Season’s Greetings

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How time flies! Here we are at the end of the year and wondering where the months have gone by. It only seems like yesterday that we were sitting down and listing all the things we wanted to tell you about 2013 in last year’s Christmas Letter. In this online and expanded version of our printed 2014 Christmas Letter, just click on the text in red to read stories in more detail, and see lots more photographs. Also click on any of the photos to view larger images or open galleries.

It’s also hard to believe that we returned from the Philippines more than four years ago.

But one thing is certain. Our four beautiful grandchildren are growing up very rapidly.

Given that Callum (4) and Zoë (2) live in Minnesota and Elvis (3) and Felix (1) in Newcastle upon Tyne (about 250 miles north of Bromsgrove) we don’t get to see them in person very often. But through the wonders of Skype etc., we can chat with them online, and see what mischief they are getting up to on a weekly basis. All four of them attend nursery daily, but Callum is probably starting school next year. It’s been great to watch their personalities develop, and what fun we’ve had now that Callum and Elvis are talking, and Zoë catching up fast.

Our road trip to the West
As in past years, we spent several weeks in the USA this past summer, from the end of May until mid-June. And we made another road trip, but this time starting in St Paul and flying back from our final destination: Billings, Montana (MT). So where did this road trip take us? Across the Great Plains as far west as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming (WY) – a journey of 2000 miles in nine days – and all interesting sites in between. These included the Great Plains west of the Missouri River (where the West truly begins), the Badlands, Black Hills and Mt Rushmore in South Dakota (SD), Devil’s Tower National Monument in WY (of Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame), the Little Bighorn Battlefield in MT (Gen. Custer and Sitting Bull), Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, of course (via the Beartooth Highway), and finally the Bighorn Mountains in WY.

What a trip! Now 2000 miles in nine days might seem ambitious to some (like traveling every day from home to Newcastle, something we’d never contemplate in the UK), but driving (with automatic transmission and cruise control) on those open Interstates makes driving a pleasure in the USA.

Apart from our second day from the Missouri River to The Badlands, we had great weather. Crossing the Great Plains we skirted the northern edge of a major storm that caused havoc from MT east through SD and Nebraska, with hailstones the size of baseballs causing millions of dollars of damage in Billings. Luckily we didn’t see those – just torrential rain for a couple of hours that made us leave the highway for a while as the worst of the storm passed us by. But by the time we’d reached The Badlands the clouds had lifted and we traveled through the park for more than a couple of hours wondering at all the magnificent landscapes.

Mt Rushmore was much more impressive than either of us had expected. And the Black Hills are stunningly beautiful. No wonder they were held sacred by many native American tribes. We had a couple of wonderful days with beautiful weather to explore this area. Then we headed north into Montana, and traveling the Beartooth Highway to enter Yellowstone through the northeast gate. The Beartooth Highway is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the whole of the USA. It’s certainly very impressive.

Yellowstone was a little disappointing, because we’d hoped to see more wildlife. Since it was early in the season – some of the access roads had only opened a week or so earlier – there wasn’t too much traffic. We’d hate to be there at the height of the season. Probably bumper to bumper cars, all stopping here there and everywhere whenever a bison or elk sticks its nose above the parapet, so to speak. Even with the light traffic we encountered, there were the odd traffic jams, as car stopped as soon as any wildlife was spotted.

But the Yellowstone and Grand Teton landscapes are stunning. The Geyser Basin with all its geothermal activity is impressive. We even got to see Old Faithful blow her top – although she almost became Old Faithless as she kept us waiting a good 20 minutes. Certainly it’s a photographer’s paradise.

Chilling out in St Paul
Returning to St Paul for another week, we enjoyed time again with Callum and Zoë, Hannah and Michael. And overall, the weather in Minnesota was rather better this year than we’ve experienced for the past couple of years. So we enjoyed cooking often on Michael’s new gas BBQ. But before we knew it, our time in MN was over, and we were headed back home via Amsterdam on our usual Delta Airlines schedule.

And although we did experience a couple of storms while in St Paul they were nothing compared to one that hit the city just a day or so after we left. The amount of rainfall must have been incredible, and the groundwater table rose dramatically and found its way through the walls/floor of their basement. Hannah and Michael will have to have some special drainage work done in the New Year before they can complete redecoration of the basement – that’s where we sleep when we visit.

Up in Geordieland
We have been up to Newcastle a couple of times so far this year, in March and at the end of September when Elvis celebrated his third birthday and had a very large party to which about 30 friends from nursery and beyond were invited. Phil came down to Bromsgrove with Felix in June just a few days after we had returned from holiday in the USA. Phil and Andi have been very busy decorating this year, sorting out a front bedroom for the boys with bunk beds, that can also double up as a playroom.

Taking full advantage of our National Trust membership
We took full advantage of the excellent summer, and got to as many National Trust venues as we could, thirteen in all. We have been members of the NT for four full years now, and have thoroughly enjoyed our visits. Mike usually blogs about each visit and posts a range of the photos taken, but he is rather behind in his writing. We have more or less now picked all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of NT properties close to home. So in 2015 it looks like we’ll be making more overnight trips, or even two or three day mini-breaks.

Christmas in July
One of the summer highlights was a day trip to Kew Gardens, a Christmas gift from Hannah and Michael, Phil and Andi. And this was combined with an afternoon cream tea at a hotel in Richmond. We drove to London, something that we faced with a great deal of trepidation, particularly concerning where to park. We had considered the train, but getting to Kew from central London is not so easy, and the hotel for tea was almost three miles from Kew. So driving was the only practical option. Then we stumbled across a website, JustPark (that operates in many countries) through which you can book a parking space on someone’s private drive. The place we found was only five minutes walk from the Kew main gate. What a wonderful day we had, brilliantly sunny and warm, and we walked over eight miles through the Gardens. Afternoon tea and scones (with lashings of clotted cream and strawberry jam) were most welcome afterwards.

On the homefront
Steph continues hard work in the garden – which was looking splendid this past summer, and also enhanced by a new fence we had installed on the two sides that are our responsibility way back in February. She is as active with beading as ever, and wears a different necklace every night at dinner.

Is he really retired?
Mike has also just finished an 18-month consultancy with IRRI to organize the science conference at the 4th International Rice Congress that was held during the last week of October in Bangkok, Thailand.

IRC 2014 logo

From all feedback the conference was a success, with a record number of delegates (>1400), scientific papers delivered (210) and posters (>670) displayed. All in all, the culmination of some broad vision of what could be achieved and meticulous attention to details – since those are what the delegates remember. Inevitably there were a few (minor) glitches but actually everything went ahead much smoother than anticipated, given some of the challenges we had faced during the planning phases. Mike enjoyed his return flights on Emirates – the pleasures of using air miles for an upgrade. During a planning visit to IRRI in August, he had chance for a great night out with friends and colleagues from his former office at Sulyap Gallery Café and Restaurant, a great venue in San Pablo near Los Baños.

L to R: Eric, Yeyet, Vel, Zeny, and Corinta

What does 2015 hold in store?
We have no fixed plans for 2015 – that’s one of the delights of retirement. We do whatever takes our fancy. Mike has nothing in the consultancy pipeline, but you never know when something may come along, although he continues as one of the editors of the journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution and reviews between six and ten manuscripts a year. Mike’s book (with two colleagues) on genetic resources and climate change was published in mid-December last year.

We are actually hoping that 2015 might be the year we get the whole family together – certainly some plans are being mooted but nothing finalized yet.

Anyway, we take this opportunity of wishing everyone

A Very Merry Christmas and Prosperous and Happy New Year 2015

An 18th century landscape of temples and statues

Stowe Landscape Gardens. Perhaps one of the finest examples we have of the fashion for ‘natural’ gardening that blossomed in the mid- to late-18th century. And this was natural as opposed to the more formal approach to gardening that was common before this period, and perhaps quite well exemplified by the Anglo-Dutch garden at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.

Covering an area of about 250 acres, Stowe Gardens and Park are open to the public almost all year round, and are best approached along the Grand Avenue from the nearby town of Buckingham.

It’s a 10 minute walk from the car park to the entrance into the gardens, and there, on the other side of the lake, stands the magnificent Palladian mansion, Stowe House (now a public school and open periodically to the public). We must have walked more than eight miles in total.

The gardens as we see them today were developed – and greatly expanded from an original formal garden – by General Sir Richard Temple, later Viscount Cobham follwoing his marriage in 1715. A number of landscape architects were involved in developing the gardens and building the various temples and other structures that are dotted about the park, including ‘Capability’ Brown who was Lord Cobham’s head gardener in 1746. A detailed description of the gardens and the various buildings has been published in Wikipedia (so there’s no need to repeat this here) and is certainly worth referring to for more information about each, who designed them and when.

Stowe Landscape Gardens are now regarded as one of the most significant to have survived into this century, and can now be enjoyed through the National Trust. The rest of this particular post is dedicated to the photography I enjoyed during our visit in early September. Each of the images has a caption so you can locate each building on the map below.

Entering the gardens 

The Palladian Bridge

Along Lord Cobham’s Walk from the Palladian Bridge to the Grecian Valley

Virtue and Worthies

The western walks


Tis well. (George Washington, 14 December 1799)

George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the Nation, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, first President (1789 – 1797) of the United States of America, and slave owner, was born in Virginia in 1731. And like many (most, probably) of his contemporaries, descended from English forebears.

In fact, the Washington family is an old one from County Durham (now Tyne and Wear) in the northeast of England, and the ancestral home is Washington Old Hall in the small community of Washington that is now surrounded by a complex of arterial roads that connect Newcastle and Sunderland to the main motorways to the south.

At the end of September on our way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Washington Old Hall – less than 10 miles from where our younger daughter Philippa lives in Newcastle with her family.

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

The south facade of Washington Old Hall, from the Nuttery

Situated in the center of the ‘village’, the hall is not very well sign-posted and it took a couple of wrong turns before we ended up at the hall, and were, for the most part, the only visitors that morning inside the house (although some local mums were walking in the gardens with their children).

Although there has been a building on this site since the 12th century, much of what we see today was built in the 17th century. And had links to the Washington family until the 1930s. Before it was taken over by the National Trust, it had been divided at some period of the last century into a series of dwellings, each family essentially having just one or two rooms. The ground floor of the hall has been restored more or less in 17th century style, while the upper floor has mainly been turned over to Washington family memorabilia and their connection with the USA’s illustrious first president.

The grounds are quite small, but attractive. Below the main terrace in front of the hall there is a parterre garden, an apple orchard and vegetable garden, and beyond those, a nuttery. And, as with most National Trust properties, there’s a small cafe where you can enjoy a welcome cuppa.

In 1976, the USA celebrated its bicentennial. Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President in November that year and took office on 20 January 1977. During his first overseas trip as president, Carter visited the UK, and on Friday 6 May he made a special visit to Washington Old Hall, flying into Newcastle International Airport (known as Woolsington Airport then) on Air Force One (a Boeing 707), in the company of UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Click here to read the detailed itinerary and schedule of that visit to Washington Old Hall, as well as Newcastle and Sunderland.

This visit to Washington Old Hall in September was our second encounter with George Washington this year. In June we visited the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and saw the impressive sculpture that honors Washington along with presidents Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Four presidents in the sky

Four presidents in the sky

Strange shapes on the skyline

The clues are there if you only know how to recognize them. For many landscapes it is quite difficult to determine just what forces of nature sculpted what we see all around us, and frankly take for granted as always having been there.

As a geography student at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s, I studied geomorphology (the study of landscapes and the forces that shape them) over three years. So it’s quite fun when we are out and about on our travels trying to work out how any particular landscape evolved. Of course, in the past 10,000 years or less humans have had a dramatic impact on what we see, often hiding the very features that would provide a straightforward answer.

But there are many landscapes when it is much clearer how ice, water, or wind acted upon the geology to reveal those landscape features that we all treasure. The tors of the Dartmoor, formed through chemical weathering of granite in a tropical environment, find their counterparts in Nigeria, for example.

Walking round Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire (just northwest of Knaresborough and Harrogate) the effects of wind erosion on a 400 million year old sandstone, Millstone Grit, during the last Ice Age some 12-18,000 years ago) – and earlier periods of weathering in warmer climates millions of years ago – can be clearly seen. And some fantastical rock formations are now carefully protected by the National Trust.

Steph and I visited Brimham Rocks at the end of September on our way north to Newcastle, and what glorious weather we had. You could see south and east 20 miles or more over the Vale of York. In fact the tower of York Minster was clearly visible on the horizon. And to the west, the landscape rises towards the backbone of England, The Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales.

Walking up from the car park, we took the left hand route round the Rocks. In the video you can see several of the rock formations that are indicated on the map: Surprise View, Cannon Rocks, Eagle, Dancing Bear, Druid’s Writing Desk, and Idol, among others, finally come round to Druid’s Castle Rocks from the north and east (click on the map, ©2002 The National Trust, to open a larger version, and which is reproduced here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks).

©2002 The National Trust – inlcuded here for illustrative purposes and to encourage visitors to Brimham Rocks

Canals and hedges – the formality and beauty of an Anglo-Dutch water garden

At the beginning of September, we headed some 48 miles southwest of where we live in Worcestershire to Westbury Court Garden, a National Trust property in Gloucestershire, on the banks of the River Severn estuary. It was a typical early September day when high pressure dominates the weather scene – somewhat misty and murky, overcast, and the sun taking until mid-afternoon to burn away the worst of the low cloud.

Maynard Colchester commenced excavation of the garden in 1696, with the digging of the first canal, and layout of the garden in the formal Dutch style, shown in Johannes Kip’s 1712 engraving below of the house and garden. You have to remember that Dutchman William III was King at the time.

And until today, Westbury Court Garden remains the only surviving garden in this Anglo-Dutch style. There is no longer a house on the site.

There are impressive north-facing views over the garden and canals from the Tall Pavilion.

Along the canals are planted espaliered fruits, mainly heritage apple varieties (some dating back to the 1500s), but also some pears and plums. There is one area of formal gardens, but the gardeners are having to grub out the box hedges due to box blight. The yews lining the canals are apparently being affected by a fungal disease (a Phytophthora attack) and unless this can be brought under control the yew hedges might be lost as well.

The gardens are not large, but in the contrast between the canals (full – even choked – with water lilies) and the formal beds, they are a delight to the eye, and a haven of peace (even though a rather busy road does pass by at the north end). Among the features worthy of special mention are a glorious tulip tree (Liriodendron sp.) that must be at least 100 feet tall, and an impressive 400 year old evergreen oak (Quercus ilex).

You can easily take in all that Westbury Court Garden has to offer in 60-90 minutes, but as a stopover on the way to another destination (we were headed for the Forest of Dean, and The Kymin), it is certainly worth a visit. After all, it is a unique remnant of a by-gone era of gardening in this country before the fad for open landscapes (championed by the likes of Capability Brown) took hold later on in the eighteenth century.

The perfect picnic spot . . .

It’s been a perfect picnic spot since Georgian times in the 18th century. And where’s this ideal place? Why, The Kymin, of course.

On a steep hill overlooking the town on Monmouth in the Wye valley on the English-Welsh border, The Kymin has a number of features that you wouldn’t associate with an inland site (although it’s not that far from the Severn Estuary).

There are two buildings at the top of the hill: the Round House (which is open only on certain days, and not when we visited) and the Naval Temple, constructed in 1800 to commemorate the British naval victory at the Battle of the Nile, but also British admirals who had played major roles in confronting the French leading up to that date.

Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton visited The Kymin in 1802.

On a clear day the views from the top must be spectacular to the south and west, towards the Brecon Beacons and the Welsh valleys. On the day we visited it had been overcast in the morning, and the cloud was beginning to burn away only by early afternoon when we arrived. But it was still very hazy and we couldn’t see many miles beyond Monmouth itself.

It’s a very narrow and winding road (but with passing places) from the main road A4136 up to The Kymin. But the climb is certainly worth the effort – if you can find the exit from the A4136 (traveling east to west towards Monmouth would be much easier, since the road leading up to The Kymin is on a sharp bend).

Clickety click!

66Clickety click? You play bingo, don’t you? It’s the 66 ball.

And yesterday was my 66th birthday. Another milestone. It has been a busy year, what with the 4th International Rice Congress in Bangkok three weeks ago (and the months of planning that went into that event).

But yesterday, I could indulge myself for a while. Our weather has been appalling recently – windy and wet, and getting colder. But yesterday dawned bright and sunny, so I took myself out for a 5 mile walk along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. There were a couple of boats coming down the Tardebigge Flight (that’s 30 locks), and I got chatting with one of the boat owners. Seems they were traveling in tandem – two sisters and their husbands – since June! All over the country, and were now heading for winter quarters at Droitwich, just a few miles down the canal, for the next four months. They are live-aboard boat owners.

Then a little further up the towpath I stopped to chat with a surveyor from the Canal & River Trust who was checking out the brick and stonework in some of the locks. I discovered that this canal will celebrate its bicentenary next year. And thinking about that is really quite remarkable. Here was this canal being dug – by hand – over a period of 20 or more years, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars!

Anyway, it was a wonderful walk along the towpath, as usual.

And then in the evening, Steph cooked my favorite meal: steak and kidney pie, with a puff pastry crust (accompanied by potatoes, carrots and sprouts). Delicious! And, of course, the ‘mandatory’ bottle of wine, in this case a Rosemount Diamond Collection 2013 Shiraz – the perfect accompaniment to this delicious meal.

What a perfect – and peaceful – day.

The Emirates A380-800 – what a bird!

The Airbus A380-800. Emirates Airlines (EK) now has 53 of these magnificent aircraft in its fleet. That’s almost three times the number flown by the next airline on the A380 list, Singapore Airlines. Twelve airlines now fly the A380, and Emirates operates more than one third of all the aircraft delivered so far (October 2014).

From Emirates Facebook page

I’ve been lucky to fly the EK A380 four times now, between Dubai (DXB) and Bangkok (BKK). In 2010, when I was on my way to Hanoi, I flew there via BKK. Due to a mix-up on seating – someone else had also been assigned my seat 7K on the Business Class upper deck – I was upgraded to First Class. Very nice!

Over the past 18 months, I’ve made four trips to Thailand and the Philippines on business, and on three of these I’ve flown the A380 into or out of BKK. I used air miles for an upgrade in 2013, flew Business Class two weeks ago, but last Monday (3 November) I once again used air miles that were about to expire to upgrade to First Class. And I was treated to a very special experience – the only passenger in First Class. One of the cabin crew joked that if I nodded off, someone would wake me up so I could enjoy the renowned Emirates A380 First Class service to the full. Since the weather in Bangkok was very hot and humid, I decided to travel in comfortable clothes – although my decision to wear shorts caused consternation among one or two people I know on Facebook.

So what’s so special about the A380-800, and Emirates on board service in particular? Well, first of all, everything about the A380 is huge. Yet when I see it alongside a Boeing 747 for example, it looks smaller. Must be an optical illusion, because it wider, taller, longer – just bigger in every way than the 747.

In the Emirates configuration, the whole of the upper deck is First Class and Business Class, but with just 16 suites in First at the front of the aircraft. There are also two spas on either side of the fuselage, just above but behind the flight deck. More of those later.

On my flight to Bangkok, Business Class was more than three quarters full, and everyone settled down to sleep very quickly as the flight departed Dubai just after 03:00. On the return from Bangkok, there were only about 20 passengers in Business Class, though the lower deck Economy Class was heaving with more than 400 passengers! The seating configuration in Business Class is 1-2-1, but in Economy it’s 3-4-3.

There are stairs at the front and rear of the aircraft. The front stairs lead directly into the First Class cabin, and are ‘roped’ off. In many airports there is an upper deck airbridge, so the stairs are perhaps not used that much. There is another curved stairway at the rear of the aircraft leading down from the Business Class galley.

One of the signature features of the upper deck is the rear bar and lounge where passengers can gather to relax and chat, and are served a wide range of beverages and snacks.

But the feature that really sets the EK380-800 apart from the aircraft of other A380 operators are the two spas either side of the stairs leading down to the lower deck at the front of the First Class cabin. It’s quite an experience to take a shower – 5 minutes only please – flying at around 12,000 m and 0.85 Mach or so.

Food-wise, dining on Emirates is always a pleasure. But in First Class it’s something else. To begin with, it’s an À la carte menu – and what a choice. I had the caviar, salmon, and the passion fruit terrine, accompanied by a very classy Pouilly Fuissé, and followed by a fine Hennessy Paradis cognac (decades old).

Finally, on all Emirates flights and in all cabins there is plenty to keep yourself amused on the entertainment channels. Hundreds of films, thousands of music tracks. But I always gravitate towards to the 100 Essential Albums channel. Guess what I was listening to?

Then there’s the air channel of course where you can follow the progress of the flight and, as with all aircraft operated by Emirates, there is a forward camera in the nose (excellent for the take-off and landing) or a downward camera (great to watch the landscape pass by on a cloudless day). But the A380 has something else – a camera in the tail fin.

So here is a short video showing our landing at BKK on EK384 just after midday on Saturday 25 October, followed by the take-off on EK375 on Monday 3 November at 09:35.

All in all, quite an experience to fly the Emirates A380-800.