Crossing rivers, valleys, and mountains in the eastern USA

I don’t particularly like driving. Never have. Especially on the UK’s crowded roads. But it’s a necessity that I live with.

On the other hand, driving around the USA has been a much more pleasant experience. I have enjoyed¹ the road trips (covering at least 12,000 miles) that Steph and I have made around the USA since 2011.

Budget® Car Rental gave us a Jeep Wrangler this year.

Why? Well, for one thing, most of the the routes I have chosen have not been congested, and it’s possible to drive mile upon mile and hardly see another vehicle. In many places, even in the remotest locations, road surfaces are quite good, or indeed, very good. Also, having lived in countries where they drive on the ‘wrong’ side (Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines) for almost three decades, driving on the right in the USA doesn’t faze me.

Those who follow my blog, or come across my stories from time to time, will know that I try and illustrate these quite liberally with photos that I have (mostly) taken myself. But on many of our trips across America there are often no places to stop conveniently and take in the landscape.

On a couple of occasions, when we traveled through the redwoods of northern California, or, more recently, worked our way through the Appalachians, for example, Steph held a video camera. But that’s never been a satisfactory solution.

So, earlier this year, I decided to invest in a Nextbase dashcam, which I used during our most recent trip to record the whole nine days. Hours of video to scan, and decide on the best clips. Was it worth it, you might very well ask? I think so, especially as the software bundled with the cam permits me to capture individual frames as images that I can use in the same way as those from my DSLR.

I try to choose routes along scenic byways, where we’ll often see important features in the landscape. During this year’s trip we took in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area follows the course of the Delaware River (map), and forms the state line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We traveled down the valley on the PA side, northeast to southwest. At the southern end, the Delaware River takes a sharp turn east cutting through a significant mountain ridge.

The Gap at Kittatinny Point in New Jersey

There are a couple of visitors centers. In the north of the area is Dingmans Falls Visitor Center, and the falls close by. This video takes you from the entrance to the Recreation Area in the north, to Dingmans Falls, and south to the Gap, before emerging in New Jersey and looking back westwards to the Gap.

The Monongahela National Forest (19) is one of 26 national forests nationwide.

NPS_delaware-water-gap-map

We’ve been fortunate to pass through several others during previous road trips: Green Mountain/White Mountain (15) in the northeast; Daniel Boone (10) in Kentucky; Allegheny (1) in western Pennsylvania; Black Hills (3) in South Dakota; Shoshone (25) and Bridger-Teton in Wyoming; and Coconino (8) in Arizona; and many more forests and wilderness areas that are not necessarily part of the national forest system.

Monongahela covers a vast area of the ridges and valleys of West Virginia. We traveled southwest down the valleys, but as our destination on that day was Appomattox in central Virginia, we had to keep turning east, climbing and descending ridges in frequent succession.

We stopped at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center to take a look (from a distance) at the rocks themselves, an enormous quartzite crag, which apparently the only true peak on the east coast.

Criss-crossing these ridges and valleys was where many battles and skirmishes were fought during the Civil War from 1861-1865. It’s hard enough driving over these ridges, never mind tramping mile after mile, hauling wagons with matériel and provisions, ill-clothed and ill-shod, and then having to fight a battle. Awe inspiring!.

Driving across the USA opens one’s eyes to the enormity of the country, the vastness of the landscapes that open up ahead. And on this particular trip, the scale of the challenge to ford rivers, even the ocean, came home to me as we passed over some remarkable bridges, exquisite examples of civil engineering. So, rather than trying to describe each of the bridges that caught my attention take a look at these two videos (speeded up as were the others above). Also check out the map to see where they are located.

I decided to make a separate video of the crossing of Chesapeake Bay that connects Virginia at Norfolk (and its naval base) with the Delmarva Peninsula to the east. Built on stilts across the bay, and incorporating two deep tunnels and a higher bridge on the eastern end, I was blown away by the scale of the project.

At the north end of Chesapeake Bay there is another long crossing, shown at the end in the first bridge video.

I hope you enjoy these vignettes of travel through the eastern USA, as much as we did driving there and putting together the videos.

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¹ There are aspects of driving in the USA that still irk me, however. Such as:

  • Vehicles entering interstates at high speed, and not matching their speed to existing traffic.
  • Overtaking on both sides.
  • Rear brake lights that are also indicators on many models.
  • Locals who are reluctant to overtake on clear roads, but will tailgate.

And there are rules of the road that one has to be aware / careful of:

  • Low speed limits, typically 55 mph on US and state roads (although from my experience this year, hardly anyone seems to take notice of these limits.
  • Stopping rules for school buses – this caught me out once in northern California, as I thought only vehicles on the same side as the bus had to stop. No; both carriageways have to stop.
  • Turning right on a red light can be confusing.
  • Pedestrian rights when one is turning left, even on a green light.
  • Priority rules at all-way stop signs. There are few roundabouts that I’ve come across in the USA, although a few more than usual during this year’s trip.
  • One can get caught out (especially approaching traffic lights) when entering a right or left lane, and having to make a turn.

The most recognisable geographical feature

Cape Cod. It defines the coastline of Massachusetts, jutting out into the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Next stop: Europe. It must surely be one of the most recognisable geographical features in North America, maybe the entire planet.

During our recent nine day road trip through ten northeast and Atlantic states, Cape Cod was the first destination.

We had flown into Boston the day before, and because the flight path that day took us southeast of the airport, we had a fantastic view of the Cape before the aircraft banked north for its final approach. The 93 mile drive south from Boston’s Logan International Airport was not as straightforward as I had planned. Our flight had been delayed by two hours out of Amsterdam, and it was closer to 6 pm before we were on the road south, becoming mixed up in Boston rush hour traffic for almost 35 miles, then completing the final 20 miles or so to our hotel in Orleans in the dark (something which I had hoped to avoid, never being comfortable with night driving). But we made it in one piece, settled down for a good night’s sleep (sadly not achieved) in expectation of an interesting exploration of the Cape Cod National Seashore the following day. We were not disappointed.

Just 4 miles north of Orleans we stopped at the Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center, something which I hadn’t planned to do, but was very pleased that we took the opportunity.

The National Park Service staff were extremely helpful (as they are everywhere), providing maps and other pamphlets, and suggestions of where to visit; the Visitor Center had an excellent museum about life on Cape Cod. There’s information about the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape, and the history of the whaling industry. Some remarkable examples of scrimshaw are also displayed.

Heading north, we arrived at the Province Lands Visitor Center on the north coast of the Cape. While the center was closed for some plumbing maintenance work, the observation platform on the roof was still accessible from which there was a panoramic view over the dunes to the miles of beaches.

We moved on to the car park at Race Point Beach, and wandered down on to the beach. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the sea was as calm as a millpond. Even though it was overcast, it wasn’t cold, and families were enjoying time on the beach, as well as anglers casting their lines. Prominent signs warned of the dangers of swimming because white sharks are common along the coast in search of seals. We were amused to see a small first aid kit on the beach, which we didn’t think would be much use if one did encounter a white shark.

From Race Point Beach we headed to Herring Cove Beach on the western tip of the Cape, which overlooks Cape Cod Bay. By then the sun had broken through, and it was a little windier there, waves breaking on the shore in quick succession.

Herring Cove Beach, with Race Point Lighthouse in the distance

Next stop was the small community of Provincetown (which swells enormously during the summer, a favorite destination of the LBGT community as evidenced by the many rainbow flags flown from many properties). It was here on 11 November 1620 that the Pilgrim Fathers (who had set sail from Plymouth in England some months earlier bound for the Colony of Virginia). Although they came ashore at Provincetown, they eventually settled at Plymouth across Cape Cod Bay. The skyline at Provincetown is dominated by a granite tower, the Pilgrim Monument, almost 253 feet (77 m) tall, built between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landfall of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 and the signing of the Mayflower Compact that established the governance for Plymouth County.

There’s only one way on and off Cape Cod, so to continue our journey west into Rhode Island and beyond, we had to retrace our steps south. But we took in the site of the Marconi Wireless Station that was opened in 1903 from where the first transatlantic wireless transmission between the US and Europe was made.

When RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, wireless operators here alerted the crew of RMS Carpathia to the unfolding tragedy and sending the ship to help with the rescue of survivors.

There’s almost nothing remaining of the original station and antenna, victims of cliff erosion. We did see some metalwork and piles of bricks that might have been part of the station.

After a picnic lunch we continued our journey south and west towards our next night’s stop, in Plainfield, Connecticut via Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse on the tip of Jamestown island in Narragansett Bay.

In this video, you can experience something of our road trip through Cape Cod.

You can view more photos of Cape Cod and Beavertail Lighthouse here.

 

Bringing a bloody conflict to an end

Separated by 213 miles and almost two years, the battlefield of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Appomattox Court House in Virginia must be two of the most significant sites of the American Civil War, a war that ravaged the country for more than four years from April 1861, and cost more than 700,000 lives (a higher proportion with respect to population than any other conflict in which the USA has been a belligerent).

If they know anything about the Civil War at all, many people will have heard of Gettysburg, an unexpected and unplanned battle that took place in central southern Pennsylvania over three days from 1 July 1863, and just over half way through the four year struggle. And remembered not just for President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on 19 November 1863 (of which more later). Gettysburg was perhaps the pivotal moment of the war in favor of the Union, as Confederate General Robert E Lee’s invasion of the North faltered and he retreated south back into Virginia.

Appomattox Court House will perhaps be less familiar. It’s the site, in central Virginia, where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lt. General Ulysses S Grant’s Army of the Potomac on Palm Sunday, 9 April 1865. The surrender came after one of the last engagements of the war (in which Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry played an important role). And while the war did linger further west for a couple more months, it was effectively over when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

During our recent road trip through ten northeast and Atlantic states, Steph and I took in both Gettysburg and Appomattox Court House.

I have been interested in American Civil War history for quite a number of years, and take the opportunity, whenever possible, to visit historic sites. I made a special beeline for these two sites on this year’s road trip. I wasn’t sure whether Steph would be as keen as myself, but she assured me that the visits were equally interesting to her. Made more so, I believe, by the excellent facilities, exhibits, and literature provided by the National Park Service (NPS) of the US Department of the Interior (doing a great job despite the ‘attacks’ on its budget by the current Trump administration).

The bloodiest battle
The Gettysburg battlefield covers a huge area (map), and more or less surrounds the town of the same name which, in 1863, had a population of around 2500, quite sizeable for that era.

The first engagements began to the northwest of the town center, when Federal (Union) and Confederate units ‘collided’. Over the next three days, the battle spread south and east. While much of the terrain is rolling and open, wooded areas provided cover for units on both side from which to attack. And in a couple of places such as Culps Hill and Little Round Top, the armies clashed over steep and rocky terrain.

The attacks and repulses on both sides were savage, and attrition rates high. For example, the First Minnesota regiment lost 85% of its men dead or wounded in one day during Gettysburg, the highest of the war.

The only other major battlefield I’ve visited before was the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, where Custer’s 7th Cavalry was defeated by an alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876.

Gettysburg is on a far greater scale, and monuments (some small, some very large indeed) to the dead and wounded of many regiments are scattered but numerous right across the battlefield.

Our tour of the battlefield took about four hours. Rather than follow the recommended chronological route, taking in the locations of the battle as they unfolded, we headed first to Culps Hill where there is an observation tower that gives an excellent view over the entire battlefield. Another tower, on the west side affords views over sites where the Confederates were dug in, near the Virginia Monument (a huge statue of Lee on horseback) and near where the disastrous Pickett’s Charge by Confederates on the Union center was repulsed on 3 July, and Lee was forced to withdraw.

It was a bright sunny day on our visit, a quiet morning that was so different from what was experienced 156 years ago. It was very moving as well. In this video you can experience something of what we did during our tour of the battlefield.

Our final stop was the Soldier’s National Monument where, on 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, just 272 words long (POTUS 45 could learn something from Lincoln’s brief but telling oratory).

Lincoln had arrived in Gettysburg by train from Washington the previous day (exactly 85 years before I was born), and stayed overnight in David Wills’ house in the town square, just a block from the station.

The Confederates surrender
Two days later, we were at Appomattox Court House, which lies a couple miles east of Appomattox Station (town). Yes, there is a county court house there, but it was a small settlement that had grown up before Appomattox itself.

There are more than 30 buildings on the site, some original and some reconstructed (the NPS clearly indicates which). But the fact that some buildings are reconstructed does not detract in any way from the importance and significance of the site.

The court house was originally built in 1846 but burnt down in 1892; it was reconstructed in 1964 and is now the Visitor Center which houses an excellent museum on two floors.

The most significant building however, is the McLean House, a fine residence over three floors with outhouses for slaves, where the deeds of surrender were signed by Lee on 9 April 1865.

This house is also a reconstruction. After the surrender ceremony was over, and Lee had returned to his army to announce the terms of the surrender, Union officers relieved the McLeans of many pieces of furniture, including the two tables at which Lee and Grant sat. Today, these original tables are carefully preserved in museums, but the McLean House has faithful replicas on display. The poignancy of the surrender room, the front parlor, cannot be underestimated.

The tables at which Lee (L) and Grant (R) signed the deeds of surrender

Wilmer McLean was a well-to-do farmer who had brought his family west after the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, the first of the Civil War. His farm was in the middle of the battlefield. Four years later, he was again surrounded by conflict—and peace! He is reported to have stated: The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.

Grant offered Lee generous terms of surrender. Soldiers of the Army of North Virginia were paroled, allowed to return home, and even take their horses with them. Paroles were hastily printed in the Clover Hill Tavern just across the street from the court house.

However, the optimism of peace was shattered less than a week later when Lincoln was assassinated by secessionist sympathiser John Wilkes Booth in the Ford’s Theater in Washington.

During our trip we saw two very different aspects of the Civil War. But the war is not just battles and statistics. It’s also about people. The average age of soldiers on both sides was 20. They were mostly single and Protestant. Many came from farming stock. In one way, the Civil War is unique. It’s probably the first war that was fully documented photographically. Not only do we know the names of the soldiers who served. We also have recorded, for posterity, their likenesses in early photographs.

I’m currently reading this excellent book published by National Geographic (that I picked up, secondhand, in St Paul for under $10). And the human cost of war is certainly brought home in the various accounts and anecdotes retold therein.

After the war, there was (as might be expected) considerable analysis and introspection about the causes of the war, its conduct, outcome, and why soldiers served as they did. The NPS has put together three excellent pamphlets which I have combined in the image below (just click to open a larger image).

In two road trips, this year and two years ago when we crossed the Appalachians from Georgia through Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, I have traveled through much of the territory where the armies of the Union and Confederacy came to blows. It’s unforgiving terrain, and the thought that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many poorly clothed, with ill-fitting shoes (or no shoes at all!) tramped backwards and forwards across these hills at the behest of their commanders fills me with awe and horror. This short video, taken from the top of Brasstown Bald (the highest point in Georgia) is typical of the terrain over which much of the conflict was fought.

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There are more photos of Gettysburg here, and Appomattox Court House here.

Tracks over the mountains

The building of railways around the world in the 19th century inspired some impressive feats of engineering.

Among them must surely be included Horseshoe Curve, just west of Altoona in central Pennsylvania, that was completed in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a way to lessen the grade over the Allegheny Mountains. Today, its three tracks are operated by the Norfolk Southern Railway, carrying mainly freight, but with Amtrak passenger trains passing through each day.

It is indeed a main artery connecting Pennsylvania’s coalfields with the east coast. During World War II it was considered a strategic target by Nazi Germany because of the armaments and other materiel being transported to the east coast for shipment to Europe.

In the past year I had come across several videos of trains passing Horseshoe Curve, and determined that if I ever had the chance, I would visit.

And that’s precisely what Steph and I did during our recent trip around northeast and Atlantic states. The trains, often pulled and pushed (or braked going downhill) by as many as five or six locomotives, are just mind-blowing in their length. Just see on the video below, of a coal train negotiating the curve, that the leading locomotives are already out of sight before the last cars have appeared around the upper bend (on the right).

Here are some Horseshoe Curve statistics.

During the 45 minutes we sat by the trackside, three freight trains lumbered through. One of them was actually halted on the Curve to check the brakes of the lead locomotive 4115. An audio link between the railroad controllers and engineers was relayed at the track side viewing point so we could understand what was going on.

USA 2019: nine days, ten Northeast and Atlantic states

Steph and I are now relaxing with family in Minnesota.

We have just completed our 2019 road trip: almost 2050 miles across ten states (in yellow), and crossing state lines thirteen times (MA-RI-CT-NY-PA-NJ-DE-PA-MD-WV-VA-MD-DE-MD).

Our visit to the USA started at 03:00 on Tuesday 3 September, when we dragged ourselves out of bed to head to Birmingham Airport (BHX) to catch the 06:00 KLM flight to Amsterdam(AMS). We were surprised to find the airport heaving even at that early hour. While this flight departed on time, on arrival in Amsterdam we discovered, to our (slight) dismay that the onward Delta flight to Boston (BOS) was delayed at least two hours because of the late arrival of the incoming aircraft (from JFK, where severe weather has disrupted many flights the previous day).

But, to give Delta Airlines due credit, they turned the aircraft around quickly and we departed only slightly over two hours delayed. However, as you can imagine that had a knock-on for our arrival in BOS.

Immigration there was a bit of a nightmare. I had hoped to be on the road before 15:00 for the 93 mile drive south for our first night at Orleans on Cape Cod. Because of the various delays, it was closer to 18:00 before we headed out of the car rental center, immediately hitting Boston rush-hour traffic, and then crawling slowly south for at least 35 miles.

Budget car rental assigned us a Jeep Wrangler, perhaps a little bigger than I had contemplated, but it was comfortable and solid on the road.

I had planned to be at Orleans well before nightfall. It wasn’t to be, and I had to drive the last hour in the dark, not something I relish at the best of times. For the final 15-20 miles of the trip, US-6 narrowed to two-way (known locally as ‘Suicide Alley’). Nonetheless, we made it in one piece and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

We spent the first morning on Cape Cod, checking out various beaches, before traveling into Provincetown to view (from a distance) the Pilgrim Monument, erected between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. We also visited the site where Marconi built a transatlantic wireless communication station just after the turn of the 20th century.

Then we headed west to Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse at the southern tip of Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, crossing the impressive Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge in the process.

Beavertail Lighthouse.

Then it was on to Plainfield, CT for our second night.

The next day we headed down to the Connecticut coast at Old Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River, before turning west to have a picnic lunch and a walk on the beach at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, some 15 miles west of New Haven (home to Yale University).

Crossing the causeway at Old Saybrook on CT-154

The ‘dangerous’ sand bar out to Charles Island where is access is not permitted during the breeding season of various sea birds.

In the northwest of the state we visited Kent Falls State Park, before heading to Poughkeepsie (pronounced Puckipsee, home to Vassar College) on the banks of the Hudson River (and close to Hyde Park, the home of President Franklin D Roosevelt that we didn’t have time to visit).

Kent Falls State Park

In Poughkeepsie we found an excellent restaurant, The Tomato Cafe on Collegeview Ave just outside Vassar, and enjoyed probably the best meal of the trip.

From Poughkeepsie we had a long drive west into Pennsylvania before heading south and east to end up near Atlantic City on New Jersey’s coast. From the coast we headed west into Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

Our day started early, crossing the Hudson River on US-44 at Poughkeepsie despite my satnav refusing to calculate a crossing there.

Crossing the Mid-Hudson Bridge at Poughkeepsie

Our first destination was the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania, and Dingmans Falls, just a mile west of US209, in particular. On the way there we came across the remains of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, whose construction started in 1823 to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coal fields.

The Visitor Center at Dingmans Falls was closed during our visit, but the boardwalk trail to the Falls themselves was an easy walk of just under a mile. However, the climb up to the top of the Falls was a little more challenging.

About 20 miles south of Dingmans Falls, the Delaware River cuts through the mountains and heads east. It forms the stateline between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We stopped for a bite to eat at the Kittatinny Point rest area on the New Jersey side.

Looking west (from central northern New Jersey) towards the Delaware Gap.

By this time we were becoming a little concerned about reports of exactly where, on the Atlantic Coast, Hurricane Dorian would make landfall. High winds had been predicted for Atlantic City, and some rain, but as the storm was moving quite slowly, we had no idea if it would affect us or not.

We had already seen forecasts of severe weather in northern New Jersey (just south of New York) and we weren’t disappointed! I misread my satnav and exited from the highway one exit too soon, and found myself heading over the Raritan River at Perth Amboy on the wrong bridge. Fortunately my satnav quickly sorted me out, sending me back north over another bridge on Convery Boulevard, and entering the Garden State Parkway where I had originally intended. We only lost about 10 minutes, but driving among six or more lanes of fast-moving traffic in a downpour and with all the road spray was not an experience I would wish to repeat.

When we arrived at our hotel in Absecon (a few miles outside Atlantic City) it was certainly windy, the clouds were lowering, but there was no immediate threat of the hurricane hitting or any flooding, although our hotel (a rather inferior Travelodge) faced the marshes fronting the ocean.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny however, and hardly a breath of wind. Dorian had passed us by and headed out east into the Atlantic. What a difference a day makes!

The Atlantic City skyline from the northwest, sans hurricane.

So we drove into the center of the city, and walked up and down Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk for a couple of hours.

Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square in Pennsylvania (west of Philadelphia and northwest from Wilmington, DE) was not on our original itinerary. However, through a Facebook chat with a former colleague, accountant Lisa Panes, from IRRI in the Philippines, she mentioned that a visit to Longwood would be worthwhile. I’d never heard of the gardens before, but then discovered they are considered among the best in the USA. And not only that, just a few miles east of the original route I’d planned.

We spent four glorious hours wandering around the gardens. I’ll be writing about the gardens (and other locations we visited) in a separate blog post.

Tired and rather hot, we set off on the last leg to Gettysburg, passing through the heart of Amish country, at Intercourse, PA.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we set off to the Gettysburg battlefield visitor center, received battlefield guide maps, and decided which routes to take. Over the whole site, seemingly every few yards, there are monuments to different regiments, both Federal and Confederate, and the many skirmishes that took place there over a period of three days in July 1863. Very poignant.

We also went into town to view Gettysburg station where President Lincoln arrived on 18 November 1863, just over four months after the battle.

At the end of the visit we strolled around the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and saw the spot where, on 19 November 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Have 272 words ever been more powerful?

After lunch we headed northwest from Gettysburg to Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA, a feat of railway engineering that was completed in 1854, would you believe.

From there, it was an 80 mile drive south to Frostburg in the mountains of northwest Maryland, a most beautiful landscape that I hadn’t expected. Our hotel there, a Quality Inn, was the best of the trip, about 1½ miles south of the town center, where we also had a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant, Giuseppe’s.

The next two days took us from Frostburg south through the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, before turning east into Virginia to spend nights in Appomattox (where General Robert E Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865), and Colonial Williamsburg.

Seneca Rocks, in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, almost 74 miles south of Frostburg.

A typical West Virginia landscape in the Monongahela National Forest.

The McLean home at Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant.

Colonial Williamsburg was not quite what I expected. It’s like a living museum, with quite a number of original buildings but many that have been reconstructed.

Our last day, Wednesday, was spent traveling north up the Delmarva Peninsula, stopping off for an hour at Lewes beach, before the last (and heavy traffic) push into Baltimore, for our final night close to Baltimore International Airport (BWI) from where we flew next day to Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP). This last day also included crossing the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels, almost 18 miles in length.

On the east Virginia shore, there’s an observation rest area where some of the bridges and causeway can be seen in the distance.

20190911 016

It was over 90F on the beach at Lewes.

So, for another year, our USA road trip is over. We averaged just over 240 miles per day (discounting the first day trip south to Orleans), and only on two days did we travel more than 300 miles (unlike in 2018, for instance, when most days were over 300 miles, and often closer to or more than 400 miles). So, in that sense, this year’s trip was easier, even though I felt the trip took more out of me than I had expected. Must be an age thing.

Overall, I was pleased with the Jeep. We spent only $203 on gasoline and achieved an impressive (considering the size of the vehicle) 26 mpg; $804 on hotels (or about £645 at current—and disappointing, Brexit -induced—exchange rates), and maybe $350 or so on meals.

Where to in 2020? Maybe the Rocky Mountain states, or do we bite the bullet and tour the southern states from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas? Decisions, decisions!

Around the world through 191 airports . . . and counting

I took my first flight, in the summer of 1966 when I was seventeen. Fifty-three years ago.

It was a short hop, just 137 nm and less than one hour, on a four-engine Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow Airport (GLA, then known as Abbotsinch) to the low-lying island of Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides, between North and South Uist. I was to spend a week there bird-watching at the RSPB’s newly-established Balranald reserve.

In the intervening years, Glasgow Airport has become an important international hub for the west of Scotland. In 1966, Benbecula had just one small building, almost a hut, serving as the terminal. When I passed by a few years ago during a vacation in Scotland, it didn’t look as though it had grown much.

Since that first flight I have taken hundreds more and, as far as I can recall, taken off from or landed at a further 189 airports worldwide. Navigate around the map below, or use this link to open a full screen version to see which ones.

Each airport is identified using its three letter IATA code. Just click on any symbol to see the full name, and a Wikipedia link for more details on each airport.

The airports I have departed from or traveled to are shown as dark red symbols. Also included in this group are the airports (actually quite a small number) where I changed flights, to the same airline or another one, but did not leave the airport itself. Airports that were operational during the years I was flying regularly, but have now been superseded by new ones such as in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hyderabad (India), and Durban (South Africa), to name just four cities are listed in this category. In most cases, the old airports still operate commercially in one form or another, but not generally for international flights.

If passengers could not disembark during a lay-over or only spent a brief time in the airport terminal before continuing on the same flight, then I’ve used a blue symbol.

Three airports (shown in yellow) have since closed. In Hong Kong, the infamous Kai Tak airport in Kowloon was closed in July 1998 when operations moved to Chek Lap Kok, west of the city. The site is being redeveloped.

When I visited the Caribbean island of Montserrat in November 1979, we landed on a small strip on the east coast. It now lies under several meters of volcanic ash following the disastrous eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano between 1995 and 1999.

A third, at the Mayan city of Tikal in the rainforest of northeast Guatemala, is no longer operational. I can see from a satellite image on Google Maps that buildings now line either side of what appears to have been the runway. Steph and I flew there in August 1977 on an Aviateca DC-3. Nowadays, I assume that visitors to Tikal must either travel by road (there were none in 1977) or fly into the international airport (FRS) at Flores, a city north of Tikal.

An Aviateca DC-3 at Tikal in 1971.

Finally, three airports (all in central Peru) are shown in green. These were airfields or landing strips not served by commercial flights where I traveled by light aircraft.

Steph and I flew from San Ramon (SPRM) on the east side of the Andes to Puerto Bermudez on this Cessna. We didn’t have seats, and on the return flight sat on empty beer crates, sharing the cabin with three dead pigs!


The second flight I took, in early 1969, was back to GLA from London Heathrow (LHR) to attend a student folk dance festival at Strathclyde University in that city.

My third flight (and first outside the UK), in April 1972, was to Izmir, Turkey to attend an international conference on plant genetic resources. With my friend and former colleague, Brian Ford-Lloyd, we flew from Birmingham (BHX) via LHR to Izmir (IGL – now replaced by a new airport south of the city) through Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport (ISL) formerly known as Yeşilköy Airport. On the return journey, Brian and I almost missed our flight from Istanbul to London. With all the ambient noise in the terminal and inadequate tannoy, we hadn’t heard the flight departure announcement and were blithely sitting there without a care in the world. Eventually someone from Turkish Airlines came looking for us, and escorted us across the apron to board the 707 through a rear door. Embarrassed? Just a little.


The first long-distance flight I took (5677 nm, and only my fourth flight) was in January 1973, to Lima to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. On a Boeing 707 operated by BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways), this was a long flight, with intermediate stops in Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, Bogota (BOG) in Colombia, before the final sector to Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM).

Steph joined me in Peru in July 1973, and flew the same route (but starting at LHR), only her second flight (the first being school trip to France in the 1960s).


In compiling this list of airports, I’m also reminded of the many flights that passed through them, and my impressions of each terminal and facilities. After all, transit through an airport is an important part of the overall trip experience. In some instances you can spend almost as much time in the airport as in the air, having to cope with the hassle (challenges in some cases) of checking in, passing through security, the boarding process (which can go smoothly or not depending on how ‘friendly’ the ground staff are) on departure, and immigration, baggage pickup (always stressful), and finally, customs control on arrival. So many steps. So many opportunities for something to go awry. I think we tend to almost discount trips when everything goes to plan. It’s what we hope for, expect even.

However, let’s have a look at the particular challenges of some airports, based just on where they are located, and their difficulty for pilots. Now I’ve never landed in Paro (PBH) in Bhutan (regarded as one of the most ‘dangerous’ airports in the world, flown visually throughout (check out this video to see what I mean), or the gateway to Mt Everest, Lukla (LUA) in Nepal.

But landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak¹ was always interesting (even when there were no weather issues), and that I’ve seen referred to as the ‘heart attack’ approach, banking steeply to the right on final, and seemingly skimming the roof tops.

While in Lima (1973-1976) I made a few internal flights but nothing international.

I flew into Cuzco (CUZ) a couple of times. It is surrounded by mountains, and flights can only land from and take off to the east. A new international airport is being built (controversially) at Chinchero north of the city, an important area for indigenous agriculture (potatoes and maize!) and cultural heritage.

The airport at Juliaca (JUL, for Puno on Lake Titicaca) lies at 12,500 feet (or 3800 m), and has one of the longest runways in Latin America. I’ve been there two or three times.

It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica (1976-1980) to lead CIP’s research program, that I began to travel more regularly around my ‘patch’ from Mexico to Panama and out into the Caribbean Islands.

San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is surrounded by volcanic peaks up to 3000 m. This was my local airport for almost five years (we lived in Turrialba, 82 km to the east), and it could be quite badly fogged in from time to time. I remember one time returning from Guatemala City on the late evening Pan Am 707 flight. We had to circle overhead the airport for more than half an hour, until the fog cleared. However, just as we were about to touch down, the Captain applied full power and aborted the approach. At the last moment, the fog had obscured his view of the runway. He banked away steeply to the left and, according to the driver who came to pick me up, our aircraft skimmed the terminal building!

One could always expect a white knuckle approach into Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín  International Airport (TGU) in Honduras. Just before landing, aircraft have to bank steeply to the left then skim a hill at the end of the runway, before dropping quickly on to the runway and braking hard to avoid skidding off the end of the runway (which has happened several times). Here’s a B-737 cockpit view of landing there, the aircraft (but generally the 737-100 or 737-200) I often flew into TGU.

The take-off roll at Mexico City (MEX) can last a minute or more, because of the altitude of the airport (7300 feet, 2230 m). The airport has parallel runways almost 4 km long. In 1979, I was returning to Guatemala City with a colleague, and we boarded an Aviateca B-727, a new aircraft. The take-off seemed to last forever. In fact, the Captain lifted the nose just before the end of the runway, and we skimmed the landing lights by only a small height. Then, on landing at Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport (GUA, also surrounded by several volcanoes which can make for a tricky approach) we burst a tyre and skidded off the runway, coming to a halt some distance from the terminal building.

Turbulence always makes me nervous. The airspace around the approach to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT) is always busy, and often subject to bumpy air. Many’s the time I’ve bounced into and out of NRT, but fortunately never experiencing the very severe turbulence affecting some flights.


It wasn’t until I moved to the Philippines in 1991 (until April 2010) that I began to fly on a regular basis, mostly intercontinental flights to the USA or Europe, but also around Asia.

My first foray into Asia was in 1982 when I attended a conference in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, flying into the old Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport (HLP) on a KLM B-747 from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (AMS).

AMS and Frankfurt (FRA) became hubs for many of my flights, business and pleasure, until I discovered Emirates (EK) in 2000 when they commenced flights out of Manila to Dubai (DXB) and on to BHX, on a wide-bodied B-777.

And it was during these years that I got to travel into Africa for the first time. In January 1993 I flew to Addis Ababa (ADD) from Manila (MNL) via the old Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. On another occasion I took Singapore Airlines from MNL to Johannesburg (JNB) via Singapore (SIN), with a South African Airways (SAA) connection in JNB to Lusaka (LUN), Zambia. It was 27 April 1994, and South Africa was holding its first democratic election, won by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) Party. Having traveled on Business Class, I was settling into the the SAA lounge at JNB when a bomb was detonated in the departure hall above my head. We were all evacuated on to the grass outside, passing through the devastated hall on the way, until we were allowed back into the terminal after several hours. Fortunately it was a fine autumn morning, bright and sunny although a little chilly.

Arrival at Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport (LOS) was, for many years, quite stressful. Greeted on arrival with sinister looking individuals not in uniform demanding one’s passport was one thing, but on departure there was always pressure from immigration and security staff at every point in the departure demanding to look through one’s hand-luggage and ‘ask’ for a bribe, a token of ‘friendship’. It didn’t matter what the item might be, one was always faced with the same old question: ‘What have you got for me in your case?’ Invariably I would answer: ‘A nice big friendly smile’ and passed on with no further toll levied. By the time I made my last visit in the early 2000s, those practices had more or less disappeared.

I’ve always found immigration into the United States somewhat intimidating. Whether immigration officers are told to be generally difficult, I don’t know, but they do ask some rather strange questions. On one occasion, in September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was just four or so months old, we flew back to the UK from Costa Rica via Miami (MIA). This was Hannah’s first flight – and she nearly didn’t make it.

In those days, MIA (and probably many other ports of entry into the USA) did not have a transit facility. Even if just changing flights, you had to pass through immigration requiring a US visa. Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport, and we did not realize that Steph’s visa did not cover Hannah as well. At first, the immigration officer was reluctant to allow us to pass, but after discussing the situation for more than 30 minutes, she did allow us to proceed to our next flight. Needless to say I had to get Hannah a separate visa at the US Embassy in San Jose on our return, attending an interview on Hannah’s behalf to answer all those silly visa application questions. No, Hannah had never been a Communist, or convicted of war crimes.

This transit situation reminds me of another instance when I was traveling with a Peruvian colleague to the Caribbean islands from Santo Domingo (SDQ) in the Dominican Republic via San Juan (SJU) in Puerto Rico. I had a US visa, Oscar did not. We had a lay-over of several hours between flights in SJU. Eventually Oscar was permitted to join me in the airport terminal, on the condition that he was accompanied by an armed guard at all times.


In 2005 I was caught up in a major strike at Northwest Airlines (NWA, now absorbed into Delta Air Lines). I had a business trip to the USA, to attend a meeting in Houston, Texas. By then, Hannah had been living in St Paul, Minnesota for several years, and I’d schedule any trip to the US at a weekend via Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) so I could spend time with her and Michael (now my son-in-law). The day after I arrived in St Paul, a strike was called at NWA that lasted for some weeks, causing my travel plans to be thrown into considerable confusion. Fortunately, NWA handled the situation well, and transferred me on to other airlines, mainly United. I flew to George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston via St Louis (STL). From Houston, I traveled to New York (JFK) for meetings at UNDP. But because of the NWA strike, there was no flight home to the Philippines from MSP. Instead, I flew direct to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United non-stop flight to Hong Kong (HKK, at Kai Tak). And that’s how I came take the world’s longest flight in those days: 17½ hours, 6773 nm. The flight was full. I already had a First Class upgrade from NW that was honored by United, so was rather more comfortable than those in the back over such a long flight. But would we make the flight non-stop? That was the concern raised by our Captain as we taxied out to the runway. He told us that because of the length (and weight) of the full flight, and expected headwinds, there was a 30% chance we might have to land in Beijing (PEK) to refuel. In the eventuality we must have glided on empty from PEK to HKG. Then, in HKG, I transferred to a Canadian Airlines flight for the last sector into MNL.

The whole trip covered more than 17,000 nm.

Then in November 2016, when making a review of genebanks, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I flew to Melbourne (MEL), Australia for four nights, on EK from BHX via DXB. The DXB-MEL sector was the second longest flight I have ever taken at 14 hours or so, and 6283 nm, fortunately on the great A380. This trip was, in total, longer than the US trip I just described above, at 18,625 nm.

Enjoying a wee dram at the bar at the rear upper deck of the A380.


Recently, I came across an item on the CNN travel website, listing Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN) as No. 1 on its list for 2019, the seventh year in a row that it had received the accolade. Even LHR was on the list, at No. 8. That surprised me, given the problems it has experienced in terms of processing incoming passengers through immigration. It’s an airport I have avoided for many years.

When I first began flying, five decades ago, airport terminals were quite rudimentary in many respects, and even until recently some international airports have failed to make the grade. Many airports didn’t even have air bridges to board the aircraft, and you had to walk to the aircraft in all weathers, or be bused out to the aircraft.

Airports have become prestige projects for many countries, almost cities with many opportunities to fleece us of our hard won cash, flaunting so many luxury products.

It’s no wonder that SIN is No. 1. It’s a fabulous airport, almost a tourist attraction in its own right. As are airports like Dubai (DXB), the airport I have traveled through frequently on home leave. EK via DXB also became my airline of choice for flights into Europe on business.

Some like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) are so huge, there’s an internal transportation system to move from one part of the airport to another. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is large – and badly designed. I remember one time arriving there on American Airlines (AA, from MEX I think) to connect with a British Airways (BA) flight to BHX. All the terminals at JFK are arranged around a circle, and there were shuttle buses—in one direction only—connecting them. I arrived in the American terminal which was next door to the BA terminal, but to its right. There was no way to walk from the AA terminal to the BA one. I had to take the shuttle bus all the way round, stopping at every terminal on the way to drop-off and pick-up passengers. It was a busy afternoon. It took almost 90 minutes, and I thought I was going to miss my flight, that was, in any case, delayed. I haven’t been to JFK for a couple of decades so don’t know if this set-up is the same.

On these long-haul flights, we were permitted to fly in Business Class. Having picked up so many air miles I could, on occasion, upgrade my seat to First Class. What a privilege. Flying Business Class also meant access to airline lounges where one could escape to a more relaxing environment before boarding. Given the parlous state of many airport terminals (especially the toilets) this really was a boon.


And to wrap up this post, I’ve been thinking of some of my favorite airports. On clear days, the approaches into SJO or CUZ could be marvelous, with fantastic views over the surrounding mountains. Likewise GUA. In Asia, the approach to Luang Prabang (LPQ) was scenically very beautiful.

But I guess the airports that have caught my attention are those that just worked, like SIN or DXB, BHX even. Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA (MNL) Terminal 1 (which we used throughout our 19 years in the Philippines, before the new Terminal 3 opened to international traffic in 2011) lacked many facilities, with little space for passengers to wait comfortably for their flights. However, I have to admit it was one of the fastest and easiest I’ve ever transited in terms of immigration procedures. In 1996, I flew back to the Philippines with our younger daughter Philippa on a KLM flight from AMS. We touched down, on time, around 16:30, and we were leaving the airport with four bags, having taxied to the terminal, disembarked, passed through immigration and customs, within fifteen minutes. That’s right, fifteen minutes! That must be a record. But that was NAIA for you. I was only delayed seriously on one occasion in all those years.

So many airports, so many flights. So many memories, also. And, on reflection, mostly good. After all, that’s what has allowed me to explore this interesting world of ours.


¹ It’s also noteworthy how many of the aircraft shown in the video are B-747s, a plane that is becoming an increasingly rare sight at many airports around the world, many having been pensioned off and replaced by more fuel efficient twin-engined aircraft like the B-777 and B-787 from Boeing, or the A330 and A350 from Airbus.

Of Prime Ministers and Presidents . . .

Earlier today, I was lying in bed sipping a mug of tea and listening to the news on BBC Radio 4. And wondering what progress (or lack thereof) there had been regarding negotiations between the Tories and Labour to resolve the Brexit impasse that has bedeviled politics in this country for far too long.

I couldn’t help speculating that this whole Brexit debacle will be the one and only thing that Prime Minister Theresa May will be remembered for. Political legacies are the basis of history. So whenever some historian or other comes to analyze her legacy, the Brexit negotiations will be at the top of any list, whether they actually lead to Brexit or not. We’ll find out over the next week. Maybe.

Then, that got me thinking about earlier Prime Ministers and what they are remembered for. Not necessarily their full legacies. And Presidents of the United States as well. One of the reasons for this is that I can think of no point in my lifetime (I was born in November 1948) when there were two more inept occupants of No 10 Downing Street and the White House.

While I can recall Presidents of other countries, of France, of Peru, Costa Rica, or the Philippines where I lived for many years, or countries like South Africa that had leaders who performed on the world stage, like Nelson Mandela for example, or his predecessor, FW de Klerk, the last apartheid head of state, even German Chancellors, I’m much more familiar with US politics and political figures.

Why my interest in US politics? That began in January 1973, when I moved to Peru, and my weekly news roundup came courtesy of Time and Newsweek. It was, after all, also the time of Watergate. And I’ve followed US politics closely ever since. However, let’s start with Prime Ministers.


Since November 1948 there have been fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (Harold Wilson headed two separate administrations).*

L-R: Clement Attlee (Labour), Jul 1945-Oct 1951; Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative), Oct 1951-Apr 1955; Sir Anthony Eden (Conservative), Apr 1955-Jan 1957.

L-R: Harold Macmillan (Conservative), Jan 1957-Oct 1963; Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Oct 1963-Oct 1964; Harold Wilson (Labour), Oct 1964-Jun 1970.

L-R: Edward Heath (Conservative), June 1970-Mar 1974; Harold Wilson (Labour), Mar 1974-Apr 1976; James Callaghan (Labour), Apr 1976-May 1979.

L-R: Margaret Thatcher (Conservative), May 1979-Nov 1990; John Major (Conservative), Nov 1990-May 1997; Tony Blair (Labour), May 1997-Jun 2007.

L-R: Gordon Brown (Labour), Jun 2007-May 2010; David Cameron (Conservative, in coalition with Lib Dems), May 2010-Jul 2016; Theresa May (Conservative), Jul 2016-present.

So what are these fourteen individuals remembered for, good or bad?

My first recollections of politics in the UK came with the administration of Sir Anthony Eden. His time in office must surely be remembered for the Suez Crisis (or second Arab-Israeli War) of late 1956, when UK and French forces waded in on the side of Israel to seize control of the Suez Canal. What I particularly remember was rationing of petrol (gasoline), and using coupons to purchase fuel for the car. The UK’s subsequent humiliation led to Eden’s resignation shortly afterwards.

In 1945, the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee surprisingly won a General Election, defeating the Conservatives led by Sir Winston Churchill, the successful war-time Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, Clement’s legacy is the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS), in July 1947. I was approximately the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Churchill had his political revenge in 1951. While his second administration oversaw the end of hostilities of the Korean War, and an armistice, there was a deepening of the Cold War that had commenced immediately after the end of Second World War. Churchill had coined the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1946.

On Eden’s resignation, Harold Macmillan became leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister, and headed an administration that saw the first sustained economic revival since the war. Macmillan is famous for two sayings. The first, Most of our people have never had it so good (from a speech in 1957) relates to the growing economic prosperity. The second, I was determined that no British government should be brought down by the action of two tarts, concerns the 1963 political scandal, the Profumo Affair, that irreparably damaged Macmillan’s government. Macmillan resigned in October that year.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister on Macmillan’s retirement (having renounced his peerage, as the 14th Earl of Home), and headed a Conservative administration for just one year, being defeated in the October 1964 General Election by the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson. Douglas-Home is perhaps best remembered for his stint (1960-1963) as Foreign Secretary rather than his premiership.

Wilson won the 1964 election with a majority of just four MPs. In 1967, his government was forced to devalue the currency, the GB pound (£), and Wilson is remembered (and criticized) for his pound in your pocket speech in which he assured listeners that the pound had not lost its value. In 1965, during Wilson’s first administration, the political decision was made (on cost grounds) to cancel the TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance aircraft, considered one of the most sophisticated planes to have been designed in the UK. As one aeronautical engineer said at the time, All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.

The first Wilson administration saw the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which intensified and continued right up to the administration of Tony Blair in 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Labour Party was defeated in the June 1970 General Election (the first election I ever voted in) by the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Heath’s administration lasted just under four years. But his significant contribution was to lead the country into membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973 (just as I was leaving to work in Peru). Forty-six years later the nation is divided over its continued membership of the European Union (successor to the EEC and European Community, EC).

Harold Wilson returned to power in the 1974 General Election. Continued membership of the EC was at the forefront of UK politics. In an unprecedented move in the nation’s political history, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975 in which a substantial majority voted for continued membership. How times have changed!

Wilson resigned in March 1976, and was replaced by his Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan’s government lasted just three years, buffeted by economic stresses, and his downfall followed the disastrous 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.

In 1979, the nation had its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She had ousted Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. Her premiership is remembered for three issues. First was her forceful response to the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentina in April-June 1982. But two issues eventually brought her down. The introduction of the Community Charge (commonly known as the Poll Tax) in 1989 was highly unpopular. Industrial relations during her premiership also deteriorated. The Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 was a major industrial action in protest at the closure of coal pits. It was prolonged, violent at times, and divided communities, many of which have hardly yet recovered the loss of jobs. By November 1990, Thatcher had been visited by senior Tory politicians and told to go. She resigned and was replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.

I left the UK in July 1991 to work in the Philippines, returning in May 2010, just before a General Election in which I was not eligible to vote. Thus I have very little direct experience of the premierships of John Major, and his successors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (both Labour leaders).

John Major was Prime Minister during the first Gulf War in 1991. He helped negotiate the Maastricht Treaty that same year that led to further European integration and the formation of the European Union. After the government withdrew the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992, there was a fall in confidence in Conservative economic policies, a situation from which Major hardly recovered. However, he remained in office until May 1997, and even won a General Election. Under John Major the privatization of British Railways began; the monopoly was broken up and individual franchises sold to operate the nation’s rail system.

Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide victory over the Tories in the General Election of May 1997. Blair, at age 43, was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812. He went on to win two more elections in 2001 and 2005. He had very high popularity ratings for his handling of the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. Under his administration the Human Rights and the National Minimum Wage Acts were introduced, and the Good Friday Agreement finally brought peace to Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, Tony Blair will probably be remembered most for his cozy foreign policy relationship with US President George W Bush and his involvement of UK forces in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. For these actions he will never be forgiven by a significant portion of the population, and it’s fair to say that his reputation has been permanently damaged despite the many good things achieved by his centrist Labour administration. Blair resigned on 27 June 2007, and Gordon Brown (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) immediately assumed the premiership.

Gordon Brown was in office until May 2010 when he was defeated by David Cameron and the Conservatives. His most notable achievement was to steer the nation through all the challenges of the 2008 global recession, bailing out the banks and helping to stabilize financial systems here and around the world.

David Cameron did not achieve a House of Commons majority in the May 2010 election, and was forced to seek support of the Lib Dems in a coalition government. Budget austerity was the watchword of this government, the introduction of tuition fees for university students, and other financial measures from which the nation is still suffering. This was also a consequence of the recession before Cameron came to power.

One of the early pieces of legislation from the Coalition was the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that has had its consequences subsequently.

Cameron also sought to negotiate revised membership terms for the UK in the European Union and, as a sop to the right wing faction in his party, he foolishly promised to hold a referendum on continued membership of the EU if the Tories were returned to power in 2015. He didn’t expect to win an outright majority, and when he did, he was in hock to anti-EU factions among his MPs.

The fateful referendum was held on 23 June 2016, and although Remain was official government policy, the result was a Leave majority of 52 to 48%. A decision that we continue to rue three years on. On losing the referendum, Cameron immediately resigned leaving the contest wide open for his successor. Although originally a favorite to succeed Cameron, Brexiteer Boris Johnson withdrew before polling began among Tory MPs and constituency members, leaving former Home Secretary Theresa May as the only candidate. She became Prime Minister on 11 July 2016.

And she has proven to be one of the most inept politicians I can ever remember, without empathy (viz. her response to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in June 2017 around the time of the general Election), a cold fish, who has led the nation down a disastrous Brexit path. She was so inept as to call an early General Election in 2017 (despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act), losing her overall majority, and since then propped up by ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland. But due to major policy splits in her own party, she has been unable to push through her EU Withdrawal Agreement. It has been defeated three times in the past eight weeks, and unless something comes of the discussions between the Conservatives and Labour over the next week, the UK will crash out of the EU on 12 April. Theresa May will also be remembered, and in a very bad light, for her anti-immigration stance and policies she introduced when Home Secretary.

Fortunately, it seems she will not be Prime Minister for much longer. But will it be a question of out of the frying pan and into the fire? Boris Johnson as her replacement? Heaven forfend!

Let’s now turn to the Presidents of the Unites States, or POTUS.


From Harry Truman to Donald Trump, there have been thirteen Presidents of the United States since 1948.

L-R: Harry S Truman (33rd, Democrat), 1945-1953; Dwight D Eisenhower (34th, Republican), 1953-1961; John F Kennedy (35th, Democrat), 1961-1963.

L-R: Lyndon B Johnson (36th, Democrat), 1963-1969; Richard M Nixon (37th, Republican) 1969-1974; Gerald Ford (38th, Republican) 1974-1977.

L-R: Jimmy Carter (39th, Democrat) 1977-1981; Ronald Reagan (40th, Republican) 1981-1989; George HW Bush (41st, Republican) 1989-1993.

L-R: Bill Clinton (42nd, Democrat) 1993-2001; George W Bush (43rd, Republican) 2001-2009; Barack Obama (44th, Democrat) 2009-2017; Donald J Trump (45th, Republican) 2017-present.

Harry Truman assumed the presidency on 12 April 1945 on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt. Truman will undoubtedly be remembered as the first head of state to authorize the use of atomic weapons, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. The Cold War began under his presidency. He was responsible for the Berlin Airlift in 1948, but also saw the start of the Korean War. He famously won re-election in 1948, defeating Thomas Dewey; even newspapers had gone to press declaring Dewey as the winner.

Truman was succeeded by General Dwight Eisenhower who had been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. Eisenhower served two terms. This was the era of the Cold War. And one consequence of that was the 1960 U-2 spyplane incident during his last year in office. The US Interstate Highway System was inaugurated during his presidency.

The presidency of John F Kennedy was all too short. It had promised so much more, but an assassin’s bullet robbed the nation of that promise in November 1963. I remember vividly the moment that programs were suspended on TV in the UK to announce his death. And what grief there was, not just in the USA, but globally.

In May 1961, Kennedy announced a plan to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. He did not live to see that dream realized eight years later.

In August 1961, the East Germans under Soviet encouragement began to build the Berlin Wall, that was to remain in place for the next 28 years. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, making his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech.

Perhaps Kennedy will be remembered for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It was a period of heightened tension that we also felt in the UK. I clearly remember waiting in class on that fateful day, wondering if Armageddon was about to happen. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down. Crisis averted.

Who knows what Kennedy would have achieved, despite his prolific womanizing, had his life not been cut short.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th POTUS on Kennedy’s death. He served out the rest of Kennedy’s term, and won one for himself in 1964, but did not seek re-election to a second term as he was entitled to do in 1968. Johnson has two legacies. Let me state the positive one first: his enactment of Civil Rights Act in 1964, and other progressive legislation.

But he was also responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War, that damaged his credibility with the electorate.

Democrats lost the White House in the election of 1968, that brought Richard Milhous Nixon to power. And how he abused that power. Nixon is synonymous with Watergate, impeachment proceedings, and resignation. Yet, Nixon had two significant achievements: rapprochement with China in 1972, and détente with the Soviet Union leading to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Nixon had already lost his Vice President Spiro Agnew to scandal before he himself was forced from office. Several months later, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford was appointed Vice President, and assumed the presidency on Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. He was the first person to have held both the Vice Presidency and Presidency without being elected to office. Perhaps Ford will be best remembered for his September 1974 full and unconditional pardon for any crimes [Nixon] might have committed against the United States while president. Ford lost the 1976 election to Georgia governor and outsider Jimmy Carter.

Carter served only one term. His denouement was the Iran hostage crisis that lasted from November 1979 to January 1981. He was perceived as a weak leader, the rescue of the hostages in Tehran having failed. The crisis ultimately led to Carter losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Minutes after Reagan was sworn into office the hostages were released by Iran.

Since leaving the presidency in 1981, Carter and his wife Rosalind have shown themselves to be exemplary citizens through their work to wage peace, fight disease and build hope. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, just a few weeks after his inauguration as the 40th POTUS. A former governor of California, Reagan took the Republican Party to a more conservative side of politics. While he will be remembered for his escalation of the Cold War (his ‘Star Wars’ initiative) after a period of better relations with the Soviet Union under Jimmy Carter, Reagan nevertheless attended the Reyjavik summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

Reagan was re-elected in 1984, defeating Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, Minnesotan Walter Mondale.

George HW Bush was elected as 41st POTUS, and served just one term. He was defeated by Arkansan Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Bush was a Second World War fighter ace in the US Navy, and one of the youngest to serve in that capacity.

The most significant event of Bush’s presidency was the Gulf War, that pushed Saddam Hussein back from his occupation of Kuwait, but left much unfinished business that would be completed by his son George W Bush who was elected as the 43rd president in 2000.

Bill Clinton will undoubtedly be remembered for just one thing: the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost led to his impeachment. Clinton, in my opinion, was one of the most gifted speakers I have ever heard. Without notes or teleprompters he could hold an audience spellbound as he embraced a wide range of topics in his speeches. The economy boomed under his presidency, and he left office with one of the highest approval ratings ever.

George W Bush came to the presidency somewhat controversially. It was all about hanging chads and the recount in Florida that eventually handed the election to Bush. Later in 2001 he was faced with the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, that then led on to the invasions of Afghanistan and Irag, that I alluded to earlier.

With the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, as the 44th POTUS, the presidency entered an eight year period of relative calm, but above all decency. Obama is a charismatic orator, but perhaps his presidency did not achieve as much as was hoped for or expected. His signature achievement was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that was signed into law in March 2010. It must have been significant because ever since No 45 assumed the presidency he and Senate Republicans have been doing their darndest to repeal the Act. The same can be said for other legislation and initiatives that Obama sponsored. Donald Trump seems hell bent on eradicating any aspect of Obama’s legacy.

And, at last, that brings me on to Donald J Trump, No 45, elected to the presidency with around 3 million fewer votes in the popular vote than his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, but squeaked in through winning the Electoral College 304 to 227.

What can I say about Donald Trump that has not been said more eloquently elsewhere? He is perhaps the most odious and inept (and allegedly corrupt) individual elected to the presidency. However, whatever happens over the next 18 months before the 2020 election, and whether Trump is re-elected, he has already secured a legacy. How? He has achieved something, twice, that all presidents aspire to but rarely do. Two of his nominees were appointed Justices on the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring a conservative bias on the bench, and Trump influencing a conservative political agenda for decades to come. He may even yet have a third nominee appointed. It depends if and when octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbs to ill health (or worse) and a replacement has to be found.

But how would I sum up his presidency to date? There is but one word: NARCISSISM.

The presidency, what he says, what he does, how he interacts with others all comes down to just one thing: himself. It affects his whole outlook on the world, his embrace of ‘fake news’, his weak relationship with the truth, his attacks on friends and foes alike.

Never have we seen the like in the White House. Donald Trump makes even Richard Nixon look presidential. And that’s saying something.


* All images of Prime Ministers and US Presidents from Wikipedia.