Sons: Home And Away

We recently lost Middle Son and his partner to London.  They had been staying in our rental ‘tin house’ a couple of villages away from us while London stagnated and then started to bounce back from the Coronavirus lockdown.  Now he is back enjoying a resurgent but safer (I hope) London.  However, we have been compensated by a recent visit to Northern Ireland to see Youngest Son (YS) and his partner and then, over the last few days, a visit to us by Eldest Son (ES) and his partner on their way to a wedding.

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland; Emerging From Morning Mist

These contacts with our sons are priceless.  When I was working there didn’t seem much time for more than transactional exchanges with them.  Of course, now it is they who are time-constrained by work. However, since retirement, I feel more relaxed and have more time to understand their lives and what makes them tick.

Plus, they live in wonderful places.  We loved our trip to Edinburgh to see ES a couple of months ago Now, all things being well, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are planning further trips there later in the year pre and post-grandfatherhood/grandmotherhood.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has continued to surprise and our trip a couple of weekends ago to see YS there was lovely and, once again, enlightening.  We were lucky that our trip coincided with the rarest of events in Northern Ireland – a warm and sunny period of weather!  I’m joking, but certainly the weather was a treat and helped show off Belfast and surrounds in their best light.

Sunset Over Orlock Point From The Old Coach Road, County Down, Northern Ireland

YS was, as ever, keen to ensure we saw the best of County Down and County Antrim.  He planned an itinerary for us of forest walks, waterfalls, mountain walks and coastal walks and drives.  The trip was dotted with excellent breakfasts and dinners in cafes and restaurants run by young, creative entrepreneurs who have imported the best of big city cuisine to Belfast and the nearby towns.  The high quality reminded us of or meals in Australia when we went there.  Even in Ballymena which seemed relatively run down, there was a café, Middletown Coffee Co, selling some of the best breakfast fare I have had; the toastie was tremendous.   

In a similar vein, Boundary Brewing, which we went to on our first night in Belfast, was just about the best pop up warehouse bar I had ever been to.  A lot of Belfast is rather unreformed with architecture focused on function and security but pockets of Belfast are truly inspirational in the way they are taking off with creative businesses, eateries and drinking holes.

Boundary Brewing: Wonderful Space, Wonderful View, Wonderful Beer, Wonderful Pizza

Of course, YS maintained his reputation for taking us off to see wonderful sunsets and sunrises.  The sunrise we saw demanded a 4.00am departure but YS’s enthusiasm as he prepared everything the night before for coffee by a campfire as the sun came up, and his willingness to allow us all to snooze in the car as he hurtled to the 5.20am sunrise, was compelling.  We made it to a deserted White Park Bay just as the sun peeked over the horizon and through the just-enough-cloud that YS had laid on for us. 

Perfect Sunrise Over White Parks Beach, County Antrim

I think we will all remember the moment for ever; or at least until the next sunrise YS takes us to.

Finding A Spot For A Campfire and Coffee; Plenty Of Options At This Time Of The Morning!

Breakfast that day was also excellent; this time it was in Portstewart at Awaken.  By the time we had driven the coast road back to YS’s home we were ready for a quiet pint in a local pub, a gentle stroll in a nearby park, a nap and a pause in eating before setting out to another well-appointed new restaurant, Yugo East.  There we had a multi-course, fixed-price menu of considerable sophistication.  I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this level of quality in Belfast but I am coming to do so.

Our forest walk was at Glenariff Forest Park which was delightful and which we will return to when there is more water to gush through the narrow ravines and over the numerous waterfalls. 

One Of The Many Waterfalls In Glenariff Forest Park

We then walked up a mountain, created from a pre-historic volcanic plug, called Slemish.  This dominates the landscape between Ballymena and the coast and provides great views.  We didn’t need to rush in the warm weather, there were occasional cooling breezes, and the panorama from the top was a great reward for the scramble up and down.

Looking North From Slemish, County Antrim

Our final day was quieter since YS and his partner had to return to work.  After another great breakfast at General Merchants  in East Belfast, LSW and I simply boarded a public bus and travelled from the far west side of Belfast via the Falls Road and back again.  The bold murals lining some of the route are a clear reminder of Belfast’s past.  The burnt patches of land resulting from the Battle of the Boyne bonfire celebrations in mid-July are a reminder than there are still strong tensions below the surface of Northern Irish life. 

Some Of The More Modern Murals In Belfast

We took in an architectural tour of the city centre and had a final fill up at Established Coffee before a last walk with YS down the Comber Greenway (the first of a large network of such cycle/walk ways being implemented across Northern Ireland) built on the route of the now defunct Belfast and County Down railway.  YS then whisked us off to the airport and home. 

Both trips we have made to YS’s new home in Northern Ireland have been great and we know there is lots more to see.   We will be back again soon but armed with waterproof clothing since surely we can’t be as luck with the weather again?

YS Even Laid On Dolphin Watching At Portstewart!

Edinburgh: Athens of the North

There is an additional geographic centre of gravity in my life: Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh Castle

Eldest Son (ES) and his partner moved to Edinburgh from our flat in London in the New Year.  They have settled there and are due to have a baby there in November.  Last weekend, following relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the last few weeks in both England and Scotland, we got to visit them and to see the city.

Their flat is in the heart of New Town.  This central area is the epitome of the town planning and developments that have given Edinburgh the moniker of ‘Athens of the North’.  Like a few other residential areas of Edinburgh, it is grandly Georgian with broad, airy streets.  It has well preserved, tall terraced buildings with colonnades and porticos redolent of Greek architecture, secluded communal gardens and, seemingly, a vista of a monument or an imposing public building at the end of every street. 

Dundas Street, Edinburgh. ES’s New Home

In ES’s partner we had a host who has lived in or near Edinburgh almost all her life so we had an excellent guide to the subtle differences between the different parts of the City.  The famous Princes Street has some great views of the castle and the Royal Mile is distinctive, but we preferred the adjacent, less crowded areas that were dominated by bustling, small independent cafes and shops rather than tired chains with their overblown price discount hoardings.

Princes Street, Edinburgh

ES’s flat is on the third floor of their building and the stairs are going to be challenging during his partner’s late pregnancy and, then, when the baby arrives.  So, as we walked around the city, we were considering the possible location of their next flat.  However, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also found ourselves peeking at estate agents windows and thinking about our possible future move – for at least part of each year – to Edinburgh.

Looking Over The Water of Leith, Edinburgh

There are many steps to negotiate before any such move – not least some firm decisions from Middle and Youngest Son on where they are going to settle since we want to be close and accessible to them all. 

Alongside The Water Of Leith

We also need to come to terms with the colder and greyer weather in this ‘Athens of the North’.  We were fortunate that the weather was dry and sunny but we also experienced a misty haar that came in from the North Sea every morning to fill and darken the imposing streets.  That gave us a helpful taste of the climatic difference between Gloucestershire and East Scotland.  We are lucky to have options like Edinburgh as a place to live to think about but the weather has to be a consideration.

Carlton Hill, Edinburgh In A Morning Haar

We met ES’s partner’s parents while we were in Edinburgh and it was lovely to meet them at last.  They gave us a sample of the warm local hospitality and excellent restaurant quality.  Then on our final night in Edinburgh we went with ES and his partner to Timberyard which was one of the best restaurants we have ever been to. 

Timberyard, Edinburgh (Pic Courtesy Square Meal)

It was a memorable and lovely city visit – all the better for the delayed gratification caused by coronavirus.

On the way up to Edinburgh we took a detour to visit my Mum and to have lunch with my Dad in Nottingham.  Mum’s care home has, of course, been considerate but restrictive on visits until recently out of respect for the pandemic.  Although my Dad has been visiting Mum increasingly frequently, this was the first time I had seen her for a year.  Mum is frailer now following a bout of coronavirus but it was great and fulfilling to see them both.

After Nottingham, we stayed overnight in York in a very comfortable Scandinavian-influenced boutique hotel with a Viking name (Jorvik House) that LSW had sought out.  We had the time and the sunny weather to take in the main central sites and to have a relaxing drink or two overlooking the river. 

York Minster And Other Buildings Of York

We also indulged in a stop off on our way back home from Edinburgh.  The Tebay Services Hotel was very functionally comfortable and convenient.  Happily, we had time to slip off the beaten path home down the M6 with a visit to Orton Fells near Appleby and the town itself.  While walking by the river there, by very lucky chance, we followed the sound of a distant PA system and stumbled upon a very impressive harness horse race event.  We got to it just in time to see the big race and came away from the town exhilarated by a new, vibrant, energy-filled experience.

Unexpected Harness Racing At Appleby-in-Westmorland

LSW and I have been lucky to have escaped the worst disruptions that this blasted pandemic has thrown at us all.  Nonetheless, travel to see friends and family has been curtailed and, now those restrictions are relaxing, we are planning more trips like that to Nottingham, York, Appleby and Edinburgh last weekend. 

This week will be spent catching up with local village matters (including preparing for and manning of our local Climate Action Network stall tomorrow), personal administration and essential gardening.  Then we are off again – this time to see friends in Suffolk and a very different ambience to the ‘Athens of the North’.

An Anthony Gormley Statue In The Water Of Leith, Edinburgh

Out And About In Northern Ireland

Youngest Son (YS) took us out for two major trips away from Belfast while we were visiting him for the first time in his new environment in Northern Ireland.  The first was a drive south for a walk in the Mourne Mountains in County Down.  Then he persuaded us to make a very early start to visit the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Antrim.  YS loves sunrises and sunsets; on trips he has arranged for us in England, Australia and now Northern Ireland he has repeatedly proven that he is fully justified in that!

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giants Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

The first thing that struck me when we approached the Mourne Mountains was the character of the stone walling separating fields and gardens.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are very familiar with stone walls since they are ubiquitous in The Cotswolds.  Indeed, we are currently having a few new ones built to create some terracing in our garden.  But the walls around the Mourne Mountains are very different and very striking.  Essentially they are huge, rounded granite boulders placed on top of each other so their very weight gives the walls strength.

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Even more impressive was the fact that these walls not only skirted the mountain slopes but also sat on the ridge lines right up and over the highest peaks.  The ‘Mourne Wall’ was constructed between in the early 1900’s to define and enclose the catchment area for the Silent Valley Reservoir.  The wall is 22 miles long, crosses the peaks of 15 mountains and keeps farm animals away from the reservoirs and rivers that flow into them.  It’s an amazing feature – both in terms of simple engineering and of beauty.

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

We were blessed with perfect weather for walking.  It was sunny but a great deal cooler than the simultaneous overbearing and sweltering weather back home in Gloucestershire.  The wispy and puffy clouds not only helped with the backdrops to the photos but created a constantly shifting, dappled shade across the muted mauves, greens, greys and browns of the mountainsides.

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

The circular walk was challenging but not exhausting.  The views from the peaks of Wee Binnian and Slieve Binnian were easily worth the exertion.  The subsequent substantial and carbohydrate laden brunch at Railway St felt very well deserved.

Our second trip out of Belfast with YS started before 5.30am.  YS drove us snoozy oldsters out to the Giant’s Causeway Heritage Site.  We effectively had the place to ourselves throughout our visit and as the sun rose over the cliffs and started to illuminate the causeway, we felt very privileged and pleased with YS’s insistence on an early start.

The Giants Causeway

The Giants Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway itself was much as I had expected – after all, it is so well documented in pictures including some we had seen when YS had visited the place a few weeks earlier.  What was a more unexpected pleasure was the walk around the adjacent cliffs and the ruggedness of the nearby coast.  That feeling of wildness was enhanced by the lack of other visitors at such an early hour, but also by the path closure signs (which we partially ignored) which warned of rock falls for which there was plenty of recent evidence.

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming the Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming The Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

YS took us on to see Dunluce Castle which was one of the locations used for The Game of Thrones television series (Greyjoy Castle apparently).  It is certainly spectacularly located and, when the coronavirus has passed, it would be great to visit this National Trust property more fully.

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle

We then went on to White Rocks Beach which was a further geological surprise: chalk cliffs backing a beautiful sandy beach.  Then, after a brief walk around Portstewart, we refuelled with breakfast in The Three Kings.

White Rocks Beach, Antrim

White Rocks Beach, Portrush, Antrim

Old Salmon Fisherman's Cottage Near Portstewart

Old Salmon Fisherman’s Cottage Near Portstewart, County Derry/Londonderry

We made and attempted a couple more stops to see some of the dramatic landscapes used in The Game of Thrones series.  But the visits to White Park Bay and Boheeshane Bay were brief or aborted as, by now, crowds of other tourists were gathering and car parking was becoming problematic.  I can feel another 5.30 am start being required next time we visit Northern Ireland to see YS!

White Park Bay, Antrim

White Park Bay, Antrim

There certainly will be a next time.  Some aspects of the tour around Counties Antrim and Down were expected: the calming greenness and the quiet, rural character.  But there were many surprises too and we want to see more.  Perhaps the multi-day itinerary we had planned for a walk along the South West Coastal Path in England last June, but which we had to cancel due to the coronavirus, will switch into an Irish coastal walk rather than just be rescheduled for next year.  Who knows, but we certainly enjoyed this first taster of Northern Ireland very much.

Belfast

After long consideration of the relative risks during the Coronavirus pandemic, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I finally swallowed feelings of unease and flew to Belfast to see Youngest Son (YS) and his Northern Irish girlfriend in their new home.  We had a packed four full days there – so packed that I will use two blog posts to cover my thoughts on our trip.  Here is the first.

Travel to Belfast by car and ferry was going to take a day and the fastest route involved travelling through the Irish Republic.  We were concerned about possible quarantine restrictions being imposed there during our trip but the ferry direct to Belfast from Birkenhead took nine hours and we couldn’t face that.  So we plumped for a short flight from Bristol, our closest airport, and a payment to Solar Aid to offset the carbon emission and to help people in Africa.

The 'Beacon Of Hope', Belfast (Also Known As: 'Nuala With The Hula' and 'The Thing With The Ring'

The ‘Beacon Of Hope’, Belfast (Also Known As: ‘Nuala With The Hula’ and ‘The Thing With The Ring’)

We had a wonderful time in and around a surprisingly sunny Belfast.  Fundamentally, it was good to be able to see how YS now lives.  Also, having shared a number of misgivings about his move to Northern Ireland while he had been staying with us during the Covid-19 lockdown, the visit indicated our validation of his move.  Beyond that, we ate and drank well, got a good feel for Belfast, and managed a day on the north Antrim coast and a day in the Mourne Mountains.  I’ll write more on those two trips another time.

LSW had the wise suggestion of starting our stay with a bus tour of Belfast.  With our best face masks firmly fastened again, we rode around centre and immediate suburbs of Belfast.  Much of the journey was through and past places that we recalled vividly from news reports of sectarian strife in the latter part of the last century: the Europa Hotel, Shankhill Road, Falls Road, Crumlin Road Gaol.  The Peace Wall separating communities in the west of the city is now repurposed for genuine messages of peace but it was still shocking.  The murals and the flags in many of the streets indicated the recent rawness of The Troubles.  Coupled with the helpful bus tour commentary, we got a very good introduction to the city.

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Early highlights of the tour were the famous Belfast shipyards and new Titanic Experience museum which we visited on the following day.  My expectations of the visit weren’t very high – I thought that the exhibition would major on the sinking and the romance of the likes of Winslet and de Caprio in the award winning film; I was wrong.

The Titanic Experience Building

The Titanic Experience Building

The material on the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage and a cross-section of the people who travelled and survived was well presented.  The exhibition also provided a lot of fascinating context such as the history of Belfast and, especially, the way industry built up around linen manufacture and then shipbuilding.  The exhibits included interactive displays and a splendidly unexpected and well operated automated ride through part of the building.  This was laced with audio and video that allowed us to get a better feel for the working conditions in the dry docks and the scale of undertaking to build the Titanic.

Our fortune with the weather made wandering the streets of Belfast pleasant.  There are few pre-Victorian buildings and many central streets are a strange mix of run down warehouses and old office buildings, late-Victorian civic and religious buildings (such as the Customs House, City Hall, and St Annes Cathedral) and the usual modern mish-mash of shops and offices.

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

One of the most impressive buildings is Stormont which is now the home of Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary assembly.  It was built in the 1930s next to the late Victorian Stormont Castle and sits in wide open grass and wooded grounds.  It is surprisingly accessible and views of it and from it are impressive.

Stormont

Stormont

Apart from Stormont and the City Hall, the city did not appear elegant but there is huge potential and an emerging vibrancy.  We saw the rumbustiousness of that vibrancy on Saturday night in the bar-laden Cathedral Quarter (not much social distancing there!) and in the presence of new hip coffee shops, cafes and restaurants.  Of these we particularly liked Freight, Established, General Merchants and OX Cave (sister wine bar to OX restaurant which we look forward to trying next time we are in Belfast).  Our centrally located hotel, The Flint, was also cool and comfortable.  We felt safe from Covid-19 and everything else wherever we went and the people we met were very friendly.

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Other highlights in the City were a mini picnic and coastal walk along the river Langan estuary to Helens Bay and visit to Belfast’s rather weary but endearing Botanic Gardens.  The Palm House there is a scaled down, but rather more beautiful, version of the Palm House in Kew Gardens.  LSW and I used to live in Kew and so it brought back some old memories.

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

On our final evening in Belfast, we went to dinner at the house of YS’s girlfriend’s parents.  We had a lovely evening enjoying their hospitality and catching up with them for the first time since they visited Gloucestershire several years ago.  It was an excellent finale to an excellent few days in Belfast.

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

 

Venice: Waterworld!

Earlier this week Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I experienced being in the midst of a natural disaster and human tragedy for the first time.  We have seen forest fires from a distance and the damage they have done, seen chronic pollution in Delhi, and seen widespread flooding and wind damage.  But we hadn’t seen anything so dramatic or as awful as the tidal flooding that we witnessed in Venice.

Rialto Bridge And Flooded Pavements Near Our Hotel

Rialto Bridge And Flooded Pavements Near Our Hotel

We finally arranged our oft postponed city-break and were sanguine about the fact that the weather in our destination city, Venice, was forecast to be rainy for all three days of our visit.  After all, we reasoned, there will be loads of churches, museums, galleries and restaurants to visit and waterproofs and umbrellas would enable reasonably comfortable walking through the streets.  In practice, the weather wasn’t as bad as forecast anyway.

View Of Isola Di San Giogio From Near Piazza San Marco

View Of Isola Di San Giorgio Maggiore From Near Flooded Piazza San Marco

We first became aware of another difficulty as we arrived at our hotel from the airport in our taxi boat.  As it deposited us outside the hotel we immediately saw that there was water about 6 inches deep on the pavement between the jetty and the hotel steps.  We looked bemused, considered our inappropriate footwear, and were told the water would subside in 30 minutes.

Within a few minutes, we were approached by someone selling temporary galoshes that fitted over our shoes and trousers.  We procrastinated long enough to halve the price (the salesman knew the tide was going out) but bought a couple of pairs.  LSWs were a stylish black, mine a lurid blue.  They were ugly and identified us as naïve tourists but proved to be the most vital purchase of the holiday.

By the time we had checked in, the tide had gone out.  We fuelled up at a modern hipster café called Farini and spent the rest of the day walking past the dense strips of classy palaces, around the drying streets and along the canals strewn with elegant gondolas.  Even wrong turns proved to be sources of picturesque views.

Some Of The Myriad Of Views Of Canal-side Buildings

Some Of The Myriad Of Views Of Canal-side Buildings Gradually Crumbling In The Face Of Rising Sea Levels But Retaining Wonderful Charm

We walked over the nearby Rialto Bridge and then south to the astonishing Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) and the incredible Basilica Di San Marco which dominates it.  The crumbling grandeur of the palaces along the main canals and the casual beauty of the residences along the tributary canals were awesome.  There was just so much that looked unchanged, apart from wear and tear, since it was built centuries ago.

Basilica Di San Marco (Before The Worst Inundations)

Basilica Di San Marco (Before The Worst Inundations)

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco (With Seagulls)

We rounded off our first, long day with a walk around the old market buildings and a very friendly and pleasant bar (Ancora).  By this time even the main thoroughfares were empty since the majority of tourists had retreated to their hotels outside of Venice.  The city was almost eerily quiet and strangely romantic despite the day’s flood and the threat of more.

Grand Canal and Market Buildings At Night

Grand Canal and Market Buildings At Night

Venice was proving to be everything we had anticipated but we both confessed that the scale of the consistent attractiveness of the combination of water and old brickwork or stone, at every turn, had taken us aback.  Venice is an amazing city.

Watery Dead-End But Picturesque Nonetheless

Watery Dead-End But Picturesque Nonetheless

Inside Basilica Santa Maria and Basilica Dei Friari

Next morning brought an even higher tide (mainly caused by a combination of the moon’s position and winds piling sea water up in the Adriatic).  We had to shuffle out of a hotel side-door in our galoshes to get to Farini once more for breakfast.

The rain intermittently pelted down and the streets were flooded with the tidal water but we set off again to Piazza San Marco.  This is the lowest part of the city, and the walk to it and then the view of the lake that the square had become, gave us a dramatic picture of the scale of the ‘acqua alta’ as this seasonal flooding is called.

Piazza San Marco Under Water

Piazza San Marco Under Water

We sloshed on past inundated shops, through a number of flooded streets and squares, to the wooden Ponte Dell’Academia and then the Gallery Dell’Accademia.  This gallery was excellent.  It was full of medieval religious works which have retained astounding depth of colour.  There were also wonderful ceilings, impressively large sculptures and landscapes by famous Italian artists and others I was unfamiliar with.  Surprisingly, there were very few other visitors and the visit was a relaxing break from the hiatus in the streets outside.

Ponte Dell'Accademia

Ponte Dell’Accademia

A Room In Gallery Dell'Accademia

A Room In Gallery Dell’Accademia

We continued our walk through the streets as the tide receded and spent the evening in the bar with wine and snacks.  Armed with the following day’s tide times, we tried to plan our last full day around our pre-booked and much anticipated trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery of modern art.

Next morning, all togged up with our waterproof coats and trusty galoshes, we arrived at hotel reception to find we were too late; the tide was higher than ever.  We would have needed thigh-height waterproof trousers to negotiate the pavements outside without getting soaked.

Flood Water Lapping Over The Hotel Steps

Flood Water Lapping Over The Hotel Steps

By the time the tide had receded enough to venture out it became clear that Venice had suffered a dreadful blow.  That afternoon, as we paddled through the streets once more, it was clear that the water levels had been far higher than previously – in fact higher than they had been for over 50 years.  The shop keepers who, the previous day, seemed to be taking the flooding in their stride were, by now, looking shocked, drawn and depressed.  The stock in the shops, from tourist trinkets to cashmere jumpers and pricey shoes, was ruined or at risk and those sweeping the out of their premises, knew they were in for more days of periodic inundation.

Traditional Sugar Biscuits, Harmonicas, Ice Creams, Masks, Gloves and Sweets

Venetian Shop Windows: Traditional Sugar Biscuits, Harmonicas, Ice Creams, Masks, Gloves and Sweets – All At Risk From The Tidal Floods

The art galleries, including the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, were all shut as their staff focused on protecting their contents.  The shops were closed for business and almost all restaurants were shuttered up.  Bars and bacari – stand up cafés – were opening as the afternoon wore on but we needed to sit down having missed out on breakfast and lunch and having walked through the water for a few hours.  Fortunately, we stumbled upon a pizzeria high and dry on a bridge and its unexpected quality and our hunger was a winning formula for us.

Locals At The Bar With Wellies

Locals At The Bar With Wellies

We brought forward our planned departure next morning by a couple of hours to avoid the next big tidal inundation.  The sun rose beautifully and then shone down on the city for the first time in days but we knew there would be little respite for the people of Venice.  We both felt sad for them.

Clearly, there are huge challenges to maintain the buildings in the city – both the headline tourist sights and the everyday shops and houses.  The project to protect the city from the tides with a huge set of lagoon barriers, is many years late and the will (and probably money) to complete it has seemingly faltered.  The international publicity associated with the latest flood disaster may re-galvanise efforts but one wonders how long the sea can be kept at bay as Venice sinks and sea levels creep up as global temperatures rise.

Ponte Dell'Accademia

Ponte Dell’Accademia With Basilica Santa Maria In The Distance

LSW and I would love to visit Venice again.  There was so much more to see than we managed this time.  We didn’t see the city at its best but it was still incredible and at least we have seen it much as it has been for centuries.  Unless drastic action is taken internationally and locally, that may be a privilege unavailable in a few decades time.

View From The Taxi Boat

View From The Taxi Boat

Visiting The Newt And Going Abroad

Autumn is well and truly here.  The weather has been very variable.  Days of heavy rain sufficient to test guttering, fill the local streams to brimming, and force a frustrating postponement of a Forest Green Rovers Football Club fixture, have been followed by frosty nights and wonderfully cloudless, sunny days.  The trees are turning brown at different rates depending on their species and health.  The woodland views from my normal walk routes are glorious patchworks of subdued colour.

Autumn: Long Shadows, First Frost And Full Streams

Last week, Long-Suffering Wife LSW) and I used one of the days we had once reserved for a trip abroad, long since postponed, to do a more modest excursion into East Somerset.  Over the last five years or so, we have become quite familiar with the countryside there and some of the pubs, restaurant and galleries around Bruton.  It’s a lovely area and Time Out Magazine calls Bruton ‘a bit like an abridged Stoke Newington with better air quality’ with its interesting shops, eateries and architecture.

This time, we visited a new garden set in the grounds of a large mansion that has recently been developed as a hotel called The Newt.  The garden has only been open to visitors in recent months and is still under construction.  However, the main bones of the garden, services and on-site workshops (producing cider, bread and other delicacies), are in place.  It has great views over the local countryside and is already somewhere I would recommend highly.

£15 initially seemed a bit steep for a garden that is so young and new.  But whole enterprise exudes class, attention to detail and quality; the visit (including a lovely lunch) was very good value.  We arrived just in time for a very interesting garden tour by one of the 18-strong operational gardening and woodlands management team.  The guide was every bit as impressive as the things he pointed out and he was able to give a few insights into the history of the house and garden.

The Newt Reception: Apple Display And Roof Sculpture

The Newt Reception: Apple Display And Roof Sculpture

The estate, of which The Newt has become a core feature, was created in the 17th century.  From 1785 it was home to several generations of the Liberal Hobhouse family, including Arthur Hobhouse, a founder of the national parks system in England and Wales.

The Newt: Views Through The Woodland

The Newt: Views Through The Woodland

The South African pair of Karen Roos and Koos Bekker (a telecoms magnate) then bought the property in 2013.  They had previously developed Babylonstoren near Cape Town which is a marvellous garden and winery that LSW and I had loved during our visit to South Africa in 2017.  At The Newt, they have converted the Palladian fronted mansion into a luxury hotel and invested hugely in a transformation of the garden and outbuildings.  The have used the garden designer (a Frenchman called Patrice Taravella) they employed at Babylonstoren.  As a result, by design, The Newt has a similar feel to Babylonstoren but is a tribute to the apple and cider rather than the grape and wine.

Panoramic View Of The Parabola Garden

Panoramic View Of The Parabola Garden

The centre-piece is a walled, egg-shaped garden, called ‘The Parabola’ with multiple centres, terraces and running water.  It is filled with 250 varieties of apple tied to laths (thin strips of wood) pinned to the walls or being trained up metal arches.  All are under-planted simply with a relatively small variety of herbs.  The whole ‘Parabola’, is tilted south towards a huge view and is already spectacular.  It will be even more so when the apple trees are more mature.

The Newt: Water Runs In The Parabola Garden

The Newt: Water Runs In The Parabola Garden

This central show orchard is surrounded by a variety of differently cultivated areas.  These include cottage gardens, grass gardens, lawns populated by chickens, and three small walled ‘colour’ gardens filled with plants of white, then blue, then red.  Below the long lawn and bathing pond (now for newts!) in front of the hotel, the vegetable garden is particularly impressive (and clearly devoid of the badger and deer damage we are so familiar with at home!)  The woodland provides gentle walks away from the main buildings and we saw plans to open these up further.

The Newt: Old Hunting Dog Kennels, Now Chicken And Duck House

The Newt: Old Hunting Dog Kennels, Now Chicken And Duck House

The Newt: Vegetable Garden, Long Lawn and Hotel

The Newt: Vegetable Garden, Long Lawn and Hotel

The Newt: Quirky Fountains

The Newt: Quirky Fountains

We are planning to re-visit The Newt both in Spring and in about 4 years, by which time further developments will have taken place and the planting will have matured.

The Newt: Conservatory and Olives

The Newt: Conservatory and Olives

Now Autumn has arrived and LSW has finished work for the season, we plan to go on more trips like the one to The Newt.

Also, finally, we have scheduled a short trip abroad. With Brexit being postponed again we are slipping in a trip to Venice in November.  Given it is only for 3 nights, travelling by train is impractical so we are opting to offset our carbon expenditure in the air.  Ryan Air include this option in their booking process but it appears not to charge enough given that the ‘bad’ gases from flights go immediately into the upper atmosphere where they are not broken down.  I used Solar Aid to top up the offset contribution.

We have always recognised that we needed to visit Venice – so many have told us that it must not be missed and that it is unbelievably beautiful.  Hopefully the weather will be as kind as it was when we visited The Newt but I’m sure we will love it anyway, and won’t have damaged the planet too much.

Postscript: Goodbye October Celebrated Nicely In Our Local Pub's Octoberfest

Postscript: Goodbye October – Celebrated Nicely At Our Local Pub’s Octoberfest

Perth’s Diverse Hinterland

Our last week in Australia was spent exploring the south western corner of Western Australia.  What struck me as we travelled north, south, and east form Perth was that, even though the scale of the landscape is huge, there is considerable diversity in flora and landscape.

To the north are sparse coastlines backed by gigantic dunes.  The eucalyptus gives way to other tree species and then to heath-like scrub.  The towns on the coast such as Lancelin and Cervantes are quietly dedicated to small-scale tourism and crayfishing.

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

The famous Pinnacles Desert is inland from these fishing towns and was our main target.  This desert in the Nambung National Park is a marvel of calcified tree trunk stumps.  These were once in a forest that was submerged by dunes and now stand in their thousands across a baking desert.  It is possible to walk among them but fortunately, given the heat, there is also a rough car track through the park and we used that.  Once again we admired the way the Australians know how to present their prized landscape wonders.

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

We spent four days touring the region south of Perth.  We started with a 4 hour drive to Pemberton, broken by a pleasant stop at Bunbury.  As we drove south, the countryside was initially desiccated and there was a good deal of stressed-looking forest.  Later, as we approached Bunbury, the grassland and forest became lusher.  Where there were vast plantations of conifers, we were reminded of our drives around Vancouver a few years back – but now with the temperature gauge turned up!

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Bunbury itself had some on-trend cafes (e.g. The Townhouse) that echoed Perth’s modern restaurant scene and a lovely rocky coastline was nearby.  There, I was so busy taking a photo of the waves on the basalt pillars that I was too late getting out of the way of an abnormally large wave and got a thorough soaking.  Good job the temperature was in the mid-thirties and I dried out quickly; lesson learnt though.

IMG_2898

Maidens Reserve, Bunbury. A Few Seconds Later, I Was Very Wet!

Pemberton is an unremarkable town surrounded by vast tracts of remarkable Karri eucalyptus forest.  I wanted to visit to recapture the magical feel we got from similar forest we saw 18 months ago west of Melbourne. We weren’t disappointed.

We walked through the forests both in the evening when we arrived and then the next morning and, both times, the slanting light through the trees was gorgeous and the sheer size of the trees was impressive.  My only regret was that I failed to pluck up the courage to climb one of the look-out trees that the fire marshals use to spot fires.  Had the enthusiasm of Youngest Son still been with us, I’m sure we would have all gone up for the tree-top view.

It was during our morning walk through gigantic eucalyptus groves of Beedelup Falls forest that we saw a snake.  Unlike when we were on the Great Ocean Road in 2017, this time, it was Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) who had the closest encounter and was within a couple of yards of its basking spot before it moved.  I think it was a moderately venomous short-tailed snake but it slid away quickly before we got an even closer look (which I really didn’t want!).

Beedelup National Park

Beedelup National Park

From Pemberton we went west and south to Margaret River and Augusta.  Here we chilled out among the wineries and breweries (Xanadu, Watershed and, the best of those we visited, Eagle Bay) and took in views of the surf and dolphins along the dramatic and largely empty coast.  Sugarloaf Rock, Prevelly Bay and Hamelin Bay provided particularly sweeping vistas and the latter had the added attraction of a large number of incredible metre wide sting rays patrolling the shallows.

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay (Actually, It Makes It Look Smaller Than Reality…)

We also visited one of the large caves just inland.  Fortunately, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) overcame her fear of enclosed, dark spaces to see all of Lake Cave. This was smaller than the Cango Caves we had seen last year in South Africa, but almost as impressive.

IMG_2974

Lake Cave

As we travelled around so we passed through little settlements each showing off their specialisms with great pride – Donnybrook is famous for its fruit and had streets lines with lamp posts shaped as apples, Cowaranup has life size models of cows everywhere and another town had a squad of scarecrows on show.  Each community took great pride in their identity.

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup :)

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup 🙂

Further north we visited another of LSW’s old friends – a school friend this time – in Dawesville.  The stories she told of her life since migrating to an Australian farm in the 1970’s were fascinating.  Her very Australian husband was an impressively practical antithesis of my own ability with machines who also had some amazing tales of the sharp end of life and travelling in Australia.

We rounded off that stop over with a wander around Mandurah where a ‘Crabfest’ overlooking a bay bigger than Sydney Harbour, attracted more people than we had seen together in one place throughout our entire trip.  We also diverted to take a walk along Clifton Lake through Tuart eucalyptus woods.  This was interesting for the rare, calcified structures an ancient species of bacteria (thrombolites) produces on the lake floor and also for the chainsaw-like noise the clouds of (non-biting) midges made as we walked through them.  We’d seen a variety of marsupials, birds, reptiles, dolphins and other wildlife on our trip but I didn’t expect to be impressed by midges!

IMG_3048

Thrombolite Structures At Clifton Lake

Our final, and probably hottest day, was spent east of Perth.  Here, the trees species were different again.  A whole chook (chicken) lunch at The Feral Brewing Company was followed by a brief, hot trip to the massive and historic Mandaring Weir.  Then there was a final round of drinks at the historically interesting and now rather trendy Guildford Hotel in Guildford.

Mandaring Weir

From there we departed for the airport and left Australia having loved pretty much every minute of our stay there.  We’ll be back one day.

Bright, Shiny Perth (And Freemantle)

The third city in Australia that we visited, after Sydney and Hobart, was Perth plus its twin, Freemantle, way out on the west coast.  During our five hour flight over the south coast of Australia we got a sense of Australia’s huge scale.  We had previously admired the 9 mile beaches in Tasmania but now we could see we were flying over beaches on the south coast more than 100 miles long.

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) had booked us into the Alex Hotel in Perth as the base for our stay in Western Australia.  It was excellent – probably the best value hotel I can remember staying in.  It was central, modern, cool, informal and very comfortable.  The friendly and helpful staff, the buffet breakfast and the honour bar systems in the lounge and roof top seating area were very trusting and relaxing.

Sunset Over The Alex's Roof Top Bar

Sunset Over The Alex’s Roof Top Bar

We were initially disappointed that breakfast was included in the room rate since we had been looking forward to finding the best breakfasts Perth could offer.  However, the breakfast was so good – the fig bread was especially tasty and the coffee was predictably excellent – that we indulged every morning.  These substantial breakfasts plus, I think, the 30 degrees of heat outside, meant that we rarely felt like more than light meals for lunch or dinner.  Not that stopped us sampling the excellent food that seems the norm in Australia (for example at NoMafia, Shadow Bar and Gordon Street Garage).

On our first morning LSW and I walked to Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre site overlooking the Swan estuary and the central business district that contains the botanical gardens and a large tract of native bushland.  It was a good introduction to the plants and, especially, the trees of Western Australia and the views were great across brilliantly sunny, clear air. We flagged after a few hours in the heat.  Fortunately, the Swan Brewery, with its view across the shining Perth Water, is adjacent to the park so planning for refreshments was relatively easy!

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

We strolled around the waterfront which is undergoing a huge transformation.  Everywhere we looked the city seemed bright, shiny and vibrant.

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

The following day we took a ferry to Freemantle, the port out on the coast at the end of the Swan River.  Again, the city was clean, tidy and looked great in the brilliant sun.  The historical buildings were rather more grouped together than we had seen in Perth’s centre and the strips of late 19th century and early 20th century colonial buildings were busy with independent businesses but well preserved.

On The Way To Freemantle

On The Way To Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

We visited two historical prisons and the Freemantle Shipwrecks Museum and each held our interest for an hour or so.  The Roundhouse opened in January 1831 to hold those convicted of a crime in the settlement and was used until 1886.  We were fortunate enough to be visiting just as a demonstration was taking place of the Freemantle Time Ball and Cannon.  This was used daily until 1937 to indicate the precise time to sailors off the coast so they could navigate successfully through the islands and reefs.  The cannon was a good deal noisier than either LSW or I expected!

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Freemantle Convict Prison was built in the 1850s by convicts shipped from England and was then used to house them as they continued to be sent to Australia until 1868.  The building was impressive and LSW was rather taken by the standard prison uniform which was rather like some of her own best outfits.  Over 10,000 convicts passed through the prison and helped build the settlement’s infrastructure.  Some convicts served their sentence and went on through various levels of freedom to be successful outside the prison.  Of course, many did not and the exhibition showed how tough conditions were for the convicts, especially those undertaking hard labour in welded-on manacles in over 30 degrees of heat.

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

'The Slops': Convict Uniform

‘The Slops’: Convict Uniform

The Shipwreck Museum was stuffed full of information and exhibits and, frankly, we were ready for another nice lunch (which followed very pleasantly at Hush).  I focused on learning about James Stirling who explored the Swan River in 1827 and made the case to the British government for establishment of the Freemantle settlement.  He is an ancestor of LSW’s brother in law so there was an extra twist of interest in the material relating to him in the museum.

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

Back in Perth, we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which, apart from a nice looking café and an interesting exhibition by Cassils (a Canadian performance artist), was rather empty.  I also went to the Art Gallery of Western Australia which was more conventionally full of Australian, Aboriginal and European art.  A collection of European sculptures by Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Lynn Chadwick and Antony Gormley) was impressive.

Our last full day in Perth ended at one of Australia’s iconic beaches: Cottesloe Beach.  Here was more sculpture; this time, a temporary exhibition of international, modern sculpture in a collection called ‘Sculpture By The Sea’.

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

This exhibition, and Perth’s love of the beach, attracted big crowds.  Navigating these was a novelty given that everywhere else we had been on this trip had been very sparsely populated or entirely empty.  We simply retreated to a bar and watched the lovely sunset.  It was a beautiful way to round off our time in bright, lively and seemingly confident Perth.

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

We used Perth as a base for travel south, north and east in the south-west corner of Western Australia.  I’ll cover my thoughts on some of those journeys in the next post.