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A Walk in the Country.

12 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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BULGARIA — at last.

14 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Trans-Pennine Stop Off.

19 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out Of The Ashes.

6 May

Dresden, a city I’ve just visited, is famous for two main things. The first is that it was widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Baroque cities in Europe. It was dubbed “The Florence of the North”, because of its captivating array of delicate spires, soaring towers and magnificent domes. The huge stone dome of its premier church, the Frauenkirche, inspired by the domes of Italian churches, made it into the most significant Protestant place of worship, north of the Alps. The Bruhlsche Terrasse, an impressive riverside promenade along one bank of the Elbe, was known as the “Balcony of Europe.” It would be great if this Saxon city was famous just for being beautiful. Unfortunately, its other claim to fame is that in February, 1945, its historic centre was completely destroyed by three, devastating Allied bombing raids, towards the end of the Second World War. Its heart was ripped out by the British and American bombs, reducing it to a smouldering heap of rubble. Say “Dresden” to a random collection of people in a word- association exercise, and nine out of ten would  respond with “bombs” not ” Baroque” or “buildings.” As in many cases in life, it’s the negative association that usually wins out. This city now unfortunately stands along Hiroshima as the scene of one of the most infamous atrocities of the entire war.

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Dresden occured on the night of February 13th, 1945. Up to that point it looked as if one of Germany’s most picturesque and culturally important cities would survive the conflict largely unscathed. However, that devastating night changed everything. The sirens began to wail at 9-39pm and the first bombs rained down at 10-13pm. More than 750 British Lancaster bombers dropped their deadly cargo in 2 waves of attack, 3 hours apart. The next day, American bombers came in at midday to finish the job. It was grimly appropriate that the raids came between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, because at the end of it all, Dresden’s historic Alstadt ( old town) was literally reduced to ashes. Incendiary bombs had caused a massive firestorm. The ashes fell on surrounding villages up to 35 kms away. Over 35,000 people perished. Many of them were refugees who had fled the advancing Red Army and were taking shelter in the city. The Soviets who later entered the city, claimed that 50,000 people had died. The RAF and USAF double attack on Dresden was the climax of a deliberately destructive bombing policy in which civilian populations and historic buildings were regarded as fair game. It was total war. The sheer extent of the devastation and the fact that thousands of innocent victims of Nazism were slaughtered, put this raid in a different class to all previous attacks. An area 20 kilometres square was virtually obliterated.

Many regard the bombing of Dresden as a war crime. Dresden had no great military or industrial importance. Others point out that the German bombing raids on British cities such as London, Bristol and Coventry were similarly shocking. The Luftwaffe also attacked equally beautiful British cities such as Canterbury and Norwich, in the so called Beiderbecke raids, although even the Nazis agreed to leave Oxford and Cambridge alone. If Dresden, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were  war crimes , no one was subsequently put on trial. This is because these particular deadly and devastating attacks were carried out by the eventual winners of the war. Only the losers are ever tried, as at the Nuremberg war crime trials. So “Bomber” Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, never got to stand in the dock alongside Hermet Goering, leader of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, even though both of them pursued similar policies and both were responsible for mass destruction and tens of thousands of  deaths. The idea behind both side’s bombing campaigns was to break the morale and fighting spirit of the enemy’s civilian population . According to a recent BBC ducumentary, the British did psychological studies of victims of bombing raids in Kingston upon Hull. The findings were that the bombing raids had actually strengthened not weakened  civilian resolve. However, these unwelcome results were kept secret because they would have taken away the main justification for Churchill and Harris’s bombing campaign against German cities and their non-military populations. Some argue that the bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden were justified as acts of retaliation and revenge following the  Blitz on London and other British cities. However, as my grandmother used to argue: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” All we can say in the end, is that the net result was that both populations suffered massively. A minute ago, I was talking about “winners” and “losers”. But, in a war there are no real winners. Everyone suffers.

My friend, Ian, and I visited Dresden as part of our Germany project. We have agreed to visit different parts of Germany, every year, for the forseeable future. I suppose you could call it our personal reconciliation mission. We are doing our small part to bring the 2 countries a little closer together. Two years ago we visited Lubeck, a beautiful Hanseatic city in the north, near Hamburg. It too suffered a terrible bombing raid in 1942. Apparently this was a practice run to see how effective such an attack on a mostly civilian population could be. Ian and I have noticed that many British holiday-makers seem to ignore Germany when it comes to choosing their destinations. Spain is easily the British tourist’s favourite overseas destination, followed, in no particular order by France, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Italy and the United States. Although Germany is a big, important country containing many interesting and attractive places of interest and it is one of our closest neighbours, it does not figure in these top destinations. Many are seduced by the combination of : sand, sea and sun offered by the Meditarranean countries. Germany has excellent beaches but they are all in the cooler north alongside the Baltic and North Seas. It gets plenty of sun, but its warmest climate is in the south, far away from the coast. So it cannot offer that magical combination all in one place.

I wonder too, if there is still a strong residue of anti-German prejudice left over from the World Wars of last century? The last one finished over 60 years ago and 3 new generations have been born since. However, a lot of national events and commemorations to do with the World Wars are still held in the United Kingdom. Someone commented that these days, the only time that the British are truly united is when they are reliving their victories in the two World Wars. It is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country, but is it healthy to constantly stir up bad memories and ill feeling towards one of closest allies and nearest neighbours? When one of the home nations plays Germany at football, the tabloid press often refer to the German players in derogatory terms, such as the “krauts” or the “huns.” A constant stream of 2nd World War films and TV programmes similarly revive old animosities. Just last year, “Dunkirk” and “Churchill. Darkest Hour” were two of Britain’s biggest box office successes. The so-called History Channel is dominated by documentaries about the war, Hitler and the Nazis. A friend of mine was recently persuaded to go on a city break to Berlin. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the people he met were so friendly and helpful. I asked him why wouldn’t they be and he answered “Well, they’re Germans aren’t they?” Did he really expect to see goose-stepping Nazis on the streets of the German capital? I have always found the German people to be friendly and obliging and  many of them speak perfect English. It’s a mystery to me why more British tourists don’t visit.

It’s a great pity if Dresden and Germany are still being defined by the war. Both have rich and rewarding histories before that tragic conflict and both have undergone remarkable transformations since it finished. Dresden’s old centre is no longer a heap of rubble. It’s major baroque buildings have all been meticilously reconstructed such that, once again, one could be walking around in the 18th century. Out of the ashes, the spectacular palaces, churches and civic buildings of Augustus the Strong and his son have been miraculously reserrected. The “before and after” photos have to be seen to be believed. Today, the Alstadt looks much as it was in the days when Canaletto was painting it. At first the East German Communist regime deliberately left the most important buildings such as the Frauenkirche, in ruins to serve as war memorials. For many years the Frauenkirche was the focus of an annual pilgrimage on February 13th. The ruins also acted as a powerful propaganda tool against the western powers. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s, reconstruction has gone on at a pace.  Much work is still going on as we saw on our visit. It took great “skill” to take a selection of photos that all omitted the cranes, the dumper trucks and the scores of hard-hatted workmen. A large section of picturesque Theaterplatz for instance is still cordoned off as the reconstruction crews do their stuff, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists circling all around them.

The Frauenkirche, a “Baroque gem”, has now reappeared in the cityscape after an absence of half a century.  The original dome initially survived the raid, but then collapsed 2 days later. The reborn church was consecrated in the autumn of 2015 and represents the crowning achievement of the reconstruction efforts. People from all over the world, including the UK and the USA, made donations towards its rebuilding. These included contributions from Coventry, Dresden’s partner city. Alan Smith, the son of one of the bomber pilots, created the tower cross that sits on top of the dome. His work was funded by the British Dresden Trust. 80% of the new altar consists of 2000 original pieces rescued from the rubble. On the altar table stands a cross of nails which is a symbol of reconciliation. The church is beautiful and flooded with light. A central nave is surrounded by 5 symmetrical galleries. The magnificent dome and galleries are decorated with murals in light, pastel colours. The only problem today seems to be too many tourists, ruining any hope of a spiritual atmosphere.

Peace and reconciliation are prominant themes in Dresden. We saw another cross of nails donated by the churches of Coventry, in the impressive Hofkirche, Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral. The mistakes and tragedies of the past are properly recalled in memorials but the emphasis seems to be to move forward into a more peaceful and harmonious future. I saw very little stress on the terrible bombing raid, although this could well have been covered in the city museum which I didn’t have time to see. I felt no animosity when people found out I was British. To me, it all seemed very positive. Germany of course is a leading light in the European Union which it created with France after the war by enmeshing their two economies. The idea was to make large scale European war impossible in the future because the 2 countries and their neighbours would become inter-dependent. So far the plan has succeeded.

So, like a phoenix, Dresden had risen again out of the ashes. It stands alongside the similarly restored Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk, as one of the miracles of the post-1945 age. It is really 3 cities in one — there is the modern city, the Communist era GDR city and the 18th century baroque city of its golden age. Dresden began as an Slav fishing village in the shadow of its near neighbour, Meissen. Then, in 1485, the Saxon Royal family, the House of Wettin, turned it into its capital. Its glory period was in the early 18th century under Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Although not a very astute political leader, Augustus loved art and culture. He encouraged top artists, architects, craftsmen, writers and musicians to make Dresden their base. The result was a flourishing cultural scene and the creation of some magnificent buildings such as Residenzschloss ( Royal Palace), several outstanding churches and the Zwinger, a Royal pleasure palace. The Zwinger is one of the most ravishing baroque buildings in the whole of Germany. We were god-smacked when we walked into it through one of its elaborate gateways. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day, so we saw it at its best. A huge, fountain studded courtyard is framed by fancy buildings and walkways festooned with baroque scultures. On the ground, well-manicured lawns are cut into symmetrical patterns, mirroring each other. Two ornate, exhuberant pavilions face each other at opposite ends of the courtyard . One, the Glockenspiel Pavilion, has a carillon of 40 bells, crafted out of Meissen porcelain. Along one upper gallery there is a giant carving of the Crown of Poland, supported by Polish eagles. The whole complex is stupendous. One of its palaces is used to house a rich, art gallery full of old masters, one of the dozen best in the world. The Opera House opposite ( the Semperor) is equally stunning. We attended an orchestral concert there given by the Saxon Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest and most famous orchestras established in 1548.

This is the Dresden that most people come to see. It’s the beautiful baroque city that has miraculously risen from the ashes of its wartime destruction. For a time it was a World Heritage Site but UNESCO have now had to take that coveted title away because of the construction of an unattractive road bridge across the Elbe which is completely out of keeping with its architectural surroundings. Ian and I enjoyed our time there and need to go back to visit the galleries and museums we didn’t have time to explore. It’s always good to end a visit wanting to return. Thankfully, we found out that Dresden is much, much more than the site of a war atrocity. It has risen from the ashes.

 

A Confusing Part of the UK.

22 Apr

Being a pedantic, former geography and history teacher, I still get a bit hot under the collar about people who don’t even know the name of their own country. It seems the simplest thing in the world to know where one hails from. The country I am specifically referring to is my own. To be fair, it is a bit confusing, because the names for it have changed fairly regularly over the centuries.

The Romans called it Britannia, with the people on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall being known as Caledonians. Later the various Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms united to form Angland ( Angle-Land) which later morphed into England. After the Danes or Vikings invaded, a sizable chunk of the east and the north was named the “Danelaw.” I once stayed in a lovely old guest house in Stamford, Lincs and the lady who ran it told me that the Danelaw border used to run through her back garden! This was exciting stuff for a history buff like me! Much later the English attacked and subjugated the Welsh and the Scots and the name for the new country was Great Britain.( the island consisting of England, Scotland and Wales.) Confusingly, the Scots had originally come from Ireland and had conquered the Picts. Next, after Ireland had been similarly invaded and conquered, the newly expanded country was re-christened: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Finally, after a large chunk of Ireland claimed its freedom in 1920-21, leaving only 6 counties of Ulster staying loyal to the Crown and the Government in London, the post Irish-partition country acquired its present name — The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the grandiose name that still graces my passport. If someone abroad asks me where I come from, I say the U.K. for short. This usually works, except that one gentleman, who I met on a night train in Vietnam, concluded that I came from the Ukraine!

So I come from the U.K. It doesn’t sound very attractive does it? Get rid of the capital letters and see what you end up with — “uk” — an exclamation of distaste or disgust! No wonder the British Olympic Association decided to ignore the proper name of their team’s country. Instead they called it Team GB. Let’s face it — Team UK doesn’t have the same catchy ring to it. There is also the great temptation for some people to put a Y or even an F in front of it! Thus, Clare Balding, Gabby Logan and their BBC colleagues, working on the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia, constantly misrepresented their country as Great Britain ( GB), ignoring the fact that it is actually the United Kingdom ( UK.) I suppose this is because they work for the British, not the UK, Broadcasting Company. I wrote to our Olympic Committee about this big error when I first noticed it in 2012, but they ignored my letter, showing that they were as rude as they were ignorant.

I asked the perfectly reasonable and straightforward question — are Northern Irish athletes to be excluded from our country’s team because they don’t come from Great Britain ( England, Scotland or Wales)? I was also interested to know why the Manx cyclist, Mark Cavendish, was allowed to compete for Team GB when the Isle of Man is not a part of Great Britain. It’s a mystery — if Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man are officially part of our country, why are they not recognised as such in the name of our sports teams? It gets even more complicated when one comes to football and rugby, as each componant country of the United Kingdom competes as if it is a separate, independent entity. Thus we have England versus Scotland, Wales versus Northern Ireland and all the other permutations. These matches are actually all the UK versus the UK. It all sounds very incestuous, not to mention, very confusing. The truth is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an artificial construct. Three countries and part of a fourth have been tied together by war and politics in the past. However, the populations of those countries still cling to their separate identities. The UK may technically be one country but it actually contains four nations. The Devolution movement of recent decades has recognised these differences, such that we now have parliaments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast  as well as in London.

I’ve just been to Northern Ireland for the first time in my life. I haven’t been before because of “The Troubles”, a 30 year period of bloody civil strife, that led to many atrocities, maimings and violent deaths. For much of my adult life, Northern Ireland has been a tourist, no-go area. When the British conquered Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, they pushed the local Catholic population on to poorer lands in the west and populated the better lands with staunch Protestant settlers shipped in from England and Scotland.  Thus were sown the seeds of trouble for centuries to come. When the Catholic King James II,  was expelled from Protestant Britain in 1688, he tried to make a come-back in Ireland where he was supported by the vast majority of the Catholic population.  However he met with fierce resistance from the Ulster protestants in the north-east of Ireland, inspired by the apprentice boys of Derry, who rushed to close the city gates against James’s Catholic army, uttering the famously defiant words: “No Surrender!” James’s army laid siege to the town but despite great suffering ( many died from starvation), it was never captured. King James’s forces were eventually defeated at the famous Battle of the Boyne by the army of the new British King, William of Orange ( William III). Orange was (is) an area of the Netherlands. William, the husband of James’s protestant daughter Mary, was invited over by the British establishment to defeat James II and re-establish Britain as a Protestant nation. Thus William, a Dutchman, became a hero of the Northern Irish protestant. I told you it was confusing! I have a friend Alex who came over to England to escape the “Troubles” in the 1970s. His brother stayed in Belfast and is now the head of his local “Orange Lodge”, leading his “Orange Men” with their bright orange sashes, on marches to commemorate the victory on the Boyne over 300 years ago. History still looms large in Northern Ireland. Irishmen celebrating the victory of a 17th century Dutchman. You couldn’t make it up!

I was recently in Dublin, the capital of the Irish Free State since its inception in 1920. The English or British found it impossible to subjugate all the countries of their huge Empire indefinitely. The Irish were one of the first in the 20th century to break free. After a long campaign for Irish Home Rule in the latter half of the 19th century, the situation erupted into open violence with the Easter Rising of 1916. The rebels commandeered the General Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street as their HQ and it was largely destroyed in the subsequent fighting against the British and then in the Irish Civil War which followed. I saw the bullet pock- marks in the classical columns of the building which has now been restored. Although they ruthlessly and viciously put down the uprising, the British  reluctantly realised that holding on to a largely resentful Ireland was becoming more trouble than it was worth. So, once the small matter of the First World War was over, negotiations for Ireland to become an independent republic began. This was in line with the campaign, promoted by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, to grant peoples who had previously been trapped in Empires, their freedom. Wilson called it “self-determination.” Thus, many new countries were created, or recreated out of the defeated Austrian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The victorious French and British however, were not quite so enthusiastic about giving freedom to their own colonies and ultimately paid the price by enduring a century of trouble. For the British, that trouble began in Ireland.

The sticking point in the negotiations for Irish independence was the predominantly protestant population of Northern Ireland, the area known as Ulster. These were the descendents of the English and Scottish protestant settlers of earlier centuries. They wanted to stay loyal to the British Crown and remain part of the United Kingdom. Therefore Ireland, one hundred years ago, was bitterly divided between “remainers” and “leavers” just like the UK today, following the controversial EU Referendum of 2016. Back then though, the Remainers ( i.e. the Ulster Protestants)  were rewarded by having their part of Ireland partitioned off and kept separate from the new country of Eire, the Irish Republic. So the island of Ireland was divided into two for political and religious reasons. The partition seemed to be a neat solution to an intractable problem. However, partitions often cause terrible problems as we witnessed when the British broke up India and created Pakistan. The British also partitioned Palestine causing decades of trouble between the Arabs and the Israelis in the Middle East, the consequences of which we are still suffering from. The Americans have tried it in Vietnam and Korea with equally troublesome and tragic results. The partition of Ireland was one of the first and there has been trouble ever since. Even today, though the horrific violence has gone away, the issue of the (artificial) Irish border has become a major sticking point in the complex Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union. This is because the Irish republic is a member of the EU whereas the people of the UK have narrowly voted to leave it.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioned the island. The Protestant Loyalists in the north only wanted to keep the 6 counties of Ulster where they commanded a majority over the Cathlolics. Thus Northern Ireland is a political not a geographical concept. It is not really a genuine country in my opinion. It is officially linked to countries across the Irish sea which it doesn’t have a lot in common with, and at the same time,  is artificially divided from the people and places it is naturally closest to. Once the Northern Irish protestants had their own province, they systematically excluded the Roman Catholics from power. The Catholics represented about one third of the population of Northern Ireland but were now a minority in their own country. They were rigorously discriminated against. The protestants had the majority in all the organisations of local government in the province and used it largely to look after their own. It was only in the late 1960s after over 40 years of discrimination that the Northern Irish Catholics, inspired by Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement in the USA, started to take to the streets to protest against their unfair treatment. Catholic marches were attacked by protestant/loyalists. On one march from Derry to Belfast, even the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, attacked the protesters. The lines were drawn and so began the latest chapter of the “troubles”. Both sides formed paramilitary organisations to do their fighting, such as the IRA for the Catholics and the UDF for the Protestants. There were many murders from bombings and shootings. People were knee-capped and tarred and feathered. When British soldiers were drafted in from the mainland to keep the peace, they too became targets and came under constant stress. During a Catholic march in Londonderry ( Derry) in January, 1972, troops of the Parachute regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians after being provoked by stone throwing and insult hurling youths. 13 people were killed outright and one died later in hospital. Many people were injured, some from bullets and others from being run over by armoured personnel carriers. Some were shot in the back. A priest with a white handkerchief had to intervene to get some of the wounded out. This notorious incident is known as “Bloody Sunday.” It hardened attitudes immeasurably, such that the province descended into a state of virtual civil war. One of a British soldier’s most dreaded postings was to Northern Ireland.

The “troubles” are hopefully over now. While we were visiting, it was the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 brokered by the Prime Ministers of the UK and of Ireland and representatives of the United States sent by President Clinton. This was one of PM Tony Blair’s most commendable achievements. ( before his reputation was forever stained by the illegal invasion of Iraq.) While in Northern Ireland, my wife Chris and I visited Derry/Londonderry. The double name is a reminder that the issues between the two sides are still not fully resolved. In the Bogside area, largely populated by Catholics, we saw spectacular murals on the gable ends of houses, depicting scenes from the troubles including “Bloody Sunday.” Other posters and murals praised the “martyrs” who had died fighting for Irish unity. One mural, commenting on the current argument over the Irish border when the UK leaves the EU in 2019, simply stated — ” Hard Border. Soft Border. No Border. Irish Unity now.” It was produced by a republican organisation called the 1916 society. On the other hand, while walking round Derry’s medieval walls, we at one point looked down into a protestant/loyalist area. It had red, white and blue stripes painted on the edge of its pavements. Later, we drove through an area of Cookstown festooned in Union Jacks and pro-British posters. I think, just below the surface, the province is still very much divided. Hatchets have been buried and compromises made for the sake of peace but there is still a long way to go before the bitterness and divisions can be overcome.

We found Northern Ireland to be very much like the rest of Ireland. The accent is slightly different, the currency is different and road journeys are measured in miles not kilometres. But, in most respects the 2 parts of Ireland, north and south, are very similar. The coastal scenary is often spectacular. We went to see the world famous Giant’s Causeway on the very picturesque Antrim coast. In many ways, it was like the magnificent west coast of Donegal in the Republic, which we later visited. It’s called the “Wild Atlantic Way” and very special it is too. Another thing the 2 Irelands have in common is the fantastic hospitality of their people. The breakfasts in the guest houses are something else! Also in the pubs, on both sides of the invisible border, there is often the sound of fiddles playing Irish dance tunes while the punters drink their pints of Guinness. Most of the time, it felt we were in Ireland and not in Britain. The banks notes, although pounds not Euros, were issued by the Bank of Ireland ( not England.) The girl on the Asda till back home gave me a quizzical look when I passed a Northern Irish fiver on to her. I felt I had to remind her that Northern Ireland is part of our country. The confusion cuts both ways though. While in Antrim I watched a local news programme on television in which Northern Irish people were referring to themselves as British. They are not, they are Irish!

I’m pleased I’ve been to Northern Ireland at last. I’ve now been to all 4 countries of the so-called United Kingdom. It’s a delightful place to visit. I would like to think I have cleared up some of the confusion but I doubt it. It seems bizarre that politicians in London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin are arguing about a hard border or a soft border between the 2 parts of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. When we were there, we crossed the border and didn’t even notice a thing. It will be a great shame if the United Kingdom pulls up the drawbridges and creates barriers between itself and its nearest neighbours following the Leave vote in the referendum. It wants to protect itself from foreign influence, even though it cannot protect itself from its own complicated history and even though many people don’t actually know the name of the country they are claiming to protect.