Landscape and the seasons

A-less-than-favourite favourite rail journey…

Cross Country train approaching Wakefield Westgate

Cross Country train approaching Wakefield Westgate

I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.

The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.

If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)

However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!

And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).

So what’s not to like?   Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…
Cross Country trains 2

Up t’ pub… with spring in the step…

Up t' pub

I’d like to celebrate this, the first weekend of spring, by offering homage to my local pub. It’s been there all winter (and, I guess, for several centuries of winters, as it’s a former inn on an old drovers’ road), a perennial stalwart, dispensing warmth, hospitality and good cheer on the coldest and most miserable of evenings. It boasts an open fire and its own generator, which means that when there’s a power cut or the water supply fizzles out (not infrequent events in this village) we and all our neighbours can rely on the pub to produce heart-warming soup and sustenance  in our hour of need. There are no other buildings in the village except houses and a deconsecrated church – we don’t even have a shop – so the pub also does sterling service as a polling station for both local and general elections. Not surprisingly, this village always achieves a high turn-out. Most of us vote in the evening, which gives us a chance to catch up with each other and sample the beverages on offer at the same time.

Yesterday evening was light and clear. The trees across the valley had just begun to bud and were glowing with promise in the hazy sunshine of the early evening. The local sheep have now had their lambs, which were bleating softly. The towns across the valley were also tinged with the glow of the setting sun. As on many first days of spring, however, there was a fierce wind and some of winter’s chills still lingered in the air. My husband and I, out with the dog on his evening perambulation, decided to call in at the pub.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that all human life was there. A group of four beer-bellied blokes occupying a corner table hilariously trooped out together every half hour  or so for a cigarette break, and then trooped back in. A large family, complete with granddad (who seemed to be footing the bill) had just finished an early supper. Also eating supper was a morose middle-aged couple who appeared not to be speaking to each other. A largish hen party came in, evidently consisting of the bride and her mates plus her mother and several of hers. She was wearing a sash proclaiming her a bride to be, a crown of tinsel and, somewhat incongruously, some red ‘Rudolph’ felt antlers left over from Christmas. A little later, an extremely thin, elderly woman arrived, the advance reconnoitring party for another group of ladies, these somewhat older. She left the pub briefly before returning to usher them all in, so it must have passed her selection criteria for acceptable hostelries. The usual old cronies were seated on high stools at the end of the bar, putting the world to rights. More young men braved the trestle tables outside, clearly finding the cold preferable to the prospect of losing seats inside whilst out for fag breaks. And there were several ‘casuals’ in for a swift pint before departing, all of whom stooped to stroke the dog. The landlord, a dog-lover, brought him a handful of chews.

And, of course, included in the number, a pair of wellie-wearing eccentrics with an amiable hound, all three a little miry around the edges.

City pubs have an aura of their own, a suave immaculateness inspired by fierce competition and, for the most part, a shifting clientele that harbours no sentiments of loyalty. There is something quite different, timeless as well as uplifting, about a country pub and its dynamic. Dressed in mediaeval clothes, the patrons of my local yesterday evening might have been encountered by Chaucer and his pilgrims, in an inn en route to Canterbury. And I’m sure they’d all have had a tale to tell…

The turn of the season…

The last of the Brussels sprouts

The last of the Brussels sprouts

Last Saturday, I helped my husband to prepare his allotment, for sowing with a new cycle of plants and seeds. He needed some assistance, because during the long winter months the shelter that he and his partner-in-grime had built over it last year to foil the pigeons (it succeeded) had collapsed under the weight of an unexpectedly heavy fall of snow. Carefully, we untied some dozens of pieces of binder twine and rolled up long lengths of chicken wire to ready them for the grand rebuilding. Improved design, he says, will help to prevent the same happening again; we shall see!
Red cabbage in a winter shroud

Red cabbage in a winter shroud

Partly because they were pretty difficult to reach amongst the debris of broken timbers and chicken wire, and partly because we’d had some over-supply, leftovers of last year’s crop remained, a brassica graveyard. Eight or so stalks of blackening Brussels sprouts tilted in a broken rank towards the boundary fence, a row of wounded soldiers at their last gasp. Several misshapen kohl rabi poked from the earth like a giantess’s bunions.

Kohl rabi bunion

Kohl rabi bunion

Some heads of red cabbage, severed from their stalks, lay on the ground, broken and rotting, their outer layers turned into slimy winding sheets. Their lone companion, still growing, had grown a new rosette of small heads after the original cabbage had been cut, twisting itself into three dark petalled shapes, a macabre bouquet paying last respects at the funeral. Dried sticks of weed poked through the soil, which glistened unhealthily with a scattering of glossy green clumps of over-wintered willowherb and expanding whorls of nipplewort.
Savoy cabbage in terminal decline

Savoy cabbage in terminal decline

Overhead, the sun shone with real warmth. New purple buds were swelling on the tangle of hawthorn twigs in the gateway. The bees in the adjoining apiary were flying, great tits were two-toning in the hedge and a lone hare loped away over the meadow. Spring was on its way, but I don’t recollect having ever been so vividly aware of the round of decay that must precede renewal.

Oddly, I found it comforting: it was as it should be. And somehow it made me feel more philosophical about death. Each plant and creature has its time. Then comes the Grim Reaper. It is only seemly. And there is something wonderful about the soil which is both grave and nursery; now it is manured and turned, I am reminded of the beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘shining-shot furls’ of ploughed land, from which will spring new life.

Do buy…

Camels in Dubai
January and February have been almost wall-to-wall work, with a great deal of travel to boot. I have already written here about my trip to Malaysia. The following week I was in Dubai (or ‘Do buy’, as the locals call it, with a fine mixture of wit and cynicism). As I returned to the UK two weeks ago, I realise that it’s a little late to write something newsworthy about my visit, but, since it was a fascinating experience – and Dubai is quite different from anywhere else I have been – perhaps you will indulge me by allowing this very belated post.
Dubai is about bling. Not out-for-the-day, cheap-and-cheerful Blackpool and Skegness bling, but the real thing – although I realise that I may be drumming an oxymoron into service by saying so, much as if I’d asserted that Tinseltown was genuine. I’ll revise that a little, therefore. Dubai is expensive. It’s not a place to visit unless a) you have plenty of money (or someone else is footing the bill) and b) you don’t mind paying through the nose for everything, including items that come either cheap or free in other places. The £20 charge for twenty-four hours of Internet access is but a minor example. Most things, from bottled water to chocolates to dinner, cost roughly one and a half times as much as in the UK; and you don’t even think about buying alcohol! A tiny bottle of brandy from the mini-bar will set you back 120 dirhans (that’s about £25); the cheapest bottle of wine in the restaurant that I visited was 270 dirhans, or more than £50. Sure, certain pleasures, some not even legal in the West, are openly available. For example, the second hotel in which I stayed had a private beach, at the top of which were, sitting in a circle, several gentlemen resplendent in djellabas and smoking hookahs. I can’t be entirely certain, but the substance they were exhaling smelled suspiciously like skunk.
Despite the cost and the noise – the place is like a giant building site and, indeed, is said to house one third of the world’s cranes at any one time – Dubai is immensely popular. The serried ranks of hotels stretch for mile upon mile – all the major international chains are represented – so that you’d think there would certainly be over-capacity. However, when by mistake I was booked into my business hotel for two nights instead of three and had to find another, it took several attempts to discover one that wasn’t fully-booked. This second hotel was an eye-opener. It was aimed at holidaymakers rather than business people, so my room, of very modest size, contained two double beds, a balcony overlooking a giant red crane that presided over yet another building site, a well-stocked and exorbitantly expensive mini-bar (with a ‘free’ plastic bag in which to collect ice from the machine in the corridor) and the most magnificent range of ‘free’ toiletries I have ever encountered in a hotel. These included a ‘bath massaging bar’ and ‘moisture infusion facial bar’ (soap to you and me), some mega-rich body cleaner (alias shower gel) and an after-sun cool-and-calm gel (this item accurately described). I must admit that I’m a sucker for toiletries, and these went some small way towards selling me the Dubai dream – or should I say, mirage?
So what is the attraction of this place, which one hundred years ago was just a little village in a rather uninteresting, out-of-the way bit of desert? Put succinctly, what Dubai has to offer, especially to those from more northern climes when the end of January has yet to arrive, is sun, sea, sand and shopping. Oh, and ‘sophistication’. However sceptical I may be – and I tend to choose holiday destinations for their potential for providing either exercise or some insight into culture and history, so Dubai would never have been a natural choice for me – the entrepreneurs who have brought and are still bringing their many cranes and pile-drivers to Dubai have achieved a spectacular success. They’ve created the illusion that a sun-kissed paradise and moneyed leisure are temporarily within the reach of those who aren’t mega-rich, but merely a little better off, or rather a lot better at saving up for holidays, than the average.
What to do in Dubai becomes a challenge if you don’t go with the flow. This consists of lying on the beach (the second hotel had a tennis-court-sized patch of ‘private’ beach, which it thought entitled it to a certain cachet), paddling in the sea and swimming in the pool, in between ordering drinks and burgers from the liveried black stewards who hover solicitously. Oh, and if you fancy something a little more exotic, a man swathed from head to foot in white, like an extra from The English Patient, passes by on his camel every ten minutes or so. He is leading another camel, on which you can buy a ride. I watched several portly, middle-aged English and American men engaged in this activity, and concluded that they must have been deprived of donkey rides as children.
What did I do? I arrived at the second hotel mid-afternoon, having spent more than a day and a half working quite intensely. Venturing out to explore the private beach, where I was able to exchange the token given to me by the hotel receptionist for a bath sheet, I was escorted by one of the liveried stewards to a sun-lounger, across which he carefully angled an umbrella so that I wouldn’t burn. I then stretched out and fell asleep, waking only an hour and a half later. It was the first time I’d sun-bathed on a beach since I took a summer 1977 holiday in Brittany (where the weather was a good deal more chancy) with some beach-loving friends. When I woke up, I enjoyed myself watching people passing (including those on the camel) for half an hour or so. When two hours were up, I was bored and returned to my hotel room to use my absurdly-expensive Internet connection to send some e-mails.
It was an experience, certainly, and one enhanced by a star-lit al fresco dinner (They weren’t really stars, but the lights on the ceaselessly toiling cranes; however, by removing my spectacles and exercising my imagination a little, I could convince myself that the Milky Way was smiling down on me.) in a roof-top restaurant where the food was delicious and the company (I was with two very congenial colleagues) even better. So, if you were to ask me whether I enjoyed my free half-day in Dubai, the answer would be, unequivocally, yes. But if you’d told me that I’d hit the jackpot and earned another six days of leisure there before I could go home, I’m not sure my sanity would have been equal to the privilege.
Dubai 14

Assalamu alaikum, people of Kuala Lumpur

Composing oneself at the top of Petronas Towers

Composing oneself at the top of Petronas Towers

"It's only a model!"

“It’s only a model!”

Last week, the day job took me to Kuala Lumpur. I was away for five days, two of which were spent travelling almost around the clock (mad, I know, but I assure you it was worth it!). Once I had arrived, I was privileged to be the honoured and somewhat overwhelmed guest of two universities in the city. My impressions of the country and its people during so short a stay, although vivid, are therefore inevitably sketchy, so I apologise in advance for any observations that may strike those who know Malaysia better than I do as either incomplete or simply wrong.
Malaysia is a young (just over half a century since independence), very proud country, and also a thrustingly ambitious one. All of these qualities are epitomised by the twin towers – the Petronas Towers – that were built in the KLC district of the city in 1998 and are now the tallest twin towers in the world. Following many recommendations from my Asian colleagues, I chose to spend most of my single free half-day travelling to them and taking the tourists’ trip to the top. As the Towers are eighty-eight storeys high, this provides a panoramic view of Kuala Lumpur and delivers a 360-degree demonstration of just how much development work is taking place there. High-rise buildings are everywhere and many, although dwarfed by the Petronas Towers themselves, are giants by UK standards. Nor is it all about size: most of the buildings are beautifully designed and Malaysians are increasingly strict about the standards of architecture they consider acceptable for their capital city. Whilst at the top of one of the Petronas Towers, I was lucky enough to see an inferior skyscraper being demolished: it collapsed in clouds of black dust.

In the race to the top, one down... and more, I think, to go.

In the race to the top, one down… and more, I think, to go.

A view from the bridge... between the towers

A view from the bridge… between the towers

Another view from the bridge

Another view from the bridge

As I’ve said, my impressions are based on only a little information, but it did strike me that Kuala Lumpans are in such a hurry to become world leaders that they are in danger of destroying not just their immediate past, but also their much older heritage; and this notion resonated with some of my colleagues when I voiced it. I saw little architecture in the city that was more than thirty years old and nothing at all that was likely to have pre-dated my own birth.
Yet, paradoxically, despite their keenness to ‘get on’, the overwhelming majority of Malaysians whom I met, almost all of whom were extremely well-educated, were gentle, polite, courteous, humorous and modest. They were not ‘go-getters’ in the sharp-elbowed sense. They have their own, highly honourable, way of making progress in today’s world. Much of this stems from the fact that they are also very devout. At both of the universities that I visited, the call to prayers sounded five times each day. The prayer rooms hold only twenty to thirty people and those not able to take part exactly on the hour await their turn patiently, but they make it quite clear, whatever the task in which they are engaged or the conference or focus group to which they are contributing, that prayer comes first.
Despite this apparent unanimity about how things should be done, I did observe some collisions as Eastern values met Western ones; not, however, at the universities, where highly-qualified librarians and academics have no problem with reconciling traditional dress and customs with exacting, high-profile jobs. The suite of rooms in which our meetings took place are normally occupied by eminent doctors and surgeons and are designed to help them relax from cutting-edge medical research and surgical operations. That we were very privileged to have had them generously give up these quarters to us for a whole day was not lost upon us.
Most of the men and women employed by the university wear traditional dress. This is at once exuberant and dignified. The men’s tunics and the women’s shalwar kameezes (they call them this, even though mostly the garments consist of three-quarter-length tunics and long skirts, rather than trousers) are beautifully made, often embroidered or sequined, and frequently in very bright colours. Sometimes the women wear tailored versions in heavy silk. The more austere outfits are a little more nun-like, and stick to plainer cloth – usually cotton – in light blues, greys and navy. But all these advocates of traditional dress wear their clothes with pride and often the women fasten their hijabs with many-jewelled brooches or enhance them with a framework of pearls. I saw no black burqas or niqabs at the universities.
Where I did see one such outfit was at the Petronas Towers. Since these are frequented by tourists, its owner may not have been Malaysian. I could see from her eyes and deduce from the age of her husband that she was very young – probably a girl still in her teens. And she didn’t look unhappy: he was holding her hand and they were walking along together, laughing. What was striking was the difference between this couple and another Asian couple (again, of course, I cannot make an accurate guess at their nationality), also taking the Twin Towers tour and also holding hands. The girl, also probably in her late teens, was wearing a short-sleeved black T-shirt and immaculate, but very short, white shorts.
How will Malaysia’s future unfold? From now on, I shall be fascinated to observe and find out. I hope that it will prosper as it wishes, and I also hope that it will at the same time manage to preserve its heritage and its traditions. I think that its most prominent religion may be the key: this week I was extremely honoured to have been able to immerse myself in how true Islam – tolerant, humorous, friendly, hospitable and forgiving – makes a huge contribution to the world in which we live.

A sense of proportion?

A sense of proportion?

And a sense of scale

And a sense of scale

And so high above all those!

And so high above all those!

A few degrees of the 360

A few degrees of the 360

Hallowe’en? Not in my memory of the Spalding of the 1950s…

Fireworks 1

The prospect of tonight’s steady stream of youthful ‘trick or treaters’ (for readers around the globe, children in the UK visit houses at Hallowe’en to offer a choice: a trick played upon the household or a treat given by the household to the visitors to ward off any tricks) has stirred in me memories of the Bonfire Nights (or Guy Fawkes Nights) of my childhood.

I’m talking about a time when we didn’t ‘do’ Hallowe’en – at least, not in South Lincolnshire. Although I think it’s mainly an import from the USA (I anticipate contradiction!) , some parts of the UK did celebrate Hallowe’en, even then: when I went to university, my flat-mate, who came from Lancashire, told me how her two brothers at Hallowe’en, which they called ‘Mischief Night’, had removed the gates from their school and put them on the roof.  But in Spalding, where I grew up, there was only Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th, the anniversary of the date on which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  In retrospect, I realise that our Bonfire Nights incorporated some elements of Hallowe’en as well.

Bonfire Night was among my favourite events on the calendar. My brother and I started preparations weeks in advance, at first by collecting materials for as big a bonfire as our father would let us build at the bottom of our (quite large) garden. Then we’d beg old clothes from relatives to make a guy.  He was constructed out of a shirt or jacket tacked on to a pair of trousers and stuffed with newspaper.  The sleeves and legs of the trousers were fastened with string. His face would be made from a carved and hollowed-out mangold wurzel (field beet) containing a candle, if we were ambitious, or, more often than not, just covered with a cardboard mask bought from Woolworths.  Each year there was a Woolworths counter overflowing with these masks, which featured the faces of ghosts, witches, pirates and skeletons; I think this was where the Hallowe’en element came in.  The guy also wore a hat, if we could get one: good hats were in short supply.  Guys were usually completed at least a week before Bonfire Night, so they could be showed off.  We were allowed to sit ours outside the gate of our house with a tin bearing a ‘Penny for the Guy’ sign, but my mother wouldn’t let us push him around the streets begging for pennies, as some children did. She thought it was ‘common’!

The suspense leading up to Bonfire Night was huge. Teachers joined in the fun: I vividly remember making bonfires, guys and fireworks out of plasticine in a primary school art class.  And we must have heard the story of the original Guy Fawkes – some of whose accomplices had had strong links with East Anglia – every single year.  Along with 1066, it was certainly the episode in British history with which I was best acquainted.

Fireworks 3

At the end of school, we rushed home to dress up. Girls wore garish make-up and boys’ fathers often blacked their sons’ faces with pieces of cork held in the ashes of the fire or drew moustaches on them (some pictures of Guy Fawkes showed him with a twirling, Salvador Dali-type moustache).  We wore whatever we could get together as fancy dress: it was before the era of the purpose-made (money-spinning) clothes that children’s parents buy for Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night now.  Parents sometimes helped, and the outfits could be ingenious: I remember one child dressed as a skeleton – his mother had made an outfit out of black cartridge paper with the bones drawn on in white chalk.  Girls often became witches for the night – we were taught at school how to make black pointed hats, also from cartridge paper.  Whatever the outfit, we all had one of the cardboard masks from Woolworths (which were made out of the type of card now used for egg-boxes).  We’d turn up at neighbours’ houses heavily disguised with our masks pulled down, then whip them up to reveal the made-up face beneath.  The idea was that no-one could recognise us, with or without the mask.

We were permitted to take the guy with us on Bonfire Night itself. Ours was transported in the old family push-chair, an ancient conveyance made from khaki canvas and which had solid wheels.  Although I suppose it’s unlikely that there were services-issue push-chairs, it looked as if it might have been army surplus, sold by the Army and Navy stores.  I don’t think anyone in the family could remember where it originally came from.  It was wide and cumbersome and difficult to take up and down the houses in the street without running off the paths and into people’s flower borders.  Some children carried mangold wurzels or hollowed-out sugar beets with candles in them.

It was dark when we went Guy Fawkesing, but we were allowed to go round the houses on our own, though always in groups of at least three (my brother and I joined the two girls who lived next door). The boundaries were our street and the next one.  The streets were thronged with children:  it was the height of the baby boom and two or three children lived at almost every house.  I’m sure we were all quite safe out on the streets that night.

There were just two rhymes that we chanted to the householders:

Please to remember

The fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.


Please spare a penny for the poor old guy!

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;

If you haven’t got a ha’penny

Then God bless you!

The householder would then give us each a penny – sometimes twopence, if we were lucky – and usually some sweets as well. Sherbet dabs (boiled-sweet lollies in a bag of sherbet) and sherbet fountains (a tube of sherbet with a hollow ‘straw’ of liquorice to suck it up with) were my favourites.  We carried old Ovaltine tins with string handles for the loot.

The trick was to get round as soon after dark as possible, before people ran out of treats, and then go home in time to see some of the children who came knocking at our own door and inspect their outfits. Sometimes when we went the rounds, early fireworks were already being let off and the air smelt excitingly of gunpowder.

After the last Guy Fawkesing stragglers had gone home, it was time to light the bonfire. First of all, the guy was seated on the top of it.  Then my father would light the fire and we were instructed to stand back.  I always felt a bit sad when the guy succumbed to the flames: he’d been a friend for the whole of the previous week… but there would be another one the next year.  When he was well alight, my father began to light the fireworks.  We always had a mixed box of Standard fireworks – I think they cost ten shillings (I’ve been amazed to read that a similar box now costs £45!) –  a few ‘special’ fireworks, usually large golden rain or firework fountains (as we weren’t keen on loud bangs) or rockets, and some sparklers and hand-held fireworks.  Each family had its own bonfire and fireworks:  large firework parties for the whole neighbourhood had yet to be thought of. We baked potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and ate toffee apples if the toffee apple man had been round that day (which he was usually enterprising enough to have managed).  When we went into the house at the end of the evening, we were given vegetable soup with big hunks of bread to warm us up.

Miraculously, most of the Bonfire Nights of my childhood were bright and clear: I remember seeing rockets sailing into the stars. On the couple of times that it rained, we still went on the Guy Fawkesing rounds, but the bonfire had to be postponed until the next day.  Then we were bitterly disappointed.

Fireworks 2

Hello, I’m A’dam…


I was in Amsterdam for the day job earlier this week and, because I had very little time to myself, I challenged my husband (who was along for the ride!) to capture the spirit of Amsterdam in fifty photographs, so that I might be able to feel as if I’d been sightseeing.  I so enjoyed what he produced that I’ve decided to have a picture post with all fifty, so that you also may visit A’dam. As a beekeeper, he was delighted to find an apiary in a most original location; perhaps you can spot the hives, too.

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

Table sculpture with apiary

A fortnight in Provence…

The ochre-coloured village of Roussillon

The ochre-coloured village of Roussillon

I think it was Barbara Pym who said that the trouble with keeping a diary is that half the time you have nothing to say and the other half you are so busy doing something demanding that there’s no time to write. The same goes for blog posts.  There are several things that I’ve been meaning to write about for weeks and still not got round to. However, today I’ve (almost) caught up with the day job and it’s raining outside.  Winter’s coming and the engineer has just been to service the boiler, which means the house is feeling cosy.  A perfect blog-post-writing situation!

My husband and I are Francophiles and veterans of many holidays in France (our favourite remains the two weeks we spent at a camp-site at Argentière while we explored the French Alps on foot.  We were young  and very poor and the camp-site was accommodatingly cheap; it had two shaft toilets, two showers and no hot water.  We lived on Vesta curries and tinned beans.  But the walks – and the views – were amazing!).  We’ve been to most of the départements in France, but until this year we’d never visited Provence – partly, I must admit, because after the publication of A Year in Provence and its sequels we had assumed it would be a tourist trap.  This year, we took our holiday later and, knowing that it would coincide with la rentrée, we made the plunge and booked a gîte at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a pretty town that lies just outside the area made famous by the Peter Mayle books.



It’s known for the huge market that takes it over on Sundays and its elaborate Sorgue waterway system, operated by a series of waterwheels and sluices, that irrigates the surrounding countryside.  The tourist season was not completely finished, but we saw only a few Belgians, Dutch and Germans taking late holidays and almost no Britons.  The town itself remains unspoilt by outlandish tourist attractions.

The same could be said for the region beyond it. There are some interesting places to visit, including: La Fontaine de Vaucluse, the source of the beautiful Sorgue (its depth remains uncertain, though numerous attempts, including one by Jacques Cousteau, have tried to plumb it) – Petrarch rather liked it here;

La Fontaine de Vaucluse

La Fontaine de Vaucluse

the ochre rocks of Roussillon, in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, that (allegedly) supplied the pigment for Van Gogh’s sunflowers;

Ochre cliffs of Roussillon

Ochre cliffs of Roussillon

a working lavender factory.  Yet none of these sets out to exploit tourists in a hard-nosed kind of way.  Of them all, I liked the lavender factory the best.  It has a small shop attached, set in hectares of its own rolling lavender fields.  The first thing that struck me about the lavender was how tall it grows there, accustomed as I am to the more compact, domesticated-looking variety found in Norfolk.

A load of lavender

A load of lavender

The people who own the Provenςal factory also manage the shop and arrange short tours of the essential oil distillation process.  They have constructed working models that demonstrate how the lavender essence is extracted from the flowers and they’re able to show some compelling footage of people in peasant dress working in the lavender fields before the Second World War, cutting rapidly with lethal-looking scythes and machetes.  Apparently accidents were frequent – they worked so fast that they often injured themselves – but their mantra was ‘that which has caused the pain provides the cure’ – or so the commentator maintained.  My guess is that they whipped something a little more colourful from their vocabulary when arms or legs were spurting blood, but the point being made was that lavender is a powerful antiseptic.

Lavender also has many other medicinal properties. I was fascinated to learn that it comes in three grades: lavender officinalis, the top grade, which is the one used for medicinal purposes; lavende aspic, a kind of middle grade which is mainly used as an essential oil in perfumes and amphorae;

Essential oils

Essential oils

and lavendin, made from a hybrid of two varieties of lavender with the consequence that it is actually sterile (so of no use to bees!).  Lavendin is used as a herb and dried to fill scented sachets and such things as padded coat-hangers.  Apparently, it has some medicinal uses, but you have to know what they are: it can aggravate burns, for example.

We’d taken the tour (and been distracted from the guide’s words by seeing a praying mantis clinging to a water bottle in the workshop), made a few purchases and returned to our car when I realised that I’d bought only lavende aspic. I returned to the shop to purchase some lavende officinalis, and found it was deserted.  I conducted a small reconnoitre and discovered the two assistants outside in the yard, both gasping away on their fags.  Very French!  And even more Peter Mayle!!

A brief visit to Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor 3
As readers of this blog may know from Twitter, two weeks ago I made a brief (day job) visit to Ann Arbor. It is a university town, home of the University of Michigan and adjacent to, but by no means overshadowed by, the great industrial city of Detroit. Aside from passing twice through the airport (seventies in style; seen better days), I saw nothing of Detroit itself.
I spent only a few leisure hours in downtown Ann Arbor, as I was working for the rest of my very short stay. However, I was fortunate enough to visit its compact and pretty centre on an unseasonably warm, summery day. Brilliant sunshine bathed Main Street in heat and light; the pavement cafes were doing a brisk trade; the local populace sauntered up and down the sidewalks, bare-legged and dressed in T-shirts, most of them in happy and expansive mood.
Ann Arbor 2
Ann Arbor 1
Talking to a few locals (a taxi-driver, the concierge at my hotel), I discovered that the people of Ann Arbor are particularly proud of its trees, which are at their most glorious in early autumn. By the standards of distance that pertain in the USA, Ann Arbor is not far from Canada, and its ‘fall’, I imagine, has similar characteristics to its neighbour’s. In early October, the trees sport every hue from palest lemon-yellow to deepest russet and ruby-red. This may sound just like our own English trees in the autumn, but there are two spectacular differences: in the first place, the colours in Michigan are often more vivid; in the second place, the trees ‘turn’ in a very uneven way. Thus you might find half of the same tree still sporting leaves of glossy green, the other half already turned a fiery red. My hosts told me that the trees sometimes remain like this until the end of November, before they become completely red or brown and shed their leaves at last.
Ann Arbor 4
The trees made an enormous impression, but I was also delighted with Ann Arbor itself. The staff in the cafés, restaurants and shops, many of which were French in style, were friendly without being over the top, business-like without compromising good service. I particularly liked the Café Felix, where I enjoyed a light salad lunch, and Cherry Republic, the wonderful shop a little further down the street which sold everything that could conceivably be made of cherries and was very proud of the quality of its goods (the saleslady asked for my name and address in case I wanted to return any of my purchases: I told her that I’d have a long journey bringing them back!).

Cherry Republic

Cherry Republic

It also sold maple syrup – Michigan maple syrup, I was exhorted to note, not the Canadian stuff.
Cherry Republic
Also intriguing were the squirrels. In this part of the world they are not grey, but either black or red, or red-and-black. Here’s a picture of one that caught my eye.
Ann Arbor squirrel
In case you’re wondering about the name ‘Ann Arbor’, the town was founded in the first half of the nineteenth century by two men whose wives were both named Ann. According to legend, they therefore decided to call the town after both of them. ‘Arbor’ is self-explanatory: perhaps they intended it to be a place of rest and contentment; it may or may not have referred to a particular arbor under which the women sat.
I’m hoping to return to Ann Arbor in December, when perhaps I’ll see some snow. I’ll keep you posted!

Flirting with the M5 – in love with your hard shoulder… Feel my soft verges…

Summit tunnel, Smethwick, Birmingham Canal Navigations

Summit tunnel, Smethwick, Birmingham Canal Navigations

Head northwest out of Birmingham City Centre towards Wolverhampton along Thomas Telford’s ‘new’ main line, a canal designed to replace James Brindley’s wandering minstrel of a waterway (he was a man who followed contours) with an uncompromisingly direct route to Tipton, and you are, before too long, faced with the choice of old or new. We once came from Wolverhampton on Telford’s route, which may have resolved the needs of the working boat traffic of his day in reducing distance by a third, overcoming dreadful congestion at locks and replacing worn-out towpaths, but the experience did nothing for me as a 21st century tourist boater looking for interest; the straight miles of tedious and unrewarding scrubland were about as delightful as a purposeful motorway drive compared to a romantic dalliance with a B road. I of course admit that each serves its turn, according to need. Chacun à son goût! Telford’s dramatic cutting through the Smethwick Summit, with the magnificent Galton Bridge bestriding it, is an astonishing engineering achievement which one can admire, and we did, that time, but this year we had no difficulty in pursuing our favourite right turn in celebration of Brindley along the ‘old’ main line.
Now you will have deduced that I am an incurably poetic soul, who hankers after historical roses, but, if that is the case, you’ve jumped right… to the wrong conclusion. The thing about this old Brindley canal is that it has become touched with modern magic, in the form of juicy juxtapositions of modes of transport (and other things), and I hope from our photographs that you will see what I mean.
Turning right at Smethwick Junction provided us with some welcome diversion from quite a long horizontal journey (from the King’s Norton Junction south of Birmingham) in the form of the three locks which take the boater up to a stretch of canal that is, for me, just wonderful. I don’t expect everyone to share my taste.
Passing the Grade II listed pumping house between the two main lines at Brasshouse Lane bridge (If you get the chance to go inside, you’ll find, as I did, a Victorian marvel of a machine on different levels, one of the original two which were capable of lifting 200 locks of water a day; it replaced the earlier pumping houses on the ‘Engine Arm’ of the canal.), the old line leads under the Summit Tunnel. Though it all seems very rural just here, the thundering traffic of an A road dual carriageway passes unseen over this concrete underpass! There’s your first juxtaposition!
Yes, here we are in rural Birmingham.

Yes, here we are in rural Birmingham.

A heron, cranking itself from the towpath and lifting itself high into the air above us, is proof of the richness of canals, supporting wildlife as they do here, in the most unpromising terrain of urban and industrial Birmingham.
Flight of the heron

Flight of the heron

And now we meet the majestic (Yes, I mean it!) M5, a contrast to this beautiful canal (Yes, I certainly mean it!), with a pleasant moment of inconsistency as four kayakers pass by. The skyline, too, has a splendid coherence here.
M5 cantilever and kayaks

M5 cantilever and kayaks

Up above, the juggernauts carry their loads in a roar, but we can barely hear them as our boat quietly transports us into a dream.
Here we come; there they go, through the M5 portico!

Here we come; there they go, through the M5 portico!

Wild life flourishes and Smethwick adds to the population of Canada geese, we note, as this crèche bobs by.
Canada goose creche

Canada goose creche

Straight lines and verticals abound in this motorway underworld, but our waterway winds deliciously, refusing to comply, and we wander willingly with it, from side to side.
And under we go again.

And under we go again.

I think that Brindley would have delighted in this, a towering sandwich of route ways. I should love to be able to show him and watch his reaction!
Triple decker - canal, road, motorway.

Triple decker – canal, road, motorway.

Spon Lane Bridge

Spon Lane Bridge

These colonnades may be formed from steel and concrete, but there is peace here for those of a contemplative frame of mind; the numbing noise of the carriageway above seems far away.


We’ve come up through Spon Lane locks before and marvelled at the contrast between the new and old main lines; we’re not at all tempted to lock down this flight of three, as we know how much more there is to see along this refurbished section of Brindley’s canal.
Spon Lane Locks: chance to rejoin the new main line.  No thanks!

Spon Lane Locks: chance to rejoin the new main line. No thanks!

Three locks back at Smethwick Junction gave us this much height above Telford’s cut.
Stewart aqueduct: Below, the new main line heads for Galton Bridge.

Stewart aqueduct: Below, the new main line heads for Galton Bridge.

I’m rather sorry that it’s impossible to get all four levels of transport into one photograph from the vantage point of a narrowboat just here… and three must do.
Four levels of transport: New main line below, old main line, Birmingham-Wolverhampton railway, M5!

Four levels of transport: New main line below, old main line, Birmingham-Wolverhampton railway, M5!

For those of us who prefer the language of a bygone age of transport! Train station? Hah!
A magical name to conjure with...

A magical name to conjure with…

I wonder what Blakey Hall was like and whether the owner rode on horseback over this bridge. I love the whimsical shape in this, its contemporary context.
Blakey Hall Bridge - a matter of age and scale...

Blakey Hall Bridge – a matter of age and scale…

A sixty-eight foot narrowboat isn’t the easiest vessel to steer through tight spaces, but get the line right and you’re through.
Judgement matters at Blakey Hall Bridge.

Judgement matters at Blakey Hall Bridge.

Sorry, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for this pun. 😉
A view from the bridge...

A view from the bridge…

If you have an artistic eye, there’s plenty here to entertain it.


Hopkins’ “skate’s heel sweep[ing] smooth on a bow bend”? Perhaps, but in slow motion!
Into the curve...

Into the curve…

Modern canal bridge design, with a slight brickwork salute to the past.
Anchor Bridge 1994

Anchor Bridge 1994

Once again, there’s definitely a line to take to make the turn.
Swing wide, sweet narrowboat...

Swing wide, sweet narrowboat…

Telford wanted us to hold the tiller straight!
You swing it to the left, then you swing it to the right...

You swing it to the left, then you swing it to the right…

Here’s one we’re saving for the future: up to Titford Pool and back.
Oldbury Junction and the Titford Canal

Oldbury Junction and the Titford Canal

Graffiti interest? Well, of course!
Fancy taking a ride along the towpath or down the M5?

Fancy taking a ride along the towpath or down the M5?

And now we say goodbye to the M5, with sadness at the end of a romantic encounter. We’ve dillied and dallied all the way.
Stone Street Bridge 2001

Stone Street Bridge 2001

Thank you for joining me on this narrowboat ride. Perhaps you will admit to being at least surprised to find what lies beneath the M5, even if you can’t find it in you to love it as much as we do!

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

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