Based on our Volkswagen experiences in Peru we immediately thought about another – the newly-released Golf, but that was not available in Costa Rica (all cars were imported). Instead we chose a VW Brasilia, white, 2-door hatchback.

I can hardly say it was a luxurious car – indeed, it was rather basic. It didn’t even have a radio, nor seat belts! Nevertheless, it was fine for a couple of years or so. But not long after Hannah was born in April 1978, we managed to sell the Brasilia and bought what has been – to  date – the most upmarket car we have ever owned – a Volvo 240 estate car, green. Now that was a solid car if ever there was. We bought it through the main Volvo dealer in San José. Since I was working for CIP in Costa Rica under the auspices of CATIE – at that time a semiautonomous dependent institute under the Organization of American States, we were permitted to import a new car every few years or so, and sell the old car on the open market. The Volvo cost me USD8,000 (about USD27,600 at today’s values), but I didn’t have to pay any shipping costs from Sweden. That was because Volvo had a regular route from Gothenburg in southern Sweden to Panama and Costa Rica, shipping trucks. So the odd car or so on board came gratis. We sold the Volvo just before we returned to Peru in November 1980.

In March 1981 we returned to the UK where I’d been appointed to a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. So our next car had to be a family car, hatchback, Hannah being almost three at this time. We bought a Ford Escort Mk III1.6GL, a sort of burnt sienna color. But after Philippa was born in May 1982 we began to think about a larger car. And from about 1984 until we moved to the Philippines in July 1991 we had a series of Rover Montego models, all saloons: a second hand white model, followed about two years later by a new dark blue metallic model, both 1.6 engines. I discovered that there had been an oil seal problem with early Montegos, and was finally able to persuade Rover to cover the engine overhaul that was needed. I had the blue model broken into one night while I was at a restaurant in Birmingham and had the radio ripped out and the door lock broken – all covered on the insurance fortunately. In August 1990 – and with no idea that I’d be moving abroad within a year – we bought a 2.0 diesel version, one of the best cars I’ve owned. It didn’t have great 0-60 mph speed, but once up to 70 mph in top gear, the Perkins engine was hardly ticking over and would just roll on and on. We sold this car at the end of our first home leave from the Philippines in summer 1992, having first taken it on a two week tour of Ireland.

During the 19 years I spent at IRRI, a car was provided by the institute. While IRRI itself was permitted to import cars, individual scientists did not have this particular privilege, although there were many other things that we could. All our cars had automatic transmission – a feature I’d never had before and which I grew to appreciate very much in the horrendous Manila traffic.

First of all I was assigned a Nissan Bluebird estate, rather battered and ill-used by previous ‘owners’, followed by a US-made Ford Escort station wagon – a nice comfortable car, but very low, and not really suited to the local roads, especially when we wanted to go off-road, as it was in the early days on our trips to Anilao for diving. Then we had a series of saloons: a Nissan, a Toyota (I can’t remember the models) and finally, from 2008, a Toyota Avensis for which – as a Director of the institute – I had full diplomatic licence plates! This was, by far, the best of the cars provided by IRRI – extremely solid on the road, comfortable, excellent hi-fi and aircon systems, and quite spacious. A pleasure to drive.

But now we are back in the UK, and have our Peugeot 308 to get around in. I do like diesel cars, and the fuel economy is great. It’s an outrage, however, that the cost of diesel is significantly higher than petrol, and even as I write this, there is an ongoing discussion in the media about the differential between both types of fuel, and why that should be.

Why did I settle on a Peugeot 308 when there are so many that we could have chosen? During our years at IRRI we would always hire a car during home leave, and it was always a lottery which make and model of car we would be allocated by the hire company. But in 2009, we were given a Peugeot 308, and made some lengthy journeys around the UK. And it was the first car in many that I found a really comfortable driving position, and never felt tired even after driving several hundred miles.

Before retiring, I’d done some further research about car deals, and towards the end of 2009, the government had reduced the VAT to 15%, but we had to order and pay for the vehicle before the end of March 2010. A few long phone calls from the Philippines, plus numerous emails, and we were able to fix the deal. So we opted for the 308 1.6 HDi model – Babylon Red (I’ve never had a red car until now – call it (late) mid-life crisis, perhaps), with cruise control and speed limiter, even aircon (which we enjoy on about three days each summer). I love the cruise control – just get up to speed on the motorway, engage cruise control, and more or less sit back. Because of the engine size and CO2 emissions, the road tax is in the lowest bracket, just £35 a year, and our insurance premium is also low. Since May 2010 we’ve clocked up only 7,100 miles.

So, as you can see, I can hardly claim to have brand loyalty over the years. Hopefully this Peugeot will do us for at least five years, probably more. Although once the dealers have their teeth into you, they’re always trying to sell a new model – as happened just a few days ago when I received a letter exhorting me to take advantage of a special deal for ‘valued customers’ and purchase a new 62 registration model. Hardly!

Thanks to Lufthansa . . .

When it comes to classical music, I like what I like. And that usually means Haydn, Bach, Vivaldi, Boccherini among others, Mozart of course, Beethoven, and my favourite composer – Chopin. I’ve never been much of an opera buff, but gradually, over many years of travelling, did come to appreciate quite a spectrum of this genre.

Travelling and classical music?

Well, during the 1990s (when I was working at IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center), I often had to travel from Manila to Europe, mostly to Rome. And at that time – initially for convenience sake, but later by choice – I travelled with Lufthansa. I was fortunate to be able to travel on Business Class for these long flights, and soon picked up a huge number of air miles, enabling me from time-to-time to upgrade to First Class. I quickly achieved Senator status with Lufthansa/Star Alliance. Alas, I have virtually no miles left. I either used them for upgrades or they expired (quite a devaluation) when the rules were changed.

It was on one of these flights back to Manila, after an intermediate stop in Bangkok, that I and a colleague from a sister center ICLARM (now the WorldFish Center) were the only passengers on the upper deck of a 747-400 in First Class. It was before 9/11 and I was given the opportunity of sitting on the flight deck for the landing in Manila – a fantastic experience. And one I was to experience a couple of years later on an Emirates 777 flight from Dubai when, after having visited the flight deck for a chat with the captain and first officer, I was invited back for the landing!

But I digress. I haven’t flown Lufthansa for many years now, because I moved to Emirates as my preferred airline, since it also flew the route MLA-DXB-BHX (Birmingham) and that’s what we took on home leave. It was more convenient to build up an air miles association with Emirates – it began expanding its routes into Europe in the late 90s and into the new decade. In any case, Lufthansa stopped flying to Manila.

The in-flight entertainment on Lufthansa was rather good, especially the classical music channel. And this is what I used to listen to religiously and, as a consequence, began to build up my classical CD collection based on what I’d heard on these long intercontinental journeys.

Among the ‘highlights’ that I heard, and invested in, are:

  • Rossini’s La Cenerentola, featuring Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, released by Decca in 1993 (436 902-2), with the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. I was absolutely (and I use this description advisedly) blown away by her voice and this particular aria Non piu mesta. The video of the aria is not the recording, however.

  • Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, written in 1762, and recorded on Philips (434 093-2) in 1991. The part of Orfeo is played by a counter tenor. In the recording I heard, Orfeo was sung by Derek Lee Ragin, with the Monteverde Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The link below is from this recording, and features Ragin singing the famous aria Che faro senza Euridice.

  • Kiri Te Kanawa singing the music of Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) in the soundtrack to the film The Sorceress. This was recorded in 1992 with the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood. It was released on Philips (434 992-2). I discovered a complete video of The Sorceress on YouTube.

  • Swedish virtuoso trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger playing the Trumpet Concerto in E flat by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). This was released on Philips (420 203-2) and was recorded in 1986, with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. The CD also has trumpet concerti by Hertel, Stamitz, and Hummel. This video is not, however, the same as the CD recording.

Charles Paget Wade – collector extraordinaire

Snowshill. A small Gloucestershire village, nestling under the lip of the Cotswolds north-facing escarpment, with stunning views from Broadway Tower (close by) over the Vale of Evesham immediately to the north, the Malvern Hills to the west, the hills of South Wales to the southwest, and on a clear day (like when we visited just a couple of days ago) for more than 50 miles northwest to the hills of Shropshire, due north to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, and the skyline of Birmingham creeping over the distant horizon beyond Warwickshire to the northeast. What a glorious part of this green and pleasant land we call England.

The village is home to Snowshill Manor and Garden, gifted to the National Trust in 1951 by its rather eccentric owner, painter-craftsman, and poet, Charles Paget Wade (1883-1956).

An architect by training, and having wealth derived from the family’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean island of St Kitts, Wade purchased Snowshill Manor in 1919 and used it to house his growing – and exceedingly eclectic – collections of craft work, furniture, paintings, and almost anything he considered beautiful.

There has been a manor house at Snowshill for centuries, but the oldest parts of the manor today date from the early years of the 16th century. In the 1920s he began to lay out the gardens in the Arts and Crafts Style, and today these are a delight of understatement: walled ‘rooms’ in the soft Cotswold limestone, broad sloping banks, intimate spaces.

Wade himself lived in a small house in the garden known as the Priest’s House – a rather rudimentary accommodation that he redesigned, installed ‘modern’ plumbing, and filled the house with even more collectibles.

The manor was turned over to his ever-increasing collection that he had begun to assemble as a small boy. His collection is full of extraordinary beautiful objects: oriental furniture, as well as English pieces; suits of armor from the English medieval period, the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, and Japanese samurai armor; many paintings and religious artifacts; bicycles; spinning wheels; and models and toys, among many other things.

Our visit to Snowshill Manor was a slight disappointment – I had expected rather more extensive gardens to wander through. Nevertheless, just seeing what Wade had accumulated through a lifetime of collecting was truly amazing. The collections at Calke Abbey that we saw recently are the efforts of one family. The Snowshill Manor collection of more than 20,000 items is the passion of just one man – Charles Paget Wade.

Just click on the photos below to open web albums.

Ancient woodland . . . and medieval lifestyle

Amid the hills and steep valleys of northeast Herefordshire lies the Brockhampton Estate, comprising some 1700 acres of farmland (with Hereford cattle and Ryeland sheep), woodland, and orchards (especially damsonsPrunus domestica) just a couple of miles east of the small town of Bromyard, and about 11 miles almost due west of Worcester.

The estate was gifted to the National Trust in 1946, and there are now miles of woodland and park trails to wander and stunning views over the Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire countryside.

The weather was glorious yesterday, so we took the opportunity of getting to know the Brockhampton Estate (only about 30 miles from where we live), and view the magnificent 14th century moated manor house at Lower Brockhampton.

Approaching the manor house there is an imposing Gatehouse that was restored in recent years. In fact the house has gone through several phases of remodelling and refurbishment throughout its history.

And although the family moved out of the house towards the end of the 18th century (and built an imposing house overlooking the estate – the 100 year lease is apparently up for sale at £3 million!), the manor became a farm and has been lived in ever since. In fact one of the National Trust staff occupies the rear part of the manor.

There are also the ruins of a Norman chapel just to the side of the manor house.

The main features of the manor are the impressive beamed hall, the minstrel gallery, bedroom and study. Downstairs there is a parlor. These are the parts of the house open to the public.

The garden was filled with color, particularly dahlias – not exactly a ‘medieval’ blossom, since these were introduced into England (from their native Mexico via Spain, apparently) at the end of the 18th century or early 19th (I’ve seen 1803 or 1804 as specific dates cited).

Behind the house and across the moat is a large damson orchard. Because of the season this year, the damson harvest is running late, and the amount of fruit we observed on the trees did not seem abundant – probably due to poor pollination earlier in the year. It’s apparently been a very poor year for apples, pears, and plums among other fruit because of the very wet weather we have experienced. This part of the UK (in Herefordshire and Worcestershire) is famous for its apples and pears and other soft fruit.

As the autumn draws in, the swallows and house martins were beginning to gather and feed up their growing fledglings. I haven’t seen so many congregating in one spot for a long time.

In the woodland there are six estate walks ranging from 1 mile to over 3.5 miles. Given the recent wet weather it was very boggy underfoot in some parts on the 3.5 mile Oak Walk that we took (the longest), but on a warm sunny day like yesterday it was a delight to walk through the trees and experience the cool breeze of an ancient English woodland – full of enormous oak and beech tress, some pines, and a few ash.

What a magnificent sight. And just occasionally, as the woodland canopy opened up, views over the countryside to the hills beyond. All in all, Brockhampton Estate was a most enjoyable visit, and certainly one worth returning to at another season.

Click here for more photos.