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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.

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Great Grey Shrike at Costa Teguise

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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

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Whimbrel

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Ringed Plover

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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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December Splendour

Merry-Christmas!

Yes, let’s squeeze another gig in, why don’t we?

Following Queen’s regal offering on the previous evening, pop punk-alternative rock-pop rock-punk rock-skate punk-emo pop-post grunge-emo band, Good Charlotte went at their set-list with renowned vigour, and not a little mascara. The gig was at the 02 Academy, supported by Against The Current.

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After more than two decades on the scene, Good Charlotte proved they’re still relevant with lots of younger fans singing and dancing around to their hits. There were also some significantly older fans that should have known better – dad dancing is not a prerequisite when attending these sorts of gigs.
The Maryland band, formed around the Madden twins, opened the sold-out show with hit The Anthem, which had even the oldest members in the crowd jumping around like teenagers (like I said: dad dancing!!!)

This song was followed by The Story of my Old Man, My Bloody Valentine, and Boys and Girls – which every Good Charlotte fan knows the words to (but I don’t, as I’m busy googling this set list).

The final set hit its stride with Dance Floor Anthem, I Just Wanna Live, The River, and finally Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous.

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The final bird trip of the year was to Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire (loved for the biggest skies and the tiniest creatures).

Wicken Fen is one of Britain’s oldest nature reserves, and has been a National Trust property since 1899.

We first visited this site a few years ago and, despite seemingly having no shortage of wide open spaces and reed beds, we saw very little of note.

It seemed a similar story this time around although there were plenty of Kestrels about but not a great deal else.

Pete and I took an extra long walk that took in the Reach Lode, before doubling back into the reserve and checking out The Mere and Sedge Fen.

It was towards the end of the day, with dusk pooling, that we saw the first Marsh Harriers homing in on their roost for the night. Top sighting though was the male Hen Harrier, which elbowed its way over the fen before settling down and going to reed bed. A splendid view of a splendid bird (as can be seen from the RSPB’s ID guide above).

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An evening of laughs with the Wax Elephant comedy night was to be had at a new venue – the Dark Horse in Moseley, with Craig on the bill with Jack ‘n’ Andy and Paul Tonkinson – plus a guest appearance from Joe Lycett.  The club had a very friendly atmosphere, and was held in rooms above the pub. Further ale and banter was to be had downstairs afterwards with open mic entertainment that took us sailing past midnight (rebellious or what?)

Darkness-SQ

It seems to be all about gigs at the moment, and next up was a return to the 02 Academy for a stonking show by The Darkness.

The Blackfoot Gypsies did a decent enough job as warm up before Darkness took the stage, the shy and retiring Justin Hawkins kept his appearance pretty much low profile with a sparkly, spangly cape and tight turquoise cat suit.

The Darkness are good fun to watch but they also have the necessary hard rock credentials to strip away any pretensions of a novelty act. Justin Hawkins is an engaging frontman – few can shriek as fetchingly as he – and he obviously enjoyed the banter with the sell-out crowd.

It was interesting (to me, at least) that the drummer of Darkness was Rufus Taylor, the son of Queen stickman Roger, who I had seen hitting the drums just the other week in the Birmingham Arena.

The hits were belted out (if there was a ballad in there too – it was also belted out) – I Believe In A Thing Called Love, One Way Ticket and, of course, Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End).

 

Before the Film Club, it was time to off-piste and watch something totally mainstream. Justice League…

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…before the Flat Disc Film Club reigned us in for more challenging reels. This month’s festive feature was Home For Christmas, a Norwegian yuletide yarn that Wikipedia will now explain:

The film follows several different Christmas celebrations in the small Norwegian town of Skogli. Paul is a thirty-three-year-old labourer who marches into his doctor’s office demanding a prescription, then proceeds to lay bare all his woes. The doctor is beleaguered by his own marital and financial difficulties (he’s left his upset wife to work emergency calls on Christmas Eve). There’s also an elderly man preparing an esoteric ritual, a vagrant who runs into an old flame, a middle-aged couple in the throes of passion, a boy hopelessly in love with his Muslim neighbor, and a young émigré couple whose car breaks down as the woman goes into labour.

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A short feature, Every Day Except Christmas, introduced the characters, and sights and sounds at London’s Covent Garden market in a bygone era (1957). The style of the documentary was ground-breaking at the time, showing working class Britain in the 1950s going about their business in a style which modern reality TV owes much to.

 

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Paul H led the next walk – to the Malvern Hills – and here’s the usual lead-up:

Parking and start:

Quarry car park between West Malvern and Upper Wyche. GR 767448. Above the Spout marked on the OS map: OS map:  Explorer 190

The walk can be flexible depending on how the weather is (it was crap!). The plan is to meander around North Hill, then drop down to St. Anne`s well for a cuppa (it was closed!). From here to Wyche cutting and the pub, The Wyche Inn.

After the pub we can climb Worcestershire Beacon and down to the cars via the Quarry.

Malvern

A little more walking – and a heap more drinking with a Boxing Day wander around Sutton Park:

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Of course, a New Year will need to be celebrated in time-honoured fashion (alcohol, friends, family) so we took ourselves off to Matlock in readiness to ring in the new, and to wring out the old.

But first, this little gem from YouTube:  “Fairytale of New Street”:

 

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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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Done

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Clap

Sheep

What..

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Outside

Steps

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Monroes

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Dance

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Gary

Chair

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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.

TrioBristols

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.

Banksey

A Banksy on a wall

BristolUni

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.

family

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.

 

RavenAge

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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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.

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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!!!

jXzyDLmefqB4y759Xizr1_WlbVFx8wMx1iDFkITRmo0qDvc9G8edFznxIChrrFXQqgZXYDdNKngKMsnRJcdSAM0A4rnXUAsw6poBsLawKKBlggZV-IjVLFjMzt2Ttolot2Vm6hGqXShgxPeDk9vcQDhTN3943e5otjqXFsf2Ccm6HZaZogTBMn6QQ6

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…

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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…

glacier copy

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.

Stickman

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

HotelView

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:

0

May days

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You wouldn’t have needed boots to step out with the fell-walking club this month: a droll Cotswold stroll in blazing sunshine.

Pushing through woods thick with wild garlic (as well as some fairly miffed garlic and some indignant bluebells) and up and over rolling hills and woody glades. From Broadway, the circuit took in the villages of Buckland, Laverton, and Stanton before (the only challenging bit) clumping up Shenbarrow Hill and onto Snowshill for a pint or two before back to Broadway for some suitable regard giving.

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walkdog

It was Roy’s walk and here is his only slightly longer proposal:

Map: OS Explorer OL45 (The Cotswolds)

Start: Long stay car park Leamington Road, Broadway

GR: 101377

Walk through Broadway Village and after church though fields to Buckland and Laverton and then on to Stanton. Long climb to Shenbarrow (3 acre hill fort 700BC). Then descend to Snowshill for lunch at Snowshill Arms.

Then an afternoon climb past Brockhampton Farm due north and finishing through bluebell woods to Broadway.

Covering sections of Winchcombe Way and Cotswold Way, on mainly tracks and field paths. No mud!

Garlic

Buttercups

Breather

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Oilseed

 

A mid-week Stag-do at the Glee Club for Mark K’s forthcoming nuptials was a brilliant stage in which to celebrate in suitably boozy fashion at the Comedy Carousel.

Hosted by Andy Robinson – who provided some brilliant compering – was ably assisted by comedians Bec Hill and Sunderland’s Matt Reed.

It was a fun night with one of our heckling entourage being heckled by a heckler.

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The A-Team at the Glee Club

The final Flat Disc Society evening for the season was a trilogy of films taking inspiration from the 5th International Conference on Roundabouts in Green Bay, Wisconsin (naturally).

First up was a short film from 1943: Piccadilly Roundabout A British Council film in which a soldier in a Far Eastern post explains to his mate the special significance of Piccadilly to a Londoner.

Next was an edition of Roundabout from May 1963. Roundabout was a series of short, monthly promotional films created by the Central Office of Information for distribution across the Commonwealth. This particular edition features, among other things, the opening of the new terminal building at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong (now closed, but still visible across Kowloon Bay).

Finally, the main event was The Magic Roundabout’s 1972 feature film Dougal and the Blue Cat. There’s a new arrival in the Magic Garden in the form of a blue cat called Buxton, which spells trouble for the gang. Some very strange things begin to happen and it’s up to Dougal to save the day (spoiler alert: he did!)

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And finally, a birding trip to that most dead brilliant of RSPB reserves – Ynys-hir, which is Welsh for ‘dead brilliant reserve.’

Crunched up in the Dyfi valley, Ynys-hir puts out saltmarsh, oak woodlands and wetlands in tantalising array and, with a cast of thousands amongst its fauna and flora, there is always a cameo or two to savour.

Best one was the Red Kite swooping in to take Oystercatcher chick, which it then started munching away on as it swept back up into its native skies.

There was a Blue Tit bathing in the flooded siding of the railway tracks, and a pair of Pied Flycatchers seeing off a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which we were initially alerted to by the squabbling woodpecker chicks in a nearby tree hole. Some tidy Redstarts also drew more than a cursory glance being one of the UKs most splendid birds, and there were also scrunched up views of some heat-haze blurred Osprey dots in the distance.

On the top end of the view overlooking the estuary, a not so young lady asked us if we had any sweeties or goodies to spare for her companion who was struggling a bit with low blood sugar. Unfortunately, we didn’t – and said as much – to which said lady whipped out a Tunnocks chocolate wafer from her rucksack and thrust it at him.

Well, you better have this then, she said.

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Finally, to finish off the month, there was a pleasant afternoon in London wade through.

Walked through Hyde Park, with its unnervingly tame waterfowl where even a Coot was confident enough to nest on the edge of the lake (actually on the pedestrianised area surrounding the water), and swans and geese seemed happier out of the water than in it.

Coot

A couple of hours spent in the Natural History Museum is never enough but I managed to soak up the Creepy Crawlies gallery and the excellent Images of Nature exhibition.

Then it was off to the Thistle Hotel at Terminal 5 for a nice little chill-out before the morning flight to Romania…