The sting was in the tail . . . or was it?

Sting in the tail. An unexpected, typically unpleasant or problematic end to something.

That’s what the Nawaz Sharif and his family has just found out. If you recall, Sharif was, until yesterday, Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Sharif and his family got caught up in the Panama Papers scandal that erupted in 2016, although they denied (as one might expect) all guilt or culpability. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that Sharif should be excluded from office. Who would credit that a typeface would bring a political dynasty to its knees?

There was one rather unlikely source of evidence against the family that no-one could have anticipated. Among the documents presented by the family in its defence was one dated from 2006 and using one the Calibri fonts. Not a font with a tail on many of the characters. Unfortunately for the Sharifs, the date on the document pre-dated the commercial release of Calibri by Microsoft by some months. There was little chance that the document could be genuine.

I’m sure that’s the last thing anyone would have expected; it was unpleasant and problematic, and Fontgate (as it’s come to be known) has had far-reaching consequences. Here’s something I found on the endgadget website:

The documents from 2006 submitted by Maryam Nawaz (daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif) were in the Calibri font. That font, according to the investigation team’s leaked report, wasn’t publicly available until 2007 . . .

A cursory glance at the history of Calibri reveals it became the default font on Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and WordPad in 2007. However, Microsoft’s website states that version 1.0 of the font was available to download separately as far back as 2005. And, according to font consultant Thomas Phinney, Calibri was also available as part of a Windows pre-release in 2004 . . . 

Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn even reached out to Calibri creator Lucas de Groot, who seemed skeptical of the font’s use before its public release. “Why would anyone use a completely unknown font for an official document in 2006?” he questioned.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a font geek, but I hadn’t realised that Sans Serif Calibri had become the default typeface for several Microsoft products. I use it all the time, Calibri 12 pt. Incidentally, check out a list of type designers here.

Sans Serif typefaces have become more popular in recent years, no doubt because of the Microsoft default font decision, although until the release of Calibri, Arial (and also Helvetica and Tahoma to some extent) was more commonly used. In earlier versions of Microsoft Word, maybe even Outlook (I don’t remember), the default was I believe Times New Roman (TNR). It’s a typeface that I find particularly ugly. Text appears, to my eyes at least, as rather cramped compared to others. I made a conscious decision to change the default in my Microsoft Office settings from TNR to something else.

When I was setting up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications)—DPPC—at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2001, I decided we should give all the documents sent to donor agencies (such as project proposals, reports, and the like) a distinctive look and ‘feel’. We felt it was important that IRRI documents stood out from others they might receive. At a glance, a document had to be recognised as one from IRRI, notwithstanding that we also placed the institute’s logo on the cover sheet, of course.

From the outset, I excluded Times New Roman (TNR) as the DPPC typeface, and of course Calibri was not available then. We chose Palatino Linotype 12 pt as our default font. It’s an elegant serif font, but more open, rounded even than Times New Roman. And I find it much easier to read than a document in TNR.

What do you think? Click on the text below in three different fonts: TNR 12, Palatino Linotype 12, and Calibri 12, justified and left justified.

The design and release of typefaces goes back centuries of course to the first experiments in printing in the 1400s. Digital printing has opened up many new avenues for design, as the work of Luc(as) de Groot shows.

I often check the typeface of the books I read, if that information is provided. Mostly it’s not, which for typeface geeks like me, is a pity. I’m halfway through a book about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Titled Embattled Rebel, it’s by James M McPherson, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University, and published by Penguin Press in 2014. Not only is it well written, but Penguin chose a typeface and font that just adds to the overall reading enjoyment. Here’s a sample below.

Incidentally, the default font of the regular text in this Dusk to Dawn blog theme is Verdana, and PT Serif for the headings.

Returning to the original story, however, Sharif was caught out by a Sans Serif font. It was another sting in the tail, but not of the Serif kind. Maybe we should be talking about Nawaz Sharif as Nawaz (Sans) Serif instead.

Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater
Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (5): The longest cave system in the world

Blink, and you’d pass through Cave City, KY without realising it. Maybe I’m being a little unfair. But the town obviously caters to the myriad of tourists passing through or, like us, stopping overnight, for a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, just a few miles to the west.

One positive thing about Cave City, however. There was a very good Mexican restaurant just a couple of blocks from our hotel, serving great food and ice cold Mexican beer—most welcome after a long day’s drive.

We visited Mammoth Cave NP on the morning of Day 8 (Wednesday) of our Georgia-Minnesota road trip. Our next stop was Troy, IL, to the northeast of St Louis, and some 370 miles, a distance we normally covered in a whole day. But with our scheduled visit to Mammoth Cave NP in the morning, we knew we would have to cover that distance in much less time than usual if we were to arrive to our hotel at a reasonable hour. And we already had a scheduled stop in southern Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

When researching Mammoth Cave earlier in the year, I discovered it was a very popular destination, especially during the school summer breaks. Now, while we made our trip just before many schools were out for summer, we did expect the national park to be reasonably busy, so decided to book places on one of the first cave tours available. With my ‘weakened’ leg, I didn’t want to take one of the tours that might involve scrambling over uneven surfaces in the dimmed light. The last thing I needed was a twisted ankle – or worse.

So we opted for a 09:15 tour of the Frozen Niagara cave. Described as an ‘easy tour’, not too many steps, and tour size limited to 36.

The surface area of Mammoth Cave National Park is only 82 square miles (some 53,000 acres), but there are more than 400 miles of surveyed cave passageways. And some experts believe there could be as many as 600 miles of undiscovered passageways. The cave system at Mammoth Cave NP is the longest in the world, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Dominated by the Green River (apparently one of the most biodiverse in the USA), and predominantly a limestone karst landscape overlain by a harder sandstone, the caves offer some spectacular sights. There are huge caves open to the public. Notwithstanding time (and access) limitations, our visit to Frozen Niagara gave us (according to our ranger guide) a glimpse of what the whole cave system had to offer.


There has been a long history of exploration and commercial exploitation of the caves, and of course millennia of occupation. There has also been tragedy, with one enthusiastic caver Floyd Collins becoming stuck in a passageway in 1925, and dying before he could be freed.

There is limited and subdued lighting in Frozen Niagara. Thus photography was quite a challenge. Having a good Nikon digital SLR, I was able to make some adjustments, but the end results are not altogether satisfactory. Counter-intuitively, I found that underexposing each shot achieved a better result. I can’t explain why. Anyway, the selection below shows something of the splendour of this easy entry cave.

In the Visitor Center, there is a very nice exhibition (some interactive) showing the geological and human histories of the caves.

More information about the caves can be found here.

Short and sweet, but a worthwhile and interesting visit. Recommended!

Before noon we’d completed our tour, made the necessary ‘comfort stops’, and were ready to hit the road once again, westwards to the mighty Mississippi.

Ten days, eleven states (4): It’s all in the branding

Everyone, every company and organization needs, it seems, a brand. A logo that identifies the brand, and a pithy slogan that suggests orientation, ethos, qualities, aspirations.

Take the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for example, where I worked for almost 19 years. It has a distinctive institution logo, in a defined font and font color, and a branding logo and slogan, that succinctly describes the objectives and mission of the institute: Rice Science for a Better World. I was a member (Chair perhaps, I don’t remember) of the committee that came up with this slogan, and my former colleagues in the Communication and Publications Service (CPS) under Ohioan Gene Hettel, then developed the clever logo below.

In the automobile industry, take Ford for example: Go Further . . .

or Nestlé as an example from the confectionery and food industry.

Branding is a real industry, and there’s a lot of ‘science’ behind adopting and deploying the right brand. Even cities get involved.

US states are not immune. As we travelled around the eleven states on our journey from Georgia to Minnesota in June this year, I took photographs of all the state signs at the state lines (except Kentucky – I had to find its brand logo elsewhere). Each of the eleven (with the exception of North Carolina, Missouri, and Minnesota) had a brief slogan to describe itself, such as Virginia is for Lovers, or Wild and Wonderful (West Virginia).


The one that caught my eye, however, and is (as far as I know) quite famous world-wide, is the Kentucky brand.

What an inspiration! Encapsulating, one would think, two of the things that Kentucky is most famous for: the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses (viz. the Kentucky Derby) and the distillation of fine bourbon whisky.

But these were not, apparently, the ideas behind the brand. Kentucky Unbridled Spirit means that the state is a place where spirits are free to soar and big dreams can be fulfilled. We relish competition and cherish our champions for their willingness to push beyond conventional boundaries to reach new heights of success.

Kentucky has obviously thought in depth about branding. As it states on its website, and citing a Tufts University study, A brand’s purpose is twofold: One – it serves as a major tool to create product differentiation: and Two – it represents a promise of value. From a consumer’s viewpoint, a brand is – above all – a shortcut to a purchasing decision.

Read more about Kentucky’s branding decisions here. I still see racehorses and whisky, and that not so bad really.

Ten days, eleven states (3): Ambling through the Appalachians

Our journey through the Appalachian Mountains (the main focus of our 2017 road trip in the USA) took almost four days traveling through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

The Appalachians comprise a large system of mountains and valleys, covering a vast area of the eastern USA, and extending into Canada. We explored just the southern end.

Day 4 began in Greenwood, SC where we had stopped the night after traveling north from Savannah, GA the previous day. Leaving our hotel not long after 8 am, we headed west crossing quite soon back into Georgia and working our way northwest through the Chattahoochee National Forest towards Blairsville, GA.

The winding 35 mile climb on GA60 into the Chattahoochee (map) began at Stonepile Gap. With towering trees either side of the road there were few places to stop or see out over the landscape. One of these however was Chestatee Overlook, where we had a first real view of the rolling—and heavily forested—Appalachians.

We expected to arrive in Blairsville after 5 pm, but we were there by 3:30. Rather than heading straight to our hotel, we decided to make a 50 mile circuit to the north and east of Blairsville, and quite by chance came across the entrance to Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia, at 4784 feet.

There is a steep drive up to the car park, and a shuttle bus takes you up the final (and very steep) final mile to the observation platform. We arrived around 4:30, just in time to catch the final shuttle of the day, but allowing only about 15 minutes at the summit before the last shuttle would depart for the car park. Given the steepness of the descent (14%), and concerns that my right leg might suffer, we opted for the return shuttle. The visit was somewhat marred by several bikers (who were old enough to know better) using the climb to the car park (a couple of miles at least on a winding road) to ‘race’ their very noisy chopper motorbikes. Quite unnecessary really.

However, it was a glorious afternoon, and the 360° panorama afforded views into North Carolina and Tennessee to the north, and probably Virginia to the east. Just imagine what it must look like in September and October ablaze in all its Fall colours.

The following day, Sunday, our destination was Johnson City, TN taking in the Cherohala Skyway (map), a 50 mile scenic route stating at Tellico Plains, TN and ending at Robbinsville, NC.

The day started fine and sunny, and we weren’t disappointed in the Cherohala. Then we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, crossing south to north (map) towards Gatlinburg, TN on US441. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the park (one of the busiest in the whole of the country), the weather had deteriorated and it was raining heavily. The Smoky Mountains really were smoky. On the off-chance that we would be above the clouds, we took the seven mile diversion to Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the highest point in the Smokies, at 6643 feet.

There was not a lot to see, to say the least. But dropping down towards Gatlinburg, the clouds did lift and we saw something of the Smokies after all.

From Johnson City, we headed next day rather circuitously to Charleston, WV via the Cumberland Gap, and the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Not long after we headed out, we ran into one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced. It was raining so hard I could hardly see in front of the car. We did wonder whether our visit to Cumberland Gap would be a wash out. But the closer we got, the weather started to improve, and the sun was even shining as we arrived at the national park. From the Pinnacle Overlook it was hit and miss, now you see it, now you don’t as the clouds closed in, then cleared. But we did have some wonderful views, nevertheless.

The Cumberland Gap has been a major route through the Appalachians for Native Americans and the Europeans who settled there, and wanted to head west.

Cumberland Gap was a strategic route for both Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War, and exchanged sides from time to time. There are still earthworks high up on the Pinnacle.

The following morning we set off early from Charleston, west into Kentucky. It was going to be a long day, and a rather complex route on minor roads through the Daniel Boone National Forest. This was gently rolling country, but nevertheless magnificent in terms of the trees lining the highways.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we hit the main highways again, heading further west to Cave City, KY for the night, and the next highlight of the trip: Mammoth Cave National Park.

Wandering along the tranquil River Wye at The Weir Garden (updated 2019-03-29)

Sitting down yesterday, enjoying a DIY cup of coffee at the The Weir Garden (a few miles west of Hereford), I commented to my wife that we had to be thankful for the eccentricities of the former owners of many of the National Trust’s properties.

I’d picked up a copy of the Trust’s Spring 2017 magazine and there on the cover was a photo of an exceedingly eccentric individual: the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Paget (whose country estate was Plas Newydd on Anglesey that we will visit in September on our way to Holyhead, and a week’s tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland). They could pander to their eccentricities because they were wealthy. And many of them spent their wealth—often to their ruin—in developing large houses and estates, and filling them with the most wonderful artefacts. That’s what we can enjoy today thanks to the work of the National Trust.

A Weir Estate is recorded from the reign of Henry VII in the late 15th century. But the Romans were there over 1000 years earlier, and the remains of a villa or temple have been excavated on the banks of the River Wye that flows past.

The Weir Garden was originally laid out at the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th when wealthy Roger Parr became owner did the garden really flourish. He revitalised the walled garden, installing a state-of-the art (for the 1920s) glasshouse. The house is now a nursing home, and has been ever since the estate became the property of the National Trust in 1959.

The south-facing Garden is certainly worth a visit, and must surely show different ‘faces’ at different times of the year. There are few formal parts—a small rock garden surrounded by elegant Acers—but mostly the garden, laid out on the steep slopes along the river below the house, is woodland with oaks, London plane trees and a few tulip trees dominating the landscape. And as the paths weave their way through the woodland, there are vistas over the River Wye east and west. What a river; fast flowing, but clear as a bell, and no doubt full of trout and other fish. There is a report of an eight foot sturgeon having once been caught in the vicinity in the 19th century.

These photos (and a short video) are my take on The Weir Garden in early July, according to the locations indicated on the map above.

(2) Rustic hut

(3) Rockery

(4) Viewing bridge

(6) River meadow and (7) River wall

(10) Roman ruins

(15) Walled garden and Foster & Pearson glasshouse


Yesterday (28 March 2019) the weather promised much for the day, so we headed west again to enjoy The Weir Garden during its Spring emergence. And we weren’t disappointed.

The trees were magnificent, with no foliage to hide details of their splendid skeletal architecture, although many were just beginning to come into leaf. Another thing we noticed (and on the drive through Herefordshire) was the amount of mistletoe in many of the trees; a veritable mistletoe haven.

So here are a few of the photos we took yesterday. A more complete album can be viewed here.

Ten days, eleven states (2): Sauntering around Savannah

Savannah, Georgia. Founded in 1733, the oldest city in Georgia. It must be one of the most picturesque cities in the whole of the USA. Sitting just 20 miles or so upstream from the mouth of Savannah River on the Atlantic coast.

A city of squares and cobblestone streets, colonial houses, and Spanish moss dangling ubiquitously from trees surrounding the many colonial squares and lining broad avenues that cross the city.

Savannah. A city overflowing with Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Civil War history. A city full of historical markers, and some historical surprises. And, unfortunately, a city with one of the highest gun crime rates in the whole country.

Savannah was the first port of call on our recent road trip from Georgia to Minnesota. I’ve wanted to visit the city for a long time now. Not sure why that was the case, but it is one of those cities that you just have to visit, at least once.

We were not disappointed. And we had just an afternoon and morning to see the sights.

Having arrived to the USA on the Wednesday evening, and traveled just as far as Macon (about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta on I-75), we set off just after 09:00 on the following morning, after a reasonably comfortable night recovering from the journey over from the UK.

South of Macon, I-16 is mostly tree-lined the whole way to Savannah, and there’s little opportunity to see what the landscape is like, other than it’s rather flat. We easily found our hotel, Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, in the historic center of the city (see map), and I’d arranged for valet parking of our vehicle at a nearby multi storey car park.

Once we had settled into our room—upgraded to a larger one with a balcony—we set out to explore the River Street area just north of Reynolds Square, and find a bite to eat for lunch.

There’s so much to see. Along the Savannah River, River Street is lined by cotton warehouses now converted to commercial premises and apartments. Fortunately we were there at the beginning of the tourist season, but I can imagine that later on in the season, this area must be thronging with tourists. I was particularly taken with the wrought iron balconies that were a signature feature of many of the warehouses along River Street. It’s not hard to imagine what the cotton trade must have been like, and ignominy of slavery.

By Thursday evening we were rather tired, enjoyed dinner at the Cotton Exchange Tavern on River Street, and retired early to bed to catch up on our jet lag.

Next morning, with storms threatening by about 10 am, we decided to set out very early to explore the colonial streets of the city to the south of Reynolds Square, and heading to Forsyth Park. We had breakfast at 6:30, and were out of the hotel by 7:30. Within half an hour the first showers appeared, but lasted for just a few minutes, and it was more or less bright thereafter.

There’s one rather interesting surprise in Reynolds Square: a statue of John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, who spent a couple of years in Savannah from 1735.

An old cemetery is now the peaceful Colonial Park that we wandered through, the final resting place of so many of the great and good from Savannah’s past. It’s almost next door to Savannah’s Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

Colonial era houses still line Jones Street, and the history of Savannah during the Civil War of the 1860s is evident everywhere. Confederate President Jefferson Davis stayed there. Savannah was occupied by Union troops under General William Tecumseh Sherman after laying waste to Atlanta.

Forsyth Park (some 30 acres) lies at the southern end of the historic district, with an impressive monument to Confederate soldiers.

We returned to the hotel after about three hours, rather hot and sweaty, and took advantage of the hotel offer to use one of the restrooms on the first floor, to freshen up. Having cooled down, settled our bill, and called for our vehicle from the valet parking, we set off for Greenwood, just under 170 miles to the north in South Carolina, over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge around 11:30.

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Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Rooms open to the sky

Norman. Medieval. Tudor. Georgian. ‘Modern’.

Greys Court is a National Trust property a few miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Owned by the Trust since 1969, and most recently the family home of the Brunners (first baronet and industrialist Sir John Brunner was co-founder of a chemical company that merged with others in 1926 to form Imperial Chemical Industries – ICI – in the UK). We spent three hours at Greys, taking the noon tour (that covers just the ground floor rooms) but returned later in the afternoon to explore the house more thoroughly including the library and bedrooms upstairs.

There has been a dwelling here for almost 1000 years. Greys Court today is an attractive brick and flint Tudor country house that underwent some embellishments during the 18th century. From the front of the house there are views over the Chilterns countryside.

Greys Court was erected by Sir Francis Knollys, a courtier under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. In 1724 it became the property of the Stapleton family who lived there until 1937 when it was bought by Liberal politician Sir Felix Brunner (third baronet and grandson of Sir John) and his wife Lady Elizabeth. She was the granddaughter of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving. Lady continued to live at Greys Court until her death in 2003.

The house is full of Brunner memorabilia, not the property of the National Trust. Photography is unfortunately (from my blogging perspective) not permitted inside the house. The plasterwork ceiling in the downstairs reception room dates from the 18th century when the height of the room was increased, and a crenellated two floor semicircular extension was added, clearly.

But the exteriors are delightful, and the small but exquisite garden excites the senses. Because Lady Brunner developed the gardens to explore, to entice, to delight, they were set out as a series of ‘rooms’ connected by gates or doors that invited the visitor to open and see what lay on the other side. One can walk through a wisteria arbour, 150 years old, wander between the silence of the White Garden (under the Great Tower), and check out the orchard and vegetable plots, all surrounded by brick and flint walls.

Outside the garden is a brick path maze (no hedges!), ‘symbolizing the journey through life’, dedicated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in 1981.

In the grounds there is a Tudor wheelhouse with a donkey wheel, drawing water up some 200 feet, and still in operation until 1914.

At the entrance there was a hand-written welcome sign to the property extolling the friendliness of the staff. And they were!

 

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited: