Archive | June, 2013

SYDNEY — Second Time Surprises.

26 Jun

It was a slightly surreal experience arriving at Sydney airport. My wife, Chris, and I had been primed by the brochures to be welcomed by blue skies, sunshine and smiles, but instead we were greeted by Quarantine signs and sniffer dogs. Our landing cards had also warned us that if we tried to bring any food into Australia it would be confiscated! I suppose the Australians are keen to protect themselves from: drugs, disease and pests brought in from the rest of the world. We were potential carriers. It’s doubly ironic therefore that Sydney began as a disease-ridden penal colony and that 3 of the country’s biggest pests — rabbits, wild camels and cane toads — were imported by Australians themselves.
Luckily, we were found to be “clean” and didn’t have to wade through a chemical dip or undergo a whole body search. Once we were through passport and customs, Australia started to live up to what it says on the packet — i.e. we saw blue sky, basked in warm sunshine and encountered welcoming smiles. The first smile came from my wife’s son, John, who now resides in Sydney. He lives in Dee Why, a beach resort in northern Sydney, famous for its excellent surfing. We had visited him in 2010 as well, so for us, this was Sydney, second time around.
At first glance, Sydney just seems like a British city with added sunshine. The traffic drives on the left. all street signs are in English, the Queen’s face stares out at you from the bank notes and everyone converses in the English language. It’s named after a British politician: Viscount Sydney, and was part of the British Empire and then the Commonwealth. It’s not at all surprising that Sydney is such a popular destination for British holiday-makers, back-packers and gap-yearers. OK, it’s technically a foreign city but for British travellers it provides numerous, familiar home comforts. A large proportion of the population originates from the UK and British programmes often pop up on the television screen. Even the World famous Sydney Harbour Bridge is just a bigger version of the English Newcastle’s Tyne bridge and was similarly built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough.
However, when one has been in Sydney for a while, more and more differences emerge. The blazing Australian sun is the most obvious example. But then there is the luxuriant vegetation and exotic wildlife. One swaps: sparrows, starlings and blackbirds for cockatoos, parrots and pelicans. Glossy Ibises stroll around the parks and are so common that they are regarded as pests! A range of different egrets and herons fish the rivers and pools, while swans happen to be black with red bills.
Dee Why, where we stayed, is an ocean- side suburb of Sydney in the centre of the Northern Beaches region. It has the usual shopping malls, apartment blocks and a busy main road. However the main focus is its extensive beach and attractive coastline. The short, grassy promenade is guarded by a line of handsome Norfolk pines. The sandy beach leads up to a prominent headland ( Long Reef) and is backed by a lagoon fringed by feathery reeds. Surfers ride in on the big breakers and on windy days kite-surfers scud across the water at breakneck speed. It’s not the usual thing you would see in a British city. On our first walk there we saw a trio of large white pelicans fishing in the shallows, then twisting their necks round to preen themselves. As I reached eagerly for my camera to capture the moment, two of flew off! Then, as we walked by the lagoon, three black swans suddenly took off and flew towards the sun, gradually turning into silhouettes.
Such wild-life surprises continued throughout our stay. My first view of a cockatoo was while I was walking up the street to the supermarket. It was sitting on top of a lamp-post, squawking away and opening and closing its yellow crest like a fan. It seems that lamp-posts are very popular with wild-life in Australia. As we drove north towards Palm Beach one day, John informed us that we were approaching “Pelican Bridge”. I tried to conjure up an image of a bridge in the shape of a giant pelican. Then I saw what he meant. The bridge crossed an inlet of the sea and on almost every one of its lamp-posts sat a pelican warming itself.
On our first full day we walked along the top of the cliffs south from Dee Why on the coastal path to Manley via Curl Curl. The surf was up and we watched as high, crashing waves swamped the open-air swimming pools that feature at the end of every beach. Up in the sky we saw a sea eagle circling and being mobbed by gulls. Amongst the rock pools we observed a small, grey heron standing perfectly still, waiting to strike. Between June and October one can spot migrating humpback whales off this coastline as well as dolphins and porpoises. ( Unfortunately we visited in April, so missed them.) We did however see lizards of all sizes. They scurried along the paths, warmed themselves on rocks or sat like statues pretending to be part of a tree. John identified quite a big specimen with a dragon-like head as an Eastern Water Dragon.
The most vivid reminder that Sydney is in the sub-tropics is the presence of brightly coloured little parrots. They are actually Rainbow Lorikeets and are red, orange and green. They chatter constantly in the trees and visit people’s balconies on the lookout for tit-bits. As the sun sets and dusk deepens they fly in to roost in their hundreds, their excitable squawking rising to a deafening crescendo. Less than half an hour later, all is silent.
My most unexpected encounter with Sydney’s wildlife was up in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National park on the northern edge of greater Sydney. The area is ravishingly beautiful. Thickly forested green hills drop down into the blue ocean. We drove to West Head, a lookout which has fabulous views of beaches, headlands and wooded islands. Two long fingers of the sea meet at Broken Bay off the tip of a narrow peninsula. Sea birds soared on the thermals below us and dozens of tiny yachts dotted the blue bay with their white sails. Opposite, in front of another peninsula topped by a Victorian lighthouse, a seaplane took off, whisking commuters to the city centre. We descended steeply through the luxuriant, subtropical forest to a small beach far below. A tumbling stream followed us. In a tree we spotted a Kookaburra ( or Laughing Jackass), looking like a large furry kingfisher. Later we encountered a Possum perched lazily in the fork of another tree. However, it was when we got down to the beach that the real surprise came. I looked down at my right leg and was horrified to see a black, slimy leech engorging itself on my blood! It’s not a nice feeling seeing a parasite stuck to you. John had leeches on his leg too. I brushed it off in disgust. A smaller one was feeding on my foot. I let out a shudder and remembered Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” when he discovered leeches on his body after towing the boat through the mangrove swamp. ” If it’s anything in the world I hate, it’s leeches! Filthy little devils!” A bloody streak was left on my shin. Who would have thought I would have encountered leeches while on a visit to the sophisticated city of Sydney! This second visit impressed upon me that Sydney is much more than a built-up, urban environment. So much of this visit was taken up with :scenic beaches, bays, headlands, forests( bush) and wildlife or all shapes and sizes. It’s a very surprising city experience.
We did travel into the centre on one day however, following up two full days of exploration on our 2010 visit. Easily the best way to arrive into Sydney, in my opinion, is by boat, We took the ferry from Manley, just south of Dee Why. Manley has the Pacific Ocean on one side and the calmer waters of Port Jackson on the other. Both shores have lovely promenades and beaches. The ferry wharf is on the quieter side. Near to the wharf is a colony of tiny penguins, but we never saw them as they are nocturnal. The ferries are big old tubs, painted green and yellow. They are probably from the 1950’s or 60’s and they reminded me of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. The Manley Ferry service began in 1854.
What a way to commute into the city! Enjoy a cappuccino in one of the cafes at the wharf before boarding the half hourly boat which glides smoothly across the waters of Port Jackson right into the heart of Sydney. Port Jackson is actually a flooded, sunken-valley which twists and turns inland to meet the waters of the Parramatta River. On the way it washes into many picturesque coves and bays, winds around rocky points and past little islands.
The ferry slowly turned a corner and the famous twin sights of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House swung into view. As this scene got closer, the tourist cameras went into overdrive. The water was criss-crossed by a flotilla of small vessels, yachts and cabin cruises as the ferry sailed right into Circular Quay. To the right is the famous arched Harbour bridge, to the right are the graceful, creamy sails or shells of the Opera House, and straight ahead are the soaring, clustered skyscrapers of the CBD. Departure at night was even more spectacular as all these famous sights were floodlit. Arriving by boat at Sydney’s Circular Quay is like sailing into the middle of a picture postcard.
The atmosphere on the quay is relaxed and enjoyable. Commuters mingle easily with tourists. The warm sun, blue sky and sparkling harbour help to make this a special place. Cafes, shops and street entertainers all help to create a pleasing ambience. One of the buskers was an aborigine musician, in white body paint, playing a didgeridoo to a backing tape. He added greatly to the enjoyment and atmosphere of the place, but it was sad to see a descendent of one of Australia’s original inhabitants reduced to tourist fodder.
We walked towards The Rocks in the direction of the Harbour Bridge. This is the historical quarter of Sydney, being the site of the original convict settlement, established in 1788. The native aborigines must have looked on in amazement at the arrival of their strange, pale-skinned visitors. Some were armed to the teeth while the rest were shackled in chains. The local native tribes were about to be overwhelmed by a very different society than that they were used to. The area soon became a slum and in the later 1800’s became notorious for: crime, drunkenness, disease and debauchery. Luckily what was left of The Rocks was cleaned up and saved from the clutches of developers in the 1970’s who wanted to demolish it all. It is now one of Sydney’s top tourist attractions, slightly resembling an historical theme park. However it is only “historical in an Australian context being 19th and early 20th Century. British and European visitors would have seen much older areas than this. Nevertheless, the Victorian-era architecture of The Rocks contrasts nicely with the modern high rise developments nearby and lend a different feel to this area.
We walked up towards the Harbour bridge passing through Argyle Cutting. This was created by convict chain gangs and later by hired labourers in the mid 19th century. Between them they took 16 long, hard years to cut through solid rock with hammers and chisels. We climbed up a steep staircase at the side of this cutting to gain the bridge.
It’s not every day that one gets to step on to the page of a tourist brochure or get up close to an “icon.” I hate the overuse and subsequent devaluation of the term “iconic” but even I have to admit that Sydney harbour bridge deserves this accolade. Along with the Opera House which sits opposite to it across the glistening water, the harbour bridge is the instantly recognisable symbol of Sydney and of Australia as a whole. Show someone a picture of the “Coat-hanger” as it’s locally known, and no captions are needed. Last time we gazed at it from below and took photographs of it from different angles and in different light conditions. This time, second time around, we walked across it.
The bridge is immense. It carries a 4 lane road, a railway, a cycle track and a pedestrian walkway. It is introduced by 2 huge towers on each side and then the graceful, intricate web of iron girders curves up into the sky. The views of the harbour, the Opera House and the city beyond are fabulous. The bridge was completed in 1932 and links north and south Sydney. At the time it was the largest arched bridge in the world. Today a Harbour Tunnel helps to take the strain of the ever increasing traffic but when you’re up there, the vehicles thunder by in a constant stream. We were too nervous to do the ( expensive) bridge climb over the top, but despite the din, it was a real thrill to walk across it.
Later we made the obligatory visit to the steps of Sydney Opera House designed by a Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, in the early 1970’s. The giant sails or shells that make up its roof, fit perfectly with its waterside location. Utzon’s father was a yacht designer. The thousands of creamy-white tiles shine and shimmer in the sun. The whole effect is strikingly beautiful and it almost looks as if the building is about to float off on the water
Two icons in one day is more than enough so we then relaxed by strolling through the Botanical gardens and visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One disappointment was that the large colony of fruit bats ( or flying foxes) which had been roosting in the garden’s Palm Grove on our previous visit, was now nowhere to be seen. John’s partner, Freya, suggested that they might have been culled ( ie killed). I hope not.
So it was another memorable visit to Sydney second time around. We saw the famous sights again, but also encountered numerous surprises. This time we didn’t visit the wonderful Blue Mountains to the west of the city because of time constraints, but we did have a glorious view of them from the air as we flew north to Queensland. Although it is Australia’s biggest and busiest city, it is Sydney’s picturesque coast, beautiful national parks and exotic wildlife that will live longest in the memory after this second visit. In many ways Sydney defies the conventional definition of a city. I’m glad that the immigration men and the sniffer dogs let us in!

Ada Alice.

8 Jun

A surprising but wonderful thing has happened to me. My daughter, Joanna, has just given birth to her third child, a girl, and has named her Ada Alice. These were the Christian names of my paternal and maternal grandmothers. So, in a stroke, five generations of our family have been connected!
I find it very touching that Joanna and her partner Allan Towns, value the importance of family and of remembering those who have gone before. I think this might have arisen from the family history research I did as one of my first post- retirement projects. This led me to acquire, with the help of my parents and my sister, photographs of my two beautiful grandmas when they were in their late teens. They are from another era, the now lost world of Edwardian Britain, before the horrors of the Great War blasted it into oblivion. Now in a new century and a new millennium no less, the naming of my new granddaughter links me to my two departed grandmothers, reactivating the fond memories I have of them. Ada and Alice are gone but far from forgotten.
Ada Millthorpe, my dad’s mother, was just 18 when she had her photograph taken. This was around the time she married my grandfather: George Arthur Bates. Similarly, my mum’s mother, Alice was captured on film, with my other Grandfather: Thomas Robert Bottoms, on the occasion of their engagement in 1913. Both photos were professional portraits executed in studios. In those distant days, having one’s photograph taken was a big, important event. They were the early days of the camera. The resulting pictures were the equivalents of the painted portraits that the aristocracy had commissioned in previous pre-celluloid eras.
My grandparents dressed up in their best clothes, their “Sunday best”, for their visit to the photographer’s studio. The black and white photographs show them striking serious poses. This was not an occasion for frivolity. Ada stands in front of a painted pastoral scene, surrounded by props that make it seem she is out for a stroll in her country estate. Her curly hair is swept back and tied back in bouffant style. She wears a cotton and lace blouse and a long, dark skirt with 3 frills at the bottom. She wears a delicate watch on a chain. It goes round her neck like a necklace and is pinned to the front of her blouse along with a flower decoration. The picture was taken in the Rembrandt Studio in Marringham, Notts.
Alice, in her portrait, sits seriously by her fiancĂ©e. Alice is also wearing an attractive white blouse and a dark skirt down to her ankles. Her blouse has “mutton leg” sleeves and embroidered, fancy cuffs. Like Ada’s it is probably made from cotton and lace. Alice’s hair is also swept back. She has a broach at her neck and a long, dark necklace. Beside her stands my granddad, proud and erect. He wears a dark suit and waistcoat, a white shirt with a starched collar and a white tie. Into his waistcoat pocket he has tucked his watch and chain.
In sharp contrast, Allan’s and Jo’s photos of the newly arrived Ada Alice are colourful, bright and informal. They were snapped on instant cameras phones within hours of her birth. Social networking then quickly took over. On her very first day on earth, Ada Alice Towns was the undisputed star attraction on her parents’ Facebook pages.( and on mine.) Now little Ada, although only a few days old,is having a blog written about her! Allan and Jo were able to share their great news in rapid time with a wide variety of friends and family members, who responded with their delighted messages of congratulation. After my teenage grandmas had had their formal, photographic portraits taken, there would then have been a wait of numerous days if not weeks before the finished product could be viewed and shared. The film had to be developed in a dark room and then the photos printed from the negatives. Finally they had to be delivered or collected. A great sense of anticipation and excitement must have built up. Today’s excitement is just as intense, but the long wait has been dispensed with. We now live in the age of digital photography. Ada Alice has been born into an instant world where communication is achieved through the click of an I-pad or a laptop.
Ada Millthorpe, my paternal grandmother, was born in 1889 in Barrow Hill, Staveley near Chesterfield, in north-east Derbyshire. Her father, John Swann Millthorpe was a hewer in a coal mine and later worked as a general labourer in the Iron and Steel works that dominated Barrow Hill.( but now closed and pulled down.) He had moved there from Wadsley Bridge, Yorkshire, presumably to get work.
In contrast, little Ada Alice Towns’s father, Allan, is a probation officer. he couldn’t work down a pit even if he wanted to, as they have virtually all been closed down. Ada Alice’s mum is a social worker. The senior Ada’s mother ( my Great Grandmother) was Harriet from Leicestershire. Ada was the second youngest of 6 children — 4 girls and 2 boys. Many people had large families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ada married another collieryman, George Arthur Bates in 1908 at the tender age of 17. He was 7 years her senior. George Arthur, my paternal Grandfather, was a filler, loading the tubs with the coal extracted by the hewers from the face. Later, he too switched to the steel works after the 1926 General Strike led to a savage cut in miners’ wages.
The 1911 census finds George Arthur and Ada living as boarders in the house of her father. Even though their marriage was barely 3 years old, they already had 2 children, my aunties Evelyn and Doris. They went on to have 4 more children, ending up with 3 boys and 3 girls in all. My dad, Maurice Reuben, born in 1923, was the youngest.
I remember Ada senior, my Grandma Bates, as a gentle, kind, loving woman. I always liked being with her. We used to visit her and granddad every Sunday, after going to Sunday school at the Methodist chapel down the road. Grandma always had the kettle on, boiling water on the open fire and within minutes of our arrival was “mashing” (brewing) the tea in the pot. Then out came a barrel of sweet biscuits for us to enjoy. Ada must had a hard-working life, looking after her husband and 6 children. This was before the days of washing machines, electric or gas cookers and vacuum cleaners. She and my other Grandma, Alice, would have been constantly: washing, drying, ironing, cleaning, sewing, shopping, cooking and baking. Washing was a case of getting out the poss tub and stick and laboriously heating up buckets of water, rather than just slinging the soiled clothes into an automatic machine as is the case today. For a time Ada was helped by my Auntie Harriet who came home after her marriage broke up. Harriet’s child was brought up by George and Ada as their own to avoid upsetting gossip. So they really reared 7 children.
In their later years, George and Ada also kept pigs, chickens, pigeons and a pony on a small-holding. Going to the toilet in their house was always a bit of an adventure, as the white-washed out-house where it was located, was full of pungently smelling sacks of animal and bird feed.
Alice, my maternal Grandmother, was born Alice Anne Barson in New Whittington, Chesterfield in August, 1892. Her father was Harry Barson, from Chesterfield, another hewer down a coal mine. Her mother, Alice Bloomfield hailed from Eye in Suffolk. The coal mines and steel works of north Derbyshire had lured her family away from their rural, agricultural life in East Anglia. So, it seems that the name Alice has been passed down through the generations. My tiny grand-daughter may not know it yet, but Ada Alice will grow up to discover that 2 Great, Great Grandmas and 1 Great, Great, Great Grandma all share her names
Alice Anne Barson married my Granddad: Thomas Robert Bottoms in 1915 in Chesterfeild. It was in the middle of the First World War but Thomas did not go away to fight in the trenches, as he worked in the iron and steel works, an essential industry in the war effort. Thomas was a furnace-man. This protection from conscription also applied to my other Granddad as coal mining was another vital war occupation. Thomas and Alice went on to have 3 children: Leslie, Victor and my mother Jessie, who was born in 1926. ( The same year as the Queen as she never gets tired of telling me!) This side of our family were very religious and active in the non-conformist Methodist movement. Granddad Thomas led the way — being a lay preacher, an organist and chapel choir leader.
Like Ada, Alice worked hard to bring up her family without the aid of modern, labour-saving devices. She too had an iron “range” which consisted of an open coal fire, a cast-iron oven and hot plates where she would place her irons to heat up. All other cooking was done on a little double gas ring on the small work surface near the sink. This was Grandma’s kitchen, tucked into a corner of the living room. They did have another ground floor room but this was kept for “best” just in case special visitors came. Alice loved baking. I remember her jam and curd tarts, delicious scones and large trays of sponge cake, spread with icing and sprinkled with desiccated coconut. For some strange reason she called this “buffalo cake.” Alice also baked the weirdly named “Az Baz” which was a bit of left over pastry ( after making her excellent pies) with a jam filling. It was a favourite treat of mine.
The original Ada and Alice grew up in a vastly different world from their newly arrived descendent. Edwardian England had few cars, no television, no computers, no Internet. Most people did not have music players and radios were rare in the early 20th century. Provisions were bought from a corner shop not a supermarket. Many people did not worry about their carbon footprints or food-miles because they grew much of their own fruit and veg . Most ordinary folk had no landline telephone and mobile phones were unimaginable, science fiction items of the distant future. People wrote letters using pen and paper rather than typing emails and entertainment consisted of singing round the piano or doing jigsaws. Both my grandmas knitted and sewed, making and mending clothes for their families. I wonder whether the new Ada Alice will become adept at darning socks like her namesakes? More like she will be successfully mastering the latest electronic gadgets and technologies and leaving me standing! She will be comfortable in a world that is increasingly leaving my generation behind.
I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Alice. We were very close. Even as a teenager, when you would have expected me to be listening to pop music or chasing girls, I spent most weekends with her. I would take the bus there straight from school on Fridays. Later I went on my motor scooter. She lived in a two-up two-down terraced house in a courtyard shared with 3 other households. It had a toilet block in the middle of the yard and an old concrete air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. Mum remembers going in there during the Luftwaffe bombing raids of the Second World War.
The newest addition to our family, Ada Alice Towns has triggered all these precious recollections. Even now only a few days old, she has already had a big impact on my life. I have my daughter and her partner to thank for this. Ada Alice’s arrival brings hope for the future and memories of the past. Looking at her pictures on the computer screen ( and in real life) with her curly, ginger hair and tiny, delicate features, I wonder what life has in store for her? She has been born into a constantly changing, kaleidoscopic world where exciting opportunities will come to her thick and fast. She is lucky to have the stability provided by the unconditional love of 2 families. With her big sisters, Esme and Nin, Ada Alice will carry our family forward into a new generation.
Their world is greatly different from that frequented by the original Ada and Alice in the previous centuries. However, one important thing has not changed in all that time. That is the continued importance of family, whose love and support sustains us throughout our lives. I hope to pass on some of the love that I received from Grandma Ada and Grandma Alice to the new Ada Alice and her sisters. In that way the gulf of time that separates them will simply evaporate and the generations will melt into one.
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