Archive | Travel RSS feed for this section

Durham Coast walk — Last 2 days — Horden to Hartlepool to the mouth of the Tees, 2017.

29 Aug

Following a night in the ex-mining village of Horden we retraced our footsteps back to the Durham coast path which we were following, north to south. It was another fine day, the 4th of our trek. After a mile and a half we made it back to the coast at Warren House Gill, the scene of yesterday’s lunch and cold shower. We headed south along the grassy cliff tops. We now walked through a series of nature reserves complete with wild flowers, swaying grasses, colourful butterflies and birds. Out at sea, the day before, we had seen birds dive-bombing into the sea to catch fish. They were probably terns. Above the cliff top meadows we now enjoyed the sweet songs of ascending sky-larks.

We descended to an area of reeds and marshlands just inland from the sea. In the middle distance another impressive Victorian viaduct took the coastal railway across another dene. This was the locally famous Castle Eden Dene, originally scooped out by retreating ice-sheets. It is now an important, woodland nature reserve, a magnet for walkers, horse riders and bird-watchers. Information boards outlined its history and importance, but we couldn’t read them as they had faded badly with time. Also, it seemed as if locals had used them as target practice for they were pock-marked with pellet holes and scars. This reminded us with a jolt that we were not really in the midst of the countryside but were actually skirting the urban fringe, on the boundary where rural meets urban, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. We also saw tyre tracks of motor-bike scramblers. The birds, bees and butterflies did not have this area completely to themselves. Only a little inland, we were passing the ex-mining towns of Easington Colliery, Horden and Blackhall Colliery, as well as Peterlee, the post-war new town built to rehouse some of these  mining communities.

Eventually, after another steep sided dene we made it to Crimdon Holiday park. Row after row of neat caravans and chalets lined the cliff top. Many had little gardens, balconies and television aerials as well as the inevitable vehicles parked outside them. It was more like a housing estate by the sea. It never fails to amaze me that many people go on holiday to get away from it all, yet they then take it all with them! Signs featuring the naturalist David Bellamy, told of the precious and wonderful flora and fauna in this special area. However the presence of so many people, their mobile homes and their cars suggested to me that the wildlife would be under constant threat from human encroachment.

At the end of the holiday park was a convenient seat for our lunch. We read about the rare Little Tern population that bred there. A special project had been set up to protect them. We also read how Crimdon Dene had been even more popular in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. People flocked there to play on the beach, stroll in the picturesque dene and enjoy the sea air. They rode donkeys, ate ice-creams, listened to brass band recitals and held beauty contests. Apparently, according to an info. board we read, young ladies paraded up and down in their swim-suits right up to the 1970’s. The Miss Crimdon contests were very popular events. One regular judge was the famous Labour MP and peace campaigner: Manny Shinwell. He famously declared that he preferred ” legs to arms!” Somehow, I don’t think all this activity was helping the poor Little Terns. As we left the vicinity of the holiday camp, we saw plenty of people but no wild-life. The closest we came was a photograph of the endangered bird.

Surprisingly, the English Coast Path now led us right into the middle of a golf course! Hartlepool Golf Club is right on the coast. Notices warned walkers to be aware of the danger of flying balls. As it happens we stayed safe and the local golfers were quite friendly, exchanging “Good mornings” with us as we tramped past with our ruck-sacks. In fact we got a bit lost amidst the fairways and greens and were put back on the right track by 3 golfers who suggested we headed left at the end of the fairway, and thus back to the beach. As we crested a small ridge, a long, straight, lonely beach came into view. ( Hartlepool North Sands.) The official path actually led through an area of “development” so we were glad to make it on to the sands. Ahead of us was the headland of old Hartlepool and in the middle distance, an old wooden pier thrusting out into the sea. We marched slowly towards it but just then our progress was rudely disturbed by the coming of the rain.

This time it wasn’t just a passing shower. The rain truly set in. We sat on our rucksacks to drag our over-trousers over our boots. Hoods up , we gritted our teeth against the persistent downpour and trudged on. To be honest, this part of the walk was pretty miserable. We had already walked 10 miles or so that day with at least a couple still to go. The rain, combined with our aching feet, served to dampen our spirits and make us question our motives. In the sunshine the walk had seemed a great idea but now we weren’t quite so sure.

Eventually we reached the dark silhouette of Steetly Pier. It’s a large, impressive wooden structure with large pipes running down the length of it. According to my research it used to serve the magneside industry, whatever that is. Now it is abandoned and slowly rotting. A section on the beach had obviously collapsed in the past as there was now a big gap like a missing tooth. It is now largely used by fishermen who are brave enough to clamber up its disintegrating legs. It made for great pictures though, especially the shots from underneath it, looking out to sea. Increasingly damp and fed up, we tramped on towards old Hartlepool, which slowly got clearer as it emerged out of the rain haze.

Old Hartlepool is situated on a scenic headland. It is normally a charming place to visit with sea views, some old pastel painted houses, stretches of cobbles, the original sea wall and an impressive, very old church ( St Hilda’s.) However, because of our tiredness and the unrelenting rain, our exploration was very half-hearted. A travelling fair was just setting itself up on an area of open ground but there were no punters. Nearly everyone was being sensible and staying indoors and dry. The little Second World War Museum was similarly deserted. We did find a Catherine Street though which raised a smile as I took a picture of a rain-soaked Catherine standing in front of her own sign. We also took the obligatory photos of the little Andy Capp statue as his creator hailed from Hartlepool. Luckily the rain eventually eased and then stopped. However we were in no mood for lingering, so tramped on, leaving the headland in order to reach our accommodation in the main town. This unfortunately meant a dreary trudge down a long, busy dual carriageway. It took a good half hour. We looked forlornly at the buses that regularly passed by, but reminded ourselves that we were on a sponsored WALK! Finally we reached the main centre of Hartlepool, and, having been there before, I quickly navigated us to our accommodation — the Grand Hotel!  I had booked it to give us a treat on our last night. ( I also got a good deal!)

To be honest, it isn’t all that grand. There are some nice stained glass windows on the first floor stairway and the odd chandelier. Our room, although comfortable, was pretty plain. However it did have the luxury of a bath with plenty of hot water, which we both took advantage of. For a town of its size, Hartlepool does not have many decent restaurants — hardly any in fact. As we ‘d had enough of walking for the day, we took the easy option and ate at the hotel. There is a very good and very popular Indian restaurant in the basement. It was our 3rd Indian of the week. Our stomachs must have thought we were hiking through the hot sub-continent rather than merely through a stretch of North-East England.

The next morning we had an excellent breakfast at the Grand, including porridge and plenty of fresh fruit. Then we hauled on our rucksacks for the last time, checked out and stepped into the morning rain. Yes, it was raining again! As I’ve written before, modern Hartlepool does not have a proper town centre. Everything has been moved into an anonymous mall. After buying lunchtime provisions, we headed out, passing the depressing streets where  original town centre used to thrive. They had grand signs but no shops. One ex-department store had been converted into a hotel. Most of the other shops have been knocked down. It is a sad sight. We passed a Thai restaurant where we could have eaten the night before if the hotel receptionist had known about it. Then we headed out around the attractive new marina, passing some fine old port buildings ( including the Customs House I think). We looked over to the attractive and interesting historic harbour with the magnificent early 19th century sailing ship, the Trincomalee. It’s like a north-east version of the Cutty Sark. As we reached the prom and turned south, we could see the old headland where we had been the previous day. It was still veiled in a mist of  grey rain.

We walked on down a newly built promenade which we largely had to ourselves. Then, a small miracle — the rain relented, patches of blue sky appeared and the sun made a welcome return. A new spring came into our steps as we headed to the seaside resort of Seaton Carew. The sunshine now glittered on the water and we were once again happy to be out walking. Seaton Carew is another resort that had seen better times. Nostalgic information boards showed us how popular it used to be. Now, it has a fine long beach and a nice promenade but the main drag is filled with charity shops and fast food joints. Bizarrely, Seaton Carew has an art deco bus station. That description makes it sound more exotic than it really is however. It’s a curving off- white façade with a graceful clock tower at its centre. The buses stop in the semi-circular lay- by in front of it. It also has public toilets which proved to be very fortuitous.

The final stretch of our walk was down a long beach towards the mouth of the Tees. Strangely the views were now of Redcar and Saltburn in Cleveland where I live, but these were on the far side of the big river. In the far distance we could see the cliffs of North Yorkshire. The beach petered out as we neared our destination and we were forced to clamber up and down a small mountain range of sand dunes. The thick marran grass rustled in the breeze as we ploughed through the soft sand. This last little bit wasn’t the easy stroll we had imagined. We crested a final mound and, at last, the mouth of the River Tees was now spread out before us. It is a bizarre combination of: a wetlands nature reserve, a curving  beach and the ugly mess of an industrial port. Once again, man and nature were existing uncomfortably side by side. As we watched, a large freighter glided in from the North Sea on its way to nearby Teesport. To our left we saw the North Gare breakwater, the “official” end of our walk. We had trecked from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Tees, taking in the mouth of the Wear en- route. We had walked the entire coast of the original county of Durham, linking up the 3 great river mouths of north-east England. We hugged and took the now obligatory selfies. Finally we turned back to Seaton Carew where the walking would stop and the little train would take us on the first leg of our journey home and back to normal life. Including walking round all the headlands and the detours to and from guest houses, we had covered about 48.5 miles. Between us we raised around £470 for wild-life charities. It had been a satisfying and worthwhile project. Now the only question is — where to next?

Advertisements

Durham Coast Walk, Day 3 — Seaham to Horden, 2017.

28 Aug

Day 3 of our long-distance charity trek began at the Lamp Room Café on Seaham seafront. Our guest house, although clean and comfortable, did not provide breakfast as they had workmen busy downstairs. There were a few eating possibilities on the front but we were attracted into The Lamp Room by the enticing prospect of poached eggs on home-baked toast with rocket and crushed avocados! It was delicious and made a change from the boring, full English fry-up. A young Australian with his long braids coiled up on top of his head, served us to the accompaniment of laid-back music ( Fleetwood Mac, Lady Antebellum, Elbow.) I imagined a young British traveller doing the same job at a beach café in Sydney or on the Queensland coast. The lamp that gave its name to the café was the miner’s safety lamp that was used in the local collieries. As its use dramatically cut down on the number of underground gas explosions, Sir Humphrey Davy’s invention was nicknamed the “Miner’s Friend.” It was a nice recognition of Seaham’s mining history.

Replete, we now set off south on the Durham Coast Heritage Path, recently opened by the National Trust as part of the English Coastal Path. We looked down on Seaham harbour, a double set of piers protecting it from the sea. It is still a working port. A freighter was being loaded up by 2 cranes from a glittering mountain of scrap-metal. Soon we left the coast road and went on to the path proper. It is a very attractive walk with cliff- top meadows featuring a colourful display of wild flowers. Tangled clumps of blackberries provided us with tasty free fruit. Butterflies flitted and bees buzzed. A group of swallows swooped low over the meadows, looking for their insect breakfasts. These magnesium limestone grasslands have helped the coast become an area of Special Scientific Interest as they support a unique population of plants and animals.

Soon we arrived at a headland called Nose’s Point. It provided spectacular views down “Blast Beach.” This is a long, empty beach, bordered by cliffs and punctuated by caves and stacks. A pointy stack like a jagged tooth stood at the near end, while at the far end was a very large, flat-topped rock covered with grass. The sea and the efforts of conservation organisations like the National Trust have turned “Nose’s Point” and “Blast beach” into a beautiful place, but it was, until quite recently, a scene of industrial devastation and desecration. Dawdon Pit extracted coal from beneath the sea here from 1901 to 1991. It was one of the most productive in the country. In 1925, 3862 men and boys mined over 1 million tons of coal. Even today, lumps of coal can be found amongst the rocks on the beach. Waste from the pit was dumped directly on to the beach. The scene was so hellish that it was chosen for the opening scenes of “Alien 3”, representing a devastated planet in outer space. On the cliffs above, in the 19th century, there had been blast furnaces for the iron and steel industry and these were succeeded in the late 1860’s by a chemical works. All this has now disappeared and nature has returned. One of the few clues left of this industrial past, apart from the name of the beach, is a mysterious layer of bare rock that stretches along the entire beach between the cliff base and the sand. This used to be the dumped spoil from the mine which has been flattened and hardened. A retired miner, walking his dog, told me about this. During the days when this coast was a metaphor for industrial dereliction, it was also used for a bleak scene in “Get Carter” the famous Michael Caine film.

After a while our path took us over the railway line that skirts the coast and into a deep, wooded ravine. This was/is Hawthorn Dene, one of several denes or little coastal valleys we had to negotiate. It is a steep sided gorge cut by glacial action. We descended through beautiful swathes of elm, ash and yew. It was like a secret wood, hidden from the world around. We crossed the stream and a huge chunk of magnesium limestone reared up before us. This rock is unique to this area. Then, as we climbed out of the ravine, we started catching glimpses through the trees of a large, impressive, red-bricked viaduct. Eventually we passed under one of its arches on our return to the coast. The Victorians had built it to take their railway north to Sunderland and Newcastle, and south to Hartlepool and Stockton. The current little “Pacer” trains, rattling along the rails, were a constant accompaniment to our walk.

We walked on along the coast, now chased by ominous dark clouds. But for the time being we were still treated to fine weather and sunny periods. Every now and then we were enlightened and entertained by information boards about the history and/or the nature of the area. We also came across lovely examples of sculptural art — which became a characteristic feature of the walk. One memorable example was a  large, metal representation of a seabird on the grassy cliff-top. Following a steep climb down and up the sides of another dene, 2 giant, iron butterfly wings announced Warren House Gill. The wings had shapes cut out of them showing miners going to work, and birds and butterflies, representing the mixture of industry and nature that form the rich heritage of this Durham Coast. A nearby seat was similarly carved with reliefs of leaves, flowers, miners’ helmets, shovels and hammers. The seat was a welcome sight as we were able to take the weight off our feet and enjoy a belated bite of lunch.

We were now near the village of Horden, our destination for the night. Today had been a shorter walk of about 7 miles, although we were still quite tired because of all those up and down denes. As we turned inland, the rain finally caught up with us. Waterproofs were hastily dragged on as the heaven’s opened. Luckily it was only a heavy shower. Ten minutes later we were skirting large puddles but getting rather warm as the sun returned. We walked under a railway bridge and up by a sewage treatment works and a waste recycling centre. On this walk we saw all the sights! We then turned up a long residential road, looking for our destination — the Bell Inn. Horden is supposed to be a village but we never found any actual village centre. There was no idyllic green or pond. It just seemed to be a long, linear development, eventually merging with the sprawling New Town of Peterlee. In the past, Horden had had one of the country’s biggest coal mines. In fact it still holds the world record for the largest amounts of coal extracted in a year. (4000 miners extracted 1.5 million tonnes of coal.) Hardly a trace of all this is discernible today, except, perhaps, the prominent presence of working men’s clubs.

The Bell, our guest house, was really a pub, that provided accommodation for largely contract workers. It was closed when we got there as it was only 2-30pm. However, a couple of men smoking and coughing outside a nearby club said it would open at 4. There was no convenient café to sit it out. Horden didn’t seem to be that type of place. So we sat on a handy wall outside the pub, took off out damp rain-proof togs, and waited. Luckily the barmaid arrived at 3 and kindly let us in early. It was a clean and comfortable room and so we were able to rest up and put the kettle on. We enjoyed the biscuits as well. From our window we enjoyed the unexpected view of a green field rising up behind the buildings that lined the road.

We had planned to eat at the pub, but unusually it did not serve food in the evenings. So we were snookered. The nearest eating place was a Weatherspoons about 25 minutes walk away up a busy road.We didn’t fancy that! The barmaid kindly suggested that we could order a take away and  said we could use the dining room to eat. So thanks to Catherine’s magical smartphone skills, we ended up having a Mexican meal in the pub’s breakfast room. We were intrigued to see who would deliver it. Would it be someone in a colourful poncho or sombrero, from a little-known Latin American enclave of Peterlee or Blackhall? We sipped our drinks and waiting in a state of high excitement. After only about 15 to 20 minutes, an older guy in tee-shirt and jeans entered the bar, asking if “anyone here has ordered some grub?” Without further ado, he shoved a carrier bag full of Mexican wraps in our direction and was gone (we had paid by card on the internet.) It was a bit of an anti-climax but the food was welcome and good. We ate it in the pub dining room watching the Channel 4 news. It was a satisfying end to Day 3 of our Durham coast trek.

 

 

Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?

 

Now I Know the Way to San Jose.

26 Dec

As Chris and I set off on our recent travels, I could barely contain my excitement! We were journeying by taxis, trains and planes to San Jose! Ever since the classic Dionne Warwick hit; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in 1968, I had dreamed of visiting that magical sounding place. Penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song tells of someone desperately wanting to escape the Hollywood rat race, where people seek fame and fortune on screen but often fail. They end up as gas pump attendants or in other menial jobs, thinking sadly of what might have been. The singer yearns to get away “to find some peace of mind” in San Jose, apparently her home town. So now, unbelievably, we too were going to San Jose. It would be a dream come true. It would be almost as thrilling as meeting the girl from Ipenema!

Our journey however, didn’t involve slipping on to the L A freeway and gliding off into the Californian sunset. It would involve catching crowded trains from N E England to London, chugging west on the interminable Piccadilly tube line to Heathrow, staying at an airport hotel and then flying across the Atlantic early next morning. We would then change planes in New York, an exciting event in itself, before flying on to our legendary destination. We would at last be following in the famous footsteps of Dionne, Hal and Burt.

That was our dream, but now, sit tight and I’ll tell you about the reality. The journey began on a small branch line with our train grinding its way through industrial Teesside. ( We live in a lovely seaside resort, but the industry is not far inland.) Finally we reached the delights of Darlington, the nearest station on the East Coast mainline. The express train arrived to whisk us down to the capital on this British leg of our exciting journey. To our surprise we were greeted by a large contingent of transport police! They seemed to be guarding the train from some terrible threat. We hadn’t heard of any terrorist alert so were completely bemused as we stored our luggage and sank into our seats. All the other passengers seemed to be quite relaxed so it couldn’t have been anything too scary.

Then we heard it — the loud, raucous singing of a large group of inebriated Scotsmen. They made a mockery of the concept of the “Quiet Coach.” The penny suddenly dropped. It was the weekend of the England vs Scotland World Cup football match at Wembley. The train was travelling from Edinburgh to London. The good humoured singing and chanting continued all the way south. We were quite safe but unable to use the toilet as it was permanently being occupied by an unending queue of kilted revellers. One wag in our coach commented that this was an interesting experiment in recycling, as the Scots fans were draining cans of beer as they waited to relieve themselves! It made for an interesting journey south. At Kings Cross we were treated to a spectacle of: hairy legs, bulging tattoos, swaying kilts and jaunty, tartan hats. Emblazoned on the backs of their dark blue football tops were the names of legendary Scottish footballers — Dalgleish, McLeish, Strachan. The echoing vaults of King Cross station resounded with the songs and chants of the eternally optimistic Scottish fans. Sadly, their beloved team got hammered 3-0 by England at Wembley, the next day.

By then we were up in the air, having survived the soulless automation of Heathrow Terminal 2. Instead of meeting a real person we were confronted by a row of machines. Presumably, many of the real employees have sadly been made redundant. It reminded me of the supermarkets back home where machines are rapidly replacing people. We now had to scan our passports, print our own boarding passes, print our own labels and attach them to our luggage by following the on- screen instructions. I quickly re-entered “grumpy old man” territory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be getting a part-time job at an airport! We eventually made it through to our United Airlines plane which proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half because some paperwork hadn’t been done properly. Finally we launched ourselves up into the sky and damp, grey Britain soon disappeared beneath the clouds. We were on our way to the blue skies and constant sunshine of San Jose. Once again  60’s tune and Dionne’s beautiful, velvety voice played in my head. ( I didn’t need head-phones.)

The journey to New York took 7 hours or so. I lost count. They tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. This is nothing but a joke because basically we are stuck in a droning metal tube, squashed into seats with little leg-room. Attendants bring drinks and an excuse of a meal. Fellow passengers retreat into their head-phones. Chris tried to nod off, drifting in and out of sleep. I read my book for a while but got distracted by the movies being played on people’s laptops. I only saw the pictures as I wasn’t plugged in to the soundtrack. I was treated to the Ninja Turtles rescuing New York from a ridiculous looking monster. It was a clichéd blur of: fights, car chases, explosions and other daring exploits while hanging off skyscrapers or helicopters. This was mixed in with the adjoining person’s dated rom-com about 2 couples going to a tropical island holiday camp. It was the usual mix of: misunderstandings, flirtations, jealousies, confrontations and reconciliations. The break-ups and the make-ups were all laced with clumsy, slapstick comedy.

I drifted off for a while, then decided to check where we were on my back-of-seat screen. I studied a route map charting the plane’s progress. To my surprise and excitement the map showed we were just skirting the south-east corner of Greenland! The nearest town, hundreds of miles away was Nuuk ( or Godthab.) Now there’s a destination! I’ve never been to and never seen Greenland. So, trembling with anticipation, I leaned toward the window and looked out. And there it was  — Greenland, its rows and rows of snowy mountains glistening in the bright sunlight. Miraculously, the clouds had parted to reveal this magical, other-worldly sight. We were 1855 miles from London, flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and I was looking at Greenland! Suddenly every penny of the airfare was worth it.

I gazed at the myriad of mountain peaks, fjords and islands. The sea surrounding them was dark blue and very still. No breakers washed up on the shore. It was a completely empty, pristine landscape, seemingly untouched by man. There were no buildings, no roads, no people. The sea was devoid of ships. There was no vegetation either belying the island’s name. As far as the eye could see stretched long ranges of jutting, snow-capped mountains, fringed by the dark, still sea. I imagined being down there, alone and isolated. The hairs stood up a little on the back of my neck with the thought of it, a combination of excitement and fear. Wasn’t there a William Golding book about a man stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean? “Pincher Martin” it’s called. Maybe I should read it. It was difficult to imagine an existence stripped of all the multiple technologies of the modern world. Imagine– no TV, no radio, no phone, no roads, no Internet! In reality, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours in Greenland, what with the cold, the isolation and probably: the polar bears. However, looking down at this empty, beautiful, almost surreal scene far below, made me feel strangely calm and content. Slowly the islands and the mountains receded into the unfathomable distance. As we flew towards Labrador, the curtain of clouds returned. If I was being corny, I would say it was all like a dream!

We were now on our run-into New York City, crossing Canada and then New England. New York is another place I’ve never visited, but always wanted to. As we approached I could see nothing but cloud. By now I had forgotten all about the Ninja Turtles and the antics of the rom-commers. I kept looking out of the airplane window. As we descended towards Newark New York airport, another minor miracle occurred. We passed through the clouds and there were the clustered sky-scrapers of Manhattan, spread out below us. This was the second most thrilling moment of the journey because, as I’ve explained, I’m a New York virgin.

I had expected to be gob-smacked by the sheer, soaring size of the buildings, but to be honest, from up in the air, they looked like toy-town. At first I wasn’t even sure whether this was central Manhattan, until I spotted a small island in the bay with the instantly recognisable statue of a lady in flowing robes thrusting her hand up into the sky. We were too high up to distinguish the Statue of Liberty’s famous flaming torch. The sight of this huge statue was the welcome that millions of  poor migrants got in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After their difficult, dangerous sea passage from Europe, Liberty summarised all the hopes and dreams of a better life in the New World. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty is something that every serious tourist yearns to see and tick off their “bucket list.” Now we’d seen it and it was definitely one of the highlights on our way to San Jose.

With the terrible threat of terrorism stalking the world, America gives a very suspicious, even paranoid welcome to its visitors. The passport queues are long and tiresome as each arrival is interrogated at length. The security checks are extremely thorough and the officers often brusque and rude as they bark out their orders without a “please” or a “thank-you” in sight. Sniffer dogs check your hand-luggage, presumably looking for drugs or explosives. But New York was not as bad as Houston, Texas on the way back, where we had to endure whole body scans and being shouted at for not carrying out an order immediately. It was all very intimidating, especially as we were merely tired travellers and not terrorists.

After another wait, we finally boarded our early evening flight to San Jose. We flew across the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s scrapers once more, and then New York disappeared. At last we were on our way to San Jose!

But now I must come clean. We had known all along that we weren’t travelling to the  idyllic-sounding Californian city made famous by Dionne Warwick’s hit song. That city, north of San Francisco, is now known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Thus thousands of people have made their way to San Jose since the song was written in those far-away, pre-internet days. It doesn’t sound such a lovely or restful place anymore. Would I have really wanted to go there , only to be thoroughly disillusioned? The reality would probably have shattered my long-held, romantic dream.

No– we were actually travelling to the capital of Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America. It’s chief city is also called San Jose. The Spanish conquistadores must have loved their saints as they murdered their way around the New World — San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro, San Salvador, San Jose. They were named after favourite saints and Saint Joseph( or Josephine), must have been more popular than most.

We weren’t flying to Dionne’s “Mecca”, but were travelling to the Costa Rican capital to begin an exotic, wildlife spotting tour. We would be visiting rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, lakes and coast. We arrived at the Costa Rican San Jose after dark. We were exhausted and ready for journey’s end. Only one more passport queue and one final security scan and we were in. The hotel had sent a taxi to collect us. There was  just time to change some Dollars into local currency (Colones) and help an old, confused American lady who had lost both her luggage and her tour group. We drove into the city. a mish-mash of old and new dominated by traffic. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place to find “some peace of mind.” When we walked out into it the next morning we found a lively town full of street sellers shouting out their  wares in the local version of Spanish. We saw numerous people selling colourful-looking lottery tickets and street entertainers such as xylophone bands and contortionists. It wasn’t the idyll that Dionne had sung wistfully about 50 years ago. It wasn’t even the right San Jose! But it was the beginning of a fascinating and memorable Central American adventure!