How much of a game-changer will Covid-19 be?

Let me take you back more than a decade, to the mid-2000s if memory serves me correctly. The world was facing a threat from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. Although the disease did not materialize as a global pandemic, not having the high level of human-to-human transmission that was initially feared, avian flu has not gone away. Its appearance, however, spurred many governments and organizations to plan for a world under lockdown. Did we learn any lessons? It seems not.

I was working in the Philippines at the time, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila. One of my briefs was risk management, and so leading the institute’s response to the H5N1 threat fell to me. I formed a task force that proposed a series of measures to protect staff and their families, and developed health and safety guidelines (with input from local health officials in Los Baños) for self isolation or quarantine, or if access to food and services became limited. These included for example recommendations as simple as keeping an appropriate amount of cash in the home should ATMs cease to function.

The institute also acquired a significant stock of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu), and offered seasonal flu vaccinations to all staff and their closest family members (at a cost in excess of US$200,000). Should anyone vaccinated show flu symptoms then they might well be a candidate for avian flu. Anyway we had contingency plans for a significant period of disruption to everyday life.

How naïve we were!

I have been surprised—shocked even—how quickly life has changed for everyone under the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutdown of economic activity and everyday life has been far more rapid and extensive than anything IRRI’s avian flu task force envisaged.

The question surely on everyone’s lips is when will society return to normal. And perhaps more importantly, what will that ‘new normal’ (a term I dislike) look like?

There’s been much in the press and social media about not wanting to return to how things were. This pandemic has given society an opportunity—if we choose to take it—to reassess our values, and decide which aspects should return to pre-Covid levels, or even at all. And how we should work, for example, with working from home probably here to stay for some businesses (as Twitter has recently announced).

Economic activity has been hit so hard in such a short time that pundits are forecasting an economic downturn far more severe than the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. The Bank of England has even warned that this could be the worst economic decline for 300 years. That’s some decline!


One of the industries hardest hit is aviation. I don’t think we have ever seen images like this one.

When was the last time you looked up into the sky and saw a contrail? Over the past couple of days I’ve seen more, but in general, they are almost a novelty right now. Nevertheless, airlines are clearly itching to take to the skies once again. But will they and how many?

I think it’s pretty certain that some airlines will not return to their pre-Covid-19 configuration, and some may not return at all or may be absorbed through mergers or acquisitions into airlines that better weather the Covid-19 storm. Some airlines were already on the ropes before the pandemic.

Will the public have the same pre-Covid-19 appetite for air travel, since the virus is not going away soon, and given the social distancing and on-arrival quarantine measures that are being contemplated? This pandemic is already catalyzing a rethink about our love affair with aviation and seeing this as an opportunity to redress the balance in terms of global warming. Only time will tell if we change our aviation habits.


Last night, thinking about how Covid-19 was affecting everybody’s lives, I began wondering when Steph and I might be able to travel again to the USA to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family (husband Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota. We stepped off our last flight in October 2019, from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Birmingham, UK (BHX) via Amsterdam (AMS) on Delta Airlines and KLM.

When the time finally comes to travel again, which airline might fly us to Minnesota? Airlines (and their lovely insignia, branding – see below) that do not survive the Covid-19 lockdown will be consigned to the annals of aviation history. As so many have, I realised, over the 54 years since I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (from Glasgow to Benbecula, a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). How many unnecessary air miles have I travelled over these past five and half decades? Too many to count, I guess.

Covid-19 will become the final nail in the coffin for some airlines. Several are already looking to reconfigure their fleets, decommissioning large and inefficient aircraft, in the hope that will keep them solvent and able to return to full operations when permitted. Even before the lockdown most airlines had already disposed of their Boeing 747 aircraft. It had a great run nevertheless since it first took to the air on 9 February 1969, and entering into service with its launch airline, Pan Am, on 22 January 1970 from New York to London. I wonder how many of Emirates’ huge fleet of superjumbo A380 aircraft will fare in a post-Covid world?

Pan Am was an airline I knew well. When I was working in Central America during the second half of the 1970s I used to fly the airline frequently (on its Boeing 707 aircraft) through its hub in Guatemala City. Sadly, Pan Am is no more, collapsing in December 1991. There again, quite a number of the airlines I have travelled with are also no more. These airline insignia images were sourced through Wikipedia.

Here’s a list, with an asterisk indicating which are no longer operating (or at least no longer operating under that particular brand), and the date on which they ceased operations.

North America
Aeroméxico
American
Braniff International Airways* 1982
Canadian Pacific Air Lines* 1987
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines* 1991
Mexicana de Aviación* 2010
National Airlines* 1980
Northwest Airlines* 2010
Pan American* 1991
Southwest Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)* 2001
United Airlines

Central and South America
AeroPerú* 1999
Air Jamaica* 2015
Avianca
Aviateca* 1989
British West Indies Airways* 2006
Copa Airlines
Cruzeiro* 1993
Faucett Perú* 1997
LACSA* 2013
LAN Airlines* 2012
LIAT
SAHSA* 1994
TACA* 2013
Varig* 2006

Africa and Middle East
Air Ivoire* 2011
Air Madagascar
Emirates
Ethiopian Airways
Kenya Airways
LAM Mozambique Airlines
South African Airways
Turkish Airlines

Asia and Oceania
Air China
Cathay Pacific
China Eastern Airlines
China Southern Airlines
Dragonair 2006
Garuda Indonesia
Korean Air
Lao Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Philippine Airlines
Qantas
Silk Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Thai Airways
Vietnam Airlines

Europe
Air France
Alitalia
Austrian Airlines
BOAC* 1974
British Airways
British Caledonian* 1988
British European Airways* 1974
Brussels Airlines
easyJet
Flybe* 2020
Iberia
KLM
Laker Airways* 1982
LOT Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
Paramount Airways* 1989
Sabena* 2001
Swissair* 2002
TAP Air Portugal

These are the airlines I remember.

They have fared less well in North and Central America, where mergers have brought different airlines together. A good example is the dominant role today in Central America of Avianca (from Colombia) and its Central American subsidiaries, the successors to the national airlines of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I’m sure the effects of Covid-19 will see further consolidation in the North American market. But until intercontinental travel is fully restored, airlines like Emirates that have built their business model on hub distribution to multiple destinations using large aircraft (like the A380 and the Boeing 777) are likely to come out of lockdown (recession even) more slowly than smaller and perhaps more nimble airlines that can focus on their domestic markets.


 

Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.

Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

Two delightful country houses in deepest Warwickshire

Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are impressive houses in Warwickshire, a few miles east of Junction 16 on the M40 motorway (map) near the village of Lapworth. The former started life as a Tudor farmhouse in the 1550s, whereas Baddesley Clinton is a moated manor house dating from the 13th century. They are just 2½ miles apart. Both are owned and managed by the National Trust.

The entrance to Packwood House.

Baddesley Clinton from the north.

We consider them among our ‘local’ properties, being only 17 miles away (and usually just over 20 minutes) from Bromsgrove down the M42 and M40 motorways. We have visited both several times over the years since we joined the National Trust.

There are interesting walks around both. I don’t have photos of the three mile Packwood walk (map), but I have written about a delightful walk we made at Baddesley Clinton in mid-October 2018.


Let’s first turn to Packwood House.

It’s not what it seems. I’ve even seen it described as a pastiche. There’s no doubt that the house does date from the sixteenth century, originally built for William Featherston. It remained in the Featherston family for generations. There are few original features in the house, but the garden is a reflection of former generations. The Yew Garden in particular, which is reputed to have been planted in the 1670s by John Featherston, grandson of William.

Graham Baron Ash

But the house we see today, and its interiors, are the creation of Graham Baron Ash (Baron being his second name, not a title), who inherited Packwood House on the death of his Birmingham industrialist father, Alfred James Ash, in 1925.

This article, on the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland website (published in December 2015), not only describes the genealogy of the Ash family, but also details how Baron Ash set about restoring Packwood House, installing new features like the staircase, and building a link (The Long Gallery) between the house and a converted barn. He then set about acquiring architectural salvage from houses that were being demolished (detailed in the web article I referred to above). Unless you were aware of this story before visiting Packwood House, you’d probably have no idea that the interiors were a ‘fantasy’. But an elegant fantasy.

To one side of the house is a sunken garden, and beyond that the Yew Garden.

This link will take you to an album with all the photos taken during our various visits to Packwood House.

Satisfied with his creation, Baron Ash donated Packwood House, its contents, and gardens to the National Trust in 1941, although he continued to live there until 1947 when he moved to Wingfield Castle in Suffolk.


Baddesley Clinton retains much of its medieval ancestry. Entrance to the house is across the moat that surrounds the house.

The estate was acquired by John Brome in 1438, and passed to his son Nicholas, who built the nearby Church of St Michael. On Nicholas’s death in 1517, Baddesley Clinton passed to his daughter Constance who had married Sir Edward Ferrers, Sheriff of Warwickshire. It was Edward Ferrers who reconstructed the house much as we see today. He is buried in the church, as is Nicholas and many generations of the family. The Ferrers were a recusant Catholic family, and there is a priest hole in the gate tower.

The house remained in the Ferrers family for five centuries until 1940, when it was sold to a distant cousin who changed his name to Ferrers. The National Trust acquired the estate from his son in 1980.

I have included many photos of the interior of the house in this album.

The gardens are not extensive, but the National Trust gardeners keep the borders looking spick and span. At the time of our 2018 visit, there were dahlias of all colors in bloom. On the side of one building a glorious wisteria blooms in the early summer.


Even though Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are such a short distance apart, there is too much to see if you would try to include both in a single visit. About four years ago, a new shop and restaurant were constructed at Packwood House serving great meals. Baddesley Clinton has a sheltered courtyard next to converted outbuildings (not inside the moat) where one can enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and a National Trust flapjack sitting in the sun, weather (and Steph) permitting.

 

 

 

 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.


 

 

 

Crossing the North Sea by boat and car . . . or so it seemed

In the summer of 1998, when Steph and I were back in the UK on our annual home leave (I was working in the Philippines at the time), we had a week’s holiday in Northumberland. We spent almost the whole week within the boundaries of the county, the fifth largest in England, crossing into southern Scotland for just one night. It was the first time we had visited the county. But it wouldn’t be the last, not by a long chalk.

Our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at Durham University (under 20 miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2000, and after graduation in 2003, remained in the northeast, marrying Andi in 2010 and now raising two boys, Elvis and Felix. So, we’ve been traveling up to Newcastle at least a couple of times a year, and taking more opportunities to explore the fabulous Northumbrian countryside.

Northumberland has so much to offer, from moorlands to coast. There are so many Roman ruins to explore like Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall as well as magnificent castles like Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh. The coast has some of the best beaches in the whole of the country, but not so good for bathing, at least in my opinion. Why? Because the North Sea is too damned cold!

On two days we headed to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.


The Farne Islands
The Farnes (owned by the National Trust) are an archipelago of some 15-20 islands (depending on the tides) up to 4 miles off the northern coast of Northumberland, just south of the border with Scotland. They are one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, with significant colonies of puffins, terns, guillemots, and kittiwakes, among others. After a short (maybe 30 minutes) boat ride from Seahouses, we arrived at Inner Farne, the only island with access. It was a smooth crossing to Inner Farne in bright sunshine, but by the time of our arrival there, it had clouded over.

Puffins on the cliff edge, with guillemots on the far right.

As we approached Inner Farne, it was hard not to wonder at the sheer number of seabirds flying to and from the islands, as well as the rising cacophony of calls from the different species.

After landing, and as we made our way on the short walk to St Cuthbert’s Chapel, and afterwards as we explored other open paths, we were dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns that were nesting in the grass on all sides. And I can assure you that a passing peck from the tern’s dagger-like beak hurts! In fact, the National Trust encourages all visitors to bring suitable headgear for protection.

This was my first up-close experience of large colonies of seabirds. And what a feast for the eyes as you can see from the images above.

Besides the various bird (and grey seal) colonies, Inner Farne also has a long history of human occupation dating back to the late seventh century AD, becoming first the solitary home of St Aidan, and then St Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral). Apart from National Trust reserve wardens stationed on the islands during the seabird summer breeding season, the islands are now uninhabited.

But they do have a particular claim to fame for the brave exploits of Grace Darling, daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper on another of the islands who, with her father, saved nine persons on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire that was wrecked in a tremendous storm on the Farnes in 1838. She was only 22. She died of tuberculosis in 1842, a national heroine.

Grace Darling (1815-1842) and the SS Forfarshire that foundered on the Farne Islands in 1838.


Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory
A little further up the coast is Holy Island, the site of Lindisfarne Priory (owned by English Heritage).

Access to the island is across a one mile tidal causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide, so careful planning is required to safely cross on to the island, and avoid being stranded before the tide covers the causeway. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed, but we had no issues, and had plenty of time on the island itself before returning to the mainland. We did see a couple of cars that hadn’t made it in time, caught in a rising tide and abandoned by their owners.

We did not visit the castle on Holy Island. That is owned by the National Trust. I’m not sure if it was open to the public back in the day.

Monks first settled on Holy Island in AD 635, but after a violent Viking raid in AD 793 they fled from the island. The ruins that comprise Lindisfarne Priory date from the 12th century. The most spectacular is the Rainbow Arch.

I must have taken more photos, but these are the few that I’ve been able to lay my hands on.

We’ve only scratched the surface of Holy Island. Once we have moved north, then we hope to have many opportunities of exploring this magical place again, including the castle next time.