Deck the halls . . .

Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).

I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.

We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.


Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.

On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.

Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house. 

I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.


At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.

And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.

So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!

Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2013), Worcestershire


Baddesley Clinton (19 December 2014), Warwickshire


Charlecote Park (16 December 2015), Warwickshire


Greyfriars (14 December 2016), Worcester


Croome (28 December 2017), Worcestershire


Coughton Court (30 November 2018), Warwickshire


Hanbury Hall (9 December 2019), Worcestershire


In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.

On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).

Wallington (10 December 2021), Northumberland


Ormesby Hall (28 November 2022), North Yorkshire


 

Not necessarily in the right order . . .

I enjoy writing. And on this blog, I’ve now published 668 stories since 2012, and probably around 700,000 words.

Some stories come easily, others take a little more working once I’ve had an idea. Rarely do I complete a story in one session. I often begin a draft and then let the ideas swirl around my mind for a few days before returning to it and begin some serious editing.

I hope my writing style is accessible. I try to make it so. Having been trained as a scientist, back in the day we were taught always to report our work in the passive voice, almost as if we hadn’t been involved at all. Times are changing, and even when I was still actively publishing (more than a decade ago) I tried to lighten the style by referring to my/our efforts.

So with this in mind, I was amused a few days ago when one of my Facebook friends posted this cartoon. I can relate to that.

It made me chuckle and reminded me of one of the best comedy sketches I’ve ever seen on TV.

Morecambe and Wise were among the UK’s best-loved comic duos from the 1940s onwards. They appeared regularly on TV in the 1970s and 80s, right up to Eric Morecamble’s death 1984.

Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe

Their Christmas Specials were always eagerly anticipated, and they were never short of guest celebrities appearing on the show, often to take part in one of Ernie’s ‘plays’.

Anyway, the particular sketch I’m thinking about was first broadcast in 1971, featuring world-famous pianist and conductor André Previn.

Enjoy the next 13 minutes of exquisite humor and, in particular, the interaction between Eric Morecambe and Previn around 10’56”. Classic comedy, and relevant to the initial theme of this blog post.

And while this sketch is considered one of the all-time classics, it had its origins in 1963. The film of this performance only came to light 50 years later.

Morecambe and Wise recycled the sketch to greater effect with André Previn, to the delight of both orchestra and audience.


 

To the ends of the earth . . .

Recently, I was asked what was the farthest I’d ever traveled. Now, if you have followed my posts here on A Balanced Diet, you will know that I have written a good deal about road trips that Steph and I made in Peru during the early 1970s, in Australia in 2003, in the USA since 2011, and around Scotland in 2015.

I’ve also written about my love-hate relationship with aviation, and some of the flights I’ve made.

So, in the context of the question I was asked, I think it has to be a trip (or several) that I’ve made over the past 50 years. And how aviation has changed during that period.

The Boeing 747 made its maiden flight on 9 February 1969 and changed aviation forever, so it’s rather sad realizing that for most airlines, the Queen of the Skies is no longer operational as a passenger aircraft. The Covid pandemic essentially killed commercial passenger travel for two years. With the introduction simultaneously of more efficient jet liners like the Boeing 777 or 787, and the Airbus A350, the 747 became, except for a handful of airlines, an aviation white elephant. Notwithstanding that Emirates Airlines has reaffirmed its commitment—for the foreseeable future—to the Super Jumbo A380.


Before 1973, when I made my first intercontinental flight, I had flown only three times: from Glasgow (GLA) to Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides in 1966; from London Heathrow (LHR) to Glasgow in January or February 1969 to attend a folk festival at Strathclyde University; and in April 1972 to attend a conference in Izmir, Turkey flying from Birmingham International (known as Elmdon Airport back in the day) to London, and on to Izmir (IGL, now a military airbase) with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul-Yesilköy (IST, now closed to passenger flights, I believe).

Then, on 4 January 1973, I flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Lima, Peru (LIM) with intermediate stops at Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, and Bogotá (BOG) in Colombia, before touching down, late at night, at a rather sultry Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima.

This flight, just over 6500 miles, was operated by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways, using a Boeing 707 like this one.

The Boeing 707 had a range of just over 4000 miles, and the stop in Antigua was necessary for refueling. Today, flights from Europe can easily reach Lima non-stop, and in July 2016 I flew from Amsterdam (AMS) on a Boeing 777 operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, taking about 13 hours if my memory serves me right.

I first flew to Asia in the 1980s, to attend a conference in Jakarta (HLP), Indonesia from Birmingham via Amsterdam. The AMS-HLP flight, operated by KLM was a Boeing 747 (probably 300) and there must have been an intermediate layover, but I don’t remember where. There were no non-stop flights into Asia then, a distance of over 7000 miles. And since I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, and remained there until April 2012, I have flown from there all over the world. Such as the trip I made around 1994 to South Africa on Singapore Airlines: 6855 miles and almost 11 hours flying time from Singapore (SIN) to Johannesburg (JNB) across the Indian Ocean.

We stayed in the Philippines for almost 19 years, returning to the UK each year on home leave. For the first decade we traveled with KLM through Amsterdam and with intermediate stops in either Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bangkok in Thailand. Then, in 2001, when Emirates began operating out of both Manila and Birmingham, we could fly home on a wide-bodied 777 with a short layover in Dubai of a couple of hours or so. The BHX-DXB flights were a little under 7 hours, and between DXB and Manila, a little over 8, with a total distance of more than 7700 miles.


It was a flight around 2005 that was my longest both in terms of miles and hours in the air. I had flown into Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) from Manila (MNL) to spend a weekend with my elder daughter Hannah who was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Direct flights to the USA (via a Tokyo hub) were operated by Northwest Airlines (NWA, now Delta Airlines). And I’d expected to continue all my internal flights on NWA. However there was a major strike and I had to scrabble around to find alternative flights on other airlines that would accept my NWA ticket. Eventually all was sorted, and the trip went ahead without any other hitches.

After my last stop in New York, I flew from New York-La Guardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United flight to Hong Kong-Kai Tak (HKG), with yet another connection on Canadian Pacific to Manila.

My intercontinental flights on NWA had been booked in Business Class (First on US domestic flights). United honored these tickets, and I was upgraded to First on the ORD-HKG flight, much to my relief. I knew it would be a long haul, but hadn’t appreciated just how long. Just under 7800 miles, and 17½ hours.

It was a 747-400, and every seat was taken. We were heavy! In fact, as we taxied out for take-off, our captain advised us there was a better than even chance that we would have to make a stop in Beijing to refuel given the anticipated headwinds. I can remember willing that aircraft into the air; what a long roll before rotation. As it transpired we didn’t have to land in Beijing, but the final couple of hours we must have been flying on vapor, or gliding into Hong Kong. The total trip was just under 9300 miles.


However, the longest trip of all was from BHX to Melbourne (MEL), Australia via Dubai (DXB) on Emirates Airlines (EK) in November 2016 when I had to attend a 3-day meeting of a genebank program I was reviewing.

I was joined by my good friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd. We met up in the Emirates lounge at BHX before setting off to DXB on a Boeing 777-300 ER, and connecting, after a layover of an hour or so, with an A380 flight to MEL.

Brian and me enjoying a wee dram on one of our A380 flights.

The flight to DXB took about 7 hours, a distance of 3500 miles. The connecting flight was 7200 miles and about 14½ hours. The return flights were slightly longer due to headwinds.

In total then this trip to Australia was the farthest I’ve traveled: more than 21 hours flying time, and around 10,700 miles.


 

 

I have a confession . . .

Indeed. I voted Conservative (the Tories for my overseas readers). Just the once mind you, and it was more than five decades ago. 18 June 1970. A General Election.

I’d turned 21 the previous November and was, for the first time, eligible to vote, even though this was the first election in which people could vote from the age of 18. My studies were over and done with, and I was about to graduate from the University of Southampton.

The Labour Party, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been polling favorably and was expected to win the election. But a late swing of just under 5% to the Conservatives gave them an overall majority in parliament of 30 seats. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. I cast my vote in the Southampton Test contest for the Conservative candidate James Hill.  Maybe it was a reaction to Wilson. I just don’t remember.

However, I’ve never voted Conservative since! And I never will again!

In fact I have voted in very few elections, even though I have always exercised my democratic right whenever possible, in both national and local elections. That’s because I spent January 1973 to March 1981 in South and Central America, and from July 1991 to April 2010 in the Philippines. I’ve voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, even the Green Party rather than supporting any Conservative candidate.

Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire where we lived until two years ago) is a true blue constituency, and the sitting MP is former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid. Given the UK’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, my anti-Tory vote has essentially counted for nothing in every election, given the weight of Tory support throughout the constituency. Javid was re-elected in the 2019 election with an increased majority of more than 23,000.

Sajid Javid and Mary Glindon

Now that we have moved north, to North Tyneside (east of Newcastle upon Tyne), I can happily support the Labour MP, Mary Glindon and my vote will count.


They say that the older you get, the more right-wing you become. Is that so? Not in my case, and I’ll be 74 in just over three weeks.

In fact I’ve always been a ‘left of centrist’. And if you evaluate, in detail, what New Labour achieved under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I’d be proud to cast my vote again for their sort of politics. Notwithstanding, of course, Blair’s loss of reputation during the Iraq War and his close relationship with US President George W Bush.

Don’t let the Tories claim otherwise.

Which brings me on to the current standing of British politics that have certainly been turbulent recently. Three Prime Ministers in as many months.

The Three Brexiteers: Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

Not to mention three Home Secretaries, and four Chancellors of the Exchequer, and five Secretaries of State for Education.


I, like many, was delighted when Boris Johnson was finally forced from office in July.

Only to be replaced by perhaps the most incompetent Prime Minister ever to hold that position, Liz Truss, a perspective held by members of the British public.

And her tenure lasted a mere 46 days. Her only achievement was to crash the economy. So when, at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) last Wednesday, Truss declared that she was ‘a fighter, not a quitter‘ (in response to taunts from the Labour benches encouraging her to go), I guessed the writing was on the wall. She resigned the following day.

That brings me back to Boris Johnson. With the prospect of another election for leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister, Johnson quit his holiday in the Dominican Republic and headed back to the UK, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and save the Conservatives. They are currently about 30 percentage points behind Labour in nationwide polling, and were a General Election to be held today, could see themselves virtually wiped out.

A disheveled Boris Johnson seeking support after arriving back from the Caribbean last Sunday.

Writing in ConservativeHome on 23 October, editor and former MP Paul Goodman wrote: Johnson Derangement Syndrome consumes his enemies, who can see no good in him, and his friends, who can see no bad, or none that isn’t outweighed by his jokes, animal spirits and zest for life.

Barely three months since he was forced to resign, at least 60 MPs (including some Cabinet members who had sought his resignation) nailed their colors to the Johnson mast, but were soon found with egg on their faces.

By Sunday night, after having marched his troops to the top of the hill and then down again (just like the Grand Old Duke of York, according to one Conservative MP), Johnson withdrew from the race, leaving the election to just two candidates: Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons (the first to declare her candidacy) and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Moments before the 2 pm deadline for nominations last Monday (24 October) Mordaunt withdrew, leaving the way open for a Sunak coronation. How bizarre! This made Sunak the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years.

Tories in disarray and riven by factions ranging from the European Research Group (ERG) on the right (and vehement Brexit supporters) to centrist (and perhaps more traditional) One Nation Tories.

And appropriate that Johnson was no longer involved. This was a Prime Minster who resigned in disgrace. The first Prime Minister to be convicted of a criminal offence (for breaking a Covid lockdown law that he introduced), and one who is still under investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee for having ‘misled’ the House, a convenient euphemism for having lied.

This is what the British public think of Boris Johnson.

Yesterday, Sunak assumed the reins of government, after having been appointed by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Source: Creator: Aaron Chown Credit: PA; Copyright: PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking to the nation outside No 10 Downing Street afterwards, Sunak committed himself to lead a government that would earn the trust of the British people. He went on to say: This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.

That didn’t last long. By mid-afternoon he had reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just six days after she had been sacked by Liz Truss ostensibly for breaking the Ministerial Code by using her personal email to send an official document. I’m sure there was more to it than that.

Braverman is an evil woman, gloating on camera that she had a dream—an obsession even—of seeing refugees/migrants to this country being flown to Rwanda under the asylum plan initiated by her equally-appalling predecessor at the Home Office, Priti Patel.

And bringing back losers like Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson even, and transferring former Health and Care Secretary Thérèse Coffey (who admitted to breaking the law about the illegal use of antibiotics) to the environment department, DEFRA.

So although Sunak’s words pointed his government in one direction, his actions suggest something rather different.

Yes, it’s remarkable that a colored son of immigrants, a Hindu, has become Prime Minister, and I think we can all applaud that. He’s one of the richest persons in the nation (with a portfolio worth around £750 million, and married to the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest individuals). I don’t begrudge him that wealth, if it was acquired legally and he pays his fair taxes. Whether, as many commentators have suggested, he just cannot relate to the man in the street, time will tell.

Some of his comments on the election trail earlier in the summer when he was up against Liz Truss for the post of Prime Minister, don’t bode well.

Given that a General Election won’t be held soon, I guess Sunak was the best option for the nation, to try and stabilize the economic crisis caused by Truss and Kwarteng. Sunak has kept Jeremy Hunt on as Chancellor. Commentators will have to be careful referring to a Sunak-Hunt partnership – although that may well be an apt description for both.


I’ve just watched today’s PMQs and Rishi Sunak’s first outing at the Despatch Box, grilled by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, hopefully Prime Minister-in-waiting. It was interesting that some of the specific points I made earlier in this post were also raised by Starmer, and it’s clear that many are outraged at the re-appointment of Braverman as Home Secretary.

Come the General Election, will it be Starmer who emerges victorious? I hope so, although I think the general public has yet to warm to him, while recognizing qualities that I believe will make him a good Prime Minister. What a contrast to Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

As with Joe Biden in the USA, ‘boring’ could be a welcome relief for a while. What we need is a General Election – now!


 

The carnival is over . . .

The music of The Seekers, an Australian group formed in 1962 in Melbourne, was a backdrop to my early teenage years.

L-R: Judith Durham, Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger, and Athol Guy

Comprising guitarists Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, Athol Guy on bass, and female singer Judith Durham, The Seekers became one of Australia’s premier acts, and they enjoyed celebrity status abroad with hits like The Carnival is Over (released in 1965) and Georgy Girl (in 1966, the title song to the movie of the same name starring Lynn Redgrave, and nominated for an Oscar).

I hadn’t thought about The Seekers for many decades. They went out of fashion (outside of Australia, at least) and, in any case, my musical tastes had evolved. Then, a few months back I saw an item in the news that Judith Durham had died on 5 August at the age of 79. But beyond reading her obituary in The Guardian, I didn’t think any more about her or the group.

Until earlier this week. Just by chance I came across this video on YouTube of The Seekers in a farewell concert in 2014 (all members would have been in their early- to mid-70s by then), performing I Am Australian. Co-composed by Bruce Woodley in 1987 it has become, so I’ve come to understand, something of an anthem in Australia. Some have even been suggested it as an alternative national anthem.

Since I heard I Am Australian just a few days ago, it has become an ear worm. It’s a pleasant enough composition, somewhat saccharine—sentimental even—to my taste. But something has made it stick in my mind.

Just listen to Judith Durham’s vocals. In this performance her voice was as strong and pure as back in the 1960s. What a voice! And even more remarkable since she had an illness-induced lung/respiratory condition (bronchiectasis) from about the age of 5 that affected her breathing, and which contributed to her death this year.

Beautiful and powerful voices like Judith Durham’s don’t come along very often. And now that I have reconnected with The Seekers, so-to-speak, I can appreciate just how special she was as a singer.


 

Plants deserve more than five minutes of fame . . .

I’m currently enjoying Frozen Planet II, broadcast on Sunday evenings on BBC1, presented and narrated by that icon of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.

Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen Planet not Frozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.

Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.

Proud to be a botanist

The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.

On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening

Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.

It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.

For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S 178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.

Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

    Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.

  • The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
  • The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
  • Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
  • Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.

It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.

I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.

Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.

Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?


 

A gong by any other name . . .

There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.

And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.

Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.

Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.

The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.

The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.

The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.

Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.

The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.

On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.

Receiving my OBE from the Prince of Wales, and afterwards in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace with my younger daughter Philippa and wife Steph.

In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.

A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.

I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.

A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:

It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.

However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.

In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.


 

The Queen is dead, long live the King!

Thus, the traditional proclamation as one monarch passes and another assumes the mantle of Head of State.

Official portrait of HM The Queen (on her 80th birthday) which was released on the announcement of her death on 8 September 2022.

It’s hard to imagine this country without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, so to speak. She reigned for more than 70 years, and could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror in 1066 and beyond. I was only three when she became Queen on 6 February 1952 on the death of her beloved father, King George VI, and too young to remember. Her coronation 16 months later was a different matter, however, when there were nationwide celebrations. Even in Congleton (where I lived at the time) the local children got in on the act.

Children from Moody Street and Howey Lane in Congleton celebrate the Coronation on 2 June 1953.

Head of State of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was also Head of State of 14 other countries¹, as well as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations (the ‘Commonwealth’) comprising 56 member states.

Fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom served during her reign, from Sir Winston Churchill (on her accession) to Liz Truss, appointed just three days ago at the kissing hands ceremony at Balmoral Castle where Her Majesty passed away yesterday at the age of 96.

In fact it was this and other photographs of Her Majesty welcoming Liz Truss, published later that day or the following day, that caught my attention in particular.

Her Majesty had been looking increasingly frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. At breakfast on Wednesday (the 8th) I remarked to Steph just how the Queen appeared to have gone down hill over recent weeks, perhaps her final chapter. Little did I realize.

Then, yesterday morning as I was scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I came across this news story about the Cambridges and their children, and I asked, on Twitter, why this was news at all.

Earlier this year, in the face of increasing political controversy, I wrote a blog post calling for major reform across government and society in this country. And although I’m neither republican or anti-monarchist, I expressed an opinion that the monarchy as such was past its sell-by date. Thus the last point in my tweet, little knowing that Her Majesty would pass away later that same day.

I did see Her Majesty in person on one occasion. In 1975, the University of Birmingham (originally the Mason Science College) celebrated its centenary. I and a group of fellow graduate students from Biological Sciences were among the crowds to welcome her to the Edgbaston campus. I was just a few feet away from her. I will always remember her warm smile.

When I was awarded my OBE in 2012 it was conferred by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. My good friend John Sheehy was also made an OBE but attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace two weeks earlier. We both thought it would have been nicer to have met Her Majesty. But, as John reminded me, Prince Charles would be King sooner or later.

Receiving my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales on 14 February 2012

So what sort of King will Charles become? Known for his strong and often outspoken (and sometimes misguided from a scientific point of view) opinions, he has vowed—so I have heard just now in a BBC commentary—not to carry these across to his new role as King. But I cannot help thinking that he won’t be able always to hold back. And if he chooses the right issues, that might not be a bad thing after all. Our politicians need holding to account. He has already indicated that he wants to see a smaller royal family (those who are working royals and therefore supported by the state), and that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s the end of an era, the start of a new one. Rest in peace Your Majesty. I wish King Charles well, and although my sentiments are to abolish the monarchy, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime or the King’s. Charles is just four days older than me.


¹ Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.

Are you a picky eater?

I guess many of us have, at one time or another, taken one of the many quizzes (like the one below) that appear from time to time on social media platforms, testing whether we are picky or fussy eaters.

When you consider this list, it’s pretty anodyne. ‘Western’ even.

As for me, there’s just one item on this particular list—snails—that I would balk at completely. And it would have to be cooked oysters. I have no real issues with any of the others. There are a couple of others items. namely liver and raw fish, that I’m not overly fond of but would eat.

Yesterday evening, as Steph and I were enjoying a barbecue with chicken, sausage, burgers, salad, and grilled vegetables, I asked her whether there were foods she had refused to eat when growing up in the 1950s. I’m not sure how this came up in conversation. Maybe my memory was stirred by a piece of avocado that I was about to eat. More of that later.

I am fortunate that I have never faced hunger. Even when I was very young and my parents were raising four children, there was always food on the table.

One food item we both agreed that we ate quite frequently when young was liver, usually fried. I quite like fried liver but I haven’t tasted it for years. Chicken livers on a stick (anticuchos) were a particular favorite at a restaurant near Lima where we used to dine we lived in Peru. Delicious!

But how picky would you be if the list was rather more wide-ranging, not western diet biased? Very, I’m sure. Given that so many food preferences are cultural, I have to say there are many foods I could bring myself to try. Here are a few examples.

However hard my colleagues in the Philippines ‘encouraged’ me to try balut (a fertilized developing duck egg embryo), for me that was a step too far. Likewise on my first visit to China around 2005, I declined the ‘exotic’ dishes typical of Cantonese cuisine, becoming vegetarian for the duration of my visit to Guangzhou.

Let’s not even think about insects, especially large juicy grubs. Shivers.

As for very spicy food, I have my limits. So, much as I enjoy Mexican and Indian dishes, I much prefer a delicate blend of spices to the searing heat of chillies.

I’ve always enjoyed trying new fruits, although my favorites are apples and bananas, both of which I eat daily. Until I lived in the Philippines I’d never enjoyed mangoes. But the varieties widely available there are succulent and sweet. Fruits to die for!

But there is one fruit that I have tasted just the once. And once was almost one time too many. The durian! If you can get past the smell the flesh doesn’t actually taste too bad, but is rather rich. However, it was the after-effects. It certainly was the fruit that kept on giving, as I wrote in 2014.

So, provided with a different picky food list, I’m certain my score would be very high indeed.

I mentioned avocado earlier in this narrative. Until I moved to Lima, Peru in January 1973, I’d never tasted this particular food item. And my initial experience put me off it for decades to come. It wasn’t the avocado itself, but the chicken salad (or similar) stuffing of palta rellena that made me violently sick. Steph suffered exactly the same experience when she arrived in Lima some months later on, and for many, many years afterwards, neither of us could face tackling an avocado. However both of us are now enthusiastic avocado aficionados.

I can’t say I was particularly impressed when faced with ceviche for the first time, raw fish marinated in lime juice. It’s a very typical Peruvian dish. However, washed down with a pisco sour or two, what a delight it is.

So, if you ever come across one of those quizzes, try and put it in context, and think about all the cultural differences we experience with regard to what foods we consume – and enjoy.


 

One of the most beautiful places I have visited . . .

Recently, I was asked to choose one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Well beauty lies, as the saying goes, in the eyes of the beholder. What one person finds appealing leaves another cold.

However, to choose just one place, that really is a challenge. But I’m up for it!

I have visited more than 60 countries, and whenever possible, took a day or so from my busy schedules (mainly at weekends) for some sightseeing. So there are many candidates to choose from.

I lived abroad for almost 28 years, in Peru and Costa Rica between 1973 and 1981, and in the Philippines from 1991 to 2010. Our elder daughter lives in the USA (in Minnesota) and Steph and I have visited each year since 2010 and traveled extensively across that vast country. Until Covid put paid to our plans, that is.

In the Americas, I could choose Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Arizona, or the giant redwoods of northern California. Not to mention the many spectacular rivers we have crossed or the mountains like the Tetons and Appalachians we have traveled along.

In Central America, we visited the Aztec temples north of Mexico City, the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. In Peru, there’s the awe-inspiring Machu Pichu, and well as the beauty of the Andes mountains.

In Europe, I fulfilled a life-long ambition to see the Matterhorn, and almost anywhere you travel in Switzerland is chocolate box beauty.

My travels in Africa have taken me to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east, and the magnificent Rift Valley, and to regularly to Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the west.

Water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya

Traveling around Asia, I spent many happy times in Laos, and on one occasion Steph and I managed to snatch a weekend away in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, and take a trip up the Mekong River. In Cambodia, we’ll never forget our visit to Angkor Wat, while the beauty of the Bali landscape and beaches is firmly embedded in my mind. In the Philippines, we visited the coast at Anilao as frequently as possible, about nine visits a year, where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive over some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. And again, there’s the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains.

Heading further south, our travels have taken us on several occasions to Australia and one memorable road trip of 1000 miles from Sydney to Melbourne taking in the spectacular coastline.

Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, Australia

And not to miss out on locations closer to home such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, or the landscapes and beaches along the Northumberland coast where we now live.

But how can I distill all these experiences down to just a single choice? It’s very hard indeed. But in doing so, and I will reveal my choice shortly, I have also taken into consideration not only its intrinsic beauty, but the location, history, and emotions it stirred. And when I combine all these elements, I have chosen the one place (not yet mentioned) I would return to tomorrow, given half the chance.

And where is this particular jewel? Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced Canyon de Shay), in northeast Arizona. Just zoom out on the map below to reveal its location.

It’s certainly not on the same scale as its ‘near’ neighbor the Grand Canyon. But there’s something about Canyon de Chelly that really caught my imagination. And Steph and I have the good fortune to visit there in May 2011.

So how did I come to learn about Canyon de Chelly? It’s not a name that rolls off the tongue.

Well, in early 2011 I came across a book in the public library in Bromsgrove (in Worcestershire where I used to live) about US army officer, Indian fighter, explorer and adventurer, Colonel Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson (1809-1868). Kit Carson was a western ‘hero’ of my boyhood, a figure in popular western culture and myth.

In 1863, he led an expedition into Canyon de Chelly to vanquish the resident Navajo tribe, killing more than 20 persons, stealing 200 or more sheep, destroying their homes (known as hogans) and their precious peach orchards. Not something to be proud of or remembered for as a hero. Anyway, this biography of Carson had me intrigued, and as I began to plan our road trip to the American Southwest for May, I decided to see if it would be possible to include Canyon de Chelly in the itinerary. It fitted in just right.

Landing in Phoenix, we headed north through Sedona Valley to Flagstaff, and on to the Grand Canyon the next day via Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. After a couple of nights at the Grand Canyon, we headed east to Chinle (the nearest town to Canyon de Chelly) via Monument Valley.


The Canyon de Chelly National Monument actually comprises three interconnected canyons: Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. It was designated a national monument in 1931. It’s the ancestral home of the Navajo, but throughout there are the relics of Ancestral Pueblans or Anasazi built into the cliff faces.

Access to the floor of the canyon is limited, with just one trail—to the White House—open to the public (although currently closed due to safety and ‘law enforcement’ issues). Otherwise, visitors must take one of the guided tours to travel along the canyons.

However, there are rim drives on the north and south sides of the canyon, with several overlooks providing spectacular (awe-inspiring even) views. Steph and I set out early from our motel, before the day became too hot, to explore as much as possible along both rim drives.

The approach to Canyon de Chelly from Chinle is not particularly impressive. In the canyon bottom there are groves are cottonwoods springing up beside the creeks that run through.

But it’s not until you begin to climb further along the rim drives that the true nature of Canyon de Chelly reveals itself, with sheer sandstone cliffs rising from the canyon floor.

In places these cliffs are 700 feet or more high.

Among the impressive Ancient Pueblan ruins are Mummy Cave and Antelope House (seen from the north rim drive), and the White House from the south.

Mummy Cave

Antelope House

White House

There is also a cave, fairly close to the rim on the north side known as Massacre Cave where, in 1825, the Navajo were slaughtered by invading Spanish troops.

Massacre Cave

The drive along the south rim eventually brings you to the Spider Rock overlook. Spider Rock is a free-standing sandstone pillar, over 700 feet tall, named after Spider Woman, a prominent character in Navajo lore.

Spider Rock, with the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border on the horizon.

There were few people visiting at the same time as us, and it felt as though we had the whole canyon to ourselves. While we didn’t descend to the canyon floor, the overlook points along both the north and south rim drives provide excellent visual access to the canyon from above.

Spider Rock overlook

Now I’d like to return, taking several days to really explore, understand better the Navajo relationship with Canyon de Chelly, how they came to occupy it, and how their agriculture has evolved over the centuries. In fact, I’d like to understand more about the evolution of human societies in the American southwest.

The grave of Col. ‘Kit’ Carson in Taos cemetery, New Mexico.

Canyon de Chelly has featured in at least 26 movies or TV specials, among the most notable being The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp, Wild Wild West (1999) with Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Kline, Mackenna’s Gold (1969) with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, How The West Was Won (1962) with a host of ‘Western’ stars, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.

Heading east from Arizona, we found ourselves in Taos in northern New Mexico where I visited the grave of Kit Carson.

If you ever find yourself on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, make a beeline for Canyon de Chelly. You won’t regret it.

Mind my Ps and Qs? More like Ws and Cs for me.

I’ve never been one for puzzles of any sort. Crosswords, Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube, even jigsaws. They all leave me cold. Not for me either (in the main) the many online challenges and quizzes that can absorb so much of one’s time.

Until recently, that is.

Many months ago, I noticed that a group of my Twitter friends (all ex-University of Birmingham in one capacity or another) were attempting the daily word puzzle Wordle. Despite their encouragement for me to join in, I replied—rather smugly—that I didn’t waste my time on such pastimes.

Little did I realize that once I had tried to solve the daily word riddle, I would be hooked. Not quite obsessive I hasten to add, but I’m definitely now a devotee of this daily brain teaser.

And not only that, but I found the country quiz Worldle, and that’s become almost as compulsive.


Devised by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle as far back as 2013, Wordle went online publicly in October 2021 becoming an instant craze (perhaps cooled somewhat since then). In January 2022, Wordle was purchased (for a reported seven figure sum) by The New York Times, and is published free online daily. There was a concern that once the NYT acquired the app it would be placed behind a paywall. That hasn’t happened yet.

Anyway, the aim of the game is to guess a five letter word, over six attempts. Correct letters (in the correct position) appear green. Correct letters, but in the wrong position are yellow.

Everyone has their own approach, some having a few ‘starter’ words with which to attack the problem. I take a more haphazard approach, taking the first five letter word that comes into my head, and working from there. The most frustrating challenges are those where there could be several solutions. Just like today’s puzzle (below). Or words that are common in American English but not British English, as has been the case from time to time recently.

So, how have I done? This is my score today (24 July 2022). I’ve never hit on the correct word at the first attempt, and there are few successful second or third guesses. Mostly fourth and fifth guesses. As well as sixteen complete failures.

However, when it comes to Worldle, I’m in much safer territory. Must be all those hours spent, as a child, pouring over maps and wondering which countries I might visit when I grew up. Just like Wordle, you have six attempts to recognize the outline of a country.

Some outlines are a complete mystery since they are never to scale. So a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for instance can appear as large as large country.

Anyway, my success rate on Worldle is quite good, with almost half on the first correct on the first attempt.

My morning routine is a cup of tea at 06:00 listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 for 15 minutes, then attempting both Wordle and Worldle over the next fifteen. Suits me, and gets my brain working ready for the day ahead.

But I’ve not been tempted to move on to spin-offs like Dordle, Sexaginta Quattuordle, or Nerdle. Those would be a step too far.


 

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.