Clive, my friend from Portugal, suggested we meet in Thailand for a short break in the tropics – for him to escape the European winter, and for me to just have a holiday, rather than work, in Thailand. I flew to Bangkok, then Koh Samui, on the same plane as Bron and Michael (daughter and son-in-law) after their wedding. They were off on their honeymoon, and I was going to celebrate my 70th birthday on February 7 2014.
I caught up with Clive at Koh Samui where we spent a few days – including my birthday – before taking the ferry over to Koh Phangan. The birthday dinner was at the beautiful Zazen Restaurant, almost on the beach, overlooking a big bay. Bron and Michael joined us – and the delightful staff at Zazen joined in singing Happy Birthday!
Koh Phangan is a short ferry trip across from Koh Samui, but the beach we were to stay at was at the top of the island, furthest from the ferry port. Mai pen rai …. no worries! Clive rented a small motor bike (like all the farangs/foreigners do on the Thai islands) and we rode up to ‘our’ beach, luggage and all. We seemed to cause a bit of amusement among some of the younger backpacker travellers …. but Clive’s ridden motorbikes around the world, from tip to toe in Africa and all over Europe, so I wasn’t a bit worried.
It was worth the hour-long bike ride to get to our beach … one of the prettiest on the island. We enjoyed drinks and dinner every night at different tiny bars or restaurants, sometimes right on the sand. (Memories of time spent years ago with husband and children on the beaches of Kerala, India).
And then we did it all again at the same time of year in 2016. Another birthday celebration on Koh Phangan for me. This time it ended with a massive storm. After days of sunshine and blue seas, ominous signs of trouble ahead came with all the boats in the bay disappearing to safer harbours, and all ferries being cancelled. When the storm struck, the sea was raging and crashing into the resorts along the beach … including ours. As soon as I could, I decided I’d had enough (not because of the storm), so I escaped to Koh Samui for the last 2 nights. Clive suggested another trip in 2018, but by then I’d visited Thailand at least 5 or 6 times and had plans for other adventures in other places. (Clive and I had also met up in Portugal in 2012 and 2013 … before our jaunts to Thailand. )
Time to record a few thoughts and impressions of life in the French Pyrenees. I arrived on Sunday 4th after a trip by train and bus up from Barcelona, and one night in beautiful Girona. Everything went exactly as planned – trains, buses etc. Very easy to find the way to Pont de Reynes – and to find Robert waiting at the bus stop to drive me up the last 6km to my mountain home for the next 2 months. (Robert’s an English guy who’s been working here with the family)
My studio isn’t much bigger than a large caravan, with a tiny en-suite attached. But it opens onto a small wooden terrace that overlooks the whole valley and mountains all around. It’s underneath the main family house and quite self-contained. The house is a big stone cottage that’s been added to over the years, built on the side of a heavily wooded canyon, one of many canyons in the region. Apparently the wild adventure sport of canyoning is a tourist attraction in these parts, but there are signs on the road up here that say that it’s prohibited in Can Guillet, ‘our’ canyon. I don’t think I’ll be trying to explore its higher reaches but it’s lovely to see the rocks and forests out of my windows and to hear the river and waterfalls pouring down.
The house is fairly isolated, though other houses can be seen down in the valley. It’s also surprising how many houses and little farms you go past on the walk down the long winding road. It’s a 6km walk down to the main road with spectacular views in all directions. There are even snow-capped mountains in the not far distance. Once down on the main road, there’s a little bakery and a couple of small restaurants (not much goood according to the locals), but from here it’s possible to catch the bus. The bus system is amazing – not very frequent, but only costs €1 for any trip, no matter the distance. I’ll be able to travel all over the Languedoc Rousillon region for very few dollars. (€1 = approx $1.50) – and there’s so much to see and do. Wonderful walking, ancient abbeys, forts, art galleries and museums, and delightful French villlages, coffee and pastries….
Yesterday I walked to Ceret, the nearest market town, another 3 km along the way from Reynes. There’s a kind of bike path/walking trail from Reynes so you don’t have to walk on the busy main road. And visiting Ceret is something I’ll be doing often because it’s the only place I can get internet access. This is going to be my biggest challlenge of the whole two months – living without a home computer and immediate access…. but it’s part of the experience and might be good for me (I hope! )
Apart from an excellent cyber café, Ceret has shops, supermarket, post office and all the other necessities. It also has a superb Modern Art gallery, which I visited yesterday. Many of the best-loved French and Catalan artists seemed to have lived and worked here at some time and it was fascinating to see all their tributes to Ceret… Picasso, Dufy, Chagall, Miro and Pinkus Kremegne, among others. I hadn’t heard of the last one but he seemed to be special in these parts. I spent a very enjoyable hour or two in there.
I’ve also arranged to have some 1-1 French conversation lessons withNatalie at the cyber café once a week. I’m managing with the basics of the language but still get very tongue-tied when I try to have any kind of chat for more than a minute. Understanding the written stuff is easy … and I can get the gist of what’s being said…. but trying to speak is another whole issue.
While I’m sitting here tapping away at this little tablet, there’s a mist hanging over the valley and it’s quite a bit cooler today than it’s been up to now. The first two days were hot and brilliantly sunny – just as the south of France is supposed to be. I’m sure there’ll be lots more wonderful days ahead.
Another lovely blue sky sunny day. I made it a lazy day, reading, snoozing, picking cherries from the garden. This is the centre of cherry growing in France. The French word is cerise… so no surprise how the little town of Ceret got its name. There are cherry trees all around just dripping with fruit. The garden here at the house is huge and the property seems to include the canyon and the surrounding mountains. It’s a beautiful place to walk around, clambering over rocks and up and down lots of levels. When it gets just a bit hotter I’m going to take advantage of the natural rock pools in the river. It’s really all quite idyllic, a truly lovely place to live – despite, or because of, its isolation and position overlooking the valley. Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre have made it into a more than just a home. It’s a whole natural and spiritual way of life for them. I’m quite envious.
It’s been good having Robert here to speak English… he’s been a ‘woofer’ for years (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)..but is starting to assess his future and recognises that he’ll have to back to the UK some time and try to get a ‘proper’ paid job… He’s 52 with no money and not entitled to health benefits etc in Europe. A really nice guy… I wish him well. We’ve shared lots of travellers’ tales over the past couple of days.. one of the joys of travel, meeting kindred spirits who’ve been to many of the same places.
The past two weeks have been a great opportunity to get the feel of the Languedoc and this part of the French Pyrenees….. towns, villages and major cities. My table is loaded with maps, timetables and all the general guff about getting around and what to see. Not that it really matters because you could go anywhere in these mountains and valleys and be surrounded by spectacular views and amazing medieval history. There are forts, castles, towers, cathedrals, abbeys and old stone villages which all have a story to tell. And, of course, there are modern-day bakeries, shops, art galleries, markets and festivals.
Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre who own the house where I’m living are the kindest, loveliest people. Mostly I live quite independently and happily down below in my studio, but I have total access to the garden, the fruit trees, the river and its swimming holes (still too cold for me…) and I’ve been invited up to the house a couple of times for apperitifs or lunch… all organic salads straight from the garden. The house is a wonder of art and architecture. Lots of levels and interesting spaces which combine natural timber and stone, inside and outside. It’s a house made for people to relax, communicate and enjoy. I’m still a bit limited with the communication aspect, but they speak a bit of English and I muddle along with my French.
The weather has been typically Spring-like and quite changeable. Quite hot in the beginning, but with an occasional windy, misty and overcast day. I’m sure it’s going to get even warmer in June.
I need to write something about the few days I spent travelling with Helen, Steve and Kate (friends from home). I took the train up to Toulouse and met them on their way down from Paris. We had 2 nights in Toulouse in a budget hotel in a seedier part of town, so probably didn’t get the best impression of this city, but it’s not a place I particularly want to visit again. Of course we ‘did’ the cathedral and other little churches, but mainly just strolled around visiting a market, watching artists by the river and eating and drinking. Next day took the train to Carcassonne where we had a great apartment in the old part of the city. Unlike Toulouse, Carcassonne had an immediate magic about it. Dominated by its massive castle, it’s a city one could spend ages in. It’s also on the Canal du Midi which would be a great trip to do on a barge some time. Carcassonne is world heritage listed, truly a lovely place. We spent most of a whole day inside the castle walls. As well as the structure of the castle itself, there are dozens of little shops, hotels and restaurants tucked into narrow streets and corners to tempt the tourist visitors. All quite delightful.
From Carcassonne, it was on to Montpellier. Accommodation here was in another apartment about 10 minutes by tram from the huge central plaza, Place de Comedie. The tram system is fantastic…these modern, smooth machines snake their way all over the city and are as attractive as they are functional. They completely outdo the rattling, advertisement-covered trams in Adelaide. The Carcassonne ones are decorated with flowers, sea-creatures or elegant wallpaper, depending on which route they’re on. Everyone uses them because the streets inside the centre of the city are too small for lots of cars anyway. There’s also a little tourist train that winds its way around town – a much more tempting option than the hop-on hop-off buses that many cities have (and that I dislike intensely.) I don’t think we saw a great deal of what Montpellier has to offer, but Helen and I did visit the Museum of Languedoc and took in ancient Roman finds, as well as artworks, furnishings etc of more recent centuries. As a group we spent quite a bit of time in the open-air bars around the Place de Comedie and enjoyed watching the world go by.
I bid au revoir to the others in Montpellier and took the train by myself to Avignon. Seemed the best time to continue the touristy stuff while I was so close.
The major sights in Avignon are the Palace of the Popes and the Bridge made famous by the little song (Sur le Pont d’Avignon etc…). I visited both and learnt a bit in the process. Back in the Middle Ages, the centre of the Catholic church was in Avignon, not Rome. The Popes used to travel much more then through their vast tracts of land in Europe to consolidate and expand their dominance. Central France on the mighty Rhone river seemed like a good place to settle down at the time. Over the course of a few hundred years they built their huge palace, adding to and changing it over time. One really has to see it when in Avignon, but I think I’ve just about reached my limit when it comes to more vast draughty halls, stone stairways, ancient kitchens, store-rooms, cellars and chapels. This one was pretty impressive, but they all get a bit the same after a while.
The Bridge was interesting though…once upon a time it completely spanned the huge Rhone river, linking the territories of the Popes and the lands of the kings of France. Now it’s a bridge to nowhere. It stops in the middle of the river. It was destroyed by floods many times throughout the ages and historians today don’t really even know all of its story. There’s a project under way at present to rebuild a kind of virtual model of what the archaeologists and scholars have been able to piece together. Apparently they do know that it was originally built when a shepherd had a vision telling him that a bridge should be built in that location….hmmm? The little chapel in the middle of the bridge provided shelter to pilgrims back in early days. I’m glad the shelters for modern day Camino pilgrims are a bit more comfortable. Even a bunk in a dormitory beats a cold stone floor above a raging river.
Before leaving Avignon and taking the train back to Perpignan (then the bus home to Reynes), I spent an hour or so wandering in the gardens high up overlooking the city and the river. Great views. Also, mustn’t forget the lovely art gallery which was once the home of a great couterier and collector. He’d acquired some beautiful things, including many Impressionist paintings. There also happened to be a visiting exhibition of Toulouse Latrec. After my day of sight-seeing, I found an attractive little hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner…only one other woman in there and she turned out be American, extremely friendly and interesting and as fascinated with the Cathars as I’ve become. We had a very pleasant evening comparing notes. She was off to join a group doing water colour painting in Provence
Lots more to write, including a record of the day Helen, Steve, Kate and I hired a car in Carcassonne and explored some of the old Cathar villages…but the Cathar story deserves a whole entry of its own, so enough for now!
Tuesday 27th May
Several days to catch up on now, because it’s too easy to drift into the slow lane of life on a beautiful mountain in the south of France. Sleeping, reading and doing simple daily chores fill the hours when I’m not out walking and finding little mountain paths in the woods, or going down to Ceret, or enjoying a few glasses of wine with Robert at the end of the day…. or doing any of the other things that make this all so lovely and French.
However ….. we’ve also had a crisis in paradise up here over the past couple of days. Jean-Pierre has walked out. After 30 years of being with Jocelyne, he’s left. Robert and I arrived home from a superb day out on Sunday (more about this in a minute) to find Jocelyne in tears. She was sobbing in French and wanting to talk to Robert so all I could do was give her a hug and disappear to my little nest down below. Robert came down later, quite stunned, but still unaware of what actually happened, or why. Now it’s 2 days later and there’s still been no word from J-P, and Jocelyne is still understandably quite fragile…. but I’m getting to know her better and Robert is being his very kind self and we’ve all been doing things together. We’ve just come home from a lovely drive through the mountains to the old stone village of Coursteges, almost on the Spanish border. We climbed to the top of one of the mountains, up a rocky stone stairway and a little path through the woods to emerge on what felt like the top of the world. Snow-capped mountains in one direction and the Mediterranean in the other – and all around us the most beautiful mountain vistas, valleys and the tiny village way down below. Impossible to describe the grandeur of the Pyrenees. Back down in the village again we had an excellent lunch at a petit café – the only place to eat – run by a couple of lovely Belgian women. The outing was good for Jocelyne, and a real bonus for me. Sadly, Robert’s leaving here at the end of the week to go to another job…and I think Jocelyne will definitely miss him. (I’ve just heard that there’s another English woofer coming on Friday… Jocelyne tried to cancel him, but Robert persuaded her that it would be good to have someone here to help, and she can always send him away if it doesn’t work out…)
The day the Jean-Pierre drama happened – but before we knew about it – was one of those days when you know you’ve had the privilege of seeing and experiencing something quite special. Robert and I had borrowed the car to drive up to the Cathar castle region, about 2 hours from here – and we got to climb up to the incredible ruins of Queribus and Peyrepertuse, a couple of the last bastions of safety for the Cathars before the armies of the Popes and French kings destroyed them for ever. The castles (more like forts) date from around the year 600, and while they weren’t owned by the Cathars, they provided shelter for them during the days of the inquisition and mass killing. The Cathar story is one of the most tragic and brutal of any history I’ve ever read. I’m at a complete loss to know why I’ve never heard it before. The Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages was hell-bent on expanding its power and dominance, so the tyrannical popes and their henchmen bishops, cardinals and noblemen set out to torture, rape and murder anyone they deemed to be heretics or non-believers. The Cathars were a peace-loving, Christian people who lived a simple life opposed to the material wealth and power of the church of Rome. And Languedoc (this region) was where their faith and culture was strongest. You need to read about the prolonged massacres, sieges and tyranny that occurred during the 12th century to get even some idea of the evil that was carried out in the name of Catholicism. I picked up an amazing book in Carcassonne that tells the whole story – brilliantly researched and very readable. It’s called “The Perfect Heresy” by historian Stehen O’Shea.
The castles are dotted on mountain tops, way up where eagles fly, all around Languedoc – and all have a very bloody history. The world below seems to spread forever with magnificent valleys miles down below the huge stone walls. How the marauding armies ever defeated the people inside is impossible to imagine, though the book provides some of the barbaric details. Even by the standards of the Middle Ages, the cruelty and inhumanity was appalling. All the big cities in the Languedoc – Toulouse, Beziers, Montpellier, Albi and others – played a part in the Cathar drama for over a hundred years. It’s little wonder that even today the Catholic church is not strongly worshipped in these parts.
Robert and I climbed to the top of both castles we visited and it wasn’t too difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see huge armies of knights and foot soldiers advancing in the valleys below. But of course all was quiet and peaceful as we sat on a rock and enjoyed our picnic of bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and wine, overlooking what felt like half of France and Spain. This wasn’t completely my first introduction to the Cathars ….. When we were in Carcassonne, Steve, Helen, Kate and I hired a car for a day and drove to some of the smaller villages that also had a role in the Cathar story. In some places it felt as if not much had changed since the Middle Ages…. an old abbey at Lagrasse, another fortress high on a hill at Lastours and a beautiful bridge and ancient village streets at Minerve. Minerve was once home to a Cathar community, but the entire population was killed by Simon de Montfort in 1210. Modern-day historians have built a model of the deadly trebuchet that was used to pound the village with rocks and destroy the only path the people had to get down to their water supply in the river. Unbelievable, sadistic, power-hungry mania swept across the region until every one of the Cathars had been eliminated. Sadly of course there are more recent, similar atrocities to remember (the Jewish holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Syria etc) but it remains unfathomable to me how mass murder could have been masterminded on such a scale by the proclaimed head of the dominant church. In the name of the God they believed in. If anyone gets to read this, I urge you to Google the Cathars … and, in particular, have a look at Queribus and Peyrepertuse to learn something of the story and to see how truly beautiful these old ruins are, sited on their mountain tops.
But now on to happier things, and back to the present day – the Ceret market. I’ve been to some pretty spectacular markets over the years in many places, but Ceret on a Saturday morning would have to beat them all. Every winding street through the whole town is lined with the most attractive stalls and umbrellas, and everyone is there with their baskets to buy delicious local cheese, wine, fruit and vegetables, as well as clothes, hats, arts and crafts, baby pigs, beautiful fabrics, towels, linen, shoes, bags, books, flowers…. everything and more. There’s music, wine, coffee and food in all the cafés – and this all happens every Saturday. Next weekend is the big annual Cherry Festival in Ceret, so the streets will be thronged with people, music, dancing and celebration.
I’m still doing the long walk down the mountain nearly every day (6km), either by the road or on the narrow tracks through the woods -and then up again at the end of the day. Thank heaven for the Camino, I say… I’d never have been able to do this if I hadn’t achieved the Camino. Walking here every day reminds me so much of all those weeks in Spain… even the little paths look and feel the same. I almost expect to meet up with my Camino buddies at the next bar along the way. I’m still enjoying every minute of it and each day seems to bring a new surprise.
Just remembered …. Robert and I went for another drive before he left … up the valley to visit old friends of his at a vegan commune. Only three people left living there and a good veggie garden, but it seems that they barely eat anything … only what’s in season in the garden. Robert told me he just lived on carrots when he was there. Anyway, it was an interesting old house and a different way of life. We meandered our way back through the small villages dotted along the valley and stopped off at a bar for lunch.
Sunday 1st June
This weekend is the big Cherry Festival in Ceret… markets, music, food, wine and crowds of people. Everything is decorated with cherries and every second market stall is selling them. All the restaurants have menus based around this little red fruit too. I had a fantastic night last night at the huge open-air Festival feast in one of the town squares. There must have been 500-600 people seated at mile-long tables, absolutely filling the square, sharing a great dinner with lashings of wine, armfuls of baguettes and non-stop music, singing and dancing. I went with Sue and Simon, our English neighbours…. they come and stay in their French home just down the road from Jocelyne’s whenever they can… lovely people.
There’s no doubt about it…. French, Spanish and Basque people really know how to enjoy themselves. Everyone sang, cheered, linked arms and swayed to the music… even stood on chairs and danced. The band moved around between the long tables and kept the party atmosphere swinging. All great fun! Got home around midnight
Other events of the past week have included Robert’s departure and Nelson’s arrival. Nelson’s another Brit, and another gentle, semi-hippy soul. He lives on a river boat on the canals in England and comes to France occasionally to do a bit of farm work or similar. Jocelyne is glad he’s here to give her a hand on this huge property. I hadn’t realised just how much land she and Jean-Pierre own until I went with her on an introductory tour when she was showing Nelson around. And it’s even more of a paradise than I’d realised…there are secret paths up the canyon and through the woods that lead to beautiful natural swimming holes, rocky outcrops and old stone-walled terraces with yet more gardens. On one little terrace, some former friends and helpers built the most exquisite little cabin which the family have enjoyed over the years. You’d never have any idea it was there, but when you make the climb up the rocks there’s this gorgeous place with a little kitchen, and sitting room, and tiny bedroom up a ladder in the loft. We sat in the garden enjoying the peace and stillness, and the views across distant mountains to the sea
There’s still no word from Jean-Pierre. Jocelyne’s putting on a very brave face and trying to be philosophical but there are still tears from time to time. A day or two before he left, Robert suggested that we all go for a drive to Coursteges, a village almost on the border of Spain, about an hour from here. A tiny place with an ancient Roman eglise (church), a few old graves, typical shuttered houses and a pretty little café/store with a sunny terrace where we had a simple lunch of locally grown chicken, sausage and salad… after we’d climbed one of the mountains. Up, up, up a rocky track and through a forest until we emerged at the top with a view of snow-capped mountains on one side and the Mediterranean in the distance on the other. A lovely place to just sit and share some time. I couldn’t keep up with all the conversation in French, but I think I’m getting better, and Jocelyne and I communicate well enough with her bit of English and my attempts at francais. (Sorry, I just realised I’ve already written about this ….)
The following day (Wednesday) Jocelyne and I went into Perpignan to both buy new walking shoes. My old faithfuls are still going strong after 5 years of hiking in Spain, the Cotswolds, Scotland and the Adelaide Hills, but they’re looking fairly battered and must meet their demise soon. She took me to an enormous outdoor sports store (more like IKEA than Kathmandu) and we both came away happy. I found a pair for half the price I’d pay at home.
French lessons with Nathalie continue each week but it’s still hard work. I really like her so will keep trying. She also had a little stall at the market this weekend selling her hand-crafted fabric necklaces and bags… I bought one, of course.
Later… Sunday evening:
Having lazed away the morning reading and writing, I decided to walk down to the Cherry Festival again. Nelson came with me, across the mountain on the little paths. He’s a very pleasant guy and I think he enjoyed the walk and the beers we had down in the town as much as I did -also, the tradtional music and dancing we watched in the streets, the same slow circle dance I saw in Odena on the other side of the Pyrenees 2 years ago – the Sardane.
The days drift by…. only 4 more weeks here
Friday 6th June
I’m sitting on an ancient bench under a 12th century bell tower in the village of Villefranche (near Prades) in the middle of the Pyrenees. Came up here this morning on the €1 bus – about 3 hours from Reynes, via Perpignan. It’s another quaint little place, like a mini version of Carcassonne…ramparts all around and the houses and shops protected from the marauding Spaniards a couple of mountains away. There are so many of these old fortified towns and villages. A few centuries ago it must have been quite noisy with every lord and nobleman wanting to conquer his neighbour’s territory. Of course it’s all flowers and tourist delights these days with a photo opportunity around every corner. I’ve just had lunch of the most perfect crepe and café au lait in one of the many picturesque little bars down one of the narrow streets. My plan was to visit this valley for a couple of days and take the Petit Train Jaune (little yellow train) up to Mont Louis… but found out on arrival that the train was vandalised during the week and is not running at present. Guess you can’t live under a lucky star for ever! However, I can still get up there by bus later this afternoon so I’m whiling away time now tapping out this diary note… and life remains very pleasant. I’ll stay overnight in Mont Louis and return ‘home’ some time tomorrow.
Before trying to remember and describe the last few days, it seems I need to explain who some of the people are that I’ve been writing about. Have had a few emails from confused friends trying to sort out who’s who! Here goes…. skip the next paragraph if you have a handle on all the characters in this story ….
Jocelyne and Jean-Pierre own the beautiful place where I’m living…except that Jean-Pierre has unexpectedly taken flight, after more than 20 years with Jocelyne. This happened about a week after I arrived (though the two events are NOT connected, I hasten to add!). It’s a bit of a mystery because he seemed such a happy, outgoing, crazy Frenchman, and they seemed to be great together. Things have been a little fraught since he left, but Jocelyne is putting on a brave face and seems to appreciate having company around the place… the company being me and one or other of the 2 English guys who’ve been at the house since I arrived. The first one was Robert who’s been woofing around France for many years (Woofing = Working on Organic Farms.. voluntary work for food and board). He had another (paid) job lined up so had to leave soon after Jean-Pierre’s departure, but another helper arrived the next day. He, of course, is Nelson. So, as you can see, all these people are new to me, but we’ve become like a strange little ‘family’ up on the mountain. Jocelyne is lovely, and the 2 Brits have both been gentle, kind, interesting guys. To complete the picture of friends and neighbours, I’ve also really enjoyed meeting Sue and Simon who live in London but have a French home about 10 mins walk from Jocelyne’s place. They’re going back to the UK today but have entrusted me with a key to their house so that I can use their wifi, borrow books etc for the remainder of my stay. This is a huge bonus for me, and very kind of them. Nearest internet and wifi otherwise is 9km away in Ceret…unless I strike it lucky in a bar somewhere
Anyway, back to the diary….while the bell above me in Villefranche chimes every now and then, and people continue to stroll through this little square…..
On Tuesday, I took myself to the beach on the bus. Argeles-sur-Mer and Collioure are not far away, but the bus took ages, winding its way through every little village en route. But I enjoyed just going with the flow and exploring Argeles when I got there. It’s a very laid-back south-of-France holiday resort place…lots of tourists, restaurants, shops etc and a beautiful wide beach. No one in the water, but lots of people soaking up the sun. I discovered the next bus would take me onto Collioure, and from there I could get back to Perpignan and on to Reynes. And what an absolute gem I discovered Collioure to be…if anyone is planning a trip over this way, put it on the itinerary. It’s gorgeous…a mix of Crete, the Greek islands and a dash of the Cinque Terre, all sprinkled with French chic. Yes, a bit touristy, but so pretty that you just have to love it. The beach is overlooked by a massive fort/castle and there are great walks all around. The shops have beautiful local arts and crafts, trendy clothes, delicious ice-creams and everything else that makes you feel you’re in a special kind of heaven.
The next day was another trip to the beach – but this time it was in the car with Jocelyne & Nelson, so it only rook 25 minutes! Jocelyne, of course, knew the little secret bays and beaches, so we found one all to ouselves and had a gorgous swim in the crystal clear Mediterranean. Then went for a walk around the beach-side paths, past quaint holiday houses, and had coffee at a bar overlooking another beach.. and then had another swim. It was a great morning, and really good to see Jocelyne being happy. Nelson has proven to be a great companion for her and very capable with all the work that needs to be done around the huge garden. He and I also share the odd cup of tea together (unlike Robert, he doesn’t drink wine). We continue to analyse the Jocelyne/Jean-Pierre situation without yet coming up with any answers.
Yesterday (Thursday) was my French lesson in Ceret, so I decided to try a new walk to get there, via a little chapel that was supposed to be worth a look. Turned out to be quite an adventure, and a 4 &1/2 hour hike across mountains, getting lost in the woods, and just having to try to find any path that would lead to a bridge across the river! Finally made it but then had the mental exhaustion of French conversation to follow. I dreaded the 6km walk back up the mountain to get home, but fortunately got a lift almost straight away with 3 young NZ guys who were staying quite near…amazing who you meet in the mountains in France!
So that brings things pretty much up to the present.
Later, same day (Friday)
Left Villefranche at 4.45pm….on the first bus going further up into the mountains. There’s no doubt about Villefranche being a lovely little place, but a couple of hours is more than enough to enjoy it. Hanging around for a bus tested my patience. However, coming up here to Mont Louis made it all worth while. Would have been brilliant to have been able to come in the Yellow Train, but the bus trip was spectacular too. I have no idea what the elevation is here, but it’s well above the snow-line and the road just kept climbing up one hairpin bend after another. I thought the mountains were high around Reynes (and they are) but they seem like foot hills compared to this. I’m writing this on the balcony of my hotel looking out to snowy mountains only a stone’s throw away across a beautiful green valley with little chalet houses dotted around… a lot like Switzerland. The sun is still shining and it’s 7.30pm. I went for a walk in the walled, historic village opposite the hotel when I arrived, then came back and had a swim in the indoor pool…decided to get my money’s worth. It’s costing $A90 for the night, but hey…once in a while there’s no harm in a bit of luxury…besides, there wasn’t any other choice!
There’s wifi down in the bar, so I’ll go and get myself a beer and do some emailing Haven’t decided what I’ll do tomorrow….
Saturday 14th June
Last entry finished up in the mountains at Mont Louis, over a week ago, so there’s heaps to fill in.
On the home front, there’ve been a couple of developments. Jean-Pierre came to see Jocelyne one day – looking completely “lost and distraught”, according to Nelson – primarily to tell her that the partnership is definitely over and that he’s going to Africa to work as a mechanic somewhere in the mines. She’s bearing up pretty well considering (guilt? relief?). On reflection, it seems too easy to cast J-P as the bad guy in the situation. I don’t think he’s a bad person and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been easy for him. I just wish them both well. (Having done the same thing myself some years ago – i.e. walked out of a marriage – I can’t pass judgement).
Jocelyne has to sell the house, of course, but that might be happening sooner than she thought too. An estate agent brought a couple here this week to look at the place -and they seemed interested. Phil and Graham …. from guess where?? Sydney!! They were here for 2 1/2 hours and I reckon they’d be perfect new owners… fit, strong guys, mid-forties and rich. They own houses in London and Bondi, so why not add another gorgeous place in France?
But now back to my travels…… Last Saturday dawned pleasantly up in Mont Louis, but soon descended into a comedy of errors….or got lost in translation somewhere. I’d called into the little tourist office in the old walled town, and had good news to start the day…the little Yellow Train would be running again! Great! After the disappointment of not being able to ride in it the previous day, this was positive. So, with only half an hour ’til the next one was scheduled, I hot-footed down to the station 1km away only to be told by the station man that “non, non” the line was still broken and there would only be “le bus“. Slightly peeved, I resigned myself to wait for yet another bus, when what should rattle into view but a very bright yellow train! I don’t know who had their wires crossed, but clearly there WAS a yellow train going somewhere with a whole lot of people on board. So – who knows or cares where it came from – I decided on the spur of the moment to take a ride further up the line and see where I got to. It turned out to be a pleasant trip for an hour and a half, sitting alone in the open-roofed carriage, surrounded by mountains and valleys, going to La Tour de Carol, on the Spanish border. Unfortunately though, there’s not much to do in sleepy little Tour de Carol on a very hot Sunday afternoon so I mostly ended up waiting, waiting, waiting for a bus to take me down again. But at least when it came, it went all the way back to Perpignan.
Going back down the mountains on the bus was actually more visually stunning than the morning’s train ride. I think it must be best to take the train through the gorges and ravines on the lower section of the line, but I guess that’s the section of track that’s still under repair.
The towns and villages in the high Pyrenees are obviously popular ski resorts. They all looked a bit sleepy in the summer sun, but I can imagine them turning on the charm -and the cash registers- as soon as the snow arrives.
It was fabulous to visit this region, but I’m still glad I’m living near Ceret and Reynes. Until it got really hot here towards the end of the week, we had a few days of sheer perfection ….warm and sunny and so peaceful in the garden. I took a book and a pillow down to the rock pools in the canyon one afternoon and lazed away a few hours in bliss. It doesn’t get dark until about 9.30pm either and the evenings are gorgeous.
Major outings during the week have been a couple of bus trips. The local bus authority that operates the 1 euro buses also runs a program of very cheap half and full day trips to places of interest – even to Barcelona and Montserrat. On Wednesday I did a trip to Collioure again. The bus took a very scenic route along the coast, past miles of lovely beaches and hills covered with terraces and grape vines. There are wineries everywhere – a lot like the southern vales at home, only more mountainous. Then we had 3 hours in Collioure before the bus came back. I swam, took photos, and wandered through the pretty shops and little streets again. It’s quite touristy, but very relaxed and welcoming.
My second Escapade (what they call these bus trips) was to Empiabravura and Figueres in Spain, about an hour away. Ben (my son) and I enjoyed Figueres and the Salvador Dali museum when we were there 2 years ago. Wish he could have been here this time too. First stop, Empiabravura, is an amazing, over the top artificial kind of brash tourist place, with over 30 km of canals snaking their way between white wedding-cake type houses, and boats of all shapes, sizes and bank balances motoring around. If you think you’ve seen floating palaces anywhere, believe me, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen Empiabravura…..though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It was so good to get to Figueres which, despite hordes of camera clicking tourists, and souvenir shops with every Dali icon imaginable, is still rather a charming, quirky old city. And it has one of my most favourite museums in the world….the Dali Jewels. I loved this collection so much when I was here the first time I even bought the TV shirt. So it was wonderful to have another opportunity.. the sublimely beautiful diamond and sapphire ‘eye’ is still one of the most perfect things I’ve ever seen. Salvador Dali was truly a genius, whatever one thinks of his surrealist paintings, and his influence on the art in the streets of Figueres is evident everywhere. I’m very much looking to another bus Escapade in a week or so to Cadaques where he lived for most of his life.
Sunday morning 15th June Must finish this today and wander over to Sue and Simon’s to send it off. It’s been so good to have access to their wifi close to home. Haven’t yet decided what to do with the rest of the day…the options are many.
Had a very enjoyable evening last night over dinner with Jocelyne, Nelson and good friends of hers. A strong mix of French and English spoken throughout the evening…. I’m finding I can understand a lot more now, and even join in conversations a bit. It really does require constant exposure, so I’ll probably lose it all again at home.
I’m still walking a lot. This week, during the heat, the old song about mad dogs and English men popped into my head often as I trudged along in the sun…but mostly I enjoy following the little paths through the woods where local farmers and others have probably trudged for centuries. Of course I still hitch-hike back up and have met some lovely people this way. 2 days ago a couple of French holidaymakers drove me all the home, then came in and shared a bottle of wine with me. I invited Jocelyne down to meet them and they discovered by an amazing coincidence that Patrice came from the same small town where Jocelyne grew up, over near the German border. It is indeed a small and wonderful world!
Friday 20th June
Enthusiasm for this journal is waning a bit, but of course there’s more to record so I can be sure to remember it all in future. And, naturally, there’s another episode of ‘Passion in the Pyrenees’ to relate. The tale of Jocelyne & John-Pierre has taken another turn. … now definitely a soap opera, with one of the main characters on his way to Africa…..and the other two…. well, you wouldn’t believe it in Mills & Boon.
The fact is that Jocelyne and Nelson have now hooked up together!! Within the past 10 days or so, they’ve become an item, with lots of coquettish giggling on her part, and gallant strongman stuff on his. It could be quite sickening except that in a funny way, it does seem genuine. I became aware of it about a week ago and couldn’t help wondering at the apparent craziness of it. Jean-Pierre has only been gone for a matter of weeks, and Nelson has only appeared on the scene since then. However, Jocelyne is certainly no longer the grieving, jilted lover – she’s enjoying more than just Nelson’s shoulder to cry on these days….
He’s set to go back to the UK next week, but they’re already talking about “the future”. Nelson actually shared the details with me over a beer last night. I’d been wondering how he was feeling about this very obvious turn of events but it hadn’t really been my business to ask, so I was pleased when he raised the subject. He said it happened quite suddenly – but it seems it didn’t take him long to think it was a good idea. He is a bloke after all, and she’s an attractive French woman….. and they are both sufficiently unconventional for it possibly to work. She’s a free spirit (or will be when the house gets sold) and he lives on a boat … so who knows? And it would make a fabulous TV soapie. Too bad I’ll probably never get to see the last episode. (Aha …. see the very end of this post for the outcome …. )
They’ve gone away for an overnighter somewhere today – and I’ve also been away for a couple of days during the week but I still feel included as part of the household, despite the changed dynamics. We had another lovely, relaxed dinner together last night with Carmen & Yves, friends of Jocelyne’s. Nelson and I still struggle along together when the conversation is all in French, and life on the mountain goes on very happily. I can’t help wondering though what all Jocelyne’s friends are thinking. Jean-Pierre must have been a big part of the house and the wider friendship group for a long time. But, c’est la vie, I guess.
While all this has been going on, I’ve continued my jaunts around the countryside making the most of the remainder of my time here. I traveled up to Quillan on Tuesday (2 buses, 3 hours total journey, all for the equivalent of $3). Met 2 extremely nice Perth women on one bus – kindred spirits, my age, also enjoying the benefits of the €1 bus system. Shared tips and hints about places to see, things to do. I stayed 2 nights in Quillan and did day trips out from there. It was only 1 hour from Carcassonne so I went up there again to take a boat ride on the Canal au Midi. A peaceful trip, through a couple of locks, but obviously not as much fun as it would be to hire a boat with friends and spend a week or more cruising through rural France. Saw plenty of pleasure craft doing exactly that. Another side trip from Quillan included a couple of hours at Arlet- le-Bains, a beautiful medieval village with Roman remains, a 9th century abbey, 12th century merchant houses and even an ancient house where Nostradamus is said to have lived. There are so many of these old villages tucked away in the countryside, and each one has its own magic.
Just before this little trip, Jocelyne, Nelson and I visited Palalda, not very far from home…it’s exquisite, especially when the Sunday market is happening with little stalls set up in tiny squares and stairways. We also saw art and craft exhibitions, and a terrific permanent exhibition on the life and work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who spent the last years of his life in this valley. He’s the Scottish architect and designer responsible for many of Glasgow’s fine buildings – and, like many other artists, he loved the life in France. While in and around Quillan, I also visited a special perfumed garden near Limoux. What a heady mix of colour, design and scents it was. A lovely way to pass a couple of hours.
I headed back to Perpignan on Thursday morning – partly to give me time to explore more of this city, but also to ensure that I could actually get back. There’s been a train strike on for about 3 days which has also affected some of the bus services. Fortunately I had no trouble but I hope it’s resolved before I have to get to Barcelona for the flight home…. Perpignan is quite a big, spread out city and supposedly the most international city in France, with 25% of its residents being Catalan, another high proportion north African, along with a smattering of everything else. I found it very attractive, built on both sides of the little River Basse, with big parks, gardens and avenues of huge plane trees, Catalan architecture and a typical jumble of winding narrow streets in the historic sector. A great cathedral (of course) where an organist was pounding out some stirring music, and next door a very old cloistered cemetery….no graves in it any more, but some quite moving sculptures on the theme of peace and tolerance. I enjoyed seeing more of the city, having really only been acquainted with the big bus and train station until now.
Still Friday afternoon – a bit later Took a break to wander round the garden. It’s quite relaxing having the whole place to myself while Jocelyne and Nelson are away. I have to feed the cat later. Just picked a bowl full of raspberries for dinner. I’m invited to pick whatever I want any time… there’s masses of stuff growing everywhere. And it’s been interesting to see how the seasons and crops change as time goes by. Even in the 7 weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen the cherries and strawberries come and go, and now it’s time for apricots and raspberries. The fig tree outside my window was just a bunch of heavily pruned sticks when I arrived…..it’s now totally covered with big green leaves. Also all the snow that was capping the peaks on the biggest mountains nearby has now completely disappeared. May and June are lovely months to be in this part of the world.
With just over a week remaining here for me. I wonder how Jocelyne will be when Super Nelson leaves? Maybe there’s still another episode in the wings before I write the final pages of le Journal de Reynes.
Wednesday 25th June
Should have realised….just because it’s my last week, things don’t stop happening. So here we go again…..
After one day of peace and solitude at home while Jocelyne & Nelson were away, I needed to get out on Saturday, so took the bus to Collioure again. A long trip, via Perpignan this time, but well worth it for the pleasure of getting to the beach and swimming in the Med again. J’adore Collioure…it’s such a relaxed, anything goes, sort of place with none of the pretentiousness of other Mediterranean resorts, but so, so pretty
Arrived back at Pont de Reynes ( the local bus stop) at 8pm, all set for the walk up the mountain, only to find Jocelyne and Nelson waiting in the car for me to go to dinner at Annie and Gerard’s place. Wasn’t aware I’d been invited, and looked quite disheveled with bathers still on under clothes etc, but threw the towel and backpack in and went off with them to the nearby village of St Jean Pla de Cour. And what a treat the evening turned out to be! Annie and Gerard are the loveliest couple, both artists -she’s a painter, he makes wooden furniture – and their house is like something out of a story book. A tiny village house in a corner of a little square, but the cosiest place inside, on 4 levels, with narrow stairs, great wooden beams, an absolute mass of paintings and bric-a-brac everywhere, and a roof-top terrace overlooking the village, the bell-tower and the surrounding mountains and valleys. We sat out over dinner on the terrace ’til midnight. There was music coming from somewhere all evening too, because it was the Festival of Music in all these villages this weekend.
On Monday I went up the valley to Prats de Mollo again…I’d enjoyed it the first time, and wanted to do some walking in the area. Actually took the bus to La Preste at the end of the line, beyond Prats, but found nothing much there except a couple of posh hotels with thermal baths and pretty mountain scenery. Treated myself to coffee and chocolate cake while waiting for the next bus down again. There was some sort of fête day in Prats (they have so many festivals and holidays over here…there’s always a village with something happening) but the market and festivities were happening a way out of town – too difficult to get to without a car. So I watched the men playing boule for a while (we call it petanque)… and then set off on a lovely walk through the forests. There’s something quite exciting and beautiful following little paths all alone in the mountains. I had a map, and the trails are fairly well way marked, so there wasn’t really much risk, though I wouldn’t have liked to sprain an ankle or meet a sanglier (wild boar) on the track. Speaking of these animals, there are apparently loads of them in the Pyrenees We saw some in the car headlights on the way home from Annie and Gerard’s place the other night….three fat, piggy bottoms scurrying along and down into the trees
While I was waiting to leave Prats de Mollo, a huge thunderstorm struck. It had been threatening all day, but the skies opened with a crash just before the bus came along. It rained heavily all the way back down the valley (about an hour’s trip) and I was anticipating a long, wet hike back up the mountain when I got to Reynes. However, who should be at the bus stop again but Jocelyne and Nelson….he was catching the bus I’d been on to get into Perpignan to start his journey home to England. So after fond farewells and French kisses, Jocelyne and I waved him off and we drove home in comfort while the rain continued to pour!
It’s been a bit cooler since the storm, which is really quite pleasant. It’s .still definitely summer, but not the hot sun and high humidity. It was perfect for my outing yesterday. Went on another bus escapade to Cadaques in Spain, where Salvador Dali lived most of his life.
Back in 1930 when Dali discovered the little fishing bay of Portlligat about 1km from Cadaques, there were no roads, only mule tracks across the mountains. Today there’s a fairly tortuous winding mountain road into Cadaques, frequented by tourist buses and holidaymakers, because apart from the lure of the Dali house, Cadaques is a very attractive Spanish village with pebbly beaches, colorful fishing boats, boutiques, bars, restaurants and all the other essentials that tourists want. The Escapade bus was only there for 2 1/2 hours, so I had to move fast to find my way on foot to Casa Dali and have even a remote chance of actually getting a ticket to go inside. You’re supposed to book way ahead to get a ticket, and I found when I got there that the next places wouldn’t be available until the evening. However, the woman at the ticket office said to come back in 10 minutes in case there were any cancelations for the 4pm visit. And, guess what, my lucky angel was working overtime again….I got in! You have to go with a guide, only 8 people at a time, because some of the rooms are quite small and there are little stairways and terraces poked into tiny corners. But I’m so happy to have seen it…it’s totally unconventional and beautiful with windows and mirrors designed to capture superbly framed views of the sea and the gardens outside, an amazing collection of decorative objects and furniture, a couple of original, unfinished paintings in the studio, a stunning phallic shaped swimming pool and courtyards, and one room full of photos of Dali and his wife Gala with other artists, actors and the rich and famous. They lived there until Gala died in 1982, at which time Dali stopped painting.
The house was created throughout the 40-50 years they lived there…a kind of labyrinth of beautiful spaces, cobbled together brilliantly as they added new rooms and terraces. In a way, it’s exactly what Jean-Pierre and Jocelyne have done here, and many other beautiful French and Spanish houses too. Curves, twists, up and down, nooks and crannies where you’d least expect them and fabulous Catalan wrought iron balconies and balustrades. What I’d give to have some Gaudi or Dali inspiration in the round building I live in…
Had my last French lesson with Nathalie in Ceret yesterday. Sadly I don’t think I’ve improved much despite her best efforts and an hour of total French conversation each week. I still sound like a stuttering 4 year old most of the time. It’s quite depressing not being able to have a proper conversation with all these lovely people I’ve met. They all have enough English to get meaning across both ways. Jocelyne’s shared more of her story of life with Jean-Pierre with me too. She’s still keen to talk about Nelson and possible options for the future. He certainly arrived at a special time for her, but I’m not sure if she’s more in love with the idea of having a lover, than in love with him. However it’s still a happening thing so will be interesting to see what develops.
This morning we went to the beach again – Jocelyne, her 80 year old friend Danielle, and me. Went early and had a glorious stretch of beach almost to ourselves. The sea was reasonably warm, and from the water you could see all the nearby mountains, including the Canigou still with a bit of snow on top. What an amazing place this whole region is…no wonder it’s such a popular holiday destination. Apparently from next week on, for all of July and August, it’s standing room only everywhere. Argeles-sur-mer is described as the camping capital of Europe. There are camping grounds all over the place and hundreds of big RUVs cruising around already. It could all be like a massive theme park when the masses move in, so it’s a perfect time for me to be saying Au revoir to the Mediterranean
Only 3 more days before I take the train down to Girona, then bus to Barcelona airport.
YEARS LATER (2020) – here’s the end of the story of Jocelyne and Nelson …. I kept in touch with both Jocelyne and Nelson for a while and even met up with Nelson a few times in subsequent years when I was in Europe. It turns out that it all became very difficult maintaining the relationship beyond the initial flourish. Jocelyne was distraught again and wrote to me for help in tracking him down. I provided as much sympathy as I could but was NOT going to get involved any further. Nelson had made it clear that he wanted out. She later wrote and told me about the new man she’d met … a Parisian!
Immediately after our walk in the Cotswolds, Penny and I flew to Porto and stayed 2 nights in a 2-star hotel while we explored the city. We’d originally planned to do some more walking in the Portuguese national parks, but with temperatures high in the 30’s, and blazing summer sun, we settled for buses, trains and swimming pools instead.
The historic centre of Porto was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 … not hard to see why with its stately bridges across the river, the multi-coloured buildings in the riverside district, narrow cobbled streets and palatial palace and cathedral. We explored the cathedral and enjoyed the famous port wine in the bodegas. However, Marvao and Castel de Vide were our main objectives and time was limited, so it was off to the countryside, near the border with Spain.
Rural Portugal is rocky and mountainous, with villages and towns hanging on the side of hills or hidden in valleys. Travelling north/south is easy – by train or bus – but trying to get across the country east/west is difficult without a car.
Our hotel in Marvao had a swimming pool … very welcome in the Portuguese heat! But we still managed to climb to the high points of the village to look out over Spain and the surrounding areas. Similarly in Castel der Vide, we rambled around the village, finding vantage points to see the views and soaking up the laid-back feel of the Portuguese summer.
Tomar hadn’t been planned but we were so glad we discovered it along the way. Described as one of Portugal’s ‘ historic jewels’ and site of a magnificent 12th Century Knights Templar castle and convent, it’s a must-see stopping point for anyone travelling through Portugal. There are other equally lovely old churches, a synagogue and a huge central plaza where we happened to see some kind of procession, dancing and singing after eating at one of the local bars around the plaza.
Penny and I parted ways in Tomar. She travelled south to meet her Scottish family for a beach holiday near Lisbon (and continued to enjoy the sights of Lisbon after they left.) I took the train up to Coimbra to meet Clive, who I’d stayed with after completing the Camino in 2012.
Coimbra is also superb with its medieval university, library and clock tower. It’s one of the oldest university cities in Europe. I was more than happy to visit it again. I love the winding pathway that snakes up the hill to the huge University square at the top … with little shops, stalls, cafes and bars lining the way. The ubiquitous Portuguese roosters (in every possible size) fill the shelves and doorways, along with T-shirts, shawls, dolls, bottles of wine and beautiful ceramic tiles – yet somehow it retains the charm of thousands of years of history and culture.
Clive’s villa and swimming pool was an oasis in the summer sun – particularly enjoyable for a spot of R&R after another long walk (Cotswolds Way) and then travelling around the Portuguese countryside. I stayed for a week before making my way back to Porto, then Heathrow and finally home to Oz again.
After walking the Camino in 2012, I wanted to explore another long distance walk – this time in England. The Cotswolds are designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so walking through this beautiful part of the country sounded perfect. The Way follows the Cotswold Escarpment from Chipping Norton to Bath – a distance of 102 miles or 163km – and it can be walked in either direction.
Penny (NZ) and Rose (Cholsey) joined me for 10 days of rambling through a mix of lovely market towns, pretty villages, hills and woodlands, and past stately homes and thatched cottages made of the honey-coloured stone from this area. There was also a magnificent tower folly built in Victorian times, fascinating churches and gravestones and even a Neolithic burial mound (Belas Knap).
We stayed in BnB’s, farmhouses, an old mill, country pubs and a Youth Hostel. Here’s our itinerary:
Train from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh Dep: 9.04am. Arr: 9.58 Then bus to Chipping Campden Dep: 10.43 Arr: 1.12pm Walk from Chipping Campden toBroadway (9.5 km; 6 miles) Bus 21/22 to Moreton-on-Marsh (dep 5.37pm; arr 6pm) then Bus 801 to Stow-on-the-Wold (dep 6.10pm; arr 18.25pm)
Bus or taxi back to Broadway Broadway toWinchcombe (19.5km; 12 miles)
Winchcombe to Dowdeswell (17.5km; 11 miles)
Dowdeswell to Birdlip (16.5km; 10.5 miles)
Birdlip to Randwick (21.5 km; 13.5 miles)
Randwick to Dursley (17km; 10.5 miles)
Dursley to Wotton-under-Edge (11.5km; 7 miles)
Wotton-under-Edge to Old Sodbury (20.5 km; 13.5 miles)
Old Sodbury to Cold Ashton (13.5 km; 8.5 miles)
Cold Ashton to Bath (16km; 10 miles) – then train home to Cholsey (via Oxford)
2012 was a great year – Spain, Portugal and the Camino de Santiago. And spending Christmas, Hogmanay and the rest of winter in Edinburgh was the icing on the cake. Scotland is now right up there with all my other favourite places. The diary entries for this trip are long, but there was just so much to see, do and enjoy. I LOVED this home exchange ….
EDINBURGH 1: 11th December 2012
It’s early morning in Edinburgh on Day 1. 7.30am and still pitch dark outside. The house is warm and I’m settling in. Temperature outside is zero and there’s an icy frost on the back lawn and over the road.
I got in to Waverley Station (Edinburgh) yesterday around 6.15pm after a speedy 4-hour train ride up from London. Amazingly efficient these British trains. First impressions of Edinburgh from the taxi last night were fleeting but it looks a very grand old city with imposing Gothic buildings, winding streets and sparkling Christmas lights. The night was crisp and clear and it felt like driving through a beautiful film set.
81 Grange Loan (my house) isn’t far from the city centre. Feels like home already and I’m looking forward to the next couple of months. But I’d better note down the details of the first few days in England…
The Cathay Pacific flight was OK though a longer-than-scheduled stopover in Hong Kong was frustrating. It landed at Heathrow over an hour late, and then there was an interminable queue to get through immigration. But when the passport finally got stamped, I was back in the UK where I always feel I belong. Sally and Colin – wonderful friends – met me, took me back to their place for breakfast, and then on to Pauline’s at Maidenhead.
Pauline had other house guests for the first night – former neighbours David and Judy (from Wales) whom I’ve met before. We all went down to the local Carvery for an excellent all-you-can-eat dinner before I zonked into bed around 9pm. This was Thursday. On Friday, Pauline and I went into Maidenhead town to wander the shops and visit the local Heritage Centre. Strangely, in all my previous times in Maidenhead I’d never actually been there. Among other exhibits and stories of olden times in the Maidenhead district, there’s a permanent exhibition about the Air Transport Auxiliary, the people who supported the RAF in WW2 by delivering new planes to all the airfields in the country. Many were young women. There’s an old Spitfire plane body in the exhibit with a flight simulator, so visitors can actually ‘fly’ it. It’s very realistic and a bit scary – but with a bit of guidance from the guy working the computer, I ‘flew’ over the English countryside and even did some rolls and loop-the-loops. All without crashing. I wasn’t brave enough to attempt a landing but thanks to technology, I could leave the plane in mid-air while I extracted myself from the cockpit. I now have a certificate to prove my flying prowess….
We went to Nordern Farm twice on Saturday – to the Christmas craft fair in the morning and a Cabaret show at night. The cabaret star was Rosemary Ashe, who I’d not heard of, but she’s apparently well-known on the West End stage. She did an hour of Ethel Merman… suitably brash and brassy, but not exactly my cup of tea.
And then Sunday was the best!! We downloaded a walking guide from the web and spent all day in London wandering around the Bloomsbury district. Spotted many blue plaques on houses where great writers, artists, architects, lawyers and other intellectuals once lived, and strolled through little parks and squares and in and out of pubs, grand hotels and museums. Especially interesting was the Foundling Museum at Coram Fields. This was the site of the first shelter for abandoned children in England, established in 1739 by a retired sea captain and philanthropist, Thomas Coram, who was strongly supported by William Hogarth, the artist, and Handel, the musician. As orphanages go, the Foundling Hospital seemed to have been quite a safe and caring place if the personal stories and photos on display tell the whole story. It continued to provide a home for abandoned children into the 1950’s and 60’s. Today it’s a museum, art gallery and concert venue which continues to raise funds for the Coram Children’s Foundation and houses a permanent exhibition of Hogarth’s paintings and the world’s largest collection of Handel manuscripts and music scores. Nearby Coram Fields is a large park and playground which adults can only enter if accompanied by a child.
To get back to Paddington station, we took a double-decker London bus so got to see all the Christmas lights in Oxford Street. Quite strange being so dark at 4pm, but even on a Sunday evening the shops were buzzing and hordes of people were still out there doing their bit for the economy.
Monday was the day I travelled up to Scotland. Left Maidenhead at mid-day and was in Edinburgh by 6pm. It’s a different world up here in Auld Reekie but one I’ve already started to explore – and love. Since beginning this diary entry this morning, I’ve walked for miles around the local area and into the city. A full description will have to wait ‘til next time.
EDINBURGH 2: Wednesday 12th December
Edinburgh continues to delight. Tonight I had an encounter with a lovely young 21-year-old woman from the Barossa Valley. We were sharing a mirror to try on hats at the Christmas market in Princes Street when we recognized fellow-Australian accents… then discovered we were both from SA. Gaby is young, gorgeous and idealistic, travelling the world before she decides what to do with her life. She’s currently working in Edinburgh and living with a Scottish family. Neither of us found what we wanted in the market, so Gaby led me through the streets of the Old Town to a vintage shop where she’d bought the lovely fur coat she was wearing. When we got there, sadly it was closed, so we ended up having a drink in a cosy pub in Grassmarket, sharing travel tales and dreams (my tales, her dreams). It was one of those serendipitous meetings that make this travelling life so happy.
I’d spent several hours at the National Museum of Scotland before wandering down to the market. What an amazing place it is! There’s so much to see and discover that it will take many visits to do it justice. This time I settled for an exhibition on the history of Scotland – and also one of the current special exhibitions about Dr David Livingstone, the Scottish national hero who explored Africa, ‘discovered’ the Victoria Falls and made his mark on ending the African slave trade. Quite an impressive chap, it seems. I learned a lot.
Today and yesterday I’ve also explored some of my local area. This part is called The Grange. It’s very near Marchmont and Morningside for anyone who knows Edinburgh. It’s about a 20-minute walk into the city centre from my house. Most of the houses in the nearby streets are huge Gothic mansions, and almost directly across the road is the local Cricket Club, walled around with a high stone fence. A little lane alongside the Cricket Club provides a short cut through to the Meadows, a vast expanse of open parkland bordering the University and the Old Town precincts. It’s been covered with sparkling white frost when I’ve walked across.
The High Street (or Royal Mile) is lined with Scottish shops selling cashmere and tartan, shortbread and postcards, while Princes Street a bit further down has all the fashion stores, bookshops, coffee shops etc. In between, are the National Gallery, churches, gardens, statues and, at this time of year, the German Christmas markets and the ice-skating rink. There’s a happy atmosphere with everyone rugged up against the cold, enjoying mulled wine and hot dogs, browsing stalls selling everything from Christmas decorations to hand-knitted baby clothes. All extremely tempting, but all I’ve bought so far is a woolly hat and matching scarf.
Thursday 13th December
I’ve been sleeping better here than I have in years … something about the long, cold, dark nights I guess. Also possibly the many miles I’ve walked each day, and the glass or two of duty-free port before bed-time. There’s no live TV here in the house – only a TV set in the cold front room for watching DVDs. But I’m enjoying lots of reading and listening to the radio. There are hundreds of books in the house and the table is now littered with all my Scottish tourist information, so plenty to keep me occupied.
Today’s outing was back into the city, along the lane and across the Meadows. Wandered into Greyfriars Churchyard where many famous sons of Edinburgh are buried. But probably the most well-known is Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye terrier who sat by his master’s grave for 14 years. There’s a little monument for him right in front of the church. And next door to the church is a pub named after him. Even apart from Bobby, the churchyard is a fascinating place of old, old graves, including some that have iron grilles built over them to protect them from the ghoulish gravediggers who used to dig up bodies to sell for medical research. It’s a place full of ghosts, I’m sure.
From here it was on through the Grassmarket (where the vintage shop was now open, though I didn’t buy anything) and up steep flights of winding stairs to the Royal Mile again. I then visited the Writers Museum which honours Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Lots of little nooks and crannies in this tall, thin house and lots of memorabilia describing the lives of these esteemed poets and writers.
Then yet another museum on the way down the hill, the Museum on the Mound. This one turned out to be about the history of the Bank of Scotland, the current building of which stands next door. Probably of great interest to money-buffs but I preferred the Writers’ stories.
Friday 14th: Very, very cold with 40 Shades of Grey in the skies today. Even a few soft flakes of snow. I rugged up during the afternoon and explored the other end of Grange Loan – down to Morningside Rd with more shops, cinema and restaurants.
Saturday 15th December: A big day of touristy sightseeing. Walked into the city and headed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, with stops along the way at St Giles Cathedral, The People’s Museum, Knox House, the Scottish Parliament and finally the Palace.
St Giles has all you’d expect of an old cathedral – lovely windows, vaults, chapels and tombs. But the gem is the little Chapel of the Order of the Thistle which was built onto the side of the Cathedral about 100 years ago. It looks medieval with beautiful wood and stone carving but is actually quite new. It’s where the Knights of the Order of the Thistle are proclaimed (invested?) by the Queen. This is the highest honour in Scotland and not an hereditary title … the Queen herself selects them. Princess Anne and Prince William are both Royal Kinghts of the Thistle. I saw their seats, also the one that Sir Robert Gordon Menzies sat in. He’s the only Australian amongst this esteemed group, I think.
It was midday when I left the Thistle heraldry, and a concert was about to begin in the main part of the Cathedral. None other than the Forth Accordion Band! Yes, a whole troupe of young piano accordionists in Santa hats playing Scottish folk songs and Christmas carols. Slightly bizarre but pleasant enough to while away about 20 minutes.
Knox House is thought to be the oldest surviving house in the city. Dating from the 1400’s, it has massive metre thick walls, stone staircases and huge tiled fireplaces, oak floorboards and painted ceilings. It’s famous because of two of its inhabitants back in the 1500s – John Mossman, the royal jeweler and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, and after him, John Knox the religious reformer who was one of the main figures behind Mary’s abdication. Mary was a Catholic, but powerful preacher Knox believed that a Presbyterian would be a better ruler for Scotland. This was a time of huge religious and political upheaval in Scotland and I learned (or re-learned) some of the story of Mary Queen of Scots and the turbulence between England and Scotland. and Catholicism and Protestantism, during those years.
From here it was a quick visit to the People’s Museum further along the Mile. But with too much to take in and desperate for coffee and a sit-down, I wandered on down to the new Parliament Building for lunch. Much controversy surrounds this building – ultra-modern architecture in the midst of all the great, old buildings of the Royal Mile. It was designed by a Spanish follower of Gaudi and has some similar features to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Quite beautiful in a futuristic kind of way. I also read up a bit about Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, and the Act of Union between Scotland and England. As usual, I can’t remember the details, but it was interesting at the time. My little guidebook says that it was on September 11, 1997. that 74.3% of those who voted in the referendum supported the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament. And 2 years later both the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament were established. Obviously this still isn’t the same as completely independent home rule because that referendum is still coming up next year – and from what I can gather, opinion is very divided about the benefit of breaking away from England again. Watch with interest! (LATER: As we know now, the NO vote won. But there’s talk of another referendum, post-Brexit)
Holyrood Palace, across the road from the Parliament building, and beneath the craggy cliffs of Arthurs Seat, is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. It’s used for official visits, garden parties and ceremonies when HRH is around. Along with all the usual Great Halls, Morning Rooms, tapestries, bedchambers etc., the visit included Mary Queen of Scots chambers where many dramatic events occurred. It must have been a bleak old place in those days. The Palace is built on the site of the Holyrood Abbey, a Francisan abbey dating back to very early Christian days. The ruins of the Abbey still stand in the Palace Gardens.
By now I was pretty exhausted, but made my way back into the New Town and enjoyed the Saturday night atmosphere in the city while continuing to soak up the sight of the magnificent buildings on the Mound silhouetted against the night sky. It’s a fabulous city. I just have to keep reminding myself I still have a couple of months to enjoy it all.
The sun shone brightly and the temperature climbed to about 8 degrees. A really great day to be outside,. and plenty of people were doing just that. I decided to take the local bus across town and go for a walk around Stockbridge. There was a Sunday Farmers market in full swing when I got there – could have bought goodies such as pheasant, salmon, delicious pastries and home-made chocolates, but settled for a simple lentil and veg pie for dinner. I walked in and out around the streets, along the Waters of Leith canal and up the hill to one of the poshest parts of the city. Ann Street is supposedly one of the ‘best’ addresses in Edinburgh. It’s a whole street of Georgian houses designed by Sir Henry Raeburn and named after his wife. Much as I wouldn’t mind living there, it actually looked a bit grey and heavy in the winter. Probably prettier in spring time.
Caught the bus back into the city in time for a 6pm concert at St Giles Cathedral where the Rudsambee Choir were presenting Christmas songs from around the world. Definitely more professional than the Accordion Band yesterday, and I enjoyed it very much.
EDINBURGH 3: 17-23 December
The past week has been a mix of Scottish history, ruined abbeys and country walks in the Tweed Valley, also galleries, museums and shopping in Edinburgh…
Some days when I can’t decide what to do. When it looks particularly grey and damp outside, I end up sleeping in, having a cup of tea, a long read and a late breakfast, then doing some home chores, emailing etc. But even on these days I’ve always gone out for a walk somewhere – to the local shops or the cinema. Morningside, at the end of Grange Loan, has a good collection of shops for browsing so it’s not difficult to fill in a few hours just wandering. I’m also still a bit spellbound by the size and shape of some of the houses around here too. They’re like mini-castles with towers, turrets and high windows. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see Harry Potter or a wizard come out the front doors. Most of the houses have sparkling Christmas trees in the windows right now, so it’s quite pretty walking along the streets after dark, which happens around 4pm.
At the beginning of the week I visited the National Library of Scotland. The library houses a vast collection of books but I actually went to see the exhibitions – and they’re fantastic. Firstly there’s the story of the Bartholomew dynasty of map and atlas makers. The earliest maps were all hand-drawn in the finest detail, but technology has obviously changed all that over the past 300 years, with the latest maps being electronically generated in 3-D. Bartholomews eventually sold to Readers Digest, but they still produce high quality maps and atlases.
The second exhibition contains treasures relating to many of the famous authors whose books were published by John Murray, a famous Scottish publishing house – people such as Charles Darwin, Conan Doyle, Byron, Walter Scott, Livingstone and others. The first edition of ‘Origin of Species’ is there, along with many manuscripts, letters, items of clothing and interesting side notes about these famous people. The whole collection has to be kept in a very low light to preserve the treasures, so it feels extra special to tiptoe from one glass case to the next.
The Library is just up the road from the National Museum so I also wandered back in there. This time I found the famous Lewis Chess Men. These intricate little chess pieces were carved from walrus tusks in the 12th or 13th centuries, and discovered on the island of Lewis in 1831. The Museum shows Scotland’s story from its earliest geological times, through the course of all the different tribes or cultures that have inhabited this land… Picts, Vikings, Angles and others. I wish I could remember everything I read, but there’s just so much to take in.
Another fascinating exhibit in the Museum is Dolly the Sheep, the first successfully cloned animal in the world. This happened in Scotland. Dolly’s dead now, but she lived a few years and gave scientists and ethicists something to think about. I was actually surprised to learn how many other animals have been cloned since Dolly, though not many lived a full and healthy life. Also on display is one of the lunar modules, and a huge rocket that was fired in the desert of Australia in the 1950s. Probably Maralinga or Woomera? The Museum covers 5 Levels so I don’t think I’ve even seen half of it yet….
Thursday and Friday (20-21 Dec) were the days I spent in the Borders, about 2 hours south of Edinburgh in the Tweed Valley. I caught the Edinburgh-Melrose bus (a double-decker, no less) and met Penny (my NZ friend who’s visiting her family) when she hopped on in Peebles, as previously arranged by phone. Melrose is famous for its beautiful ruined abbey – as are Jedburgh and Dryburgh, other nearby towns in the Borders. Over the two days, we managed to see all three – in between showers of rain and short daylight hours – via a combination of local buses and walks along country lanes. It would have been lovely to be there in sunshine, but ruined abbeys have a certain magic in the mist, and with no other tourists around, we could wander at will through the ancient pillars, stone walls and graveyards. The 11th-15th centuries must have been a very busy time in the Tweed Valley with abbots, monks, earls and other nobles all having a part to play in the life of the abbeys. As well as hundreds of stonemasons and other craftsmen who provided the labour to build and maintain these amazing buildings. There were Cistercian, Augustine and Premonstratensian (yes!) religious orders in one or other of the abbeys. Their lives were supposed to be devoted to prayer and obedience, with some taking a vow of silence. But they also seemed to have become involved in the life of the surrounding towns and even amassed great wealth. Hard to imagine what their life must have been like at the times when the abbeys were pillaged, burned, rebuilt and/or eventually destroyed during the Scottish reformation in the 1500’s.
Melrose Abbey (Cistercian) is particularly interesting for its detailed carvings of saints, dragons and gargoyles … there’s even a bagpipe-playing pig on one of the pillars. Jedburgh (Augustine) is the biggest, with much of the nave, walls and vaulted ceiling still intact. But our favourite was probably Dryburgh (Premonstratensian). To get to this one, we had to get off the bus at a roadside stop and walk about 20 minutes along a country lane, past a donkey sanctuary, across a suspension bridge over the swollen and turbulent Tweed River and up another little road past an old hotel until we found the abbey hidden in the trees.
On the Thursday night we stayed in a very comfortable B&B in Melrose and enjoyed a good meal by the fire in one of the local pubs. Caught the bus back to Peebles – then Edinburgh – at 3.30pm on Friday afternoon in pitch darkness! It was Dec 21st; the shortest day of the year… and it actually felt like midnight when I arrived home around 6pm.
Today (Sunday 23rd) I walked into the city again to visit the National Gallery. Another feast of great works of art here – Scottish artists, Old Masters, Impressionists and others – a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon. Yesterday I took myself to the movies. Saw “The Master” which proved to be a waste of time and money.
Another big week coming up with Penny, Hazel & Chris all visiting – and then Hogmanay!
EDINBURGH 4 (December 29th) Christmas and Hogmanay
At last December 25 is over. Crazy to think I could escape it by coming to Scotland. Maybe next year I’ll try Mongolia or Tibet….
I spent the day (25th) at Edinburgh Zoo. It seemed to be the only place open. Perhaps not surprisingly there were a lot of people there. But at least the animals didn’t know it was supposed to be any jollier or merrier than usual, and they carried on regardless – especially the funny little monkeys and meerkats. I also got to see a Giant Panda at last. Haven’t seen them in Adelaide Zoo yet, but travelled all the way to Edinburgh for the pleasure of visiting the only pair in the UK. Tian Tian, the female, was sound asleep at first but she eventually stirred, yawned, sat up, then curled herself into a cuddly panda shape and went back to sleep. The male one didn’t even appear.
The koalas seemed popular with the visitors, but I thought they looked a bit sad sitting in make-believe gum trees in their very well-heated ‘house’. The best sightings of the day were the magnificent leopard and the silky black jaguar in adjacent enclosures. Both were behind glass…just as well… because they came up so close you could see every powerful muscle in their great shining bodies. Overall, it was a good day – the sun even shone for most of it. It certainly wasn’t a White Christmas here.
On Xmas Eve, I took the local bus to the other end of the line to have a look at Craigmillar Castle … ruined but still in pretty good shape for a medieval castle. It involved a short walk from the Royal Infirmary where the bus finished, and once away from this very big hospital I didn’t see another soul anywhere. I’ve lost count of the castles I’ve explored in travels to these old countries, but I still can’t hold back from climbing up every tower and down every dungeon. Creeping carefully up stone stair-cases and edging along turrets of this one, you get a great view of the city in the distance. With only crows and pigeons for company it was a bit spooky, but somehow easier to imagine lords and ladies, servants and guards doing whatever they did in their great halls and chambers. I still marvel at how these places were built without the benefit of cranes and computers though.
With time to fill after seeing the Castle I took a different bus all the way back into town, then jostled through the last-minute Christmas shoppers in Princes Street before popping into the Museum again – now one of my favourite places. Very glad I did, because there was a tour about to start with a volunteer guide to explain some of the Scottish history exhibits. Only 3 of us in the group – a Canadian, a Kiwi and me – so a great chance to see more and hear so much history put into context. I’m becoming more and more proud of my Scottish ancestry every day. The Scots were (are) amazing people!
The best night of the week, without doubt, had to be the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra’s Hogmanay Celebration at Usher Hall on Thursday 27th. I’d booked late but got a cheap seat in the upper gallery with a fabulous view of the stage and the whole concert hall. And what a night!! There were pipes a-piping, drums a-drumming, wee lassies dancing and about 80 fiddlers fiddling. Everything whirled and skirled and the conductor jigged along with the music. The crowd clapped, tapped and sang along to all the old Scottish traditional favourites. Especially amazing was the finale when the whole concert hall, filled to capacity, stood, joined hands and sang a rousing Auld Lang Syne. Even after the concert, people were still singing and jigging their way out to the bus-stops. Lots of fun and a great start to the spirit of Hogmanay.
It was interesting seeing a left-handed violinist in the orchestra … first time I’ve ever seen that… but they were all in fine form, possibly because they were all off to China the next day for a whirlwind tour. Wonder what the Chinese will make of the bagpipes?
The weather’s been a bit up and down. Very windy yesterday, but bright and clear today. Rain is forecast for NYE but I’ve found that the forecast has been wrong nearly every day, so here’s hoping for a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht for the Hogmanay parties!
EDINBURGH 5: HOGMANAY 2013
I’m sure I read it somewhere…. no-one knows how to party better than the Scots! Think whisky, kilts and ceilidhs and you’ll have some idea of how to have a good time.
Edinburgh’s just drawn breath again after 3 fabulous days of festivities to welcome in the New Year. The whole city was alive, the sun shone, and thousands of people from all over the world shared the traditional Hogmanay celebrations.
The action started here at my place with Chris and Hazel’s arrival on Saturday 29th . They drove up from Huntingdon arriving here about 4pm. Food and wine that evening (plenty of both) got us into the party spirit – and that’s how we continued.
Next day (Sunday 30) we were all invited up to Dundee to visit sailing friends from Greece. David and Lyn are Scottish – their boat’s in the same boat-yard as Chris & Hazel’s during the winter non-sailing season. I hadn’t met them before but enjoyed all the talk about the Ionian Sea and the islands where I sailed with C & H in 2009 and 2010. They’ve recently renovated an old house, so we had a great lunch and wonderful view from their very modern sitting room overlooking the Firth of Tay. David also took us for a quick drive up to Dundee Law, the highest point of the city, to see the city spread out below – and across the Firth to St Andrews. It was bitterly cold with a wind blowing straight from the North Sea (felt like the North Pole) but was a great opportunity to see another part of Scotland.
Penny arrived in Edinburgh late afternoon that day (Sunday) and the four of us walked across the Meadows to join the Torchlight Procession in the early evening. This is a huge event that involves many thousands of people walking through the streets carrying long wax candles blazing with light. The procession looked like a ribbon of fire as it wound its way up to the top of Calton Hill. And we were part of it! At the beginning, we were accompanied by enormous floating fish-shaped balloons – and a pipe band. And up on the hill at the end there were fireworks and a Sound and Light display. A phenomenal start to a 3-day party.
Chris and Hazel didn’t do the final bit of the walk up the hill, so we parted ways to make our way home, after calling in to one of the many bars on the way for a quick drink or two.
On Monday 31st, we went back into the city so that Hazel and Chris could get a feel for some of the sights in daylight. Princes Street, the Castle, St Giles, Grassmarket and Greyfriars, as well as many of the other magnificent buildings and little back lanes and closes of the Old Town. Penny had to baby-sit back in Peebles that night, so she caught her bus around 2pm and we went back to Grange Loan for a rest before hitting the streets again around 9pm. We’d had a choice of: (i) the Street Party with 5 stages and big-name bands, and thousands of young revelers the length and breadth of Princes Street or (ii) the Ceilidh with Scottish music and dancing, so we’d planned ahead and booked for the Ceilidh. Had to fight our way through the crowds to get into the special ceilidh area but were really glad we’d made this choice when we got there. It was huge fun and a great way to keep warm, jumping and jigging along with the music. It was a night when having a full-time partner would have been handy so I could have danced all the reels and jigs, but I managed a barn dance with a young German girl, and joined in lots of others when numbers didn’t strictly seem to matter. The whole spirit of a ceilidh is so inclusive … it doesn’t matter who you are or whether you know how to do it. Everyone is welcome!
At midnight came the big Countdown …. over 70,000 people shouting 10, 9, 8 … then on the stroke of zero, the fireworks lit the sky above the Castle. After hugs and kisses all around, everyone joined hands for a rousing Auld Lang Syne to welcome in 2013.
The music and partying probably continued all night long, but we decided midnight was time for us to wend our way home and open the bubbly. We finally called it a night around 2am because Chris and Hazel had to leave early the next morning for the 6-hour drive home to England. Their next Australian home exchangees were arriving the following day – and then they were flying out to Melbourne the day after –so they had a few things to do! It was great that they could make it up here for Hogmanay.
But even though my guests had all gone by Janurary 1st, Edinburgh was still celebrating. And I was keen to continue to enjoy it. There were many events on offer all day, including the Loony Dook where people throw themselves into the icy Firth for a morning swim, or the New Years Triathalon, or the Edinburgh Dogmanay with sled dog races in Holyrood Park. But I chose to join the ‘Your Lucky Day’ event, which started at the National Museum. All participants (many thousands of us) got to throw 2 dice, then depending on the number you threw, you were given a card with a venue corresponding with that number. You had to make your way to that venue where something would be happening. At the end of the performance or entertainment, you’d throw your dice again and be issued with the next card and off you’d go again. During the afternoon I managed to find my way across the city to 5 different venues and enjoyed every single one. First there was a folk quartet at the old Tron Church, then a ceilidh at Greyfriars Kirk, an amusing afternoon tea at the City Art Centre and a jazz guitar duo at a little jazz club. I also caught the final bars of a chamber orchestra at the Hub. The fun of all of this was that no-one knew what to expect anywhere. It was like a giant treasure hunt with people all across the city walking around with little numbered cards and maps. At the Art Centre, those of us who happened to arrive at the same time were ushered up to the 5th floor to find a big room with lots of round tables and a wacky bunch of kilted comedians serving cups of tea and little cakes to everyone. You just sat anywhere and talked to the people at your table….so Scottish, and so good.
The Big Bang Finale came at 6pm in Buccleuch Place, near Edinburgh University. Once again, no-one had a clue what was going to happen, but a huge crowd assembled and waited. It turned out to be a UK premiere of a Street Theatre Spectacular performed by a French group called Plasticiens Volants. It’s extremely difficult to describe, but it consisted of more of the absolutely gigantic, enormous balloon-type sculptures that had heralded the start of the Torchlight Procession. The theme was the creation of the universe billions of years ago, so the ‘balloons’ were shaped like grotesque animal forms, planets, sea monsters, wheels and other shapes, including a huge eyeball. These were manoeuvred by performers who wove their way through the crowds holding the giant shapes aloft – all done with a soundtrack of voice, music, smoke and coloured lights. The backdrop setting was something of a paradox … old 5-storey high stone buildings on both sides of the street.
Needless to say I was completely zonked at the end of the day and still had a half-hour walk home. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get to have so much entertainment packed into 3 days again. It’s certainly been a fabulous start to a new year. Thank you Edinburgh!
It’s not even quite a week since New Years Day, but it feels like a month. Every day has been busy and enjoyable, mostly spent finding new (to me) places to explore.
I’ve also got stuck into family history research this week, starting with half a day at New Register House where the Scottish archives and genealogical records are kept. My research was made relatively easy by already having more than the bare bones of the Ferguson Family Tree, compiled in recent years by other family members (2nd & 3rd cousins in Australia), but I’ve already discovered more information and feel surprisingly close to these Scottish forebears. I don’t know why I should feel so proud and happy to have Scottish blood when my maternal grandfather, Alexander Ferguson, actually deserted my grandmother after WW1 and left her to bring up my mother on her own. My dearly-loved grandmother would be thrashing her heavenly harp if she knew that I was becoming so interested in the Ferguson story. However, having only ‘discovered’ this grandfather in the last few years (he lived until 1964 but I didn’t know him), and finding that I have a huge family of Ferguson relations, mostly in the south-east of South Australia, I’ve been extremely keen to trace the story back to my great-grandfather, William Ferguson, who was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland. William migrated to Australia in 1866 with his brother, John, and went on to own a successful sheep farm called Gowan Brae, near Lucindale. My grandfather, Alexander, was the youngest of his 11 children, all born in Australia. I’ve now found much of the story of the Ferguson family in Kirriemuir, and have decided to travel up there later this week to walk in the footsteps of my great-grandparents and their elders.
Other outings this week have included a lovely walk up Blackford Hill, and a bus trip to Cramond. The peak of Blackford Hill is visible from my back window and it had been calling to me for days. With map in hand, it was easy to find how to get there and I spent over an hour hiking up its paths and across the top, marveling at the fabulous views of Edinburgh on all sides. It’s obviously a popular place for families, dog walkers and casual ramblers because there were quite a few people up there enjoying the relatively mild weather and bursts of sunshine. There’s a direction-finder thing at the top pointing to the various surrounding hills and sights in the city … and I suddenly found myself looking across the valley to Craiglockart Hill where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met during the 1st World War – I’d just been reading a book about the poets of the Great War and couldn’t help wondering if the grand old building over on the hill might be (or have been?) the hospital where they met? (* The book is “Strange Meetings”; the author, Harry Ricketts, is coming to Adelaide Writers Week in March).
It’s strange how these kinds of coincidences keep happening. For example, you read about something in one book, and it crops up again in the next. It happened again when I went to Cramond yesterday. The number 41 bus from very near my place goes all the way to Cramond, a village on the Firth of Forth. It takes about an hour, and gives a great opportunity to see more of the city and surrounds. (I still like sitting in the front seat at the top of double-decker buses and just watching the world roll by.) Anyway, Cramond proved to be a little gem. There’s an island there that is cut off at high tide, but when the tide is out you can walk across to it. I could have, but didn’t … might go back and do it another time. There’s a very old church in the village built on the ruins of an old Roman fort, dating back to around 140 AD. But the coincidence that happened was finding an information board telling me that one of the most significant archaeological treasures to be discovered in Scotland had been pulled out of the river inlet at that very spot as recently as the 1990s. The find was a large Roman funeral statue of a lioness devouring a man, dating from the time of the Roman occupation. It is now displayed in the National Museum, and was one of the special exhibits that I’d been shown when I did a short guided tour. It fascinated me at the time, so much so that I revisited it next time I was there. I knew it had been found in a river somewhere, but didn’t know (or remember) that it was at Cramond. Maybe I’m odd (!) but I get excited when things link together like this.
In between these outings I’ve walked around more of the city centre, through streets and arcades that I’d not found before. The city is larger than it first appears with lots of very attractive shops, especially now with all the post-Xmas sales on. I also took myself to the movies at the local cinema again – this time to see “Quartet”. An absolute delight!
Today (Monday 7) is a bit damp and overcast but I feel very lucky to have had mostly good weather over the past few days. Will keep fingers crossed for more in coming days.
EDINBURGH 7: 7-14 January
Highlight of the past week was my trip to Kirriemuir, and surrounding towns, to continue the search for the Ferguson family history. And I’ve since spent another day in New Register House (Scottish archives) in Edinburgh to confirm my findings. But more of all that later ….. I’ll try to sketch in the rest of the week first.
On Tuesday 7th, I took the train to Glasgow to meet Victoria, who I’d first met on the Camino in Spain last year. She was volunteering then at a hostel run by an English confraternity in the village of Rabanal. Victoria’s now living in Glasgow doing a Masters degree, and currently studying creative writing. Irish by birth, she lived in France for the past 20 years and is fluent in at least 4 languages. It was so good to catch up and get to know her better. We walked all day through the University, Botanic Gardens, an art gallery, and up and down countless streets. But mostly we just talked, so I can’t say I really got to know Glasgow at all. However, the faint (and probably unfair) impression I got is that it’s rather down-at-heel compared with Edinburgh with lots of boarded-up and peeling old buildings. I know it was once a grand and prosperous city so I’ll try to get back there again before I fly home.
Now jumping ahead to Sunday 13th and to a concert at Usher Hall … this time it was the Johann Strauss Orchestra and dancers performing “A Night in Vienna”. It had sounded promising, but turned out to be quite forgettable – on a par with elevator music. One review I’d read had raved about it, calling it a “Mum-treat”! Not for this Mum, I’m afraid, though I think some of the older Mums (and Dads) in the Hall were swaying along with memories of waltzing together once upon a time…..
Snow has fallen twice this week. It looks so pretty floating past the window – and the old houses and bare trees always look like something out of a picture book when they’re dusted in white. On Sunday morning, Blackford Hill looked like a giant Christmas pudding with icing on top for a few hours.
Other hours/days during the week have been spent on all the usual day-to-day stuff of life … supermarket shopping, washing, vacuuming, emailing, going to the library etc – but Wednesday & Thursday (8th-9th) were the Kirriemuir days.
I took the train to Dundee on Wednesday morning. It was a superb winter’s day, with brilliant sunshine, so there were fabulous views on both sides when the train crossed the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth. This is an amazing bridge, opened in 1890, 2.5km long, and said to be the world’s first major steel bridge. Most of the way further north, the railway line ran right along the coast, and the sea (technically the Firth?) was sparkling blue with not a ripple in sight. I needed sunglasses! From Dundee station it was a short walk to the bus stop where I caught the local bus to Forfar, and then another on to Kirriemuir. So about an hour later I was in the small country market-town where my great-grandfather was born in 1849.
Kirriemuir is still a relatively small town, known affectionately as “The Wee Red Toon” on account of the red-coloured stone used to build most of the cottages and local buildings. It’s also known as the Gateway to the Glens because it’s in the middle of spectacular scenery – hills, mountains, glens and braes. The old town centre is still a maze of little cobbled lanes and closes, little cottages and a church or two .. and, if you ignore the cars, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself back in the mid 19th-century. Kirriemuir, like many of the nearby towns, was a centre for the weaving trade. Most of the population worked in the weaving mills or on hand-looms in their own homes. It’s hard to imagine now, but jute-weaving was the main industry and brought huge wealth to Dundee and surrounding districts… think of all those potato and sugar sacks needed to transport goods to the colonies.
I spent most of my time in Kirriemuir, and nearby Forfar, going through records in the local libraries, and also walking around the streets just to get a feel for where my great-great-grandmother and her children must have walked, talked, shopped and played. I found the small lanes in both towns where the census records show that the family lived in 1841 and 1851. Ann (great-great-grandfather William’s wife) was listed as a yarn winder by occupation. The men in the family were all agricultural labourers. Indeed my great-grandfather (also called William) became a successful farmer during his lifetime in Australia. He emigrated from Scotland in 1866 with his brother John.
I guess I have to acknowledge that Kirriemuir lays claim to people more famous than my Ferguson forebears. J.M.Barrie, author of Peter Pan was born here (and is buried in the town cemetery), also Charles Lyell, one of the fathers of geology and friend of my hero, Charles Darwin. Also Bon Scott, of AC/DC fame was born in Kirriemuir. Bon migrated to Australia with his family when he was 6 years old (!), but they still have a whole glass case in the museum dedicated to his achievements as a rock legend. At least my great-grandfather lived there for 25 years.
If I’d had a car – and a travelling companion – I probably would have explored the Glens. But travelling where I could on the local buses was fun and provided great views of the local countryside. The little bus from Kirriemuir back to Forfar (about 9km) was a bit like something out of “Heartbeat” … the bus was probably new in 1950. The journey took me through the village of Glamis with glimpses of Glamis Castle through the trees. This was the childhood home of the Queen Mother and a real fairy-tale castle seen from a distance.
Back in Dundee, before catching the train back to Edinburgh, I wound my way down to the harbour to view the “Discovery”, the ship that took Capt Robert Scott to the Antarctic. It was built in Dundee and now forms the centre-piece of an excellent museum about Antarctic exploration. Having seen and heard a lot about the Antarctic when I was married (my ex-husband spent 2 years down there in the 60’s), I did have an interest in the story of the British exploration and scientific discovery. I have to confess that I’ve changed my mind about Scott now to. I’d always thought he was a bit of a loser, having come second to Amundsen in the quest for the South Pole, but in fact he seems to have been a great sea captain, and highly regarded by all his men on the first “Discovery” voyage. It’s a very good museum and needs at least a couple of hours to explore.
It was quite dark by the time I left … about 5pm… so I called it a day and headed back to the station. British trains are so efficient (warm, comfortable and on-time) so I was home in Edinburgh about an hour later.
There’s another busy week coming up – I’m playing mahjong with the Edinburgh U3A club on Thursday, then Pauline arrives on Friday. Among other things we’re heading up to Aberdeen for a couple of days, also celebrating Burns Night back in Edinburgh. But that will all be in the next diary.
EDINBURGH 8: 16-26 January
Poor old diary … it’s been at least 10 days since I’ve had a chance to sit and reflect, and I’ve probably forgotten half of what I’ve done. Pauline (friend from England) has been staying with me and the days have been very full.
Last time I wrote I was setting off to mahjong with the U3A group. That turned out to be extremely pleasant. Very nice people, and only a 5-minute walk from my place. They played with slightly different rules, but it wasn’t hard to adapt and I learned some new hands that might be of interest at home.
The following day (Friday 18th) brought Pauline up from London – along with some very cold weather. There’s been a lot of snow over the past week, particularly in the countryside. Edinburgh streets were dark and icy, but day-to-day life still carried on… the traffic flowed, buses ran, and everything stayed open. Not so in some places in the UK… schools closed, roads were blocked and presumably people stayed indoors.
On Saturday 19th we walked through a wintry, white world into the city, up and down the Royal Mile spending time at St Giles, Holyrood Palace (for Pauline) and the Queen’s Gallery (for me). There’s an exhibition on at present in the Queen’s Gallery – 60 photos of Her and the Family – to mark the 60 years she’s been on the throne. I think I’m becoming more of a monarchist with each passing year (though will still vote for a Republic if ever we get another chance). I loved all the photos and the stories behind them, especially the ones of HRH with her horses and the corgis. The thing about this exhibition is that it kind of followed the years of my own life – the fashions, events, royal births and, of course, the gradual ageing of the faces – it all resonated with me.
That same night we went to a preview performance of “A Taste of Honey” at the lovely little Lyceum Theatre with its magnificent chandelier. Preview nights only cost £8, with no reserved seating. It’s first in, best seats. I remember reading the book back in the 60’s … the story of a young woman, with a single alcoholic mother, who gets pregnant to a black sailor. Sadly it seems much of the same poverty, dysfunction and discrimination still exist. So even though the play is now somewhat dated, its themes remain relevant. It was quite good and appropriately gloomy.
On Sunday Pauline chose to do a bus trip. So off we went to Cramond. Because I’d been there recently, I led the way around the village and along the river walk. I think part of the pleasure of this particular outing is the chance to see more of Edinburgh’s houses, buildings and other districts along the bus route. Back in town it was getting too cold to walk more outdoors, so we spent an hour in the Museum before heading home.
Monday was another full day out … this time in even heavier snow. We trod carefully on icy footpaths all the way to Morningside Road to catch the bus to Rosslyn Chapel, about ½ hour out of the city. Despite its up-and-down existence as a beautiful little chapel since the 1500s, with a very colourful true history, it gained world-wide fame with the advent of ‘The Da Vinci Code” – the book and the movie. Visitor numbers apparently went from a mere few thousand annually to 300,000 after the book came out. Thank goodness things have quietened down now. And in a blizzard on Monday there were only half a dozen people like us who were braving the elements to see the very elaborate and ornate stone carvings, and hear the stories of how they have been interpreted over the centuries by different waves of Catholic and Protestant worshippers, aristocrats, Masonic Knights and ordinary visitors. It’s quite a lovely little place and well worth the bus ride through the snow.
The bus brought us back to Morningside – right near the local cinema – so we decided to sit in the warm, comfy Gold Class seats to see “Les Miserables”. Thoroughly enjoyed it ( despite Russell Crowe’s lack of singing ability).
Tuesday and Wednesday were by far the best days of the past week. We travelled up to Aberdeen on the train to stay with friends of Pauline’s in Banchory – about an hour out from Aberdeen in the Dee Valley. I’d become quite accustomed to seeing nothing but white all around, but the train trip up (approx 2 ½ hours) was still very picturesque as we whizzed through fields of snow and along the rugged coast. It all felt quite familiar travelling through Dundee again.
John met us at the train station and there was time for a quick visit to the Maritime Museum before catching the bus to Banchory. The Museum is under redevelopment, so with a background accompaniment of drills and hammers, we learned something of the rich history of Aberdeen as a major sea-port and a hub of the ship-building industry. Its wealth in more recent years has come from the massive oil rigs off its coast, out in the North Sea. It’s a grand old city, built of grey granite. Didn’t have time to see much of it, but gained an impression from the bus.
Staying in Banchory was absolutely wonderful. John and Jean are retired teachers/academics who spent a few years as tour leaders for HF International, a company that takes walking tours to interesting parts of the world. Pauline met them on one such trip to the Grand Canyon and other national parks in the US. They’ve made many trips to New Zealand, also Nepal, and are long-time walkers in the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.
Banchory is about 40 miles from Balmoral in the Royal Deeside valley. The Royal Family are regular visitors and supporters of activities in the district, so the locals get to see them often. Jean has met Camilla through her patronage of the Art Group – and finds her charming. Being in this beautiful part of Scotland brought back memories of travelling up to the Braemar Games in the mid-60s in a Mini-minor with two former room-mates from Teachers College!
Deeside is Castle country. There are dozens of them scattered around, which makes the whole area very attractive for tourists. Fortunately, things are quiet in the middle of winter, particularly with a foot of snow covering everything. It was stunningly beautiful. I felt as if I were in a movie …. everything was snowy white, with a sparkling postcard view out of every window. Walking through the town was like being in an alpine village. And people were clearing paths and driveways just like you see on TV.
On Wednesday, the snow had stopped falling so we were able to take the bus to the stop nearest to Crathes Castle. (John can’t get the car out of the garage until he clears mountains of snow.)
After coffee at a nearby stone cottage complex of little shops, art gallery and old mill wheel, we walked through paths in the woods up to the Castle. It’s not open at this time of year, but it looked quite magnificent in its snowy setting, particularly when the sun came out and made everything shine. We had the place the park and woods to ourselves ..not even a deer, fox or rabbit appeared.
Pauline and I took John and Jean to dinner at the local Douglas Arms on Wednesday evening. Sat in a nook by a big log fire. Then on Thursday it was back to Aberdeen and the train home to Edinburgh. We had to get back for a Burns Supper and performance we’d booked at the Scottish story-telling centre in John Knox House. Robert Burns (the famous Scottish poet of the 1700s) was born on January 25, so Burns Night is a time to celebrate in Scotland. Traditionally it’s a time for haggis, bagpipes and poetry … and we joined in over the next two days.
On the Thursday night performance (24th), a group of actors told the story of Robbie Burns’ life and times (quite a dashing young lover with the lassies, it seems) and we enjoyed music, songs, poems and a 4-course traditional dinner of cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps & tatties (turnips & potatoes), cranachie, then shortbread and black buns with coffee. In the intimate setting of the story-telling centre, it was a really lovely evening.
The next day (Friday 25th) was also a full-on day. It started with attendance at a BBC radio program called ‘The Big Debate’ being broadcast live from Greyfriars Kirk. I’d booked free audience tickets after a tip from Charles (my current exchangee). It’s a radio program, a bit like “Q & A” on Australian TV. The theme of this particular session was “What does it mean to be Scottish?” . So the questions, comments and panel responses addressed everything from politics to history, geography, art, culture, language and more. Absolutely fascinating and very entertaining. Needless to say, I didn’t ask any questions or offer any comments, but there was a lot of lively audience participation.
This was followed by a wander around Greyfriars churchyard (for Pauline), lunch and exhibitions at the National Library, and another stroll down the Royal Mile to the Museum of Edinburgh and the People’s Story Museum, both of which recount the story of life in this city through the ages. It was rather surprising (and shocking) to see the level of hardship and poverty that still existed in the Old City tenements right through to the 1960s – when I was a carefree young backpacker visiting the Edinburgh Tattoo, and driving a hired mini-minor around the lochs and the castles. Of course things have changed massively, but there’s a magic to the place that keeps the history alive. I could live here very happily, and have in fact met 3 women-of-a-similar-age since I’ve been here (at bus-stops and library events) who have recently come from other parts of the world and chosen to make Edinburgh their home. Not really a choice I’ll ever have to make though. The British Government is just as rigid as our own when it comes to letting foreigners in to stay.
So, after all this sight-seeing, there was still another treat in store. The National Library had a Poetry Grand Slam event happening in honour of Robbie Burns. This free event had been fully booked but I thought it was worth waiting at the door in case people didn’t turn up – and sure enough we got in. It was a competition amongst local Scottish poets, with a judging panel and cheering audience, to find the 2013 winner. The standard of writing and presentation was incredibly high. It seems that talented and creative people still abound in Scotland. And it was great to see the interest in poetry, both amongst performers and audience. After preliminary rounds, the final round was won by a woman whose name I can’t remember.
It had been a long day, but we still had to eat, so called in at a corner pub on the way home to have yet another Burns supper … haggis and more tatties.
So now it’s Saturday 26th and Australians will be celebrating Australia Day in the sunshine. I packed Pauline off to explore by herself today, armed with maps, phone numbers and directions for getting home. I wonder if she’ll make it? (She did….)
EDINBURGH 9: January 28 – February 4
It’s been crazy weather all day today. Snow flurries this morning and now bright blue sky and sunshine. And everything else in between. I’m keeping fingers crossed that it will stay OK for the next few days for Rose’s visit (my former home exchangee from Cholsey, England).
The past week has been another busy one. Since Pauline left, I’ve relished having time to explore more of Edinburgh on my own and to discover more delights. Early in the week, I decided to walk from home towards Arthurs Seat. This big old volcanic mound can be seen from nearly everywhere in the city but I’d never been quite sure how to get there…. so I just headed towards it in the hope I’d find a path somewhere. Sure enough, after wandering along several new (to me) streets, I came out on the busy road near the Royal Commonwealth Pool and a sign pointing to Holyrood Park. This Park is huge, has roads for cars, and many paths for walkers. And Arthurs Seat and Salisbury Crags were directly ahead. I had a great walk but it was far too windy to get right to the top (I can well believe a friend’s anecdote about the man who had his glasses blown off his face!). It would be a fabulous place for my Friday Walking Group on a sunny day – wonderful views in all directions, high paths and low paths, and not far from Holyrood Palace and the Royal Mile.
Just behind the Royal Commonwealth Pool, I passed the Pollock Halls of Residence, a complex of boxy-style student accommodation. But in the midst of all the 1960s buildings sits the most magnificent castle-like, baronial mansion, with a signpost declaring it to be St Leonard’s Hall, a conference centre. Of course I simply had to go in and have a closer look and investigate its history… and guess what!!… amongst several other incarnations since the 18th century, it was the former St Trinians Girls’ School. Apparently Ronald Searle, the cartoonist, had a niece at the school and it was his visits there that gave him the inspiration for the St Trinians cartoons. It was also used as a military hospital during wartime.
In between walks and other activities, I’ve been enjoying lots of books – including several of the authors who’ll be coming to Writers Week in Adelaide and at least 4 Ian Rankin crime novels, plus a general assortment of others. I’ve become a regular visitor to the Central Library and the local library branch in the next street, and on Saturday morning I joined a Book Lovers’ Walking Tour. The man who led it, Allan Foster, is the author of “The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh, a Book Lover’s Guide to the World’s First City of Literature” so he should know his stuff. There were only 3 in the little walking group and we heard tales of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling and others – i.e. just a handful of Scotland’s well-known writers. It’s been great reading the Rankin books here in Edinburgh and recognising all the haunts of DI Rebus, but now I also know where Harry Potter really started, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gained his medical knowledge, where Robert Louis Stevenson drank with friends etc. This city really is quite astounding for the wealth of writers and literature it’s produced … is there something in the water here??
I’ve become fascinated with Robbie Burns since learning more about him during Burns Night events. Have managed to read some of his poems too, or at least get the gist of them, written as they are in the old Scots language. The other night I found a really good TV documentary on the computer about his life and times. He’s truly a national hero and his works are treasured.
On Saturday night I went to the Edinburgh Playhouse (just another of Edinburgh’s many theatres and concert halls) to see a Las Vegas-style performance of the Rat Pack … Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. along with showgirls, orchestra etc. Good fun and great old songs. They did it well.
Something I forgot in last week’s diary….among the many activities that Pauline and I crammed into the week was a tour of Edinburgh’s underground. There are a number of tour companies here who trade in the dark side of Edinburgh’s history – ghosts, ghouls, squalor and disease – and some of this tour was fairly predictable. But it did take us way down below some of the Old City buildings and into the tenements and closes where people used to live hundreds of years ago in horrendous conditions. These old rabbit warrens and dark hovels were built over in the 18th & 19th centuries when Edinburgh became increasingly wealthy. They were then were largely forgotten for many years. But some have been re-opened more recently, so it’s possible to get some idea of how the poor lived and died before modern sanitation, education, medicine and welfare came into being. Rats, open sewers, plagues, drunkenness, violence … it would have been a very different world back in the dark times.
On a much brighter and more beautiful note, yesterday I walked along the Water of Leith from Dean Village to Canonmills. The walk actually goes from the centre of the city down to Leith (about 11 miles), but the prettiest part is the middle bit around Dean, Stockbridge and the Botanic Gardens which is the section I did. And it is gorgeous!! Dean Village is a mix of cottages, big old stone houses, cobbled lanes and bridges. It’s nestled in a kind of gorge through which the little river flows, so the houses are built steeply up on the rises on both sides. And there’s a great arched bridge which crosses above way up high. The walk curves along, following the river, to the village of Stockbridge and beyond. A short detour leads up to the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Gardens which I visited briefly but will need more time to explore in full. I walked back through Inverleith Park – more wonderful views of the whole city from here – and a popular spot on a Sunday afternoon. I can’t get over how lovely this city is. I feel truly happy living here.
Choosing what to show Rose in just 4 days is going to be difficult, but we’ll make the most of it. After she leaves, I’m heading up to Inverness by train, with a plan to spend 3-4 days making my way back down the west coast on local buses to get more of a taste of the highlands and the lochs. I’ll probably also catch up with Victoria in Glasgow again. And after that, there’ll just be a few last days to pack and tidy up and start the homeward-bound journey, so I guess I’d better start getting used to the idea….
EDINBURGH 10: February 5-10
Sunday 10th: I’ve just come home after visiting Edinburgh Castle. This towering, majestic Castle is built high on the rocks of an extinct volcano and absolutely dominates the city. It’s the most spectacular Edinburgh landmark and probably visited by every tourist who comes to Scotland. It dates back thousands of years, has defended the nation in many battles and been occupied by many kings and queens. Its powerful walls protect the battlements, towers, royal apartments, Scotland’s crown jewels and St Margaret’s Chapel – as well as many military museums and the National War Memorial housed within. You could easily spend all day inside, visiting all the exhibitions and viewing the treasures, but I saw as much as I could reasonably take in during two hours. I especially loved the little Chapel of St Margaret, the oldest building in the whole Castle, built to commemorate Queen Margaret, mother of David the First. (Margaret was married to King Malcolm … perhaps Mum connected to her Scottish roots when she named my brother and me??)
Rose was here for 4 days this week … she left yesterday. She was a perfect guest and we shared some good times. The sun shone throughout, and Edinburgh looked its best.
When she arrived on the airport bus on Tuesday, we took advantage of the good weather straight away to enjoy some of the sights of the Royal Mile, then a coffee in the crypt under St Giles Cathedral, before walking home across the Meadows. And after dinner that evening, we set off to Summerhall (near the University) to go to a ceilidh to really get into the Scottish spirit. However it was booked out by the time we got there – but we learned about another exhibition that’s showing there in the daytime, so put that on the list for another day.
While waiting to meet Rose, I’d walked some more around the city, and this time I discovered the Oxford Bar where Detective Inspector Rebus (from the Rankin books) hangs out. It’s an inconspicuous little place down a side street, but my guess is that it’s probably one of the most photographed pubs in Edinburgh. The word is that the real publican hates the whole tourist fiasco that surrounds the popularity of the books – but I bet he still enjoys the income it brings in.
The next day (Wednesday) turned out to be one of the best weather days since I arrived, so we set off for Dean Village and the Water of Leith again. This time I wanted to explore a bit more upstream, and it proved quite easy to find the Dean Cemetery and the two Modern Art Museums nearby. (There’s a free bus that normally runs between the National Gallery in the city and the Modern Art galleries – but it’s not running just now). The Modern Art galleries are housed in magnificent old buildings set in landscaped parks, with sculptures by Henry Moore and others. I can’t say I was particularly inspired by much of the art work inside, but it was good to visit. And Rose and I later enjoyed a discussion of what we liked (or didn’t) over lunch in the bright, airy gallery café.
We then continued along the river to Stockbridge, explored all the more up-market charity shops in this part of the city, and eventually walked all the way back to Princes Street through the elegant Georgian streets and terraces of the New Town. St Johns Church was open for a change, so we popped in there to admire the very beautiful ornate ceiling and windows. Quite different from St Giles, which I think is rather more sombre.
Across the road from St Johns is the grand old Caledonian Hotel. Rose is even more assertive than I am when it comes to walking into places, so she just smiled at the top-hatted doorman and strolled through to the gracious central courtyard where High Tea was in progress. I followed ….and we learned that the hotel had actually been built over the old railway station where the Caledonian steam train used to come into Edinburgh. The architects somehow joined the three buildings around the station on this busy corner, and turned the original garden into a covered terrace for drinks and teas. Lovely! On the way back out, we chatted to the doorman who then escorted us halfway across Princes Street to show us the little steam engine which is incorporated into the great stone carving above the front door.
Food, wine, Scrabble, reading and lots of chat filled all the evenings. I still haven’t missed TV once.
Next day (Thursday 7th) also turned out sunny and (almost) warm – probably around 6 degrees. Exactly as it should have done for my birthday! It was another full day, beginning with a guided walk around the National Museum in the morning, then coffee and cake on the Museum balcony inside the Great Hall, followed by mahjong for me and Holyrood Palace and other sights for Rose. Rose is so capable I didn’t worry for a minute about her finding her way around. We met back at home, then walked out again in the evening to enjoy a birthday dinner at the Old Bell pub on Causewayside. Great food and atmosphere – an excellent start to my next year.
On Friday we managed to see the exhibition of stage design we’d heard about at the Hope Gallery at Summerhall. This proved to be well worth visiting, with sketchbooks, models, costumes and light and sound effects from many productions of plays, opera and ballets staged in various theatres in the UK. I don’t know much about stage design – or designers – but it was fascinating to see how they plan and build sets to create the effects for a particular production.
From there we walked on to Holyrood Park and the Salisbury Crags. Being quite a mild day, with no wind, it was relatively easy to walk and climb around these massive crags which overlook the whole city at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the Castle. We didn’t tackle Arthur’s Seat … I’m sure it will still be there whenever I get back to Edinburgh. We ended up walking all the way home, past the Palace and new parliament building, up the Royal Mile, Nicholson Street and into the Grange. I’m back to feeling as fit as I was on the Camino. Must try to keep it up.
I think I forgot to describe the National Portrait Gallery which I visited between Pauline’s and Rose’s visits. The Portrait Galleries in London and Canberra are among my favourite exhibitions, so I was pleased to discover that the Scottish gallery measures up equally well. It’s such a great way to see and read so much history and get a feel for the lives of the people who’ve shaped their country. Of course I don’t remember all of it, but impressions remain, and the people and events of history often turn up later in books and films.
For Rose’s last morning yesterday, we went for a shorter walk – up Blackford Hill not far from here. She left mid-afternoon to get the plane home. So I was back to solo status again. Hence my visit to the Castle. Only 10 more days for me in bonnie Scotland – and I plan to make the most of them.
EDINBURGH 11:: Trip to the Highlands February 11-16
It’s hard to know where to start. Wandering around the Scottish Highlands is a dream. During the past five days I found myself surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I could wish for anywhere – a mix of Switzerland, Canada and the South Island of NZ, though still totally and utterly Scottish. The beautiful soft light on the sunny days seemed to highlight the colours of the mountains and lochs, and the mist and clouds on the grey days simply added to the atmosphere. I was lucky and scored more sunshine than rain, so I think I saw the snow-capped mountains, rolling hills and glens, rushing waterfalls and stunning great lochs at their winter-time best. Icing on the cake would have been purple heather on the hills, but that will have to wait for another time, another season.
I took the train up to Inverness on Monday. Arrived at 2.30pm on a superb, sunny day so spent the afternoon just walking around soaking up the beauty of the River Ness, the Castle above the town, and the elegant houses and hotels all along the river front. I even struck it lucky on the train up … got chatting to a woman and her daughter who were visiting her sister who happens to own a B&B. Although she (the sister) wasn’t taking guests at this time of the year, she lives in the street where most of the B&B’s are clustered, so she drove me from the station and phoned the place across the road, and within 10 minutes of arriving, I was settled in with Margaret and Angus. Ended up staying 2 nights with them.
Had one slightly bizarre experience while strolling along the riverbank in Inverness…. my mobile rang, and it was the Australian Embassy in Hungary on the line! This was the result of a brief work email exchange late last week. The Embassy is supporting a school for disadvantaged children in Hungary, and they’re seeking support from an Australian organisation experienced in working with children with autism. I had a good chat to Gabor in Budapest, found out what I needed to know, then adjourned to an internet café to email NDS colleagues back in Melbourne and Canberra who would have found the information when they woke up next morning. What an amazing world.
However … back to Scotland. After a lovely day, and a gourmet dinner at a restaurant by the river in the evening, I was quite enamoured with Inverness and decided to stay another day. This gave me the chance to do a superb train trip across the mountains to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the coast, just over the sea from the Isle of Skye. The guide book I’d borrowed from the library describes this trip as one of the most scenic in Scotland – and I’m sure that must be right. It takes 4 hours each way but the time passes quickly as you dash from one side of the train to the other to try to take photos of the snow, the mountains, the lochs and the coastal inlets. Photos can’t possibly do justice to this landscape (particularly when taken from a moving train), but it was good to see it with my own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera anyway. It must be an artist’s paradise up in this part of the world. There were some very attractive paintings of the area in a little gallery in the village of Kyle of Lochalsh.
Skye is just across the water from Kyle. There’s now even a road-bridge just out of town that links the island to the mainland. But all these coastal towns and islands still rely heavily on the ferries and there were lots of boats bobbing on the water. Also some beached high and dry on the inlets where the tide-marks appear to be very high up on the rocks and shingly beaches. I didn’t have time to get over to Skye and back in time for the train, but it was good to see it up so close. The village of Kyle of Lochalsh is tiny and felt a bit like a film set – not surprising really, because I heard someone say that it was where the TV series “Hamish McBeth” was filmed. Lots of seagulls, boats and a sailors’ pub or two. (Found out later that it was actually the next village, Plockton, where it was filmed, but no doubt they look similar.)
Back in Inverness, I woke next morning to light snow flurries and misty rain. After two days of bright sunshine this wasn’t what I really wanted for the bus trip down to Fort William during the day. However, it’s Scotland in February, so anything can happen, and fortunately it didn’t rain all day.
The bus travelled down the length of Loch Ness with more beautiful mountain scenery most of the way. No sign of Nessie the Monster today – though she’s obviously good for business, with lots of hotels, shops and cafes along the way offering boat trips and souvenirs of this legendary beast. I don’t recall much of my last visit to these parts in 1966, but I’m sure tourism must have exploded since that time long ago. From the number of B&B’s and hotels, the place must be heaving with tourists in the summer time. But it was all very laid back and peaceful in the winter.
Fort William, on the banks of Loch Linnie, is at the base of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. Thousands of people apparently climb this peak every year, but it was shrouded in mist when I was there. The town clearly exists for walkers and mountain-climbers with every third shop selling boots, jackets and other outdoor gear. There were sales on everywhere and fantastic prices, but much to my regret I couldn’t carry any of these treasures home. I did buy a pair of walking sandals for half the price I’d pay in Adelaide. I’d love to get back to the Highlands in spring or autumn and do some walking in the lower hills and fells.
Another bus ride from Fort William down to Oban next day coasted along the lochs and inlets again. Coming from dry, old South Australia, it’s phenomenal to see so much water everywhere. You can’t tell what’s loch and what’s sea. It’s also hard to get your head around the fact that the people who live here wake up to these spectacular views of mountain and water every day of their lives.
The whole stretch of connecting waters from Inverness to Fort William makes up the Caledonian Canal which links the west and east coasts of Scotland. Much of the total distance comprises Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, though engineers did have to build lock-gates, aqueducts and bridges to open the waterway to boat transport. The Great Glen Way, one of the many long-distance walking trails in Scotland, apparently follows the line of the Canal.
Fitting my journey in with bus and train timetables gave me most of a whole afternoon and next morning in Oban. At this time of year, buses and trains are less frequent, but Oban proved to be a very pleasant place to hang out for a while. It’s built on hills overlooking a pretty harbour and the nearby islands of Mull, Kerrara and Lismore. Lots of other smaller islands are also visible, and Islay, Kintyre and Arran aren’t far away. I’m sure it would be possible to ferry-hop from one to the next if time and weather permitted.
After settling into a cheap room at the Hotel Royal in the middle of town, I spent the time walking, browsing in shops full of tartan and cashmere, and climbing the hundreds of steps up to McHaig’s Tower, a strange Victorian folly built in the 19th century to provide work for the unemployed. The views over the harbour and town made the climb worth the effort.
At mid-day, I caught the train from Oban back to Edinburgh, with a stop-off in Glasgow to catch up with Victoria for coffee. She laughed when she saw me … said I looked like a peregrino again….I probably did too- same backpack, same walking shoes, plus the same feeling of freedom and happiness.
Last leg of the journey was the regular train from Glasgow to Edinburgh – about a 1-hour trip. And now I really have to start accepting that this whole great Scottish experience is nearly all over….
PS… Forgot to write about Culloden …
On the snowy morning in Inverness, I took the local bus out to Culloden Battlefield, about 4 miles out of the city. This was the site of the famous battle where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated by the English Government troops in 1746. The battle lasted little more than an hour and resulted in nearly 2000 deaths, mostly on the Jacobite rebels side. Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart) had returned from exile in France, determined to defeat the English and reclaim the Scottish crown for his father, James (the something?). He’d gathered an army of wild and rugged highlanders and marched south with some success. But at Culloden he was soundly defeated. He fled to safety ‘over the sea to Skye’ and Scotland has been ruled by English Kings and Queens ever since.
It’s a great story, one of the most important landmarks in Scottish history. The Visitors’ Centre at Culloden displays it brilliantly, from both the Government and the Jacobite sides. It’s also possible to walk out onto the bleak and lonely field where the battle actually took place, though was too cold to venture far on the day I visited. But I did brave the snow and wind for a while to see some of the memorial stones and markers showing where the bodies fell and the blood ran free. Worth a visit.
A few letters seem to have been lost over the years …. I spent a couple of months at Chris and Hazel’s home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire during the UK summer of 2009 while they were sailing in Greece. (More about sailing in the Greek Islands later…… see next Post )
And so to continue from where the last entry finished….. (??? earlier letters missing)
HUNTINGDON – Thursday 18th July (Ely, Houghton Mill, Earith, Cambridge)
On Monday 13th, I spent the whole day in Ely, about 1 ½ hours drive north from Huntingdon, on the southern edge of the great Fens. I’d read that the Cathedral in Ely is a ‘must-see’ – and it is. It’s sometimes called the “Ship of the Fens” and it’s not hard to imagine it looking like a giant ship sailing across the marshes in centuries past. It’s an enormous building, quite awe-inspiring and a true wonder of engineering.
A little bit of history and geography first…. Ely actually means Isle of Eels, and the town is located on a raised area of ground in the fens, like an island. These days, with modern technology, most of the fens have been drained for agriculture, but for many centuries they were wet, boggy marshlands where people lived a fairly harsh life in houses made of reeds and willow – and ate eels and water birds. (They still fish for eels around here). The first Christian community was started in what must have seemed like a godforsaken place in 673 AD by St Ethelreda, and it’s been a pilgrimage site ever since. How they ever got there way back then defies imagination, let alone how they built a huge edifice of stone and glass in the middle of the marshes over subsequent centuries. The various monasteries and communities on the site have been pillaged and destroyed by Vikings, Henry VIII and great fires…. but the good Christians of Ely just kept on rebuilding and today it really is a magnificent building. The oldest original parts of the building date back about 1000 years, with the main Nave built in the 11th & 12th centuries.
There are two huge towers which can both be climbed. I did the West Tower, up what seemed like an endlessly-spiralling tiny stone staircase. But the view from the top was worth every huff ‘n puff. It‘s possible to see for miles across the flat lands of the fens, and the Great River Ouse winding its way across the countryside. The brochure says the West Tower is 215ft or 66m high. The other tower, the Octagon is a slightly smaller.
The Cathedral has lots of little side chapels and countless tombs of ancient bishops and noble men and women. I found it equally as beautiful as King College Chapel in Cambridge – and certainly more inspiring.
The town of Ely spreads out around the Cathedral. Our old Huntingdon friend Oliver Cromwell also lived here. His house is now the Tourist information office, and there are many other lovely little crooked houses in the narrow lanes. It rained gently in the afternoon, but that added to the atmosphere of the river and the fens – lots of boats and ducks everywhere. I wandered along the Quay and whiled away some time in an old warehouse packed to its ancient timber beams with antiques.
The next day (Tuesday 14th) was spent at home. Work and personal emails needed attention too (I’m still doing my p/t job over here and there’s been quite a bit of activity lately related to NDS, ILO, ABV and ADDC – have to love those acronyms in the disability & development world…)
But too many sunny English summer days can’t be wasted indoors, so on Wednesday (15th) I drove to Houghton, a nearby village with an old Mill that’s now a National Trust property. Another idyllic setting that seemed simply made for taking photos. The whole village is gorgeous. I walked around enjoying more thatched cottages with hollyhocks and roses, old Tudor-type houses and a pretty little market square. It’s no wonder so many English movies and TV series are made in these kinds of places.
Wednesday evening was another walk with the Ramblers – this time in Earith, a village beyond St Ives on the way to Ely. We walked across a lot of meadows and along a myriad of country footpaths and somehow wound our way back to the Village Hall where the cars were parked – then went to the pub, of course. It was 9pm by the time the walk finished, but it was like a mid-summer evening in Adelaide … warm and still … so we sat outside overlooking the river. Got home about 10.30pm.
Today (Thursday 16th) took me back to Cambridge again. There’s still so much to see there – especially with my new hero, Charles Darwin. Today I made my way to the Botanic Gardens, then to the Museum of Zoology. I was surprised to find you have to pay to go into the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, but since falling in love with England, I’ve also become much more interested in the English gardens. The Cambridge Gardens are part of the University so there’s a lot of botanical research going on. All very pleasant … but I wonder why gardens seem to attract people of a certain age (i.e. mine)? And particularly lots of women? Cambridge students must have much more interesting things to do than stroll around trees and flowers with a bunch of predominantly middle-aged garden enthusiasts, but I’m glad Darwin liked botany in his student days. Among his many other interests he studied carnivorous plants and wrote yet another book on them. There’s a great display of them in one of the glasshouses.
Another feature of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens is the Dawn Redwood tree. Thought to be extinct, this lone specimen was discovered in a remote Chinese village in the 1940s and brought to Cambridge as a scientific specimen. It’s now the only known one of its kind growing since dinosaurs ruled the world.
The Museum of Zoology contains Darwin’s Beetle box, complete with hundreds of beetles, pinned to boards and minutely labelled. It also has the famous Galapagos finches collected during the Beagle voyage, and a whole display of barnacles – yet another field of research for Darwin for 8 years, and the subject of another book. He believed he had to keep on contributing evidence to support his (then) controversial theory of evolution and continue to develop the science of geology, botany and zoology.
I walked miles again today … wandered back to where all the punting activity happens and enjoyed sitting for a while to watch people poling their way along the river. School holidays must have started because the city seemed to be full of kids today. Not a problem though; it’s a happy kind of place. I’d also wanted to visit Jim Ede’s house in Kettle Yard that my ‘white witch’ friend had told me about last week, but I got there too late, so that means another trip to Cambridge. Great! (Jim Ede was the curator of the Tate Gallery in London and his house is supposed to be like an art gallery – it looks fairly unprepossessing from the outside, but I’ll look forward to seeing it another time.)
On the way home to Huntingdon, the bus had to detour through a maze of little villages because there’d been a breakdown on the main road (A14) and cars were queued for miles. We wound along lots of little leafy lanes through quintessentially English countryside before we could finally get back onto the main road at St Ives. It didn’t seem to worry any of the passengers. For me it was a lovely bonus to see more of the area.
HUNTINGDON …. A trip toYork (written 22 July?)
Last Sunday (19th) I caught the train to York. This rail trip’s supposed to take about 2 hours, but there was a track problem at Doncaster, so everyone had to change trains and we all crammed into another one headed to Edinburgh. I ended up standing for the next hour to York. But apart from this glitch, I’m still mightily impressed with British trains and the whole rail system. It moves thousands of people around the country quickly and efficiently – and you get a great look at the countryside along the way.
Got to York late morning and found the bus easily to my pre-booked B&B. My room at Midway House turned out to be the cutest little attic under the eaves, only part of which I could actually stand up in. No matter … I didn’t spend much time inside over the next couple of days. There’s so much to see and enjoy in this beautiful, historic city and, as usual, I walked for miles during my days there.
Day 1: After checking in, made my way back to the centre of the city and wandered through its maze of lanes and courtyards before hooking up with a free volunteer-guided York Walk, which turned out to be a marathon history lesson. Like 2000 years in 2 hours. In Yorkshire, it seems there’s evidence of every age and every conquest from the dawn of civilization. Layers of stones and bricks in the city wall, ramparts, gatehouses, old churches and crumbling abbeys all combine to tell the story of who lived here, when – an absolute treasure trove for archaeologists. York has been a centre for pre-Christian tribes, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and every conqueror to the present day – but of course I can’t remember all the historic dates and details. (I decided years ago to simply live in the present, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the moment. Somehow you still get a good overview and ‘feel’ for what happened and there’s no stress if you can’t remember who begat, betrothed or beheaded whom)
We walked along part of the city wall (restored during Victorian times) and through the cobbled streets inside the wall – Coppergate, Petergate, Moorgate etc … they’re still called ‘Gates’ from the old Viking word for street or road. (I recall living in Noorgaade in Copenhagen many years ago). The Shambles is another famous little street – one of the quaintest anywhere – with ancient crooked houses at all angles leaning towards each other across a narrow lane. Today these quaint dolls-house type houses are all tempting little tourist shops and pubs, but you can’t help taking photos. And there are baskets of flowers everywhere.
York Minster, the cathedral, is visible from almost everywhere so it’s a good landmark. I made my way there to find it still open at 5pm, and surprisingly with no admission charge – possibly because it was Sunday? Of course I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the beautiful interior of this mediaeval gothic building, and with sunlight streaming through the western stained glass windows it was very beautiful and peaceful. The great East window is more famous but it’s being repaired … a painstaking labour taking several years apparently. There was also an interesting exhibition on the life of Henry VIII in the Cathedral, with copies of 500 year-old letters and documents from the British Library.
Not wanting to miss anything in York, I did another walking tour at 7.30pm – one of the many Ghost Walks on offer. Although it was still broad daylight, it turned out to be quite entertaining, if not very spooky. There must have been at least 100 people following the very funny and talented group leader/actor on this walk, but he did it brilliantly with plenty of ghostly tales and sightings of haunted houses and alleyways. But, sadly, I didn’t spot any actual ghouls or villains anywhere.
Day 2: My favourite TV mini-series of all time will always be “Brideshead Revisited” (I watched the whole 12 hours of it again recently on video and loved it just as much the second time) …. so, being in York and only 15 miles from Castle Howard, it wasn’t hard to decide where to go on Monday. This involved a double-decker bus ride to the village of Malton, then another old-fashioned country bus right to the front gate of the Castle. The countryside is very pretty in Yorkshire … rolling hills and dales in place of the flatlands of Cambridgeshire on the edge of the fens. (I’d loved to have gone out to the Yorkshire Moors but one can’t do everything.)
Walking up the long drive to the Castle, I imagined being with the gorgeous Jeremy Irons in the TV series, visiting Brideshead for the first time in 1944. It wasn’t hard to imagine Charles and Sebastian coming down from Oxford for their delicious summer holiday in this magnificent home. Of course in reality, Castle Howard has been the seat of power for the lords and counts of the family Howard for most of the past 300 years … but for me it remained the fictional Brideshead as I strolled through the gardens and the house. I’m obviously not alone in this fantasy because there was an exhibition in one part of the house about how and where the TV series (and the more recent film) were made.
The Castle, gardens, lake, fountains and statues all looked lovely in the sunshine. And the inside of the house is as magnificent as all the other English stately homes I’ve visited – hundreds of priceless paintings, tapestries and furnishings on display to the paying public in order to manage the huge maintenance costs. It’s an industry in itself, employing guides, gardeners, tradesmen, cleaners, shop assistants, restaurant staff etc. And to this day, most of the population of the nearby village work on the estate. The present day Howard family, headed by one of the many honourable sons of the long aristocratic line, lives in the east wing of the house while we, mere commoners, drift around the rest of their estate.
Other enchanting exhibitions included the ‘Maids and Mistresses of Castle Howard’ – the history of all the women who’ve lived there – and ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, a collection of children’s books from the 19th century owned by the family in the Castle Library. All first editions, of course, with stories about the authors and illustrators.
The Castle suffered a huge fire in 1940 which destroyed the magnificent dome, numerous interiors and many priceless works of art – but it was restored after the 2nd World War to its current splendour. And I, for one, am very glad.
I had to catch the 3pm bus back to Malton, in order to connect with another double-decker on to York. I’m amazed at how they drive these juggernauts down little country lanes – and even more so, how they navigate the narrow, winding streets in the middle of old cities that were built in the days of foot soldiers and horses.
Back in York, there were still several hours of daylight left, so I stayed in town for a while longer. Enjoyed a sit down in one of the squares to listen to some excellent buskers on guitar and violin, and then just strolled again through many of the streets and lanes that I’d discovered yesterday. This is one of the best parts of solo travel … just wandering anywhere and soaking up the atmosphere… but after a lovely day at Castle Howard it would have been nice to share a pint with Jeremy Irons in one of the charming little pubs.
Day 3: I do love English B&B’s! It’s fun checking out all the fellow-guests in the breakfast room and eaves-dropping on conversations while eating hearty eggs and bacon. Only problem is that the dialects are pretty thick in this part of the world… “Catch bus to station” and “Aye, take coat t’day” – You’d swear you’d dropped straight into “All Creatures Great and Small”.
There was still such a list of York attractions in the tourist literature, so it was a toss-up between the Viking Museum, York Castle, The Guildhalls, the Art Gallery or another York Walk,… but in the end I opted for The National Rail Museum in the morning and the Yorkshire Museum in the afternoon.
Why the Rail Museum?? Well I’d heard it was very good – and it was free. (Ever the cheapskate traveller … )Anyway, it turned out to be fantastic – and you don’t have to be a train buff to appreciate the huge collection of engines, right through from Stephenson’s Rocket to Eurostar and Japanese bullet trains. They’ve also got the Royal trains, fitted out for kings and queens, and millions of artefacts from the glory days of rail travel in Britain and the rest of the world. There’s something for everyone – whether you want to see how steam engines work, or you’d prefer to wallow nostalgically over old luggage, railway books, maps and photos. One of my favourite sections was the special show they had on rail travel in India. With movie scenes of Indian railway stations, backed by rollicking Indian music, it took me straight back to our holidays in India in the 1980s and the many miles we travelled on Indian trains. My family remember well the noise and bustle of Bombay – including the ‘Ladies Only’ carriages on the trains. This exhibition showed how millions of Indians make their living from the railways, whether they be drivers, guards, ticket-sellers, chai-wallahs or urchins who just live on the tracks.
But back to York… After 3 days of almost non-stop walking I was nearly ready to drop, but made myself hike back up to the Yorkshire Museum – and am so glad I did. With a superb collection of material dating back from Roman times, it told the story in pictures, display boards and archaeological finds of the everyday life of the Romans, Vikings, Normans, early monks etc. They really do museum displays well in England … you could spend days there. Everything from nearly 2000 year-old Roman leather sandals, helmets and jewellery to more ‘modern’ items from Norman and Saxon times. I enjoyed it more than all the museums I visited in Greece and Turkey where you get completely overdosed very quickly on pottery shards, ancient weapons, statues etc. In England, you feel as if you can get a handle on the history, relate to it somehow. Well, I do anyway.
By mid-afternoon I could hardly walk another step, but somehow made it to the station to catch the train back to Huntingdon. What bliss to settle into a clean, comfortable railway carriage and glide south through the countryside. Honestly, British trains are more like aeroplanes – only quieter – with refreshment bars, or a trolley that comes through, clean toilets, comfy seats with lots of leg room and a friendly attendant who even helps you with luggage.
Was good to get home to a gin and tonic, lots of emails and my ‘own’ bed.
HUNTINGDON: Monday 3 August (Lakes District and Penny’s visit)
This is going to be a monster effort. Not having had a minute during the past week to sit and write, I now have to try to recall all the highlights of a wonderful trip to the Lakes District with Penny.
Lakes District (Cumbria): I drove up here on Friday 24 July – a fairly easy drive up the M1, then a left turn across the Yorkshire Dales to Lake Windermere. About 8 hours in total. The road across the Dales was narrow and winding and the scenery would have been stunning if it hadn’t started to drizzle with rain. Old grey stone villages appeared at intervals and there were miles and miles and miles of little stone fences around the fields and high up in the fells. Despite (or maybe because of) the rain and puddles, it was very atmospheric … real Dick Turpin country with lonely farmhouses and little pubs.
Amazingly the sun appeared as I came down into Bowness on Lake Windermere. Found my pre-booked B&B – a big flower-decked Victorian house – more by luck than expert map-reading. Then with a few hours of daylight left, I strolled down to the lake and browsed all the very tempting touristy shops along the way. It was quite idyllic with dozens of white swans on the lake, and boats of all types drifting or moored down by the pier. Had dinner at a nice pub right on the water’s edge, at a table overlooking the whole lake, and just watched the sun set on this beautiful scene.
Saturday turned out to be a day straight out of heaven – glorious sunshine and blue sky – absolutely perfect for a boat trip on Lake Windermere. I chose the Walker’s Ticket which involved a boat ride to Ambleside at the other end of the lake, another boat across to Wray Castle, then a 2-hour walk back around the lake edge to another pier, and a third boat back to Bowness. It was perfection in every direction. Every man, woman child and dog in the district was out enjoying the water, hiking in the hills or having a lazy picnic by the edge of the lake I discovered during the day that there was also an Air Show that day in Windermere which accounted for the big crowds back in town in the afternoon I hiked up to Biskey Howe lookout and came out of the trees onto a scene of hundreds of people with binoculars and cameras. I joined the crowed and we all enjoyed a great view of the jets – including the famous Vulcan Jet – zooming over the lake, surrounded by some of the most magnificent natural scenery you could find anywhere.
I treated myself to a walking pole in Windermere – an appropriate souvenir of the Lakes District, I feel. They’re quite the thing in this part of the world where every second shop is an outdoor hiking specialty store. Many of the Ramblers use these poles, and they do actually make a difference for old knees.
English weather being what iti is, Sunday turned out to be the complete opposite of Saturday. Grey, wet and cold. But I spent the day as a literary tourist getting to know a couple of writers – Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth. The Lakes District has long been home to writers, poets and artists, and the shops and the National Trust are cashing in on this today. There are Peter Rabbits, Jemima Puddleducks and Benjamin Bunnies everywhere in the shops and you can almost imagine Mrs Tiggywinkle bustling out of doorway of one of the little flower-decked cottages. It’s definitely the place to buy gifts for grandchildren – if you have them.
Beatrix’s house is Hilltop Farm in Near Sawrey Village, not far from Bowness. It’s been kept exactly as it was when she lived there – as she specified in her will. It’s small and rather dark. There’s still no electricity connected. She wrote and painted by lamplight while living there. Many of the scenes in the books were drawn exactly fro her surroundings so you can see the staircase, gate, doorways and other details that appear in Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers etc. The farm and garden are also kept as they were and would have looked lovely in sunlight, but they were still very pretty in the gentle rain.
So, from Victorian children’s stories to 18th Century poetry, it was on to Rydal the home of William Wordsworth. William’s early life was hard. He was orphaned a s a young boy and separated from his brothers and sister. But his abilities were recognised by his school teacher and he was supported in getting his first works published. Rydal Mount was the beautiful home where he lived in the later part of his life, by which time he’d become a much-loved and respected poet and friend of all the other writers, artists and gentry of his time. Everyone who was anyone seemed to have stayed at Rydal at some time, and the house still belongs to his descendants. The house is quite lovely – and the garden even better. It overlooks one of the lakes and was the inspiration of much of his writing. Fortunately for history, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, was reunited with him in their late teens, and lived with him and his family for their rest of her life, keeping detailed journals of family travels, visitors and day-to-day activities.
Not far from Rydal is the village of Grassmere where William and Dorothy lived at Dove Cottage for a few years before he became rich and famous … though even during this time people like Coleridge, Walter Scott and others came to stay. The Wordsworth museum at Dove Cottage has many original manuscripts, letters, paintings and family items. I happily whiled away a few hours exploring both houses and the little village.
I’d travelled up through Ambleside and Grassmere during the day, and after Dove Cottage meandered on the Kings Head Hotel where I stayed overnight, just outside Keswick. Despite the weather remaining fairly overcast all day, the mou9ntains, lakes, stone walls and villages continued to show their magic…. It was just one beautiful scene after another at ever bend in the road. It all reminded me of the Lakeland coloured pencils that I had when I was at school. Even way back then I knew that they were made in Cumbria … there’s actually a pencil museum in Keswick today!
In Keswick next day (Monday 27th) I didn’t go to the Pencil Museum, but did meet up with Penny as planned. She’d caught the train from Edinburgh to Penrith, then come on down by local bus. We’ve lost count of the places we’re travelled together or met up in since the 60’s, but over the next couple of days we added to our joint photo collections of posing together in far-flung places. We caught up on latest news over coffee back at Dove Cottage and then drove back through Lakeland in sunshine, across the lower Yorkshire Dales, home to Huntingdon.
Penny’s visit: Cambridge was top of the agenda, so we caught the bus on Tuesday 28th and spent all day exploring this old city again. Stopped off first at Kettle Yard, the home and art gallery of the late Jim Ede, which I’d missed on a previous visit. The home actually started out as four old cottages which he converted into a home on several levels, with interesting spaces light and windows He filled it with paintings, sculptures, rugs and other art pieces and kept it a living art gallery where artist friends and visitors could come and stay and be inspired. It’s still a place where anyone can visit freely and enjoy the peace. It’s worth a visit even if you don’t like the whole collection. There’s also a more formal art gallery with an exhibition of many of his friends’ and acquaintances’ art works.
Following this, we joined one of the guided group walks around Cambridge. These guides are fantastic … they know so much about the buildings and bring everything to life. The walk took us into Kings College and the chapel – and I have to say I enjoyed hearing the stories of its history more the sound of its choir that I heard a week or so ago. We also saw Trintiy College, St Johns College and lots of little nooks and crannies in between and behind these magnificent old buildings. There were many tales of student traditions and exploits – more than I can remember now.
After a long walk and the heat of the day, we felt like a leisurely drift down the Can in a punt, so joined the many tourists who were enjoying this very traditional activity. We had a skilled young boatman (actually an Oxford student) who poled along under the bridges and told more stories about the life and times of Cambridge. Extremely pleasant! All we needed was a glass a wine and a parasol ….
Next day I showed Penny more of ‘my’ local areas … St Ives, Houghton Mill, Cromwell Museum etc. I now feel so at home, it was great to share some of the sights with someone. I had another guitar lesson in the afternoon so Penny explored the river walk while I strummed and plucked. We finished the day with dinner at the Kind of the Belgians, the oldest pub in town. (Haven’t found out the history of this place yet, but they served a good meal…)
Thursday 30th – and Penny’s last day. Left home around 11am to catch a bus into Huntingdon the caught the train to Kings Cross and the tube to Heathrow. This was the parting of the ways — Penny flew back to NZ, and I caught the bus to Maidenhead.
(This was followed by a couple of days back in Maidenhead, and another day-trip to London. Where did these letters get to?
LATER: Another lovely visit during my time in Huntingdon was to stay with Hazel’s sister, Isobel in a village near Norwich. I hadn’t even met Hazel and Chris (whose home I was in), but Isobel kindly invited me up to Norfolk anyway. Thoroughly enjoyed my time with her in Lyng, and also having the chance to see Norwich and the Norfolk Broads.
The Broads are actually man-made. Incredible! Now a National Park with over 125 miles of lock-free waterways, set in beautiful countryside and studded with picturesque town, villages and lakeside homes. Apparently in days long ago, people dug for peat as fuel …. the peat pits eventually became filled with water – and now they are the wonderful Norfolk Broads.
I enjoyed exploring Norwich too with its big Norman Castle dominating the town, overlooking the very colourful markets.