Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Taste of West Cork

 One of my sons-in-law, who is Irish, suggested we join them on holiday in West Cork for a few days last week.  So we did, and found ourselves in a powerful and beautiful landscape. 

I visited West Cork once when I was a teenager, but had not wanted to return,  because it seemed to me then a sad place for all its loveliness, and somehow haunted by ghosts.    In the Great Irish famines of the 1840s, this was the area where more people died of starvation than anywhere else in Ireland.  

This time, though, it felt quite different. West Cork is now popular with the kind of tourists who appreciate art, music and good food. The  tourist development, (such as it is), is pleasant and low key, but there's money about, and luxuries in the shops. Best of all, the feeling of being abandoned at the end of the world has vanished. It is not that the victims have been forgotten; in fact, the heritage centre in the town of Skibbereen offers a deeply moving description of those terrible times, and brings into focus the people who lived through the nightmare.  Here's one corner of that exhibition, featuring a famous folk song first sung by the West Cork refugees in the 1840s.    

The museum had a recording of an old fellow singing the song, but here's Don Stiffe's version, which I like (below), and you may also know Sinead O'Connor's.  The words are never quite the same each time I've heard it; I think they're making it gradually less angry than the original.

So the prosperity and tourism have cheered West Cork up, but haven't blighted the landscape, which is still astoundingly beautiful.  The weather can easily change every few minutes, creating a kaleidoscopic succession of colour and lighting effects over intricate scenes of water, hills, cliffs, fields and flowers. 

 So here are a few pictures I took in the corner of West Cork that starts on the tiny Sherkin Island, about ten minutes from the village of Baltimore.  

 The type of rock you see everywhere is called Devonian Old Red Sandstone, although it doesn't look very red to me. It creates this craggy landscape, great for rock pools and crabbing, where I could have spent hours as a child.  

Sherkin Island's biggest white-sand beach, Trá Bán, is dotted with coloured stones and yellow shells, which glow out of the sand like little suns.  

Here's another view of Trá Bán over some rocks - the water is almost tropically blue.  The only footprints on the sand, apart from ours,  were made by birds.   

The path down to the beach is fringed with the red fuschia bushes which are very characteristic of the area. 

This wild coast was always at the mercy of pirates and smugglers.  Sherkin Island's abbey was burned in 1537 by bad men from Waterford, although, to be honest,  O'Driscoll clan who used to rule the place didn't seem all that much better, from what I could make out.

There are a couple of simple pubs on the island. In the older one, this fireplace with Victorian lady tiles is hidden away in a back room. I am sure someone was in love with those ladies to get them brought all the way over from England, even though they look slightly neglected here. 

The ferry sets out from the mainland - a ten minute run. Can you see a faint rainbow to the right?

By the time it arrives, the weather's already changed, the fog's dispersing and the ferry's lit by sun.

It is a ten minute ride back to Baltimore, whose most conspicuous feature is the Beacon, built around 1800 as part of an early warning system surrounding the Irish coast.  It's supposedly known as "Lot's Wife" because it looks like a pillar of salt, but everyone I met called it "The Beacon."  You reach it by climbing a very steep hillside or scrambling up via streams and goat paths.   

On our first visit, the sun came out, the sea was deep blue and the wild flowers glowed red and yellow. 

We returned late the following afternoon when everything seemed to be silver and gold.

Another day, we took a stroll round Loch Hyne.  It's something of a celebrity loch among geographers, for it's a tidal salt-water lake fed by a narrow channel from the sea - so narrow, indeed, that it takes just four hours for the tide to force its way in, but eight hours to go out.  The result is that it contains all kinds of unusual creatures.  The road is public but we met only three cars in a couple of hours, and in places, the wild fuschia bushes were three metres high.

The section of road nearest the loch is heavily wooded - you see the water shining silver on the left.

All was peaceful as the clouds gathered, dropped rain for three minutes, then dispersed.    

Spotted this mischievous warning on a small jetty.  

We ended up wishing we'd spent more time in West Cork, so I hope we'll get back next year.

As it happened we arrived just too late for the annual food festival.  I took a look at the brochure and thought it looked fascinating - here's the link

And this is a plate of the salad I got at the Friday country market in Skibbereen, which takes place next to the Aldi car park. It has been there for years, I was told (much longer than Aldi) and is complete with the two ladies totting up all the purchases in longhand at a table in the corner. I wished I'd taken an extra bag on the plane to Ireland, to fit in all the beautiful produce I wanted to buy.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Castle in London

Had a good afternoon on Friday.  We met up with an old friend of T's, and had lunch in the Diwana Bhel Poori near Euston station. It's been my favourite Indian lunch buffet since I was... well, about 18, and it wasn't new then.  Despite the curious decor, it has the best vegetarian buffet in London and it's always full at lunchtimes. 

Then we strolled on to the British Library, and continued our chat over coffee.  When our friend left to get home before the rush, we decided to go next door to take a peek inside the Midland Hotel. 

In case this information doesn't mean anything to you, the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras is the big Gothic building you can see in this Victorian picture.

The picture romanticises it - but not that much. It really is the kind of place you gasp at.  It's hardly surprising to me that its architect, the celebrated George Gilbert Scott, felt it was his masterpiece.

It was designed to be spectacular, with its gold leaf decorations, all the latest mod cons and no expense spared -  even though G.G. Scott felt the directors of the company ought to be spending far more on it than they eventually did. 

It was magnificent when it was complete, but it had only a few decades of glory.  It was hard to modernise it, and by the 1930s the management couldn't afford enough staff to carry all the chamberpots  (the Victorians hadn't thought of en-suites), stoke the coal fires which graced each bedroom, and so on.     It closed in 1935, outdated and ill-maintained, and was used after that as offices.  Eventually British Rail decided it was ugly and old fashioned, and fought to demolish it for years, keen to replace it with one of the Brutalist grey slab buildings they favoured at the time.

Luckily they failed, but restoring the Midland Hotel was a massive job.  I visited when it was empty and disused in about 1995, and couldn't think how anyone could even start. But, amazingly, it was done, in 2011 the renovated Midland reopened.   

I'd only caught glimpses of the interior since then, so on Friday I finally walked into that arched portico you can see on the left,  went down a spectacular looking corridor.... took a photo ...  and was approached by a member of staff asking if he could help.  I was sure he was going to freeze me out, but instead he asked, pleasantly, if we'd like to see around.   Of course, I said yes!

And what a stroke of luck. It was clear that he truly loved the building. Castles were his passion, he said, and this was as near as anyone could get to working in a castle in London.  He knew a lot about it - such as that the carpet on several storeys of that grand staircase (below) was woven all in one piece, and that all the door furniture had been individually designed. 

The walls of the hallway are painted with scarlet and gold fleur de lys, backed by a group of gigantic windows. Although you can't see it in my photo the staircase splits into two and goes up either side of the building.

Here's part of the towering vaulted ceiling, with courtly knights and armorial shields. It apparently represents the Virtues, although I couldn't quite see how.  

This beautifully painted niche  from "The Romance of the Rose" is large enough to shelter a large statue, but had been whitewashed over when the building became offices - what vandalism!  As you see it has been uncovered and restored. 

Below is the ceiling of the Ladies' Smoking Room, which daringly offered Victorian ladies the chance to relax together and have a puff after dinner, never thinking about the effect of their nicotine on the elaborate paintwork with its gold leaf.   These days, of course, there is no smoking. 

I took a snap out of the window, which shows the length of the building. 

Finally, we returned to the front hall, and our guide concluded with a little musical recital. This very up to date version of a reproducing piano stands in the hall.  Its keys seem to play by themselves, just like in the old pianolas - but instead of a paper roll whirring round, it is linked with a recording.  It looked eerie, playing all by itself, but I dare say there are plenty of ghosts haunting this place.   In fact, I expect that G.G. Scott is floating around somewhere, complaining that they haven't applied enough gold leaf this time around.  

We were very grateful to that charming member of staff, delighted by how proud he was of the building, and pleased to have this unexpected encounter with a stranger in the middle of the big city.  

If you want to read more about the history of the building, this is a good site. 


Thursday, 24 August 2017


Well, when you haven't posted for months it gets hard to start again. Thank you so much to those who have kindly continued to stay in touch by email, and, in the case of John, a delightful and welcome postcard.  I've spent the summer mostly in London, with a few trips out to Surrey, East Anglia and the West Midlands, and did more than I can really write about.    

Still, if I'm to start blogging again, I'd better make a start - so here goes!

During June's fine spell we took our bikes for a few days into the Surrey Hills. Stayed in Holmbury St Mary youth hostel, a nice old fashioned hostel of the kind that hardly exists anymore. I was intrigued by the unusual 1930s mural around the common room wall.  This bit shows the hostel (looking larger than it really is) and some hostellers. I love the young woman cyclist's fashionably baggy trousers, don't you?  She must have found cycling hard, specially  being on the back of the tandem.  Other sections of the mural show farm workers, farm animals, the squire and local rural characters. 

The hostel was purpose built in the 1930s. It's architecture is plain but it's great, with a friendly atmosphere, acres of lawn and trees where kids can explore and play games, you can eat meals or camp. It's set in the deepest and most beautiful woodland, and it is cheap, because it hasn't been renovated.  Looking to the picture below, I'd say the little fairy is not in the ideal hiking or cycling gear, but she was having such a good time.  

During our stay we visited Winkworth Arboretum,  but I can't find anything online that gives any idea of what this fine place is like. It's a huge tree collection on a magnificent site, and it's owned by the National Trust.  You can walk for miles through meadows, wetlands, valleys, over hills, past lakes and through woodland, and will find something special at any time. This is a corner of a steep hillside covered in lupins.

A little further downhill was this wooden throne. As I sat on it a fox passed by and stared at me for a long time. Perhaps it was wishing it had a camera...  

A few weeks later, on a cycle trip near Henley, Oxon, we spotted a barn - and a few other buildings - faced with old printers blocks. Apparently the place used to be a hand-printing works for fabrics and wallpapers. 

Up in Staffordshire a few weeks ago, we visited the eye popping Pugin church of St. Giles in Cheadle.  The great architect was given unlimited funds by Lord Shrewsbury and told to build the best church in the country, and naturally, he did not restrain himself. Just about every inch of the place is gilded, decorated, enamelled or otherwise ornamented in brilliant colours. Imagine the effect if these small details pictured below were multiplied by 100, and you'll get a vague idea of the overall look of the place. If you love High Victoriana this place is definitely worth making a special trip to see. 

The reason for visiting Staffordshire was to stay with some old friends from when we were first married and living near Stoke-on-Trent.  So much has changed in North Staffs since then. For instance, we found our friends now have a steam railway near their house! In part it runs directly along the lush and beautiful Caldon Canal. They eventually plan to reach the town of Leek.  Next time we go, we'll try and take one of their dinner trips, but our visit didn't coincide with one. The train happened to pass as we were walking along the canal. 

Before Staffordshire we'd spent a while with the teenage lads in Ironbridge, in Shropshire. Watch out, cafes! Boys of that age can certainly eat a lot!   In the intervals between consuming meals and stopping for snacks, we looked at the bridge itself.  It was the world's first bridge made of iron, and because nobody had ever built one before, it was, quite naturally,  constructed like a wooden bridge that just happened to be made of metal. Take a closer look at the construction and you'll see what I mean....

We visited several of this little town's museums. Since Ironbridge was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, all kinds of factories sprang up in the early nineteenth century, later to be abandoned when the area failed to develop into the gigantic city its developers had hoped for. 

 Rescued from dereliction, some of these factories have become terrific museums, and local people have an unrivalled chance to volunteer and spend their spare time dressing up and carrying out traditional local jobs of a hundred years ago.  Some look after horses, some forge iron, some serve cakes in the teashop or run the haberdasher's, but here is a volunteer saggar maker from the Pottery Museum. Saggars are fireclay boxes which hold a factory's "real" pottery while it is being fired.   It's a dirty old job but this lady seemed to like it. She said they sell the saggars that they make to visitors, who use them as plant holders. 

The biggest museum in Ironbridge is Blists Hill, which is a large recreated village. It reminded the lads of a "giant version of Bekonscot" which is a quaint model village they like. So it's like a giant version of a tiny model village.  Blists's Hill has a funfair and an old fashioned funicular, a bakery that sells real buns (good idea, that).   It also has an "inclined plane."    Inclined planes are very rare. They were an ingenious way of hauling canal loads up steep hills, rather than building flights of locks that canalboats would take all day going through.

This is how it worked. A track was built from the bottom of a hill to the top.  The goods, stored in containers, were floated down the bottom canal, put onto the tracks, and pulled to the top. Then they were loaded onto boats to continue their canal trip towards the outside world.

So here's the bottom of the plane, where the china factory's wares were taken off the canal and set on the track. 

It is a long track.... here it is continuing up the hill - the rails are very wonky now, if you look closely....

And here is the top of the track, where the winding engine was sited.  And, of course, there is also the continuation of the canal, although you can't see it in my picture.    (Read more detail about this inclined plane here if you are interested.)  

Perhaps it's as well Ironbridge didn't turn into an industrial centre, because its surroundings are very attractive.  We took a walk one evening in nearby Jackfield and saw from a notice that this pub regularly floods right up to the top of the front door. If the pub hadn't been having an Irish folksong evening I'd have asked the landlord how they dealt with the place being underwater so often.

During the summer T and I decided to explore all the nature reserves in the Suffolk Coastal area. We made a start with Sizewell Belts, Thorington Church Farm and Minsmere.  As I tramped around these atmospheric bits of countryside, I saw lots and lots of decorative cinnabar moth caterpillars on the ragwort.

I have so many pictures of these lovely reserves that I can't choose just a couple, and in fact you really do have to be there to experience the feeling of having nature doing its work all around you, so if you are anywhere near a Wildlife Trust reserve, do check it out.

Much of the summer we have been in London, quite happy and seeing all the new things the capital always has to offer.  I didn't envy these two guys painting the famous clipper the "Cutty Sark" as we passed them in Greenwich one morning. It looked like they were in for a long, hot day.

Another walk was around nearby Woolwich, while our older daughter told us some sensational tales of old London, with the weather obliging with a particularly memorable Thames sunset.  

One sunny afternoon we took a look round Stoke Newington churchyard and encountered a group of angels who looked charming in the sunny undergrowth ...  but I resolved to return and visit them on some foggy evening in winter too, when I suspect they will seem quite different! 

We went to a concert that one of our neighbours gave in memory of his mother. We'd visited his family home several times and love how he plays, but hadn't attended a concert by him before. This is the end of the first movement of Bach's Partita No. 6. Since the concert was for his mum, he also played a harpsichord version of "Stormy Weather" which had been her party piece! 

At the end of June I helped organise a Great Get Together picnic to remember Jo Cox MP, who was murdered just before the EU referendum, and who cared passionately about tolerance, diversity and people cooperating.  It was a hot sunny day and very pleasant to find people in our multi cultural area coming together and meeting each other, sometimes for the first time,  and sharing food as jazz played quietly in the background. 

Also in July we visited friends in Dorset and went to Kimmeridge Bay on the Jurassic Coast. Dominated by a huge tower folly, the beach area is a marine nature reserve and in the little museum by the seashore we were amused by this hermit crab which spent its days lumbering round carrying a sea anemone, and getting very annoyed at its reflection in the mirrored side of its cage. 

While we were in Dorset I paid a trip to Wimborne's Priests House museum. I love the painted walls of this room, done in the 17th century. The museum is run by volunteers who take great care of it, run the cafe and a little bookstore, and cultivate the large garden. Well worth the small entrance fee on a nice summer day - you can take a book and spend the day there in the shade of the fruit trees!

Well, that was my summer. I've enabled comments again so hope to hear from you if you have time. 
Apart from this, like many people, I'm bothered about our country's future, and the international situation too (if I could bring myself to read about it.)  I don't want to bring politics into this blog, but I was pleased to spot this bench in the churchyard at Gomshall, Surrey, and I took care to sit on it.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester Atrocity

Words can't say.

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