A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: piepers

San Francisco

In which it is proven that Zurich is the midpoint between London and San Francisco

sunny 20 °C

In one of those "This time I'll try a different approach" moments, I thought to ease the stress of flying out of London by booking our last night at a hotel just on the threshold of Heathrow. This decision was influenced by the memory of awaking after two hours sleep for a long taxi ride to the airport in the wee small hours on our first UK trip. There are many options out that way, all having in common that proximity factor to make you forget just how lousy the room really is. Anything for a no fuss transfer to the airport.

Out on the road at 6.15 am, onto the local free bus, and off to Terminal One. All good at check-in with Swissair, except for the lack of a required security clearance for travel to the USA. Off to an internet terminal to hurriedly apply online at a cost of about one hundred and fifty dollars for the two of us, and hoping that the applications are processed by the time we arrive in the states. After politely waiting its turn on the runway at crowded Heathrow, the Swissair jet eventually took off for Zurich. Due entirely to the mysterious art of plane routing, our round the world tickets required us to fly to San Francisco via Zurich. No strolling in alpine meadows for us, though. We just had time enough in Switzerland to hear cow bells and moo-ing piped in to the electric tramway between air terminals. And that was the end of our Swiss adventure;it was on to yet another plane, this one groaning with a full load of passengers.

San Francisco welcomed us to the queue of hopefuls at Immigration Control. Deemed an insignificant threat despite possessing multiple Tetley tea bags in an unsealed state, we gained admission to mainland USA. Unlike Melbourne, San Francisco welcomes visitors with well resourced information kiosks able to give information on what to do next. Options to get to the city centre included taxi (about $100 US) mini bus transfer at about $15 per head, or a simple underground train ride at $8.25 per head. The only complication of the train option being the ticket vending machines, where buttons labelled from A to G needed to be pressed in a dazzling sequence that I would never have achieved without the assistance of a jolly railway lady who did all the button pressing with a flurry of flying fingers on the uninformative buttons of the machine. At the other end of our San Fran stay, we would have the assistance of one of the city's homeless to assist with the tickets needed to get back to the airport.

With no line changes required, the subway station closest to our hotel was easy to find. Escalators made ascending to ground level not too difficult. Out on the streets of San Francisco, the hills that define the city were fortunately just beyond the neighborhood of our hotel. Still, it was an uphill slope that we pushed our suitcases slowly along, after fourteen hours of flying time and no real sleep. Before long the Andrews Hotel came into view, a narrow six storey building built in 1905 and surviving the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Reception welcomed us and installed us in a comfortable room with the novelty of enough space to walk three paces beyond the bed, an unheard of degree of personal freedom compared to most of the grimy boxes we have been shoehorned into during this tour. Also to our liking was the breakfast arrangements, where a huge basket of pastries, bread, muffins and so on, together with big pots of coffee and tea and orange juice, would appear on each floor of the hotel at seven in the morning. Our bioryhthms in chaos from travel, we were now waking at five and getting quite peckish by seven, so we gave that goody basket quite a thrashing.

Arming ourselves with three-day public transport passes (only $21 each, good value) we ventured out to ride the 1930s electric trolley car route to Fisherman's Wharf. This is touted as a world class tourist attraction. It features lots of seafood based food vendors clustered on one of the old piers, with other fast food joints and souvenir shops packing every available space on the adjoining numbered piers. A World War II submarine gathers barnacles alongside, with one of the Liberty ships that kept war supplies flowing in the background, a tribute to the largely female workforce that built them for the war effort. A cup of clam chowder is procured and devoured accompanied by a small bag of crackers. There is nowhere to sit ( to discourage the homeless, who improvise substantial seating nonetheless) and no rubbish bins (to minimise the risk of terrorism).

We had been advised by our consultant (engaged for the price of one dollar for the homeless street newspaper) to head for Fisherman's Wharf via the less glamorous electric streetcars, with a view to catching the classic cable car back afterwards. Being at the opposite end of the cable car route, it was easy to get a seat on the Powell-Hyde Cable Car to head back into town. The cars are turned by hand on a rotating section of track at the end of the route, and much bell-ringing is rhythmically performed as the small open vehicles cross each intersection. The conductor roams the car with a wad of dollars in his hand, collecting bills hand over fist. The hills rise and fall dramatically along the way, illustrating the need to have a means of transport held securely by the wire cable to protect against sliding backwards. With most of the cable car network destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, the few that remain are a way to get around that is both charming and perfectly suited to its environment.

The following day we ventured further afield, again on public transport, to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Even in the middle of the day, the thick fog swirled around the bridge, obscuring what what be a grand vista on a clear day. A remarkable structure that bends with the massive forces of wind, so that it feels almost alive under your feet. Not many structures can wear the colour orange, but the Golden Gate carries it off with panache.

Continuing on in the #28 bus, we headed south through the Presidio National Park and jumped off at the lower edge of the Golden Gate Park. This large expanse of greenery with lakes, forests of evergreens provides plenty of walking tracks as well as holding art galleries, a science museum and planetarium. The birds and turtles seem content with conditions, sunning themselves at the edge of a lake died blue to counter the growth of algae. After wearing out our feet for several hours we waited at the suddenly chilly bus stop in the middle of the park and made it back to our hotel on the busy afternoon bus system.

I had a hankering to see some of that rugged American scenery, so I booked a day trip to Yosemite National Park. Wisely, M stayed in SF to check out the city's core, as the drive up the Sierra Nevada mountains was turbulent enough to make any traveller's tummy feel a little unsettled. Travelling in a minibus, fourteen passengers drawn from German, Canadian, Dutch, English, and American as well as this little Australian, raced over the Bay Bridge and up the central valley where Californian farmers ply their trade. The coastal fog was left behind as we ascended higher into the mountains where it was once observed: " There's gold in them thar hills!"

Reaching the Yosemite valley, we stop to take photos where the massive granite formations El Capitan and Halfdome dominate the deep valley gouged out by glaciers, where the meadows have now been invaded by trees. A view of such grandeur that a hundred tourists snapping at it with cameras and i-phones could never hope to capture more than a hint of it.

On the long drive back from Yosemite, the less prosperous side of rural America slides by our biodiesel powered bus. Lots of fundamentalist meeting houses, cheap and nasty looking motels like Pyscho sets, and trailer communities where the impoverished live cheek by jowl with the deranged. The icons of consumption shine above the bumpy, decaying highways, the signs of Burger King and Dennys and McDonalds, and many more less familiar distributors of oily chicken and fatty burgers. The smell of cheap oil frying pervades the early evening air. We pass through Altamont, site of the Rolling Stones concert where a guy was stabbed. A brilliantly sparkling baseball diamond shines where the local team is having a big game.

For our final day, the hotel kindly hosted our bags for most of the day so we could have a stroll around town. On a whim I aimed our steps to a tiny green patch on the map just to see what was there. Within a brief space of time the following random objects were encountered:
Martin Luther King Memorial waterfall style fountain; iced coffee that was just that - black coffee with ice in it; the Americas Cup and its crew and boat; colourful work by Keith Harkin near the Museum of Modern Art. Our personal tour-o-meters were indicating we had reached saturation point and could not sensibly take in any more stuff.

Thank you San Francisco for your city to airport rail link, but please put some explanatory notes on your ticket machines.

But then, everywhere you go, the people go about their business, in a hundred small ways that are different and living long enough in each place lets you begin to get an understanding of some of them. Like Van the man says,

Got my ticket for the airport
Wo, guess I've been marking time
I've been living in another country
That operates along entirely different lines

And so to the departure lounge, where United Airlines was pleading for some passengers to give up their seats on the overbooked plane. We looked on, stony faced, but as the cattle class assumed their position of cowed suffering, we had been placed on opposite sides of the plane. Just as well it didn't go down.

Melbourne smells beautiful and the spring sun gleams. It's good to be home.

Posted by piepers 22:50 Archived in USA Comments (0)

London and the East End


An easy downhill run with our rollabout suitcases returned us to Torquay railway station, and presently the tiny two carriage train arrived on time, to scoot us a few stations up the line to Newton Abbot, where we changed to the London Paddington train. The British train system looks to have had a go at modernisation a couple of decades ago, but not much has changed since then. Faded, but still reasonably comfortable. Provided you have your own earphones, you can watch some video content if you are lucky enough to have a screen mounted on the back of your neighbour's seat.

Soon we slid into Paddington, ready to tangle with the Tube in order to find our way to yet another hotel. Room costs in the centre of London being prohibitive,I had booked a room in Stratford, an East End locality in Zone 3 of the public transport system, at a reasonable rate. I had also carefully written out the sequence of changes of line and landmarks to get there. With a mad tangle of interconnected lines covering just about any London locality you want, the Tube and its navigation is essential to a successful visit to the capital.

At Stratford the line rises up from the underground, with the station spilling out people to the forecourt of the enormous, shiny Westfield shopping centre. An elevator and a broad pedestrian bridge allow us to cross over the railway lines, the glass side panels of the bridge still lined by the remaining Olympics related posters. The arenas and other infrastructure are visible nearby. We cross at the traffic lights with a large, evening peak crowd. On this side of the tracks there is another shopping centre that is rough around the edges, where shops are more everyday, such as Sainburys, chemists, and mobile phone shops, and all the big fast food names full of patrons. The central walkway is a continual highway of the local people; a melange of African, Jamaican, West Indian, Indian, Pakistani,and a small proportion of Anglo-Saxons all rushing along going about their business.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of money around. Groups of young men posture and preen, but their clothes are cheap knock-offs of American brands. You can choose any watch you like from the market stall in the high street for three pounds. Everyone takes the short cut through the churchyard of St Johns. Homeless men huddle there at night, against the wall of the church, or stretched out heedless on the grass. A sign states that a maximum of four dogs on leash may be taken into the churchyard.

The church must have been a blitz victim, because most of the bricks appear pale and yellowish, compared to the eighteenth century style of its front. Other victims are noted in the compact front yard of the church on a tall ceramic memorial (provided by the local terra cotta manufacturers). Here the tales of local martyrs in the sixteenth century are recorded, such as "near this spot a blind man and a lame man were shackled together and burned to death for denying the truth of the bread and wine being the body of Christ."
On the other side of the road a large blue neon sign decorates an anonymous looking building with the words "You Me Bum Bum Train."Still don't know what it means.

Our room overlooking the busy street provides plenty of people watching opportunities in between forays into central London to see some sights. And access to the wi-fi internet connection at the electronics shop opposite our window during their opening hours. With the Ibis wanting ten pounds a night for wi-fi, free was a good option.

During the course of our stay we glimpsed the following notables:

On the way to the tower, right next to the Tower Hill Tube, a substantial chunk of the Roman wall that marked the city boundaries during their rule, now watched over by a statue of the emperor Trajan.

The Tower of London. Vast collection of castles and towers from six hundred years of royal habitation, incarceration or execution, depending on the politics of the time. Saunter by the little green grassy square where Jane Boleyn lost her head. Over there, an unobtrusive little tower where the two young princes were allegedly murdered by Richard II Nearby. Traitors Gate, an entry way from the Thames where those condemned to death would arrive to meet their fate. Many prominent bones are described proudly by the Beefeater guide in the Royal Chapel where the same Jane Boleyn's remains still lie.

Arms and graffitti from long ago evoke the experience of soldiers and prisoners. Walk through narrow spiral stairways with narrower window slits, just sufficient to fire an arrow. Outside, where once lions and monkeys roamed for the amusement of the king, now street theatre performers prance and play anachronistic guitars. Where are the lions when you need them? The Crown Jewels, glittering splendour presented in semi-darkness with sound effects, very few dated prior to the English Civil War because the puritans smashed the jewels as they then were. The goldsmiths and jewellers must have been exceptionally busy during the Charles II restoration period.

Museum of London. Fascinating displays of artefacts from early occupants of the London area, and the beginnings of civilised behaviour. Keep trying, OK? Great range of objects of outstanding historical interest, yes. Stand out item: burnt bricks and fused metals from the Great Fire of London.

Museum of Natural History. The one with the massive Diplodicus in the hallway. Walls groaning with fossils including many gathered at Lyme Regis by Mary Anning. Demonstration of the effects of an earthquake, via shaking of the room: not as shaky as the average Tube trip. Discover little room called The Vault. It contains exceptionally rare and precious things, gold and diamonds and sapphires, and rare crystalline forms of minerals wrought by natural forces into extremely beautiful things. Then just for extra impressiveness, there were moon rocks, rocks from Mars, and a meteorite almost as old as the universe. Adisplay case of about two hundred and eighty diamonds of all colours, sparkling under a UV light.

Regents Park. It's not Hyde Park. It's either formal paths cutting through rose gardens leading in to rugby and football games, or duck ponds. It does contain the Greater Union Canal, which links London with the Midlands for the narrowboats that put put their diesel powered way along the remaining network of waterways.

Baker St underground station. Just down from 221B Baker St, old haunt of Sherlock Holmes, this station is remarkable for its original condition. It was one of the first stations opened for business in the 1860s. Most of the decor looks like it hasn't been updated since, apart from a few shameful 1970 tiles. So quaintly mid Victorian it should be preserved.

Greenwich. We ventured out on the Docklands Light Rail in light rain, passing through the expansive building sites fringing the Olympic arenas, and the new financial centre at Canary Wharf. Pausing only to contemplate the charmingly named Mudchute, we arrived at Greenwich. Immediate steps taken to procure fish and chips at pub next to church where Henry VIII was baptized. Greenwich was a royal residence when the Tudors were in vogue. This place of zero longitude fairly drips with naval history, from the Cutty Sark hoisted high and dry the better to be viewed by the passer by, to the intriguing archeological displays of the Old Royal Naval College. As well as the uniforms and occupational fittings of old sailors, there were such items as an anti-witch spell consisting of a bottle, containing urine, bent bins, nails,hair and fingernail cuttings, which was buried beneath the threshold of a house on the site in the sixteenth century.Many grand Georgian buildings with exquisite interior decorations adjoining , now devoted to music teaching. A long trudge uphill to the Royal Observatory, for a brief view of the line where time is measured from, and a fine view back over the Thames valley. The parklands surrounding the Observatory alive with squirrels, busily harvesting acorns.

Stratford. Cross suburb walk with backpack full of dirty clothes in search of laundromat. Kind lady lets us wash load, while the adjoining mosque continues with evening prayers. We catch a double decker bus crowded with night club ready locals back to our hotel.The salad bar at Pizza Hut is honestly the freshest food in town. In the morning there will be yoghurt again, and a move to another hotel for a night free of the smell of East London drains.

Posted by piepers 06:15 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)


Everything but the Spanish waiter

overcast 17 °C

At about this stage of the grand caravanserai, the chief budgetary officer (that's me) called for some replanning Factors: forecasts of probable intense rain, cold and flood warnings in northern England and Scotland, and diminishing available accommodation and travel options to head north. Even more than in Europe, the cost of rail travel gets substantially more ludicrous if you leave bookings to the last minute. Hence, with some hesitation, Torquay was decided upon for a three day stay, basically just to kill some time economically prior to spending our final week in the UK in London. After all, Fawlty Towers was a work of fiction, was it not?

It's only a six pound cross country train to journey from Plymouth to Torquay. Just don't try to figure out the English timetable booklet, it will injure your brain. Check with at least two different customer advisors and you may get closer to the truth of how the intricate connections fit together like schematic of the Kray supercomputer. Get them to print out a Detailed Itinerary Slip guide you. Just remember to jump off the train and change at Newton Abbott. Oh, you haven't heard of the new joint venture between Tony Abbott and Matthew Newton? This would be a perfect place for them to launch a new party for Males on the Edge. It's arranged so, regardless of there being elevators to some platforms, at some stage you have to carry them up steep, slippery stairs. Two year olds in strollers carry their mum's blackberry while mum shepherds her demented mum into and out of the lift.

Presently, the connecting train arrives, apparently having stopped to chat with Thomas and Gordon along the way. It is a tiny train consisting of only two carriages, seemingly the way branch lines are handled, even to what is reputedly a major holiday destination for the Brits. Squeezing on board, we join a motley collection of grimfaced visitors, a short statured down syndrome sufferer leers at everyone as he holds up the onboarding process, and we add our baggage to the tiny end of carriage space unable to contain the load.

On arrival at Torquay station, a brief study of the local map helps us head towards Kelvin House, our accommodation, booked on the net after scouring for some hours as one option after another vanished before our eyes as others confirmed their bookings. The road from the station bumps along relatively flat for a while, then you look up at the astonishing vista of street after street of identical two-storied houses, exactly like the opening shot of Fawlty Towers, but with no space between them. Pushing our rollabout suitcases before us up the Himalayan slope, we pass the Gold Medal Winner, a Silver Medal Winner, and I think another Silver Medal Winner, for some Guest House rating scam or other. This vast collection of houses, all seemingly painted white, march resolutely up steep hills gazing blankly out at the street, announcing to the visitor, "Come in if you must." On the other side of the street from our Kelvin House, a huge resin gorilla formed the chief decoration of the competing guest house. Each day a strange little man came out and altered the decoration on this gorilla, for example, giving it a hat, or putting a soft-toy baby gorilla in its mouth. Such are the ways that the guest house proprietors set themselves apart in a competitive market.

With trepidation fluttering in our hearts, we approached the door of Kelvin House. What kind of hell hole had we descended to this time?

Au contraire, our hosts proved to be friendly, sensible, and devoted to turning out a freshly cooked full English breakfast in an immaculately clean setting. Our room, up the deeply carpeted, sound deadening stairs was small as usual, but comfortable enough and far cleaner than the grime and grunge of most English hotels. The odd part was the decor: wall paper of big bold flowers that had been rendered in monochrome, as if all the colour had been drained away. To complement this, the window was treated with black and white drapes that seemed to have something looking like a fat man's tie hanging down in the middle.

Out to explore the seafront, I sank into a depressed state of mind as I sat on the promenade built from manufactured stone- sand and gravel mixed with cement, I think- proudly placed there in the 1920s. Broad concrete steps walked out into the sea as they tried to drown themselves. In the water, a few children bravely played, even those who didn't have wetsuits against the freezing water. Further along the beach, you could hire deck chairs if you were hardy enough, but few people were taking up this option.

Beyond, the main part of Torquay sparkled its low wattage bulbs in the distance, a ferris wheel standing still the most prominent feature at the port. In desperate need of an ATM to get some cash, we walked along the sea front and explored the town, as exciting as Lakes Entrance in midwinter, with tatty souvenir shops and pubs everywhere.

For three days these pilgrims sought something to enjoy in this town, but to no avail. No, I lie, Miriam says the meal of mushroom fettucine she had at the Ocean Drive restaurant was one of the best she has had during this trip. For me the only interesting spot was adjacent to the Torre Abbey, a very Robin Hood looking place in mid-restoration. This was a building they call the Spanish Barn. It was built by the monks from the abbey in the 11th century, but the name comes from its use as a cellblock to hold 398 Spanish sailors captured from the attempted invasion of England that Sir Francis Drake thwarted in 1588. To hold so many in a modest sized bulding with tiny slits for windows must rank with the Black Hole of Calcutta as an act of cruiel accommodation. But then, perhaps that is exactly why Torquay exists?

On the morning after our arrival, I ensured I called by the railway station and made absolutely certain, paid in advance, to assure our speedy exit to move on to London upon our release at the end of our three day sentence.

Posted by piepers 10:41 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)


Lostwithiel, Eden Project, Helston, Land's End

semi-overcast 18 °C

The roads of rural France having posed no insurmountable challenges, it was clear that the only effective way of seeing Cornwall would be a self-drive hire car, and so I booked one. Fortunately the computer records of Europcars had retained my details, as I turned up to the counter without my passport in hand. As usual with car hire depots, this one was located in the dirty industrial fringe of town, just around the corner from the sleazy heart of Plymouth's 'Gentlemen's Club' neighbourhood. Tucked away in a one way street behind the kebaberies and grog shops, the cyclone fenced yard of hire cars stood. Also as usual, the make and model ordered on line was not available, but a small automatic just capable of holding two adults and their chunky luggage had 'just come back, and it's a little beauty, really', so it was offered and accepted. Hey, I'm happy not to have to worry about manual gears on strange roads. One less thing to distract the driver intent on complying with the thousand and one stern directives impinging on his brain in this ever so heavily regulated, surveilled, and policed land.

After a few kilometres of driving in the wrong direction opposite to where we wanted to go, as Plymouth offered no turning options right through the main part of town, a roundabout eventually allowed a scary reversal so that we could commence our Cornwall sojourn. Things to get used to in the first few minutes of driving in England include: making decisions on which lane to go in based on a millisecond glimpse of a few contracted and distorted letters painted on the road surface, usually obscured by huge lorries; speed limits so low that one has to virtually ride the brake pedal whenever the road slopes down at all; multi-lane freeways poorly signposted and phrased in bizarre English terminology that leaves you puzzling for kilometers after: what the hell did that one mean?

Victoriously though, we made it across the enormous bridge across the Tamar and to the little village of Liskeard, where morning tea and free internet access were greedily consumed. Wireless security key: goodcoffee. As we progressed through this realm we found that such modern frippery as internet connectivity became scarce, making it difficult to manage forward bookings and general communications.

Surveying the maps, and scanning the available accommodation, we decided to venture to a town named Lostwithiel, whose pronunciation we lisped helplessly over, or else called it Lostwhistle. It's original spelling and Cornish pronunciation being drastically different again, and I won't even attempt to represent it. The Best Western chain had provided us a comfortable night at Bordeaux, giving us some confidence that it's local name bearer couldn't be too bad in this neck of the woods. Finding it, as the afternoon brightness began to fall from the sky, proved somewhat challenging. First we headed up a narrow country lane that ended at the ruins of the huge castle where the Black Prince gathered his army in the thirteenth century, now guarded by two nice ladies who had no idea where our hotel would be, but happily gave us a local map. With this in hand, and an end to end cruise through the town, the hotel suddenly appeared in sight. Characteristically of accommodation in England, the photographs used to promote it are actually of firstly a small area of stonework with what turned out to be the restaurant menus and secondly a closely cropped perspective taken from the rear car park. Once again the camera was used to present a very ordinary premise as one of charm.

A lugubrious youth better suited to the funeral trade than hospitality greeted us feebly, as if we had arrived too late for the funeral and had missed all the action already, and we hauled our cases up a flight of stairs to collapse in our tiny room. Like every hotel room in England, seemingly, this was close and overheated, with bedding more useful to an arctic explorer than intrepid hot blooded Aussies.

Strolling around the town in warm sunshine, we discovered that Lostwithiel was not just any little village. It proudly proclaimed that it used to be the very capital of Cornwall, a seat of power from which princes ruled and fought great battles, and the money from the tin mines was gathered with great enterprises managed from what was now a very sedate and sleepy hollow. The river Fowy that flows through the town was once a mighty artery of shipping; now it runs only deep enough for children and dogs to splash in, knee deep, over a gravelly bed. The old bridge that was first built by the Normans in about 1100 has seen the river itself change course so much that additional arches had to be built in the 1800s to accommodate where the water wanted to run. Some of the original arches then not being needed remain buried under the buildings adjacent, constructed later.

Apart from the bridge and a few fine buildings, ranging from Norman to eighteenth century, Lostwithiel has a tiny museum with many intriguing exhibits, giving a fascinating insight into how the town has declined in importance over the centuries, well worthy of an hour's contemplation. For those currently living, there is less to sustain the urge to hang about. The Food Cooperative appears to be the only source of food and drink, the sandwiches on the very edge of their use-by date, and nutritive substances of any kind in scarce supply. We ventured into the Fish and Chippery, and were greeted with a heaped serving of disdain by the proprietress and her daughter, who rewarded our custom with possibly the most flaccid chips and grease soaked breaded fish known to mankind.

However, the adventurers were not to be put off with such setbacks. The dual purpose of coming to this area was to have a look at the Eden Project, located about an hour's drive from Lostwithiel, and to chase up the location of a hotel further into the heart of Cornwall that some of my ancestors had been involved with, according to genealogy information dredged up on the internet.

The Eden Project presents a fascinating proof of how an exhausted piece of waste land can be rehabilitated and made into a magical wonderland. It started as an abandoned quarry site where clay for porcelain had been extracted for many years. A visionary group determined to build a showcase project for what can be achieved by rebuilding the fertility of the land basically from recycled waste and thoughtful design. Massive amounts of composted waste, gravel and so on were brought to the site and voluntary labour worked together to bring the ecology of the land back to life.

The project has enormous domes - termed Biomes - built on the base of the hexagonal shape seen in honeycomb, giving the lightest, yet strongest structure for the domes. These are covered in what appears to be plastic sheeting similar to agricultural greenhouses, with adjustable ventilation to vary the level of steaminess within the domes. The largest of the domes now has trees of up to fifty metres in height; an impressive forest of tropical vegetation including coffee trees, cocoa, bananas, mangos, all flourishing and dripping with luscious fruit, all in the middle of the blustery chill of southern England.

The largest of the domes explores the vegetation and cultures of each of the tropical regions of the world, giving an insight into both the plants that are important to the people there, and how they interact with the natural world. As well as this enormous wonderland, constantly filled with a queue of sweating visitors astonished at the warmth created by the dome, next door there is a Mediterranean dome where landscapes typical of Tuscany, Southern France and similar areas explores the more closely settled approach to the plant world that works well within that context.

At the core of the Project there is a monolithic sculpture of a seed, hewn from one enormous block of granite, that aptly sums up what the project aspires to be; a seed thought to encourage us all to consider what sustainability means in practise, and what we can do to make it happen. Of all the places we saw during this journey, the Eden Project was undoubtedly the one that left us with some optimism that all is not yet lost.

After recuperating from a long and exhausting day exploring Eden, the next day we set off to drive deeper into Cornwall. The landscape is reminiscent of those rolling hills of Gippsland in the dairying districts mixed with the beachside ambience of North East Tasmania; you can see why people leaving England would have gladly settled into those almost corresponding landscapes. Hitting the coast at the town of Falmouth, we were astonished at how crowded the seafront was, with cars and people heading in all directions, and not a car park to be found. Eventually a small space in a narrow land next to the railway line was found, thanks to some helpful local ladies. Next, the search for toilet facilities became urgent. These were a quintessential English experience in themselves. On the wall was a metal panel with a series of three apertures, each with a button. Press the first button: a dribble of soap falls into the aperture. Press the second: a spurt of water, hands for the washing of; thirdly, press the button and shove your hands in the gap for a blast of hot air to dry off. If the Monty Python crew had a hand in the design of these facilities of public sanitation I would not be surprised in the least.

Venturing into the inevitable Tesco supermarket, our usual lunch of simple sandwiches was procured, and we walked around to find a sunny spot overlooking the harbour with its mix of industrial and pleasure craft. We were stopped by grey haired gentlement with purple sashes draped across their bodies. "Are you here for the Antiques Roadshow," they said, "The queue starts there." indicating a long queue of English folk clutching a range of bags and boxes with their precious items, hoping for a moment of being on the telly. "No, we just want to eat our sandwiches," we replied, and were permitted to pass through to sit on some sunny concrete steps just aside from the excited crowd of grey haired antique bearers happy to queue for hours for the chance of having their goods assessed by the 'experts'.

We walked back to our car in front of the bending seafacing row of identical two story houses sitting edge to edge against each other, varied only in their choice of colour. It seemed you could have lemon, pale blue, wishy washy green, or diluted beige, but certainly nothing that might make a house stand out from its fellows. Many of these appeared to be guest houses, with a sprinkle of student housing and council houses for the poor in the less attractive corners.

Continuing on the road to the west, at length we reached Helston, the town my researches had shown to be where some of my ancestors lived. There was a chap named Richard Trevethan who came to Australia for the gold rush in the 1850s, married Augusta Briggs who was my mother's great grandmother. It is this Trevethan whose ancestors came from Helston. His direct great grandparent Nicholas Trevethan came to be the proprietor of the Angel Tavern when his brother John died, who had inherited the role from his father who was also apparently named John. The Angel Tavern is still in operation today, and was actually on the market for sale just prior to our visit. Not sure if the deal has been done yet... Parts of the tavern are still in the same layout and condition they would have been when these chaps were running the show around 1680, while the property is the very oldest in Helston, being built in about 1551.

When we walked into the bar and I introduced myself to the barmaid, she handed my the multipage history of the place that they keep at the counter. Sure enough, the Trevethan name was prominent in the early history of the place. What was clarified for me was that they didn't own it: they managed it on behalf of the Godolphin family, who had used the property as their town house previously, and for the conduct of their business affairs in connection with the Cornish tin mines. Nicholas Trevethan married one of the Godolphins (one of the main streets in Helston is still named Godolphin St) so it appears I may have a distant connection with that dynasty of Melbourne Cup winning horse owners, not that I have any interest in such matters.)

The Angel Tavern has a fascinating connection with the name of the town itself. The name Helston comes from a legend that in ancient times the archangel Michael had an enormous battle with the Devil in the skies above where the town now sits, and finally hurled a huge stone at the demon, casting him to the ground in defeat. The Hell Stone the archangel threw landed where the back yard of the tavern is, and it lay there prominently for some hundreds of years. Eventually the chap who controlled the property at the time split the rock in several pieces and used it for building material as he extended some walls at the rear of the building. I found a couple of likely candidates for these pieces in the walls that appeared to be a different stone to the rest of the walls. Interesting tales indeed!

After soaking up the atmosphere at the Angel Tavern for a while, we decided to dash down to Land's End just to see what it was like.
Dear reader, don't bother. It is as though all the worst of bad taste, crass exploitation of what could be beautiful and romantic, and determination to extract the maximum number of pounds from every captive tourist wallet has leaked westward to this most westward point of the United Kingdom. Even the holy grail of home cooking in this county, the pasty, is offered as a stale, tasteless travesty packed in plastic. We returned to our car, zoomed back to spend the night at the Lostwithiel Golf and Country Club in an interesting stone cabin, and were ready to move on from the rolling low hills and windswept beaches of Cornwall.

Posted by piepers 08:35 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)


Yo ho ho and a bottle of gin

semi-overcast 22 °C

Determined to make it to Cornwall, ancestral land of some of my ancestors on my mother's side, we headed to the salty seaside city of Plymouth, carried away by British High-Speed Rail. In this nautical nook of Devon history fairly drips off the cobblestones, especially in the area known as The Barbican. This has barely changed in many respects since the days of pirates, in fact the proprietors of the strip of overpriced and underdelivering restaurants that dominate the sea front seem intent on continuing the tradition. For instance, a "vegetarian paella" turned out to be "fried rice with a few stringy bits of celery" without a paella pan in sight. Even the oversized gulls, with big, hooked beaks, wheeling about and conducting territorial disputes with other species seemed to be crying "Rrrrrrrgh" with a piratical and sinister edge. Maybe Hitchcock made that film in the wrong town after all.

As we explored the seafront further it became apparent that Plymouth is a great place to depart from. Most famously, the Pilgrim Fathers stepped down a very humble little stone stairway to their boats to make their way to America and found their colony, spreading their genes to an amazing number of descendants currently populating the US. Captain Cook sailed from here on each of his three voyages of exploration, Bligh also had his beginnings here, and even Scott of the Antarctic and Charles Darwin set off from this tiny harbour to each leave the world substantially altered by their deeds. For each of these events, small plaques note the places from where they stepped off the land to commence their journeys.

Plymouth's favourite son by far seems to be Sir Francis Drake; what with the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, the Armada Shopping Centre, and innumerable references to him in the streets and cafes. We strolled upon the Hoe, the high park overlooking the sea, where Drake allegedly played bowls while awaiting the Spanish Armada, then went out and whipped them. It seems a popular place, with the enormous art deco Lido swimming pool recently refurbished so people can swim on the edge of the sea in an incongruously brilliantly blue tiled pool that clashes with the dull grey of unruly waves outside. Even the Beatles have sat upon the Hoe, as shown in a framed photograph of the fab four sitting on the grass in 1967, all in a line with Seaton's Tower, the former lighthouse, in the background, John on the left with his trademark ironic smirk. The photo is for sale at one of the seaside art shops. If you like that kind of thing.

The core of Plymouth as a city seems to be in an active state of decay, with the mainly 1950s architecture crumbling at the edges. We had an interesting chat with a fellow in the St Andrews church which illuminated the story further. This church, like the Charles Church down the road, was burned out in the bombing raids of the Blitz in 1941. A small diagram pinned up on a display board has small dots representing each site where high explosive bombs landed over the duration of the German bombing campaign. The dots almost touched each other, from the docks and naval base right out into what was purely civilian dwellings. And then there were the firebombs, too numerous to mention. In short, virtually the whole city was levelled, leaving a massive rebuilding task in the postwar period.

There is a photo of young Princess Elizabeth in 1949 dedicating a stone in the rebuilt St Andrews; for the years preceding the building of a new roof, new stained glass all round, and a new interior, the church was open to the elements and grass and flowers were grown inside it, while it still functioned as a house of worship. While this landmark, and the adjoining guild hall, were reassembled and revamped, the Charles Church which our room looked down over has been left as a burned out shell in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, a permanent reminder of the devastation experienced in the blitz and a memorial to the suffering of its citizens.

When the plaster on the walls of the St Andrews church came off in the bombing during the blitz, graffiti was uncovered that had been there since Drake's time, depicting his ship the Golden Hind, with a rope extending from the bow of the ship up to the heavens, to the hand of providence. Supposedly Drake may have seen this and been inspired to create his family crest with a very similar motif. Who knows, there is so much embellishment and distortion of the truth that happens as the centuries pass. The fact of the resounding defeat of the Spanish is seemingly confirmed by a small plate on the doorway of the "Spanish Barn", a substantial stone building constructed by the monks of Torre Abbey close to Torquay beach, stating that 398 Spanish prisoners taken in the Armada defeat were held captive there. Its inches-wide windows and formidable doors would have made it an impregnable gaol, that would have been extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

In keeping with the nautical preoccupations of the town, it is also the home of Plymouth Gin, the single site where it is permitted to be distilled. Originally, the recipe was invented by a fellow named Coates, and in a time when the French were at war with England, the naval officers who were unable to get their usual rations of brandy and wine soon developed a taste for this local invention, made from wheat spirit together with certain botanical flavourings, and a distillation process that is still a carefully guarded secret. I took a tour of the factory, still housed in its former monastery building,dated 1431, which survived the bombing raids of the Germans, though the adjoining office block was totally destroyed. The entire output of the Plymouth Gin brand is produced here in one single still, and a tasting revealed it is a damn fine drop. Like refining oil into its components such as diesel, kerosene and petrol, the volatile oils from the various flavouring elements, such as juniper, coriander, orris root, and cardamon, emerge through the condenser in a fixed order, and the raw product needs to be watered down according to time-honoured steps to get to the final level of acceptable alcohol content.

Through this visit, I finally understood the term "proof". It seems that the Royal Navy required their gin to be undiluted as a matter of military necessity: the gin supplies on ships were always stored with the gunpowder below decks. If gin cut with water were to leak onto the gunpowder, the powder would not be usable. However, if the gin were pure, even if mixed with the gunpowder, the powder would still explode as required. To give the "proof" was to actually mix some of the powder with some of the gin up on deck, and light it. If it blew, then you knew the gin was at least 100% proof.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the local folk seem intent on keeping up the tradition of getting well and truly soaked in a range of drinks, and staggering through the streets in a disorderly and rowdy fashion. So England keeps up its traditions, while its infrastructure slowly falls apart, and unemployment and chronic health conditions seem to spread far and wide, as wide as once were the pink bits of the map of the world.

Having filled our lungs with the fresh air of the Plymouth coast, I organised a hire car for the next stage of our journey, down to Cornwall to explore the land of one stream of my ancestors lived for hundreds of years.

Posted by piepers 14:22 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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