A Walk in the Country.

12 Nov

What do retired gentlemen of a certain age do when they get together? Some may go to the pub to sort out the world’s problems over a  couple of pints. Some may gather on the park green for a sedate game of bowls. Others might gravitate to a local football match to moan and groan at their team and curse the referee. What I particularly like though, is to go for a walk in the country. Luckily I have a few friends who share this preference. Think– ” The Last of the Summer Wine.” I am fortunate enough to live near hills, woods, moors and coast, so there’s always somewhere attractive and interesting to explore. Last Friday was a case in point. My friend, Ian, and I decided to go for a 6 mile hike on the edge of the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire. We meet about once every month to stretch our legs, get some fresh air and catch up on mutual news. Some may find it surprising that men can actually talk about things other than football. Ian and I can manage this quite easily, with only passing references to Middlesbrough and Chesterfield FCs. So this was to be just another pleasant walk ( and talk) in the country — or so we thought.

No matter how tightly planned walks are though, they invariably throw up something unexpected. I like this. It’s a mini adventure! For instance, a few weeks ago, out with another friend, I saw a bob-tailed roe deer bounding gracefully along the border of a field and a local wood. Sometimes the surprise is unwelcome however, like when one comes across a huge bull, nervous cows with their calves or a herd of frisky bullocks in a field that one has to cross. Time to be a coward and creep stealthily round the far edge of the field, heart pounding and hoping not to be spotted. Once I made the mistake of running away from a group of bullocks. They thought I was playing and chased after me! As I heard the thundering hooves closing in, I hurled myself over a barbed wire fence, ripping open my padded coat- sleeve in the process. Only 2 weeks ago, the start of  a walk in the North York Moors with the local U3A ( University of the Third Age) was ruined for me by encountering a posse of pheasant shooters with their beaters and retriever dogs. This has happened more than once. As an animal lover I abhor hunting and shooting( not to mention fishing.) I fail to understood how fellow humans get pleasure from slaughtering innocent creatures whose only “crime” is to share the world with them. The hunters are always full of bonhomie, greeting us with loud, jolly “good mornings” and “lovely days”. Perhaps they are embarrassed about being “caught in the act” or couldn’t care less and are simply looking forward to the killing spree ahead. They don’t seem to realize that other people find their activities obnoxious.  Sorry — time to get off my high horse!

Usually though,  a walk throws up pleasant experiences and discoveries. One might catch a glimpse of a rare bird or wild animal,  discover a beautiful wild flower, witness a picturesque landscape or  gaze at a dramatically changing sky. On this occasion Ian and I had the multi-coloured autumn trees to look forward to. You don’t have to trek to New England to experience the glory of the “Fall”. We set off from the lovely village of Swainby, south east of Stokesley. Swainby, to quote my guide book, is a “charming and peaceful village, divided by its tree-lined stream” and gives “few hints of its dramatic past.” How about that for whetting the appetite? It actually owes its existance to a tragedy. Just up the hill above it, is the deserted village of Whorlton. In the 14th century, the inhabitants of Whorlton were devastated by the coming of the plague. The Black Death as it was then known, struck England between 1348 and 1350 wiping out a third of the population. The shocked survivors of Whorlton left their plague infected homes, full of  heart-rending memories and moved down into the valley. Thus Swainby, which up to then had only been a sleepy hamlet, was suddenly expanded into a full-blown village. All that is left at Whorlton today is a ruined church, an eerie graveyard and the shell of a medieval castle.

Much later, in the 19th century, Swainby was once again shocked out of its peaceful, rural slumbers by the opening of ironstone and jet mines in nearby Scugdale. We were to see the spoil heaps from these mines later on in our walk. Apparently, Swainby became a lively, rough and ready, “Wild West” type town, crammed with miners and their equipment, full of smoke, dust and clatter. It must have been something to behold. However by the 1920s the mines had been exhausted, the miners and their followers had moved on and Swainby returned to its previous, peaceful tranquillity.

It was peaceful and tranquil as we set off, passing the old church, crossing a quaint little bridge and walking along the banks of the gurgling stream. Local residents gave us friendly “hellos” as they went about their business. A man on his cycle gave us a wave. The trees as expected were beautiful. Leaves of yellow, orange, copper and red shimmered in the sunshine. We were lucky with the weather considering it was well into November. Storm Deirdrie was smashing into the western coast of Britain, but in Swainby, in the north east of England, we were enjoying a fine morning with the bonus of sunny periods. It wasn’t totally peaceful though. The local refuse collectors were proceding down the High Street with their noisy, rubbish- crushing lorry and a team of tree surgeons were just getting started with their saws and axes. We also had to leap on to the grass verge rather sharply when a young woman in a hurry swept past us in her car, making no allowances for pedestrians who didn’t have the sanctuary of a pavement. We headed up a steady hill that climbed  out of the village and soon entered a wood, joining a path that is part of the Cleveland Way. It was mixed, decidious woodland and the brightly coloured autumn leaves were particularly lovely.

After a while,we left the woods and descended through a field with views of tree covered hills opening up on either side. We were now largely looking at pine forests sweeping across the hillsides. To our surprise, some of the pines seemed to be retaining their deep green colour while others had needles fading into pale orange. It was quite a dramatic sight. A broad swathe of orange sat beneath a broad swathe of green and both were topped by a dark band of moorland. We crossed a stream and climbed up through more woods until we reached those high moors. We had now left the balmy calm of the valley and were suddenly being buffeted by cold, blustery winds. We put on our thick jackets and kept on climbing. The views were extensive. We looked over the Cleveland Hills including the dramatic collapsed cone of Rosebury Topping ( undermined by metal miners), across a wide, flat valley towards the distant chemical works of Teesside. Beyond that, faintly visible, was the sea, merging with the increasingly grey sky. The wet weather soaking the west was due to arrive in the later afternoon. We hoped to have finished our walk by then!

Now we spotted a couple of fellow ramblers, descending quickly down the path towards us. Naturally, they stopped to chat. This nearly always happens in the countryside. People are friendly and  say at least  “hello”. It is very different from the grey, anonymity of the town. These were a young couple, on holiday from London. By a complete fluke they had exactly the same walks- book as us and were trying to follow exactly the same route. Unfortunately, they had got lost, failing to find a crucial turn off, and had reluctantly decided to retrace their footsteps, until they met these two old geezers plodding up the hill towards them. After a brief conflab and a quick game of guidebook snap we hit upon a plan. During the conversation I rather recklessly admitted that I had done this walk before, a couple of times. I offered to guide the others back on to the designated route. What I didn’t admit though, is that I had got lost on this walk before and the last time I did it, I was just following someone and not paying much attention. However, Ian still retained his faith in my navigational skills and the others were quite happy to tag along. So now we were a group of four and I was the “leader.” It must have been the teacher in me rising up again even after many years of retirement. I admit that I enjoy being in charge. That way, if all goes well, I get all the credit. Unfortunately, the flip-side is that if it goes wrong, then I get the blame! So we set off, like a little army patrol, with me in the lead and Ian bringing up the rear. The wind was still blasting us and the thought  crossed my mind that this would be an excellent place to read “Wuthering Heights.” Emily Bronte and her famous sisters would have walked cold and windy moors like these almost every day.

We passed 2 stone cairns and eventually found a mysterious concrete post. The book’s instructions were a bit vague at this point. However, the obscure path through the bracken to the left was thankfully found and I basked in my moment of glory. I accepted the grateful thanks of the Londoners and gave them the instructions for the next section of the walk. Then we let them go, as they were quite a bit younger than us and we were feeling a bit tired. Ian’s dodgy left knee was now playing up a little, but he bravely ignored this and we returned to out Last of the Summer Wine chatting, putting the world to rights yet again. If only May and Trump would listen! We now passed over the knobbly, grassed-over spoil heaps, eventually entering a steeply sloping pine wood. The carpet of fallen needles was slippery and we had to be very careful as we gingerly descended. After negotiating a couple of styles and another field we emerged on to a hedge-lined lane leading to the pretty village of Faceby. I have it on good authority that Faceby has some of the most desirable and expensive properties in the whole region. I didn’t bother to consult my bank balance! Above Faceby stands Whorl Hill ( old Norse:” hverfill” –“high hill with a rounded top.”)

The hill is covered with an attractive wood of  larch, scots pine and beech trees.  Again the multi-colored leaves were lovely. In spring this woodland floor is carpeted with a mass of bluebells. We walked and chatted, trying to ignore the steepness of the initial hillside that had us puffing and panting a little. I confidently stated that we were now nearly home and dry. All the difficult navigation and confusing directions were now behind us. However, I spoke too soon. As we came out of the woods I suddenly realized that I hadn’t a clue where we were. I didn’t recognise the place at all and had a gut feeling that the waymarked footpath was going in the wrong direction. By now it was 2-30pm and our coffee shop visit was well overdue. Ian was yearning for his cappuccino. Also the grey clouds were darkening and thickening on the horizon. There’s only one thing worse than getting lost and that’s getting lost in the rain. A consultation of the large scale OS map revealed no clear answers. I had got my knickers well and truly in a twist and wasn’t thinking straight. A feeling of panic started churning up in my stomach. I could also feel Ian’s trust in me rapidly draining away! What to do?

You see, we didn’t have modern technology to magically dig us out of the hole. Our smart-phones probably had google maps and sat-navs but we didn’t know how to use them. At our age, one becomes technologically challenged. In the end, at Ian’s wise suggestion, we resorted to an old fashioned,  but tried and trusted method of finding our way. We asked a human being. Opposite the exit from Whorl Hill woods was a modern farmhouse. We opened the gate that had “No Right of Way” signs all over it and knocked on the door. I admit to feeling very nervous at that point. A man eventually came, accompanied by two border collies. One of the dogs was barking loudly and baring its teeth, but its bark thankfully proved to be bigger than its bite. Having been bitten by a dog when I was a teenage paper boy, I have always been a little nervous around them. The secret I’ve been told is not to show your fear, but that’s easier said than done. The dogs’ owner proved to be very nice, assuring us that they were OK. He was surprisingly kind and patient considering we had so rudely interrupted his afternoon peace. He seemed to have suffered some sort of stroke because he had difficulty in walking and his speech was slurred. However, he still insisted on coming out and showing us the way. It was very nice of him. The path we were on had been right. It was just my instincts that were wrong.

We resumed our walk, the rain still luckily holding off. Surely now we were on the last lap? We could almost smell the coffee and taste the toasties we were so looking forward to. We crossed a style and started walking down a sloping grassy field. Up ahead I at last spotted the deserted village of Whorlton. We were back on track. We had to make a detour around a large fallen tree and continued strolling downhill. I heard a distant shout and looked round in alarm but nobody was there. We carried on, pleased we were nearing the end, but then the shouting resumed, much louder, and obviously full of  anger. A man, presumably the farmer whose field we were in, was approaching rapidly with 2 dogs. The dogs were fortunately quiet but the farmer was full of hell, Apparantly, we had failed to spot a style and were now trespassing on his land. When Ian calmly explained that we had got lost and were merely trying to find our way to Swainby , the farmer angrily replied “I don’t believe you!”  Did he really think that we had deliberately ignored the style and walked on his field just to wind him up? The field didn’t have any crops or livestock in it. I looked into his eyes at this point and they were blazing with rage. “If anyone else walks down my field and bends my gate by climbing over it, I’ll snap their f-cking heads back!” he threatened. Obviously if lots of other walkers had made the same mistake as us, it was his signage that was at fault. Ramblers were clearly not his cup of tea! In the end he took great satisfaction in ordering us to walk all the way back up to the top of the field to find the style rather than letting us through the gate he had just come through. We didn’t enjoy being verbally abused. It was upsetting and unnecessary. In the end though, I ended up worrying about his blood pressure and wondering whether there were any good anger-management courses in the Swainby area. He probably went home and kicked the cat before swearing at his wife.

Well reader, we found the controversial style and walked down the same field, but this time on the right side of the fence. At last we reached a lane and walked into Whorlton. Nothing survives there except the ruined church and crumbling castle. Only the gatehouse of the latter remains. It last saw action in the English Civil War when the Parliamentarians shelled it and captured it from the Royalists. The Holy Cross Church has an arched nave open to the sky, approached by an avenue of yew trees. Some find it a disturbing place but I prefer to use the word “atmospheric.” The tiny chancel is roofed  and locked, but through a flap in the door one can glimpse a 14th Century, wooden effigy of a knight. We strolled straight past both church and castle, too tired to take any proper interest. Luckily, I’d seen them before. At the bottom of the hill we returned to Swainby, guided by its tall church spire. It was now just a case of dragging off our boots and collapsing into the Rusty Bike Cafe, very much looking forward to our well earned repast.

Unfortunately the day had one last unwelcome surprise for us. We got into the cafe so late ( nearly 3pm) that they had virtually run out of food. It is very popular with cyclists and motor-bikers and they had obviously descended like a swarm of locusts and devoured most of the goodies while we were getting lost and being verbally abused. So no toasties, no sandwiches, no sausage or bacon roll for Ian. It was a disappointing anti-climax at the end of our walk in the country. I managed to order a salad and a small delicious quiche and Ian put a brave face on things and even managed the odd smile as he sipped his cappuccino. But even with this damp squib of an ending and even after being attacked by Mr Angry, it had still been a great day out. A lot had happened, enough even to write a blog! Hopefully you have enjoyed it.

 

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BULGARIA — at last.

14 Oct

Ever since the fall of the “Iron Curtain” in 1989, I have been fascinated with the idea of visiting the countries of eastern Europe, that for much of my life, had been strictly off-limits. I have made a good fist of it. I have been to many of the ex-Communist states which have extricated themselves from the Russian stranglehold and are now making their own way in the world. A few years ago I even made it to Albania, which for a long time, was the most isolated state in the whole continent. The Balkan countries have particularly fascinated me because of their complicated histories, their racial and religious mix and their pivotal role in the outbreak of the First World War. So it’s somewhat of a surprise that until this autumn ( 2018), I have never visited Bulgaria. I once thought about going on a walking holiday in the mysterious- sounding Rhodope Mountains, but in the end, deemed that too energetic for me at the time. Bulgaria then went off the radar for a long while until last year, when 2 things flagged it up again.  First of all, I read 2 books by the excellent Bulgarian author: Kapka Kassabova, who now lives in Scotland. One: “Street With No Name” describes her teenage years growing up in a totalitarian state in the 1980s. The other” Border — A Journey to the Edge of Europe” describes her travels along the much-disputed border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Both books rekindled my interest in Bulgaria. And then … I visited Doncaster!

Doncaster is a gritty, industrial town in England’s South Yorkshire, part of the Sheffield conurbation. I went there with a pal to do a Heritage Trail. The walk round the town threw up more than a few interesting surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was when we stumbled upon the Sofia Supermarket. Sofia, of course, is the capital of Bulgaria. The question was: why was a South Yorkshire supermarket named after an obscure, east European capital? The answer was supplied by the guide at Doncaster Minster. Ostensibly a loving Christian, he had nothing but bad things to say about Bulgarians. Apparently, they and the Romanians had “invaded” and taken over a whole area of the town. They had quickly turned it into a filthy slum in his view, and had even been seen defecating in the streets. We were reminded why Doncaster was one of the strongest “Leave” voting areas in the 2016 EU referendum. Many Donny voters blamed the European Union’s freedom of movement policy for the partial “take-over” of their town and the subsequent threat to their British identity. I had already been to Romania, a beautiful and delightful country, although not without its post- Communist problems. Now it was a must that I should go to Bulgaria. What terrible things would be in store for me there, the things that were driving so many of its citizens to leave and endure suspicion, discrimination and prejudice in a cold, damp country on the opposite side of Europe?

So it was that I persuaded my wife, Chris, to come with me on a small group tour of Bulgaria, entitled ” Mountains and Monasteries.” There was a slight feeling of trepidation in the air as the departure date approached. To a certain extent, it was another journey into the unknown, but that, in my opinion, is what makes travel so exciting. What about cleanliness? Would we encounter bed bugs while staying in remote mountain villages. What about the food? Would meat eating Bulgaria be able to supply us with adequate vegetarian food? What would the roads be like? Were we letting ourselves in for a bumpy, pot-holed nightmare? We were not opting for the comfort and safety of a Black Sea beach resort with its cliche of a pool, sunloungers and an all-in package deal. I had once stood behind 2 people in the post office queue, discussing whether to visit “Sunny Beach” or “Golden Sands”. I thought they were discussing places in Devon or Cornwall until I later found out that these were Black Sea resorts, given anglicised names to attract British and other western tourists. No, we were not going to wrap ourselves in the safety blanket of a “fly and flop” holiday. We were heading for the largely mysterious interior of Bulgaria, a land reputably of:  beautifully decorated churches, fine mosques, carefully preserved rustic villages, rich folk-lore, striking mountain scenary, and , possibly, — people defecating in the streets!

Well reader — it was great! OK, it wasn’t exactly relaxing, but sight-seeing holidays rarely are.  It’s a pity tour companies cannot devise more leisurely itineraries, especially for older travellers like ourselves. ( Our small group of 5 were all in their mid 60s to early 70s.) Staying in a hotel more than one night would have been very welcome. We only did this once, apart from the 2 nights in Sofia at the beginning and at the end of the trip which we organised ourselves. However I repeat — it was really great. All the hotels and guest houses were spotlessly clean, the food was unfailingly delicious ( think Turkish or Greek mezze style), the wine and beer were excellent and cheap, and all the people were welcoming, generous and friendly. Not once did we see someone going to the toilet in public view. In fact, unlike in the UK, we were hard pressed to spot any litter. I think we only encountered a couple of cigarette butts in the entire 10 day trip. Bulgarians smoke a lot and tobacco is one of their most important industries, but they observe a ban on smoking in public buildings that is now in force across much of the west.

So what did we see? Don’t worry, I don’t intend to give you a blow by blow account of the whole trip. Sighs of relief all round!  I just plan to give a few of my main impressions.

Obviously, from the title of the tour, we saw a lot of mountains and monasteries. The fact that they are often found in the same places is not a coincidence. In the past, monks sought out the natural beauty and sheer isolation of the mountains to be nearer to God and far from wordly temptations. The result is that many of Bulgaria’s monasteries, founded in medieval times, sit in very picturesque locations. This was particularly true of Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains and Bachkovo Monastery in the Rhodopes. Monasteries stand in their own walled courtyards, surrounded by arcaded and tiered ranks of monks’ cells and centred around one or more beautiful churches. They usually have a bell tower. Their exteriors were often plain and unassuming as they didn’t want to upset their muslim Turkish rulers. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Bulgaria in the 14th century ( and subsequently went on to rule it for 5 centuries), their architects were so impressed with Balkan churches that they unashamably designed their mosques along the same principles. Thus, both mosques and Orthodox churches consist of graceful domes resting on cube-like structures of brick or stone. Many of the mosques have been destroyed or converted to other uses since Bulgaria escaped from Ottoman subjugation in the late 1880s, but we were still able to visit exquisite examples in both Sofia and Plovdiv. Interestingly, non- Muslims are allowed to visit mosques so long as they remove their shoes, although women have to wear a gown and cover their heads. ( something that Chris understandably did not appreciate very much.)

Going back to the churches — they are all spectacularly frescoed. This goes back to the time when most worshippers could not read or write, so the churches had to get their messages across in pictoral form. The idea of painted churches was borrowed from the Byzantines ( Eastern Roman Empire) who ruled Bulgaria in the early middle ages. Most of the pictures depict Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist holding his own head, and one of the church’s many saints. Bulgarian monasteries and churches also seem to be very fond of graphically representing the Day of Judgement, when it is decided whether a departed person goes up to heaven or down to hell. A person’s soul is shown being weighed on a pair of scales, seeing if it is clear enough of sins to balance a feather. Gruesome devils are often seen poking poor people with vicious, large forks or trying to drag them down into the fires. Many of their potential ” victims” seem to be naked young women leading me to blasphemously suspect that this might have been some sort of medieval soft porn. ( Sorry!)  Bulgaria was one of the first eastern European nations to adopt the Christian faith. Two learned brothers were instructed to devise the Cyrillic alphabet so that this southern slav nation could be welded together under the umbrella of Christianity. It saved everybody from having to learn the more alien language of ancient Greek. The invented language has 30 letters, all pronounced totally phonetically and all recognisable to the slavic speaker. The language and the new religion helped to create a communal, Bulgarian sense of identity. In 1054 came the “Great Schism” when Christianity divided into the Roman Catholic Church in the west, and the Orthodox in the east. This reflected the earlier split of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves. Bulgaria ended up firmly in the eastern, Orthodox camp as it still is today. Just out of interest, it is the only member of the EU to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Something to remember for that pub trivia quiz. Two more interesting pieces of trivia:—  Sofia is the second highest capital city in Europe ( after Madrid), and Bulgaria is the second best wi-fi connected country in the world ( after South Korea.)

Going back to the churches again — the entire trip was a bit like a crash course in the Orthodox religion. Bulgarians are not overtly religious but since the austere, atheistic years of Communism, they have returned to the church, particularly for baptism and wedding rituals and to celebrate various saints’ days. Our group never witnessed a full scale service but did see individual worshippers. Upon entering , the devotees cross themselves. They then buy a few candles and light them, before placing them on a candalabria.  There is a higher one for the living and a lower one for the dead. Candles are symbols of faith and of the light of knowledge. Unfortunately, the smoke from constant candle burning has led to the dulling or damaging of many of the originally gleaming paintings. The faithful then approach one or more icons, cross themselves again, say a prayer, perhaps while spreading a hand on the image and then, finally, they kiss the icon. The icon is not regarded as a mere picture. It is a sanctified object that helps the faithful feel the presence of God. The picture is a sort of portal to heaven. The most striking feature of an orthodox church is the iconastasis. This is a richly decorated screen of icons and delicate wood carving. The latter is often covered in gold leaf. The iconastasis symbolises the division between earth and heaven. It has ornamental doors which are opened during a service to reveal the altar beyond. The whole scene is colourful and spectacular. It makes a typical English parish church look dull and boring. Once we observed a wedding. Large crowns were placed on the heads of the bride and groom after being symbolically tied together by the chanting priest. At the end, the married couple and guests all joined hands for a circle dance to live music in the street. The musicians played pipe and accordian. Sometimes goat-skin bagpipes are played. There was also rich, emotional male-voice harmony singing.

Bulgaria has several huge mountain ranges dominating its hinterland. Here we travelled through large forests. In the forest are brown bears, wolves and European lynx but we never saw any as we were never up early enough in the morning. The only creature we spotted was a brightly coloured Flame Salamander — a dark lizard- like creature with bright orangy -yellow markings.  We saw large swathes of meadowland populated by herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats. Invariably, these were cared for by a cowherd or a shepherd with a long stick, helped by a couple of dogs. Once we watched a flock of goats being shepherded quietly across a hillside above a mountain village, the only sound being the quiet clanking of the bells around their necks. To use the old cliche, it was like travelling back in time. Sometimes it was as if the whole of inland Bulgaria was like one big, open-air museum. We saw old, rustic villages where life had seemingly not changed very much for centuries. In one, Dolen, we discovered the female church guardian, patiently shelling a huge mound of beans. She took time off to tell us her sad life story and a brief history of the church which was in bad need of restoration. Our excellent guide translated. It was a privilege to enter this closed off, forgotten world, if only for a few minutes. That village had people walking around in traditional costume and featured architecture of the “National Revival” style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Wattle and daub walls were plastered over and topped by pan-tiled roofs with tall, striking chimneys. On the top of each chimney there was what looked like a tiny replica of a house. This architectural style came in as Ottoman power gradually drained away.

We visited two cities: Sofia, the capital and Plovdiv, the second largest. Both had an array of interesting buildings, galleries, shops, restaurants and museums. Both also had partly exposed Roman cities beneath street level. Sofia got pulverised by Anglo-American bombers in 1943 after Bulgaria became a reluctant ally of Nazi Germany. Thus today, it only has isolated historical buildings , although there are still a fair scattering of them. Plovdiv is more of an harmonious whole, with an evocative cobbled old town clinging to the side of one of its hills. It has a partly restored Greco-Roman theatre, now used for modern productions, plus part of its Circus Maximus, formerly used for ancient Roman sports and chariot racing. We loved wandering round Plovdiv. Next year, it’s going to be the European Capital of Culture. Going back to the war, Bulgaria managed to save all of its Jews from the death camps. For his trouble the Nazis poisoned the last King, Boris. His tomb is now in a revered corner of the Rila Monastery. Bulgaria had been tempted into the Second World War with the promise of regaining its lost territory of Macedonia. This had originally been part of Bulgaria when it emerged from Ottoman rule but just a short time later, the Great Powers took it away again at the Congress of Berlin in 1876. Countries like Britain, France and Austria-Hungary didn’t want Bulgaria, a Slav ally of Russia to get too powerful. This is why Bulgarians who know their history, still hate Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister at the time. They blame him for the emasculation of their newly independent country. The Bulgarians went to war 3 times in the 20th century to get back Macedonia, but lost them all. ( 2nd Balkan War, First World War and Second World War.) Our guide, Sloven, scoffed at the idea of the independent Macedonia that exists today. ( soon to be renamed North Macedonia after its long naming dispute with Greece.) He called it “Disneyland” because he said it has had to make up a fantasy history and heritage.

We saw ancient Thracian passage tombs, stunning limestone ( karst) gorges and cave complexes, and breath-taking mountain vistas.  We experienced really hot and really cold weather depending upon what altitude we were at. We did wine tasting and tried our hand at folk dancing and singing. ( not very successfully). We visited the Valley of the Roses where 70% of the world’s  essence of “rosa damascena” is produced. Originally from Damascus in Syria, this special red rose with a powerful essence is now mainly a Bulgarian speciality. It forms the basis of many of the world’s perfumes. We also learnt that so-called Greek yoghurt is actually mostly produced in Bulgaria. I won’t go on. Suffice to say it was a stimulating and endlessly fascinating journey through the lesser known hinterlands of Bulgaria.  We found that the Bulgarian people we met were all proud of their country, its heritage and its culture. The trauma of the end of Communism and the abrupt break-off of trade with Russia did cause serious economic problems however. These were compounded by  next door Yugoslavia’s Civil wars in the 1990s. Obviously great hardship and poverty ensued, made worse by constant corruption at governmental level. This is probably why some Bulgarians have felt compelled to travel and find work in the richer countries of the west. This is probably why some have ended up in Britain, despite its current “hostile environment” for migrants.

So, I have now been to Bulgaria — at last. Another piece of my personal Balkan jig-saw has been slotted into place. Travel , they say, broadens the mind. I have now learnt a lot about one of our often misunderstood European neighbours. It has been a greatly enriching experience.

 

 

Trans-Pennine Stop Off.

19 Sep

The idea came to me while on a train ride from Middlesbrough to Manchester Airport. I have travelled this route many times, on the Trans-Pennine Express, over the hilly backbone of northern England. I love the section between the cities of Leeds and Manchester. I always make a point of stopping whatever I’m doing and looking out of the window. I see an evocative landscape of glowering hills and moors beneath frequently moody skies. The steep, dark hillsides are laced with dry stone walls and dotted with wandering sheep. Every now and then there is a canal with a tow path and locks, or the  glassy surface of a reservoir. Then we pass through a town, complete with the remains of textile mills, tall, brick chimneys and regimented rows of terraced houses marching up the hillside. It always makes me want to pull Priestly’s “Good Companions” off the book-shelf and start reading it all over again. It’s evocative opening chapter is set in the fictitious Yorkshire mill town of Bruddersfield. ( a thinly disguised cross between Bradford and Huddersfield.) Well, my idea was to visit the town that lies inbetween these two. Just a 10 minute train ride south-west of Leeds lies Dewsbury. The Middlesbrough Trans-Pennine Expresses have now started to stop there. So I decided to visit it — to allow it more than just a quick glance through the train window.

My travel buddy Ian and I , love to visit towns that tourists largely ignore. It is our own peverse form of “anti-tourism.” No matter where we decide to go however, something interesting or exciting usually turns up. It’s like digging for hidden gems. For instance, people told us there was nothing to see at Stockton, but we ended up visiting it twice! Would Dewsbury throw up any worthwhile surprises? It was to be another fascinating delve into the unknown.

Our train swept into Dewsbury station across an impressive, curving , many-arched viaduct. Not a bad start! Below us, tumbling down the hill, was a town studded with grand Victorian edifices. They were the hardy survivors of the world wars, the sweeping, post-war redevelopment schemes and the modern ring road, which cuts a destructive swathe around the borders of the town centre. The result is a mish- mash of architectural styles — the old and new, the good, the bad and the ugly.  The impressive Victorian stone churches, warehouses, offices, and civic buildings, share the centre with post war developments that are already  sadly showing their age, with their discoloured concrete, peeling panels and scrawls of graffiti. To summarise its recent history, Dewsbury prospered during the late 18th to the early 20th century because of its  successful woollen textile industry. The town was a hive of activity and its buildings reflected this wealth stream. Unfortunately, the latter half of the 20th century saw textile manufacturing go into near terminal decline. As this industry provided the heart-beat for the whole community, the town fell into a parallel reversal of fortunes.  Sadly, the steep decline has carried on into the present century. Mills, offices, shops and offices have closed and the once proud industrial town has suffered badly from deprivation and neglect.

Fortunately though, not all the town’s impressive historical buildings were lost to the cause of “progress” or swept away to  make room for the insatiable demands of the motor car. Some have been rescued and saved for posterity. In the 1970s and 80s the urge to sweep away the “old” to bring in the “new”, was challenged by a growing appreciation of the past. The Heritage movement, with its emphasis on preservation and restoration, was born and quickly gained in strength.  One result of this was that most of the historic core of Dewsbury was declared a Conservation Area in 1981. The town centre still contains 280 pre- Second World War buildings, 57 of which are listed. The bull-dozers were not stopped, but they were definitely slowed down.

Ian and I, stepping out of the rail station, first had to negotiate the busy ring road but then were able to stroll down relatively quiet streets into the semi-pedestrianised town centre. Today Dewsbury, like almost every other town, has its modern shopping malls and precincts, which we ignored except for just a passing glance. They are convenient, but largely soulless in our opinion. We wanted to seek out the buildings that represented Dewsbury’s golden era. We wanted to find the architectural highlights, not the mundane. Thus we ended up on the Blue Plaque Trail kindly devised by local historians. It certainly threw up some gems and surprises on the way.

At the bottom of the hill from the station we entered the market square, the centre of the town. It wasn’t market day ( that’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays), but it was still an attractive space, surrounded by shops, pubs and cafes.  It has benches, fancy wrought iron and glass shelters, colourful hanging baskets,and areas of shrubs and newly planted little trees. The market square is dominated at one end by the magnificent Town Hall built in the late 1880s. It looks a bit like a grandiose chateau topped by a domed clock tower.  It’s built in local stone in French Renaissance style and cost 40,000 pounds with an extra 1000 for the clock tower.( sorry — the pound sign on my keyboard has stopped working!) As well as municipal offices, it housed a courthouse, a police station and prison cells. The courthouse has featured in TV drama series and the “Yorkshire Ripper”, Peter Sutcliffe, was held in the cells after his arrest. Today, the Town Hall still houses Dewsbury’s main concert venue, the Victoria Hall, with space for an audience of 700 people. In front of the Town Hall stands an impressive modern statue of the Good Samaritan tending to the stricken traveller. It looks like it has been sculpted from a single large block of stone. A plaque states incongruously that it was commissioned to mark the opening of the pedestrianised Princess of Wales Shopping Precinct in the early years of the 21st century. I forget the exact date. I am still trying to figure out the connection between the biblical character and a modern shopping centre. Maybe because of her charitable work, Princess Diana was regarded as a modern good Samaritan?

This was not my first visit to Dewsbury. I had been there many decades before, as a teenager.The sculpture wasn’t there when I was last in that market place in 1967. I remember stalls and  maybe, a cobbled square  surrounded by busy roads and tall, dark buildings. A friend of mine had moved to the area and I had gone to visit him. I remember him taking me to the disco at the local Mecca ballroom and there I miraculously acquired an attractive Dewsbury girlfriend despite my clumsy dance moves and the ultra- violet lighting showing up the dandruff glistening on my collar! Later that year I bunked off school while my parents were away on holiday and sped 50 miles up the A61 from Chesterfield ( my home town) on my Lambretta J125 with a mate Michael, on the pillion, to see the same girl and her friend on a sort of double semi-blind date. After the disco, ( and hopefully the snogging), was over,  Michael and I planned to get a few hours kip on top of the empty market stalls before riding home. It was a crazy idea of course. Inevitably it all went pear shaped. We were delayed by a puncture in Wakefield, and then, during the disco my “girlfriend” switched her attentions to Michael ( who was better looking than me) and I was left making small chat with her friend whom I didn’t fancy and who obviously didn’t fancy me. Maybe she had spotted the dandruff. Sleeping on the market stalls proved to be very uncomfortable and increasingly cold, so we cut our losses and road home through the small hours. I arrived back to an empty house, cold and miserable and without the warm thought of a girlfriend in Dewsbury! However, one consolation — I have retained a life- long soft- spot for Tommy James and the Shondells.( “Mony Mony”)

So here I was , back at the scene of my triumph and my disaster, a mere 51 years later. Now, happily married and approaching my dotage, I was chasing historical buildings not girls. The next building on our list was the Longcauseway United Reform and Methodist Church. It doesn’t sound very promising does it? Opened in 1884, it has an impressive Gothic exterior but we  largely ignored this as a sharp shower had started and we were anxious to get in out of the rain. Having been brought up as a Methodist I was expecting the inside to be plain, or even austere, like the chapels of my childhood. However this interior is fairly eleborate and quietly beautiful. It is rectangular and the old wooden pews are split by 2 aisles. At the end of each pew was a neat little stack of hymn books. Above, curving round three sides is a lovely wooden gallery supported by graceful metal pillars. Light flooded in through large windows and an impressively large organ dominated one end above the altar and the pulpit. Apparently, a large organ was a sign of prestige although I thought that non-conformist churches weren’t supposed to be into showing off, oneupmanship or anything that would distract the worshippers from concentrating on God. It is still impressive though. The original name of the church had been “Ebenezer”, an old name referring to the goodness of God. In the 19th Century there were many Congregationalist , Methodist and Baptist churches in Dewsbury and its surrounding area. Most had thriving Sunday Schools. New churches had to be built to accomodate the constantly expending congregations. However, like the town, the successes and expansions of the 19th century were followed by a long decline in the 20th. Some Congregationalist chapels were forced to  close and amalgamate with their neighbours. The new merged places of worship were known as United Reform Churches. Ebenezer was one of these. Later the Dewsbury Methodists threw in their lot with it. In 1972 it changed its name to Longcauseway. In increasingly secular modern Britain, church congregations are dwindling and ageing. An old lady was busy tidying up the hymn books. She told me she had been attending this church every Sunday since she was 5  and she was now nearly 90. An enthusisatic older gentleman in his mid to later 70s ( I guessed) was thrilled that 2 people had travelled from north-east England to visit his church. He had volunteered to be a guide and was expecting yet another quiet, boring day. He pressed guide booklets on to us, told us his stories and insisted we sign the visiter’s book. Longcauseway is a Grade II listed building and is well worth a look in if you’re ever in Dewsbury. It’s a special place.

It was fine by the time we got out again. We strolled past the Edwardian market buildings, now in need of a bit of TLC but still interesting and attractive ( wrought iron and glass.) We passed two sadly neglected Victorian shopping arcades. They were scheduled for restoration but that was still to happen. Ian commented that if they had been in Leeds, they would have been done- up ages ago to become one of the highlights of the city centre. But this was poor, neglected Dewsbury, not rich, prospering Leeds. We came across more sad neglect in Northgate Street. A very impressive stretch of tall, ornate Victorian buildings was now empty and boarded up. A wooden barrier had been erected in front of the ground floor premises to try to stop the vandals getting in. This is the spectacular Dewsbury Pioneers Building, opened in 1880. It had originally been the Cooperative Society building from 1857.  It had once consisted of department shops on the ground floor, a library, conversation rooms ( can you imagine that in the age of the smart-phone?) and offices  on the first floor, and an Industrial Hall of 1500 seats on the second floor. Extensions were added in 1896 and 1914, the last section in a flamboyant Baroque style. The hall was converted into a cinema in 1922. All that has now gone! The rot set in during the 1950s.

Thankfully there are plans to renovate and refurbish Dewsbury town centre — to give it a much needed facelift. The plans for the Pioneers Building are backed up by Lottery Funding. Some work has been done and we saw people at the back of it. It looked like a lot of it had been demolished and was going to be rebuilt behind the grand Victorian facade. Apparently the first thing that had to be done was to remove 2 tons of pigeon droppings! The plans are for  dozens of boutique shops and luxury apartments, plus a cafe-bar and a gym. It sounds good until I read in the website blurb that they were hoping to finish the work by 2010!! Eight years later, the cash-starved regeneration crawls on. Also, what happened to the idea of affordable housing? How many ordinary citizens of Dewsbury could afford to live in these apartments if they ever get built?

Opposite the Pioneer Buildings we spotted a cafe/restaurant and it just happened to be lunchtime. Ian and I always like to find a cosy English tea shop to have a refreshment break. However, in Dewsbury centre  we couldn’t see one at all. Perhaps it was hiding somewhere in the Princess of Wales precinct. We had already had coffees in a Turkish bistro off the market place and now we found ourselves in the Cocoa Lounge which sounds more like a night club than an eating place. We guessed it is run by Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi people. It is in an area of Dewsbury know as “Little India” We normally look forward to a toastie or a panini but this time we were faced by an exotic looking menu of middle-eastern and Indian dishes.As soon as the waitress spotted us she offered us the “full all-day English.” But we were determined to take advantage of this opportunity and try something different. I had a mint tea and a Samosa Chaat. ( Samosas with sweet and spicy chickpeas, lentils, veg, sauces and yoghurt.) It was warm and tasty. Ian had something similar but was subjected to more chillies! ( He paid the price later.) It was quite a bizarre but very pleasant and interesting experience. Everyone else in the room was wearing traditional muslim dress. A group of  head-scarfed young mums with 2 young children were chatting and eating merrily away just next to us. When they left, one of them donned a full length, black niqab or burqa. Only her eyes were then visible although she had been completely at ease showing off her whole face in the restaurant. Memories of Boris Johnson’s insulting and insensitive remarks unfortunately slipped into my mind. Yet the whole episode seemed perfectly natural and friendly. There was nothing sinister about it at all. In the window two paunchy men in full length smocks and embroidered skull caps were munching through what we thought were sausages. However pork is obviously regarded as unclean by muslims so we later concluded that they were eating fried chicken or turkey strips. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial,even though it felt that we were in the middle of Lahore, Delhi or Dhaka instead of  West Yorkshire. We couldn’t help noticing that there was a prominant population from the Indian sub-continant in Dewsbury. I imagine it’s like a smaller version of Bradford. These had gravitated to the region to work in the mills, until most of them had to close down because of competition from, ironically, India! Halfway through the afternoon the Iman’s call to prayer rang out  across the town from the nearby mosque. Later, I was not surprised at all to find that the anti-immigrant and racist English Defence League was active in the town. One of their books bitterly refers to it as “The Islamic Republic of Dewsbury.” Every one to their own I say. ( so long as they don’t do or say anything that harms others.) One person’s multi-cultural enrichment is another person’s alien invasion. Another great irony — as Dewsbury’s Christian Churches have declined, it’s mosques have thrived.

Replete with multi-cultural food and slightly churning stomachs we left the friendly muslim cafe and plodded on. We saw an old Church of England primary school from 1843 now turned into a community centre. We saw the Georgian-style Methodist Church now taken over by the Evangelists. We passed by impressive Victorian warehouses and even spotted a still working textile mill. The Machell Brothers moved their business to its present premises in 1874. Outside the office are busts of the two brothers, Robert Fletcher and William, alongside images of Cobden and Disraeli. They weren’t modest, those Victorians. William went on to become mayor of Dewbury from 1880 to 82. He probably attended the Congregationalist Church just down the road. The business still proudly boasts of its manufacture of “Shoddy” and “Mungo” goods. These were very early examples of recycling which is now of course all the rage. They were textiles made from re-processed rags which were once collected from all over the British Empire. “Shoddy” was produced from soft rags and cast offs such as stockings, flannels, and carpets; while “Mungo” was produced from hard rags such as dress coats, tailors’ cuttings and disused fine table cloths. They were torn up and shredded by a fast revolving cylinder with sharp teeth locally referred to as “the Devil.” Later the shredded material was turned into a kind of wool or flock which was then mixed with sheep’s wool to make cheap items for the  growing working classes. Obviously this cheaper material is where we get the modern meaning of “shoddy” from.

Our last port of call was Dewsbury Minster, an attractive ancient church with modern additions. It’s a shame that it was cut off from the town centre by the busy 4 lane ring road. ( We found the same sad situation in Doncaster.)  Dewsbury’s historic Minster has Norman, Georgian and Victorian sections as well as traces of Anglo- Saxon. The modern part contains a reception area, a refectory, meeting rooms and an excellent little museum telling Dewsbury’s story. The old part, the Paulinus Chapel, has lovely Norman style arches and pillars, beautiful modern stained glass and an ancient, but beautifully preserved font. The font was originally made in the 13th century, was found mutilated in the grounds in 1767 and was subsequently restored and brought back inside. The original church had been established in Anglo Saxon times at the place where St Paulinus preached by the crossing of the River Calder in 627 AD. The church is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Our day was in Dewsbury was almost over. We tramped up the hill to the railway station to catch our Trans-Pennine express back up north. There was just time for a last coffee in the atmospheric pub and refreshment rooms just off the platform. Ian needed the milk to settle down his Indian style indigestion. We glanced down at the Victorian buildings  for one last time as our train glided away across the viaduct. It had been another interesting, surprising and stimulating visit to a seemingly unpromising destination. All those bucket-list tourists are missing out.

 

Into The Abyss — Twice in a Weekend.

29 Aug

I have a confession to make! I was born with an incurable disease. It seriously impinges on my life at times, although I have learnt to live with it. Periodically I travel to meet up with fellow sufferers. We offer each other solidarity and support, and these gatherings help us all to cope with our affliction and somehow keep going. Some have got serious doses of the disease such that it has come to completely dominate their lives. Luckily, I have a relatively mild version of it although it does flair up to fever pitch every now and again. The disease is called Spireiteitus. It is little known outside north-east Derbyshire in the English midlands, although I have personally met people from: Belgium, Spain, the USA and even Japan who have been affected by it.  So what is it? I know it sounds like an unsavoury skin disease but it is thankfully a lot less serious than that. It consists of a compulsion to support and slavishly follow the English lower league football team — Chesterfield FC. They are affectionately known as the Spireites because of the town church’s famously crooked or twisted spire. I was born there in the dim and distant year of 1949, and my dad, a fellow sufferer, initiated me into the highs and lows of Spireitehood sometime in the early 1960s. I have been a sufferer or addict ever since.

Spireiteitus affects all kinds of people — young, middle aged and old, men and women, disabled and able bodied. I have met a blind person who regularly attends games, listening to the commentary on the local radio and enjoying the roar of the crowd and the exciting atmosphere as the match eddies to and fro. Recently, I met a Spireite in a wheelchair who had travelled for 3 hours on a train to see them play in the north east. He wasn’t having a good day — he had fallen off the last train at Hartlepool because his wheelchair went careering off the side of the ramp. Then he found he couldn’t get into the booking office to collect his pre-paid ticket because there was a high ridge at the bottom of the door. I helped him out by getting his ticket for him. That’s the thing about being a football supporter — it’s like being in a close-knit club where everybody helps and supports everyone else without hesitation. (I have written in a previous blog about the time when a Chesterfield fan shared his taxi with my son and I, from High Wycombe station to Wycombe Wanderers football ground but refused to let me share the fare because I was “a fellow Spireite.”) Later, going back to the Hartlepool match, I counted 8 wheelchair Spireites who had made the long journey from the north midlands to the north east coast.

Football fandom is a constant balancing act between hope and despair. I am not talking about “pseudo fans” who pretend to support the most succesful teams in the land even though they have no genuine connection with them. I am referring to the fan who has a club in his/her blood. He/she is stuck with following that team, irrespective of its success or lack of success on the field of play. The explanation for my strange addiction is a simple geographical one. I was born just a few miles from the ground. My father, grandfather, brother, cousins and nearly all my school friends, supported Chesterfield FC. A few friends pretended to be Manchester United supporters and basked in vicarious glory every time United won something. I suspect that many of them would have switched to another more succesful team, if and when Man Utd stopped winning. However, my fellow Spireites and I, supporting our own local team, stayed loyal to the team through thick and thin. It is a stoical approach to football which is sadly in danger of dying out. Many football fans demand success and have less and less tolerance of failure. As soon as their team loses a few matches, there are screams for the manager to be sacked or the Chairman to resign. Patience, deferred gratification and loyalty are becoming an increasingly rare commodity. This is why I’m pleased to be supporting a small club that is often struggling. I am proud to be a life-long Chesterfield supporter and to suffer uncomplainingly from spireiteitus.

Chesterfield had some success about 4 or 5 years ago. They got promoted from Football League Division 2 ( which is actually the 4th tier of English football). They went up as Champions and had a rare moment of “glory”, being able to hold up the trophy in front of their cheering fans. They then went on to get into the playoffs to get into the Championship ( 2nd Division) from League 1 ( actually the 3rd division) . I hope this is not too confusing for you! But then the rot set in. We lost our manager, lured away to Portsmouth for more money. Many of our better players were sold. The next 3 managerial appointments were unsuccessful. In fact 2 of them were absolutely disastrous. Chesterfield were relegated down to Division 2 again ( ie Division 4) and then, horror of horrors, dropped straight out of the football league altogether. For the first time in nearly a century, Chesterfield FC, the 4th oldest league club in the country, became a non-league club. It was a humiliating moment for the Spireites. In fact it was difficult to believe and accept. There were lots of expressions of grief and anger. It was almost as if we were mourning a death. Was this the end of the world as we knew it? As expected this was a time of exaggerated emotions and over the top language. Hyperboles flew back and forth like confetti. Just before the disaster became a reality, anguished fans talked of being on the brink of “oblivion” or of teetering on the edge of “the abyss.” People were full of dread and foreboding.

Well, we fell into the abyss folks! Weeping and wailing, we tumbled into the bottomless pit. Except, we found it did have a bottom — it’s called the Vanarama National League. It’s the 5th tier of English football. It’s a funny feeling at first — supporting a non-League football team. It’s as if we are invisible. There is little or no mention of it in the press; little or no coverage of it on the television. It contains teams from places you’ve never heard of such as Ebbsfleet or Maidenhead, or teams you never usually associate with the working class game of football such as Harrogate. However it does contain some sleeping giants– teams that were once mainstays in the football league such as Leyton Orient and Hartlepool United, and, wait for it– Chesterfield. It exists in the shadows, out of the mainstream of British football and public consciousness. As I contemplated going to support the Spireites in this obscure league I had a sinking feeling. Would the football be really bad? Would the crowds be really small? Would the matches be devoid of  real atmosphere? Yet I knew, in order to remain a true Spireite, I had to overcome these misgivings, bite the bullet and descend into the abyss.

I was unable to attend the first few matches but followed the scores avidly on my smartphone. ( all the ups and downs of a live match while sitting on my own sofa pretending to be a normal person.) At last, towards the end of August came an opportunity to go to Chesterfield and watch my first ever non-league match. As it so happened, by a complete fluke of the fixture list, the Spireites were also playing in Hartlepool just 2 days later, as it was a Bank Holiday weekend. Hartlepool is quite close to where I live, only about 1.5 hours away instead of the usual 2 to 3 hour trek to Chesterfield. So it would be 2 descents into the pit in one eventful weekend. What was in store for me? Apart from enduring the mockery of my wife who hates football and who thought I had gone mad when I told her, it was to be two fascinating journeys into the unknown.

I love my football day trips to Chesterfield, even though they are quite long. I am going home to my roots and I am going to meet up with 4000 to 5000 fellow Spireites. I usually go by rail as I hate driving down the traffic clogged A1 and M1. I can curl up in my seat and read a book or the paper and let the train take the strain. Around me are: couples with their children, elderly people struggling with their luggage ( I always offer to help), young people staring at their smartphones, colourfully and smartly dressed hen parties or race goers.( we pass through York) and groups of young to middle-aged men talking endlessly about football as they too, are going to a match. I suspect that none of them will give more than a passing glance at the silver-haired “old” man reading his book. I would imagine that none of them in their wildest dreams, would think I was going on a descent into a sinister, dark abyss. I look forward to spotting a steam locomotive outside the National Railway Museum in York, to glancing at the medieval walls and minster of that same city and at the impressive minster church at Doncaster. I drink in the views of the city of Sheffield spreading up the Pennine hillsides.  I used to live there in the 1970s. Finally the striking Crooked Spire of Chesterfield’s St Mary’s Church slides into view. I leave the station, slipping past the statue of George Stephenson, the famous railway pioneer who spent his last days there and walk up into the familier town. After a nice lunch at the Stephenson Tea and  Coffee Rooms and a nostalgic wander round the cobbled, medieval style market square, I walk out to the ground, about a mile and a half outside the centre. I like to walk because it gets my step count up and makes me feel as if I am getting some exercise.

So what was non-league football like? Well, to tell the truth, it wasn’t much different from a match in Division 1 or 2. Maybe a thousand had been shaved off the home crowd since I last went to see them in April. But there was still a crowd of over 4600 which is pretty good for non-league. Barnet, our opponants even brought 140 valient souls who had made the journey up from north London to support their team against lowly Chesterfield. Just think — being Londoners, they could have chosen to follow Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham, Crystal Palace or Fulham, all teams in the Premier League of English football. But Barnet is in their blood and they are sticking with their team, even in this humble, largely unacknowledged league. The match was hard fought and competitive. There were moments of skill mixed in with the mundane and the clumsy. There was lots of hoofing the ball upfield instead of passing through the opposition. But there were exciting dribbles, last minute tackles, great shots and dazzling saves. It was the usual emotional roller coaster ride. The crowd was passionate and vocal, even though this was not the World Cup final or the Champions League. There was camaraderie beween the fans too. Everyone stood up to give a minute’s applause for a young , 19 year old Barnet fan who had recently died on a bus taking him to a match. Although rivalries are keen, there seems to be a friendlier feel to this lowly league. Looking at the fans forum on the Internet, there is a certain sense of “we’re all in it together.” Of course there was the usual moaning and groaning at the ref and about the perceived bad fouls of the opposition. But that’s normal and indicates that life in the abyss doesn’t lack passion.

I think I’m going to enjoy my excursions into the Vanarama National League. The matches have most of the ingredients of the leagues above, except there is an incremental diminuation of skill. The only problem was that Chesterfield fell to an excellent Barnet  strike in the last minute. It was like a sudden punch in the stomach. We all trooped out of the ground disappointed and disconsolate. But the good thing about football is that there’s always the next match. Hope springs eternal. As you know, on this particular weekend, I actually went to the next match — at Hartlepool. It was another keenly fought encounter on the north east coast with seagulls swooping over the pitch during  play. I watched it in the home stand but I was quite safe. We exchanged friendly banter and wished each other well for the rest of the season. Poolies, as they call themselves, are just as passionate as the Spireites. On their shirts is printed “Never Say Die.” On the side of their main stand, large banners proclain: ” Born a Poolie. Live a Poolie. Die a Poolie!” They are suffering from a lifelong disease too. You could say they are :”poorlie”! They have had triumphs and disasters just like us, and again like us, they have sadly endured more of the latter in recent years. Like the Spireites, they could be described as inveterate masochists.

Well at Hartlepool, Chesterfield contrived to lose again. It was their fourth defeat in a row. After the joys of 3 straight wins at the start of the season, it looks like we are in for another period of suffering. My weekend was ultimately disappointing as far as the results were concerned. But it was rich in experiences and encounters. In fact I quite enjoyed my double descent into oblivion!

 

Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

The River Mersey — one of Britain’s most famous waterways. It’s so big that it’s had a county named after it — Merseyside( though I’m sure most Liverpudlians still consider themselves as Lancastrians.) It’s so big, that when I first saw it as a kid, I thought its grey, choppy waves were the sea. I grew up in the land-locked county of Derbyshire so I didn’t get to see the real sea very often. It was on the Mersey that I first sailed on a large boat. In fact I travelled on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, many times before Gerry Marsdon and his Pacemakers immortalised it in their hit song of 1964/65. From the mid-50’s to the late 60’s our family travelled on it every year. To me, when I was a small child, the ferry seemed like an enormous ship, whereas when I see photos of it now, I realize that it was just a glorified tug boat. In fact, in the 1960s, there were 3 ferries, sharing the task of carrying people across the wide river estaury. They were called : Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch.

So why did this north midlands family visit Merseyside every year? Well, it all began in the early 1950s when I fell into a boating lake in Colwyn Bay. ( North Wales.) It’s my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 at the time. I had struck up a friendship with

another toddler, a little girl called Margaret. ( my first girlfriend?) We ran excitedly round the rim of the lake, sailing our toy yachts, until suddenly, I slipped and fell in. I still remember being under the water. It’s my earliest memory. Then I saw the blurred, reflected figure of my dad reaching towards me to drag me out. Out I came, shocked, shivering and sopping wet. It was then that my mum uttered the immortal words: ” Oh look, he’s still got his cap on!” She didn’t seem to appreciate that her son had nearly drowned! Well, the incident brought the two families together, as Margaret’s mum had run to the rescue as well. Actually, I think we were already a bit friendly because we were lodging at the same guest house. From then on, Margaret’s parents became my unofficial aunt and uncle. I always referred to them as Auntie Joyce and Uncle Bill. They lived in Wallasey, near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. From that time on, we visited them every year. They sometimes came to see us but Uncle Bill was in a wheel chair, so it was much easier for us to do the travelling, especially as my dad worked on the railways and we could go on 5 free journeys a year. Neither family owned a car, something that was consodered a real luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The annual trip to Merseyside was one of the highlights of the year. We were lucky enough to have a seaside holiday as well but the trip to Liverpool was something different. Instead of sitting in deck-chairs, walking along piers or making sand castles, my sister and I now got a glimpse of a big city ( in fact 2 cities if you count Manchester on the way there), saw huge, glittering shops, ate at a restaurant and went on the aforementioned big boat. It was all very exciting and very different from our everyday life in the relatively small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. Normally we never ate out as we couldn’t afford to. Eating out was for richer folk I thought. But as soon as we arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station we were whisked up to the top floor of Lewis’s, next door, and had a sit down meal served by uniformed waitresses. OK, it was only a department store cafe and we only had fish and chips, but to me at the time, it seemed very  grand. Even today I remember the waitresses’ frilly white pinafores and the bread that accompanied our meal being cut into neat, dainty triangles. To me, it seemed as if we were being dead “posh.”

Next came the walk through the big, busy city and then the queue to get on the ferry to cross the water. I remember crowds of people and being crammed on to the upper deck as the Liverpool shoreline gradually receded and  Birkenhead slowly came into sharper focus. This was pre- Beatles and pre-Gerry and the Pacemakers, so we had no pop music to accompany us across the water as happens on today’s tourist version of the Mersey ferry. It was a regular, run of the mill commuter service. I may be suffering from false memory syndrone but I seem to recall that we had to pay upon disembarking, an unusual arrangement, which meant queues again. Still it was all very thrilling and different for me at the time.

Even before the big city and the ferry, we had the excitement of the rail journey between Chesterfield and Liverpool. We caught 3 trains all pulled by steam locomotives, changing at Sheffield and Manchester. There were none of the “boring” diesel or electric units in the north in those days. It was the last great hurrah of the age of steam. Being an engine driver’s son, I was a keen trainspotter and here was a chance to spot all sorts of locomotives that I wouldn’t normally see back home. The last leg from Manchester to Liverpool was pulled by a tank engine and we were in carriages that had no corriders and no toilets. I remember my dad once having to hang my little sister out of the window because she was desperate for a wee ( when the train had stopped of course.)

The Liverpool trip got even more exciting as the 60s progressed. By now, I was a teenager and was getting heavily into pop music. In 1963 The Beatles suddenly exploded on to the scene, instantly dating the old rockers, crooners and trad jazz bands that had been dominating the charts. The Beatles of course hailed from Liverpool and all of a sudden it became the trendiest city in the country. Other Mersey groups and artists quickly followed in the Beatles’ powerful wake. Gerry and the Pacemakers had number 1 hits with their first 3 singles. Other hit- making Liverpool groups swiftly followed — Billy K Kramer and the Dakotas, the Big 3, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Fourmost, The Searchers — just to name a few. The music press dubbed it : “The Mersey Beat.” It seemed that any half decent artist from Merseyside could jump on the bandwagon and enjoy national success. And I’ve not forgotten Cilla Black of course. Liverpool’s Cavern Club became one of the hottest music venues in the country. The Fab Four had played there regularly upon their return from Hamburg. This is where they had honed and polished their act before they got a recording contract and hit the big time.

As a moody adolescent, I might have been expected to be reluctant to get dragged along on a family visit with my  “old-fashioned”parents yet again, but once The Beatles and co had taken off, I didn’t need any persuading to go at all. I was going to the centre of the action. Liverpool was “where it’s at” as they used to say in the 60s. I had  teenage American penfriends in Cleveland and Pittsburgh whose letters were dominated by endless questions about John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Who was my favourite? When was their next record going to be released? Were they going to come to the States?I was their passport to the very heart of the pop music scene. Just for the record, my favourite “mop top” was George Harrison, closely followed by John Lennon. I remember one visit when I was about 15. It coincided with the release date of The Beatles’ latest single: ” Can’t Buy Me Love.” It went straight to Number 1 as so many fans had pre-ordered it. Margaret, now a 15 year old Beatles fan, had pre-ordered it too and she proudly played it to me on the afternoon of its first day of release. It was a genuine thrill. If I had not gone to Liverpool that day I would have had to wait several weeks to save up my pocket money to buy it for myself.( which I eventually did.)

It was no fluke that The Beatles and their contemparies hailed from a major port city such as Liverpool. Soul, Blues and R and B records arrived from America on the trans-Atlantic ships. Much of the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted of covers of American records they had acquired and which were not commonly available in the shops. I can just imagine Lennon, Harrison or McCartney carrying home their vinyl copies of “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers or “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvalettes, as if they were precious trophies. Their city was more multi-cultural than many others, more open to new ideas and thus was a “melting-pot” of musical styles.

In it’s days as one of the great ports of the British Empire, many people passed through Liverpool on their way to the New Worlds of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1830 and 1930 as many as 9 million people emigrated from here. So it was a city of farewells, tears and hopes. Unfortunately, Liverpool was also a major port for the notorious slave trade until slavery was finally banned in the British Empire in the 1830s. In past visits I have visited moving and absorbing exhibitions about emigration and slavery at Liverpool’s excellent and free Maritime Museum on the refurbished Albert Dock.  The museum also has very good archives for private research. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while researching with my then girlfriend, the drowning of her father in the South China  Seas while working as a ship’s engineer on a White Star Lines ship in the 1950’s. We found the actual record of the voyage and a list of the ship’s crew. D’s father’s name was there, alongside the chilling words: ” Lost at sea.” He had sadly died while trying to rescue a colleague who had fallen overboard off the west coast of Malaysia.

I’ve recently been back to Liverpool to visit some exhibitions. It’s become an important cultural centre with its galleries, theatres and museums, including a major outreach of the Tate. I’ve visited the city regularly over the years. To me, there always seems to be a bit of a buzz about the place. There is invariably a great atmosphere. Most people are friendly, approachable and humourous. It’s days as a great port are over and much of its traditional industries have died out. I’m sure there is still quite a bit of unemployment and poverty there. But there is  a great spirit to the place. It took on the right wing Thatcher government in the 1980s, electing a radical left wing council which virtually declared Merseyide as an independent Socialist Republic. It inevitably lost the fight against the all powerful government but even Mrs Thatcher recognised  Liverpool’s plight and gave it the sop of hosting one of Britain’s first “Garden Festivals” and sending, her minister, Michael Heseltine to Merseyside on a charm offensive. Maybe, even the ruthless “Iron Lady” formed a grudging admiration for the cheerful stoicism and fighting spirit of the Liverpudlians. Who knows?

Say “Liverpool” to people in a word association exercise, and by far the most common responses will be “The Beatles” and football. Both still draw in the crowds today. The city has 2 premier League football clubs — Everton and Liverpool FC– the blues and the reds. Both command a huge fan base and generate great passion and loyalty. This applies not just in Liverpool itself but across the nation and even throughout the world. As Liverpool FC has enjoyed the most success over the years it has attracted the largest number of fans. Many people in Africa, Asia and North America, walk around, proudly wearing the red shirt of Liverpool. Probably only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona rival them for world wide popularity. People are attracted to success so that they can extract a vicarious pleasure from it.  Liverpool FC has won the top English League, the FA Cup and even the European Cup ( Champions League) on numerous occasions. Back in the 60’s I adopted Liverpool as my second team. Chesterfield FC, my home town club were ( and always will be) my first love but they have perenially been stuck in the lower leagues of English football.  Peer pressure demanded that I support a top club. As most of my mates were pretending to be Manchester United fans even though they had nothing to do with Manchester, I decided to be different and eventually went for Liverpool, even though at the time of my choice they were actually in Division 2 ( now called the Championship.) With my backing they soon got promoted and quickly became one of the top teams in the country, and deadly rivals of Man Utd. I was impressed with Liverpool’s then manager, Bill Shankly and their energetic, attacking style of play. This penchant for Liverpool continued even when I went to college in Manchester, when I could easily have gone to see Best, Charlton and Law or the then stars of Manchester City. I only went to Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC ,once however.  It wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. It was a top of the table clash against United and I travelled on the train from Manchester with my “Red Devils” supporting mates. We ended up in a pub before the match ( I was about 17 or 18 at the time). We were having a quiet drink, looking forward to the action, when the place was suddenly invaded by Liverpool fans. Ironically, considering I had travelled all that way to support his team, I got spat upon by a Liverpool fan and called “United scum!” The match itself was a tense 0-0 draw but I had to stay very quiet all the way through it because I was stuck in the middle of the away end, and had to endure relentless verbal abuse from the “Kop” opposite us.

I went to Merseyside recently to once again enjoy the culture, the architecture and above all the atmosphere. There are 2 impressive Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, on opposite ends of the appropriately named “Hope Street”. Beautiful Georgian buildings grace the hillside above the centre. Three magnificant buildings, the “Three Graces” adorn the river front. They are the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard Building and the Liver Building, topped by the famous mythical birds. Thanks to these, the Liverpool riverside had been appointed a World Heritage Site by the UN. Unfortunately recent adjacent , unattractive tower blocks have started to put this status at risk.

Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the city’s economy. The Beatles and the football have become the biggest draws. There are Beatles statues on the waterfront, Beatles taxi tours, Beatles open- top bus tours , a recreated Cavern club ( the original one was demolished) and a Beatles Experience museum. I think it’s over the top but plenty of tourists lap it all up. Yet, even I succumbed to the excellent ” John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy” exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  It was an absorbing 2 hour journey back into my youth, and was quite emotional at times. I never saw The Beatles live, unfortunately. The chance never came up. My wife Chris, saw them but didn’t hear a thing because of the constant screaming. The nearest I got to the “Mersey Sound”  was the Merseybeats, who were a support act to Traffic at a Chesterfield concert in 1966. However, I was a regular visiter to the city  when it was the “Mecca” of the pop music world. For a host of different reasons, I have been going back ever since. And it’s all thanks to a boating lake accident in a North Wales seaside resort.

World Cup Fever.

22 Jul

I’m feeling a lot better now. Only a week ago I was still feeling the after-effects of a mid-summer fever that had contagiously spread throughout the nation. People in its grip could talk about little else. Their normal, everyday lives were obliterated. You see, as well as the country experiencing it’s longest drought and heat-wave in years, it was also the football World Cup finals in Russia and England had unexpectantly advanced to the semi-finals. This was their best result since the distant 1990, the year of Lineker’s goals, Gazza’s tears and Bobby Robson’s  dignified leadership.

Getting to the semis again was a dizzying achievement for a national football team which has perennially underachieved and disappointed at the finals of big tournemants. Only 2 years ago England had been bewitched and bemused by mighty Iceland at the European Nations Cup! At the end of that match our highly paid team of Premier League stars, didn’t know whether they were coming or going. For a country that had given the game  to the world and whose top League is supposed to be the richest and most exciting on the planet, it was a huge humiliation to lose to tiny Iceland. Yet another manager (the very decent Roy Hodgeson) was forced to fall on his sword. This year, for the Russian adventure, the English team was led by the relatively untried Gareth Southgate. He had been a stolid central defender for his country, and had been a moderately successful manager of Middlesbrough in the middle reaches of the Premier League. The hopes of the country were resting on the shoulders of a manager untried at senior international level and with only moderate achievements at club level. The omens were not good, but England sailed through their group and qualified for the finals in Russia. Even so, hopes were not high.  Our hapless teams had regularly stumbled at the highest level and our present team was young, relatively inexperienced at international level and lacked any proven, “world-class” players. Thus the expectations of the English nation were low. We had been too often let down. Of course, most Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans, whose teams had failed to qualify, looked forward to seeing the English lose and get humiliated, yet again.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the England team won their first 2 matches, albeit against fairly humble opposition ( Tunisia and Panama), scored a few goals and then actually won a previously dreaded penalty shootout in the last 16 match against the cynical, “pantomine villains” of Columbia. This was a great achievement and a big relief for Southgate who had famously missed a penalty in a shoot-out defeat 20 or so years earlier. Luckily, the reigning World Champions, Germany had been knocked out, victims of their own arrogance ( in the words of their manager), so we now faced Sweden in the quarter finals. Sweden was another country with a much smaller population than England. One of their best players, Larrson had just been released by Hull City, recently relegated to the second tier of English football. Thus England entered the game with confidence and won comfortably, although our goalie, Pickford had to make 2 or 3 brillient saves to keep the Swedes at bay. England won 2-0 and progressed to the dizzying heights of the World Cup semi- finals, where we would meet Croatia who had just knocked out the hosts. Croatia has a population of only 4 million whereas  the English part of the United Kingdom probably has about 40 to 50 million people. So it was another catch-weight contest.  The country was confident if not over-confident. As my mechanic said, when I took the car in for an oil change, “we should easily get past the Croats.”

By now, Word Cup fever had really taken hold of much of the country, whipped- up by the press, TV and social media. People were driving around with little , fluttering red and white flags of St George stuck to their cars. Large versions of the same English flag were hung from bedroom windows on housing estates up and down the country or flew on garden flag-poles. At times I was reminded of driving through the Unionist areas of Northern Ireland earlier in the year. Pubs were full to bursting with beer drinking fans who could not afford the long trip to Russia. Big screens were erected in town and city squares for wildly patriotic supporters to enjoy the England team’s march into the last 4. Cliches and hyperbole were now common place. My Facebook page was daily dominated by patriotic boasting and over- the- top predictions. Apparently, we were going to make history and football was “coming home”, a reference to our invention of  the world’s most popular game. A pop song by the Lightning Seeds — “Three Lions — Football’s Coming Home”, shot to the top of the charts. It seemed to be on everyone’s lips. ( It had originally been composed in 1996, when England had hosted the European Championships — so football was really coming home then.) The whole country seemed to have been taken over by World Cup mania. After the bitter divisions caused by the controversial Brexit vote ( Leavers and Remainers at each other’s throats), it seemed that the UK was now coming together( except for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that is!)

I felt excited but slightly uncomfortable at the same time. I am a football fan and wanted England to win. But I have always been wary of overt, exaggerated patriotism. Simple patriotism ( support for one’s country) can easily spill over into bellicose chauvinism and arrogance. It can quickly change from “our country is great” into “our country is better than others” or “other countries are rubbish.) Flag waving and patriotic songs have also been closely connected with wars in the past. I am particularly sensitive about this sort of thing at the moment because it seems to me that the vote  for the UK to leave the European Union had a lot to do with dislike and/or distrust of foreigners. The same red and white flag of St George has been adopted by parties on the far right of British politics who are openly anti-foreigner, anti-muslem and racist.  The irony is that Saint George was an Italian knight and the red cross on the white background was originally commandeered from the Italian city of Genoa. So the origins of our patron saint and national flag are not English. Come to think of it, the lions on the English team’s shirts are animal from Africa. On top of this, all the English tub- thumping and flag- waving is not good for the unity of the United Kingdom which only just survived a Scottish independence vote a few years ago. Hence, for a variety of reasons I approached the semi-final against Croatia with very mixed feelings.

I watched it of course. I had witnessed, via the TV, every important England World Cup match since 1966. I had seen our famous victory over West Germany at Wembley in a crowded French cafe in Biarritz. I was on my very first trip abroad with my school. To my bemusement, all the French people in the cafe were rooting for Germany. Weren’t the French our allies and the Germans the common enemy in the Second World War?  Anyway I saw Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. Were the team of 2018 going to unbelievably repeat that famous feat? The country held its collectice breath. The media was at fever pitch and in full hyperbole mode.

But, of course it wasn’t to be. English World Cup fever, 2018 style came to a shuddering halt as the second Croatian goal arrived in the first part of extra time. The English team finally looked exhausted and beaten. Optimism rapidly drained away as if from a punctured balloon. England made a valiant attempt at a comeback in the second half of extra time after their final pep talk from the dignified Southgate. However they were now down to 10 men due to injuries and they were up against a World Class Croatian midfield marshalled by Luka Modric (of Real Madrid), which had taken a firm stranglehold over the match. Our brave team were defeated and were reduced to exhaustion and tears. Many fans in Russia and back home also succumbed to despair and tears. They had perhaps believed all the hype and were now crest- fallen.

I was disappointed and felt sorry for the team and the manager that had represented England so skilfully. Like many others, I was actually proud of them. However, being a football realist, I knew that little Croatia had a sprinkling of world class players and could easily match us in spirit, organisation, energy and determination. Being such a young country, born out of the late 1990’s break up of Yugoslavia, they too were extremely patriotic. Apparently, the Croatian team was motivated by the over-the-top boasting and dismissal of their chances in the British tabloid press. Croatia had been grossly under-estimated. Chris and I had had a lovely holiday in Croatia just a few weeks before, so as well as being disappointed for us, I could also be pleased for them. I never had more than a slight dose of the fever anyway. I was still able to do normal things and retain a sense of perspective. I was helped in this by Chris, my wife, who hates all sport, especially football. She refused to watch a ball being kicked. So I recovered from the defeat quite quickly and the fever of overt patriotism subsided throughout the country.

I watched the final where the Croatians dominated possession but lost 2-4 to the French with a bit of help from the referee. ( He awarded a highly debatable free kick and an equally dubious penalty to France.) So football isn’t coming home after all. It’s gone to France, our near neighbour, who we will be soon saying au revoir to. Life has gone back to more or less normal now that the World Cup has ended and the mid-summer “madness” has subsided. Feeling a lot better, we can now concentrate on the tennis, the cricket, the athletics and the golf, not to mention the fantastic Tour de France. Even for sports fans, there is potentially a lot of life beyond football. The only unfinished business to look forward to is Gareth Southgate’s knighthood, even though he didn’t quite equal the great Alf Ramsey!

I’ve just been to Croatia, but was I really there?

17 Jun

I’ve just returned from a 10 day visit to Croatia, staying on the beautiful Adriatic coast. It was a relaxing, family holiday, linking up with my wife’s relatives who drove down from Milan.( Chris’s daughter is married to an Italian and so she has 2 delightful Anglo-Italian grandchildren) We all had a lovely time. I’ve been to Croatia before, when it was still part of the now defunct state of Yugoslavia. I’d taken 2 of my own children for the same sort of relaxing holiday by the sea with a bit of sight-seeing thrown in. That was in 1990, just a few months before the terrible civil war broke out and Yugoslavia started tragically tearing itself apart. Back then I was in Istria near the Italian border. A boat trip to Venice was one of the highlights. This year we were based in southern Dalmatia, staying in the Split and Trogir area on the coast. Both holidays were very enjoyable.

However when someone recently asked me what Croatia is like, I had to admit that I didn’t really know. This would have applied to my 1990 trip as well. On both occasions I had physically been present in Croatia, but apart from the landscape and some historical buildings, I cannot claim to have experienced much that was genuine or authentic Croatian. I didn’t even speak a word of the language, as conveniently, all the Croatians I met in the tourist industry spoke good English. I am actually a bit ashamed to admit I was so lazy. Even Chris’s grandchildren, encouraged by their father, said the occasional “hvala” ( thank you) and “dobar dan” ( hello) This always raised a smile from the waiter or shop-assistant who had been resigned to conversing in English and maybe a bit of German, Italian or French. It is a conceit of the British abroad that they expect every other nation to speak English, so that they can stay in their linguistic comfort-zone and not put themselves out in any way. They are just lucky that their language is spoken by Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and many others. The former British Empire has given us the convenient opportunity to be idle.

For the first few days we stayed in a small guest house on a hillside overlooking the centre of Split, Croatia’s second biggest city. It is a residential area and so one would expect that we would have experienced some every-day Croatian life. But this did not really happen. We were greeted in English and as soon as we neared the city centre most of the signs and adverts were in English too. We were in an area named Veli Varos on Marjan Hill. It was ( is) charming, with winding, narrow streets and quaint old buildings with tiny gardens and courtyards. But were we really in a real Croatian neighbourhood? A generous sprinkling of parked cars had Austrian, German, Italian and even Dutch plates. Many of the old dwellings had been turned into apartments and holiday homes. The most we saw of Croatia were a few old men chewing the fat on the street corners and the odd lean and lithe cat lazing in the sun. It seems that the old parts of Split are gradually metamorphosing into tourist zones. Thus they are slowly losing their original character and are ceasing to be genuine Croatian neighbourhoods. If this process is taken to its extreme then the Croatian tourist industry will be in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This, in my opinion, is what has happened already in areas such as the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain. A beautiful coastline has been scarred by a procession of high rise, concrete hotels and apartment blocks, thrown up to pack in as many holiday-makers as possible. Many still flock there for their holiday in the sun, which is fair enough but are they really experiencing Spain? ( or do they actually want to?) Coming back to Split, we eventually discovered where many of the locals live — in ranks of Socialist-era tower blocks, marching up the hills that encircle the city. Needless to say, we did not visit those areas, merely affording them a brief glance as we sped past in a car.

Later, we moved west from Split to a lovely apartment near the historical town of Trogir. From our balcony, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise and blue sea punctuated by green islands. As we sipped our drinks we were entertained by a kaleidoscope of yachts and boats gliding and scurrying in all directions. Occasionally, usually after dark, an enormous, flood-lit cruise-ship would glide out of Split and weave its stately way through the picturesque patch-work of southern Dalmatian islands. Every evening we would prepare a meal in the summer kitchen and eat it in the garden. It was idyllic ( except for the pesky mosquitoes) and we all enjoyed it. But on this occasion we were not travellers, finding out about the culture and life-style of the country we were visiting. We were simply content to be tourists, having a relaxing time and enjoying the sun, the scenary, the food and the wine. We were enjoying our little slice of the good life.

The trouble with me is that I am a former history and geography teacher. Everywhere I go and in almost everything I do, I want to be learning stuff or be stimulated by new experiences. Apparently the Victorians had this approach to travel as well. ( well, according to Michael Portillo on his TV railway journeys.) For him and for them, travel was primarily an educational experience. This is the sort of travel bug I have got. It is both a joy and an affliction. It has driven me to visit all sorts of places, far and near to seek out exciting experiences and discover fascinating facts. It has led me to read extensively about the places I visit so that I can appreciate them and try to understand them in a deeper way. My aim is to scratch beneath the surface of a place and see what lies beneath. I have often said that “every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.” However, this approach also has its disadvantages. It means that I don’t often allow myself to truly relax and recharge my batteries. I am not one for lying on a beach or by a pool, sunbathing or reading a “page-turner”, day after day after day. I am usually wanting to get out and about to see the sights and experience the life of the place that I am visiting. Unfortunately this has led me to be a bit of a travel snob at times, unfairly looking down on people who go away simply to have a rest and a “chill out.” I now try hard to curb this attitude. My excuse is that being judgemental is an unfortunate family trait. Afterall, everyone can do what they want . Everyone to their own.

Having said all that, I am still a little disppointed that I didn’t see much of the real Croatia.( if there is such a thing.) The old centres of both Split and Trogir are World Heritage Sites because of their historical and architectural importance, but I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing something distinctive Croatian or Balkan. Both old towns have been turned into largely artificial theme parks created to amuse and service tourists. Sometimes they seem to be completely swamped by visitors, especially when an enormous cruise ship has docked. The tourists, decanted from their ships or planes, proceed to trawl around the old towns, passing a procession of historical buildings that have been converted into: cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, leather shops, jewellery shops, art and craft galleries, tourist information offices selling excursions and ice cream parlours. Does the local population like jewellery, crafts or ice cream so much that it needs such a dense concentration of shops and stalls? Do the locals never eat at home? Both Split and Trogir have some interesting old buildings, especially their respective cathedrals, and their, narrow old streets were certainly atmospheric, but a lot of the time, as I was walking around I felt it was an artificial experience. It felt as if I was in a cliched, fantasy world, divorced from reality. When I walk down the street at home I am never assailed by people wanting me to eat at their restaurant or go on their walking tour.

I travel to seek out the unfamilier, but this had more than a hint of familiarity about it. I had seen this sort of scenario in many places. I remember walking round an old town full of restaurants, jewellery and craft shops in Nice, France. I experienced it again on the striking Greek island of Santorini. There it was again in Benidorm, Spain and Sorrento, Italy. I call it “Tourist Land.” Tourist industries in countries like Croatia are extremely important because they contribute a lot to the local economy and provide a significant amount of employment. The tourist industry, by definition, exists to please tourists by giving them what they want. The danger is, in my view, that by supplying visitors with what they want and what they feel comfortable with, the individual character of unique and fascinating places is gradually squeezed out. In the end, tourists may end up with one homogenised experience after another. Every place they visit will start to resemble every other place.

On our penultimate evening on Croatia we left the touristy coast and headed inland for  just half an hour.  Giuliano, my wife’s son-in-law, had found out about a rustic, restaurant in the countryside that served a traditional dish called peka. It was potatoes and meat, slow cooked in special dishes in a wood fired oven, for as long as 2 hours. It wasn’t my normal cup of tea as I am a vegetarian. However, they kindly prepared a colourful and delicious dish of roasted vegetables in the same manner for Chris and myself. There was nothing else on the menu and no dessert. There wasn’t even any ice cream! But the food was great and this was the closest we came to a Croatian experience. There was even a group of Croatians eating there. As they waited patiently for their food, this group of local men drank beer and sang emotional-sounding folk songs in rich, 2 or 3 part harmonies. We imagined they were all about love and loss, or were proud, patriotic songs. It made a change from the western style pop music we had mostly experienced up to this point. Just for a few hours, it felt as if we had escaped tourist land to experience a little bit of the real Croatia.

So for that one evening I felt as if we were really in the country we were visiting. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing holiday. However, if I go to Croatia again, and I probably will, I’ll leave the tourist- dominated coast and head inland in search of more authentic experiences. In other words I’ll get as far away from the cruise ships as possible. It will possibly be a more challenging and less convenient holiday but, as I read on a t-shirt recently, life begins one step outside your comfort zone.