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World Cup June

SeabirdCity2

Yes, it’s that quadrennial celebration when every screen is set to shades of green as football dominates and disrupts the embedded drinking patterns of all.

However, before the football madness began, there was plenty of time for a little nature and some wild spaces to be indulged.

It is often a two-fleece job whenever a visit to Yorkshire is planned so we were very lucky to plunder three excellent sunny days for ourselves in Bridlington.

A minor sea fishing port with a working harbour, Bridlington is a great base from which to explore the wild and not-so-windy-this-time recesses of Yorkshire.

Fairburn Ings was well worth dipping into on the way up from Brum. The word ‘ings’ is of Old Norse origin meaning ‘damp or marshy land that floods’ so that gives you an idea of this nature reserve – plenty of flood meadows, fenland, some reedbeds and a fair chunk of woodland. The Ings got the weekend off to a fine start with stunners such as Hobby, Black-necked Grebe, nesting Spoonbills and a Cuckoo.

There was also a collection of Cuckoo Wasps, scribbling their way around an old dead tree. These were Ruby-tailed Wasps or Jewel Wasps – common monikers for what are formally known as Cuckoo Wasps which, like their avian namesake, plunder the nests of other species. The resulting larvae eat the egg or larvae of the host – not the sort of guests you want to invite over for cocktails.

Cliffs3

From Bridlington, it is a short zip up to the awe-inspiring Bempton Cliffs, a veritable seabird city with Gannets and Guillemots galore, neat little Razorbills and Kittiwakes, whirling Fulmars, and everyone’s favourite, Puffins – all thumbed tightly into dizzy notches and nicks on the towering chalk cliff faces.

Gans2

There are excellent viewing platforms arranged along the cliffs at various points for some of the most spectacular seabird viewing in the country. Nearly half a million seabirds don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quiet.’

Gull

Gans3

Puffins

Puffins3

Razorbills and Puffin

Kitti

Kittiwake

RB

Razorbill and Guillimot

The hypnotic sight (and smell) of the various colonies, with additional gulls and jackdaws is mesmerising at times, a bit like watching the sea – until you realise you are actually watching the sea as well.

CliffsFlam

Even more senses can be overloaded with a stirring yomp over the cliffs to Flamborough Head for more of the same.

Strip

sky

Flowers

Strip2

Jackdaw

 

Tophill Low was a surprisingly good find over the weekend. Tucked away off one of the main roads, this reserve is an active Yorkshire Water Treatment Works built in 1959. It opened its doors as a Nature Reserve in 1993 and features several hides spread across two main reservoirs that flank the River Hull.

The two reservoirs – ‘D’ and ‘O’ dominate an area peppered with substantial marshes, ponds, woodlands and grasslands.

A Great-spotted Woodpecker was a great spot from the first hide, as were the Yellow Wagtails, but the most memorable sighting of the day were the Marsh Frogs.

These are large non-native species, frog-marching their way up the country from Romney Marshes. It was their incredible booming croak – they are also known as the Laughing Frog – that was difficult to pin down at first. A couple of male frogs were soon spied, rattling their sabres at each other across a small pond.

Here’s a little clip from YouTube so you can appreciate the crazy volume of these amphibians (filmed by Anna Benson Gyles):

…And here’s a froggy cartoon from the Crow Collection – a best seller in its day:

frog

Blacktoft Sands is another great little reserve on the Humber estuary, and one we often visit when up in Yorkshire. The vast tidal reedbed is the largest in England, a haven for many species of wildlife, and it wasn’t long before some lofty Marsh Harriers heaved themselves into the air and began scanning the reeds for snacks. We once saw a harrier take a gull chick from its nest at this reserve so were hopeful of a replay but nothing doing.

Blacktoft Sands also has saline lagoons, which are rare in Europe and provide an ideal habitat for a variety of leggy wading birds including the ever-elegant Avocets.

 

Cattle

There were more leggy shenanigans later in the month when the fell-walking crew took to the Staffordshire Moorlands for a brisk circuit.

Fortunately, Adrian L was on board to provide his inexhaustible commentary:

Start at Hulme End, Staffordshire Moorlands

Location: Grid Ref: SK 1062 5927

From the car park, we walk for a mile along the route of the railway. Then go up Ecton Hill. Information points on way up about the mining that has occurred there since the Neolithic ages. 

Nice views. Then we come down Ecton Hill and through a bit of a gorge (Wetton Mill). Nice views. Then we go up another hill. Nice views. Then we go down the hill. Nice views. Then we walk along the Hoo Brook for a while until we get to Butterton, which is on the side of a hill. Then we go to the Black Lion Inn on top of that hill. The pub does not mind dogs coming in. It’s the owners they sometimes have an issue with and may get ordered out. After the pub, we go down the other side of the hill. Nice views. Then we go up another hill. Nice views. Eventually reaching Revidge Moor – nice views. Then we go off that hill back to the car park.     

Some of you have not been happy in the past about not being told if there is any mud. If there has been rain do not be surprised if there is mud. That usually happens when it rains.  

Cheers, Adrian, for a very singular take on this month’s wanderings.

 

Watson

Heather Watson Wellies It

In between various World Cup kick-offs, there was a series of supporting events to enjoy:

The Nature Valley Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club – for a long time an annual event for us – again shocked with the lack of rain – that’s two years running now.

Padge&Pat1

Pat Cash gets to meet Steve P

PatCash+

Steve P took his first ever selfie with tennis idol, Pat Cash, and the scene was set for some seemly sets. Here was the order of play and results:

Elina Svitolina beat Donna Vekic  6-1, 3-6, 6-1

Lesia Tsurenko beat Heather Watson  7-6, 7-5

Petra Kvitova beat Johanna Konta  6-3, 6-4

Garbine Muguruza beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova  6-1, 6-2

 

This seems just the place to serve up another silly toon:

Calves+

 

The novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was one of the must-read books of the last ten years. The Alexandra Theatre was showing the critically acclaimed stage show based on the novel, which was well worth trundling along to.

Birdsong

Here’s Stephanie Balloo’s edited review of it for the Birmingham Mail:

With the centenary of the First World War drawing to a close this year, it seems fitting to stage a heart-wrenching tale of courage, anguish, duty, passion and love.

An adaptation of the book of the same title, doing justice to Sebastian Faulks’ beautifully visceral prose was bound to prove challenging.

It kicks off with an introduction to a peculiar, stern-faced Lieutenant Wraysford – played by Tom Kay – as he leads a team of fathers, husbands, sons through the trenches, tunnels and brutality of war. Tim Treloar as loveable cockney ‘sewer rat’, Jack Firebrace steals the show.

It is only as Wraysford lies seriously injured in a field – deliriously clinging to memories of all he holds dear – that the details of his perilous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire emerge.

This is how we see the characters of Amiens, France – in abrupt flashes dotted throughout the incredibly powerful performance.

Breath-taking scenes of adulterous passion are effortlessly intertwined with the heartbreak of war – with the cast hurrying between each other as Stephen dips in and out of consciousness and daydreams.

It comes as no surprise as Faulks himself approved of the script – all the vital standout moments within the novel were accurate, intense and emotive – just as they should be.

 

Then it was off to the critically acclaimed Ivy restaurant for dinner to round off the weekend…

IVY

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That’s not the Ivy – that’s The Botanist…

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Sunken March

Adder

Fully loaded with a family bag of Minstrels and a frothy Latte, it was off to the cinema for the latest release from Marvel – The Black Panther.

Apart from the dire Fantastic Four films, Marvel’s characters always provide an entertaining diversion, although the eponymous hero in this case seems to have accrued more super powers than the character I was familiar with as a kid.

The film posters are pretty impressive too.

BlackPanther

 

It was quite early on in the month when a bit of culture was deemed to be coming on…so it was off to see Quartet. This from the Birmingham Rep:

Quartet_800_x_467

A very entertaining production, seen from the cheap seats!

Quartet is the charming tale of four ageing opera singers. Cecily, Reggie and Wilfred reside in a magnificent retirement home. The rumour circling the halls is that the home is soon to play host to a new resident. Word is – it’s a star! Jean arrives and old rivalries resurface, secrets are revealed and chaos unfolds, but in true theatrical tradition – the show must go on!

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Quartet_Paul_Nicholas_Sue_Holderness_Jeff_Rawle_Wendi_Peters_0068

Paul Nicholas, Wendi Peters, Sue Holderness and Jeff Rawle star in a revival of the bitter-sweet comedy Quartet from the Oscar-winning writer Sir Ronald Harwood. A celebration of the twilight years and the hilarity of growing old disgracefully!

 

Redshank

Redshank

Nature Notes Warning:

The annual long weekend to Devon gave us good weather for ducks…and grebes!

Over the course of the long weekend, we notched up grebes galore – Great Crested, Little, Black-necked, Red-necked and Slavonian.

First port of call was to clock the Cirl Buntings over at Labrador Bay, and one was duly clocked as soon as we parked up, popping along the hedge of the car park. Before we had hardly stepped out of the car, a Skylark ascended and a Sparrowhawk suddenly zipped by. The hawk ominously glided down a scrubby trail leading to a favourite field of the Cirls. Fortunately there was plenty of bunting laid out to celebrate our arrival.

The Cirls proved to be very confiding if a little skittish, and flitted back and forth to snaffle seeds from the field edge. A Peregrine put in a soaring appearance, scything through the sky in typical imperious fashion but the buntings were clearly beneath its notice.

Then it was onto Broadsands to nab the Great Northern Diver – a Rock Pipit, Gannet and Scoter having to be content with second billing. The rain came in hard so rather than huddle away from the elements on Berry Head, we headed to Beesands where in a ley lay our Red-necked Grebe – and a new one: a Ring-necked Duck.

Flag2

They’re mad for maintaining their flags in Beesands…

Slapton is a little Devon village, which gives its name to the nearby beach of Slapton Sands. Presiding over this coastal bar is a Sherman Tank, which was recovered from the ill-fated Exercise Tiger that took place in 1944.

Tank2

Exercise Tiger was the code name for one of a series of large-scale rehearsals for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. 749 American soldiers and sailors died during this rehearsal when German E-Boats snuck in and torpedoed three ships. More men died during Exercise Tiger than died in the actual landings on Utah Beach.

This from the information board by the tank:

Info

Rollof-Honour

snippet

A strange gull had appeared in the waters around Langstone Cliff, a short sandwich-snatch away from our hotel – the spookily named Langstone Cliff Hotel.

As gullish as a gull can be, it didn’t look particularly exotic to us. However, a handy gull expert nearby insisted it was a possible partial albino Thayer’s and Kumlien’s gull hybrid! (what do you mean, hold you back?)

Here it is:

Gull

We then headed over to Exminster Marshes where an obliging Black-necked Grebe pootled about in the canal. Red-breasted Mergansers were also present, as was an unusual Cormorant that looked as if he had just popped in from a face-painting session at the Turf pub.

Bowling Green Marsh near Topsham was where the rain began to pick up again so it called for some serious hide huddling. Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and the ubiquitous Mallard scuttled around the water; a pair of Snipe snipped in for a quick paddle, and Greenshanks and Redshanks stretched out their legs in the shallows. A Kingfisher perched awhile from a post.

A Slavonian Grebe – the final grebe of the weekend – was viewed from Cockwood, bouncing along in the turbulent waters of the sea. Brent Geese were busy cropping the fairway of the adjacent golf course where a couple of dead lapwings were also in evidence – casualties, no doubt, of the recent ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorms or, as they call it in Russia: Thursday.

 

DoubleIndemnity

Meanwhile at Film Club Night, the main feature was Double Indemnity.

Scoring 96% on the TOMATOMETER, here’s Linda Rasmussen’s take on Rotten Tomatoes:

Directed by Billy Wilder and adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity represents the high-water mark of 1940s film noir urban crime dramas in which a greedy, weak man is seduced and trapped by a cold, evil woman. Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces insurance agent Walter (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband to collect his accident policy. The murder goes as planned, but after the couple’s passion cools, each becomes suspicious of the other’s motives. Double Indemnity ranks with the classics of mainstream Hollywood movie-making.

The short second film, also based on a James M. Cain story, was The Girl In the Storm, made in 1990 and capturing the essence of American film noir from the period, using 16mm film stock. The film explores a situation where two strangers are thrown together in a dangerous environment. In fairness, a dangerous environment to the girl could be have been anything from a infant’s tea party at Fluffy Camp to a spelling competition with gerbils judging by the fragility of the woman – she gets knocked out when her car stalls and is killed by a mere waft of a knock on her head.

Anyway, a quick search on YouTube and here it is in all its 15 minute glory:

 

Having been postponed due to the Beast from the East, the annual spring jaunt to the Forest of Dean only just got underway before the month was out.

Cannop

Cannop Ponds

There was a brief stop at Lydney to check out a couple of waterlogged fields for a reported Glossy Ibis but there was no sign of the shiny bird although a bevy of Red-legged Partridges were nicely lined up on a concrete wall for formal inspection.

Then onto Parkend where we missed out on the Hawfinches but clocked a couple of spiraling Goshawks. New Fancy View provided more distant Goshawks with a supporting cast of several Buzzards and an indolent Sparrowhawk circling above.

The real stars though, were the couple of Adders out for a bask in the sunshine. There was one curled up just off the path, and another braver soul sunning itself beneath the viewing platform where a couple of Common Lizards had also put out their beachtowels.

Adderview

Never Mind the Goshawks – there’s an Adder in that corner…

After lunch at Beechenhurst, it was onto Cannop Ponds for Mandarin amongst a reasonable selection of Ducks, Coots and Little Grebes; the always-reliable Treecreeper moused its way up the trees nearby.

Finally, nestled in at Crabtree, a Great Grey Shrike put the cap on a fine day.

 

The Coming Out Exhibition at the Gas Hall was well worth dipping into.

This major exhibition featured over 80 modern and contemporary artworks by internationally renowned artists who explore themes of gender, sexuality and identity in art.

The exhibition curated art by many well known artists, including works by Andy Warhol, Grayson Perry, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Steve McQueen, Derek Jarman, and Richard Hamilton.

Photos from the Art Gallery’s website:

Hockney

Warhol

 

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January Commentary 2018

ColdBeers

Spent the New Year in Matlock with the family (that’s not Matlock above, by the way…)

Situated on the edge of the Peak District, Matlock does a nice line in rocky outcrops, underlying bedrock and watercourses. The River Derwent winds its way through nearby Matlock Bath, and appears to possess something of a dogged nature, opting to cut its way through a limestone gorge rather than follow an easier route to the east. Geologists may suggest landslips or glaciation would account for this but sometimes a river just wants to get out of its comfort zone.

MatlockBath

Annie and Sarah in need of some winter sun

Matlock Bath developed as a spa town when thermal springs were discovered there, and both John Ruskin and Lord Byron – celebrities in their day – popped over to check the waters out. Not long after, they may well have been inspired to a bit of canvas daubing and sonnet scribbling.

This may be an opportune time to introduce a few notable quotes from Lord Byron:

Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.

Friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship.

The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.

Lots of necessary drinking took place with an inevitable curry at Maazi’s – a contemporary Indian restaurant set in a former cinema with an incongruous tuk-tuk plonked neatly above the main entrance.

TukTuk

An incongruous tuk-tuk

 

I’m not sure if Alan Bennett ever went to Matlock Bath (I’m betting he has) but in his memoir, Keeping On Keeping On, he borrows a line from the poet R. S. Thomas on political correctness, which is worth an airing:

I am not going to affect the livery

Of the times’ prudery.

 

That’s enough culture to be going on with. How to follow a great few days in the Peak District? I would have thought going to a Pen Museum would be the obvious answer.

PenMus

Pen Museum – Oosoom

Based in a former pen factory, the wittily entitled Pen Museum celebrates the story of how our modern pens evolved from quill to steel nib to fountain pen.

Birmingham’s factories supplied the majority of pens to people all over the world with thousands of skilled craftsmen and women employed in the industry. Apart from anything else, it encouraged many who previously could not afford to write to develop literacy skills.

Tucked away in the Jewelry Quarter, it is a quirky little museum packed with exhibitions and fascinating bits and pieces.

Of course, the whole business collapsed after the invention of that pesky little Biro – but that’s another story…

pen

englandexplore.com/birmingham

 

The annual trip out to Rutland Water turned up its usual blend of birds and banter but we didn’t manage to cover as much ground as usual. This was probably due to a surfeit of waterfowl splashing around on the water, and we enjoyed particularly good views of the bonny Smew (it’s a duck!)

Biders

There must be something feathery out there…

There also seemed to be more waterfowl than ever ducking and dabbling around the pools in huge numbers – just about every species of duck you would expect to see including Pintail and Goldeneye. A sneaky Caspian Gull also managed to immerse itself in with a flock of floating gulls until some sharp-eyed birders dug it out.

A few Red Kites were spotted en route to Rutland in the morning. On the return journey, further diversion was provided when a loud crack came from the roof of the coach. Some air-conditioning mechanism had been torn loose, and there was a bit of a cold journey back for some.

One bird at Rutland that did get pulses racing – plus a fair bit of jostling and jousting in the hide – was that splendid little wader, the Whimbrel.

Birders2

Always a bit of a star whenever seen in the UK, they seem ten-a-penny in the Canary Islands. (This is a lazy little tie-in to that other annual pilgrimage of ours – a cheeky week in the sun!)

Hotel

Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa

Lanzarote was the island of choice this year and although not overly sunny and hot, there was still enough warmth for shorts and T-shirts during the day, and a fleece in the evenings.

SBLocal

Steve and I stayed at the Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa. Located on the front and alongside the harbour, overlooking the Reducto Beach. It is the biggest landmark on the skyline with seventeen floors (we were on the sixteenth, just below the panoramic bar!)

Drink!

HotelSpa

The capital of Lanzarote, Arrecife was once a small fishing village – boats could be hidden behind the black volcanic reefs to deter pirate attacks.

Another defensive stronghold to keep out the pirates was just along from the hotel, the Castillo de San Jose, a historic fortress now housing contemporary art exhibitions in the barrel-vaulted rooms that were once used to store powder.

SanJose

Castillo de San Jose

LanzoFC

“Eat my goal!”

On Sunday, we went to watch Lanzarote FC play the Villa.

Brad Cockerell (the son of a friend of a brother) plays in midfield for Lanzarote’s top team but unfortunately he wasn’t on the pitch as they went down 0-1 in the last minute to Villa Santa Brigida.

The neighbouring resorts of Costa Teguise and Puerto del Carmen are all within easy reach of Arrecife. Certain levels of exploration were required, which took in several bars along the way.

Shrike

Great Grey Shrike at Costa Teguise

cactus

SBBar2

Steve finds his spiritual home

GoldenCorner

As do I

Puerto del Carmen was within walking distance along the coastal pathway that sneaked around the airport. Flitting around the rocky beaches were more Whimbrel, Turnstones and Sanderlings, which provided the ornithological diversion between beers.

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Sanderling

Bar-tailed-Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

Whimbrel2

Whimbrel

Whimbrel3

plover

Ringed Plover

Compare

Grey Plover

The marina also became a favoured spot for a little light drinking…

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Marina

boats

 

Stop Press! A children’s book that I illustrated is now up and running on the shelves:

SanityBook

http://thesanitycompany.co.uk/product.php?id=8

After the publication of the children’s book, it seemed of only natural to attend the Wolverhampton Literary Festival at the end of the month.

At first I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the metric structure of Byron’s love poetry with kindred spirits – or possibly to interrogate the conflicting interpretations of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

But really I wanted to go so I could ride on the tram.

There were a couple of very good talks to attend – a passionate delivery on the merits of writing groups by the Oldbury Writing Group, and a interesting discussion given by a panel of self-published authors, which provided much grist to this mill.

Now, here’s a little extra plug for my own novel published a couple of years ago (in the very unlikely event that anyone missed this little gem!)

Cover

Please read the amazon reviews first though – it definitely isn’t a children’s book despite one friend accidentally ordering several copies for her children’s library!

 

The Flat Disc Society’s film offering this month was this excellent choice:

Madre

It scored 93% on the Tomatometer – and here’s a review by Hal Erickson from the Rotten Tomatoes website:

John Huston’s 1948 treasure-hunt classic begins as drifter Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), down and out in Mexico, impulsively spends his last bit of dough on a lottery ticket. Later on, Dobbs and fellow indigent Curtin (Tim Holt) seek shelter in a cheap flophouse and meet Howard (Walter Huston), a toothless, garrulous old coot who regales them with stories about prospecting for gold.

Forcibly collecting their pay from their shifty boss, Dobbs and Curtin combine this money with Dobbs’s unexpected windfall from a lottery ticket and, together with Howard, buy the tools for a prospecting expedition. Dobbs has pledged that anything they dig up will be split three ways, but Howard, who’s heard that song before, doesn’t quite swallow this.

As the gold is mined and measured, Dobbs grows increasingly paranoid and distrustful, and the men gradually turn against each other on the way toward a bitterly ironic conclusion. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superior morality play and one of the best movie treatments of the corrosiveness of greed.

Huston keeps a typically light and entertaining touch despite the strong theme, for which he won Oscars for both Director and Screenplay, as well as a supporting award for his father Walter, making Walter, John, and Anjelica Huston the only three generations of one family all to win Oscars.

 

There was a short introductory cartoon, Bugs Bunny Rides Again, to start things off – one of the first cartoons to pair Bugs and Yosemite Sam who faced off in the Western town of Rising Gorge.

 

That’s all folks!

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Dismembering September

Swanheron2

Occasionally, the UK provides little scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the wilds of the America West (admittedly there may be a certain lack of fire and brimstone).

One such occasion happened during our weekend in Minsmere in Suffolk where we enjoyed the spectacle of three otters winnowing about in the shallows of Island Mere. (There was also a fourth otter – we saw one earlier but it may have belonged to this particular trio). A Marsh Harrier circled the otters on the lookout for fishy scraps; a Kingfisher fished and caught a fish, a Bittern sailed into the reeds, and a Water Rail sprinted between reed beds.

Scratch

WaterRail

Water Rail Chick with a bald spot

Headless

Rare Headless Water Birds

As dusk approached, a Red Deer trotted past us, and several Green Woodpeckers rose up and pegged it as we walked up Whin Hill. Late sightings of Stoats, Muntjac and Red-legged Partridges all capped a fine day.

Deer

With acres of woodland, wetland, scrapes and heath – and a bit of coastal to go with it, you could spend weeks in Minsmere and never think it enough.

Mingling with the ducks and waders were Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Avocet and godwits. Elusive Bearded Tits (stop sniggering at the back) showed well in the reeds, and a Red-necked Phalarope dropped in. Raptors were well represented by the harriers, a Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Hobby and Kestrel. Emerging from the grazing marshes, a Chinese Water Deer stepped out from the tall grasses for a quick munch.

Otter

clouds

There is much to recommend Southwold for its proximity when visiting Minsmere. Not least the Adnams brewery, which faithfully stocks the town pubs with a selection of its wares.

The town was also the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony so it ties in nicely with the previous post.

Southwold has a pier, and a lighthouse; brightly painted beach huts overlook the sand and shingle beach.

Gulls

Pre-squabble Gulls

A short hop past the old and new water towers took us to Southwold Harbour, where a squabble of gulls fought over a dead rat. The rowing boat ferry service then rowed us over to Walberswick where a quick pint was quaffed. It was not long before the rain lashed down and forced us into Southwold’s pubs.

RainClouds

Now for a little Crow Collection cartoon before we go into the culture section: This one almost never made the cut as it was deemed too icky but it sold quite well:

nasal

 

At the Barber Institute, there was a Monet doing the rounds.

Water Lily Pond, on loan from Chicago in exchange for a Gauguin, was showing well in the Blue Gallery. Probably one of the most recognisable motifs of Impressionism – the Japanese bridge over the water lily pond in Monet’s garden at Giverny was a theme he became obsessed with – and this version is considered one of the artist’s most luminescent masterpieces.

MonetLilyPond500

Water Lily Pond

Minding its own business close by was an early oil painting by Henri Matisse – Landscape in Corsica – on long-time loan from a private collection.

The Barber Institute never fails to deliver, and in a little offshoot gallery, an exhibition was showing 19th-century portrait photography, with many public figures striking notable poses including Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and John Hanning Speke.

 

Craig Deeley was appearing at the Glee Club’s Rough Works with Joe Lycett, Andy Robinson and a whole bunch of comedians. For the comedians, Rough Works provides an ideal platform to try out brand new material, and the packed audiences are very encouraging and supportive. A very funny night out with drinks before, during and after – and the comedy was pretty good too (drum roll).

51ZwYTHmcFL

The resumption of Film Club opened with the Spanish animation film Wrinkles, the story of a retired bank manager who has been shuffled off into an elderly care home. The Tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes website gives it 96% and the consensus can be agreed on as such:

Poignant and tender without succumbing to schmaltz, Wrinkles offers a thoughtful — and beautifully animated look at old age.

2485

The “I Want! I Want!” Art & Technology exhibition at Birmingham Gas Hall was inspired by William Blake’s engraving of the same name. This little engraving shows a tiny figure that announces his desire to get to the moon with a cry, “I want! I want!” It conjures up a memorable image of aspirational zeal.

The exhibition features work by contemporary artists who have been influenced by the rapid development of technology. Some interesting stuff was on show – particularly the Dawn Chorus video installation and a computer animation by celebrated Blur cover-artist Julian Opie.

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Goodbye July

Malverns

The Malverns

A fairly quiet month hardly deserving of a post so its going to be mainly filler and not killer this time!

In between bouts of drinking and watching the cultural twin peaks of Wonder Woman, and Spiderman: The Homecoming, there was a nevertheless an excellent walk to record.

This one took in patches of the Forest of Dean, views of the Malvern Hills, and a Roast Beef Ploughman’s at the Glasshouse.

It was Stuart’s walk and here’s the gen:

Map: Explorer sheet OL14 Wye Valley & Forest of Dean

GR: SO721260.

The walk:

The walk is mainly along field paths, through woods, and along quiet country lanes.

Go west from the car park in the market town of Newent, across playing fields then SW to Briery Hill. Follow Three Choirs Way southwards to Clifford’s Mesne, continuing along quiet lanes past the now closed Yew Tree Inn to ascend a long but not difficult climb to summit of May Hill (977 ft).

Crop

Tree

There are breath-taking views to Malvern Hills, Black Mountains, and the Severn Estuary (let’s hope for good weather). From the summit continue along Geopark/Wysis Way SE then NE to Glasshouse for lunch at The Glasshouse Inn.

Dogs are not allowed in the pub but there are pleasant gardens.

Glasshouse

After lunch we head northwards through the pleasant but occasionally muddy Newent Woods, and then past apple orchards to return to the cars.

 

1930s Poet Laureate John Masefield describes May Hill in his narrative poem “The Everlasting Mercy.”

It’s about a fist fight with a fellow poacher over territory with the main protagonist called Saul Kane with some Christian/Satan overtones and implications.

Its way too long to reproduce here so here’s some of the more memorable verses. It’s worth reading just to roll out the fantastic names of two of the peripheral characters: Doxy Jane and Dicky Twot!

Ploughing the hill with steady yoke
Of pine-trees lightning-struck and broke.
I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay
There on his hill, day after day
Driving his team against the sky,
While men and women live and die.
And now and then he seems to stoop
To clear the coulter with the scoop,
Or touch an ox to haw or gee
While Severn stream goes out to sea

and this bit’s quite good:

“Where is it, then? O stop the bell.”
I stopped and called: “It’s fire of hell;
And this is Sodom and Gomorrah,
And now I’ll burn you up, begorra.”

as is this:

“After him,” “Catch him,” “Out him,” ” Scrob him.”
“We’ll give him hell.” “By God, we’ll mob him.”
“We’ll duck him, scrout him, flog him, fratch him.”
“All right,” I said. “But first you’ll catch him.”

Finally…

They drove (a dodge that never fails)
A pin beneath my finger nails.
They poured what seemed a running beck
Of cold spring water down my neck;
Jim with a lancet quick as flies
Lowered the swelling round my eyes.
They sluiced my legs and fanned my face
Through all that blessed minute’s grace;
They gave my calves a thorough kneading,
They salved my cuts and stopped the bleeding.
A gulp of liquor dulled the pain,
And then the flasks clinked again.

This last bit was after the Boxing Day Sales at Selfridges…

Speaking of which: This was taken at the Green Man in Harborne on July 24th – WAY TOO EARLY!!!

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Noooooo!!!!!!

 

Sometimes, when you’re feeling a bit peckish, only a Seafood Fujiyakko will do, and fortunately one was at hand for our footy A-Team social at the Miyako Teppanyaki restaurant .

Kraaled around a Japanese teppan grill (with live cooking and loose egg throwing), an entertaining evening was in store with salmon, lobster and scallops being fired up on the Barbie. Of course, we had to have some traditional Japanese ale to help us along.

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Gavin failed to catch the egg in his mouth

A visit to the Falconry Experience in Swadlincote ensured a surfeit of raptors for our appreciation. For the first section there was a selection of owls including Little Owl, Barn Owl and Eagle Owl before the falcons, hawks and eagles took centre stage. The Kestrel, Harris Hawk, Buzzard and Tawny Eagle were all mightily impressive but even a guest appearance from a Kookaburra couldn’t diminish the star of the show – a Golden Eagle.

The talons on this eagle are impressive enough – then you learn they have a gripping strength of over 700 psi, which is up there with me hanging onto a Topic (the average person has a grip strength of about 20 psi.)

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Check out the talons…

fMWbhnZygYbY5wM2czVdn-a8XrOdGLoYvZiCI141zFGY4v8KoOQIcEPf6urR8IBTzPIQPwTC5oMN-3m7eA60BYkqn_19oV2GfDkuiBkeICM--PzgbScc0w9vmVIh5aXKQzCwLD5BqL3rSKznuViS9z-nY84jXYWNZdN2bUzDCIKGwJj38Uboy8z-Mx

Nature Note: Raptor comes from the Latin word “rapere” which means to seize by force.

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And finally, this cartoon from the Crow Collection – I always liked this one but it never sold particularly well. I just like the silliness of it…

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2

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.

BuildingA

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.

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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 pole-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!

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

0

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.

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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

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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…)

ravanafalls

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.

katatemple

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.