Tag Archives: travel

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Wet Weather Blues

Today it’s raining again. In fact here in northern England it’s been raining practically all winter – storms have engulfed the county almost every single day since we returned from our mammoth whirlwind tour of SE Asia on 26th October. The biblical 40 days and 40 nights that sent Noah on a boat-building mission seem like a storm in a teacup compared to the relentless deluge we’ve endured for sixty plus nights and days. Everywhere the ground is sodden, local rivers have repeatedly burst their banks and destroyed whatever stands in their way. Our garden is a soggy bog and the special bonfire we built to celebrate my 60th birthday back in November remains unlit, just waiting a week’s respite.

My mother keeps saying it will be better when we get January out of the way. True, it isn’t so bad when daylight hours grow longer, but ever since she moved to Cumbria from the south she seems to think I’m responsible for the weather and unfortunately this year is turning out to be the wettest on record.

However, despite the doleful winter, mum remains more optimistic than me. I’ve known the temperatures drop to well below minus in February, March, or even April, and still remember driving over the fells with snow falling in June. Thank goodness for holidays.

So I thought, to brighten the day, I’d post a series of photographs from our last trip abroad, travelling courtesy of our son David and his partner Stacey. They were doing a seven month stint as ‘skaters in residence’ on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Voyager of the Seas. And we were allowed to sail free!

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Filed under Family, Nostalgia, Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized, Winter

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

Humility

I was startled by a small hand tapping me on the shoulder, not least because I was inside a traditional Gurkha restaurant in the city of Pokhara, Nepal, sharing a meal with a group of friends. The city of Pokhara is small, and beautiful. It skirts a turquoise lake and sits at the foot of the vast Annapurna mountain range. After two weeks travelling through northern India and Nepal we seemed to have reached nirvana. That morning we’d been woken at 4am and packed into a taxi-bus. Bleary eyed we arrived in a little village set into the hillside above Pokhara, the best view-point (we were told) to ‘experience’ the sun rising on Annapurna.

We weren’t alone. Fifty or sixty other tourists gathered in awkward circles, expectant yet dubious, waiting impatiently, not really convinced this ‘experience’ warranted getting up so very early. Then the snow-covered tips of the distant horizon shimmered gold as the first tenuous sunrays touched them with fire. Chatter became hushed, cameras stood ready, and expectations grew. Gradually the rim of crested peaks bled crimson under a velvet sky. Little by little colour flooded over the mountains until they blushed pink, like something half-dreamed. Well-travelled and worldly we might be, but this was nature at her most majestic. We were awestruck.

That evening we decided to celebrate our experience and were tucking into a traditional thali meal when this small determined hand reached through the open window. Turning round to look I was surprised to find the smiling face of a local boy who, I guessed, was no more than ten years old. He didn’t look like a beggar. His clothes were shabby but his eyes shone with happiness. My friends laughed at his impudence.

I handed him a bowl of vegetable curry and he drank it down in one gulp. I’d never seen anyone so obviously hungry. When he handed me back the bowl he nodded his head. The beaming smile never left his face.

My friends passed over another bowl which disappeared as quickly but then a second boy, so alike he must surely be his brother, reached up on tiptoes, doe-eyes shy and frightened. We gathered everything that was left from our feast and handed it through the window all the time worried a waiter might chase the boys away. But when the waiter eventually came to clear our table he commended us on our excellent appetites. By then the boys had ducked out of sight. On leaving the restaurant we were given a handful of lollipops and catching sight of the boys a few streets further down the road, we handed them the sweets.

They were the only beggars we met in Nepal and their beautiful smiles still haunt me.  I wished I could bring them home and mother them. Later, when we told the story to our local guide, he explained the boys were probably not Nepalese but Tibetan. There are many communities of Tibetan exiles in Pokhara but they struggle to support new refugees who make their way through the mountain passes.

News reports of the earthquake last week pricked my conscious. As a tourist, being able to travel to Nepal and witness the highest mountains in the world is amazing, but this awe-inspiring scenery also makes it one of the harshest environments on our planet. And therefore one of the most dangerous.

Himalayas

A friend, Angela Locke, travelled to Nepal in 1992. She wrote a beautiful book about her experience – On Juniper Mountain – and inspired by the people she met set up a grass-roots charity called The Juniper Trust. www.junipertrust.co.uk  If like me you want to help in some small way please consider donating to them, much of their work is achieved by volunteers.

High mountain passes

High mountain passes

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Filed under Disaster, Experiences, Himalayas, Refugees, Surviving, Tourism

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

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Filed under Books, Drama, History, Research, Travel, Wilson's Tales, Writing

Cruising

It’s easy to forget the true purpose of a cruise is to visit foreign parts – there are too many things to keep us entertained on board these modern ships (or do we call it a boat?). And it hardly looked inviting as we dropped anchor at the first port of call. The heavens darkened as torrents flooded the narrow streets of Cozumel. Apparently it was the first time they’d seen rain since April. We admitted it was our fault; being English we attract grey clouds, just like Winnie the Pooh.

Anyway by the time David and Stacey hired a jeep and we’d all piled inside the clouds had emptied and the far horizon looked temptingly bright. Driving out of town on the island’s single ring-road we used our basic map to hunt for the kind of beach anticipated by the prefix ‘Caribbean’ i.e. palm trees with white sands fringed by a turquoise sea. It took a couple of sorties before we found one that didn’t charge per-item (parking, toilets, shower facilities, loungers, being there) as private beach clubs monopolise much of the best coastline, but finally, after bumping down an unmettled  track through what can only be described as swampland (with resident tropical mosquitoes), we found what we were looking for. Picture-poster paradise!

Cozumel beach

We settled onto the ‘free’ sun-loungers and while everyone else went to change into swim-suits (only the timid call them costumes) the waiter brought a menu for the beach bar. No coffee? No tea? Now I love an ambitious cocktail but not before elevenses. The man seemed flummoxed by my abstinence – one rum mojito? It’s very tasty! Perhaps…given more time…I might have relented but I wanted to remember my day in Cozumel for all the right reasons.

We lazed on the beach and swam in crystal-clear water until the sun beat down so mercilessly we decided it was time to go exploring. We wanted to see the whole island – the ancient ruins, the exotic birdlife and even perhaps one of the native crocodiles (one would be enough).

Beach Bar, Cozumel

Cozumel beach 2

As we rounded the south-east tip the scenery changed dramatically as the road ran briefly beside the shore. But this wasn’t a gentle laze-in-the-sun beach, although an azure sea stretched out to a distant horizon, Atlantic-driven waves spurt over and through a plateau of craggy limestone, spouting metres into the air, illustrating one of the island’s best natural features – its blow-holes. For millions of years the sea has burrowed through these rocks and geologists have recently discovered this tiny island contains the fifth largest cave system in the world. But we didn’t come to Mexico to go caving.

Wave power

Time for lunch. We stopped at a rickety beach-bar (resting on twelve-foot high stilts) because it offered great views, and subsequently broke every ‘safe’ traveller’s rule by ordering fresh guacamole and salsa (the ‘kitchen’ proved to be a tin shed tucked behind the toilet block). The food was truly delicious but our enjoyment was shattered by a trio of hardy mariachis, two guitars and a percussionist, who’d trailed us from the capital (guitar strung to their backs and drum-kit across the knees) on an aging pair of mopeds. We’d all laughed when we sailed past them a third time not guessing they would track us down!

O sole mio

Escaping their enthusiastic rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ (who requested a love song?) we set off for the temple ruins, our last port of call before re-boarding the ship. It’s believed the island had a population of 10,000 Mayan people before the Spanish arrived. By the late sixteenth century European diseases had decimated the native population and everyone forgot the Mayans. Although the Archaeological Institute of Mexico is responsible for maintaining the ruins they are in danger of remaining an enigma. A very inhospitable armed guard charged us a small fee for entering a concrete quadrangle which housed various souvenir shops and a bar-café full of uniformed guards. We were immediately steered to the opposite side of the square where we were charged a further fee and provided with day-glo-green wristbands which, it was explained, permitted entry to the Mayan complex. What the first fee covered was never divulged, and we were far too intimidated to enquire, but we had our suspicions – gazing at the officers at the bar.

I only wish I’d remembered the Deet. Before we reached the first set of temples we were consumed as ‘plat du jour’ by a vigorous insect population. Shorts and T-shirts proved an open invitation to hungry hoards who obviously relished Brit. At first we braved it out, running along some ancient track that kept our feet above swamp. We viewed the ruins in fast-forward mode – look…there’s a carving, look…that’s where they sacrificed people, look…there’s a giant iguana….crikey he’s real. Do they eat Brits? Rather than test the theory we raced back to the car – Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

Mayan bridge

David’s previous experience on Cozumel taught him to allow plenty of time to drive through the island’s capital. Although we had ‘the map’ roads weren’t numbered, or even classified as to size or quality, and negotiating what appeared a simple grid-system proved tricky. Our first choice was one-way – in the wrong way and the next option wasn’t wide enough for a four-wheeled vehicle wanting to retain both wing-mirrors so we felt blessed when we finally reached the harbour unscathed. David returned the jeep, leaving us to quickly browse a street market before making our way back to Navigator. Enough foreign parts for one day!

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Just Cruising

Lazy days at sea

Lazy days at sea

It’s an entirely artificial paradise, and one that is totally, completely, utterly, unashamedly self-indulgent. On board the Navigator of the Seas every effort is made towards having fun. Hungry? Apart from five gourmet restaurants, a huge self-service area and a more sedate dining hall, food and drinks are available 24/7 in the café on Deck 5 where pizzas are made freshly to order, alongside sandwiches, cakes and cookies all temptingly lined up and ready to go. You can also help yourself to as much freshly brewed coffee you may need or any kind of tea or hot chocolate or ice cold lemon water. This luxurious cruise ship has all the trappings of a five-star hotel – twenty metres high chandeliers, carpets that absorb every step, sweeping marble staircases underlit with neon lights, brass fixtures which gleam like polished gold, glass bubble lifts flying up and down between the 15 public decks. And the hub to this floating palace is the Royal Parade, a high street of shops that runs through its heart. It’s hard to believe you are actually on board a boat.

Entertainment? Well the world is at your feet – every night a different show, a different style, a different era. The ship has a host of talented in-house musicians, skaters, singers, dancers, comedians, as well as individual performers who entertain in various bars around the boat. The Two Poets Pub (modelled on everything British) featured a musician who sang so much like Van Morrison it could have been him.  Plus, as if that wasn’t enough, each week a headline act is flown in direct from Las Vegas – we were wowed by Freddie London, a singer who mimics stars like Rod Stewart and Tom Jones to perfection.

Or perhaps the lure of competition rattles your fancy? Each morning the boat’s daily newsletter gave a list of tempting choices from ‘trivia’ in the pub to achieving the biggest belly flop in the pool. No excuse for being lost for something to do.

Deck 11 is where you swim. It contains swimming pools, several Jacuzzis, loungers and a solar room (protected from the elements but featuring another pool and Jacuzzi), alongside the requisite amount of cocktail bars and a big screen where you can watch videos while you laze in the sun. There’s an ample supply of fresh towels, rolled up like blue sausages, to keep you from dripping on the sun-loungers. The Royal Caribbean Company seems to think of everything.

Yet the thing I treasured most was meeting so many of my son David and his fiance Stacey’s new colleagues. They are currently skaters-in-residence alongside eight other professional ice performers on board Navigator. Didn’t I mention the ice rink? Deck 3, Studio B – no need to bring skates, they have plenty to lend, but you must wear a helmet and the ice show is amazing. Even before the end of the first day we were admitted into the family – when you’re working at sea fellow performers look after each other with tight-knit loyalty. It’s a truly international crew, gathered from all over the world – we met people from the Ukraine, Panama, Serbia, Poland, Wales, Italy, Iran, Norway, Canada as well as the USA. And we were treated as members of their family, and it was a true honour to be admitted into such a circle of dedicated and professional performers. The stuff of beautiful memories.

Formal night

Formal night

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A Sense of Belonging

When I was a child going to stay with my Nan was sublime. She lived three hundred miles away, in Northumberland, not four miles from the best beach in the whole wide world. Staying at Nan’s meant freedom. My younger sister and I would go exploring the boundless sand-dunes and rock-pools on what we thought of as ‘our’ beach, because more often than not we were the only souls there. An infinity of childhood memories survive in Druridge Bay.

 

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Nan’s house was tiny; a miner’s cottage in a remote and rural village where the mines had long since closed. Our visits were cramped, my sister and I shared a bed in the box-room, but to a child who lived most of the year in a faceless, frenzied city it felt safe and comforting as a big, warm hug. Nan’s village had a tight-knitted community and everyone seemed to know we ‘belonged’ to Nan. It didn’t matter if family had migrated to Newcastle or the Blue Mountains of Australia (like great-aunty Jean) if they had roots in the village they would always belong.  

 

I realise that living a whole lifetime in just one place is extremely rare. Over time most people get ‘displaced’, work and relationships drive them to search for a better life. Yet that intrinsic sense of belonging seems to beat at the heart of humanity and too much suffering is rooted in the sense of not belonging or in not being able to belong. Staying at Nan’s was one place I felt I belonged as a child because it was where I was accepted unconditionally, and unconditionally loved.  

 Grannie Wright's cottage

It’s not surprising the sense of belonging spurs many writers. Shakespeare often referred to his roots in Warwickshire and unlike contemporaries wasn’t embarrassed to set some of his plays in rural England. It is likely he never thought of London as anything more than a bachelor pad because he didn’t invest any of his hard-earned money into buying a home there. There is a rumour that young Shakespeare had to leave Stratford abruptly after being accused of poaching (fish?) from Charlecote, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy, a prominent squire. The story bares more than a ring of truth because William’s family were near destitute at the time but the case never came to court so there is little in the way of evidence. Early in his career as an actor/playwright William uses a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest that ‘luce’ (a type of fish which famously appear on the Lucy coat of arms), might actually be ‘lice’. No doubt Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed the pun at Lucy’s expense but the very fact William chose to point his pen at the family’s emblem seems to indicate a deep and lasting hurt.  

 

A writer’s job is to synthesise facets of life through the medium of words. And the sense of belonging is something most people experience at some point in their lives, pining for a particular time and place where the future is never in question, where the living is easy, the fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.     

 

I’m sitting in the railway station.

Got a ticket to my destination,

On a tour of one night stands my suitcase and guitar at hand.

And ev’ry stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.

Home-ward bound.

I wish I was,

Home-ward bound.

Home where my thought’s escaping,

Home where my music’s playing,

Home where my love lies waiting

Silently for me.

 

In 1965 an unknown singer-songwriter came to England to perform in pubs and clubs and fell in love with a young lady who was to become his muse. Paul Simon wrote down the words to this song while waiting to catch the ‘milk’ train from either Liverpool or Widnes Station (Paul says Liverpool but Widnes claim the glory). Travelling alone between gigs this New Yorker thought of home as the place where Kathy was waiting for him, Brentwood in Essex.

 

 

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Sochi, continued

Well who would have thought Russia would be like the French Riviera? On our first free day we took 
the train west, to Sochi City, and walked down a palm-tree lined boulevard to the harbour to have
lunch in a French themed restaurant - sitting outside! The temperature was 17 C and the sun shone
out of a cloudless blue sky. You would think we’d come for a holiday.
While our warm wooden hut in Banana Street was tucked in the expanding suburbs north of Adler, not
the resort city of Sochi, the mind-blowing venue of the Coastal Olympic park is yet another 15 kilo-metres east. Unfortunately it was only after a gruelling route march from Adler town centre to the
Olympic Village that we discovered all rail transport was free for the duration of the Winter Games!And the specially commissioned trains are smooth, comfortable and very, very frequent. The level of security however would knock spots off any international airport. Everyone is scanned before
entering the station then searched and scanned again before going down to the platform. And if you
make the mistake of leaving the station, because you are a tourist and get easily lost, you have to go through the whole sequence once again. At one check-point (and not even the first of the day)
Lynne had to volunteer (the officer’s polite term) that her tiny glass bottle of Chanel perfume wentinto the bin or we couldn't proceed.  

There is an overwhelming sense, when you first arrive at the Olympic park, that you have stepped
into Future World. The scale is unimaginable. Imagine if you took the O2 arena with five equally
large venues and set them in a circle around a monolithic torch spewing flames then at the periphery place a high-tech, building worthy of Heathrow's Terminal Three, and dot the grand avenues between
with brightly-coloured stages and sponsors pavilions containing state of the art exhibitions and
food courts and you might begin to grasp the enormity of scale. And at night everything becomes animated with light as waves of colour flow over every arena, patterning the surfaces with huge three
dimensional videos.

But it wasn't all rosy. Someone should shoot the person who designed the safety rails in the ice palace. Huge white bars obscured our eyeline. So, in order to see the skating, we had to bob up and down….well that's how we watched….unfortunately some people didn't care that the people sitting behind couldn’t see at all if they stood and leant over the rails. And depending on the event our seats cost between 250 and 350 Euros each!

However the experience of being at Sochi for the Winter Olympics was magical. OK the kids didn't get the marks they strived for, but they skated so beautifully they received a fantastic reception from the Russian skating fans and the on-line distinction of their triple twist being listed 13th of
sports photographs illustrating how elements of winter sports defy the rules of gravity. They’ve
also been voted one of the twenty best-dressed skater teams of all time by Cosmopolitan magazine and listed as one of the ‘hottest’ couples competing in Sochi! 

And what a thing to be, Olympians not once but twice. And that despite having very little funding or support from their association and, at their first event, 12 hours of jet lag. The article in the Guardian newspaper clarified those very facts, and concluded that the fact they managed to get to Sochi was down to their amazing self-discipline and love for the sport. How very true!

It’s not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred with the sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause and who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, is he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

 

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the USA and 1906 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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In England this is where we put milk

In England this is where we put milk

In Russia they drink vodka like milk. And we learned to adapt.

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February 24, 2014 · 4:56 pm