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October Over and Out

laddermontageSituated on a farm, The Barn at Upcote in the Cotswold Hills was the perfect location for Gavin and Keira’s wedding. Getting spliced in the old threshing barn wasn’t as painful as it sounded either.

Here are some photos of the happy few hundred…:

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Clap

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What..

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Outside

Steps

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Monroes

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Dance

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Gavin on a CHAIR…!!!

 

Enough of the wedding – now for some nature.

Merlins are magical birds and two separate sightings of these raptors were conjured up during the WMBC’s visit to Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.

There was a distant, hazy view of a beached Merlin resting out on the sands beyond the Mill Hill viewpoint, and then a ringside showing from the platform off the new Visitor’s Centre. The latter flew up over our heads and sped away to perch awhile atop atree. The Merlin, a female, loitered long enough for leisurely views of this elusive falcon before zipping off out of sight at a rate of knots.

There was a blizzard of Knots and Oystercatchers whirling around in front of the distant wind turbines. Gibraltar point is a dynamic stretch of pristine coastline with sand dunes, saltmarsh, ponds, and lagoons and woodland so it’s not so difficult to rake up a good haul of wildlife on a walkabout.

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Seals were hauled out on the sandbanks, and sooty multi-horned Hebridean Sheep converged in the grassy hollows of the reserve. These hardy sheep are particularly effective at scrub control, and help maintain natural grassland and heathland habitats.

It had already been a good day at a very good reserve, having just clocked a confiding Pink-Footed Goose knuckling down in the rough grass, which turned out to be not so much confiding as broken-winged.

Spotted Redshank, Greenshank (bereft of spots), Avocet, Snipe, Water Rail, Mandarin Duck, and several Kingfishers were spied along the freshwater lagoons. In a small wooded clearing, a cheeky little Pied Flycatcher was sensibly keeping a low profile with all those Merlins about, and a flock of Redwings scattered overhead as if shot from a gun.

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Lesser-Spotted Twitchers – can you spot them?

Quirky Aside: en route to Gibraltar Point, we passed through Boston so the American city and the English town were quirkily tied up as having both been visited within a matter of weeks!

Symptoms

It was soon Film Club Night and the Flat Earth Society went Peter Vaughn-mad (the actor died last December and was widely known for his menacing cameos in BBC’s Porridge as Grouty).

The main feature was Symptoms.

Having been released back in 1974, British horror film Symptoms has always been incredibly difficult to obtain. It was last seen on TV in 1983 and has since lived only in legend.

Here’s Movie Marker’s Stu Greenfield take on this mysterious and under rated film:

Set in a large country house surrounded by woods in the English countryside, Symptoms focuses on Helen and Ann. They return to Helen’s family home from Switzerland and it soon becomes apparent that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. As they spend more time together Helen’s nervous disposition becomes apparent, as does her affection for Ann. A previous occupant of the house, Cora, is spoken about but appears to touch a nerve with Helen who refuses to talk about her in any detail. Also present is the grounds keeper Brady (Peter Vaughn), and the cracks in his relationship with Helen are tangible, but without context. Gradually the sinister and disturbing truth is revealed…

Angela Pleasance, daughter of Halloween’s Donald Pleasance, is perfectly cast as the lead role. Her piercing blue eyes and ability to portray a seemingly vulnerable and nervous young lady whilst also providing a sinister undertone is outstanding. Symptoms is a must for any British horror fan.

Symptoms was ably supported by The Return:

Lonely spinster Miss Parker has been employed as the caretaker at a huge home for the last twenty years. It’s been up for sale the entire time and over the two decades she’s seen living there all alone, not one potential buyer has expressed interest in purchasing it or even renting out a room there. Could be because its reputation precedes it…

Plus a bonus A Ghost Story for Christmas story: Warning to the Curious.

Broadcast in the dying hours of Christmas Eve, the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series was a fixture of the seasonal schedules throughout the 1970s and spawned a long tradition of chilling tales for yuletide viewers.

An amateur archaeologist arrives in Norfolk and strikes out in search of the lost crown of Anglia, but at every turn, something unearthly guards it…

 

Bristol and the Zoo

One of Sarah’s birthday pressies was to be Keeper for a Day at this famous zoological garden, so a weekend in the making was summarily made.

Sarah

Chuffed to be here…

Dave

The rare Red Dave

Bristol Zoo is justly famous, of course, for providing the television backdrop to many a seventies childhood with Johnny Morris and Animal Magic.

Here’s a YouTube clip for anyone feeling nostalgic:

Many breeding firsts were acclaimed here – the first Black Rhino in Britain, the first Squirrel Monkey in captivity, and the first Chimpanzee in Europe. It is probably fitting that Bristol is also home to the magisterial BBC Natural History Unit.

Before hitting the zoo, it was incumbent upon us to see what Bristol had to offer on a fine Sunday morning, the Saturday having been a wash-out, relentlessly driving us into a selection of sheltering pubs and bars.

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BristolAutumn

There was a Banksy on one wall (the elusive graffiti artist is believed to be from Bristol), and some very fine buildings through which the River Avon weaves its way. The River Avon made Bristol a great inland port, and in later years boomed on the transatlantic trade in rum, tobacco and slaves.

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A Banksy on a wall

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A vantage point on Brandon Hill can be easily reached from which to view the city. A better view would have been from Cabot Tower just behind us but only Theo had the liver for it after the previous night’s drinking.

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All this plus an enormous gorge running through part of the city ensures Bristol is regularly cited as one of the UK’s most liveable cities.

 

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October was rounded off with the soothing sounds of thrash heavy metal as Paul C and I took in a brilliant Raven Age gig. They previously supported Anthrax earlier in the year but were now headlining for the head-banging at the old Digbeth Institute with their own support – In Search Of Sun.

…and there was more:

Craig and I went to see The Elvis Dead at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. Elvis Dead is not another thrash metal offering but a brilliantly innovative show by Rob Kemp loosely based around the film Evil Dead II and Elvis (naturally). It is certainly difficult to categorise (the flyer has it as a unique thrill ride of hip-swinging music and blood-soaked mayhem, so that will do for me) but very easy to enjoy.

ElvisDead

Here’s some YouTube footage to give you a taste…:

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Bostin’ in Boston

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Revolutionary Boston has been the scene-stealer of several key events of the American Revolution. Events such as the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Siege of Boston and, of course, the Boston Tea Party.

The key role Boston played in the American Revolution is highlighted on the Freedom Trail, a walking route of historic sites that eloquently tells the story of the nation’s founding.

One of the most popular sites on this route is Faneuil Hall, an old market building sitting at the site of the old town dock. In the day, it was where Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other patriots debated the future of American self-government and set in motion the American Revolution.

Faneuil-Hall

Faneuil Hall has been a marketplace and meeting hall since forever, with a statue of the “incorruptible and fearless statesman” Samuel Adams, presiding over the plaza in front of it. Bidding for top billing is the gilded grasshopper weather vane perched on the top of the building.

Grasshopper

Quincy Market is behind Faneuil Hall, a bustling stretch of colour and sound leading to the waterfront. There’s no shortage of food or street entertainment along the way. The street entertainers were quite brilliant with some amazing gymnastic/dance troupes, nimble acrobatic comedians, and an impressive young musician playing piano and saxophone to an enthralled audience. Apparently, the “Boston Piano Kid” has played with Billy Joel and, one quick YouTube search later, here he is:

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waterfront

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The Old State House is the oldest public building still standing in the eastern United States, now dwarfed by neighbouring skyscrapers. This was once the capitol of the colony, the centre of British authority, and also where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians from the balcony in 1776.

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To celebrate, they had a big bonfire and burnt flags and reminders of British rule, including the original lion and unicorn from atop the Old State House. Replicas of these have since been installed (quite right too!)

Beneath the balcony, there is a circle of paving stones laid out to mark the site of the Boston Massacre when a squad of nervy British officers fired into a jeering crowd and killed five of them – the first bloodshed of the American Revolution.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”

Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere is America’s most celebrated patriot (after Mel Gibson). Mr Revere took part in the Boston Tea Party but is better known for having embarked on a midnight ride to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the approaching British – the Battle at Lexington ensued, which led to a full-blown American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party was the result of a resistance movement against the Tea Act, imposed by those pesky Brits – it violated Bostonian rights to “no taxation without representation.”

To ensure their action wasn’t just a storm in a teacup, the protesters boarded the ships and threw chests of tea into Boston harbour. Some chests were thrown in with a little milk, some with a squeeze of lemon. Reports of a sizeable digestive biscuit on the side remain unfounded.

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Paul Revere’s little wooden house still stands – it is Boston’s oldest structure. Revere’s remains remain in Boston, lying in the Granary Burying Ground, buried with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a plethora of patriots. Mother Goose is also buried here.

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Sinking Headstones

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Samuel Adams

Named after its English counterpart, Boston was founded by the Puritans, a wealthier and more literate breed of colonist. The Old Corner Bookshop emerged as something of a literary centre with luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and that Longfellow fellow all bringing manuscripts here to be published.

As well as being crammed with American history, Boston has its fair share of greenery and water too. Well, being a port, it would have.

Taking an afternoon whale-watching trip out to the open sea to see slices of Humpback and Minke Whales in their natural habitat was an enjoyable diversion from all that foot-pounding history. It also presented a good opportunity to view Boston from a different aspect, and to appreciate the city from afar.

Boston Common is the United State’s first public park, with the Massachusetts State House overlooking it. Just on the edge of the park is the arguably more famous Cheers bar. I popped in for a swift four-pinter and although nobody knew my name, it was a friendly enough place and I managed to grab a corner in Norm’s seat for a well-earned quaff.

Cheers

Norm

Norm

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Massachusetts State House

Before Boston, there was Charlestown.

Originally, the settlers settled (its what settlers do) over the river from Boston. However, the wells soon ran dry, and the settlers became unsettled. They decided to up sticks and settle in Boston – or Shawmut was it was then known. The plentiful springs of Boston ensured a steady growth while Charlestown became relegated to a sleepy country town until the Revolution.

The Bunker Hill Monument, a tall, towering obelisk, commemorates the Revolution’s first major battle, which the British won but at such a cost as to weaken their resolve.

BunkerHill

Patriot General Greene summed it up well: “I wish,” he said, “I could sell them another hill at the same price.”

Charlestown also harbours another monument of sorts in the Navy Yard – the U.S.S. Constitution; the most celebrated ship in American history is berthed here. The Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom when she defeated five British warships. Expect Mel Gibson to be starring in the film any day soon.

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U.S.S. Constitution

Although the Brits consider the War of 1812 as little more than a minor skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars, the Americans see it as a war in its own right. Of course they would, they won it!

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Washington wearing a Grackle

Grackle

A Grackle

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Salt Lake City to Denver

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First impressions show Salt Lake City to be an excruciatingly clean and tidy place, tucked-in and turned-down with nothing remotely unmade about it. True, there are a few homeless sprawled on the lawns of parkland and slumped on the swards but it still looks like someone has been busy putting this city together in as ordered a manner as possible.

The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons are to blame. They had such a work ethic when creating this city, Utah would forever be known as the Beehive State in homage to those crazy workaholic insects that find it impossible to pull up a chair and relax.

Seeking to escape religious persecution, top Mormon Brigham Young founded the city in 1847 when he and other followers settled in this inhospitable valley. The valley was dry and surrounded by the Great Salt Lake, as well as being circled by the steep Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges. (Average snowfall in the mountains near Salt Lake City is over 40 feet – nearly 5 times the average snowfall of Juneau, Alaska).

The streets of the city are wide, deliberately designed as such to accommodate the turns of wagon teams (without “resorting to profanity.”) It is also probably quite useful to contain those bloaters who are no strangers to the Kentucky Fried Bargain Bucket Feast. (The first Kentucky Fried Chicken was established in Salt Lake City in 1952).

SLC

Overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, Capitol Building is a striking architectural landmark, located on a hill, and set on over 40 acres of sculpted lawns, trees, flowerbeds and shrubs.

Temple Square is the main focal point that draws locals and tourists in, home to the granite-built Salt Lake Temple, and the neo-Gothic Assembly Hall.

The Family History Library houses the largest collection of genealogical information in the world with copies of millions of original records including the names of more than two billion deceased people.

In 1875, two 35-foot Australian whales were shipped to the Great Salt Lake, wherein they were released with the intention of creating a tourist attraction. Off they swam, never to be seen again.

The whales may have fared better in Bear Lake, a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border, with a rich turquoise colour, and a shoal of species that occur only within the lake and no where else.

BearLake

For those with piscatorial leanings, you may be interested to know that these endemic fish include a strain of Bonneville Cutthroat Trout, Bonneville Cisco, Whitefish, Bear Lake Whitefish and Bear Lake Sculpin. No sign of the rare Bonneville Whales though…

For those with Pleistocene leanings, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake.

For those wondering who the heck Bonneville was, he was a fur-trapper and explorer in the American West, noted for blazing sections of the Oregon Trail. He was made famous by an account of his explorations written by Washington Irving (who also penned Rip Van Winkle while residing in Birmingham…)

For those wishing I’d just get on with it, we continued out from Bear Lake and made for said Oregon Trail, trundling along to the little town of Afton with its impressive arch of elk antlers and stunning chocolate emporium.

Afton

ChocShop

Mmmm…chocolate!

Jackson Hole is a valley, which has the rather majestic Teton Mountain Range ranging along beside it (that’s what ranges do). The town of Jackson is also very much into antler arches and has a selection looped around the George Washington Memorial Park. A few of us settled down to a beer perched on saddles at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

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We were to spend a couple of days in the Grand Teton National Park, and checked into the Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge is listed as a National Historic Landmark with a flat roof and huge windows providing stunning views of the Tetons with Jackson Lake shimmering in the near distance.

LobbyView

When the sun goes down there is another stellar performance lying in wait when the night sky floods with countless constellations and luminous whorls of stars.

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…and the sunrises weren’t bad either.

Sunrise

A quiet welcome to the morning was provided by a rafting trip along the Snake River, which ran smoothly through a pristine natural landscape of open meadows and low forests with the ever-present peaks of the Teton Range keeping pace. It was really a gentle ten-mile float entirely within the Grand Teton National Park, covering this most scenic stretch of the Snake River in the Jackson Hole Valley.

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A couple of Bald Eagles, and an Osprey provided ornithological interest, and a female Moose munched away on a riverside salad.

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The name of Snake River was derived from an S-shaped gesture the resident Shoshone tribe made with their hands to represent swimming salmon. Explorers misinterpreted it to mean a snake, giving the river its present-day name.

StainedGlass!

The Church of the Transfiguration is a wooden chapel sited within view of the celestial peaks of the Tetons – there is little point in having stained glass in such a window.

Then it was time to enter the legendary Yellowstone National Park.

Renowned for its unique geothermal activity, wide, sweeping landscapes and spectacular wildlife, Yellowstone has run out of boxes to tick. A little taster in the form of the Lewis Falls and the surrounding forests readied us for a similar cascade of memorable wildernesses that bubbled and steamed with fire and brimstone.

A Grizzly Bear was spotted swaggering along the Hayden Valley; Elk were spied sporadically, and there were plenty of Mule Deer, but it was the herds of Bison that bossed the park.

Yellowstone was the first National Park in the United States, and is crammed with natural wonders – many of which would burn, scald or eat you.

A stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin, the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Norris Geyser Basin made you think there was more basin than bison in Yellowstone. The colours of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its dramatic drop of the Lower Falls perfectly illustrated how the park came to be named as such.

Of course, you can’t visit Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful, the reliable geyser, which has a good gush about every 90 minutes or so. The nearby Old Faithful Inn is also worth gushing about. Built with Lodgepole pine logs, wooden shingles and stone, the hotel features an immense lobby (complete with tree-house), plus a massive soaring stone fireplace and handcrafted clock.

Let the photos begin:

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Alas

Alas! He sank and left hardly a trace…

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Dragon’s Mouth Spring

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Mud Volcano

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Clarke’s Nutcracker

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Bisons

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Yellow-Stone

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Mule Deer

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Castle Geyser

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Crested Pool

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Fountain Paint Pots

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An Elk

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Old Faithful

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After departing Yellowstone, we travelled through the stark Shoshone Canyon and Absaroka Rocky Mountains to reach the Wild West town of Cody. En route we checked out the old hunting lodge of Buffalo Bill – now a trendy hotel.

Cody was named for William Cody AKA Buffalo Bill, which trips off the tongue a little more smoothly than the more accurate Bison Bill.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West was built in honour of the great American Western legend. It is also a quite brilliant museum, or rather five museums rolled into one with whole wings given over to the history of Buffalo Bill, a Natural History museum, a Plains Indian section, an impressive Art Gallery, plus a detailed exhibition of firearms.

Buffalo Bill Fact: When touring England in 1903, one of the entourage gave birth to the first Native American Indian child born in England. They were performing in Aston at the time and named the child Alexandra Birmingham Cody Standing Bear.

Obviously not content with our appetite for the awesome, the landscape conspired to blind us with more staggering views as we crossed through the Bighorn Mountains on the way to Gillette.

After staying overnight in Sheridan, and with a Solar Eclipse looming large on the horizon, we headed over to the astounding Devils Tower, the stark geological feature that protrudes out of the rolling prairie surrounding the Black Hills.

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Dtower

It’s also difficult to imagine a more fitting location in which to witness the solar eclipse and, sunglasses at the ready, the eclipse was summarily witnessed.

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Plains Indians depended on buffalo for most of their material needs – food, clothing and tools – but before they had horses, the buffaloes were hunted with bows and arrows. Tribes often joined in communal hunts by driving herds of buffalo over a cliff – one such is a natural sinkhole now known as the Vore Buffalo Jump. Huge volumes of bone and assorted artifacts have been held in place over time by the bowl shape of the sinkhole, and archaeological studies have unearthed much evidence about this period and its people.

Bones

The things you find when you take the carpet up…

A talk given by a Native American about this period was undertaken in the blazing sun amid tepee and props from the Dances With Wolves set. A piece of artwork commissioned by Kevin Costner rides over such a jump.

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BuffJump

The wonderful Spearfish Canyon was the splendid setting for our next stop-over.

“How is it that I’ve heard so much about the Grand Canyon, when this is even more miraculous?” Thus spake Frank Lloyd Wright when viewing Spearfish Canyon.

“That was a bugger of a climb.” Spake me thus, after inadvertently following the route up to the rim of the canyon rather than the recommended preprandial recce to the local waterfall. It was a decent slog up to the top with wide vistas across the canyon, and ever-diminishing views of the spacious hotel we were lodging in.

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Spearfish Lodge

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Spacious for sure…

Custer State Park is renowned for its beauty and serenity, and home where the buffalo and antelope roam. On a scenic tour of the back country by jeep, suitably attired in cowboy hats and neckerchiefs, close encounters with Bison were inevitable and we enjoyed getting up close and impersonal with the shaggy beasts. Pronghorn antelopes roamed about in small herds, Prairie Dogs chuntered around their network of burrows, and there was always a Mule Deer peering out of the forests.

Finishing the jeep tour in a secluded canyon, an authentic Chuck Wagon Cookout was served up with Old Western entertainment providing the tunes.

YeeHaw

Yee-Haw

Cowboys

Crossing the high plains to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we made our way to Deadwood, the town made famous during the gold rush of the 1870s. Famous residents included gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok and not-much-of-a-looker Calamity Jane. It is not difficult to imagine the Old Western days of warring gunslingers here despite the sidewalks being paved and bereft of tumbleweed.

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Deadwood

Legs

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Wild Bill enjoying a Skinny Latte

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Where Wild Bill was Killed

A cool beer was taken in the bar where gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok met his end, shot in the back of the head while holding the playing cards that would become known as Dead Man’s Hand.

I think that a lot of the conflict that happened in the Wild West could’ve been avoided if town planners in those days just made their towns big enough for everyone.

Here’s a photograph of Deadwood from 1876 to help with the imaginings:

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Probably the Black Hills most famous landmark is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a carved mountain monument to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt (Ted to his friends). Jefferson was originally intended to appear at Washington’s right but the rock was unsuitable – the original unsatisfactory result was dynamited out and a new figure was sculpted to his left.

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Elsewhere in the Black Hills is the much larger Crazy Horse Memorial, carved into the granite rock face and constructed to commemorate the famous Native American leader as a response to Mount Rushmore. It will eventually be nearly ten times larger than Mount Rushmore.

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“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear insisted.

The United States had seized the area from the Lakota tribe despite it having been granted to them in perpetuity (might have had something to do with gold being in “them thar hills.”

Crazy Horse took up arms against the U.S. Federal government to fight against encroachments on the Lakota territories. He helped defeat US Army Poster Boy George Custer at the Battle of Bighorn, forever etched in history as Custer’s Last Stand.

Work on the memorial began in 1948, and it will eventually depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Crazy Horse refused to have his photograph taken so it would be interesting to know what he would have made of the memorial. (“My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?”)

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Time for some Native American wisdom:

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Crazy Horse

When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

Cree Prophecy

When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.

Cherokee proverb

Denver was our final destination on our group tour although several did escape in Rapid City en route. Rapid City proved a bit of a diversion for the rest of us, trying to identify the statues of former U.S. presidents that loitered on every corner.

Denver, the Mile High City and capital of Colorado, lies at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and dates back to the Old West era. I was already hooked by the fact that Colorado produces more beer by volume than any other state and Denver ranks first for the U.S. cities.

Denver’s bustling downtown is centred on 16th Street Mall, a mile-long promenade with free buses shuttling up and down it.

In between sampling some of that voluminous beer, there was time to visit the Colorado State Capitol with its rather fetching gold-plated dome, and the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel with its massive atrium and equally impressive guest-list. Having played host to presidents and pop stars alike, the Beatles seemed the least impressed with the plush surroundings of the hotel and didn’t even bother coming out of their room.

Now for a Photography Masterclass:

PhotoClass

Nailed it!

…and now for the official group shot:

Group

Next morning, it was time to fly out to Boston.

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New York, New York, so good so far, etc.…

NYC_Montage

Jleon at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A bunch of us (Dave, Annie, Martin, Simon, Natalie, Me, Julie and Steve all found ourselves USA-bound when we met up at Birmingham Airport for our grand trip out.

During the flight, one attendant recognised Annie and asked if she had been on the flight that landed in the Hudson River in 2009…

“Are you sure you weren’t on it?”

“I think I would have remembered that.”

Once ensconced in our respective hotels, (my Empire Hotel being some 40 minutes walk from their Iberostar) it was only natural to launch ourselves into every attraction and sightseeing must that the Big Apple has to offer.

However, it seemed marginally more natural to launch ourselves onto the rooftop terrace and have us a few beers.

And afterwards – a pizza! Not an average British pizza but an American one that would have been equally at home spinning atop Devils Tower awaiting a close encounter of some sort – possibly a third kind.

There is too much written about the city scape of New York that to even attempt a justifiable regaling of such landmark architecture is somewhat futile – so I’m just going to throw in a bunch of photos!

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A&DNY

Central Park was the focal point next morning – some cycling, some getting lost in the park (during a fruitless search for the boathouse inn – located ridiculously next to a lake. Couldn’t find it).

We did find the Strawberry Fields Forever memorial to John Lennon, stepped out over picturesque bridges and contemplated a lake crammed with turtles – basically enjoying a sunny amble through the park greenery.

Central-Park

Continuing with a Merseyside theme, Birkenhead Park was the original inspiration for Central Park. Designer Frederick Law Olmsted visited Birkenhead in 1850 and was quite taken with the town’s park and incorporated its layout within his plans.

New York is, of course, frenetic, bustling – all manner of energetic adjectives apply – even without us being trapped between a Dominican Republic Carnival and an anti-Trump Protest March but these things seem bye-the-bye in a city on the go 24/7. However, the previous evening, thinking it really was the city that never sleeps with its nocturnal vanguard of street entertainers, I realised it was only 9.30pm!

Times Square is always a fun place in which to perch for an hour or so. So bright and crazy, it doesn’t need daylight – sunglasses are recommended such is the glaring intensity of the billboards and neon displays.

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The High Line is an elevated freight rail line, which has been transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side, and obviously needed walking along. This repurposed railway line initially overlooks the Hudson River before passing under, over, through and along the various streets and avenues. There is an ongoing gallery of art installations and sculptures en route plus several rest areas even though it’s not exactly a taxing yomp.

Close to the new One World Trade Centre is the 9/11 Memorial. Reflecting Absence represents the watery footprints of the Twin Towers, symbolising the loss of life and physical void left by the attacks. Names of victims are inscribed on bronze plates and arranged along the parapets of the memorial pools. A rose is placed on any name that would have celebrated a birthday today.

It is a solemn place, the waterfalls muting the sounds of the city, but is nevertheless an impressive testament to the resilience and can-do attitude of the States.

It was a dull, overcast day when we visited but even on a sunny, glorious day it would be difficult to override the poignancy this powerful memorial invokes.

FreedomTower

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The grotty weather continued for much of the day, causing us to explore a few drinking dens along the way. Drinking pints of Brooklyn while looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge was a thirst.

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Transylvania

Spot

In the nineties, Michael Jackson moonwalked out on to the balcony of dictator Ceausescu´s Bucharest Palace and addressed the worshipping throngs below him. The King of Pop held out his arms and squeaked:

“Hello Budapest!”

He wasn’t the only one. So many people mistook Romania’s capital city for Hungary’s, that Bucharest once launched a “Bucharest not Budapest” campaign to encourage visitors to learn the difference between the two cities. There was even a rumour that 400 Spanish soccer fans accidentally flew to Hungary’s capital for a Bucharest-based game!

At least the King of Pop got to address a crowd from the hallowed balcony, which was more than Nicolae Ceausescu ever did, having been overthrown (or rather, shot dead) before such an accolade could be accorded.

The Bucharest Palace has since been re-named the Casa Poporului – which means Palace of Parliament in Hungarian – sorry, Romanian.

A 90-minute guided tour of the palace reveals only a mere 3% of what’s available with 12 floors and at least another 8 underground levels (you also need to bring your passport to get in). The Palace is immense and plays host to the Romanian parliament, as well as providing ample room (it has 1,100 rooms) for various conferences, museums and theatres.

Incredibly, the person responsible for the construction process of the Palace of Parliament was coordinated by a mere slip of a girl – 28 year old Anca Petrescu.

Palace

Palace of Parliament

The presenters from popular BBC show Top Gear once recorded a programme where they drove cars through vast tunnels hidden beneath the palace. These tunnels were originally designed so the cautious Ceausescu could do an underground runner to the airport in case of a revolution.

Check it out:

When the Romanian Revolution did start, Ceausescu and his wife Elena made their escape from Central Committee Building by helicopter. They didn’t manage to get far as the pilot dropped them off in the countryside where they were arrested and later shot.

There is a fascinating blend of turn of the century elegance and communist excess in Bucharest, which can be appreciated through its architecture. The city centre is a melting pot of Medieval, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings with blocky, functional communist-era architecture lumped in for good measure.

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Oana was our guide and she gave excellent potted histories to several landmark buildings during a walking tour of the capital. There were many interesting back stories to life under the exacting communist regime that Romania experienced after the Second World War. Shackles were finally struck off in 1989 and Revolution Square was an obvious place to begin our city tour. It was here where Ceausescu addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee Building, blathering on about the small matter of a recent uprising. He completely misread the crowd’s mood, which resulted in that emergency helicopter dash for freedom.

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Central Committee Building

After being shot, footage of the trail and execution was released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow – only just getting into the courtyard as the shooting ended. (There is a rumour that the cameraman had, in fact, gone to Budapest first).

Ceausescu whittled away at the national debt by exporting all the choice food abroad. Throughout the 1980s increasingly grim reports tumbled out about the Ceausescus’ “State of Terror”. Too much food was being exported to repay Western loans and many Romanians were starving.

“It was as if he sold all the best parts of a chicken – the breast, the leg, the thighs – and left the offal, feet and necks for his people.”

Bucharest boasts many fine buildings besides the Palace of Parliament. The Romanian Athenaeum, an impressively columned concert hall, is just one of several landmarks in the city. Other impressive edifices include the Triumph Arch, the CEC Palace, and the National Museum of Art of Romania. Bestriding the square is the equestrian statue of King Carol, a German who became king (the Germans have a knack for this sort of thing). The Romanians fancied that a bit of monarchy would be just the ticket to spruce things up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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Romanian Athenaeum

BuildingB

National Art Museum (former Royal Palace)

BuildingE

Old Court Church (the Old Princely Church)

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Romanian Savings Bank (CEC Building)

The National Museum of Romanian History has a strange statue on the steps featuring a wolf being held up by a naked fella.

This is a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia, the province located in Romania. He is holding a Capitoline Wolf, whose head is joined to the tail of a dragon.

When popped on its plinth, the statue was not exactly lauded by the locals, with some describing it as a “monument to Romania’s stray dogs.” Others wondered why the dog was levitating and why it was wearing a scarf while the emperor wasn’t even wearing any underwear.

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National Museum of Romanian History

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Trajan and his pet dog

The Memorial of Rebirth is another monument in Revolution Square, commemorating the struggles and victims of the Romanian Revolution that overthrew Communism. It also sparked spiky controversy when inaugurated for being too abstract and unrepresentative of the suffering and hardships of the revolution. Others suggested in looked like a potato on a toothpick.

Looking like a Giacometti figure having a bit of a sit-down, the statue of Iuliu Maniu pays tribute to one of Romania’s foremost politicians and former Prime Ministers who scorned the Russian influence and was imprisoned when the communists came to power. The statue is slyly positioned in Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters.

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Iuliu Maniu

Somehow along the way, we managed to get trapped in the Stavropoleos Monastery, a small Eastern Orthodox Church for nuns. With a service in full flow and some impressive chanting from the black-clad nuns, there was some reluctance to push past the imposing bouncer on the door: a terrifying lady with a thousand yard stare. Fortunately, Oana rescued us.

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Stavropoleos Monastery (Fusionofhorizons)

After a decent walkabout, there were a number of bars and hostelries crying out to be repaired to and we summarily obliged.

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After which, we were all going on a bear hunt.

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The Carpathian Mountains bustles with bears – brown bears, which require a certain level of care when traipsing through their territory. Romania has a healthy bear population, over 40% of Europe’s ration, and this region is of key international importance in their conservation.

If confronted by a bear, do not turn and run and, if attacked, curl up in a ball and protect your face. There would be no ball-curling for me – I was just going to leg it as fast as I could and hope to overtake the slower members of our group.

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Bear tracks were clearly visible on the path as we walked through the woods, and then quietly tip-toed up the wooden steps to the hide.

The hide overlooked a small clearing in the forest, and already a large bear was snuffling around below us. Binoculars and cameras were cocked and ready. As dusk approached, more bears dipped in and out of the clearing with five bears showing up at one time; a couple more timorous beasts circled around and sniffed the air suspiciously.

It was all quite splendid.

BearToon

The Transylvanian village of Moieciu was to be our base for the next few days. The view from my room, one of sweeping hilly slopes with wildflowers and birds, was in stark contrast to the vista from my room in Bucharest, which was, basically, a wall.

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Room with a View – Moieciu

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Room with a View – Bucharest

The following morning, Romania did away with its natural modesty and decided to show a bit of leg.

A walk in the Bucegi Mountains up through forest and woodland brought us into a vast clearing with a Sound of Music backdrop. Dark mountains bulked against the sky and low cloud slipped across slightly snowy slopes; wildflower meadows rolled up to the curve of the hills.

It would’ve been rude not to have a beer with such a backdrop and a shack-like bar doled up the necessary refreshment.

Known as the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’ because of its stunning scenery, Sinaia was a short drive away. Faced with such natural beauty, imported monarch King Carol felt compelled to build Peles Castle here – a Neo-Renaissance chateau crammed with ebony, ivory, Persian carpets, stained glass and all manner of curios.

There is a statue of King Carol overlooking the main entrance, presiding over a goodly amount of other statues aligned along the terraces.

In one corner of the terraced gardens is a statue of King Carol’s wife, Elizabeth, stoically setting about her embroidery. It probably wouldn’t have been her first choice when it came to the commission – surely striding majestically alongside a steed or brandishing an impressive breastplate to the elements would have done the job better.

Embroid

Queen Elizabeth – Giving it some welly

Pelisor Castle was within touching distance of Peles, an Art Deco/Art Nouveau creation of Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Known as the Artist Queen, Marie set about Pelisor Castle with great gusto – and probably a paintbrush. Lots of oak-timber, a working glass ceiling that slides away when the weather’s good. An intricate spiral staircase loops up one side of the hall, and various other chambers lead off from the corridors. There is a ‘golden room’ with gilded walls and thistle decorations – a Celtic nod to her Scottish roots (although she was actually born in Kent).

There is, of course, another castle Transylvania is quite famous for – Bran Castle.

Yes, the family seat of Count Dracula, the notorious Nosferatu who liked nothing better than settling down in front of the TV with some Nachos and a pint of Rhesus Negative.

Not that Bran Castle was ever visited by Bram Stoker, the novelist responsible for bringing all things vampirism into the public consciousness when his book was published in 1897. However, Dracula was banned in Bran and throughout Transylvania due to the communists banning all vampire fiction until 1990.

Vlad the Impaler, the notorious 15th century ruler of Wallachia, never actually lived at Bran yet his fearsome reputation stoked macabre myths more monstrous than anything Bram could.

In modern Romania, dracul means “the Devil” so we can see where this is heading.

Stories about Vlad’s evil deeds began doing the rounds during his lifetime, and he was often described as a man of unheard cruelty and justice – the perfect personification for the creation of Count Dracula.

A lengthy poem about Vlad, the “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia” deftly outlined a few of his more unsavoury pursuits. Vlad had two monks impaled to assist them on their way to heaven, and also ordered the impalement of their donkey because it brayed too much.

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In fairness, he was a rubbish lap-dancer

On another occasion, some Turkish messengers refused to take off their turbans when paying dutiful respect to Vlad. Vlad simply reinforced this custom by having the turbans nailed to their heads.

Although described as a ”demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, and a masochist” his brutality was probably exaggerated to some extent by some old adversaries – the Saxons.

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“Throw another shrimp on the barbie.”

In the curiously titled documentation “About a Mischievous Tyrant called Dracula” it was alleged that Vlad (old cove that he was) ordered some women to be impaled together with their babies. He was also not averse to boiling alive the odd dissident or two but impaling was really his thing.

It is doubtful the intended sequel to this document, “The Naughty Antics of Nasty Vlad” ever got published.

It is easy to see why Bran Castle was considered the home of Bram Stoker’s creation, allying its location and details with the jumbled descriptions offered up by the novelist: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.”

The vast ruined castle being on the edge of a terrific precipice, at the bend of the Carpathians and looking triumphantly down from a rock, has all the hallmarks of Chez Dracula.

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Bran Castle by Florin73m

The castle is indeed perched high up on a tall rock, following an irregular outline with tall towers and trim courtyards. Inside the castle walls, narrow and low hallways lead down winding wooden stairs, through lobbies and chambers, bedrooms and corridors and out on to terraces. Much in the way of weaponry and armoury adorns the walls and spaces, with the odd wolf pelt splayed randomly across a floor.

Wolfrug

At night, under a fanciful full moon, it is hoped some bats would set the whole scene off nicely.

One of the most historic medieval cities in Transylvania is Brasov, a cluster of ancient fortifications where Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance influences abound around the narrow passageways, wide open squares and cobbled streets.

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German settlers originally founded Brasov to protect routes that threaded their way through the high passes of the Carpathians.

The Saxons built massive stone walls around the city that are still visible today with Catherine’s Gate being the only original city gate to have survived since medieval times. The town has a fine central square, claimed to be the spot to which the Pied piper led the children of Hamlin. The most iconic historical building in Brasov is probably the 600 year-old Black Church, which became known as such after a great fire blackened its walls. During its tenure as a place of worship, several permutations of different persuasions knelt down at its pews including Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants.

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Catherine’s Gate

The History Museum of Brasov is worth a look with rare exhibits and collections but on a bright sunny day, a visit should never be at the expense of a cable-car ride up Mount Tampa.

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Fringed by the peaks of the Carpathians, Brasov is known as the city at the foot of Mount Tampa. When our old Friend Vlad attacked Brasov in 1458-60, the citadel was destroyed and 40 merchants were impaled on top of the mountain. Nowadays, you can enjoy a leisurely cola and look down on the red-tiled rooftops of the old town sprawling out to meet stern communist blocks on the outskirts.

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A tasty traditional Transylvanian meal was waiting for us back at the guesthouse – bean soup, Tochitura – a sort of pork stew, with Sanmale (cabbage rolls) all washed down with some robust local wine.

All that remained was to toast the hospitality of Romania with the local firewater, Tuica.

As they say in Romania – Noroc!

Cheers!

bat

…finally, what happens when a bat flies into an Irish home:

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Sri Lanka

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It’s only a little drop of an island off India but Sri Lanka manages to cram a whole continent’s worth of wonders within it.

Flying overnight from Birmingham to Colombo – via Dubai – with fellow fell-walker and holiday-aficionado Trev, we arrived bleary-eyed in the morning for an overnight stay at the Gateway Hotel in Seeduwa.

Now, in time-honoured fashion, I will shamelessly crib from the tour notes, and seamlessly add some sizzling little anecdotes along the way.

After hanging around for a couple of hours and suffering hotel lobby-rage, we were finally allocated our rooms. Although the hotel is close to the airport, it is located in the middle of a coconut plantation bordering the Negombo lagoon. Its air of tranquillity was soon disrupted with a monsoonal deluge in the afternoon, which ended a brief walkabout and sent us scurrying to the bar.

In the evening, we got to know our fellow travellers at a meeting with the tour manager. Then it was off to dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.

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We left the hotel early in the morning to travel to Habarana, taking in a panoramic tour of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Of particular note was the international cricket stadium, the fashionable residential districts, and the busy, traditional bazaar areas.

We also checked out a Hindu temple with elaborate stone carvings, an 18th-century Dutch church at Wolfendhal and the historic Devatagaha mosque, before leaving the city behind.

temple

A scenic route then propelled us past pineapple farms and paddy fields until we reached our base for a couple of nights – the Cinnamon Lodge.

Complete with Grey Langurs – large sociable monkeys (they hang around in family groups drinking beer), the Lodge is set on the edge of a natural lake with acres of natural habitat.

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Before chilling out, the group embarked on an elephant ride around the lake. I managed to ride along on the elephant’s neck, its flapping ears keeping my knees warm as a torrential downpour ripped down from above.

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ele

One of the group, Brian Farrell used to sing in a band called Colonel Bagshot, and once toured with the mega rock band Slade. Fortunately, he wasn’t shy when it came to belting out a few tunes with the resident band, and provided great entertainment throughout the evening.

Here’s a YouTube clip of Colonel Bagshot in its heyday – well worth a listen!

 

An early morning excursion took us to Sigiriya’s famous ‘Lion Rock’ – the brief capital of King Kassapa I some 1,500 years ago.

Two colossal paws still stand either side of ancient limestone steps, a reminder of the lion figure that once guarded the entrance to the lofty palace gardens on the summit of this 370-metre-high granite rock. Cuts and grooves carved out of the rock face give an idea of the size and shape of the original lion structure. Sigiriya is also well known for the Maidens of the Clouds – paintings of women found on a sheltered ledge. (Carol wondered if the girls in the frescoes had been “touched up.”)

Originally one wall was so highly polished that the vain king could see himself whilst he walked alongside it. Covered in polished white plaster, the wall is now partially covered with verses scribbled by visitors, some of them dating from as early as the 8th century.

An archaeologist deciphered hundreds of verses written in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries on the mirror wall.

One poem from these long-past centuries, roughly translated from Sinhala, is:

“I am Budal. Came with hundreds of people tо see Sigiriya. Since аll the others wrote poems, I did not!”

They were a witty lot, them Kassapans. That one had me going.

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steps

wasps

The Gardens of the Sigiriya city are one of the most important aspects of the site, as they are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. The gardens are divided into three distinct but linked forms – water gardens, cave gardens and boulder gardens. Precariously-balanced boulders were positioned (carefully) ready to be pushed off from the top at a moment’s notice and flatten any approaching enemies.

The video for Duran Duran’s ‘Save a Prayer’ was filmed primarily at Sigiriya so – as we’re having a musical flavor to this month’s post – here it is:

A few of us took off for a Nature Walk around the grounds in the afternoon. This entailed very little walking but involved a jeep, a couple of bullock-driven carts and a dodgy-looking catamaran. As we glided serenely through the lily-layered lake, our oarsman fashioned hats for us to wear out of the huge water lily pads.

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A brief stop at a smallholding in a wooded clearing featured a cookery demonstration by a local woman. She cobbled together a few traditional dishes with grated coconut, chilli and ground flour, all washed down with refreshing herbal teas (served in half a coconut shell).

Next day, there was a quick demo at a Batik factory. After suitable homage was paid to the waxing and colouring processes, traditional dresses were then modelled by some of the braver members of the group. After the twirls and turns of the catwalk, there then followed the obligatory sales pitch in the factory for gaudy tapestries, hankies and wall-hangings.

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En route to Kandy, the Dambulla Cave Temple and the Matale Spice Garden were both ear-marked for a bit of a foray.

The Dambulla cave is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The weathered rock towers over the surrounding plains. The main attractions are spread over five caves, which contain statues, icons and mural-covered walls. These paintings and statues are related to Buddha and his life. There are no end of Buddha statues, plus some likenesses of Sri Lankan kings and a few renderings of Vishnu and Ganesha.

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Prehistoric Sri Lankans would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as there are burial sites with human skeletons about 2700 years old in this area.

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The Matale Spice Garden served up a decent lunch, which was then followed by a walking lecture around the gardens – us nodding approvingly at patches of vanilla, coffee, cocoa, cinnamon and sandalwood. This was followed by – surprise, surprise – a sales pitch! Our group were effortlessly enticed by the balms, oils, creams and unguents on offer.

We continued onto the Cinnamon Citadel Hotel for a couple of nights. This hotel is built on the site of the ancestral home of Dunuvila, a minister to the former King of Kandy.

In the morning, there was a brief stop at a gem factory to ogle some sapphires, rubies and suchlike before popping along to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Several orphaned, ill or deserted elephants are looked after here, and its no easy task as one elephant can drink up to 80 pints of milk a day!

A pint of beer was more in keeping with an equally enjoyable lunch, the restaurant overlooking the river where elephants were taken for their daily bath.

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A little sightseeing tour of Kandy commenced, of which the highlight was a visit to the former Royal Palace and to the Dalada Maligawa, better known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The temple houses the tooth of the Buddha, which was concealed in the hair of an Indian princess and brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century. It is an object of great reverence for Buddhists the world over.

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One of the ceilings at the Temple of the Tooth

In the evening, a traditional Kandyan dance was performed featuring some surprisingly chubby acrobats, and ended with a bit of fire walking.

A short visit was planned to a metal working factory which, no matter how you look at it, seems just about the last thing you would want to be doing during a tour of Sri Lanka. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya was more like it, and a circuit or two of pleasantly landscaped lawns, a bit of fernery, some bambooed and water-featured gardens was enjoyed before travelling to Nuwara Eliya.

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Nuwara Eliya lies nestled in a wooded basin at the foot of Mount Pidurutalagala – Sri Lanka’s highest peak at 2,555 metres.

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The cool, crisp climate makes the region unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka and is a serene retreat far removed from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. The town still retains a Victorian English appearance and is famous for its tea production. We managed a tour of one of the tea estates and factories – tea is still one of Sri Lanka’s major exports and the country produces more than 200 million kilos a year.

Stayed overnight at the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya, set within tightly manicured gardens and suggesting the grandeur of a bygone era. Built in the 1800s, this large mock-Tudor style mansion was the former residence of Sir Edward Barnes, the Governor of Sri Lanka from 1830-1850.

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school

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Back to Skool…

We visited a local school and many of the group took a few useful gifts for them – school bags, pens, various toys – and were rewarded with a few songs and performances from a very cheerful and grateful bunch of kids.

After peeling ourselves out of some of the smallest chairs ever made, we bade farewell to a very happy bunch of kids and motored on to Ravana Falls, named after the legendary King Ravana (no, me neither). According to legend, Ravana (who was the king of Sri Lanka at the time) kidnapped Princess Sita and stashed her in the caves behind this waterfall. Allegedly, she was kidnapped as revenge because her husband had sliced off the nose of Ravana’s sister (I think I got that right…)

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rawana

We were on a roll, and continued on our way, paying a short visit to Kataragama to check out the Shrine of Lord Skanda and the Buddhist Temple of Kiri Vehera.

Kataragama is a pilgrimage town sacred to Buddhist, Hindu and indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka. People from South India also go there to worship.

Sheltered by foothills, Kataragama is one of Sri Lanka’s most holy of towns, and is an important religious pilgrimage site and is a holy place for Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike.

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Eventually we made it to Yala National Park, a protected area spanning over 321,000 acres of land, covering a vast range of different landscapes, from sand dunes and grassland, to lagoons, lakes, wetlands, thick forest and the shores of the Indian Ocean.

First used as a hunting ground for the British elite in the 19th century, the area is now dedicated to the conservation and protection of the wildlife.

We stayed at the Cinnamon Wild Yala hotel, situated on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka.

Our chalets were spread all over the resort and, when the sun went down, it was necessary to phone reception and ask for an escort!

This was due to the wild elephants that often take a fancy to wander through the hotel grounds at night. We saw plenty of wild boar sauntering around but the only jumbos we saw were in Yala.

There was an observation deck on the top floor of the hotel from which to take a cold beer and watch the sunset over a lake. Plenty of buffalo around but it wasn’t until the early morning game drive that we saw our first elephants.

 

The early morning session also unearthed herds of deer, some jackals, more wild boar, tons of birds – especially peacocks – plus crocodiles and monitors.

The birds were so numerous, I’ve decided to list them at the end of this post for any twitchers to drool over.

Here are some great photos from fellow-traveller Peter Ward:

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kingfisher

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squirrel

butterfly

bee-eater

deer

jackals

Following a champagne breakfast, the jeeps took us out again the next day and we managed to clock a couple of leopards, a big cat for which Yala is renowned. Both were draped over branches and totally uninterested in the surrounding clamour with many vehicles jostling and baying for a glimpse.

An afternoon game walk took us around the local lake, where a huge crocodile had already taken up residency on the near shore. We also had to slink past the occasional dodgy buffalo, before finally emerging onto the beach, and making the slow circuit back to our hotel. Ant nests, craftily-concealed lizards, and small falcons made up much of the wildlife interest on the way back with the lake offering up a vast selection of storks, herons, spoonbills and pelicans.

 

In the morning, we left for the pleasures of the coast, travelling to Beruwala, which is on the south-west coast of the island.

Along the way we stopped to visit the bird sanctuary at Bundala, an important centre for aquatic birdlife, crammed with storks, bitterns, ibis, herons and such feathery ilk.

Then, finally, onto Galle, a quiet town with an old-world atmosphere and a long history. King Solomon reputedly sent his merchant ships here many years ago. The town sprung up around the harbour and the fort, which was captured by the Dutch in 1640. The fort became an archaeological reserve in 1969 and is arguably the best-preserved Dutch fort on the island. It is a short walk from the town centre and it was well worthwhile taking time to explore the historic ramparts.

And that was just about the last action for me, cramming in a fair day’s work before bidding farewell to Sri Lanka – a fantastic holiday enjoyed with a fantastic group of people. Before I knew it, I was soon speeding off to Columbo from Beruwala for the flight back to Brum with some great memories and no credit cards.

I’d lost my wallet.

Which, incidentally, was returned intact but not before I’d cancelled the cards!

 

And now for the bird list. Fortunately, former RSPB warden and bird expert Colin was always on hand to help with the identification!

Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Lesser Whistling Duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Cinnamon Bittern, Black Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow Bittern, Indian Pond Heron, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Spot-billed Pelican, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Darter, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, White-breasted Waterhen, Watercock, Purple Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Indian Thick-knee, Black-winged Stilt, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, Kentish Plover, Common Sandpiper, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Whiskered Tern, Eurasian Collared Dove, Spotted Dove, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Jacobin Cuckoo, Greater Coucal, Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Stork-billed Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Common Hoopoe, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Lesser Goldenback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Brown Shrike, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Black-hooded Oriole, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Barn Swallow, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Red-vented Bulbul, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Babbler, Common Myna, Rosy Starling, Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Robin, Purple-rumped Sunbird, House Sparrow, Scaly-breasted Munia.

 

0

Robust August

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Liverpool should really make more of the Beatles connection – they certainly seem to underplay this card.

That one niggle aside, Liverpool is a well worth a weekend of anyone’s time in which to dip an exploratory toe.

There’s so much to see and do, it can be quite bewildering at times so its usually best to start with a few pints in one of the many pubs and bars. A bar was duly found – the Pumphouse – just one of a number of bars strung out along the Albert Dock complex (it was once the pumping station for the Dock, and now serves a decent raspberry cider).

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The Pumphouse

Then some drinking partners were also found – Annie and Dave, who were en route from holidaying in Scotland.

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Liverpool’s waterfront is a designated World Heritage Site, stretching from Albert Dock, through the Pier Head and up to Stanley Dock.

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rigging

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Up at the Pier Head can be found the Three Graces and the Four Beatles. The Three Graces line the waterfront, and comprise of the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building.

We ended up there at the closing of the day, and the sinking sun was in particularly fine fettle, firing up the Graces in a rather fetching light. That really is just the setting sun blazing on the Port of Liverpool Building at the top of the page.

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The Four Beatles were some musically inclined blokes, suitably captured in a waterside sculpture in the act of leaving Liverpool on their way to becoming mega-stars. Fortunately, there was no proviso to this legend stating that the city would cease to exist with their exit – unlike the one imposed on the Royal Liver Building whose two fabled Liver Birds (I think they are meant to be cormorants) must stay put or Liverpool will be no more.

In John Lennon’s hand are a couple of acorns, which John and Yoko used to send world leaders to symbolize world peace. These are no run-of-the-mill English acorns but were cast from acorns found outside the Dakota Building in New York (outside of which Lennon was shot).

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Being in a suitable Beatles frame of mind, we took in some of their early drinking haunts – The Grapes and the White Star – before joining merry throngs of tourists crammed in the Cavern Club. These intimate, brick-vaulted cellars were sprayed with 1960s memorabilia, and featured plenty of live tribute acts.

Later on, we ensconced ourselves in a little marquee by the river where a lively duo, Electronica, was on top form. Some great 80s stuff – with plenty of beer, great company, alongside a mighty river – is a difficult combination to beat at the best of times.

The next day, the drinking was interrupted with fresh outbreaks of culture. The Museum of Liverpool is the UK’s first museum dedicated to the history of a people – and very fine it is too. You really need a couple of visits, as there is so much to take in, with plenty of floor space given over to the port and docks, the people and all the associated creative and industrial energy that drives Liverpool.

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Feeling a bit churchy, there is the Parish Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas to dip into – a little taster before savouring the twin peaks of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Liverpool Cathedral. These two completely contrasting buildings sit comfortably on the gob-smacking spectrum of ‘sights to be seen while in Liverpool.’

Equally splendid were the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, a stately Victorian pub tiled within an inch of its life, and plush with leather sofas, stained glass, chandeliers and wood paneling – and quite possibly, the most ornate gents toilets on the planet.

Liverpool is a vibrant and distinctive city with friendly locals and great pubs. It being a Bank Holiday, there were festivals and bands all over the place.

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Martin and Dave and an Empty Glass!

I just about managed to squeeze in a short visit to the International Slavery Museum before closing time – the first time I’ve been thrown out of a museum!

 

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Annie and Marie

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Marie, Bobby and Annie

Thank God for beer! Bobby and Marie – friends with Weymouth connections – joined us for another evening of unrestrained revelry with another dose of Electronica by the river before we headed back to the Cavern Club. En route was a quick drink downstairs at Eric’s bar, before the Cavern mayhem. Lots of bands appeared, doing 30-45 minute slots each, and every one slipping in a Beatles number or two. Best were the Tearaways with ex-Blondie drummer Clem Burke giving it some sticks at the back.

davenclem

blondie

The New Blondie

There were a couple of hours free in the morning to check out the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Liverpool Tate, so off I plodded with my cultural head on. The exhibition entitled ‘Invisible Rooms’ featured my favourite piece of Bacon’s – Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion. It’s just so pastoral.three_studies_for_figures_at_the_base_of_a_crucifixion

Francis Bacon wasn’t a conventional artist (as if you couldn’t tell) but does a very nice line in warped, caged figures with thunderous oranges and reds hammered onto the canvas.

There was an accompanying display of Austrian artist, Maria Lassnig’s paintings in the gallery leading to the Bacon exhibition – lots of self-portraiture with porous and shifting boundaries (yes, I’m reading the gallery notes!)

Now for a few more piccies from ‘pool…

john

building

rlb

plane2

crab

bike

seat

red

vicky

Queen Victoria: Is there something we should know?

 

Of course, a few other things occurred before Liverpool but these were much in the way of drinking sessions loosely arranged around other activities.

 

A great little walk was had around Lapworth (as outlined below) but – so good was the sunny weather – we shamelessly eschewed Packwood House and Baddersley Clinton for pints and pub lunches by the canal. Another time perhaps…

lapworth

jclock

sblock

 

It was a damper affair at Halesowen FC where the mighty Yelts were taken apart by Blyth Spartans 5-0. An entertaining afternoon with a sending off to boot.

yelts

“Come on, you Yelts!!!”