Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Windy weather on Walney

Well, we’re back from the past and off to Windy Walney. To those of you who have never heard of Walney (which is understandable) it’s an island off the tip of Barrow which is (allegedly) the windiest lowland site in England. I can believe this. Whatever the weather is like elsewhere it is always blowing a gale on Walney – and to prove it dozens of wind turbines have now sprouted offshore.

Wind farms are controversial and many local residents hate them, but I rather like them. On bad days they loom out of the mist and murk, their edges so softened you wonder if you’re seeing them or not, and sometimes they seem to disappear completely, but on clear days they stand proud on the horizon, their blades turning and turning as they make electricity.

We stayed at South Walney, which is really isolated, with a salt marsh on the Barrow side, and an incredible beach with masses of sand and rock pools on the other. When you stand and gaze across the salt marsh, with the wind blowing and the birds calling you could be at the end of the world. The marsh stretches out ahead of you, bleak and desolate, but it has a strange kind of beauty and as the clouds race overhead with constantly changing light and shadow the ground below alters from minute to minute, turning through a spectrum of colours.

Another constantly changing feature is Piel Island with its ruined castle (built by the abbots of Furness Abbey) silhouetted against the skyline. At high tide Piel is a normal island, surrounded by water, but at low tide the sea retreats and the isle rises from the mud flats like a legendary lost land. There are guided walks over the sands (you couldn’t attempt this in your own) and one year we travelled in a kind of trailer, pulled by a tractor. When the tide is in you can take a boat trip from nearby Roa Island – but however you get there the sea dictates the length of your visit, and if you’re not on time for the return journey you’ll get left behind because the tide won’t wait...

Curiously, Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward VI (one of the Prices in the Tower) landed here in 1487 on his way to do battle for the throne (he lost) and it is believed the custom of crowning the landlord of the Ship Inn as The King of Piel dates back to this period.

From Walney it’s only a short drive over the Victoria Bridge to Barrow itself, where we visited the Dock Museum, which has been created in an old ‘graving’ or dry dock where ships were repaired. It’s a very individual museum charting the history of the town which has been dominated by shipbuilding. There are models of the ships built here, an alien-looking diver’s suit, a draughtsman’s tools, and tableau showing some of the workshops and building processes, as well as details of the way the workers lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries (at Barrow Island you can see the old red sandstone tenement blocks where the workers lived, which are still in use today).

But there’s more to Barrow than ships. You can find out about Barrow in ancient times, its coal and iron mines, how people spent their leisure time, and the impact of the Second World War on the town, which was targeted by German bombers because of the shipyards. It would have been nice to see an exhibit about Nella Last, whose Mass Observation Diary formed the basis for Victoria Wood’s TV drama, Housewife, 49, but although the books of her diaries were on sale in the museum shop there seemed to be no reference to her. Despite that, it’s of my favourite museums which deserves to be much better known - and it’s free, has a small cafe, good parking and an area outside where you look at part of the old dock and admire the modern ‘waymarker’ sculptures.

No visit to Barrow could be complete without a visit to the ruins of Furness Abbey, but on the day we visited the weather was so bad that we got as far as the car park, and chickened out, unable to brave the torrential rain and high wind, which is a shame, because it is really beautiful there.

Back on Walney, surprisingly, the weather improved, so The Daughters and I walked along the sandy beach, exploring rock pools, and looking at the wind turbines. We used to hire a caravan here when they were younger, and it was all exactly as they remembered, so it gave them a chance to reconnect with their childhood and meet family they hadn’t seen for several years, which was nice.

As usual The Man of the House and I came home with a list of things we meant to do and didn’t; see the Druid’s Circle, visit the Abbey again, go round a nature reserve (there are two on Walney)... and we didn’t get up into the Lakes at all this year. But at least it means we have something to do on our next visit.

If you want to find out more about Walney, Barrow and the surrounding area, the following sites may help: www.dockmuseum.org.uk; www.english-lakes.com/furness_abbey.html; www.pielisland.co.uk; http://www.walney-island.com/

Monday, 29 August 2011

Is There Room For A Travelling Bath?

Travelling light, as I've said before, is always difficult, especially when you're heading off in an ancient campervan with limited space. Fortunately campervans, like caravans, are well designed so possessions can be stowed away in the smallest nooks and crannies, but it made me wonder how our ancestors managed when they went trekking across the world - often in great style and comfort.

Back in 1908 Constance Larymore wrote A Resident's Wife in Nigeria, detailing her life in Africa during the Edwardian era. It's packed with advice and includes a chapter on camping, although her experience was a little different to our holiday.

For a start she and her husband appear to have had an army of native servants and 'carriers' to care for them. Secondly they refused to drop their standards: not for them the cheap, plastic mugs, beakers and plates that we used. No, their china crockery included a teapot, milk jug and sugar basin, and they took glass tumblers and and sparklet bottles.

It would be unfair to say they took everything but the kitchen sink (we beat them there since the campervan has its own dear little sink and a water tank) but I am most envious of their tin travelling bath, with cover and strap, containing a wicker lining. I have tried and failed to discover what this was like. Was it a slipper bath? Or just a plain one, similar to those used by poorer folk? And did the wicker lining remain inside when you filled it with water, and if so did it leave marks on your skin while you sat there? Fortunately modern camp sites have excellent showers (the one at Bardsea was very luxurious, with underfloor heating) but a travelling bath sounds so intriguing.

Constance or, to be more precise, her servants, cooked on an open fire but the campervan is fitted with a small cooker (two rings, a grill and an oven with two settings - on or off) which is a definite advantage on camping Edwardian style, even though I used boxes and boxes of matches trying to light it, and for several days (until I got the hang of using it) our food was either burnt or almost raw.

Talking of food, according to Constance 'there is excellent bush-fowl and guinea-fowl shooting to be had' while villages can usually supply sheep and fowls, and she assures us that a mincing machine is 'indispensable' for dealing with meat which is to be eaten only an hour or so after it has been killed. Luckily there are plenty of shops within easy reach of our stopping paces so The Man of the House (unlike me he is a carnivore) was not required to hunt for sustenance.

Fresh eggs, maize, yams, sweet potatoes, fruit and guinea-corn were available from Nigerian villagers but, like us, the Larymores carried food supplies with them: sugar, tea, coffee, milk, jam and biscuits were as essential 100 years ago as they are today. Kerosene and candles were unecessarysince we have Calor gas and an electrical hook-up, and we passed on the lard, flour and baking powder - but the case of whisky sounds attractive, if somewhat heavy and probably prone to breakages. However, we did have a bottle of champagne (a gift, I hasten to add, and not our usual tipple, but very nice indeed, even though we drank it from our plastic beakers, and I doubt Constance would have approved).

Lacking a campervan, she and her husband travelled with two regulation officer's tents, each weighing 80lb - one for eating and daily living, the other for sleeping. They also took two canvas chairs, two armchairs, a table and their clothing was packed into tin uniform boxes, unlike our lightweight, soft canvas bags.

Surprisingly, perhaps, much of her advice still holds good. She recommends carrying stores in specially made wooden boxes, stressing:“It is no use having them larger, as you will only have to leave them half empty, on account of the weight, and things will tumble about and bottles get broken." Despite the cunningly designed storge space in our campervan, The Man of the House was constantly worried about weight and I ended up stuffing tea towels into the gaps between pots, pans, bottles and jars, to stop them rattling about.

She recommends a folding Panama hat, not too dissimilar to my brimmed crochet hat which keeps off both sun and rain at bay and can be scrunched up and stuffed into a bag. And while Constance wiled away her spare time with stitching and sketching I took some crochet and a lengthy Susan Howatch book.
We didn't follow her advice about placing all our clothing for the following day under our pillows each night to keep them dry and easily found. But we agreed with her that when things don't go according to plan, and you're tired, or cold 'a kettle can be boiled in a few minutes... and a cup of tea will make a wonderful difference'.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Back from Barrovia!

We have been on a Barrovian holiday, which sounds very exotic – like a little known Baltic nation, or one of those strange states that were once part of Russia. Or perhaps it could be a literary landscape providing inspiration for the kingdom of Barrovia which, in my imagination, resembles Anthony Hope’s Ruritania, with heroes and villains performing deeds of derring-do and beautiful maidens embroiled in romantic intrigue.

The reality is a little different: we went to Barrow-in-Furness, birthplace of The Man of the House who is, like all things which hail from the town, a Barrovian. That may sound dull, but the Furness Peninsula is as isolated and mysterious as any far-flung country or fictional realm. Jutting out into the Irish Sea on the very edge of the northern side of Morecambe Bay, it’s surrounded by water on three sides, while on the fourth the mountains of the Lake District form a barrier.

We took the campervan (our longest trip so far, in distance and time), staying for three days at Bardsea, and four at South Walney, and The Daughters joined us for a few days. The Bardsea site, set in an old quarry with its sides covered in trees and shrubs, was within walking distance of Ulverston but we were lazy and caught the bus into town (although we have walked in the past). Stan Laurel, one half of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, was born here (in those days he was Arthur Stanley Jefferson) and the town boasts a statue of the pair, as well as a Laurel and Hardy Museum. Created by fan Bill Cubin it started with just a few photos and scrapbooks but grew and grew. Since Bill’s death his family still run the museum, but it has moved to a new home on the stage of the old Roxy Cinema complex.

We read about Stan’s early life. Born into a theatrical family he joined Fred Karno’s band of travelling performers, understudied Charlie Chaplin and went to America where, eventually, he teamed up with Oliver Hardy and became a legednd – but he always maintained his links with Ulverston. Best of all, we sat in the 15-seater ‘cinema’ and laughed uproariously at Tit for Tat, in which Laurel and Hardy open an electrical store and get involved in a dispute with the neighbouring grocer, played by Charlie Hall, whose birthday it was on the day of our visit.
The new museum is lovely, and there is certainly more room, but somehow I preferred the old one, housed in an alley off one of the main streets – it was more atmospheric, and I loved the way the walls and even the ceiling were covered with photographs, pictures and other exhibits, and the way visitors squashed into the smallest cinema I’ve ever seen to watch their idols’classic films.

Ulverston’s other claim to fame is its ‘inland lighthouse’, which stands at the top of Hoad Hill and is visible for miles around. Built to look like the Eddystone Lighthouse, it's 100 feet high and is a memorial to Sir John Barrow, another native of Ulverston, who became second secretary of the Admiralty, was famed for supporting voyages of exploration and scientific discovery, was a founder member of the Royal Geographic Society, and wrote biographies and a history of Arctic exploration.

Every time we visit Barrow we plan to walk up Hoad Hill, take a close look at the memorial and maybe even clamber up the 100 steps inside, if it is open. However, we always decide we’re too old, or too unfit, or the weather is too cold, too wet or too windy (please note, it's never too hot in the Furness Peninsula), or we just don’t have the time. Perhaps we'll muster up the energy one of these days.

Another place we’ve never got round to visiting is Druid’s Circle, a prehistoric stone circle at Birkrigg Common, close to Bardsea village, but there’s always next year. Bardsea itself is only small, but it has a beautiful woodland country park and right next door, growing in a narrow strip along the very edge of the shore is the amazing Sea Wood, with records dating back to the 16th century (which means it is officially classed as ‘ancient’). It is believed that the area was once owned by the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen; timber was felled to supply the shipyard at Ulverston, and in addition there was a copper mine here.
Today it’s managed by the Woodland Trust and its position, soil and plants have made it a Site of Special Scientific Interest, ensuring protection, despite the busy main road which runs alongside it. I love this spot. It’s a magical place, where the world retreats, leaving you in a mini-wilderness: the ground is strewn with boulders which lie beneath tangled brambles, rare wild flowers, gnarled oaks, sycamores and all kinds of other trees, many with branches encrusted with lichens. Sadly, when you’re self catering space is always at a premium, but next time I’ll pack a good plant book and see if I can finally identify some of the species – and I’ll make room for a bird book and binoculars as well.

The beach at Bardsea looks very flat, and has stretches of grayish shingle, with some kind of coarse grass – I think it’s called cord grass – at the top, where the solid land merges into the beach, and there’s a lot of sand, but there are also areas of mud flats and salt marsh, and at high tide the sea rushes in with surprising speed, which can make the area incredibly dangerous, especially in bad weather. It’s hard to look across this stretch of Morecambe Bay and not think of father and son Stewart and Adam Rushton who died out there in 2002, trapped on sandbanks by rising tide and thick fog which prevented police reaching them.

For further information about the Ulverston area visit these sites:

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Wonky wheels are Trolley Bad...

A trip to the supermarket has left me wondering who designed shopping trolleys, because I'd like to give him (or her) a piece of my mind. They must surely be one of the most infuriating objects ever invented. Is it just me, or does anyone else find they always pick a trolley with a wonky wheel? Take it back and pick another, and the replacement is just as bad - or even worse.

As you push the wretched thing around the supermarket, it seems to develop a life of its own. Head for the left, and it veers off to the right. Try turning right and, unsurprisingly perhaps, it moves to the left. If you keep going straight ahead, in the hope that nothing can possibly wrong, the wheel jams completely and your trolley refuses to budge – a definite handicap when you’re faced with a week’s shopping and you have to be elsewhere else in an hour’s time. In a variation on a theme today's trolley would only progress if it was shoved sideways, so there I was, desperately trying to steer the trolley while avoiding other shoppers and displays of goods.

And, while we’re on the subject, why don’t stores provide more smaller trolleys? They must be popular, because you can never find one – and they are essential if you are five foot nothing, because then the large trolleys are impossible to steer (with or without a wonky wheel).  With their handles at chest height, these monsters make your arms ache. They are too heavy, and so deep that to fish things off the bottom you have to stand on tip toe and practically fall inside as you stretch to reach your shopping.

Whatever the size of the trolley, and however difficult it is to push around the store, when you come to unload your purchases it will take off on its own with ease. Dare to release your grip on the handle for so much as a nanosecond while you unlock the boot and the contraption races across the car park with the speed of an Olympic athlete - and that's before you start trying to decant the contents into your vehicle.

And even worse than the idiots who designed the trolleys are the idiots who can’t be bothered to wheel them back to the storage areas and leave them scattered across the asphalt, creating a hazardous slalom course for other drivers.

Friday, 12 August 2011

From a Muddy Field to a Memorial

One cold, wet, windy day way back in the late 1990s I stood in the middle of a very muddy field while a man with a map (which kept blowing away) enthusiastically explained his vision for an arboretum which would form a living memorial to all the servicemen and women who have died in action. There was little to be seen, apart from a few tiny saplings struggling to remain anchored in the ground, and a lot of straggly grass, and the site seemed small and noisy, bounded by gravel works and a busy road.
The photographer took his pictures, I scribbled my notes and we returned to the newspaper where we worked, doubtful that the scheme would ever see fruition. But we were wrong and the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, in Staffordshire, is a spectacular success. It is a decade since the site’s official opening – and almost that long since my last visit, so when I returned this week I was knocked out by what has been achieved. It is a truly amazing place, much bigger than I expected, very beautiful, and so peaceful that it’s like stepping out of the world and leaving your own troubles behind. It’s the trees that catch your eye, more than 50,000 of them, all kinds of species, from all over the world, still young, but growing; in another decade they will be awesome. Then there are the sculptures, memorials, swathes of green, green grass, and splashes of scarlet poppies ( real and artificial), forming a tribute to the war dead.

That patch of rough land I viewed all those years ago has been transformed into a kind of sacred space, with some 160 sanctuaries, each created by a different organisation with its own symbolism and style, but each very much part of the whole, linked like side chapels in a massive cathedral. There are commemorative areas from various branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the emergency services and groups like Girl Guides, Rotary, Inner Wheel and the WI .
Some of the more ‘domestic’ gardens are really touching, like the Golden Grove, packed with golden coloured plants, a celebration by couples who married at the end of the Second World War and dedicated trees to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, or the edging of decorated pebbles forming a tribute from the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society.

It’s impossible to mention all the monuments, but some will stick in my memory. The Fleet Air Arm have installed a sculpted ship, while the Women’s Royal Naval Service have put up a carved wooden wren, and the Suez Veterans’ plot features palm trees and a ‘canal’ of blue stone chippings.

An avenue of chestnuts has been planted by Police forces from all over the UK, symbolising the chestnut wood truncheons carried by the early law enforcers, and there’s a further link with the past as some trees were gown from conkers gathered at Drayton Manor, once the home of police founder Sir Robert Peel. Lifeboat crews are remembered at a wild shingle ‘beach’ where coastal flowers scramble across the stones, while nearby is a wood dedicated to the Merchant Navy convoys, where 2,535 oak trees represent 2,535 ships lost during World War Two. Consider how many men served aboard each vessel and the death toll is unimaginable.

Equally moving is the Far East Prisoners of War Memorial building with its exhibition on the men women and children held by the Japanese. Like many people, I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Tenko, and read A Town Called Alice and history books on this aspect of the war, but nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the full horror of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the prisoners, and the photos, sketches, relics and memories stunned visitors to silence and moved some to tears.

The high point (literally) of any visit to the Arboretum is the Armed Forces Memorial commemorating all the servicemen and women who have been killed since the end of the Second World War. Designed by Liam O'Connor, it stands on top of a mound redolent of prehistoric barrows. As you gaze up, the two curved walls and the trees planted around the two-tiered hill are reminiscent of ancient standing stones, while a gold-topped obelisk points the way to a brighter future. Within the circling walls are two straight walls, and within those is a bronze wreath and two bronze sculptures.
With its banks of poppies and crosses at the base, the scale of the walls where the names of the dead servicemen and women are inscribed is monumental, and it comes as a shock to realise how much space is left, and how many names are likely to be added in the years ahead. It is such a shame the nations of the world can't find it in their hearts to live in peace.

All this may sound a little grim, but it’s not. The arboretum is very tranquil, and very moving but also very uplifting, and it doesn’t glorify war in any way. Its theme could almost be that of Wilfred Owen, who said: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

Compassion is central to the ethos of the Arboretum, and the Millennium Chapel of Peace and Forgiveness is a focal part of the site, providing a place where people can pause to reflect, whatever their faith, and it’s the only place in the UK where the Act of Remembrance is observed every day at 11am. The wooden building includes 12 fabulous carved wooden pillars – one for each of the 12 Apostles.

As the Arboretum moves into its second decade an £8 million redevelopment campaign has been launched to fund a Remembrance Centre, and new gardens are continually being added. You can explore the existing development – which includes a cafĂ©, gifts shop and charity shop with masses of books – every day except December 25. Entry is free but there is a parking charge (£3 at the time of writing) and it’s easy to get around, with masses of wooden benches where you can sit and catch your breath as you reflect on life, the universe and everything.

Full details, including information on the site’s history, funding and the many organisations and volunteers involved, can be found at the National Memorial Arboretum website at http://www.thenma.org.uk/index.aspx
and there also details on the Royal British Legion website at http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/national-memorial-arboretum

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Luggage that Makes a Bid for Freedom...

SOME people are good at packing for holidays. I am not one of them. Lacking the psychic powers of Mystic Meg, I have to rely on the Met Office for information about the weather and, since the experts who compile the forecasts are not infallible, I never know what to take.

I start by making lists. Will I need warm jumpers or skimpy T-shirts? Posh frocks or tatty jeans? What about a mac and brolly, just in case? And what about shoes, which always seem to take up so much space? Comfy flats for walking are a must, but I’m not going anywhere without a pair of heels, the higher and spikier the better.

A growing pile of garments for all weathers and occasions wobbles beside the case as I turn my attention to vital items like curling tongs, make-up, suncream, shower cream, and first aid supplies.

And I must have some books (three is ideal - a new read, an old favourite, and something connected to our destination), crossword magazines, a travel clock, a camera, my mobile phone, an old mp3 player, various chargers, pens, pencils, paper, tea bags, dried milk, travel kettle, an iron... throw in a cuddly toy and it's like prizes on the Generation Game conveyor belt.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we have acquired an ancient camper van (the successor to the House on Wheels) which requires an awful lot of equipment to be stowed away in a very confined space. Pans, crockery, cutlery, tins and packets of food, cleaning equipment, loo rolls, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets (in case it's cold), hot water bottles (ditto), the waste water container, a loo, towels, tea towels, dish cloths, the awning and all the bits that go with it... the list is endless.

Furthermore everything has to be securely battened down. At least with the caravan I could chuck stuff in and once we were on the road we could neither see nor hear it. But the camper van is not so forgiving. Last time we used it we were contemplating a trip to the garage to investigate the worrying rattle - until we realised it was the sound of the grill pan banging against the sides of the cooker. Any loose items of luggage have an alarming habit of making a bid for freedom by hurling themselves in the general direction of the Man of the House, who is not best pleased about fending off attacks from fast-moving shoes, jackets, bags while he is trying to concentrate on driving.

And it's not just the packing that I find so difficult: on our return home it all has to be unpacked and restored to its rightful place. Sometimes I wonder if life would be easier without holidays and packing...

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Thrash the Brat in the Ad!

Why doesn't someone thrash the brat in the Vision Express advert? The one who runs about shouting, jumps all over the sofa and trashes his dad's glasses – and instead of reprimanding his delinquent offspring the guy goes to the optician, and realises he could (and should) have bought two pairs of spectacles.

What kind of message is that to give a child? It implies bad behaviour is OK because the father is a fault for not being prepared. At the very least the wretched kid should have been told his behaviour is totally unacceptable, and then made to sit in the naughty corner. The problem with that, as I explained in last week’s Whinge, is that any such move on the part of adults is now viewed as politically incorrect: instead, a child must be placed in the ‘time out place’. Whatever the terminology, PC or not, I still think the treatment of bad behaviour in this advert is totally inappropriate. It's not even funny and it really, really irritates me.

While we’re on the subject of annoying adverts, what about that one for Ribena with the blackcurrants who want to be eaten? What kind of fruit would enjoy the prospect of being squished, squashed, turned to liquid and consumed by humans? Any sane berry would surely turn tail and run as fast as they could rather than racing to dive into the communal pot. I just hate the concept of ads featuring any kind of food that expresses a desire to be eaten. In addition the ad has ruined a perfectly good song: Mungo Jerry will never sound the same again.

And how about comparethemeercat.com? I understand most people love these adverts, but I must lack a sense of humour because they make me want to hurl the television through the window. What have meercats got to do with insurance? And why do the furry characters (who are really rather sinister) come from Russia when meercats actually live in sandy deserts? What is the point of these ads, which are not a patch on Meercat Manor?

Generally speaking, most insurance adverts are dire, with ridiculous central characters including a nodding dog, a woman who looks as if she’s been electrocuted and an opera singer with a cartoon moustache.

And I loathe all those advertisements for hair and beauty products that try to fool us into believing we can regenerate our skin, smooth out wrinkles or increase the volume of our hair. Instead of just telling us we will look better if we use their products they use pseudo-scientific terminology in an effort to make their claims sound more convincing. I find this worrying because I have no idea what they are talking about - plus  they use thin, glamorous models, singers and actors, some of whom have been 'enhanced' to make them look better.

Advertisements for household cleaning products are just as bad. They seem to concentrate on projecting images of safeguarding your family by eradicating germs from loos and surfaces; dislodging dirt from carpets; keeping clothes clean and soft, and making your home smell 'fresh'. Are women really that obsessive about the state of their houses? Do they spend all their time agonising about dirty clothes and hgow to shift stains?

Then there are the ads put together by companies which seem to have never-ending sales for beds and sofas. Do they ever sell at normal price I wonder? And those horrible, brash ads for online bingo, make me really cross, as do the endless shots of cars seen in a variety of landscapes, from a variety of angles, all intent on selling a lifestyle.

I have to admit that at the moment I can't think of a single advert that I like...