5 July 2015

Dartmoor

Bell over the main gate at Dartmoor Prison
Dartmoor is a national park in the far south west of England, Until last Monday it was an area that I had never explored. 

Before leaving the university in Exeter last Monday morning  I had mapped a ten mile walk I planned to undertake after visiting Princetown which is the location of the infamous Dartmoor Prison. This grim granite edifice was built in the early years of the nineteenth century - mostly to house American prisoners from The Forgotten War. It is still in use today.

I didn't begin my circular walk till half past two in the afternoon - parking in the hamlet of Jurston before looping up on to the moor itself. The highlight of this walk was discovering the stone row on Hurston Ridge. It runs for 143 metres and consists of two lines of ancient stones leading to the site of a cairn. There are ninety nine stones in total and it is very likely that the arrangement is over 4000 years old - first constructed when Dartmoor was probably forested.

Nobody knows for sure what the stone row was all about but one compelling argument suggests that it was to do with procession and the ritualistic honouring of  ancestors. There are numerous other very ancient sites on Dartmoor as well as more recent tin mine workings.

If you lived down there, so many walking adventures would be possible - preferably in clement weather - but the paths are not as well signposted as in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. You would need to have your wits about you.

I just got a taste of Dartmoor - not the full menu - but it was delightful to be out there plodding through unfamiliar country and that haunting stone row will live long in my memory.
Dartmoor Prison seen from afar
High Jurston Farm - where I parked before my walk
The stone row on Hurston Ridge
Dartmoor ponies are semi-wild
Bennett's Cross

3 July 2015

Allotment

Old stone weir and packhorse bridge in The Rivelin Valley
Sheffield has five rivers though some people might think of them as streams. In the eighteenth century and onwards through the nineteenth century, these rivers powered much of Sheffield's industry. It was in this city that silver plating first happened and where stainless steel was invented. For many years the name Sheffield was synonymous with fine cutlery and underpinning the city's historical expertise in metal working were our five rivers - The Sheaf, The Porter, The Loxley, The Don and The Rivelin.

Back in 1982, I rented an allotment in The Rivelin Valley. For those who may not have encountered the term "allotment" before, it was and is essentially a defined patch of ground where you can grow vegetables or perhaps keep chickens. My allotment had an area of about three hundred square yards and I cultivated it for six years before we moved to our present house which has a big garden at the rear and plenty of room for vegetable growing. The garden at the previous house was the size of a postage stamp.

My allotment was on Hagg Hill next to Rivelin Valley Road. The old man who rented it before me had built a home from home in the top corner of the plot. There was a brick chimney and brick foundations with various glazed window panels, meaning that the structure was half shed and half greenhouse. He had passed away in 1981, leaving various useful tools and other interesting items behind. That is where I found the old grindstone that I recently made the centrepiece of our new flower bed. I also found an old stone bottle which was once the property of The Barnsley Vinegar Company.

Back then all of the surrounding allotments were occupied - mostly by retired working class men from Walkley, Crookes and Hillsborough. A couple of them taught me a lot about successful vegetable cultivation and there was a lot of sharing and friendly banter. With much hard work I made my allotment productive. There were rows of potatoes, onions, beans, turnips, peas and cabbages as well as some soft fruit bushes and I grew mushrooms in plastic sacks that I kept in the shed. But in 1989 I left it all behind when we moved house.

I already knew that during the past twenty five years, my allotment and those surrounding it had fallen into disuse and that nature was reclaiming them.However, today, while walking along The Rivelin Valley, looking at the remains of old mills that once powered metal working enterprises, I decided to make a detour and return to the site of my old allotment if I could find it amidst the nettles and saplings, the long grasses and wild privet hedges.

An archaeologist would have a field day at those allotments. Anybody walking by today would never even guess that there had ever been allotments there. But I found the remains of the old shed - no glazed panels any more and the old Victorian pine table must have disintegrated but I knew exactly where the little fireplace had been and the steps up to the entrance and when I rooted around in the debris I found one of my mushroom sacks from twenty five years back and yoghurt pots in which I once grew seedlings and there's an old slate mantelpiece that I plan to rescue one day soon.

Time passes and what once was can fade away into distant memory leaving little evidence behind. The first time round I never snapped one picture of my old allotment. The contrast with today's scene would have been almost  remarkable:-
The foundations of the old shed
Nature claims back my vegetable garden
One of my old mushroom sacks
found under the debris

2 July 2015

Rules

Where there is a swimming pool, there just have to be rules. For all swimming pool managers out there, I have compiled the ultimate list of swimming pool rules. You are welcome to copy it and to use it as you will as the safety of people around swimming pools is of paramount importance. So here we go then:-

  • Swimmers must shower before entering the pool.
  • No food or drink in the pool area.
  • No diving.
  • No bombing.
  • Chewing gum is strictly forbidden
  • Children must wear armbands or life jackets
  • Skimpy bikinis are not allowed
  • Follow instructions of the lifeguard on duty
  • No running round the pool
  • No shouting
  • No ball games or inflatables allowed
  • No urination in the pool
  • No petting or kissing
  • Women must wear rubber bathing caps
  • No singing
  • Breast stroke only - no freestyle
  • No deliberate splashing of other users
  • No atheists
  • No body piercings or tattoos allowed
  • No plasters or visible injuries
  • No fat people
  • No non-swimmers
  • Nobody who watches "Loose Women" on TV
  • No armpit hair 
  • No dogs or other pets
  • No Welsh people or French
  • No getting wet
  • No holding on to the sides of the pool
  • No swimming.

Have fun!
By order of the management.

1 July 2015

Boat

We drove back from Exeter last evening - four and a half hours in the summer heat with a halt for dinner in "The Swan" at Whittington near Worcester. I still need to blog about my rambling on Dartmoor but this morning, having just got up,  I must get on and do things like have a shower and water the garden which is also crying out for rehydration. In the meantime, I forgot to include the following picture in my last post. It was taken close to Turf Lock where the Exeter Canal meets The River Exe. It was the best photograph I took on my hike from Starcross to Exeter. This composition would not have been half as effective if the sky had been blue and clear. I am rather proud of it:-
Please click picture to enlarge.

29 June 2015

Exeter

Holland Hall, University of Exeter
 Now we are down in Exeter, Devon in the south west of England. Shirley is attending a conference here on student health as she deals with a lot of university students at her health centre. We are staying in The University of Exeter's Holland Hall, overlooking the valley of The River Exe. It seems that students even have double beds these days and en suite bathrooms. It was never like that in my day. We slept in cells and shared bathrooms. Why did I never have a dressing gown back then?

I have just got back to our pad from a hearty breakfast. The view from that breakfast room is fabulous. One hundred and eighty degrees of the verdant Exe Valley. Marvellous.

I had a long walk yesterday and I am planning another for today. Yesterday I caught the 10.13 train to Exmouth where I slouched around in grey drizzle before catching the 11.40 ferry to the village of Starcross on  the other side of the estuary. I was the only passenger and felt like Richard Branson or Donald Trump must feel as they board their exclusive transport. But I haven't got Trump's golden hair or Branson's inane grin.

At Starcross the weather was brightening and it got better as I plodded the twelve miles back to Exwick - mostly by The Exeter Canal which runs parallel to the tidal and temperamental Exe. It was a delightful walk and I saw many wonderful things along the way. Some photographic evidence of which follows but now I must get ready to drive up onto Dartmoor for my next long walk.
My private ferry to Starcross
Cove near The Point in Exmouth

"The Double Locks Inn" by The Exeter Canal
Swan with cygnets

On The Exe in Exeter
Exeter is nothing like Las Vegas -  apart from the bouncers outside the city's  pubs

26 June 2015

Hirta

Some forty five miles west of The Isle of Lewis, exposed to the worst and the best  that The Atlantic Ocean can deliver. lies the rocky archipelago of St Kilda. The main island is called Hirta and once it was populated by genuine St Kildans. Nowadays, the only people who stay there are bird watchers, National Trust workers, occasional trawlermen, scientists and military personnel. I have blogged about St Kilda before. It's the kind of place that fires one's emotions and one's imaginings.

While on holiday in Crete I read an excellent book about Hirta called "The Life and Death of St Kilda" by Tom Steel. It was written with passionate interest, after painstaking research and though it was a very different and more demanding book than "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" I ate up every word.

Long before Christian religion appeared on Hirta, before formal education, before paternalistic lairds from the Hebridean islands, before Spanish trawlermen or the Ministry of Defence, long before that the people of St Kilda were self-sufficient and had very little contact with the outer world. The population was never large - two hundred at most but usually more like one hundred to one hundred and fifty. Even today nobody knows how people first arrived at this lonely place, where they came from and why.

They had songs, they danced and they shared stories but that was a couple of centuries before the sorrowful evacuation that happened in August 1930 - taking the remaining thirty six St Kildans to new lives in Scotland. Even by then the old songs were forgotten, hidden by the passage of time and puritan religion that interfered with their everyday quest for survival.

Stuck out in the Atlantic, the islands were so attractive to seabirds that they came in their millions - gannets, puffins, guillemots, terns and the fulmar petrel which was greatly prized by St Kildans throughout their long occupation. Though treeless Hirta and its sister islets have plentiful fish supplies, the islanders mainly survived on seabirds. They ate their eggs and plucked their feathers. Each summer they preserved thousands of them ready for the harsh winter that was bound to follow.

The oil from the fulmar petrel's belly had many uses - including lighting the islanders' humble "black houses" that had thick stone walls and turf roofs - strong enough to endure Atlantic gales that frequently blew at over 100 mph for days on end. They also had oats, seaweed and primitive Soay sheep. It must have been some time in the eighteenth century that potatoes were first introduced but they never grew well on Hirta.

This blogpost is threatening to grow as long as a length of Hirta tweed. So much of what Tom Steel wrote is still in my head and under my skin. I am reminded of other islands and fatal impacts - including Australia, Mauritius, Tristan da Cunha and of course Rapa Nui (Easter Island). So  many precious things are lost when the first contact is made and then there is no going back.

The end of the St Kildan civilisation was sadly inevitable. Those resourceful people could never have lived in a bubble, removed from the voracious modern world. Though they are gone, tantalising evidence of their long existence in the archipelago remains. New things are discovered every year and more things will  be discovered in the future but as at Easter Island, some secrets will remain hidden forever.

Is it so wrong of me to want to go there? Perhaps one day I shall, if the sea is calm enough to disembark in Village Bay where the main street of Victorian cottages has been largely restored by The National Trust. Much of the original village of black houses was bulldozed away by the army in the 1950's when they built a missile tracking station there. Imagine that - tracking missiles where once young men tied themselves to rocks and descended perpendicular cliffs to retrieve young fulmars every springtime.  The contrast is so vivid it is almost unspeakable.

24 June 2015

Lasithi

High in the eastern mountains of Crete there is a verdant plateau. You arrive there after a winding twenty mile climb from the sleepy town of Neapoli. Up through barren hills where the precipitous road threatens to plunge your car down into dry riverbeds far below. A place where mountain goats wear bells round their necks and feed on spiky bushes.

Then there’s a honey seller at the roadside. Grey-haired and eager to trade , she beckons you to pull in but you keep on going, up into the clouds and the cobalt blue sky. You imagine you are nearly there but you are not there until finally it appears spread out before you like a huge green quilt – The Lasithi Plateau. A secret world.

Around the fertile plateau are maybe eight discrete villages. For many centuries their very existence has depended upon the fields and groves they overlook. The arable land stretches for three or four miles, watered by mountain streams and underground reserves. Here antique tractors and battered Toyota pick up trucks are de rigeur though I guess that in previous times there was only the donkey to ease the human burden
We headed for a village called Psycro and parked under an olive tree before climbing up a paved path to the Dikteon Cave where legend says that Zeus was born. We were not alone. There were plenty of Russians from tour buses. They are the new discoverers of Mediterranean lands with their pockets bulging with roubles and their manners left at home. Everywhere they go they snap pictures of themselves with different backdrops. I believe the men are all called Ivan – a terrible name. Some of the women paid ten euros to ride on donkeys to the top. One or two of these poor beasts shat themselves in protest.
It cost four euros each to descend into the cave and in spite of the Russians we were not unhappy with the experience. I would have like to stay much longer on the Lasithi Plateau, perhaps walking in the heat up to the ancient Minoan site of Karfi but you can’t do everything in seven days – unless you are God – or maybe Zeus. But I was glad to have seen this secret plateau, high in the mountains, after which Crete’s most eastern province is named.
Home tomorrow evening... We have enjoyed our little trip to Crete. Probably more will be written later on. I bet you can’t wait!