Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.

And we can also wonder about the lives of the men (and women) who were stationed along the Wall and where they came from. It’s not just the physical legacy of the Wall (and other settlements around the country) but also the genetic legacy that the Romans left behind, in their offspring from relationships with local women, legitimate or otherwise. Romans didn’t just come from Rome, but from all corners of the empire even from the easternmost provinces of the Middle East and beyond. The ‘Roman’ genetic signature has obviously been diluted by successive waves of invasion into these islands.

The Romans have left a huge legacy for us all to wonder at. They were road builders par excellence. Roads were needed as the Romans spread out across the country, to maintain communications between towns and military garrisons, to allow troops to travel more effectively and rapidly, and to facilitate commerce. And their roads have endured even today, and some of England’s principal arteries follow the routes of former Roman roads, and are known, in part, by the same names.

I recently came across this stylized map (in the format of the iconic map of the London Underground created by Harry Beck) of the Roman road network that connected towns and cities, and military installations all over.

The author of the map, Sasha Trubetskoy, has also produced a second version with modern place names.

Even today, Roman roads are still being uncovered. There was a report recently in The Guardian of a road in west Wales that indicated the Romans had ventured deeper into Wales than previously appreciated.

As far as I can recall, the only Roman road I have walked was the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors near Goathland. The exposed part is only about a mile long. The first time was in 1968 when I was at university, and then about 20 years later with my wife Steph and daughters Hannah and Philippa.

We now live in North Tyneside, just 3 miles north as the crow flies from Segedunum, the fort at the the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. And with Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman remains so close, we have made quite a number of forays into the Northumberland countryside to explore them.

It’s quite remarkable just how much of Hadrian’s Wall remains, after 2000 years, despite much of the stone having been removed.

Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap.

The Wall was much higher than remains today, and the Mileposts and Turrets (or observation towers) have been reduced to shells of their former imposing structures.

Milepost 39 near Sycamore Gap.

However, further west beyond Birdoswald, where the Wall was built from turf, the signature of the Wall can still be seen as depressions in the landscape.

Even at forts like Chesters, Housesteads or Birdoswald, Corbridge Roman Town or Vindolanda in Northumberland, extensive as they are, it’s really just the foundations that have survived.

This is a panorama across Corbridge Roman Town.

At Wroxeter, in Shropshire, one part of a basilica wall still stands, and at Portchester the impressive outer curtain wall of the original Roman fort is still intact, 20 feet or more tall. Typical Roman concrete, just like I have seen in Rome itself.

The surviving 7 m high basilica wall (‘Old Work’) at Wroxeter, the largest free-standing wall in England.

The Roman walls of Portschester Castle.

And then there are the civil remains like Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester in West Sussex (that I haven’t visited) and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire that we have.

And Roman remains are still being uncovered all over England. Not only hoards of coins, but also a beautiful mosaic that was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern England a couple of years ago, with images of Homer’s Iliad, a unique find. Roman archaeology is thriving.

Then there are all the various artefacts, from jewelry to household items, monuments and statues that were left behind that allow us to paint a detailed picture of life in Roman Britain. Here are some kept in the museums at Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort.

And, in particular, the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in this country, have provided a commentary of the lives of soldiers and their families.

The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets

These are some of the most important relics from the period of Roman occupation. And these, and other sites and remains from that time will keep archaeologists busy for years to come.


 

An Englishman’s home is his castle . . .

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, there was—for centuries afterwards—an obsession almost for building castles as magnates secured their rule throughout the land, led of course from the top, by the monarch.

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

Many of these castles still stand today, mostly as ruins. Some in a more advanced state of dereliction than others. During the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, many castles were deliberately demolished or ‘slighted‘. But even in their diminished states, these castles still remind us of the power struggles that dominated our landscape for centuries.

As keen English Heritage and National Trust members, Steph and I have visited quite a number of the castles in their care. And since we moved north to Newcastle 21 months ago, we have enjoyed exploring the Northumbrian landscape and the numerous castles (and Roman remains) that can be found there.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to map all the fortifications—ancient hill forts, Roman forts, castles, and fortified manor houses—that we have visited over the past decade. Just click on each of the icons to view an image and links to different websites or posts in this blog.

I have color-coded the icons thus:

  • Black: pre-historic and pre-Roman (pre-AD 43)
  • Green: Roman (43 – 410)
  • Yellow: Norman (1066 – 1154)
  • Red: early and late Plantagenet (1154 – 1399; including one castle in Scotland and another in Northern Ireland)
  • Blue: Lancastrian (1399 – 1461)
  • Purple: Tudor (1485 – 1603)
  • Brown: Stuart (1603 – 1714 – with Interregnum)
  • Grey: Hanoverian (1714 – 1901)

 

A changing religious landscape . . .

The vandalism began in 1536. The landscape changed. Henry VIII threw his toys out of the pram, and ordered his officials to close down religious houses all over England, in what has become known as The Dissolution of the Monasteries. What had been thriving communities, with some of the most magnificent architecture that this country has ever produced, were sold off, some converted where possible into residences, or simply destroyed.

And much of Henry’s despotic legacy still stands in ruins in many parts of England 500 years later.

Over the past 12 years, we have (as members of the National Trust and English Heritage) visited many of the ruins of once proud, the grand (like Fountains, Rievaulx, and Whitby in North Yorkshire) and not-so-grand monasteries, priories, abbeys, and the like, as well as some small churches and chapels (Langley in Shropshire, St Mary’s at Kempley in Gloucestershire with its magnificent frescoes, or the ancient church of St Clement’s on the southern tip of Harris in the Outer Hebrides) that did survive and continue to serve their communities, some dating back to pre-Norman Saxon times.

Some we made a bee-line for; others we came across quite by chance. All have been inspirational in one way or another, although I should add that I hold no religious beliefs. I am inspired nevertheless by these buildings and how they must have dominated the surrounding landscape during their brief ‘lives’. Many were built in the couple of centuries after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. And I am inspired by the skills of the masons and other craftsmen who created these magnificent buildings.

Just click on any of the icons on the map below to view links to my stories or to photo albums. I’ve also included links to National Trust or English Heritage web pages where available. To open the map in full screen mode in a new tab, click on square icon in the top right hand corner.

One thing you can say, however, is that these religious orders certainly knew where to found their abbeys, monasteries, or priories. Just a few days ago, Steph and I made the short (<18 mile) journey south into County Durham to visit Finchale Priory that stands beside a bend in the River Wear. What a peaceful setting, and you can easily image just how that tranquility made for easy religious contemplation. Something of that spirituality lingers. Quite magic!


 

No fog on the Tyne . . .

The River Tyne is actually two rivers, North and South, until they converge at Warden Rock, a couple of miles west of Hexham in Northumberland in the northeast of England. From there, the river flows east, eventually meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth, east of Newcastle upon Tyne. The river is tidal upstream as far as Wylam, just under 24 miles (38 km) from Tynemouth.

The river is the southern boundary of Newcastle, and the adjoining authority of North Tyneside. On the south of the river lie Gateshead and South Tyneside. It’s a bit like the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota, where our elder daughter Hannah and her family reside.

Tyneside was, for generations, a site of heavy industry, especially shipbuilding and coal mining. The lower reaches of the river are lined with the remains of once proud shipyards.

Large ships still enter the Port of Tyne. Most conspicuous, and always attracting large crowds of spectators are the cruise ships, even Cunarders like Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth.

And almost all the most coal wharves or staiths that brought coal by rail from mines north and south of the river for export worldwide have disappeared. The mines finally closed in the 1980s or earlier.

Only Dunston Staiths has survived, on the river’s south side, from where coal was exported from the North Durham Coalfield.

Families lived in the rows of crowded, smoky, dirty, and noisy slum terraced houses on both sides of the river, now mostly demolished to make way for new upmarket housing and commercial developments, even a marina.

What a renewal the area has enjoyed in recent decades, and a stroll along the Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides is now a pleasure. But not one that we had experienced until just a few days ago although we had visited more than ten years ago.


After we moved to Newcastle on 30 September 2020, we spent the first five months in rented accommodation in the Shiremoor district of North Tyneside (towards the coast, east of Newcastle city center), but within a couple of weeks of arriving here had put in an offer on a new house in Backworth, moving in at the beginning of March 2021. Being in our early 70s, we’d made the move north from Worcestershire to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family.

Given the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns that came into play beginning March 2020, we still wonder we could sell our house that year and make the move north. We’ve now been here for 21 months, but only recently ventured into the city center for the first time. That was last week, when we attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School, that I wrote about immediately afterwards.

We have been ultra-cautious about mixing with crowds. Even though the government has signaled (falsely) that the pandemic is over and done with, there are already worrying signs of a new wave of infections. So whenever we are out and about, and likely to encounter crowds, Steph and I always wear masks. And so like sore thumbs we stick out in a crowd. Almost no-one else is masked these days. Having avoided infection so far (although I’m not pushing my luck by saying this, I hope) we don’t intend to expose ourselves to infection.

Last Wednesday dawned bright and sunny, and warm, quite a change from the unseasonable weather we’ve been experiencing recently. Just after 10 am we headed to our nearest Metro station at Northumberland Park (less than 10 minutes walk) for the 20 minute ride into the city center, to Monument station.

For most of the network, except for a short section from Jesmond to the city center at Central Station, the Metro is an overground service. But at Jesmond it dives under the city.

We emerged at Monument, beneath the hugely impressive pillar monument (135 feet or 41 m) to Charles, 2nd Early Grey, Prime Minister and father of the Great Reform Act of 1832, that stands at the head of Grainger Street and Grey Street.

Working our way south towards the river, through Grainger Market and Central Arcade, passing by the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, one of the Tyne’s iconic bridges came into view. Close by the city center there are seven bridges taking road and rail traffic over the river.

The Tyne Bridge, opened in October 1928 by King George V (and remarkably similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge since it was designed by the same architects), has almost come to symbolize Newcastle.

What is pretty special about this bridge (and other tall buildings in the vicinity) is that it is home to an inland colony of kittiwakes, a bird that normally nests on wind-swept coastal cliffs.

Along the Newcastle Quayside, about a quarter of mile east from the Tyne Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge is a foot and cycle bridge across the river connecting to (the) Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (a converted flour mill) and the Gateshead Sage (an international home for music and musical discovery, affectionately known as The Slug on the Tyne). We took the lift to Baltic’s 4th floor viewing platform to appreciate the impressive panorama of the river, its bridges, and Newcastle city center.

Opening to the public in 2001, the Millennium Bridge tilts to allow tall river traffic to pass through. It quickly became a must-see feature of the Quaysides.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the Newcastle Quayside across from (the) Baltic, and beside the rather impressive Blacksmith’s Needle, erected in 1997.

Then it was a slow walk back to the Metro at Central Station via the steep climb up Sandhill (a quayside used since Roman times) and Side (a medieval Street) and Dog Leap Stairs to exit beside Newcastle castle (which we must really return to visit soon).

On our return Metro journey, we were again the only passengers wearing masks. I still can’t fathom why so many folks, many elderly and potentially more vulnerable, are oblivious to the continuing Covid threat that could be reduced by the simple measure of wearing a mask.

We arrived home by 4 pm, tired but cheerful, ready for a welcome cuppa, having walked almost 5½ miles around the city (according to the pedometer app on my mobile).


Then from the coast they bore away, and reached the Holy Island’s bay (Sir Walter Scott).

Twice a day—without fail—the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, lying about 1 mile at its closest point off the north coast of Northumberland (map), is separated from the mainland as the tide sweeps in and covers a paved causeway.

The tide takes no prisoners, but safe crossing times are widely publicized. Not everyone heeds those warnings.


Steph and I last visited Holy Island (for the first and only time) in July 1998 when we were on home leave from the Philippines.

Earlier this week, we headed north to visit the two attractions on Holy Island: Lindisfarne Priory (run by English Heritage, which we looked at in 1998), and Lindisfarne Castle (managed by the National Trust). It’s quite unusual to have separate attractions from these two organizations at the same location (although they do co-manage several properties around the country).

My satnav indicated a journey of about 58 miles to the village, just 54 to the start of the causeway, and about an hour’s travel time. So we left home around 09:45 with the aim of arriving at the causeway just as the tide had receded. The causeway was already open when we arrived, ahead of the published safe crossing time of 10:55. There were already many vehicles in the car park.

There is only a small population of around 160 persons on the island. But that number is swelled to at least 650,000 or more visitors a year. Choosing a day for our visit, we were just waiting for the tide times and good weather to coincide. As it transpired, the day was not as bright as originally forecast, but that was no bad thing. Sometimes photography is much easier when the light is even; no harsh shadows. Even so, we only saw the sun as we were preparing to leave late in the afternoon.


The history of Lindisfarne Priory is illustrious and tragic. It was founded in the 7th century, on a promontory at the southwest corner of the island, and is one of the most important early Christian sites in the country. An Irish monk named Aidan became the bishop of Oswald’s Kingdom of Northumbria, and founded the Priory on Holy Island.

12th century wall paining of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.

One of the North’s greatest saints, Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral) joined the community in the 670s as monk-bishop.

However, in AD 793, Lindisfarne was raided for the first time by the Vikings, and over the next century the Priory declined under the threat of further raids, with as few as a couple of monks at one time.

After the Norman Conquest of England in AD 1066, Lindisfarne was re-founded and continued to thrive albeit at a low level. In the 13th century, after Edward I’s invasion of Scotland, border warfare flared, and the monks were obliged to fortify their Priory.

Then along came Henry VIII, and in 1537, the Priory was ordered to close. By the 18th century much of the priory lay in ruins, although the church was reported as more or less intact in 1780. Further collapses followed in the subsequent decades.

Click on the image (right) to open a site plan of the Priory on the English Heritage website.

I think one of the first impressions of the Priory is the rich red color of much of the stonework, of the West Front and what remains of the church. Particularly striking is the so-called ‘rainbow’ arch, the surviving rib of a crossing vault even though the tower above it has collapsed.

Here is a small selection of the many photos I took in the Priory; there are more in this album.

I shouldn’t finish this brief description of Lindisfarne Priory without mentioning the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most spectacular manuscripts to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, and now residing in the British Library. There is a small exhibit about the gospels in the Church of St Mary the Virgin adjoining the ruins of the Priory.

From the grounds of the Priory there are stunning views towards Lindisfarne Castle that sits on a rocky crag at the southeast corner of the island.

And having seen all there was to see in the Priory, that’s where we were headed, a walk of a little over a mile from the village.

A fort or castle has stood here since Tudor times in the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Lindisfarne Priory was abandoned.

Stone from the Priory was used in the construction of the castle, which stands on a rocky outcrop known as Beblowe Crag. The walls are very thick, since several rooms were used as powder magazines.

Edward Hudson © Country Life Picture Library

In 1901, the castle was purchased by Edward Hudson (owner of Country Life magazine) who commissioned the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (who played a leading role in the design and building of New Delhi as the capital of India) to refurbish the castle in the Arts and Craft style. The castle was given to the National Trust in 1944 and opened to the public in the late 1960s.

Access to the castle is up a winding and quite steep slope, through a sturdy wooden door (with the remains of a portcullis) and up a flight of stairs to the entrance terrace. Just a few rooms are open to the public (the entrance hall, kitchen/parlor, the dining room and a couple of bedrooms. But there is also access to an upper terrace and I guess many visitors to the castle come for the stunning views from there over Holy Island, and north and south on the mainland coast with views of Bamburgh Castle also due south.

Here are a few of the photos I took on that visit. Others can be seen in this album.

To the north of the castle is a small walled garden, designed in 1911 by the influential garden designer and horticulturist, Gertrude Jeckyll (1843-1932).

Further east from the castle crag, there is a set of lime kilns built in the 1860s. Limestone was quarried on the north of the island; coal was brought in by sea.

It was a slow walk back to car park. Having enjoyed an interesting visit to Holy Island, it was time to head south for home. We left just after 15:30, well ahead of the closure of the causeway on the incoming tide.

We really must return, in the winter (weather permitting) when there are fewer visitors (it really was quite hectic throughout), but also when the geese return. Lindisfarne is an important wildlife area.


 

 

Mix and match . . . wine and cheese

I faced an event last night with some trepidation, anxiety even. Steph and I attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School (NWS) in the city center. Since moving up to the northeast 21 months ago, we have not traveled into the city center at all. In fact we’ve only been on the Tyne and Wear Metro twice even though we have concessionary travel passes upgraded (for a small fee) to Gold Cards for free travel.

Why? Covid, of course. And despite government protestations to the contrary, the pandemic ain’t over yet. So we remain cautious. We are triple-jabbed, but I’m sure that whatever immunity we acquired more than a year ago has already begun to wane. We do get out and about, mostly to places where we can walk in the fresh air, and have, until now, avoided mixing with crowds. Having said that, we do a weekly shop at the local supermarket, but always masked. Indeed, we wear masks wherever and whenever we expect to meet crowds.

So we were faced somewhat with a dilemma yesterday. How do you go to a wine and cheese tasting event masked up? Simple answer: you don’t.

The NWS is located at Blackfriars (a 13th century friary) on Friars Street, close to Central Station.

The event was a 2021 Christmas gift from our daughters and their families. So, despite any reservations we might have had, we hopped on the Metro close to home (just under 10 minutes) for the 20 minute and eleven stations ride into the city. The train was quite empty for the most part, until we reached Jesmond where the Metro truly becomes an underground operation. We saw only one other masked passenger.

From Central Station, it was less than a 10 minutes to the venue, located in meeting rooms above the Blackfriars restaurant. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and having arrived a little before the 7 pm start time, we whiled away the time in the restaurant bar. Just a glass of water for both of us.

There were just nine couples (full house) attending the wine and cheese, and we found a table over on one side where there was a little more space from the other attendees.

Waiting for everyone to arrive.

Our tutor for the evening was Alex Lomas who briefly explained the rudiments of tasting both wine and cheese, and how to successfully match them. But the bottom line: it all depends on personal preference.

And without further ado, we got down to enjoying what Alex had prepared for us.

We had seven wines to taste (retailing from £10.50 to £15.50), each matched with a different cheese. In front of each participant was a table mat, with six ‘numbered’ glasses. And a plate of cheese each.

There were two white wines (English and Alsace), a Rhône Tavel rosé (French), an Argentinian Malbec, two ports (white and tawny), and a dessert wine (Sauternes). Just click on the image on the right to read descriptions of the wines and the cheeses they had been matched with.

As we tasted the first white, from Cornwall of all places, I remarked to Steph that it tasted like summer in a glass: light and fruity, quite dry, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc. The other white was a ‘heavier’ Gewurztraminer from Alsace. More like autumn in a glass.

In between we’d tried a Tavel rosé, full of strawberries. Unlike many, we really enjoy rosé wines. Apparently all wines with the Tavel appellation are rosé.

The white port was an eye-opener for me, never having tasted this before. It was delicious, and matched with a wine Derby cheese. The other tawny port, a fuller, richer taste (lots of raisins and nuts) was matched with a mature Cheddar, full of crunchy salt crystals.

In between the ports, we enjoyed a soft Malbec from the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec has certainly taken off in popularity, and I have to say it’s one of my favorites. It was matched with a salty Gouda.

And finally, we all enjoyed a glass of sweet Sauternes or ‘noble’ botrytis wine, which had been matched with a Stilton. Quite unexpected but what a perfect combination.

Now, much as I prefer red wines overall, and the Malbec was delicious, the find for me at this tasting was the Graham’s Fine White Port. It was the Alsatian wine for Steph. And the cheese? Butler’s Handmade semi-hard Lincolnshire goat cheese.


All too soon, the allotted two hours had flown by, and we were making our way back to the Metro, catching a train around 9:30 pm.

Waiting for our train on Platform 2.

We were home by 10 pm. It was a really excellent evening, and by then, all anxiety had disappeared. Let’s hope there were no Covid carriers in the room last night.

Thank you to Hannah and Philippa, Michael and Andi – and the grandchildren. Celebrating Christmas in June.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

65 St Edward St, Leek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Stoneham House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view to the Pacific Ocean over the Miraflores rooftops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Turrialba volcano from the town below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mt Makiling from the IRRI Research Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Dec 2002: in front of Arthur’s Place

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


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

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

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

The removers on their way north!

Goodbye to No. 4.

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

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

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

Finally settled.

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

April 2021 and beyond.

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


 

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

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

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

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

The magnesian limestone cliffs at Marsden Bay.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

View north from the Great Gatehouse

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

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

Looking north along Warkworth beach towards Alnmouth.

Warkworth Castle

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

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

Coquet Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Time for a national reboot . . .

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

The (Dis)United Kingdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Prince of trees . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whin Sill at Crag Lough, Northumberland.

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

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

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

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

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

The views south across the Northumberland countryside are quite magnificent.

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

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


 

Birding in the northeast . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Grey heron

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

Dipper

Goosanders

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

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

Little grebe

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

Red kite

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

House sparrow (L) and tree sparrow

Rather than describe all the birds on my current list, do go back to that earlier post to see many of the birds that we see regularly here. I’ll just highlight some of those that have particularly caught my attention.


When we moved into our new house just over a year ago, the rear and front gardens were just patches of grass. Calling them ‘lawns’ would be an exaggeration. Steph worked hard from the end of April 2021 to design and build a new garden, hopefully attracting more insect and bird life.

Certainly the insects increased in number and type, with many different types of bees visiting the range of flowering plants that we introduced.

Throughout the summer and into autumn, there was a family of five or six pied wagtails (right) that we saw in the garden almost everyday. They disappeared during the coldest weeks of the winter, but have once again started to show up in the garden.

And when we took a trip in July to the headwaters of the River Coquet and the Cheviot Hills, we saw many pied wagtails flitting back and forth along the banks of the river.

Upper Coquetdale

Another surprising visitor to the garden, just once, was an uncommon mistle thrush (right), a much larger cousin of the song thrush.

Song thrush numbers have declined dramatically, but they were a common presence in my younger days, over 60 years ago. However, over the past week, I’ve seen three song thrushes and heard them belting out their glorious songs.

Close to home is an overflow pond for the local stream or burn that has its source less than half a mile away to the west.

Surrounded by lush vegetation, particularly knapweed and bulrushes closer to the water’s edge, this pond hosts several species like mallards and moorhens. Throughout most of last year, and until quite recently, there was a semi-resident grey heron. I hope he will return as the frog population grows in the Spring. Recently, however, a little egret has made an appearance over a couple of days.

Little egret

And in the summer months, the site hosts a thriving population of reed warblers, reed buntings, and whitethroats.

The goldfinches have an autumn feast when the knapweed seed heads ripen.

On the coast we see the usual range of waders such as oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sanderling, dunlin, and turnstones. One of my favorites however is the redshank (right), easily spotted because of its bright orange-red bill and legs. And, of course, several species of gull.

Another new species is the golden plover that I’ve seen on local farmland during the winter as well as at the coast foraging among the rocks. In summer it can be found inland on the hills and moors.

Golden plover

On the cliffs just south of the River Tyne (south of our home) and further north at Dunstanburgh Castle near Craster on the Northumberland coast are colonies of kittiwakes (below) and cormorants.

Cormorants on the coast south of the River Tyne at Whitburn.

We’ve also seen other cliff-dwelling species like guillemots and razorbills surfing on the waves, but we’re waiting on a trip out to the Farne Islands later in May to really get a look at these up-close.

But perhaps the most impressive sight, to date, have been flocks of pink-footed geese. We saw them first in a field (together with a small flock of about 30 curlews) near Seaton Sluice back in the Autumn. Then, on a walk close to home I could hear them honking in the distance and, gaining some height on the spoil heap at the former Fenwick Colliery, we could see a flock of several hundred grazing in a nearby field.

Pink-footed goose

But it wasn’t until about a month ago, when we were sat enjoying a picnic lunch just south of Amble, that I saw a ‘murmuration‘ of large birds which I’m pretty certain were pink-footed geese even though I didn’t have a clear sight as they were too far away to the west and I was looking into the sun. There must have been 1000 birds or more (based on my rough and ready count), flying this way then that, and finally spiraling down one after the other to land close to Hauxley Reserve. Until I have experienced a starling murmuration, this one will have to suffice, even though it was less frenetic than the starling version.


As in that earlier post, most of the bird images here were taken (with his permission) from the wonderful website of amateur photographer Barry Boswell (below), where you can find these and many more. Just click on the image below.

Barry has accumulated an impressive portfolio of bird photos. It’s remarkable how digital photography has revolutionized this particular hobby. When I see images of this quality I do wonder where he (and others with the same passion) get their patience, and indeed bird-spotting luck. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

Unlike the 500 mm lens (and Canon bodies) that Barry is sporting in the image above, I only have an 18-200 mm telephoto lens on a Nikon D5000 DSLR body.


 

 

Traveling the Lincoln Highway – in literature and life

The Lincoln Highway. America’s first transcontinental highway, opened in October 1913. Three thousand, three hundred and eighty-nine miles!

If you’re traveling east to west, it begins in Times Square in New York and, originally crossing twelve states, ends at Lincoln Park in San Francisco on the west coast in California. Originally there was a ‘Colorado Loop’, removed in 1915, and in 1928, the route was realigned to take in northern West Virginia.

Over the years, however, the Lincoln Highway was subsumed into the US numbered highway system, with much of the section between Pennsylvania and Wyoming becoming part of US 30. Nowadays, I-80 west of Chicago follows much the same route as far as I can determine, although in places to the south of US 30.

So what’s this interest in the Lincoln Highway, and US 30?

Well, I’ve just finished reading The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, published in 2021. It’s an unusual tale of three teenagers and an eight year old boy who travel from Nebraska to New York. However, from the outset, the intention was for Emmett Watson and younger brother Billy (the main characters), to take the Lincoln Highway westwards to California in search of their mother who had abandoned the family some years earlier. And the only idea of where she might be is a series of postcards sent over nine days after she departed, from locations along the Lincoln Highway.

But instead of trying to explain the rationale of the book, let author Amor Towles tell you himself.

Towles’ previous books, Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow were published in 2011 and 2016, respectively, to considerable acclaim. I found The Lincoln Highway somewhat of a strange read, even though several reviewers gave it high praise. I decided to take it up after a friend posted a comment on Twitter about her enjoyment of this book.

I’m not so sure. About one third of the way through, I had to put it to one side for a while. I found the pace, and the literary tangents, not to my liking. Although, on reflection, it’s precisely those tangential narratives that are the mainstay of the novel. I guess I’d been expecting to read a more traditional travelogue about the Lincoln Highway. In many respects it is, but not the one I ‘hoped’ for. And since the narrative commences in Nebraska, about half way along the Highway, it emphasizes the in medias res approach of the author (and his characters), where the narrative skips forwards and back.

At the end of the novel we finally see Emmett and Billy heading to Times Square to commence that long journey westwards: the whole route, not just the western half that was promised at the beginning.

I try not to read too much into any novel that I take up. I had enough of literary analysis when I studied English Literature in high school for my pre-university exams. I like a narrative to take me along, and I particularly like to see how an author uses language to paint literary images. Amos Towle has a most acceptable writing style.


However, there’s another aspect of the Lincoln Highway that grabbed my attention. Being of a geographic bent, I went online to discover more about this particular transcontinental artery.

Since 2011, Steph and I have made some special road trips across America, and in the last one, in 2019, before the Covid pandemic prevented our return to the USA, we traveled from Massachusetts, through New England, around New York, down through New Jersey, across Pennsylvania, and south through Maryland and Virginia, before flying on to Minneapolis-St Paul from Baltimore.

Much of our route through Pennsylvania was on US 30, and indeed during earlier road trips we had crossed or traveled short distances along the same route in Ohio (at Canton), in Indiana, and Iowa. Now, we didn’t make our road trips in a vintage Studebaker like Emmett and Billy (and their ‘companions’ Duchess and Woolly). But, when I saw the cover of The Lincoln Highway, it took me back to the road trip Steph and I made to the American Southwest in 2011, when we checked out that other iconic highway, Route 66, near Holbrook and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Perhaps it’s just the call of wide open spaces, but American road trip narratives have almost become a genre of their own, and one that I would like to contribute to more myself, given half the chance.

You can check out some more of our road trips under ‘USA’ on this page.


 

 

 

 

What a transatlantic coincidence . . .

I never was a Led Zeppelin fan, Stairway to Heaven and all that.

Led Zeppelin formed when I was an undergraduate student in 1968, and were probably at their height of fame during the 1970s when I was away in South and Central America. The band just didn’t figure on my musical radar. And by the time I returned to the UK in 1981, Led Zeppelin were no longer active. Of course I knew about them, but their music, (whatever genre it was, heavy metal or not) never found favor with me.

I knew all about lead singer Robert Plant, long mane of blond hair, bare chest and the like. I never paid much attention to his ability as a vocalist. Until October 2007 that is.

In an extraordinary collaboration, Plant teamed up with multi-Grammy Award winner bluegrass singer and musician Alison Krauss, releasing Raising Sand to wide acclaim.

I’d first encountered the music of Alison Krauss around 2008 when I was on home leave that year, and later wrote about her and Union Station in 2012 (one of the first posts I wrote). But I’d not come across Raising Sand then. It wasn’t until I retired and returned to the UK that I first came across that album. And in the intervening years, it has become a firm favorite. The second track, Killing the Blues,  is my favorite track, and here are Plant and Krauss performing on the BBC show, Later . . . with Jools Holland.

Now, fourteen years later, they have renewed their distinctive collaboration with the release of Raising the Roof in November 2021. Both albums were produced by T Bone Burnett.

This album was a present from my wife last Christmas. I’m still working through it, and not certain yet which is my favorite track. Nevertheless, Raising the Roof is as good as Raising Sand, and has also been widely praised. The fifth track, Searching for my Love, is a perfect vehicle for Plant’s vocals.

The ninth track, Last Kind Words Blues is a good example of how Krauss and Plant cross genres. It was written and originally recorded by country blues singer Geeshie Wiley in 1930.


Yesterday, I’d come across an iPod Nano that I had misplaced for more than a year. I normally use that iPod in the car, so decided to copy Raising the Roof on to it (and another iPod Classic).

It was mid-afternoon, almost 15:30. I was sitting in the living room, reading one of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series novels, and listening to Raising the Roof. My cellphone was on charge across the room, but I did hear the distinctive ping of a WhatsApp message but didn’t immediately bother to check it out.

It was from my elder daughter Hannah who lives in St Paul, Minnesota. It would have been almost 09:30 over there. Sitting at her desk (working from home for the past two years during the Covid pandemic) she had been listening to public radio, and heard an item about Raising the Roof.

As you can see from my reply, it was quite a coincidence that I should be listening to that album (probably the eleventh track Going Where the Lonely Go) at the very moment she sent me the message.


 

A lifetime of events . . .

I was born in November 1948. Clement Attlee was the Labour Prime Minister, and the National Health Service (NHS) had been launched just a few months earlier, on 5 July. I was the 160,000th baby born under the NHS, or thereabouts.

I’m now 73, and don’t deny that I probably spend more time than is good for me reflecting on things past. Inevitable I guess, since I look ahead to fewer years than those I’ve already enjoyed.

During my lifetime there have been some remarkable—many tragic—events that historians will analyze and write about for years to come. What world (and local) events have found a place in the recesses of your mind? Where were you at the time? How many of my memories appear on your list?

I grew up in Congleton, Cheshire. For obvious reasons I don’t remember anything about the first couple years or so of my life. In July 1950 the Korean War broke out and continued until an armistice was signed at the end of July three years later. And we’re still living with the fallout from that conflict seven decades later!

On 6 February 1952, King George VI passed away, and his elder daughter Elizabeth (then away in Kenya with her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. I have no recollection whatsoever of that event, and hardly any of the coronation on 2 June 1953. But I do have photographic proof, however, because all the children in our neighborhood in Congleton dressed up for the occasion. The Queen’s accession is topical right now, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, the longest-serving monarch in the country’s history.

Coronation Day, 2 June 1953; at the bottom of Howey Lane.
Back Row L → R : Margaret Jackson; Jennifer Duncalfe; Josie Moulton; Meg Moulton; Susan Carter; Ed Jackson; Richard Barzdo; NK: Peter Duncalfe; NK; George Foster; David Hurst; Stephen Carter; Martin Jackson. Front Row L → R : NK; Carol Brennan; NK: Alan Brennan: Robert Barzdo; NK; Mike Jackson.

Gamel Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt (Source: Wikipedia).

We moved to Leek ( a market town in North Staffordshire just 12 miles southeast of Congleton) in April 1956. I’d celebrated my 7th birthday the previous November. The defining event perhaps of 1956 was the Suez Crisis, which lasted for just over a week from 29 October, leading to the humiliation of the United Kingdom and France that jointly had tried to regain authority over the Suez Canal from Egypt. The events of that week mean little to me now, but the one thing that I do remember very clearly was petrol (gasoline) rationing, which began in mid-December and lasted for four months. Handing over coupons in exchange for fuel made quite an impression on my young mind.

Rationing was lifted in May 1957. During the energy crisis of the early 1970s (after I’d already moved to Peru) the UK government contemplated introducing petrol rationing once again, but this did not materialize.

Incidentally, general rationing introduced during World War II lasted until July 1954. I can just about remember running errands for my mother to the corner shop near our house in Moody Street in Congleton, and handing over ration coupons.

Khrushchev and Kennedy (Source: Wikipedia).

October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Just a month before my 14th birthday. Was that standoff between Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy the closest the world came to full-scale nuclear war? I think the consensus is Yes! I remember that fateful day, 22 October if my memory serves me right when Khrushchev and the Soviets blinked first, and the stand-off between these two nuclear powers began to de-escalate. I was in high school, and there was certainly an air of anticipation, anxiety even, as the deadline approached. We all breathed a sigh of relief when no mushroom clouds appeared on the horizon. That’s how seriously we believed the situation to be, naive or otherwise.

A couple of things jog my memory from August 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah! On the 23rd, The Beatles released She Loves You, perhaps the hit single that signaled their meteoric rise to fame and fortune.

Having seen them ‘performing’ She Loves You on a Saturday TV program, I realized this was something special. I was fourteen, and staying with an aunt and uncle who kept a pub in Staines.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, one of the most notorious (but badly planned and incompetently executed) robberies took place in Buckinghamshire when a gang held up a Royal Mail train, stealing more than £2.6 million (=£56 million at today’s value). Known as The Great Train Robbery, it was a daring raid and has, over the decades, been absorbed into popular culture. The morning after the robbery, the airwaves were broadcasting nothing but accounts of the previous night’s event, and how the police were already tracking the gang down. Most were eventually brought to justice, although several did flee overseas.

President Kennedy with wife Jacqueline in Dallas shortly before his assassination.

However the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963, 12:30 CST (18:30 GMT) was surely one of the life-defining moments of the 20th century. Everyone knows where they were when his assassination was announced. The whole world was stunned. I had been watching early evening television, when the program was interrupted, maybe a little after 19:00 to announce Kennedy’s death. For the rest of the night there were no further broadcasts, just solemn music, and a static image. It was, undoubtedly, a turning point in American politics. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson won re-election in 1964, and introduced far-reaching civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Movement suffered a significant loss with the assassination of 39 year old Martin Luther King in April 1968. By then the right-wing backlash against the Johnson liberal agenda had begun, and when he decided not to contest the 1968 election, that opened the door to Nixon (and Reagan at the end of the decade after Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency).

In June 1967, the Six Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) ended in victory for Israel and its annexation of and expansion into Palestinian lands on the West Bank. Almost 55 years on and the world sees this as yet another unresolved conflict and a potential tinderbox in the future. I am unable to offer any support for the Israelis as they continue to expand their stranglehold over the Palestinian territories.

What was the significance in my life? Well, I was studying for and beginning to sit my Advanced Level (university entrance) exams, and my exam anxiety was certainly increased as uncertainty about the outcome of the war, and possible involvement of the superpowers, was contemplated around the world.

Earthrise, taken by William Anders. (Source: Wikipedia)

During the Christmas 1968 vacation, I was home in Leek from the University of Southampton. As during previous Christmas breaks, I had a temporary job with the Post Office, delivering the Christmas mail. Quite a bit of snow fell during those days, and it was not particularly pleasant trudging around the streets with a heavy sack of mail over my shoulder. Also, I was keen to get back home to watch the latest news from the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, captained by Frank Borman, and the first crew to leave Earth orbit.

It’s also remarkable to remember that only seven months  (and three missions later) that Apollo 11 landed two men on the surface of the Moon in July. I was away in Norfolk on a botany field course. And, much against the wishes of the course tutors, we rented a TV so that we could watch the first steps live.

Richard Nixon had been re-elected POTUS in the November 1972 general election, only to see his presidency unravel in 1973 and 1974 as the Watergate scandal caught up with him, and leading to his resignation in August 1974. After I moved to Peru in January 1973, I did not have day-to-day access to news in English but I did subscribe weekly to Time and Newsweek. I didn’t throw any of the magazines away, not even in August that year when Steph and I decided to move apartments. The pile of magazines came with us. And it was after Nixon’s resignation, and we were thinking about moving once again, that I decided to have another look through all those copies. The American political cartoonists had Nixon’s number from very early on in the scandal, and each week, some of the very best were published. I made a scrapbook of all those cartoons; here’s a link.

Closer to home were The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with a surge in violence in the early 1970s and beyond. Bloody Sunday (on 30 January 1972) was, in some ways, the beginning of the worst of the sectarian violence over three decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Four days before I departed for Lima, on 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) only to leave 47 years later (more of Brexit below).

In April 1975 the Vietnam War effectively came to an end when the army of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon in the south. Three images epitomize the horrors of that war: naked 9 years old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down the road following a napalm attack on her village (there is a happy ending); the execution of a suspected Vietcong official in Saigon; and the chaotic evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon (reminiscent of the evacuation recently from Kabul)

I was back in the UK by April 1981, launching my second career as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In late March 1982 I took a party of MSc students to Israel to attend a two week course on crop wild relatives and their conservation. It was while we were there that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in the South Atlantic, claiming that they were sovereign Argentinian territory. We had lots of discussions how the British government would respond, with several of my students dismissing any idea that there would (or could) be any military response so many thousands of miles from the UK. They (and the Argentinians) hadn’t reckoned with The Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The response was swift, and on reflection, quite brutal. The Falklands War lasted a mere ten weeks, ending with defeat for Argentina. It was a war that should never have started. It did however cement Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

What about the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 26 April 1986 in the Ukraine? To what extent did this have any impact on your community? The whole area around Chernobyl remains a safety exclusion zone. The disaster reminds us of the dangers of lax regulation of a nuclear industry, at a time when countries are looking to disinvest in fossil fuels. The effects were felt as far west as the UK where radioactive caesium-137 was detected in upland areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England, affecting the movement of livestock.

One of the most infamous occurrences of the Cold War must surely be the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and its aftermath, brutally dividing the citizens of that city. But that all changed in November 1989 when the wall came tumbling down, signalling the collapse over the next few years of the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, in particular the Soviet Union in December 1991. I passed through the wall on a visit to East Germany in March 1990. Given the current dangerous situation on the Ukraine-Russia border there are those within the Russian hierarchy who wish to turn the clock back.

At the same time, Yugoslavia began to break up between June 1991 and 1992 with the inexorable slide to war in the Balkans between 1992 and 1995. I was working abroad again at that time, and didn’t have regular access to TV news bulletins, so perhaps was ‘spared’ some of the daily horrors of that war even though we were aware of atrocities like the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995.

And talking of moving abroad, there was an event in June 1991 that almost put paid to my travel plans. In the Philippines, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the second most powerful eruption of the 20th century. And combined with the arrival of Typhoon Yunya, the towns and villages surrounding the volcano were deluged with volcanic ash and that, mixed with rain, formed a concrete-like layer (lahar) that buried some communities meters deep. Ash fell on Manila 91 km to the southeast and closed the international airport. Ash even fell on Los Baños (my destination) a further 70 km south. With the closure of the airport I did wonder when I might be able to travel to the Philippines to begin my new job at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The spread of the ash cloud between 14 and 25 April 2010.

Ironically, the eruption of another volcano 19 years later almost delayed my return to the UK after retiring from IRRI. Between 20 March and 23 June 2010, the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed an enormous ash cloud over much of Europe closing down aviation for several weeks. We left the Philippines on 2 May arriving home the following day.

It must have been mid-morning, 1 September 1997, and Steph and I were shopping in the US embassy commissary in Manila. Another British couple arrived and asked if we’d heard the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had died in a automobile accident in Paris some hours earlier. I can’t deny that I had little time for this rather shallow woman, but she was an iconic celebrity on the world stage. What took me by surprise was the overt outpouring of grief, not only in the UK but in many in the countries around the world. I was amazed how my Filipino staff reacted to her death. Quite extraordinary scenes in London during her funeral.

Another tragic natural disaster was the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that affected 14 countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, with more than 227,000 persons losing their lives. One aspect of the reporting of the disaster in the British media particularly disgusted me. By then we’d already had daily access to BBC news broadcasts. And as was typical of reporting on disasters around the world, it was assessed by the number of British citizens who lost their lives. It seemed as though all the other deaths were somehow collateral and didn’t matter. It certainly affected the psyche of millions in the region. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan on 11 March 2011 was Mother Nature’s repeat performance, but one that was extensively captured on video the destructive power of tidal waves for the first time. It also led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

(Source: Wikipedia – official White House photo by Pete Souza).

Let’s, for just a moment, turn to something far more positive and uplifting. What could that be? The election of Barack Obama as the 44th POTUS, the first black American to hold that post was not only a momentous occasion in the United States but worldwide. After eight years of Dubya, Obama’s elevation to the highest office in the land was a breath of fresh air. His empathy, charisma, and oratory to inspire set him so apart from his predecessor. Of course he didn’t get everything right. But in light of what was to come after Obama, GW Bush does not, in hindsight, seem to have been the appalling POTUS that many perceived or implied during his eight year occupancy of the White House.

And so to the 2016 general election, when Donald J Trump, Cockwomble-in-Chief became Number 45. What an unmitigated (and dangerous) outcome for the USA.

For many of us in the UK (48% of those who voted) 2016 was also a disastrous year, with the referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) leading to our exit: Brexit! And still Brexiters are trying to conjure up advantages and opportunities of leaving the EU when all the data point in the opposite direction.

As I conclude this post, we are still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, although the government here in the UK would have us believe otherwise. So many invocations of British exceptionalism over the past two years make me almost ashamed to claim British nationality. Boris Johnson‘s government is mired in scandal and corruption and one can only wonder how he’s managed to hang on this long.

Just at the time when we need a strong government to help rebuild the economy and society as the pandemic wanes (hopefully), and in the face of Russian aggressive moves on Ukraine’s eastern frontier. It seems that we are closer to a wider conflict in Europe than since the Second World War. For f***s sake, what does Vladimir Putin think he’s playing at? While also recognizing that the NATO alliance hasn’t got everything right either, this warmongering on both sides is, to me at least, inexplicable. It’s not as though the world doesn’t have enough issues to confront: emergence from the Covid pandemic, regional conflicts, and climate change to mention just three. I’m sorry to end this post on such a depressing note. I wish I could be more optimistic. Hope springs eternal, but is certainly being challenged right now.


 

705,000 words and counting . . .

I published my first blog post exactly ten years ago today.

It was a modest piece, just 131 words (the average is now 10x longer), plus one image, a link to a Wikipedia article, one to a video I placed on YouTube, and another two on the BBC News website, about a visit Steph and I had made to an early 19th century steam-fired pumping station along the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire.

Modest beginnings, indeed. Just click on the image below to take a peek.

After I retired in April 2010 and returned to the UK, our daughters Hannah and Philippa urged me to write down my reminiscences of life at two international agricultural research institutes in Peru (the International Potato Center – CIP) and the Philippines (the International Rice Research Institute – IRRI), and as lecturer in plant biology at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s.

I began toying with the idea of a personal blog around September 2011. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but the thought of staring at a blank piece of paper and beginning at Day 1, so to speak, was rather daunting. I think it was Hannah who suggested I should think about writing a blog. So I did. And it would allow me to combine writing with my other interest: photography.

I did some background research on possible blog platforms and did a few test runs on one or two before settling on WordPress. It appeared to offer the sort of flexibility (and ease of editing) that I was looking for, being able to combine text and images, and hyperlinks to other sites and the like. So for a couple or months I dabbled with different ‘themes’ and color schemes, before settling on the Dusk to Dawn theme. It was originally a design in various shades of blue until I settled on the scheme I’m using today. But that can always change.

And, of course, I had to give my blog a name. That wasn’t so easy. You see, I’d decided that I wasn’t going to limit my blog to just a single theme. I wanted to write about anything that took my fancy: my work experiences, genetic resources, science, music, travel, politics. Hardly any sport, though. I’m not really a sporty type. Anyway, you name it, I think by now I’ve written about it.

I’m not quite sure how I came up with A Balanced Diet, and I’m sure I must have disappointed even a few foodies who landed on my blog seeking words of nutritional or culinary wisdom.

Anyway, since that first blog, things have moved on rather a lot:

  • I have published (including this one), 635 posts, more than one a week.
  • I’ve written more than 705,000 words.
  • I’ve uploaded almost 15,000 images most of which are my own, 83 videos (although I’ve linked to many more on YouTube), 213 documents, and 64 audio files.
  • There have been 138,761 visitors from 207 ‘countries’, but for 56 of these there were 10 or fewer visitors. Since there are only 193 member states of the UN, WordPress also lists separately places like Jersey and Guernsey in the UK, the EU (Brussels presumably) and some others that are not independent (like some of the French overseas territories). Even so, quite impressive.

I link to Wikipedia for a lot of background information (and yes, I do make an annual subscription to Wikipedia) or original websites. This permits me to give just a broad outline on many topics without having to go into great detail that can be found elsewhere.

Now I mentioned that I’m not a sporty type, yet the most visited post is one ostensibly about cricket. This is Jackson’s Top 10:

  1. ‘The bowler is Holding, the batsman’s Willey’ (2013-08, on cricket commentators)
  2. Walking in Hadrian’s footsteps . . . (2021-08, Roman history, especially in the northeast of England)
  3. Potatoes – the real treasure of the Incas . . . (2012-02, the South American Andes, home of the potato)
  4. “I’m all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.” Kenneth Horne (2013-03, comedy from one of my favorites from the 1960s)
  5. Leek – Queen of the Moorlands (updated 2018-11, my home town in North Staffordshire)
  6. Cockwomble-in-Chief (2020-06, all about Donald Trump)
  7. A knotty dilemma . . . what to wear to an investiture at Buckingham Palace (2012-03, my OBE investiture)
  8. Please sir, I want some more (2017-10, my Charles Dickens marathon)
  9. They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace . . . (2012-03, my OBE investiture)
  10. “There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”. (2015-02, a 1968 botany field course in the west of Ireland)

My story about 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug, is number 11.

Some of the posts I’ve enjoyed writing most have been about potatoes and rice, or genebanks. And travel, especially our road trips across the USA. Then there are the visits we have made to National Trust and English Heritage properties here in the UK since 2011 and which must account, I guess, for a significant amount of the UK traffic. Just check out the archive or page links on the right hand panel.

At the back end of 2021, I guess from about October onwards, I suffered my first serious writer’s block, and had little enthusiasm for sitting down at my laptop. I’ve only written 10 posts since then.

But now, at last, I feel the muse beginning to grab my attention once again, and hopefully my output will increase.

I started this blog for my own amusement. Others have found some of the stories interesting. I hope you will continue to return to A Balanced Diet. Here’s to the next 705,000 words!


 

Eat ’em to conserve ’em . . .

That’s right. Eat ’em to conserve ’em. Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the answer is not what you might expect.

On a recent BBC Two program [1], Lisa, a pig breeder from North Yorkshire of rare—and very hairy—Hungarian Mangalica pigs, told one of the presenters (who’d wondered if he might turn vegetarian after seeing the cuteness of Mangalica piglets): “We need you to eat the meat, because if you don’t eat the meat, then farmers won’t breed them, and that’s how you lose them“.

Regular viewers of BBC One’s Countryfile (broadcast on Sunday evenings) will be familiar with the preservation of rare breeds in the UK. One of the presenters is Cotswold farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe founded the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST supports the UK National Livestock Gene Bank where semen and embryos are stored.

Joe Henson also set up the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 on his farm near Guiting Power that Adam and his business partner continue to run, where the public can see different breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry, most of which no longer play any significant role in commercial agriculture. They only survive because of the interest and efforts of farmers like Adam and the RBST. While preservation of rare breeds is one of Adam’s passions, he frequently acknowledges that they have to pay their way. So, for many farmers like pig breeder Lisa, keeping rare breed livestock is a commercial enterprise. And there is a growing interest in and demand for rare breed meat.


What are the parallels in crops?

For decades now crops (and their wild relatives) have been conserved in genebanks around the world. Scientists in the 1960s acknowledged that unless these crop varieties were collected they might be lost forever. So the good news is that important genebank collections were established, crop varieties and diversity preserved, and used to create more productive varieties for farmers to grow.

Conservation in genebanks or seed banks (often referred to as ex situ conservation, and the plant equivalent of semen and egg or embryo storage) ensures that genetic diversity is protected over the long term, subject of course to the best genebank management practices.  However, there are crops, like potatoes that reproduce vegetatively by tubers (important for maintaining specific varietal identity), and others that either don’t produce seeds, or which are short-lived and cannot be stored in a seed bank.

In the UK there are several important genebank collections: the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee; the Germplasm Resource Unit (GRU, with important collections of wheat, barley, oat, and pea) at the John Innes Centre in Norwich; and the UK Vegetable Genebank (UKGVB) at the Warwick Crop Centre, Wellesbourne.

And the centers of the CGIAR around the world manage some of the largest and genetically most diverse genebank collections anywhere. I have been involved with two of these: for rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, in the Philippines, and for potatoes at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides an extremely important safety backup to these and many national genebank collections.


However, what is the situation on farms? Do farmers continue to grow the varieties that have sustained their communities for generations? Is it feasible to conserve varieties on farm? And how many would opt to grow new varieties if these were available?

Just like livestock, crop varieties can only survive if farmers continue to care for them, and they are consumed. Eat ’em to conserve ’em.

Now many of these farmer varieties (often referred to as landrace or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are found in subsistence farm systems where the full impact of modern bred varieties has yet to be felt.

Take the situation of rice in the northern part of Laos in southeast Asia, for example. Many of the rice varieties grown there are upland rices, and modern rice breeding has produced fewer improved varieties for these agricultural systems. Farmers (many of them women) continue to grow hundreds of rice varieties. While I was head of genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during the 1990s, I spear-headed an international project to collect and conserve these varieties in Laos and many other countries, and one of my colleagues, Dr Seepana Appa Rao spent five years in Laos assisting local scientists there.

‘Heirloom’ rice varieties are an important cultural foundation of many societies throughout Asia (and Africa). But farmers need to make a living, aspire to a better life, producing food for their families, and generate income if possible to pay for their children’s education. Many farmers want something better than the drudgery of agriculture for their children.

Is it possible to make a profitable living from these varieties? What are the opportunities to make the old varieties more commercially appealing? To commodify them. Certainly if these traditional varieties could generate an income, then farmers would be more willing to grow them. And, in the process, fulfill an important objective of on-farm or in situ conservation in a sustainable manner, rather than having to rely on farmer-conservators or subsidies (which can always be taken away).