We saw the Fairies Caves but no lonesome pines

Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.

Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.

Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.

To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.

It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.


Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.

At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (established in 1848, with the red doors) are based here.

At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.

And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.


At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.

In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.

Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.

In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.

The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.

King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.

We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.

Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.

There’s even a Back Front Street!

Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.

On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.

And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.


You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.


 

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.


 

“The august but elderly testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent . . .”

King Charles III signs the document to uphold the Protestant faith in Scotland, at yesterday’s Accession Council.

Yesterday, at a Accession Council in St James Palace—broadcast live on television for the first time—Charles III was proclaimed King.

He made a personal declaration about the death of the Queen and an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland—because in Scotland there is a division of powers between church and state.

For anyone interested in ancestry, genealogy, and genetics a simple question remains: Is Charles the true king? And if not, who should be?


Back in 2004, a Channel 4 documentary presented an alternative theory of succession of the British crown from George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), and elder brother to Richard III (1452-1485). The claim was based on the supposed illegitimacy of Kind Edward.

The ‘rightful heir’ should have been Michael Edward Abney-Hastings, 14th Earl of Loudon, a British-Australian farmer, now succeeded by his son the 15th earl. The documentary was a bit of fun, and certainly not taken seriously by Abney-Hastings. However, besides this Plantagenet ‘claim’, there are other alternative successions to the crown.


Charles III has an impressive family tree that can be traced back to the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and even earlier it seems. Of course the line of descent through each monarch was not always direct, father to son or daughter. Some sovereigns never had children.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The key person in that family tree that links the monarch today with the Plantagenets and earlier is Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. Her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, and daughter of Henry VII. Henry VII had married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby linking the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties.

Mary’s son became James VI and I (1566-1625). As we enter a second Carolean Age it’s interesting to note that Charles III is not a direct descendant of Charles I or Charles II, the son and grandson of James.

Charles II (1630-1685) had several bastard sons (who were ennobled) but no legitimate children. However, if and when William, Prince of Wales (and now heir to the British crown) becomes King, there will be a ancestral link back to Charles II through his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

After Charles II’s younger brother James II (1633-1701) was deposed in 1688, and to exclude his Catholic heirs from throne, the crown was offered to James’ Protestant elder daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William III. They had no children, and in 1702, the crown passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who reigned until 1714. It was during Anne’s reign that the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union in 1707.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but only five live births. None of her children survived to adulthood. So, on her death in 1714, Parliament had a dilemma. It would not support the stronger claim of the hated Catholic Stuarts to the throne, instead turning to George, Elector of Hanover, and great grandson of James VI and I through his second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. George became George I of Great Britain, thus founding the Hanoverian dynasty that lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.


George I was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, and in 1760 by his great-grandson George III, who reigned until 1820. George III had fifteen children, some of whom never married, or never had legitimate children. The notorious eldest son became George IV in 1820, and the third son William IV in 1830.

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn

George IV had one daughter who died in childbirth. William IV had a bevy of illegitimate children, none of whom could succeed to the crown.

Once again, the country was faced with a dilemma. The next in line, so to speak, was Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) fifth child and fourth son of George III. He married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861) and they had one child—a daughter—born in 1819 who succeeded to the crown in 1837 (on the death of her uncle William IV) as Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after Victoria’s birth.

But was he Victoria’s father? And this is where the story becomes really interesting, and genetics comes into play.

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children, several of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

Albert, Victoria and their nine children in 1857.

And they took with them a deadly genetic disorder: haemophilia, the ‘bleeding disease’. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the haemophilia gene, but before her there was (apparently) no record of the disorder among the Hanoverians or the families they united with through marriage.

Victoria and Albert’s eighth child and third son, Leopold, Duke of Albany was a haemophiliac. He married Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont; they had a non-haemophiliac boy and a carrier girl. The tragedy of the gene in the Russian Imperial Family is well known.

So where did the haemophilia mutation arise? How had Victoria become a carrier? The gene is carried on the X chromosome. Here’s a simple diagram to explain the genetics.

Well, there are two answers. Either, as distinguished geneticist Professor Steve Jones FRS has so eloquently put it (writing in The Telegraph in May 2011), a mutation of the blood-clotting disease haemophilia . . . originated in the elderly and august testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent; or Edward was not Victoria’s father. If so, then Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a haemophiliac lover, and Victoria was their illegitimate offspring.

Supposition, of course, but still a genetic mystery. DNA tests could solve the mystery, but that would require a comparison of Queen Victoria’s DNA with that of a confirmed relative of George III (or close relative). Just as was achieved when the late Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. And testing the DNA of a descendant of the sister of King Richard III to confirm the identity of the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester.

If a match was not found, what should have been the succession? Presumably the younger brother of the Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and his descendants. However, these German descendants were deprived of their peerages and honors for having sided with Germany in the First World War.

Charles III was confirmed as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, fourteen other countries, and a host of territories. Should he be? It remains one of the intriguing ‘what ifs’ of British royal history.

Long Live the King!


You may be interested in this further reading:

 


 

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.

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.

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.


 

A baker’s dozen . . . and a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!

A baker’s dozen¹. That’s how many National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties—spanning more than 4500 years of history—Steph and I visited recently during the course of a 10-day and 1337 mile holiday in the south of England. We stayed at a cottage in the New Forest, near the village of Beaulieu in Hampshire, almost 300 miles due south (as the crow flies) from where we live in North Tyneside, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, but almost 380 miles by road.

At the end of this piece I’ll also tell you all about that extraordinary close encounter that occurred on the last day.


We took two days each way, stopping off in Banbury, Oxfordshire on the way south, and Leek, in North Staffordshire (and my ‘home town’) returning north. And on each of these four days we visited one NT or EH property, and the other nine during six days in Hampshire. The round trip took in 19 non-metropolitan and metropolitan counties². And over the course of our break we managed to walk, on average, more than four miles each day.

Click on the map below to view the NT and EH icons for each of the 13 properties.

In this post I’ve made little attempt to provide a comprehensive description of each property. Rather I have selected a few highlights that caught my attention. But there are links to National Trust or English Heritage and other sites for each property where you can find much more detail. I have however included links to the photo albums I have created to display the many photos I took during this trip.


Nostell (photo album)
Looking for somewhere to visit, about half the distant to Banbury on the first day, I came across Nostell in the National Trust handbook. Located in West Yorkshire, a few miles south of the M62 (roughly between and south of Wakefield and Pontefract)  it was a convenient spot to break our journey after 110 miles on the road.

And we weren’t disappointed.

Dating from the 1730s, it was built, in Palladian style, for the Winn family who continued to live there until the property and contents were given to the National Trust in 1953.

Nostell is renowned for several treasures: an impressive doll’s house made for Susanna Winn and her sister in the 1730s; a fine collection of oil paintings including one by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and a copy of a Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore; and perhaps one of the finest collections of furniture designed and made by Thomas Chippendale.

The Nostell collection also includes a wooden clock, made in 1717, by John Harrison, the clock-making genius who made the world’s first marine chronometer.

We enjoyed a walk through the park (which covers more than 300 acres), around the lake and in the walled garden which had a stunning display of tulips.

Leaving Nostell by mid-afternoon, we headed south on the M1, M42, and M40 motorways to arrive at our Premier Inn for the night in Banbury, a distance of 142 miles.


Basildon Park (photo album)
After a satisfying Premier Inn full English breakfast (highly recommended!), we set off south again, covering the 53 miles in under 1½ hours, and crossing the lovely landscape of the Berkshire Downs close to Basildon Park which overlooks the River Thames near Pangbourne, west of Reading.

Basildon Park has had an interesting history. Built in the Palladian style and decorated inside by Robert Adam, between 1776 and 1783, it served as a convalescent hospital during WW1, a barracks for a US airborne division in WW2, and fell into disrepair thereafter. It was rescued by Lord and Lady Iliffe, who gave the property and estate to the National Trust in 1978.

Among the most impressive are the dining room, the octagonal room, and the extraordinary shell room. Much of the house has a homely feel, and apparently the Iliffe’s stipulated that each room should be displayed as though the family were still living there.

We also enjoyed a walk around the park of almost 5 miles, and came across the most wonderful display of bluebells I think I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the disease ‘ash dieback‘ has taken hold quite seriously across the estate.

Then we headed back to the A34 and south to the New Forest, and our ‘home’ for the next six nights.


The Vyne (photo album)
This is located in the north of Hampshire, a round trip of almost 120 miles from our accommodation near Beaulieu.

The Vyne, on the edge of Sherborne St John, is a Tudor mansion built for William, 1st Baron Sandys who was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. At the time of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, the Sandys family found themselves on the wrong, Royalist, side of the conflict, and they lost The Vyne which passed to the Chute (or Chewt) family. And there it remained until bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956.

The classical portico on the northwest face was added in 1654 by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones.

Among the treasures of The Vyne are the Palladian staircase, in a classical Greek style added in the mid-18th century, the Oak Gallery (the most significant surviving Tudor room in the house), the Soho tapestries woven in the first two decades of the 18th century (and which had just been returned to The Vyne after years of conservation work), and the chapel, unchanged from its original Catholic origins, i.e. pre-Reformation.

Henry VIII visited The Vyne on several occasions with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. All around the house Catherine’s pomegranate motif can be seen on many carvings.

There are good walking opportunities at The Vyne taking in the gardens, lake, woodland, and wetlands. We covered just over 3½ miles.

Sandham Memorial Chapel (photo album)
That same afternoon we traveled west from The Vyne to the village of Burghclere, about 17 miles, to view the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Externally, the chapel, constructed in the 1920s, is nothing particularly special to look at. It was commissioned as a memorial to Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham who died from an illness contracted in WW1.

Inside, however, is something quite altogether different. The walls are covered in a series of frescoes painted by the English artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, that were inspired by his own experiences during the war. The paintings took him six years to complete between 1926 and 1932.

These next images are courtesy of the National Trust.


South Harting (West Sussex), Harting Down, and Uppark House and Garden (photo album)
On the Saturday we made the first of two forays into West Sussex, aiming for the village of South Harting, just east of Petersfield. Why? Well, there are two National Trust properties close by: Harting Down on the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs National Park; and Uppark House and garden. But, more importantly, South Harting is where some of Steph’s Legg ancestors come from. Her grandfather, Sidney Legg, was born there in 1893, and her mother Myrtle spent some years as a child living with her grandmother in ‘Rose Cottage, which we searched for but were unable to find.

Sidney’s father, Frederick (Steph’s great-grandfather, born 1858) was a gamekeeper, and it’s highly likely that he was the gamekeeper, or one of a group, working on the Uppark estate.

We drove up on to Harting Down, affording great views over the surrounding countryside, down into South Harting, enjoying a picnic lunch then driving on to Uppark, just a couple of miles further on.

Uppark is a late 17th century perched on the top of the down with marvellous views to the coast and even as far as The Solent and the Isle of Wight to the west on a clear day.

Only the ground floor and basement are open to the public. The Featherstonehaugh family that purchased the house in 1747 still has interest in upper floor apartments. No photography is permitted in the ground floor rooms. There are some real treasures there. But all was nearly lost in 1989 when a fire ravaged the building and destroying the upper floors. Much on the ground floor was rescued, however, and is on display today.

The dairy was not open during our visit, but the game larder (presumably where Steph’s great-grandfather spent much time) is now the tea room, and is (like the dairy) connected to the main house by a tunnel.

Another exquisite dolls’ house is on display in the basement, an equal of the one we saw at Nostell a few days before. These two dolls’ houses are certainly among the priceless treasures of the National Trust.


On the Sunday, we decided to make an easier day of it after so many days previously on the road, and spent time along the coast nearby at Lepe Country Park (with great views across to the Isle of Wight), and at King’s Hat and Hatchet Pond in the New Forest.


Mottisfont (photo album)
Mottisfont is an interesting house which shows its historical colors in different aspects of its architecture. It had been an Augustinian priory before the Reformation, and afterwards was given by Henry VIII to his Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Sandys (who we heard about at The Vyne).

It stands beside the River Test, a quintessential chalk stream full of trout, near Romsey, and west from Winchester.

It was during the 1930s that Mottisfont took its final turn, so to speak, with the arrival of Maud and Gilbert Russell, who completely refurbished the building, remodeling it in parts and exposing its medieval origins in some rooms. It came into the hands of the National Trust in 1957.

I suppose the pièce de résistance must be the Whistler Room, painted by renowned artist Rex Whistler over a period of several years. But not completed by the time he went to war (and was killed) in 1939. We’d seen work of his (much more vibrant) at Plas Newydd in Anglesey in 2017.

Hinton Ampner (photo album)
Overlooking the Hampshire countryside a few miles east of Winchester, Hinton Ampner is essentially a ‘modern’ house rebuilt from the charred ruins of a much older one that stood on the site until it was severely damaged by fire in 1960. It was originally a Georgian mansion built in 1793, remodeled  in the late Victorian period, and by 1936 had been ‘restored’ to its Georgian appearance by its last owner, Ralph Dutton, 8th Baron Sherborne. With no heirs, Hinton Ampner was bequeathed to the National Trust on his death in 1985.

There is a glorious view from the terrace.


Petworth House and Park (photo album)
Petworth, in West Sussex, is one of the National Trust’s jewels, and must also be one of its most-visited properties, conveniently located to London (about 52 miles southwest towards the coast).

For us it was 130 mile round-trip from our New Forest accommodation. But it was worth it, given the treasures on display and the extensive park and gardens to enjoy.

It’s a late 17th century house that underwent alterations in the 1870s.

But it’s perhaps best known for the treasures accumulated by George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837): paintings by Titian, Van Dyck, and many by Turner who was a frequent visitor to Petworth and on display today for everyone to enjoy, many in the Somerset Room. In fact, Petworth has one of the National Trust’s most extensive and, I guess, valuable collections. In the North Gallery there is also a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman marbles, as well as several that were contemporaneous with Wyndham’s occupancy of Petworth. I found that gallery rather overwhelming.

After our visit, I posted a tweet about the visit, and someone from the National Trust replied, asking which aspect had impressed me most. Not fair! There really is a cornucopia of artistic delights. But while the Somerset Room and its oils is predictably impressive, there are two other parts of the house which caught my attention.

First is the Grand Staircase, perhaps one of the best examples I have ever had chance to appreciate.

Then there is the Carved Room, with a large portrait of Henry VIII taking center stage, but surrounded throughout the room by wall carvings by the master craftsman, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). We had first appreciated his work at Sudbury Hall when we visited in 2017.


Portchester Castle (photo album)
On our last day in the south, we decided to venture much closer to home, as it were, taking in two English Heritage properties on the east side of Southampton.

At the head of Portsmouth Harbor, Portchester Castle has stood guard since the Romans erected the first walls between AD 285 and 290. In the post-Roman era it was occupied by the Saxons, but it came into its own after the Norman conquest of 1066, when a fortified keep was erected in the northwest corner of this extensive walled enclosure.

In the subsequent centuries it underwent extensive modifications under kings such as Richard II. In the 18th century it became a prison for French prisoners from the Caribbean captured during one of the interminable conflicts with France.

English Heritage has opened many parts of the keep, even with access to the roof from where there is a panoramic view over the castle and the harbor, all the way to the naval base (where both of the UK’s aircraft carriers were currently docked).

Netley Abbey (photo album)
This is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, under four miles east from Southampton city center. I was quite surprised how much of the monastery is still standing. During the 16th century Reformation it was seized by the crown and parts were added to or converted to a residence. Some of those Tudor influences can be seen in some of the windows.


Stonehenge (photo album)
Just under 40 miles northwest from our New Forest accommodation, the ancient monument of Stonehenge still stands proudly overlooking Salisbury Plain after more than 4500 years.

The stone circle was constructed from huge sarsen sandstone blocks that were strewn over the chalk landscape after the last Ice Age, which were also used to create other stone circles like Avebury that we visited in 2016. Unlike Avebury however, the stones at Stonehenge were dressed. What is also remarkable about Stonehenge is the presence of the so-called bluestones that were quarried in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, some 140 miles to the west. How they were transported to Stonehenge, and more importantly perhaps, why they were even chosen is somewhat of a mystery to this day, even though Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape has undergone extensive archaeological research. Much more is known, but there are still issues to be uncovered.

Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site, receiving more than 1 million visitors a year. It wasn’t too busy during our visit, and I was able cleverly to use the stones themselves to block any ‘rogue’ tourists in my photos. Take a look at the album.

The line of midsummer sunrise and sunset.

This was my second visit to Stonehenge, after more than 60 years! Returning from a caravan holiday in the New Forest with my parents and elder brother Edgar, we stopped off at Stonehenge. Back in the day, complete and close-up access to the stones was permitted. No longer; they are behind a rope, but you can get as close as 5 meters, unless you subscribe to a sunset or sunrise special tour limited to about 20 persons.

From Stonehenge, we headed north towards Swindon, crossing the M4 and traversing the Cotswolds, and arriving at Birdlip Hill (with its panoramic view over the valley of the River Severn) for a late picnic lunch.

From there we headed north to Leek as I mentioned earlier for our final night away.


Quarry Bank (photo album)
After a pleasant overnight stay in Leek (and an early morning stroll around the center of the town when we bought a dozen oatcakes), we continued our journey north, just 25 miles to Quarry Bank on the outskirts of  Wilmslow and south of Manchester, where the National Trust cares for one of the most important relics of the Industrial Revolution, a cotton mill where machinery to spin and weave cotton can still be seen in action.

Built in the 1780s by Samuel Greg, who came to England at the age of 15 from Belfast in Northern Ireland, he chose the site for his mill along the banks of the River Bollin in a steep-sided valley, where the power of the river could be harnessed to turn the machines in the mill.

At nearby Styal, Greg built a small community of cottages for his workers. Greg and his wife were Unitarians. Even so, their ‘philanthropy’ smacks of a form of slavery since workers were tied to the mill though their housing and where they could spend their wages to buy food in the company shop.

The grounds (woods and gardens) are extensive and we must have walked almost 5 miles around the estate and mill. What was a little disconcerting to discover was the main runway for Manchester Airport just a short distance behind the trees at Styal, and to watch large jets gather speed as they lumbered into the air.

Inside the mill there’s much to observe. With just one or two of the looms in action, the noise was deafening. You can just imagine what a whole floor of these machines must have sounded like, how it affected the workers’ hearing, and what other accidents occurred as workers, even children worked around and under the machines and all their moving parts.

Anyway, our interesting visit to Quarry Bank was over all too soon, and we hit the road again to take us on the next and last stage of our journey (some ) north to Newcastle and home.

We covered a lot in miles, years, art, and culture. It was a great break, and nice to be able to get away, even for a short while, as the pandemic restrictions are eased.


The close encounter
Steph and I had completed our walk around the woods and gardens at Quarry Bank, and were making our way to the mill entrance over the bridge through a gate.

I was vaguely aware of another couple with a spaniel as we passed through the gate. And immediately afterwards, someone behind me—the man—called my name. Momentarily confused, I turned around but didn’t recognize him or his wife.

‘It’s Alan Brennan’, he said. And with that you could have knocked me down with a feather. I hadn’t seen him in 63 years! Let me explain.

I was born in Congleton in November 1948; Alan a year later in December 1949. We lived a few doors apart on Moody Street and were best friends. My family moved to Leek in April 1956, and I lost touch with Alan, although he has since reminded me that we did meet up in Congleton in May 1959 when I came over from Leek to take part in a village fête at Mossley just outside the town.

Here we are Coronation Day in June 1953. I’m on the extreme right, Alan on the left.

And from the late 1950s until the other day, we had never met since. After Steph and I visited Congleton in September 2013, Alan came across that blog post and got in touch by email. It was from my blog photos that he recognized me as our paths crossed at Quarry Bank.

What were the chances of that happening? I’m sure a clever mathematician could devise some formula or other. But it must be millions to one that we’d be in the same place at the same time after more than 60 years.

Me and Alan – after 63 years!

Steph, me, Alan, and Lyn

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay chatting for too long since Alan and Lyn were coming to the end of their visit to Quarry Bank, and we had to complete our tour of the mill. We also needed to get on the road before the afternoon traffic build-up around Manchester. After all, we still had almost 170 miles to cover, and as it turned out, a slower journey due to hold-ups on the motorway.

Meeting Alan and Lyn was undoubtedly the icing on the cake as far as our holiday was concerned. Certainly a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!


¹ A baker’s dozen, i.e., a group of 13. A dozen plus one, from the former practice among bakers and other tradespeople of giving 13 items to the dozen as a safeguard against penalties for short weights and measures.

² Starting in North Tyneside (Tyne & Wear) where we now live, we traveled south through County Durham, North Yorkshire. West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, West Midlands, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Greater Manchester.

 

What a transatlantic coincidence . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 2)

A year after returning from collecting in Ancash and La Libertad (as described in Part 1) I was heading north once again, this time to the Department of Cajamarca. In a long wheelbase Land Rover, a donation from the British government to CIP. But alone this time, almost. By May 1974 I was already quite fluent in Spanish, and had done more travelling around the country. It was assumed therefore I could look after myself, so we decided I should travel with just one of the CIP drivers, Octavio. I regret I cannot recall his surname.

Just about to head out (May 1974)

Parked on the side of the Panamericana Norte highway north of Lima

Cajamarca is also the capital city of the department, and is one of my favorite places in Peru. At 2700 m elevation, the city lies in a broad valley among rolling hills. The landscape of Cajamarca has a much gentler feel to it than the high peaks of Ancash or further south around Cuzco, or the altiplano surrounding Puno.

We must have split the journey to Cajamarca city. It’s almost 900 km and even today, on better roads, the journey is estimated to take more than 14 hours. North of the coastal city of Trujillo, the road to Cajamarca diverges east from the Panamericana Norte, winding through a lush river valley in the desert, and climbing into the mountains. Dropping down the other side, you eventually are treated to views of the city unfolding in the distance. The climate is spring-like, the food is good (the leche asada or caramel custard is a local treat), and the architecture of the (unfinished) cathedral on the main square of Plaza de Armas is a wonder.

We spent around three weeks travelling to remote areas, but were able to return from time to time to Cajamarca to enjoy the comforts of the Turista Hotel, and the Inca baths and their hot springs.

As with our collecting the previous year, we stopped to chat with farmers, ask about the varieties they and their neighbors cultivated, and requesting a sample of healthy tubers of each variety.

The market town of Bambamarca, 100 km or so north of Cajamarca was particularly interesting. It was a colorful, vibrant scene with many wearing their typical tall sombreros and russet-red ponchos, typical of Cajamarca.

On one day we stopped to chat with one farmer and his wife who became very interested why we were collecting potato varieties, and what we would do with them once back in Lima. They were so pleased to show me this particular variety with its large tubers. It’s one of my favorite images from my time in Peru.

There was even a little time for some sightseeing. Just 10 km northeast from the Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca stands an unusual archaeological site, the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis with more than 300 niches carved in the rock face. We even found wild tomatoes growing there.

If I have one abiding image of Cajamarca—city and landscape—it would be this one. Having eaten an early breakfast, Octavio and I headed north from the city, climbing above the valley. We stopped almost at the summit so I could take this photo of the Cajamarca valley. If you look carefully you can see the steam rising from the Inca baths in the distance.

Octavio and I got along quite well. He’d never traveled to that part of Peru before and, as a driver from the big city, had very little knowledge of potatoes. We had just the one falling-out, if you can call it that. He would insist in driving downhill along quite treacherous roads in high gear, or even in neutral, relying solely on the brakes alone to control our speed. I had to insist he use low gear to slow the vehicle or he wouldn’t be driving any more until we reached the coast and the Panamerican highway. Anyway, we arrived back in Lima after an incident-free trip.

Later on that year, I returned to Cajamarca with my wife Steph and two English friends from CIP. Again in 1988, as a member of a CIP project review team, I spent a few days in the city and surrounding countryside looking at seed production and storage systems.


When I visited CIP in 2016 as part of a review of the genebank, the staff showed me some herbarium sheets from some of the varieties I had collected on that trip to Cajamarca.


Earlier in 1974, in February, I traveled to Puno and Cuzco in the south of the country with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He was studying the floral biology of another Andean tuber crop known as oca (Oxalis tuberosa). He had contacted CIP’s Director General to see if anyone might be headed south for fieldwork with whom he could travel.

I’d already decided to carry out some field studies of potato varietal mixtures and was looking for suitable locations. Peter suggested that we might head to Cuyo Cuyo, a municipality just under 250 km northeast of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Famous for its agricultural terraces or andenes, there had been one study in 1951 describing the cultivation of oca in the valley. Peter convinced me that it was worth heading in that direction. Which is precisely what we did.

On this trip we drove a short wheelbase Land Rover, another donation to CIP from the British government. It had a separate cab; the rear was covered with a canvas hood, not the most secure vehicle for venturing into remote parts.

Heading south down the Panamericana Sur, we had a road trip of almost 1300 km ahead of us. I know we stopped in Nazca on the first night, after driving 447 km. From there to Arequipa was another 568 km, and the final leg into Puno was 295 km. I think we must have made it to Arequipa on the second day, resting up before the climb to the altiplano on the third day.

In Puno, we rested for a couple of days, checking our gear, and meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for further advice before setting off for Cuyo Cuyo. Peter had developed a taste for algarrobina, a popular Peruvian cocktail, a bit like egg-nog, but with a kick, especially after one too many. We weren’t in the best shape to head off across the altiplano the next day.

Each time I crossed the altiplano it was hard to understand just how people managed to survive in such a harsh environment: flat, cold, and often over 4000 m. Yet we passed farms, growing the bitter and frost-resistant potatoes that are processed to make chuño as well as herding llamas and alpacas. Crossing several rivers, we finally reached the head of the Cuyo Cuyo valley and, descending into the cloud, encountered workmen struggling to clear a landslide. However that gave an opportunity for some impromptu botany, finding a beautiful begonia with flowers as large as saucers.

Once clear of the landslide, and out of the cloud, the most amazing vista opened up before us. The whole valley was terraced and, as we learned over the next few days, supported a rotation system involving potatoes, oca, barley and faba beans (both imported by the Spanish in the 16th century), and a fallow.

Arriving in the village it was important to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t thought to make any enquiries before setting out for Cuyo Cuyo. There was no hotel, but the postmaster offered us space to set up our camp beds and herbarium drying equipment, and there we stayed for about five days. We were certainly a curiosity with the village children.

Peter set about collecting samples of oca with different floral structures for his study, and to make herbarium specimens to take back to St Andrews. At the time of our visit many of the oca fields were planted in the lower levels of the valley often close to the river. I set off on my own, guided by a local farmer, to potato terraces higher up the valley to study the varietal mixtures and to learn more about the agricultural system. That study was finally published in the journal Euphytica in 1980 and can be read here.

Peter’s oca samples were the devil to dry because of their fleshy stems. When he finally made it back to St Andrews a couple of months later, he found that his ‘dry’ specimens were still alive. So he planted them in a university glasshouse, and had the best of both worlds being able to continue his study with living plants.

Leaving Cuyo Cuyo, we headed back to Puno staying one night there before setting off for Cuzco some 385 km to the northwest.

I was interested in locating another site for study, and we settled on a community near Chinchero outside Cuzco. We hired horses to reach remote fields, and there I collected flower buds (for chromosome counts) from several fields.

It was interesting to find large commercial cultivation of potatoes (for sale in markets like Cuzco) alongside smaller plots of native varieties that farmers grew for home consumption. As I was collecting samples from one field, two women stopped close-by and one of them crouched down to feed her baby. Both were dressed in the typical costume of that region.

Soon we had all the information we thought we needed (in hindsight I would have done things very differently, and at Cuyo Cuyo), and headed back to Cuzco where we left the vehicle to be collected by Zósimo Huamán who was heading south for his own field studies, and who would drive it back to Lima.

While we in Cuzco, we visited the home of Professor César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist, who I had first met in January 1973 when Jack Hawkes introduced me to him. Jack first met Vargas when he was working in Colombia between 1948 and 1951. Also, Vargas’ daughter Martha was an MSc student at St Andrews so it was a good opportunity for Peter also to meet him.


I only made one field trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1981 just a few weeks before I left CIP to return to the UK and take up a lectureship at The University of Birmingham.

Jack was in Lima on his way back to the UK having led yet another expedition to collect potatoes in Bolivia. He suggested that we take a long weekend to head up into the mountains and see what wild species of potato could be found. A CIP colleague, potato breeder Juan Landeo, came along for the trip.

On the first day, we set off east up the Carretera Central, over Ticlio at 4800 m and on to the smelting town of La Oroya, before heading north to the important mining center of Cerro de Pasco (4330 m), one of the highest (and bleakest) cities in the world.

The next morning we continued north, finally descending to the warmth of Huánuco, a lovely city at just 1880 m. We spent the night there.

I don’t recall if we split the journey back to Lima (or the exact route) or traveled from Huánuco in one day, stopping every now and then to collect potatoes.

Early in the day we came across some farmers using the traditional foot plough or chaqui tacclla. This is an iconic image.

We passed through some awesome landscapes. Even encountering a significant landslide that blocked our path. Closer to the coast the mountains were lost in the clouds as we made our way down the side of the valley.

I learned one very important lesson from Jack Hawkes: that a sound knowledge of the ecology of the species was very important (a point emphasized by Israeli geneticist Gideon Ladizinsky when I took a party of Birmingham students to a genetic resources course near Tel Aviv in 1982).

We’d be driving along, when Jack would suddenly ask us to pull over, saying that we’d find potatoes in the vicinity. Even naming which species we’d be likely to find. And I don’t remember him ever being wrong. It was fascinating to see how his deep knowledge guided his approach to collecting wild potatoes.

This is the only photo of me in the field with Jack, as we collected Solanum multiinterruptum (or was it S. multidissectum?).

It was a great experience, learning more about wild species in the field, from the master. These are memories that will stay with me for years to come.


 

 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973

Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.

Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.

The wonder of potato diversity

I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.

Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.

Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.

In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.

In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.


In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.

Richard Sawyer

The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.

While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.

Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri

As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.

I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.


With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.

To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.


After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.

At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village

This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.

We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.

We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.


In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.

What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.

Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.

Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.

One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán

Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.

The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973

This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973


We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.

A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín

The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.

We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.

Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.


On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.

As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.

Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night


Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.


Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.


What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.


In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.


 

I thought I was going to have a heart attack

Laughter, so they say, is the best medicine. Until it (almost) kills you! Like the other day. I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard. It was painful. I had to close the video clip I was watching and get my breath back.

So who nearly brought about my demise?

Billy Connolly, of course. The Big Yin! Comedian, story-teller, musician, actor, artist, documentary maker, Knight of the Realm! And one of the funniest persons (in my opinion) to grace our TV screens. There are many clips from his one man shows on YouTube, and I delve into them from time-to-time if I need cheering up. I find myself laughing just as much after watching for the umpteenth time as I did the first. There are few comedians who really make me laugh, and laugh out loud. Billy Connolly never fails.

Born in Glasgow in 1942, he grew up in the tenements of the Anderston area of the city that were demolished in the 1970s and residents moved out to barren housing estates on the outskirts of the city.

He became a welder in the Glasgow shipyards after leaving school, but knew that there was a brighter life beckoning him. Turning to folk music, he paired up with fellow Scot and singer-song writer Gerry Rafferty to form The Humblebums. But, as Billy himself acknowledged, it was his patter between songs that began to attract interest from the audience. Thus began his transition to stand-up comedian and story-teller.

And that’s how I see him, a raconteur rather than as a traditional stand-up. Yes, he tells jokes (perhaps much more in his early career), but his act developed much more depth than that. He weaves stories, narratives, heading off at a tangent almost to the absurd, before reining the tale back in to its original direction. He is a brilliant master of story telling. That’s all I can say. Watching his performances, it’s clear he holds his audience in the palm of his hand. Given his propensity for using his Glaswegian vernacular (rather a lot of swearing) no-one would attend one of his shows if they were about to be offended.

He got his big break nationally appearing on the BBC’s Parkinson, a weekly chat show hosted by journalist Michael Parkinson, in 1975, telling this joke. And over the years he made 15 appearances on that show before it came to an end in 2007.

I still haven’t seen Connolly alongside Dame Judi Dench (as Queen Victoria) in Mrs Brown, the 1997 film that cast him as John Brown, a servant of the Queen and believed to have had a relationship with her. From the clips I’ve viewed, Connolly’s performance was outstanding, and he did receive nominations for several acting awards.

In recent year, documentaries of his travels throughout the USA, Australia and New Zealand, as well as his native Scotland have been widely acclaimed.

He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to entertainment and charity.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and has become increasingly frail. In this clip he talks about the challenges he faces.


Anyway, enough of my musings. Sit back and watch (if you dare) some of the videos by Sir Billy Connolly that I’ve enjoyed recently.

WARNING: If you are offended by strong language, take care.

This is is the video that got me going on Christmas Day. It was the balsamic vinegar . . .


 

Is it really five decades?

years ago today (Friday 17 December 1971) I received my MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham. Half a century!

With my dissertation supervisor Dr (later Professor) Trevor Williams, who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International).

I hadn’t planned to be at the graduation (known as a congregation in UK universities). Why? I had expected to be in Peru for almost three months already. I was set to join the International Potato Center (CIP) (which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary) as an Associate Taxonomist after graduation, but didn’t actually get fly out to Lima until January 1973. Funding for my position from the British government took longer to finalize than had been envisaged. In the meantime, I’d registered for a PhD on the evolution of Andean potato varieties under Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned potato and genetic resources expert.

So let’s see how everything started and progressed.


1970s – potatoes
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in July 1970 (with a BSc degree in Environmental Botany and Geography), I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham (where Jack Hawkes was head of department) in September that year to begin the one year MSc course, the start of a 39 year career in the UK and three other countries: Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I took early retirement in 2010 (aged 61) and returned to the UK.

Back in December 1971 I was just relieved to have completed the demanding MSc course. I reckon we studied as hard during that one year as during a three year undergraduate science degree. Looking back on the graduation day itself, I had no inkling that 10 years later I would be back in Birmingham contributing to that very same course as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Arriving in Lima on 4 January 1973, I lived by myself until July when my fiancée Steph flew out to Peru, and join CIP as an Associate Geneticist working with the center’s germplasm collection of Andean potato varieties. She had resigned from a similar position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station near Edinburgh where she helped conserve the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Later that year, on 13 October, Steph and I were married in Miraflores, the coastal suburb of Lima where we rented an apartment.

At Pollería La Granja Azul restaurant, east of Lima, after we were married in Miraflores.

My own work in Peru took me all over the Andes collecting potato varieties for the CIP genebank, and conducting field work towards my PhD.

Collecting potato tubers from a farmer in the northern Department of Cajamarca in May 1974.

In May 1975, we returned to Birmingham for just six months so that I could complete the university residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and successfully defend my dissertation. The degree was conferred on 12 December.