Walking with my mobile: [3] Water and steel

Milestone, near the Queen’s Head pub, a couple of miles south of Tardebigge.

It’s 1807, and fields around Tardebigge, a small settlement east of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, are swarming with hundreds if not thousands of workmen, known as navvies (from the name by which canals were also known at the end of the 18th century: ‘navigations’) facing their next challenge in the construction of the 29 mile Worcester and Birmingham Canal that would finally open in 1815 after reaching Worcester on the River Severn. That’s what I imagine it must have been like.

Tardebigge is almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester. It had already taken 15 years just to dig this first level section of the canal, on the same level as Birmingham (at 453 feet above sea level).

While engineers had avoided building any locks as far as Tardebigge, they had to construct four tunnels, the longest (at 2726 yards) taking the canal under the Lickey Hills (the Wast Hills Tunnel). North of Tardebigge they also constructed the Bittell Reservoirs, to feed the canal.

The Tardebigge Tunnel entrance.

South from Tardebigge the engineers and surveyors had to drop the canal almost 430 feet over the next 15 miles to Worcester, constructing 56 narrow (7 foot) locks, and two larger ones at Worcester where the canal meets the River Severn.

The Tardebigge Flight south of the Tardebigge Reservoir.

Tardebigge Bottom Lock near Stoke Pound.

Immediately below Tardebigge there is a flight of 30 locks, the longest in the country, in the space of under three miles. And another reservoir, and a pumping house (now converted to luxury apartment).

Following the Tardebigge flight is one of my favorite walks. On 11 April, I made a walk of just over six miles, covering much of the same route I described in an earlier post. On this latest walk, I went beyond the Tardebigge Reservoir, leaving the towpath where London Road crosses the canal, and less than half a mile from the last lock of the flight, Tardebigge Top Lock (the deepest of all the 56 narrow locks).

Take a look at the route of this walk. There is an image (or more than one) linked to each of the red via points.

Overlooking the canal at Tardebigge is the late 18th century church of St Bartholomew. From there one can see  the spire of 12th century St John’s Church in the center of Bromsgrove itself. In the image below, the spire can be seen just to the right of the chimney on the right. Click to enlarge the image.

Looking east to Tardebigge church and the canal, from Dusthouse Lane.

What I find myself thinking about, as I walk the towpath, is just what it took to dig the canal, and construct the locks. How did they achieve all this without recourse to machinery? Each of the locks is brick-lined, and some are edged with large and beautifully dressed sandstone blocks. Were the bricks made on site, or transported to each lock? Where did the sandstone come from? And the lock gates (double on the lower side, single on the upper), made from huge oak beams, weighing (when assembled) over a tonne? You can’t help wondering how they managed to position all these into place. On many sections there are no nearby roads linking with the canal. How many navvies were injured, or killed even, during the whole construction.


For 25 years, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal had no competition. However, in June 1840 the railway came to Bromsgrove with the opening of its station on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, linking Birmingham with the Bristol and Gloucester Railway at Gloucester. Constructed just east of Bromsgrove town center, the line climbs the famous Lickey Incline, a gradient of 1 in 37.7 over a distance of two miles, that begins immediately north of Bromsgrove station.

My walk route also parallels the rail line south to Stoke Pound, crosses underneath there, and again at Finstall on the north side. Approaching the line one cannot but be impressed by the engineering needed to raise level embankments over undulations in the landscape, yet climb the gradient of the Incline to its summit north at Barnt Green.

How many more thousands of navvies swarmed once again into Bromsgrove and surrounding areas while the line was being constructed?

Today the line through Bromsgrove carries commuter services on the recently-electrified Cross City extension (of West Midlands Railways) from Birmingham (and connecting with Lichfield in Staffordshire), or on diesel units south to Hereford via Worcester and Malvern. CrossCountry services hurtle through Bromsgrove (as seen above) on their way south to Penzance at the tip of Cornwall, via Bristol, or north to Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland, via Birmingham, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh.

So much industrial history to absorb, and so much to think about while enjoying the tranquility and beauty of this north Worcestershire landscape. I never ceased to be awed by what was achieved.

Walking with my mobile: [2] Exploring my hometown

When Steph and I moved back to the UK in 1981 from Peru, we had to find somewhere to live that was not too far from Birmingham. I’d been appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology, so needed a base from which to conveniently commute. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham, so began to look in the area covered by an arc from the west, south and southeast of the city.

Bromsgrove, some 13 or so miles south of Birmingham, was the first town we visited. It’s a straightforward drive south from the university, and was an obvious first choice. In any case, we’d already seen some property flyers for a couple of properties there that had caught our attention.

And in less than a week we had settled on the house that we bought. And we have ‘lived’ there since July of that year. I say ‘lived’ because a decade later I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. For almost 19 years, our house remained empty (although fully furnished) until we moved back on my retirement in April 2010.

I then realized just how little of Bromsgrove I actually knew, or had explored during the 1980s. I also needed some activity to keep me fit. In the Philippines I’d been reasonably active in the decade leading up to my retirement, enjoying scuba diving, badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. So I took to walking on a daily basis (mostly). And I try to walk a minimum of two miles or 45 minutes each outing, often quite a bit more, and began to explore Bromsgrove.

Our home lies to the east of Bromsgrove town center, near the junction of New Road and the Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38). My Bromsgrove walks cover an area within a 1½ to 2 mile radius from home, west almost to the M5 motorway, and east to the Worcester and Birmingham canal.

Here is a small sample of five walks that I have made in the past ten days. I have plotted each of the routes in Google maps, with red via points indicating that a photo (maybe two or three) is attached. Just click on a red point to open the image. I have added grey via points to fill in some of the ‘gaps’ in the routes.


23 March (2.47 miles | 52 minutes)
This is one of my frequent railway walks, taking in the bridge over the mainline to Worcester and the West Country. I had actually planned a much longer walk on this day, but when I arrived at the bridge, I discovered that further progress was blocked as the public footpath had been closed (indicated with a blue via point). The bridge used to be a great location for trainspotting, but since electrification of the line, safety barriers have been constructed on all three bridges over the railway restricting the view from each.

Looking north towards the new station at Bromsgrove, that was ‘electrified’ in 2017.

From the bridge, this walk eventually ends up at the roundabout in Aston Fields. On this occasion, I followed the footpath alongside the railway to join Finstall Road a little way north. Then it was back home from there.


24 March (5.16 miles | 1 hour 51 minutes)
This is one of my longer walks, as far as the Worcester and Birmingham Canal (constructed in 1815), north along part the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks (the longest in the UK over 2 miles), as far as the Tardebigge Reservoir, then west back across the fields to home.

A narrowboat passes through the lock below Tardebigge Reservoir (that supplies water to the canal). From here, this walk takes me west towards home.


25 March (4.67 miles | 1 hour 40 minutes)
This is a route that I’ve walked on just a few occasions, taking me to the northwest of the town center. But it’s interesting to see that side of the town, where urban and rural meet, and farmers are ploughing their fields and keeping sheep, right up against the M5 motorway. Then I head south back towards Sanders Park on the south side of the town center, and from there back along the by-pass to home.

This the public bridleway connecting Perryfields Road with Crabmill Lane. The fields either side were sown with barley in 2018. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the horizon, left of center.


27 March (2.42 miles | 51 minutes)
This walk follows a route along New Road into Bromsgrove town center, then through the High Street, on to the Stourbridge Road, before heading southeast once again and back home.

The statue of Bromsgrove poet AE Housman in the center of the High Street.

All Saints’ Church on the Birmingham Road.


1 April (4.2 miles | 1 hour 30 minutes)
I’d set out on this walk intending just to take a few photos for another blog post I’m preparing. But since it was such a fine day, I decided to venture further afield, mainly south from home.

Looking north along Rock Hill towards Bromsgrove town center. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the center horizon. This spire dominates the Bromsgrove landscape for miles around.


 

Walking with my mobile: [1] Out and about on 20 March

Until I retired in April 2010 (aged 61) I had been quite active in the previous decade, playing badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. As you can imagine playing badminton was quite strenuous in the heat and humidity (>30ºC/>80%RH) of Los Baños in the Philippines (where I worked for 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute). However, when Steph and returned to the UK, to our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (about 13 miles south of Birmingham city center), I needed to find some other form of exercise.

So, almost religiously since then, I have walked an average of 2 miles a day, around 45 minutes, at about 2.8 mph. Some days I don’t go out, especially if the weather is inclement, but other days, I may walk three to four miles or more. And I have taken these opportunities to explore my ‘home’ town, visiting areas I had never visited when we lived here in the 1980s.

To some extent, the same old walks have become somewhat stale, the same routes, so I always enjoy when we decide to go further afield (by car in the first instance) and then make a long walk. The parks at two national Trust properties, Hanbury Hall and Croome Park (7 and 20 miles from home, respectively) offer good long walks and beautiful landscapes.

Walks around Bromsgrove are mostly less photographically attractive, in the main, but there is a number of interesting landmarks that are worth documenting.

So, with this in mind, I’ve decided to begin a series of blogs, Walking with my mobile, in which I will illustrate the various walks that I make, with photos linked to the various via points added to a map for each.

Today’s walk, just over 2 miles and taking 44 minutes, was a test, as it were, of what I intend to do. I had thought of taking my Nikon D5000 DSLR camera (18-200mm) camera with me. But for a routine walk it’s rather heavy. So I decided to use my mobile phone camera.

In 2016 I acquired my first smartphone. It’s a Doogee X5pro, running Android 5.1, with 4.92MP camera, not the high resolution that is standard on much higher spec (and considerably more expensive) phones. But for the purposes of my walks, I reckon these images will be fine. See what you think.

Click on any of the via points to open an image or two. And this is what I’ll do in subsequent Walking with my mobile posts. Each red point has an image associated with it; the grey points just fill in some of the gaps in the route.

 

Bromsgrove: my adoptive town . . . but not for too much longer

In July 1981, Steph and I (and three year old Hannah) set up home in Bromsgrove, a market town in northeast Worcestershire of just over 29,000 inhabitants (2001 census), almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester (map).

But, if everything goes to plan, we’ll be leaving Bromsgrove later this year. In mid-January, we put our house on the market and once that’s sold and a new home identified, we will relocate to the northeast of England to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa (who was born in Bromsgrove) and her family. Our elder daughter Hannah lives in Minnesota in the US Midwest, so for her and family it’s immaterial whether we remain in Bromsgrove or move north. In fact, we’ll have just as good air links to the USA and beyond from Newcastle International Airport (NCL) as we currently enjoy from Birmingham Airport (BHX).


But why did we choose Bromsgrove all those years ago?

In March 1981 we returned to the UK from Peru, after spending over eight years with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru (1973-1975) and Central America, in Costa Rica (1976-1980). After leaving Costa Rica in November 1980 (and moving back to Lima for a few months), we were expecting to move to the Far East with CIP. To the Philippines, actually. But then, everything changed.

A teaching position opened at The University of Birmingham at the end of 1980, and I flew to Birmingham in January 1981 for an interview. Having passed that hurdle, and looking forward to a long career in academia, we made plans to return to the UK as I was due to begin my new job as Lecturer in Plant Biology (in the School of Biological Sciences) on 1 April. Our top priority was to find somewhere to live. But where?

Even before returning to the UK we had asked Steph’s parents (who lived in Southend-on-Sea in Essex) to contact estate agents (realtors in US parlance) for available properties in the area covering the west of Birmingham to the southeast, and within 10-15 miles of the university. We had already decided that we did not want to live in Birmingham itself.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a pile of more than 100 property description sheets waiting for us in Southend that we quickly whittled down to a manageable number based on location, price, amenities, proximity to schools, and the like.

I moved to Birmingham at the end of March, while Steph and Hannah remained behind in Southend with her parents until we could find our own home. That didn’t take as long as we had expected. I took the details of short-listed properties with me to Birmingham, and during my first (maybe second) week on the job, took an afternoon off to go house-hunting.

I settled on Bromsgrove as the first place to visit, simply because it was within easy reach of the university (about 13 miles) on perhaps the most direct direct route south out of the city. In any case I had several colleagues who also lived in Bromsgrove and spoke well of the town.

Remarkably, the house we settled on, in the Aston Fields area on the east of the town, was just the second one I visited that afternoon. I knew immediately that this particular house was full of promise and phoned Steph that evening that she should hop on the train the following day to take a look (and at others in Bromsgrove). By that weekend we had made an offer, and set about raising a mortgage.

Three months later we moved in (on camp beds for the first night) as our furniture and personal effects would be delivered the following day. Having put these into storage the previous November in Costa Rica (not knowing where they would next end up) we looked forward with great anticipation to seeing everything once again.

So began our life in Bromsgrove, never realizing that a decade later we would be on the move yet again, to the Philippines, and rice research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, 65 km south of Manila.

I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, but Steph and the girls did not join me until just after Christmas that year. From then until the end of April 2010 (when I retired and we moved back to the UK) our home remained unoccupied (though furnished), and we would spend our annual leaves there. It was also our bolt hole in case of any emergency and we had to leave the Philippines at short notice.

Since May 2010, we have settled back into Bromsgrove life, and it’s proved a great location for travel around the UK.


Over the past few years I have explored Bromsgrove on foot in my daily walks, and which I have described in a set of posts, Walking with my Mobile, on this blog. And Bromsgrove turns out to be a more interesting town than I had realized.

As a market town, Bromsgrove grew up straddling the Birmingham Road, the A38 (now by-passing the town center) that connects Birmingham as far northeast as Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, and with Cornwall in the southwest of the country.

The Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38) between New Road crossroad and The Oakalls roundabout and the Bromsgrove Highway (A448) to Redditch.

Between Worcester and Birmingham it follows the route of a Saxon salt road. Droitwich, just a few miles south of Bromsgrove, is famous for its brine baths and salt production.


Take a look at some of the sites along the old A38 route through the town center, along the Birmingham Road, the High Street, and Worcester Road. In the 1980s the High Street section was pedestrianised.

The local council has recently erected interesting information boards around the town center highlighting historical details around the town.

One of the most impressive buildings in the town is the Tudor House close to the junction of New Road and the High Street/Worcester Road.


The spire of the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, dominates the Bromsgrove skyline and lies at the heart of the town. The spire can be seen from miles around.

At the north end of town proudly stands another impressive Church of England church, All Saints, with a square tower. The body of the church dates from 1872; the tower was added in 1888. It houses an impressive set of stained glass windows made by local craftsmen.


Gazing south over the middle of the High Street stands an imposing statue of one of Bromsgrove’s favorite sons, the poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), author of the collection of poems A Shropshire Lad.


The Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts was active between 1898 and 1966, and was responsible for some iconic works, including the six meter tall Liver Birds on the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s waterfront, and the main gates of Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Liver Building in Liverpool with its two liver birds.

The main gates of Buckingham Palace from inside (taken when I attended an investiture there on 29 February 2012).

Many of the pieces were constructed in the Guild’s workshop on Station Street, just off the Worcester Road.


Bromsgrove was connected to the canal system in 1815 when the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was finally completed. It lies about two miles due east of the town center. The railway came to the town in June 1840. New Road was opened off the southern end of the High Street to connect the town center with the station. A new station was opened in 2016, and the line to Birmingham was electrified in 2018.

In the churchyard of St John the Baptist are two significant graves, of Thomas Scaife and Joseph Rutherford, engineers on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, who died when a locomotive boiler exploded in Bromsgrove station in November 1840, just a few months after the station had opened.


Another claim to fame is the independent fee-paying Bromsgrove School, founded in 1553 (and re-endowed in 1693).

It occupies a substantial parcel (40 ha) of real estate to the southeast of the town center. There is quite an impressive list of Old Bromsgrovians.


The local Conservative MP is the Rt. Hon. Sajid Javid, erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer until last week, when it seems he was manoeuvred out of government.


So, later this year, 39 years of ‘residence’ in Bromsgrove comes to an end. Bromsgrove is growing, expanding – like so many towns – and maybe it won’t be too long before Birmingham creeps over the Lickey Hills (north of the town) and Bromsgrove is absorbed into the greater West Midlands conurbation. There are already rumors that Birmingham wants to build overspill housing in the Bromsgrove administrative area.

But there’s no doubt we will miss much of the beautiful Worcestershire countryside around Bromsgrove, our regular walks along the canal, and further out to Hanbury Hall and Croome.

Nevertheless, the northeast and Northumberland beckon, and once we have settled down there, we look forward with enthusiasm to exploring a part of England that we already know but with which we are not yet too familiar. Exciting times ahead.


 

Travel

On this page, I’ve brought together most if not all of my travel posts, except those describing visits (in the UK) to National Trust and English Heritage properties. These you can find on another page.

I have a series of general travel posts, under the heading Around the world in 40 years, in which I have written about my many travels worldwide. Then there is a set of posts about trips around the UK, in Asia, and South and Central America.

Around the world . . .

United Kingdom

England

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Asia

South and Central America

USA

 

I’ve visited all the states colored blue. In the two states shown in green, I’ve just touched down during a flight before proceeding on the same flight. I have not yet visited the states in white.

Canyons of the southwest (2011)

Oregon and California (2013)

St Paul to Yellowstone (2014)

Chicago (2015)

Georgia to Minnesota (2017)

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2018)

USA 2019 – Northeast and Atlantic States

Minnesota

Non-specific

Aviation

General

You’d be hard-pushed to be ‘one over the eight’ in Bromsgrove (updated 18 April)

One thing has caught my attention while out exploring Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire) on foot: how few public houses (or pubs as they are more commonly known) there are in the town. My walks cover an area within a 1½ to 2 mile radius from home, encompassing the town center and immediate surrounding area.

If one was to visit every pub within this area of Bromsgrove (each marked with a green beer mug on the map), and drank a half pint of beer in each, it would be quite an achievement to become inebriated, or as the colloquial saying goes, ‘one over the eight‘. There are just 13 pubs within easy walking distance of home, and the majority lie on the Birmingham-Worcester Roads close to the town center.

There were a few more pubs in the past, but that does not explain the low number (much less than half) compared to Congleton in east Cheshire (where I was born in 1948) and Leek in North Staffordshire, where my family moved in 1956. These towns have many more pubs than Bromsgrove, with around 30+ and between 50 and 60, respectively. When I was growing up in Leek and living in the Market Place in the 1960s, there were at least a dozen pubs within just a couple of hundred meters from home.

Why can’t I provide accurate pub counts? Well, based on the information I’ve received, it depends on what is classified as a pub, and the area taken into account. For the purposes of this post, I’m considering only Bromsgrove pubs in a ‘traditional’ sense, i.e., a premises (often owned by a brewery) where one can walk in and order a glass of beer at the bar. And they often have an interesting or quirky name, such The Red Lion, The Duke of York, or Dog & Pheasant, for example.

Many pubs have become eating places as well and, for some, the sale of beer and other beverages is almost secondary now to the catering side of the business. I have not considered wine bars and the like as ‘pubs’. We have a few of these in Bromsgrove.


Congleton, Leek, and Bromsgrove are old market towns, and have a comparable population: 26,500 for Congleton; 20,800 for Leek, and 29,000 for Bromsgrove (census data from 2011 and 2001). However, if the wider Bromsgrove/Catshill urban area is taken into consideration (that I always think of as ‘Bromsgrove’) then its population is almost 40,000.

Tracing the drinking history of any town can be interesting, but not without its pitfalls. It has been achieved successfully, however, by Leek local historian, Neil Collingwood, who recently published a book about the town’s pubs. Leek apparently has boasted 150 pubs over the centuries!


As far as Bromsgrove is concerned, I have marked (in the map below) all the pubs I come across during my walks (within that 1½-2 mile radius) with a green beer mug symbol; except for my local, The Red Lion which has a red beer mug. Those outside my normal routes, or too far on foot, are shown in purple. Black beer mugs indicate pubs that have closed. Just expand the map to see more detail.

There is at least one image for each pub; just click on the beer mug symbol. Many of these images I have taken myself, but others were captured (under fair use) from Google Maps Streetview, and acknowledged thus.

It’s interesting to note, but not surprising, that many of the pubs follow the route of the main highway south from Birmingham through Bromsgrove to Worcester. This is/was the A38 Birmingham Road/Worcester Road that bisects the town into two almost equal west and east sides. And I guess some of the hostelries must have catered to coaches and their passengers before the railway came to Bromsgrove in June 1840, east of the town. The Ladybird (formerly The Dragoon) was built at Aston Fields in 1905 to serve the railway. It’s close to the site of the old station. In 2016, the new station opened a few hundred meters south.

The Ladybird at Aston Fields. The access road to the rail station (New Road) is on the right.

New Road/Kidderminster Road bisect the town almost equally north and south, and meet the A38 in the town center at the High Street, now closed permanently to traffic (but was still open when we moved to Bromsgrove in 1981). The A38 was also diverted around the town along the Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38) around the same year.


The Red Lion on Bromsgrove High Street, right in the center of town, is a 10 minute walk or so from home. It serves great beer, and always has several ‘guest’ beers on tap. It used to be quite dingy (although the beer has always been good). The 2007 smoking ban made such a difference, when the landlord took the opportunity to refurbish inside. It has undergone a couple more internal facelifts since then.

All this interest in pubs must give the impression that I’m always frequenting one or another. Not so!

In fact I have only been in four of the pubs shown on the map. Besides The Red Lion, I’ve been in The Ladybird (enjoying several pints of Bathams Bitter) a few times. Steph and I once went to The Gate Hangs Well southeast from Bromsgrove. It closed at least a couple of years ago, and is marked on the map as a black beer mug outlier. And then there’s The Swan, shown in purple at the northern range of symbols on the map, in Fairfield. We used to go there during our home-leaves for a meal and some good Marstons Bitter. But we haven’t been there in recent years.

Memo to self: I should research all these pubs some more—both physically and through searching historical accounts on the Internet.


So why are there fewer pubs in Bromgrove? Well, the only thing that comes readily to mind is the difference between Congleton/Leek and Bromsgrove in terms of industry.

Both Congleton and Leek were once textile towns, with thriving silk weaving mills (and others); Leek also had dye works exploiting the soft water flowing in the River Churnet. These industries declined since the 1960s.

Were so many pubs opened to serve workers in these mills? While many of the workers would have been women at one time, surely when they opened and expanded in the 19th century many more men were occupied then. Many dry throats to satisfy.

Bromsgrove had a lot of cottage industries, such as nail making and the like. But not the widespread industrial employment that characterized Congleton and Leek.

Apart from the forge works, known as Garringtons. In 1946, Garringtons acquired Deritend Stamping Limited of Newton Works, Bromsgrove [established in 1940] in order to expand production of castings for the automotive industry. Newton Works eventually covered 50 acres, and gave employment to 3,100 people. The works (United Engineering Forgings) closed in 2002.

Garringtons was sited on the east side of the town (map), south of and alongside the mainline railway. Since its closure, the Garringtons site has been redeveloped for housing known collectively as Breme Park.

There were no pubs near Garringtons, apart from The Ladybird, and the Aston Fields Sports & Social Club on Stoke Road (shown as a blue beer mug on the map). I’m not sure if one has to be a member of the club to drink there. The Sugarbrook used to stand at the crossroads of the A38 By-Pass and Charford and Stoke Roads. I’m not sure when it was first built. It was demolished in 2012 and the site now boasts a KFC drive thru!


As I’ve said, there’s more research to be carried out. I’ll post again as and when I uncover more details.

In the meantime, Cheers!


18 April

I’ve just discovered two more pubs. One, the Golden Lion, is on Austin Road on the Charford district, just over a mile south of home. But an area I’ve never walked before.

The other, the Royal Oak, is on the north side of town in Catshill.

With The Beatles . . .

Last weekend, Steph and I spent a couple of days in Liverpool where, in the 1960s, there was an explosion of musical talent—the ‘Mersey Sound‘ (a somewhat patronizing video)—that had been influenced by and built on the late 1950s skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan, among others.

The greatest among greats to emerge from the ‘Mersey Sound’ have to be The Beatles – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.

It was my 70th birthday on the 18th and, in celebration, we planned this special trip to Liverpool to take in The Beatles’ Childhood Homes and The Beatles Story, among other sights. A full album of photos can be viewed here.

We originally intended to drive to Liverpool. Not difficult in itself, you might imagine: a mere 109 miles. But as most of that journey is along the notorious M6 motorway, potentially it would have been 109 miles of traffic hassle, and long stretches of roadworks. And although the weather has been quite mild recently, November can be foggy and frosty. These were the points we considered when finalizing our travel plans in late August. So we opted to travel by rail from Bromsgrove to Liverpool-Lime Street (via Birmingham New Street).

As it turned out, we had a weekend of the most wonderful weather—clear skies, bright and sunny. No rain whatsoever.

Although our train from Birmingham departed about 20 minutes late, we still arrived to Lime Street before 13:00, and after a 20 minute walk to the hotel, we were out and about exploring well before 14:00.

Our hotel was the 4-star Jurys Inn, located right on the Liverpool Waterfront, just across the road from the Royal Albert Dock, home to The Beatles Story. It was also starting point for the National Trust tour of The Beatles’ Childhood Homes. Right beside the hotel are the 60 m (196 ft) Wheel of Liverpool, the Echo Arena, and convention centre.

We used Emirates Airlines airmiles (Rocketmiles) that were about to expire and a small cash supplement to pay for the hotel.


To begin with, let me take you back to late June 1967.

Just a month earlier, The Beatles had released their eighth and iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Little did I realize then that I’d be regularly visiting the home of The Beatles in the coming weeks.

Having just left school, I was waiting for my exam results and hoping I’d done well enough to secure a coveted place to study botany and geography, from October, at The University of Southampton. As I couldn’t spend the summer kicking my heels around my parent’s home, I found a temporary job for the next couple of months working for a local Leek company, Adams Butter (which I’ve written about elsewhere), as driver’s mate on the company’s fleet of trucks.

Adams Butter took raw, unsalted butter (mostly from Australia and New Zealand), blended and packed it into household packs, and distributed it to supermarkets and other retail outlets all over the country. Having emptied a truck of 25 tons of butter (in 26lb boxes), we’d head off to the nearest port to load up with another 25 tons of frozen butter, in 56lb boxes, to transport back to the dairy in Leek.

That first week saw me in Liverpool twice, and over eight or nine weeks or so, I must have gone back there a dozen times or more. But I haven’t been back there since, apart from a half-day visit around 2000, when I was invited to give a seminar at The University of Liverpool. Until last weekend, that is.

Fifty years on and Liverpool is a transformed city. Gone is the frenetic activity of the docks; there were no containers then. Once the River Mersey and port were bustling with ships from all over the world; a huge labor force of dockers manhandled produce off the ships. By the 1980s many of the docks along the Liverpool Waterfront were closed, and warehouses were derelict.

Now the Waterfront is a World Heritage Site, a place for everyone to enjoy. And also home to The Beatles Story, Tate Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool, shops, cafes, and restaurants. During our visit, there were funfair rides set up along the Waterfront, as well as an ice rink, and some sections of the German market, all part of Liverpool’s run up to Christmas.


Our tour of the Beatles’ Childhood Homes started at 10:00 when the National Trust driver, Joe, met us in the lobby of Jurys Inn. We were an international party of just 13 persons (5 UK, 1 Irish, I Czech, I French, 1 Maltese, 1 Australian, and 3 Malaysian). The drive to the first property, John Lennon’s home, took just over 15 minutes. Once we were all strapped in and ready for the off, Joe turned on the music: Love Me Do, and it was Beatles songs all throughout the tour. What a way to start! And, as it turned out, three quite emotional hours.

‘Mendips’. 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton (a desirable suburb of Liverpool) is a 1930s semi-detached house (that has retained many of its original design features). John was born in October 1940. When his mother Julia separated from father Alfred in 1945, John went to live with Julia’s oldest sister Mimi and her husband George at ‘Mendips’. It was felt that a two-room flat in a rough part of the city near the cathedral was not a suitable place to raise a young boy.

It seems that John had limited contact with Julia as he was growing up. But by the time he was 17 (in 1958), he had begun to see her more regularly. Tragically, however, she was hit by a car on Menlove Avenue, and died from her injuries. She was just 44.I have no photographs inside the house. As with the McCartney home, visitors’ cameras and mobile phones are locked away for the duration of their visit. It’s both for security and copyright reasons.

It was a powerful and emotional experience walking round John’s childhood home. I could feel a tear or two welling up every now and then. There were his school reports and lots of photos; also his bedroom where he wrote some of his early songs. And the porch where he and Paul tried out some of their songs. The National Trust guide encouraged us to go into the porch to test the acoustics. I didn’t sing but just clapped my hands; the acoustics were excellent. Apparently Paul has said he’d like to record some songs there.

John bought a bungalow for Aunt Mimi in Sandbanks in Dorset. ‘Mendips’ was never modernized after Aunt Mimi moved out. When the house came on the market in 2002, it was purchased by Yoko Ono and donated to the National Trust. The letter that Yoko Ono wrote to the National Trust explaining why she had bought the house is framed and lies on John’s bed.

On another level it was emotional for Steph in particular. So much of the layout and features of ‘Mendips’ reminded her of 30 Hillway, her parents’ home in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. That was a 1930s detached house.

We came away from ‘Mendips’ after an hour, to head to the McCartney home at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, just over a mile west from John’s house. John would visit Paul on his bicycle, cutting across the Allerton Manor Golf Club.

20 Forthlin Road is a terraced, former council house, to which the McCartney family, dad Jim, mother Mary, Paul, and younger brother Mike (Mike McGear) moved in 1956, from their home in the Speke. Forthlin Road was a step up.

Initially Paul and Mike shared a bedroom, but Paul eventually moved into a small front bedroom on his own. He continued to live there until 1963, after the other Beatles had already moved to London, and the band were already becoming a phenomenon.

Sitting in the front parlor, our guide Sylvia told us about how the McCartney family would make music together around the piano (I’m not sure if the piano there today is the original, but I think so; I tinkled the ivories), and singing in harmony. So when The Beatles started recording, singing in harmony with John was second nature to Paul (just watch the We Can Work It Out video at the end of this post). Paul originally played the trumpet, but dropped it to learn the guitar – which he had to modify and re-string because he is left-handed.

Paul’s mother Mary passed away from cancer in 1956, aged 47. Paul wrote Let It Be as a tribute to his mother.Dad Jim raised the boys with the help of relatives including Uncle Albert (remembered on Paul and Linda McCartney’s album Ram, released in 1971). Paul bought his father a house across the Mersey on the Wirral to which he retired; Paul still owns the house and uses it when visiting Liverpool.

Around No 20 there are many original and iconic photos of Paul and John writing and singing their songs in the same front parlor where we were sitting, taken by Paul’s brother Mike (who has the copyright, this being the reason why photography is not permitted inside).

Then after an hour there, we traveled back to Jurys Inn, to the accompaniment of more Beatles songs. What a marvellous way to spend the morning of my 70th birthday!


After a reviving cup of tea back at the hotel, we crossed the road to visit The Beatles Story exhibition. The story of The Beatles is told there through displays of memorabilia and photographs; it opened in May 1990.

From an early date until sometime in the past year, one particular display near the entrance explained the influence of the 1950s skiffle movement on The Beatles’ early musical careers. John Lennon played in a skiffle group called The Quarrymen which Paul McCartney and George Harrison later joined.

The display in question showed two boys, my elder brother Ed and me, playing guitar and tea-chest bass, entertaining our mother and two friends, Geoff and Susan Sharratt. That display has now been taken down, so I never got to see myself in The Beatles Story. But here’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the display a year or so back.

The exhibition takes you through the band’s time in Hamburg at the turn of the sixties, their ‘residence’ at The Cavern, and onwards through their worldwide success.

There are so many iconic things to see and read about. It’s quite overwhelming. Here’s just a small selection; you can also see many more photos in the album I mentioned earlier.


We returned home to Bromsgrove just after noon on Monday. But before that, we took a 50 minute river cruise on the Mersey ferry, Royal Iris, from the Pier Head Terminal, across to the Seacombe Terminal on the Wirral, and then to Woodside Terminal at Birkenhead, before returning to the Pier Head. Here’s a short video I made, with Gerry & The Pacemakers (courtesy of a YouTube video) providing the appropriate soundtrack.

It was a relaxing way to enjoy the Liverpool skyline. And the weather still kept fine for us even though the cloud built up later, and there was some rain before we departed from Liverpool.

Then it was a brisk walk back to Lime Street in time to catch our train just after 12:30.

We arrived home, on time, just after 15:30, and there was a very nice surprise waiting. My bank had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut champagne for my 70th! What a treat to end a great weekend. I can’t stop singing all those Beatles songs.

But there is a postscript to this Beatles adventure . . .


Fifty years ago today, 22 November, The Beatles released their ninth studio album, The Beatlesalso known as the White Album.

Many of the songs that appeared on this album (and some on Abbey Road in 1969) were penned while The Beatles were experimenting with transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India.

In 1968 (just a couple of months into my second year at the University of Southampton), I celebrated my 20th birthday by purchasing a copy of the White Album, which I had pre-ordered some weeks earlier. I believe I was the first person in our student residence, South Stoneham House, to have a copy. Word soon got around and it wasn’t long before my room on the 13th floor became the focus of White Album sessions.

This is how the album was reviewed in 1968; here is a current reappraisal. A re-mastered version of the album was released just over a week ago.

You can hear more about Giles Martin’s work on the album here.

What’s your favorite track? There are so many to choose from. But if I had to name just one, it has to be George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, on which Eric Clapton was invited by George to play a solo.

Anyway, enjoy this ethereal version that was released on Love – a 2006 remix album (by George Martin and son Giles) that accompanied a Cirque du Soleil show of the same name.

In the ultimate tribute to George Harrison, here is a multi-talented band, led by two of Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys band mates, Jeff Lynne and the late Tom Petty (and including Harrison’s son Dhani), interpreting this song; there’s a superb guitar solo from Prince.


The first Beatles vinyl I bought was Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. I remember that quite distinctly, because I held a small Christmas party for school friends in Leek, and Rubber Soul was the soul of that party.

I never owned the early albums. I didn’t really like their music until A Hard Day’s Night was released in 1964. After Rubber Soul, I acquired all the other albums on vinyl, but these were lost in a burglary in 1978 when we lived in Turrialba, Costa Rica. I replaced them on CD in the 1990s.

Compared to modern bands, look at how prolific The Beatles were, given the short periods between release dates of their albums. These are the albums I currently have.

Released in July 1964 and August 1965

Released in December 1965 and August 1966

Released in May 1967 and November 1967

Released in November 1968 and January 1969

Released in September 1969 and May 1970

And I also have these two compilations: Past Masters Vol. 2 and Love that I have already referred earlier.

Released in March 1988 and November 2006

No-one can deny the genius that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But if I had to choose just one album, I think it would be Revolver. And an overall favorite Beatles track? Probably We Can Work It Out (although I don’t like the ending particularly) that was released on a double A-side single (with Day Tripper) in December 1965 (and features on Past Masters Volume 2).

Happy memories!

Navigating the Stourport Ring

I’m fascinated by canals. You have to admire the visionaries who financed and built the canals, and the armies of men who constructed them.

Most canals in England and Wales were dug by gangs of navvies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, within just a generation or two the canals were already in decline as an expanding railway network made transportation of goods cheaper and faster. The writing was on the wall for the canals once George Stephenson had demonstrated the power of steam locomotion.

The economic justification for and value of the canals waned, and they fell into disuse, and no longer navigable. However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in the use of inland waterways. Today some 2000 miles of navigable waterways (canals and rivers) are managed by the Canal & River Trust, used mainly for pleasure traffic. Narrowboat holidays on the canals are very popular.

I have written several stories about the pleasure Steph and I take from walking along the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, that runs north-south between Gas Street Basin in the center of Birmingham and the River Severn at Worcester. The canal is less than two miles east of our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire. Our walks normally cover small sections of the towpath between Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58) and Astwood Bottom Lock (No. 17), a distance of about 5½ miles.

We not only enjoy the surrounding countryside, tranquil for the most part (unless a mainline express is speeding by about half a mile to the west), but also watching the canal narrowboats navigating their way up and down the Tardebigge Flight, the longest flight (of 30 locks) in the country, some with a greater degree of proficiency than others. Some days it can be like Piccadilly Circus¹ with boats queuing up to pass through the locks.

Taking to the water
We have taken only one canal holiday, in the summer of 1983, when Steph, Hannah (just five years old), Philippa (15 months) and me took to the water for a week, to navigate the Stourport Ring.

The Ring, for our purposes, comprised four waterways:

If I remember correctly, the various links connecting the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with the BCN via the Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canals were not navigable in 1983.

Setting out, and setting some rules
It was early July, and we took Hannah out of school for the week with readily-granted permission from Mr Richards, the headmaster at Finstall First School. That would be almost impossible nowadays. We had chosen a small, 4-berth narrowboat for our holiday, Blue Heron, from a hire-boat center operating out of Alvechurch, about 15 minutes from home. So, packing clothes for a week, and several boxes of groceries (including the inevitable wine boxes that were very popular in the 80s), we headed to Alvechurch to board our boat.

Blue Heron, with Steph at the helm, and Philippa in the bow.

After a familiarization tour of the boat, one of the marina staff joined us for the first three miles to the first lock on our trip, Tardebigge Top Lock. Not only would that be the first lock we’d encounter over the next week, but it was one of the deepest. So, the marina staff not only wanted to guide us safely through this lock but also to show us the rudiments of safe canal navigation.


Looking at the various photos I have included in this post, you might be forgiven for questioning our apparent lack of awareness of on-board safety. Only Hannah is wearing a life jacket, something that would not be allowed more than three decades later. At five years old, we had to set Hannah some strict limits how to move around the boat. At 15 months, Philippa was already walking, and would crawl and stagger around the cabin whenever we moored for a meal break or at night. With either Steph or me steering the boat, one of us had to operate the locks, raising/ lowering the paddles to empty or fill each lock, and open the lock gates. So it was important we knew where the girls were at all times.

To keep Philippa safe, we put her in a high chair in the bow of the boat, and with her mob cap for protection, and a good coating of sun cream, she was (mostly) quite happy watching the world go by at a leisurely 4 mph (the maximum speed permitted on the canals), waving to passers-by, or falling asleep when the fancy took her. Hannah would often sit beside whoever was steering at the stern of the boat, or ‘help’ with the locks.

Our journey continues
Having successfully passed through Tardebigge Top Lock, we headed down a few more on our own, before mooring for the night just below the Engine House, then a nightclub/restaurant (but now converted into luxury apartments), near Lock 55 or 54, in the early evening. With two small children on board, we had to get them fed and not too late bedded down for the night.

The view from Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58).

Looking south on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Lock 54. The Malvern Hills can be seen in the far distance.

We spent all the next day completing the Tardebigge flight, but I’m not sure if we reached Worcester that same day, or took another day. Probably the latter. However, we spent one night at Worcester’s Diglis Basin before facing the River Severn.

It had become clear on the final stretch into Worcester that Hannah was not her usual perky self. And by bedtime, she had a temperature. The next morning she really looked very unwell, so she and I headed off into the center of Worcester in search of medical help. Although only 15 miles or so from home, it felt like 100 miles. I didn’t have our doctor’s telephone number with me. In any case, there were no mobile phones in 1983.

Nevertheless, we finally got to see a doctor (after completing a slew of NHS forms because we were being treated as ‘visitors’, not our own doctor), who diagnosed tonsillitis, and prescribed a course of antibiotics. It was remarkable how quickly those had an effect, because by late afternoon Hannah was feeling very much better, and almost back to her normal self by bedtime.

Diglis Basin in Worcester.

Our departure from Worcester was delayed until after lunch. We steeled ourselves for the section of our trip on the River Severn. We had good weather (and for the whole week), and no particular difficulties on the river itself. But we did have to pass through the Diglis Lock connecting Diglis Basin with the River Severn. This lock is wide and deep, and a challenge for two canal novices like Steph and myself. I don’t remember that this lock was assisted.

Once on the Severn we turned north, having a grandstand view from the center of the river of Worcester Cathedral on the east bank, and the city center.

There was just one other lock on the Severn itself, at Holt, to bypass a weir. That lock had lock keepers, and was electrically operated. Once we reached Stourport-on-Severn, it was time to leave the river and join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, for the next stage of our trip.

Entering the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourport-on-Severn.

This canal passes through the center of Kidderminster, a town famous world-wide for its carpet-making industry, then on through some lovely and peaceful red sandstone landscapes near Kinver in South Staffordshire.

We must have taken a couple of days to travel this section as far as Aldersley Junction, where we had to turn east and join the Birmingham Canals Navigation. However, as we needed water and some other supplies, we travelled a couple of miles further north, joining the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction for a very short distance before turning around to moor up for the night by Aldersley Junction. At Autherley Junction, there is a stop lock, with just a small height difference, a matter of inches, between the two canals to prevent drainage of one canal into the other.

The next section on the BCN was our penultimate day, taking us from Aldersley Junction, through the Black Country, Birmingham city center, and south again on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, mooring up north of Alvechurch in order to arrive back on time at the marina the next day.

From Aldersley Junction there is a flight of 21 locks that raise the canal 132 feet. We made an early start, with the idea of stopping about half way for breakfast. However, we discovered at about one third of the climb that a previous boat had left the lock paddles open and several pounds between the locks had drained completely. The photo below was taken on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal a couple of years ago when several refurbishment projects were underway. But it shows the sort of scene that greeted us that morning on the BCN. It must have taken an hour or more to restore water levels to the pounds before we could get on the move once again.

Travelling between Wolverhampton and Birmingham in 1983 was like passing through a desolate lunar landscape, with scenes of dereliction all around. This is part of the so-called Black Country of Dudley and Tipton, formerly an important industrial area. Today this whole area has been reclaimed for housing. Even the derelict warehouses along the canals in the center of Birmingham have either been refurbished as ‘desirable residences’ or demolished and replaced by new housing and offices.

Near Gas Street Basin in 1983.

Signposts on the canal, Wolverhampton to the left, Worcester to the right.

However in 1983, there was little shade along the banks of the BCN in the Black Country of Dudley and Tipton. It was a very hot day, and the sun was beating down. Because we had to travel more miles than usual, I had my lunch and tea breaks on the move, so to speak. Just as we crossed Gas Street Basin, the weather broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm. With that, we decided to moor until the storm had passed, before continuing south, past the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus, and through the one and a half mile long Wast Hills Tunnel (under the Lickey Hills) north of Alvechurch, one of the longest in the country. We moored close to where the A441 crosses the canal at Hopwood, and enjoyed an evening meal at the Hopwood House pub.

The University of Birmingham campus from the canal near Selly Oak.

Just passed through one of the tunnels north of Alvechurch.

With only a short distance to Alvechurch, we spent a couple of hours cleaning the boat on the final morning, getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, and arriving back at the marina by the noon deadline.

From there, it was just a case of hopping into our car, and within 15 minutes we were back home. A very enjoyable holiday and, as you can tell as you read this post, one that left me with long-lasting memories.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

¹ The phrase it’s like Piccadilly Circus is commonly used in the UK to refer to a place or situation which is extremely busy with people.

Just an occasional whimper . . .

It’s now eight weeks—to the day—since I went base over apex and broke my leg.

I’m actually quite surprised, if not a little relieved, at just how fast one’s body can heal itself. Not that it has been all plain sailing.

IMG_1491

I’ve attended an outpatient fracture clinic three times since I discharged from hospital. On the first visit, a week later, the plaster cast was removed, and the scar checked for healing. It was replaced by my lovely purple cast. A week after that, in my second appointment, that cast was removed, the stitches taken out, and a new cast (red this time) fitted. My third appointment, after another three weeks, was quite momentous. I achieved such a lot in just over an hour. The red cast was removed, I had X-rays taken, spoke with the surgeon, had a ‘moon boot’ fitted, and saw a physiotherapist who gave me a pair of crutches and checked that I was safe to manoeuvre with them, especially going up and down stairs.

Since then I’ve been much more mobile, and have even been outside on a number of days for walks up and down the road we live in, and even slightly further afield. I actually managed over half a mile just a few days ago. But I only stray outside if the weather is fine. It has been frosty on a number of mornings recently. Frost and ice and me don’t go well together!

I’ve also had two physiotherapy sessions at the local Princess of Wales Community Hospital. This is very convenient as I don’t have to travel the nine miles or so to the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch. The physiotherapist has checked that everything is healing as it should be, and has given me a set of exercises that I have to do several times a day.

IMG_1515This is an interesting exercise (left) using a contraption called a Theraband. Actually it’s just a length of elasticated rubber (could I develop a latex fetish it’s so nice and soft), that allows me to stretch and flex my ankle.

And of course I’m now expected to place an increasing amount of weight on the damaged leg as that will encourage the healing process. So while the breakage is held together by the steel plate, the ligaments and tendons in the ankle below the tibia will take some time to heal fully. Even after eight weeks my ankle and parts of my leg are still quite swollen, with some bruising visible.

But on the outer side of my leg I can now feel the metal plate and screws through the flesh, and it feels rather uncomfortable. So while I’m no longer in any great pain, some days there is quite a lot of discomfort, and on others hardly anything at all. A bag of peas (should I have chosen ‘petit pois’?) make an excellent ice pack, applied for about 20 minutes after an exercise session.

IMG_1493

But what is clearly progress is that the physiotherapist has got me walking around the house in bare feet—but supported on crutches—to add even more weight to my leg and to get all the muscles working together properly once more. In some ways it’s like learning to walk all over again.

IMG_1522

Onwards and upwards!

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 5. Under African skies.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity of visiting a number of African countries, my first being Ethiopia in early 1993. From then until my retirement in 2010, I made a number of forays into that continent linked to my work in international agricultural research, including South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Morocco.

Ethiopia
In 1993 I attended my first meeting of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), hosted by what was then the International Livestock Center for Africa (ILCA) in Addis Ababa (now ILRI-Ethiopia). After several days couped up in a tiny meeting room we did manage a field trip and I traveled down into the Rift Valley to visit ILCA’s research station at Debre Zeit. There was also lots of Eragrostis tef – teff -to see growing in the fields – a small-grained, indigenous cereal that is used to make injera, a fermented flat bread. There – but also on the ILCA campus in Addis – the bird life is truly magnificent. Beside a lake in Debre Zeit the fish eagles were as common as sparrows in the trees.

In early 2010 I was ‘asked’ to attend a CGIAR planning meeting in Addis for just one day. I flew all the way from the Philippines for one day! However, my departure flight on the second day didn’t leave until the evening, so I spent much of the day relaxing or walking around the campus bird-watching – buzzards two-a-penny, beautiful long-tailed flycatchers chasing one another through the scrub, and flocks of brilliantly colored bee-eaters on the open ground, just to mention a few. Having lived in the Philippines for almost 20 years seeing so many bird species was truly a delight, because where we lived in Los Baños was essentially an ‘avian desert’. But it has become much better – see the latest issue of Rice Today.

South Africa
Although I had passed through Jo’burg in South Africa on a couple of occasions, I did spend a week in Durban in May 2001 to attend a meeting of the CGIAR. All delegates had been warned to take care when walking around outside, but that didn’t prevent some Malaysians being mugged right outside the hotel entrance. And one of my colleagues found himself in the middle of a gun battle when he took a walk along the sea front. We did have a day trip to visit agricultural research in Pietermaritzburg so that gave an opportunity to see something of the country. The day of activities in Pietermaritzburg was opened by a member of the Zulu royal family, and I can still remember the shivers up my neck as a choir sang the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel.

And as with my Rift Valley trip in Ethiopia and in Kenya on another occasion, it reinforced this perspective that Africa is a continent of huge landscapes.

Mozambique
I first visited Mozambique in about 1995 when I was setting up a large rice biodiversity project funded by the Swiss government. I spent much of my time in Maputo, with just one short field trip. One thing that has stayed in my memory are the Danger – Landmines! warning signs, a consequence and reminder of the various conflicts that dogged Mozambique in previous decades.

Until recently, IRRI’s regional office for Eastern and Southern Africa was based in Maputo (now transferred to Burundi). Here’s IRRI’s former regional leader Joe Rickman talking about rice research and development in the region.

Mozambique was also the venue for the CGIAR to hold its annual meeting in 2008.

Zambia
Again this was another biodiversity-related trip, specifically to meet scientists at the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Lusaka, where a couple of my former MSc students from Birmingham were working. The genebank had been set up in a collaborative project with the Nordic Genebank in Sweden, and I took a number of ideas away from that visit about low-cost, appropriate technology genebank design that I introduced to several genebank programs in Asia.

On my last day, I had a late afternoon flight to Nairobi, Kenya, but no other commitments. I’d been struggling with a draft of a paper that IRRI had committed me to write for German-published GeoJournal (IRRI had been given the opportunity of a special issue). I decided to use my several ‘free’ hours in Lusaka to make some headway with my draft. After an early breakfast – and with just a couple of ‘comfort breaks’ over the next six or seven hours, I finally drafted almost 40 pages of single-spaced hand-written text. I’d brought along a sheaf of plain paper (I hate using ruled paper) and a bunch of sharp HB pencils. When I came to have the draft typed up ready for editing I surprised myself by actually making very few changes. This was the result.

Kenya
I’ve spent time in Nairobi on three occasions, although I passed through the airport on a couple of others. The first time I flew in for 48 hours en route to Nigeria. In 1998, the ICWG-GR met, hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre, and we held our meeting upcountry near Mt Kenya. Not that we got to see much of it as it was shrouded in cloud almost all of the time. Nor did we see any big game.

L to r: Bent Skovmand (CIMMYT, deceased), Lindsey Innes (consultant), Joel Cohen (ISNAR), Roger Pullin (ICLARM), Jane Toll (SGRP), ??, Wanda Collins (CIP), Paula Bramel (ICRISAT), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), Maria Zimmerman (FAO-TAC), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Tim Boyle (CIFOR), Cary Fowler (FAO), Jean Hanson (ILRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), ??, Randy Barker (IWMI), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Quat Ng (IITA), Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), ??, ??, Tony Simons (World Agroforestry Centre-WAC), Ian Dawson (WAC)

But the meeting was successful and the Group awarded me about USD200,000 to organize a meeting the following year in The Hague on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics, a first for the CGIAR!

The CGIAR held its annual meeting in Nairobi in 2003 – I managed to lose my mobile phone. At all these meetings there are opportunities to visit agricultural research projects. The one I joined had to do with range land ecology, i.e. big game! That was a popular outing with many delegates, and eventually took us into the Nairobi National Park that really does come right up to the outskirts of the city. This was the only time that I have ever seen big game in the wild: rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, cheetahs, and wildebeest and zebra, of course. This park does not have elephants, unfortunately; you have to travel to some of the other reserves to see those.


Nigeria
Another CGIAR center, IITA, is based at Ibadan, and I guess I must have been there maybe half a dozen times. Ibadan is about 170 km north-north-east of Lagos, a three-hour drive. IITA has a marvelous 1,000 ha campus. It was once quite isolated from Ibadan (now one of the largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa) but over the years the city has sprawled right up to the IITA boundary fences. In addition to its experimental fields, there is some virgin rainforest, and even a lake stocked with Nile perch – angling is a favorite IITA sport. But there are miles of roads to wander, and I always found the IITA campus a place of great relaxation after work hours. It was just the threat of malaria that always used to worry me. The ICWG-GR met there in the 90s, and one day we took an excursion into the forest looking for wild yams.

With Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), Willy Roca (CIP), Murthi Anishetty (FAO) and Quat Ng (IITA).

An overnight stay in the IITA-Lagos guest-house is a must if a flight arrives in the evening. There is no shuttle service – for obvious security reasons – at night. And even during the day, a second vehicle, riding shotgun – literally, but also carrying luggage would accompany a passenger vehicle on the trip from Lagos to Ibadan.

Lagos airport was always a cause for concern, especially on departure, where both immigration and customs officials would be looking for a ‘gift’, and searching one’s hand-luggage for any suitable item. Always a source of tension, although by the time of my last visit, maybe around 2000, the situation had improved beyond any comparison with my first visit in 1994.

Being met at the airport in Lagos was always a relief, and IITA staff were immensely helpful. I remember one occasion when I was flying in from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. On arrival at Abidjan airport I was informed that my ‘confirmed’ flight would not be departing. In fact it had ‘never existed’, but I could fly on the next flight later that evening, with intermediate stops in Accra (Ghana), Lomé (Togo), and Cotonou (Benin). I hadn’t been able to contact IITA to let them know of the changes in my travel plans, and was praying that someone would be at the airport. My sense of anxiety was not helped when, on arrival in Lagos, and just before the immigration desk, this man in plain clothes stepped out and demanded my passport. I’d always been advised not to hand over my passport unless the person could provide some means of identity. After showing some hesitation to comply with the ‘request’ I was threatened with dire consequences. Who this man was I never found out. On collecting my luggage and departing the customs area it was a huge relief to see someone wearing an IITA cap – my meeter and greeter.

Ivory Coast
The Africa Rice Center (formerly known as WARDA – the West Africa Rice Development Association) had its headquarters in Bouaké until it was forced to abandon the site and leave the country when the civil war commenced in 2002. It relocated to the IITA sub-station in Benin, just over the international border from Lagos in Nigeria. While it has hopes to return to Bouaké some day, personally I think that day is a long way off.

On two occasions I flew from Abidjan on the coast to Bouaké, but have traveled south by road via the capital Yamoussoukro, where a former president built one of the largest Catholic basilicas in the world, and one to rival St Peter’s in Rome.

Under the then Director General, Eugene Terry and Deputy Peter Matlon, I found WARDA to be a small but dynamic institute, well-focused on its regional mandate, but in awe of its bigger rice sister, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. I believe that some of the work I undertook on a joint mission commissioned by Terry and IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe, helped to improve relations between them. They certainly couldn’t have dipped much lower at that time in the mid-90s.

Madagascar
I visited Madagascar just the once, in the late 90s, although I had tried to get there a couple of years earlier, but had to cancel, even as I was in Jo’burg waiting for a flight because the schedules was totally disrupted and I had no idea when I’d be able to travel.

Again it was related to my rice biodiversity project. We supported a major program to collect both wild and cultivated rices, one of the major staples of Madagascar. Having seen something of the incredible wealth of indigenous animal species through some of David Attenborough’s TV specials, it would have been great to go beyond rice and see what else this fascinating island has to offer. Regrettably there was no chance, but a couple of short trips, on incredible bad roads, from the capital Antananarivo to a rice research station in the boondoks allowed me to see something of the countryside.

Morocco
And that’s more than I can say bout my one and only visit to Morocco in 2005 when the CGIAR held its annual meeting in Marrakesh. I went down with a nasty cold not long after I arrived, and because of some pressing commitments, I had to spend much of my time locked away in my room finalizing a research project proposal to an important donor worth several million dollars. You can imagine where my DG saw my priorities! So most of the time, I only saw the hotel.

But I did manage to visit the market on one afternoon, and pick up some silver beads for Steph that she has subsequently used in her beading projects.

1-20051204014

Like a duck to water . . . scuba diving in the Philippines

Late afternoon in front of Arthur’s Place, Anilao
(with Maricaban Island in the distance)

I’ve never been one for competitive sport, or strenuous outdoors exercise. No fell or hill walking for me, nor rock climbing, potholing, or other like pursuits.

So it was rather out of character that I took to scuba diving in the Philippines with such enthusiasm. Although I’d lived in the Tropics before moving to the Philippines in 1991, in Peru, I only went occasionally to the beach south of Lima during the summer months from January to March; and when we lived in Costa Rica, the best beaches were hours away by road.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, quite a number of IRRI staff had learned to scuba dive, and spent weekends away, either in Anilao (about 90 km or so south of Los Baños) or at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, the next island south of Luzon.

In fact, when we did go to the beach in Puerto Galera for the first time, in February 1992 (just a few weeks after Steph, Hannah and Philippa had joined me from the UK), I’d never even snorkeled before! So the last thing on my mind was the idea of taking a scuba diving course. Snorkeling was fine – once I’d got the hang of it, and learned to relax and actually breathe with my face in the water. So we invested in masks, boots and fins, and started visiting Anilao about once a month. Our first resort was Arthur’s Place, established by local dive master and entrepreneur Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. Arthur’s Place was quite modest in 1992, just a few rooms available. And since there was no telephone at that time, making a reservation was rather hit-and-miss. In fact, it was only possible to reach the resort from Anilao village by outrigger canoe or banca, which took about 30 minutes or so. Eventually, the road was opened up, the mobile phone network spread to include the Mabini peninsula, and Arthur’s Place even had email and a web presence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My elder daughter Hannah took a NAUI dive course in 1992, not long after we first went to Puerto Galera (my one and only visit there). She’d have been about 14 or 15 at the time. There was a group of IRRI staff and children taking a course, and the dive instructors came down to the staff housing where we had a 20 m pool to conduct the theory classes and confined water exercises. The open water exercises and final certification were carried out at Anilao. Well, for a year I watched Hannah getting ready for one of her dives each time we went down to Anilao, and began to wonder what it would be like.

Mario Elumba - a recent pic

Mario Elumba – a recent pic

And my opportunity came in March 1993 when a group of us got together to arrange dive classes with two PADI instructors – Boy Siojo and Mario Elumba. I took to scuba diving like a duck to water, and I have to say it has been one of the best things I have ever done. Including my four open water exercises dives (just prior to receiving my Open Water Diver certification) I completed 356 dives, making my first on 13 March 1993, and my last (just before I retired from IRRI and returned to the UK) on 14 March 2010. I only dived in the Anilao area – there’s just so much to see, and in any case, as Steph did not dive but loved just to snorkel, there was no reason to go elsewhere. The reefs just in front of Arthur’s Place were ideal for this, and for about 18 years she kept quite detailed records of what she observed, some 100-150 m either side of Arthur’s Place.

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

I also kept a detailed log of all my dives, who I dived with, where we dived, the conditions, and how long each dive lasted. For the first few years, my main dive buddy was Arthur. Most weekends I would complete three dives (very occasionally four, and exceptionally five). But three dives was a comfortable number: a morning and afternoon dive on the Saturday, and an early morning dive (usually to Kirby’s Rock) on the Sunday morning (that was always followed by a great plate of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee).

Sunday morning - post Kirby's. Bacon and eggs on the table.

Sunday morning – post Kirby’s. Bacon and eggs on the table.

We stayed at Arthur’s Place as often as we could  but when full, we had to stay at other resorts along the coast. However, I guess we stayed at Arthur’s more than 95% of the time, and by the time we left the Philippines, we had become the longest term clients at the resort. So much so, that Lita’s younger daughter Joanne invited me to be one of the ‘godfathers’ or ninong at her wedding in January 2010. Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding – a great honour.

20100110166

There are many great dive sites around Anilao, but my two favorites have to be Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. I think Arthur was one of the pioneers of the conservation strategy along the coast, and the development of many dive resorts led, quite quickly, to an overall increase in health of the many reefs, because the presence of divers (a considerable economic benefit to the local communities  reduced the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing.

One or two sites were famous for their fierce currents, especially Beatrix and Bahura. Both Kirby’s Rock and Seepok Wall had impressive walls to explore. At Kirby’s it is possible to descend about 140 feet to the bottom of one of the walls – which I did many times. The feeling of the water pressure, the (general) clarity of the water (many times over 100 feet of visibility), and the wealth of marine life make this a special dive site for me.

Nudibranchs at Mainit Point,
27 March 2004

There’s so much I could write about. We often saw white-tipped reef sharks, and my particular bugaboo was the giant triggerfish, a particular aggressive beastie that has chased us around the reef from time to time. The myriad of brightly coloured shoals of small fish, especially the butterfly fish in all their diversity, the jacks, and tuna, the occasional turtle, the soft corals and nudibranchs – what sights on a bright morning to make one’s heart sing. And the big advantage as far as I was concerned – no-one could phone me or send me an email, or bother me about work whatsoever, when I was diving.

L to r: me, Clare, Lito, and Judy, in front of Arthur’s Place, 4 May 2003, just after diving at Kirby’s Rock

Sadly Arthur died of cancer in 2002, but in any case once I had gained some diving experience I did not really need him to be my dive buddy. I used to take Hannah and Philippa diving (Philippa learned to dive in January 1995 when she was 12), and for many years I used to buddy with one of the International School Manila teachers, Judy Baker, or Clare O’Nolan, the wife of IRRI’s IT Services manager Paul. Lito Bonquin became the resident dive master at Arthur’s Place in the late 1990s, and he was the person I dived with most over my almost 18 years of diving. He was very experienced and a safe buddy to dive with – and we had great fun exploring familiar sites.

Lito and me after my last dive (at Kirby’s Rock) on 14 March 2010

Do I miss scuba diving? From time-to-time, especially on a grey winter morning, or after someone at Arthur’s Place has posted a particularly nice photo on the Facebook page. I’m pleased I had the opportunity of taking up this great sport. I enjoyed diving with most folks I came into contact with, but there were one or two (including some of my IRRI colleagues – no name, no pack-drill  who I was less than enthusiastic to dive with, because I just didn’t feel safe buddying with them  And I was quite an experienced diver.

I remained an Open Water Diver – I had no interest in gaining further certification as an Advanced Diver, or rescue, wreck or whatever diver. I still have my mask (with its prescription lenses), my boots and fins, and my wet suit. Maybe I’ll get the chance to dive again some day, and if I do get back to the Philippines before I’m too old to enjoy diving again, I reckon there’ll be a welcome for me at Arthur’s Place, and marine friends at Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks might ‘realize’ their old ‘buddy’ is back in town.