Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler


We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.


The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.


I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


 

You can do better than this, Network Rail (updated 18 February)

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, and it won’t go away. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Let me explain. Please bear with me.

My home town, Bromsgrove, lies at the foot of the Lickey Hills in north Worcestershire (map). The rail mainline from Birmingham to the southwest (through Worcester and Cheltenham, on to Bristol and the West Country) passes to the east of the town, having descended the Lickey Incline, ‘the steepest sustained main-line railway incline in Great Britain. The climb is a gradient of 1 in 37.7 (2.65% or 26.5‰ or 1.52°) for a continuous distance of two miles (3.2 km)’.

A new station was opened in 2016, and the line was subsequently electrified.

The new electric trains (operated by West Midlands Railways in their bright gold and silvery grey livery) came into service in July 2018 as part of the Cross City line connecting Bromsgrove with Lichfield to the north of Birmingham.

I wrote a blog post about the station in 2016, and updated it last November.

There are three bridges over the railway near the new station, one to the south (at a housing development known as Breme Park that had been built on the site of the former Garringtons Ltd or United Engineering Forgings), and two to the north (one over St Godwald’s Road, and the other over the B4184, Finstall Road), indicated by arrows on the map below. All three bridges are owned by Network Rail, which ‘own[s] and operate[s] the railway infrastructure in England, Wales and Scotland on behalf of the nation. That’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and viaducts and thousands of tunnels, signals, level crossings and points’.

Until recently these bridges were great vantage points to watch rail traffic up and down the Lickey Incline. No longer. During the installation the overhead electrification it wasn’t necessary to raise any of the three bridges in Bromsgrove. However, as a safety feature to prevent anyone leaning over the parapets, steel cladding was erected on both sides of each bridge, as illustrated in this photo to the right. I didn’t manage to take any photos of the bridges with all this cladding, but you can now imagine what it must have looked like. Very unsightly.

Now the cladding has been replaced on all three bridges—for better or worse. That’s why a bee is busy buzzing. Let me show you, bridge by bridge.

To the south of the station, there is a steel and brick bridge that connects with public footpaths on the east side. It’s just a muddy track, but wide enough for a vehicle to cross. From here was the perfect spot to watch trains approaching, at speed, round the bend from the south. Almost all the steel cladding has gone, except at each end of the bridge on both sides. I cannot understand why Network Rail would leave the bridge with four sets of steel cladding, unless workmen will return at a later date to replace the remain panels. Click on each image to enlarge.

In the center and right below, can be seen the view, north and south from the bridge, from the ends of the bridge. On the left is the view south towards the bridge from the station platform.

Just north of the station (close to where the old station was sited until 2016), a concrete bridge crosses St Godwald’s Road. On the top of the parapet has been placed a single course of ‘plastic bricks’. Since the parapet itself is flat, Network Rail made a better job here. It wasn’t so complicated. Yet, on the rail side of the north parapet, there is much to be desired, as the ‘bricks’ don’t appear to be fully secured.

Then there is the bridge further north carrying the B4184 Finstall Road over the mainline. This is actually a concrete structure, but the parapets were faced with pink sandstone blocks that have weathered over the decades, and are in keeping with the surrounding area.

But what a botched job Network Rail has made of placing a course of ‘bricks’ on the top of each parapet. This a view of the bridge from the south (rail) side.

On the bridge itself, south and north sides, it’s hard to believe that anyone signed off on this as a completed job, well done. Just look at how they have placed the ‘bricks’. Let’s look at the south side first.

And on the north side, it’s almost as bad. And in the process, some of the stonework has been damaged.

On one of my walks a couple of weeks ago (on 21 January to be precise), I took a few photos on my mobile and sent a couple of tweets to Network Rail:

To their credit, Network Rail did reply within an hour, and through emails they have now referred this issue to a local team to investigate: Your service request has been assigned to our RAM Structures team to investigate further. They will report back shortly with their findings and your local contact and communities team will be in contact to confirm the next steps in due course. There’s even a job number, #190121-000205.

Nothing has happened yet, but I’ll keep monitoring the situation—and bugging Network Rail—until the buzzing has gone away*.

But why have I become so incensed about this situation? The casual use of resources is unacceptable in these difficult fiscal times. But maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old fart.

I have no idea what budget was allocated to, firstly, install the steel cladding, and secondly, the replacement panels and ‘bricks’. Thousands of pounds, undoubtedly. How many person-days so far? And, for the bridge on the Finstall Road, because there is a pavement on only one side (the south) the road had to be partially closed (with traffic signals) for about three weeks, disrupting traffic for the local community.

But as I’ve already said, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that this workmanship was acceptable, up to standard. And that goes against my sensibilities of doing something right the first time!

These are the only views now possible from the bridge on St Godwald’s Road. The middle image below was taken from the car park of the old station, and shows a West Midlands Railways train departing from Platform 3, and then crossing over on to the up line. Diesel trains (shown here) to and from Hereford via Worcester stop at Bromsgrove.


* On 12 February, I received a further update from Network Rail, which I reproduce here in full:

Dear Mr Jackson,

Thank you for your recent communication to our National Helpline on the 21 January 2019.

As part of the scope of works of the Bromsgrove electrification, our project team have had to ensure that at all bridges over the railway a minimum of 1.8 metre high parapets have to be in place to protect users of the bridge from the presence of live electrification equipment below. From July 2018 this was permanently energised at 25,000 volts.
In some cases (such as the new Bromsgrove station footbridge and newly-reconstructed bridges in the Barnt Green and Blackwell areas), this height separation has been provided from new. At bridges which have not needed to be reconstructed, we have raised the heights of the parapets, there being three such structures in the Bromsgrove area.

The designs for parapet height extension have gone through a number of approval processes, which have taken some time. Temporary steel screening has been installed at the bridges – including Finstall Road – to provide the necessary separation in the interim between energisation of the electrification and the approval and delivery of the permanent works. Planning consent has been sought and received, with an inert colour incorporated into the material used (GRP).

Volker Rail is the contractor undertaking the works (under subcontract to MPB), and over a number of weekends has progressively installed the cladding and when able, removed the temporary steel cladding. As per the photos supplied by you the temporary gaps left between the GRP panels, some of which were filled in the interim with plywood panels, were of work still in progress whilst the GRP ones were being fabricated.

While I appreciate this may not be the answer that you were hoping for, and there may still be some work outstanding, the work to date is as per the design.

For the rest of your enquiry about the costs involved in this project, if you would like to pursue this information, we would kindly request for you to make a separate enquiry as this would require a Freedom of Information request.

Kind Regards
Community Relations

Now, there’s a couple of points I’d like to make. First, I have never questioned the necessity of meeting health and safety issues by installing raised parapets. I completely see the need for these, while feeling disappointed (along with many others, I’m sure) that the views up and down the Lickey Incline have now been reduced or lost. Second, the reply from Network Rail is ambiguous whether the job at the bridges is a ‘work in progress’ and yet to completed, or whether this is now the finished article, so to speak. If it’s a ‘work in progress’ I’m surprised that Network Rail did not agree with the contractor (Volker Rail) a more convenient start date when all the materials necessary for the job had been assembled. If the contractor has to return that will mean more expense and road closure inconvenience perhaps.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 21: Taking in Tokyo (and Tsukuba)

I recently wrote about a trip to Bali in 2005 when the IRRI Board of Trustees (BoT) held one of its biannual meetings there.

Four years later, in September 2009,  Steph joined me when I attended the BoT meeting in Japan that was held in Tsukuba, the science city just over 60 km or so northeast of Tokyo, followed by a couple of days in Tokyo itself. Since  the meeting was held in the week before Steph’s 60th birthday, we decided to stay on an extra couple of nights and see something of Tokyo. I had been in Tokyo just once before¹, around 1994; Steph had never visited. However, we’d both passed through Tokyo’s Narita airport many times while flying to the USA.

In the good old days, before Northwest Airlines merged with and was taken over by Delta. Narita was a major hub for NW flights to and from the USA, as is the case now with Delta.

Leaving Manila for Tokyo on the early morning flight (a very early start from Los Baños to check-in three hours ahead of the flight) was not without its challenges, and we weren’t entirely certain we’d be able to fly. The Philippines had been hit the day before by Typhoon Ketsana (known in the Philippines as Ondoy), the first of two typhoons to hit the country within one week. There was extensive flooding in parts of Manila (which we saw as the Delta 747 climbed out of the city). At Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA there was chaos at the check-in and in the departure areas. Many flights had failed to leave the previous day, and with so many passengers with nowhere else to go, the airport was heaving with people hoping to get a flight out.

Since Steph was traveling with me, I used air miles to upgrade our booking to Business Class as a special treat. The flight to Narita takes four hours. On arrival at Narita, we had a short wait for the bus to Tsukuba, around an hour northwest from the airport. We stayed at the Okura Frontier Hotel (the square building on the right) in the center of the city.

The Board and IRRI Management (and scientists as needed) met for three and a half days at the Tsukuba International Conference Center (just over a five minute walk south from the hotel).

The entrance to the Tsukuba International Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Steph joined the other spouses for several excursions in the surrounding region, as well as into Tokyo, to visit markets, see local handicrafts, take part in traditional Japanese flower arranging, a tea ceremony, and the like.

Then, after four days in Tsuskuba, we all decamped to central Tokyo, to the the Sheraton Miyako Hotel where, close-by, several events were organized by IRRI’s Japanese partner organization, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences or JIRCAS.

The Sheraton Miyako Hotel (on the left) in the Minato district of Tokyo.

As I mentioned earlier, Steph and I stayed on for an extra couple of nights, so we could explore parts of Tokyo at the weekend, on Saturday 3 October, departing for Manila on the Sunday evening flight.

I’ve marked the places we visited on the map below.

We took full advantage of the extensive Tokyo subway system. We were able to purchase day tickets that gave access to the whole of the Tokyo subway system, over both the Toei Line and the Tokyo Metro Line. However, our first challenge was to purchase two tickets using the ticket machines. Eventually a very kind Japanese gentleman saw we were having a little difficulty, and helped us successfully navigate the menu.

The entrance to Shirokanedai subway station.

Starting at Shirokanedai Station (station I02, center bottom left on the map) on the Mita Line (Toei Line system), we traveled to the commercial district of Akihabara (I08), well known for its many electronics outlets. From there we visited Hibiyakōen (via Hibiya station, I08/H07), a park (near the Imperial Palace) where an agricultural exhibition was being held, that also featured a booth for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (including IRRI). Then it was on to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (via Shinjuku-Gyoemmae station, M10), and back to the hotel.

One thing struck us quite forcefully during this day excursion: how quickly one could get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It was a haven of peace and tranquility. Early October was perhaps not the best time of the year to see the garden. But it was lovely, nevertheless, and being enjoyed by locals with their families, although not at all busy.

Here is a 17 minute video that I made of the day.

One day is surely not enough to explore a city the size of Tokyo, but we did get to visit three areas that we had chosen. Getting around Tokyo was much easier than I anticipated, and more so than I remembered from my visit in the 1990s.

Of course there are many other places in Japan that we never had the opportunity and maybe one day we will return. The only other city I have seen—from the airport constructed on an artificial island—is Osaka.


¹ During that trip, when I was hosted by a former member of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, and another who was currently serving on the Board, I visited both Tsukuba and Tokyo. In  Tokyo I met officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF), and there I came across one of my former students, Yoshi Nishikawa, who attended the University of Birmingham plant genetic resources MSc course in 1987-88.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 20: Volcanoes, temples, and rice in Bali

During the 19 years I worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, I traveled to most of the countries in Asia, some repeatedly (Laos, for example) and others (such as Sri Lanka) just the once.

I must have visited Indonesia half a dozen times, mostly to Jakarta (on the island of Java) and to Bogor, about 64 km south of the capital, where one of IRRI’s sister centers, the forestry institute CIFOR, has its headquarters.

My first visit to Asia, in 1982, was to Indonesia. I stayed in Bogor for a couple of nights at the famous botanical garden there before returning to Jakarta to attend a genetic resources conference. However, it wasn’t until 2005 that I experienced the beauty of Bali for the first and only time.

Bali’s landscapes are dominated by three volcanoes in the north and northeast, the highest of which is Mt Agung, active since 2017.

These landscapes have been molded by generations of rice farmers who built and still maintain terraces to grow their precious crops. The soils, volcanic in origin, are fertile, and appear very productive.

IRRI’s Board of Trustees (BoT) meets twice a year. One meeting, in April, is always held at the institute’s headquarters in Los Baños, some 70 km south of Manila. The other meeting is often co-hosted by one of the institute’s national program partners with which IRRI collaborates to develop better rice technologies. Such joint meetings are often the opportunity for Board members (who come from a wide range of backgrounds, not necessarily agricultural) to better understand national rice production issues, and to see first hand how technologies are being tested, and disseminated to and adopted by farmers to increase agricultural productivity.

Rice varieties on display (above) and technologies (below) at a field day for IRRI’s Board of Trustees.

In 2005, the September BoT meeting was held at the Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort 27 km west of Bali’s capital Denpasar. Steph joined me on this trip for only the second time (she did join me on a trip to Laos in 1997, then to Japan in 2009). We flew from Manila via Singapore on Singapore Airlines.

The BoT meeting lasted three days, and while we were locked away in presentations and discussions, the group of IRRI wives who had come along for the trip took various excursions around the island. Fortunately, we scientists and management also got to see something of Bali, the fertile volcanic landscapes, and rice agriculture on the picturesque and iconic rice terraces typical of the island.

Bali has a thriving tourist industry, but at the Nirwana resort we saw very little of the multitudes that flock to Bali each year. In any case most tourists stick close to Denpasar and its nightlife, in resorts located to the east and south of the capital. The coast west of Denpasar still remains unspoiled and uncrowded, however, according to an article that appeared in The Guardian today.

The hotel was very comfortable, and we enjoyed a large room with a balcony overlooking the restless Indian Ocean (next stop south: Antarctica!). The resort lies in the middle of an 18 hole golf course, interspersed with rice fields and lotus ponds, so there were ample opportunities for long walks at sunset. Several bars and restaurants are dotted around the complex, most with views over the golf course or the ocean. There were several pools to relax in.

Lotus ponds

Once the IRRI Board meeting was done and dusted, Steph and I decided to extend our stay over a long weekend.Just a short distance along the coast from the resort stands the famous and revered 16th century Hindu temple at Tanah Lot with access along the beach.

Unlike much of Indonesia (which is the world’s largest Muslim nation), Bali is primarily Hindu, and that is reflected in its culture, dances, and customs, some of which we experienced at a reception one evening.

In just over a week, we just sampled the flavor of Bali, but it would take an extended stay to become immersed in its vibrant culture. While I would like to return, one day, there are so many other places that I just have to explore first, given the opportunity.

 

 

 

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 19: O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Steph and I really enjoy our visits to the USA. Over the years, we have experienced much of what this beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, often bewildering (to the outsider, at least), and HUGE (or should that be ‘yuge’?) country has to offer.

And now that we have family there (our elder daughter Hannah studied in Minnesota, was married there in 2006, and she and her family live in St Paul), there’s an added incentive to visit the USA annually.

Since retiring in 2010, we have made some spectacular road trips to explore the country. In fact there are now few states (shown in white) that we have not visited, and just two (Nevada and Alaska) where sitting in an airport was as close as I got. Just click the various links below to open earlier blog posts or photo albums.

On one flight from Japan to the USA on Delta Airlines, we were diverted to Anchorage, Alaska because of a medical emergency, then spent three hours or so on the tarmac before continuing our journey. In Las Vegas, Nevada we transferred to a domestic flight having arrived from the Philippines.

The first time we ever set foot in the USA was in April 1975, but that was only to transfer flights in New York’s JFK airport. Steph and I had left Peru about a week or so earlier on our way back to the UK where I would write and present my PhD thesis at The University of Birmingham later that year.

I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, and the center’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, had offered me a postdoctoral position (provided I successfully defended my thesis) and a posting in Central America. So our trip home took us to Costa Rica for about 3-5 days (via an overnight stop in Panama City), a brief stopover of about the same length in Mexico to visit former CIP friends, and then on to New York on an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the first wide-bodied aircraft we had flown. From New York we took British Airways (on our first Boeing 747) to Manchester.

In April 1976 Steph and I moved to Costa Rica and remained there until November 1980. As CIP’s Regional Representative (and potato production specialist), I worked throughout Mexico, Central America, and several countries of the Caribbean. Travel from Costa Rica out to the Caribbean islands (mainly the Dominican Republic, but occasionally other islands where potatoes figured in the agricultural cycle for at least some period of the year) inevitably involved flights through Miami in Florida, and I soon got to know Miami International Airport intimately. Because transit through Miami was a good opportunity to stock up on items we couldn’t readily purchase in Costa Rica, I would always try and schedule my return flights via Miami, arriving there in the early morning and taking the late LACSA flight to San José, giving me several hours for shopping in one of the nearby malls in Dade County. Each year when we flew back to the UK on our annual leave, we took flights via Miami to London.


However, the first big challenge of any visit to the USA is actually entering the country. The immigration experience is not always a pleasant or easy one.

When traveling in the 1970s, unlike today when we enjoy visa-free ESTA travel (unless Brexit changes that), it was necessary to have a visa to enter the USA, even if only transferring flights, as was frequently the case in Miami. There were no transit facilities.

In September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was about five months, we traveled to the UK on leave. Things started to go pear-shaped on presentation at the immigration desk in Miami. Although Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport she apparently needed her own visa; Steph’s visa was not good for the both of them. After some intense discussion for perhaps 30 minutes or more, we were finally allowed to enter the USA (and headed straight to a day room in the airport hotel), but with the advice/warning that Hannah’s visa needed to be sorted in London.

To cut a long story short, we chanced our arm on the return journey without a visa for Hannah, and I sorted that soon after at the US embassy in San Jose. I had to take six month old Hannah for an ‘interview’ and answer, on her behalf, all the nonsensical questions that one has to answer, about ever being a Communist or a Nazi. I felt like providing sarcastic responses to these, but held my tongue. All babies are communist, right?

On another occasion I traveled with a Peruvian colleague, Oscar Hidalgo (who was based in Mexico), to the Dominican Republic, and from there to St Kitts and Barbados, starting our trip in Nicaragua. If memory serves me well, we took a flight operated by the Spanish airline Iberia from Managua to Santo Domingo. So far, so good.

But to travel on to St Kitts, we had to transit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had a US visa; Oscar did not. Our transit time was about four hours, and although Oscar was eventually permitted to enter the airport, he had an armed guard by his side throughout the whole period, ensuring that he didn’t become an illegal immigrant!


Steph and Hannah at the Golden Gate Bridge, on the north side in Marin County, in July 1979

In July 1979, I attended the annual meeting of the Potato Association of America in Vancouver, and Steph and Hannah (then 15 months) came along for the ride. Flying from Costa Rica via Guatemala City (a hub for American airline Panamerican in those days), we took a short break of about three days for sight seeing in San Francisco, our first and only visit to that extraordinary city.

From Vancouver we drove to Edmonton, then flew down to Madison, Wisconsin where I visited the university for a couple of days, and also the USDA Potato Introduction Station at Sturgeon Bay in Door County alongside Lake Michigan in the northeast of the state.

In March 1981, after I had resigned from CIP to return to an academic post in the UK, we flew to New York (on a Lufthansa DC-10), spending three nights there before heading on to London with British Airways.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building in New York, in March 1981

During the 1980s, I visited the USA only once, to attend a scientific conference in St Louis, Missouri, held at the Missouri Botanical Garden in the summer of 1982. This was the first time that I saw the Mississippi River, and also the Missouri a few miles upstream where we had a conference dinner at a restaurant on its southern bank. I had no inkling then that the Mississippi would eventually become a regular feature of our visits to the USA.


When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, my work with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) took me the USA on a regular basis, to visit the USDA genebank in Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend meetings at the World Bank in Washington, DC (a city I visited many times), or scientific conferences in Seattle (Washington), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Charlotte (North Carolina), Baltimore (Maryland), Stuttgart (Arkansas), and Salt Lake City (Utah).

Steph and I also visited old friends in Seattle in May 2000, and toured the Olympic Peninsula with them.

L: Sea stack at Ruby Beach on the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula; R: snowfield at Hurricane Ridge on the north of the Olympic Peninsula.

When Hannah joined Macalester College in St Paul in the autumn of 1998, I would, as far as possible, route my trips via the Twin Cities, and got to know the area quite well.


But it wasn’t until after I had retired that Steph and I really set about exploring the country.

Our first road trip in May-June 2011 took us to canyon country in Arizona and New Mexico, beginning in Phoenix, AZ and ending in Albuquerque, NM taking in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Painted Desert, and Bandolier National Monument, among a number of locations.


A year later we explored the Minnesota Riviera along Lake Superior, and north to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.


In 2016, after I’d broken my leg in January, we made just a short trip to find the source of the Mississippi in central Minnesota.


June 2013 saw us on the Oregon coast, spending time with Hannah and family in a house overlooking the spectacular coastline at Oceanside just south of Cape Meares, where the photo below was taken.

Then Steph and I headed south into northern California to take in the coastal redwoods. But not before stopping off at Crater Lake, OR.

Crater Lake, OR


In 2014 we made the first of three road trips of more than 2500 miles. Heading west from St Paul, we took in the Badlands and Mount Rushmore of South Dakota, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, before heading up the Beartooth Highway (America’s most beautiful?) to enter Yellowstone National Park from the north.


In September 2015, having made a long tour of Scotland in May, we decided on just a mini-break in the Windy City, Chicago, and traveled there by train from St Paul on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.


In 2017, we made the long road trip from Atlanta in Georgia to St Paul, taking in eleven states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and back into Minnesota. Among the many attractions were the streets and parks of Savannah, the Appalachians, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and following the meandering Mississippi north through Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa.


That was 2017. Last year we drove from Massachussetts to Minnesota (there is a link to the other four posts in this series), crossing Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.


So what does 2019 hold in store. We’d like to explore the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but also taking in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and south as far as San Antonio (and The Alamo) in Texas. But we have no firm plans yet. It all depends on how the UK leaves the European Union (Brexit!) at the end of March, and whether this affects our ability to travel easily. There are so many unknowns, but we are not booking any flights or car rental until the situation is clearer.

I think we would fly into Atlanta, and head southwest into Alabama. I’d like to visit Vicksburg in Mississippi (site of an important siege during the American Civil War), and on to New Orleans of course. We wouldn’t try and drive back to Minnesota; it would be too far, so we’ll need to look into flights from San Antonio to MSP. Another consideration is when to travel. Mid-summer would be too hot and humid; not comfortable at all. So I guess it could be in September or early October, but will we come up against the hurricane season?

Although I have visited Washington, DC many times, I’ve never really toured the city. Steph hasn’t visited. So a visit there and to Virginia (Williamsburg, Monticello, and Mount Vernon), the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, Pennsylvania (Gettysburg), and Maryland, and the other Atlantic states (Delaware and New Jersey) is another trip we must plan.


At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the USA is beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, bewildering, and huge country.

From the distances we have traveled there’s no doubt about just how huge the country is; the landscapes go on forever. These landscapes—forests, river valleys, mountains, plains, deserts, and coasts—are stunningly beautiful. In fact, I find it hard to describe them, so will let my photography speak for me.

The USA is so many countries rolled into one. The people are so different from one region to another, with very different perspectives on life. And challenging perspectives for me as an outsider, on religion (which plays such an important, and perhaps overly so, role in daily life), the love affair with guns, and the election of someone as President who is clearly not fit to hold that office. A political system that permits a president to be elected although losing the popular vote by 3 million votes or more seems bizarre (not that the first past the post parliamentary constituency system in the UK has much to commend it right now).

But it’s the paradoxes of the USA that I find bewildering.

We always enjoy returning to Minnesota however, and although we have mostly visited during the summer months, we did experience a Minnesota winter at Christmas 2007. Apart from the winters, Minnesota and Minnesotans are mellow!


One last point. If I had to choose to return to just one of places we have visited, which would it be?

Without a doubt – the Canyon de Chelly. It was one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited. The closest town is Chinle, and that’s in Navajo Reservation territory. No alcohol in the restaurants, so I’d have to make sure I brought some cold beers along. It was quite a shock when we visited in 2011 and I couldn’t order a beer with my steak.


 

A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.


But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.


Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.


Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.


After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.


¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.


One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?


 

A year full of heritage

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust since 2011. Following our first visit to one of the Trust’s properties in February that year (to Hanbury Hall, just 7 miles from home), we have tried each year to get out and about as often as we can. After 5 years membership, we were offered a special senior citizen joint membership: such great value for money; so many interesting houses, landscapes, and gardens to visit, and enjoy a cup of coffee (and an occasional flapjack) in one of the NT cafes.

These visits give purpose to our excursions. We’ve now explored 97 National Trust properties in England and Northern Ireland (as well as as few maintained by the National Trust for Scotland). And we have enjoyed many country walks as well around parkland and through gardens.

Click on the various links to open stories I have posted during the year, or an album of photos.

We are fortunate that close to us (we’re just south of Birmingham in northeast Worcestershire) there are half a dozen properties that take 30 minutes or less to reach. The closest is Hanbury Hall, and we often visit there to enjoy a walk around the park – four times this year – or take one of the many paths to the canal, up to Hanbury church, and back into the park. I particularly enjoy seeing how the parterre changes through the seasons. It is a very fine example.

The parterre at Hanbury in August

The other houses close to home are Charlecote Park ( in July), Croome (August), Packwood House (August), Baddesley Clinton (October), and Coughton Court (April and November).

Coughton Court in April

Our National Trust year began in February with a return visit to Newark Park, 58 miles south in Gloucestershire, to see the carpets of snowdrops, for which the garden is famous. We first visited the house in August 2015.

A week later we traveled 20 miles southwest from home to the birthplace of one of England’s greatest composers, Sir Edward Elgar. It was a sparkling day. We even managed a picnic! After visiting the house, The Firs, and the visitor center, we took the circular walk from the site that lasted about 1 hour. I found watching a short video about Elgar’s life to the accompaniment of Nimrod quite emotional.

Then a week later, we decided on a walk in the Wyre Forest, about 17 miles west from Bromsgrove, to find Knowles Mill, a derelict flour mill in the heart of the forest.

April saw us take in three properties (besides Coughton Court): Dudmaston (which we first visited in 2013); Kinwarton Dovecote; and Southwell Workhouse (a fascinating visit).

In May, I had to obtain an international driving permit, and the closest post office was in the center of Birmingham. That was just the excuse we needed to book a tour of the Back-to-Backs on the corner of Inge and Hurst Streets. What an eye-opener, and one NT property that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Closer to home, in fact less than 4 miles from home, is Rosedene, a Chartist cottage that was one of a number erected in the area of Dodford in the 19th century. It’s open infrequently, so looking to the weather forecast we booked to view the property on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the NT guides were unable to unlock the front door, so we never got to see inside, just peer through the windows.

We had returned to Upton House in Warwickshire at the beginning of the month to enjoy the walk along the escarpment overlooking the site of the 1642 Battle of Edgehill, and then around the garden. We had first visited in July 2012.

We were away in the USA during June and July, and just made some local visits in August. We were preparing for a week of NT and English Heritage (EH) visits in Cornwall during the second week of September.

What a busy week! We stopped at Barrington Court in Somerset on the way south, and Knightshayes in Devon on the way home a week later. You can read about those visits here.

Barrington Court

Knightshayes

We visited four more houses in Cornwall: Lanhydrock, Cotehele, St Michael’s Mount, and Trerice, and I wrote about those visits here.

Then there were the coastal visits, to The Lizard, Cape Cornwall, and Levant Mine (check out the stories here).

While on the north coast (visiting Tintagel Castle – see below), we stopped by Tintagel Old Post Office.

Cornwall has some fine gardens, and we visited these: Glendurgan, Godolphin, Trelissick, and Trengwaintonread about them here.

October was a quiet month. I can’t remember if we took a walk at Hanbury, but we did enjoy a long one along the Heart of England Way at Baddesley Clinton.

November saw us in the northeast, with a return visit to Seaton Delaval Hall (that we first visited in August 2013), and also to Penshaw Monument that is such an imposing sight over the Durham-Tyneside landscape.

In mid-November it was 70th birthday, and Steph and I spent a long weekend in Liverpool. One of the highlights was a visit to the Beatles Childhood Homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – rather emotional.

We completed our National Trust year by enjoying Christmas at Coughton Court on 30 November.


We have been members of English Heritage (EH) since 2015. Our daughters gifted us membership at Christmas 2014. Witley Court in Worcestershire is the nearest property to home, and we have been visiting there since the 1980s when we first moved to Bromsgrove. But not during 2108. Here’s a story from September 2017.

In April we were in the northeast and enjoyed a visit to Warkworth Castle near Alnwick on the Northumberland coast (map) with grandsons Elvis and Felix. Since it was close to St George’s Day, there was a tournament entertainment for the children.

Warkworth Castle

While in the northeast, we visited Rievaulx Abbey, somewhere I had first visited as a student in the summer of 1968, and then again in the mid-1980s on holiday with the family on the Yorkshire coast.

Towards the South Transept and the east end of the church from the southeast.

During our trip to Cornwall in September, we got to visit Chysauster Ancient Village, Pendennis Castle, Restormel Castle, and Tintagel Castle, which I have written about here.

The steps leading up to the castle gate.

Then in November, on the way home from Newcastle, we stopped off at Mount Grace Priory, that is owned by the National Trust but managed by English Heritage.

It was a bright and calm November morning, lots of color in the trees, and we were enchanted by the peace of this wonderful site. On our trips to Newcastle we have passed the entrance to the Priory many times, but never had found the time (or the weather) to stop off. It was well worth the wait.


This has been our heritage 2018. We have barely scratched the surface of NT and EH properties. We look forward to spreading our wings further afield in 2019.