Sampling Southport

On one of our recent trips to Edinburgh, we decided to divert via Southport. It is the largest seaside town in Merseyside and the only Conservative constituency in the region. The town lies on the Sefton Coast of the Irish sea with the Ribble Estuary to the north. To the south is Ainsdale and Birkdale Sandhills Nature Reserve which is one of the largest areas of wild sand dunes left in the UK. Southport is home to the second longest pier in the country; the longest being Southend. It opened in August 1860 and is the oldest iron pier in the country and at a length of 1,108m, the longest iron one.

Interestingly in a time of climate change, global warming, rising sea levels and parts of the east coast of England disappearing into the sea; the sea in Southport has been recessing away from the coast during the 20th century. The Kings Gardens and Marine Lake are now where the beach was previously.

They were opened in 1913 and reopened after restoration in 2014. Swans and other water birds were on the water while bridges and the pier take traffic and pedestrians across to the sea front. Other green spaces in town are Hesketh Gardens and Victoria Park. Every year Southport hosts a Flower Show which celebrated its 90th anniversary in summer 2019. Lord Street is in the town centre lined with Victorian buildings and many shops. Southport still has many independent shops but has also lost some and some of the chain stores have left like many other towns in the country. Lord Street hosts Wayfarers arcade which opened in 1898 with 30 stores. There are now a few empty ones.

In September 2019, the town received £1.6m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and in addition to money given by the council, this is being devoted to rejuvenating the town centre. Most of the market was being renovated and only a few stalls were open. We found Broadhurst’s Bookshop on Market Street. It has new books on the ground floor and two floors of secondhand books.

There are two other secondhand bookshops in town. We passed one of them but it was closed. A picnic was had in the sun by the beach and I had a brief beachcomb. There was only a narrow strip of sand but a long stretch of mud and the tide was out.

On an off-season weekday it was very quiet with just a few dog walkers. There were lots of razor shells on the beach; more than I have seen anywhere else, a few cockles and whelks. I found one piece of sea glass and then noticed an older man picking up something and filling bags which he was then loading onto his cycle. We got chatting and he told me that he was picking up coal for his fire. It is not something I have seen on a beach before but he told me that he had heard of a guy in Yorkshire who collected large amounts of coal from his local beach and sold it to a power station. Later, we watched the sun go down at the end of the pier

and the lights come on.

We had to leave the next morning and driving out of town it was hard to find a Guardian newspaper at any of the garages or newsagents in the outskirts. With a bit more time and when our coastal journey gets round here there is the Botanic Gardens to explore, the Atkinson Centre and a bird reserve slightly north of the town on the coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A short stay in Oxford

We left home in sub-zero temperatures and fog to travel to Oxford. With climate change there have been fewer winter days like this in the last couple of years. I did not get chance to take any photographs before leaving but here is one from a few years ago.

The fog lifted around Birmingham, returned in the Cherwell Valley but had disappeared by the time we reached Oxford and settled into our hotel. We have been to the city numerous times but my most recent trips had been work-related, so I saw little more than a meeting room in the Ashmolean and the route to and from the station. The following morning was bright and sunny, so we walked into town. Blue plates proliferate on the walls of buildings around here and Tolkien’s house is nearby. I was introduced to his work at primary school in the very early 1970s when the miners’ strikes led to widespread power cuts. Our teacher read us The Hobbit by candlelight. Our first destination was the Weston Library which is across the road from the Old Bodleian. Its interior is modern but some of the walls are lined with collections of antiquarian books. We had come to see an exhibition entitled Talking Maps; some of their vast collection. It was varied and eclectic from some of the earliest to very recent examples. There was a map indicating where to buy a drink in Oxford in the 1880s.

This one is of Laxton in East Nottinghamshire which has a portion of the last remaining open field systems. The feudal rural Map of England dates from 1635 and there are three large fields still relatively intact in Laxton which is almost unique in post-enclosure Modern Britain.

Also on display was the earliest known medieval map of Britain produced as a separate sheet rather than in a book and drawn on the hides of a sheep and lamb. More recent maps were wartime examples, some fake to confuse the enemy. Maps of imaginary places included Tolkien’s (which could not be photographed) and RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There were also pictorial maps by Grayson Perry.

There were faith maps of Christian pilgrim routes to Jerusalem, maps to assist Muslims in identifying the direction of Mecca and others related to Hinduism and Buddhism. An interesting display explained that although maps were not always orientated north; they were never orientated towards the west as this was where the sun went down and darkness reigned. Later we walked into the Boddleian courtyard

and then wandered around the city, purchasing an antique map for our own collection from a dealer we have bought from online previously. It was interesting to meet him in person and find out a little more about his work. The Botanic Gardens in Oxford are the oldest in the country

and are situated near Magdalen College and Bridge.

Only three glasshouses were open as a renovation project was underway but the snowdrops were more open than mine are. The Gunnera Manicata had been cut down on the island in the middle of the pond and left folded over the stalks to provide shelter for wildlife. Some shrubs were beginning to flower and some other spring flowers. Fish were swimming around under the ice in one pond.

Just outside the garden is a garden with yew and box hedging. A notice said that this had been a water meadow in 1190 and became a Jewish burial site. In 1231 a new site was established under what is now the college. An ancient footpath connected the site with the medieval Jewish quarter and was known as Deadman’s Walk for 800 years. In 1290 Edward I expelled all the Jews in England and they were not permitted to return for 300 years.

We had a meal in the Three Goat Heads pub. The First English Guild of Cordwainers was founded in Oxford in 1130 and three goat heads appeared on the crest. Cordwainer is derived from Cordoba in Spain where cordovan leather was produced from goatskin and became very popular for making shoes. The original inn was owned by one of the cordwainers and dates from 1621 on another street. In the 1800s it was moved to the present site. Inside are three goat heads and numerous items used in shoemaking.

All too soon we had to return home having sampled only a little of what Oxford has to offer.

 

 

Interesting shops

 

While sorting through some photographs, I noticed that over the years I have taken quite a few of interesting shops I have encountered. I also have a copy of  a book written by Alan Powers which traces the history of mostly English shop fronts and was published in 1989. His bibliography lists over 30 other books on the subject and the book is part of a series Chatto Curiosities of the British Street. Other volumes address pillar boxes and manhole covers.  The oldest shop photographs I have on my computer are a floating one from Lake Tonlé Sap in Cambodia

and a hat shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, both from 2008.

Two years after that I was in Srinagar in Kashmir, acclimatising to altitude before travelling to Ladakh to trek along the Markha Valley. We stayed on a houseboat on Lake Dal and had an afternoon boat ride around the lake, passing another floating shop.

In 2012 we spent some time in Cuba where there are two currencies. Locals use the Cuban Peso whereas visitors tend to use the Cuban Convertible Peso which is pegged to the US Dollar. We passed a few shops which only took Cuban Pesos.

Work took me to London on many occasions and I spotted a few interesting specialist shops on the way to meetings, such as this Bindery in Clerkenwell

On one of our regular journeys to Edinburgh we took a diversion to Sedbergh in Cumbria which was in the process of becoming England’s book town like Hay on Wye in Wales and Wigtown in southern Scotland. In addition to browsing in bookshops, I spotted this establishment with a typo in its title.

During our tour of New Zealand in 2017 we came across this Merino shop in Tirau

and in Australia the following year, this supermaket in Hall’s Creek with cows on the roof.

Alan Powers was mainly interested in the architecture but sometimes the most amazing things are the contents, particularly of specialist shops. I have never seen so many cufflinks as were displayed in this store in London

or beads as in this one in New York, spotted in 2016 when we stayed in the garment district in midtown

plus the lycra in the Spandex World shop nearby.

Bordeaux has a specialist brush shop which has been there for over 200 years. There used to be one in Edinburgh but it is no longer in existence.

Some shops have more than one function and like this bar and store in central Dublin.

Above all I love exploring bookshops and on our US journeys in 2016 we found quite a few; the Strand store in New York even had some stalls in Central Park

and one in Omaha

Some towns and cities have bookshops that I always visit when I am there and elsewhere, I am happy to come upon a new one by chance. Sadly in one of my local towns there is a three-storey art deco shop now empty which could look fantastic if anyone did take it on.

 

Budapest in December

It was around 20 years since I was last in Budapest and that was a work trip, so I had very little time to explore the city. We arrived the day after a heavy snowfall and settled into our hotel in the Castle district. Next door was St Matthias Church which dates from the 14th century but which was rebuilt in 1896

and the Fishermens’ Bastion, dating from 1905, built by the same architect who renovated St Matthias Church: Frigyes Shulek.

The following foggy morning, we walked down past the Bastion towards the River Danube and across the Chain Bridge. It was built between 1839-1849, designed by William Clark and built under the supervision of Adam Clark. The iron component was replaced in 1914-15 and it had to be rebuilt in 1949 after being blown up by German troops.

In Pest, Christmas markets were underway in some of the squares and outside the Basilica of St Stephen.

We saw a couple of bookstalls and some bookshops. Booksellers is the only English Language one we saw but the books are more expensive than in the UK.

Andrassy Út is an almost mile-long boulevard which ends at Heroes Square and City Park.

I admired the pediment of the Contemporary Arts Museum and made a mental note to visit on another trip.

Back at the river we walked down the bank back to the Chain Bridge, passing the Shoes Memorial. Members of the Jewish community in the city were shot on the riverbank and thrown into the water during the Holocaust.

In total we had walked 9.5 miles that day. Our second day began by exploring Castle Hill.

Buda Tower has survived several sieges and is said to be the only surviving medieval building still in its original form in the city.

We then walked along towards the Castle and National Gallery. We passed the top of the which Funicular Railway is an option if you do not want to walk up the hill. We had a coffee in the Gallery but did look around as there were several school trips inside.

This hooded crow was watching the world go by from the castle wall.

It was too foggy and very icy to walk over to Gellert Hill and explore do Cittadella and there would be no views from the top.

Instead we headed back down to the river and across to the Parliament Buildings where changing of the guard was underway. There are several museums in the area including a chocolate one.

I also spotted some street art.

We came back over the more modern Elizabeth Bridge and back up to Castle Hill. That day our mileage was a little less at 8.2 miles. It was still grey but milder on our last day. We walked down to the river again and north towards Margaret Bridge. It touches down at the south end of Margaret Island which has an outdoor gym and sports facilities.

On the other side we passed the Parliament

Department of Defense and various other government buildings before topping up the caffeine levels in a side-street café. Budapest has numerous statues all over the city but near the café was this man & dog one.

We nest had a good look round inside the Basilica of St Stephen which has an impressive ceiling

and even a stained glass portrait of St Andrew to make me feel at home.

Before crossing Liberty Bridge, we explored the market hall which has a great selection of food and other goods.

Interestingly the food stalls in front of the market were more expensive than any cafes we had been in. Back at the hotel (only 7.3 miles today) we had a look at some of the old cloisters within it

and then at the back of the hotel was the lit-up bastion and church.

The following morning it was time to leave but we hope to return in a different season to explore further.

 

 

The Findhorn River and beach

In mid-November we visited friends in Inverness whom we had not seen for a while. One day they took us for a trip around some of the sites on the River Findhorn in Moray. It is one of the longest rivers in Scotland at 100km. We began at Dulsie Bridge which was erected in 1755 by Major William Caulfield as part of General Wade’s military road strategy designed to assist in suppressing the local population. It survived the Muckle Spate flood of 1829 which swept away mills, farmhouses and several other bridges.

Further downstream, Randolph’s Leap is the narrowest part of the gorge.

In the 14th century Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray lived on one side of the river at Darnaway. Sir Alexander Cummings and his six sons lived on the opposite side. Problems arose when the Cummings who had held the lucrative post of ranger of the Forest of Darnaway fell out of favour with Randolph and King Robert the Bruce and were told to keep away from Darnaway. The eldest Cummings son, Alistair, gathered a thousand men to attack Randolph but they were ambushed and retreated back to the river where Alastair and three others jumped over to the other side so it really should have been called Alastair’s Leap. There are several walks around the river and forest here of varying lengths. We did one of the shorter ones as it was quite wet.

Continuing down the riverside we came to Logie Steading which has been converted into a visitors’ centre with a café, art gallery, a bookshop and several small businesses including Logie Whisky and Wine. The road continues through Forres and on to Findhorn on the Moray coast at the mouth of the river.

We had passed through earlier in the year as part of the Round Britain drive but I have always loved the Moray coast since working in Inverness so was very happy to return. The Findhorn Foundation eco-village has been here since 1962 but is a separate entity to the rest of the village. We walked along the beach and dunes at the edge of the forest

and round to the harbour

before returning to Inverness. Wild camping is allowed on the beach for a small fee so I suspect we will be back.

Exploring Magilligan Point

Last month while visiting relatives in Northern Ireland we had the chance to explore a part of the coast that I was not familiar with. Magilligan Point sits at the mouth of the Foyle Estuary. In summer the Lough Foyle ferry crosses over to Greencastle on the Inishowen Peninsula. There is a Martello Tower which was constructed between 1812 and 1817. By the time it was completed, Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena. It is apparently open at times but closed when we visited and the opening hours information has disappeared from the visit Northern Ireland website.

There are seven miles of beach divided into three: Magilligan Beach, Benone Strand and Downhill Beach below the cliff. The entire foreland is 20 miles long, described as ‘Ireland’s Largest Coastal Accumulation’ with some of the best-preserved dunes in the country. Part of it is a National Nature Reserve with resident wildlife and winter visits by migrating birds including further north. Since the Martello Tower was constructed there has been some form of military use over the years. There is an army training camp here with a firing range and the red flag was flying when we visited so part of the shore was not accessible. There is also a large prison on the peninsula near the cadet training centre on the point road.

From the strand you can see Mussenden Temple at the top of the cliffs at Downhill. It is in the care of the National Trust.

Only one brave soul was in the cold water on the day we visited.

It began to get darker and wetter, so we began to head back. In summer you could enjoy the bar and restaurant at the ferry and other cafes and hostelries in Castle Rock and Bellarena. We will probably revisit in a different season as when we have completed our circuit of the mainland coast of Britain, we will de driving around Ireland.

Madagascar: ending the journey

Before leaving Ranomafana we had a walk in the rainforest but it was very busy with several tour groups, so it was difficult to see much of the wildlife. We did see a few lemurs and brief glimpses of some birds. Deforestation has led to a reduction in some lemur populations in addition to hunting. The Brown Lemur population has reduced by a quarter since 1995. The Aye-Aye is fady to some of the locals and is therefore killed on sight.

After lunch we re-traced our route back to RN7 and Ambositra. Many of the towns we passed through had lots of people returning from the local market. Village people sell their crops there, buy essentials and socialise with friends and relatives. Young people meet up with their friends. The valleys were full if rice paddies and crops with many roadside stalls selling bananas, pineapples, honey, charcoal and even rum in re-used plastic bottles.

Ambositra had a lot of art and craft shops selling wood carvings, paintings, raffia work, jewellery and marquetry. We spent the night in Ambalavo and the follow morning began the drive back to Tana. The road crosses the Peace Bridge which was constructed in 2003.

It replaced the older Fatihita Bridge which was blown up in 2002 during political conflicts. I read somewhere that there have been many people have taken their own lives by jumping from the bridge.

All too soon were back in the middle of Tana which was very busy. Due to the heat we had the car windows open, so our guide warned us not to hold phones near the window or make bags easy to grab. At Tana airport there are only two departure gates but they were very efficient and we left the red island on time.