In my final year of medical school we were given a two month period to carry out an elective project of your choice. I spent January and February 1984 in South Africa. I took my first long haul flight there to work at Mseleni Hospital in northern Kwa Zulu; only 60km from the Mozambique border. South Arica was still in the midst of apartheid then, so the medical staff were all missionaries and it was run by the African Evangelical Fellowship. It is now government-run. While I was a student, I had spent my holidays working at a local restaurant. The owner was a member of the local Rotary Club, so they gave me a donation to cover the cost of my flights and I was to give a lecture to them on my return. The hospital provided accommodation and food. A friend lent me his Pentax Spotmatic and I took slides for the lecture. It is only recently while in lockdown and packing up to move house that I found them again and scanned them. The Aberdeen flight shop had recommended Air Portugal to me. I flew from Heathrow to Lisbon. Unfortunately, the connecting flight was delayed so I had a night in Lisbon but only saw a hotel and the airport.
The following day after a refuelling stop in Brazzaville, I arrived in Durban. From there, a Mission Aviation Fellowship plane took me to Mseleni. They also provided transport to distant clinics and took seriously ill people down to the hospital in Durban.
I learned a lot at the hospital helping out with operations, ward reviews and several outlying clinics that we served.
Most of the local Zulus were too poor to own cattle and most of their diet consisted of mealies (corn) and vegetables with a few eggs. The children commonly suffered from Kwashiorkor. We had a unit for their treatment.
A New Zealand scientist was working on a way of increasing protein in the diet. He had tried bringing in guinea pigs from South America but they all died from a virus. He was then trying more successfully with goats. Hence, I added milking goats to my list of skills.
My project was focussed on exploring the reasons for non-compliance with tuberculosis treatment which was an issue in the area. In addition to clinics at places including Mabibi and Mbazwana Forest, I also visited some of the kraals in the area with the community health worker. I had learnt a little Zulu (I still have the phrasebook found in Foyles) but he acted as interpreter.
The hospital was close to Lake Sibhayi which was a pleasant walk to when we had some time off. You can take a boat on it but hippos are dangerous and could attack it. I often watched the sunset down there and on one occasion acquired a tick bite which gave me tick bit fever which was treated with a tetracycline.
Towards the end of January, two cyclones: Domoima and Imboa crossed the Mozambique channel and travelled inland. The area had the most rain it had had for at least 100 years and there was extensive flooding
The hospital was on a hill with a spring for water, so we were OK although the air strip was out of action and many of the local roads were blocked. The nearby Pongolapoort Dam was at risk of overflowing or breaking so they had to open the flood gates.
We had to treat one man who had been struck by lightning and there were reports of Zulus having climbed up trees to escape the floods but not wanting to go into the rescue helicopters because they had never seen them before. The waters eventually receded and at the end of my time I flew down to Cape Town to visit some South African friends before heading home. It was my first visit to the city, so I took the cable car up Table Mountain for the fantastic views
My friends took me to Fishoek
All too soon it was time to return home, write my report, get back to my studies and give a talk to the Rotary Club.
We are now several weeks into lockdown and wanderlust has to be contained. Spending so much time at home is vaguely reminiscent of writing my thesis and books several years ago. We are fortunate to have a large garden and live in a rural area so do have some space. I really feel for people living in cramped accommodation and no outside space. After weeks of rain and flooding in February; warm sunny weather arrived and the garden is now slowly drying up. There is a lot to do out there and the spring flowers are a joy.
Our house was put on the market two weeks before lockdown and we had a few viewings but all that has now ceased. We do not have a deadline so we are now taking the time to do some packing, pile up donations for charity shops and stuff to go to the recycling centre when it re-opens. The need for exercise takes us out for walks. Fortunately, we are not restricted as much as some countries where the furthest you can walk from home is 1km. Most of our walks are 2-3 miles along the lanes. The only place where you cannot stay two metres from anyone you might pass is the path alongside the brook.
Two hundred years ago our lane was a through road with a ford across the brook. This was later changed to a bridle path alongside the water with no vehicular access. When digital maps came out, many still had it depicted as a through road so early satnavs were sending people down it, thinking they could reach the other end. Eventually the council were persuaded to put up no through road signs at each end of the lane.
The lanes were initially quieter than usual with the odd car and several tractors but traffic is now increasing. We have seen a little more of our neighbours who are walking and cycling and one recently had a frightening close shave with a speeding vehicle. We also met some very new neighbours.
Some houses had rainbow paintings done by children in the windows. One plus is that there is less litter in the hedgerows. I only picked up one bottle on one of our walks whereas there is usually plenty of litter. McDonalds in Congleton being closed will be helping but there has also been a lot more fly tipping in the surrounding areas. Sadly, there is no option of refreshments at our local pub.
I have been undertaking a photographic natural history of the garden and am now trying to finish this before we leave.
It will not cover everything: one wood louse will have to represent the 30 species of woodlice and some visitors we have had over the years including cuckoos, woodpeckers and swallows; are now rarely or not seen at all.
If we were not in lockdown and only leaving the village for a weekly shop/medication collection, we would have been continuing our coastal journey in the campervan; juggling this with the house sale. Not knowing how long it will take to sell meant we had no major trips planned for 2020 and so not having the problems with refunds that many people are experiencing. I have as always been planning future trips without knowing when we can get back on the road
In the last 10 years we have seen several indications of climate change during our journeys. The first was the most severe and traumatic. In 2010 I went trekking in Ladakh in Kashmir, India with a group of people I had met the previous year on a fund-raising trek in Kerala. The tour company we went with have been running treks in Kashmir since 1874 and we had planned to do the Markha Valley trek. After a couple of days in Delhi, we flew to Srinagar with the first sight of snowy mountains peeping through the clouds from the plane. On Dal Lake we relaxed
before exploring the local area including three Mughal gardens, taking us up to 2000m.
The following day, woken by the muezzin and the cockerel at 5am, we were soon on the road to Kargil; stopping for a rest at Sonnamarg, an alpine meadow at 2,615m.
In order to leave we had to wait an hour for the convoy which we had to join in this disputed territory. We continued and passed the High-Altitude Warfare School, arriving in Kargil at 8pm. The following morning, we left to continue on the road; crossing the Fatu La which at 4,140m is the highest point on the Leh-Srinagar Highway.
After getting stuck on a hairpin bend and a puncture, the bus finally arrived in Leh at 10pm. We spent a day sightseeing and then met the pony train at Spituk bridge. Our walk from there to our first camp was long and hot in the sun. Camp was at 2700m at Zingchen. The next day we climbed to 3900m and I started to become centrally cyanosed so completed the last 45 minutes on horseback. Day 3 began the ascent to the 4,900m summit of the Ganda La. I did the last bit on horseback and even the horse was struggling for breath. There were great views from the top.
Descending the gorge, we reached Skiu: a small village at 3400m and set up camp in a field by the river. During our rest day, we did some yoga, walked to a gompa and relaxed. Ladakh gets all its water from snowmelt and it had not rained in summer for 100 years. However, that night it rained heavily in the early hours. This delayed our departure the next day but we reached Hamunsho in the afternoon. Our leader was beginning to wonder if we would be able to get to Markha as the river may have become impassable. There was a major storm overnight and another which had swept away some campers. Markha was inaccessible so we turned around and took a shortcut back to Skiu. That night we had to evacuate our camp as the river rose and flooded it.
We moved our tents to higher ground in the village and spent the morning filling bottles with spring water and sterilising it. We assisted some Romanian trekkers who had got caught in the gorge by the flash flood and had sheltered overnight on a ledge scraped from the cliff face. One Romanian and one Danish woman had died. Later some French guys arrived covered in mud and hypothermic having lost everything and one of their group had died. They had cuts and abrasions which needed dressing. One of the villages had a radio and we heard an English language Indian News broadcast saying that flooding and landslides were widespread and that 150 had been killed, homes demolished and 800 were missing. We would have been counted among the missing as we had entered but not left, a National Park. Even in Skiu, the stream that bisected the village was now a muddy river that had destroyed houses and some people did not know what had happened to their relatives on the other side.
Later that day, another flash flood came down the gorge. We climbed up the scree until it was clear that the waters were receding. We had hoped to be able to walk to Chilling and return to Leh but learnt from a French trekker who had come from that direction that a landslide had blocked the Chilling to Leh road. That night we slept fully clothed with our boots on in case we had to evacuate quickly. We woke to more rain and the news that our ponies would not be able to get over the landslides to Chilling so that even if we got there, we would have no shelter and there were many tourists stranded there. Two of our guys made two attempts to get over the landslides to walk to a village which had a satellite phone to try and let our relatives know what was happening. Another two rainy days followed and we set up a management group to figure out how to deal with 150 foreign nationals, 40 Ladakhi support staff, 31 ponies that needed feeding and traumatised villages living in very basic conditions. I did a drug inventory, some was in charge of sterilising water, my son checked the tents and fly sheets, I have a health talk to the youth to ensure handwashing, using the composting toilet, keeping eyes clean and avoiding fungal infections in flexures. Another doctor and I dealt with some wounds and minor injuries. We learnt that the floods were very widespread; much of northern India was affected; Jammu and Kashmir had declared a state of emergency and 10,000 were dead in Pakistan after a French guide managed to get to the phone and speak to his office in Leh. We were rationing food but were told that a food, water and medicine drop would come soon. The dead Romanian had still not been buried and the Ladakhis said that it was not an auspicious time. There was not enough depth of soil in the valley to dig a grave and in Ladakh air burials are the norm. The Muslim person in the village cuts up the body, it is taken into the mountains to a stone bier and left to the vultures. This was not acceptable to the deceased’s companions. An American couple in our group did their washing and hung it on a prayer wall next to their tent. Incense had to be burnt and prayers said to atone for this. We were woken at 5am by the sound of helicopters. They sounded too small to be dropping off supplies and turned out to be the stripped-down Puma helicopters the Indian Air Force fly at high altitudes.
We were being rescued and got back to Delhi in time to get our flight home. The following year we went on a walking holiday in the outer Canaries. They were having their wettest spring for 25 years. You are supposed to be able to see North Africa from the top of La Gomera but cloud removed any views. When our ferry returned to Tenerife, the beach at Los Christianos was flooded and seagulls were wondering where the people were.
In 2017, while touring New Zealand, we visited the Fox Glacier; somewhat smaller and quieter than the Franz Josef Glacier. You walk up a lane which marks where the face of the glacier was in 1915 and 1935 and it had retreated. It advanced between 1985 and 2009 but since then there has been a significant retreat.
In Iceland in February 2017 there was not enough snow to do a snowmobile drive which was on our itinerary. We are now trying to reduce the impact of our travels on the climate. In Western Europe we drive, take the train and/or ferries. With our campervan we are exploring more of our own island and limiting long-haul travel to one big trip per year. The coronavirus pandemic has had little impact as this was the year, we planned to sell our house and therefore had not booked any major trips.
Early March saw us taking a few days to revisit some of our old haunts in Scotland. The first stop was Dundee where James studied at the university from 1979-1984. A keen football fan, he followed Dundee United. So, when he spotted that Dundee Rep Theatre were putting on a production entitled ‘Smile’ about their manager Jim McLean, it was a must. We stayed at a central hotel just a short walk from the theatre and although some of it was a bit of a mystery to me (having never been to a football match), he and the rest of the audience enjoyed it very much. In the morning we drove along the Tay towards Perth pick up the A9.
Before reaching Perth we diverted near Errol to Cairn O’Mhor Winery. Someone James was at university with left the course and with her husband, has been making fruit wines and cider since 1987. We had a look around the winery and saw some cider being bottled before having a coffee with Judith and Ron.
My first visit there was in the early 1970s when my clarinet teacher had to arrange a musical group to play at the wedding reception of Lord Doune’s daughter. The castle has been under renovation for some time and not open the last time we passed by. Today, we did manage a wander round the interior
but the grounds and riverside were too wet from the recent heavy rains. The guy in the gift shop told us that while filming had gone on in the castle since Monty Python and the Holy Grail; after Game of Thrones and Outlander were filmed there, the number of tourists visiting had increased. Last summer they had days with more than 1000 visitors (many from the USA), causing huge problems when coaches tried to drive down the single-track road to the car park. Continuing up the route my school bus used to take, we arrived in Callander. Parking down by the meadows, I could see a snowy Ben Ledi behind all the ducks and swans hanging around on the water, hoping for some food.
At the south end of the car park is a mound known as the ‘Hill of St Kessog’.
St Kessog was an Irish follower of St Columba preached here in the 6th century. It is not certain whether or not the mound was part of a motte or castle hill but in the 1930s an archaeological dig found the remains of a pre-Reformation church just to the right of the mound. It is thought to be the first church in Callander built in 1238. It was later demolished and the graveyard was established with the hexagonal watch house nearby to look out for grave robbers. Callander also has a second-hand bookshop with adjacent book bindery.
Our next night was in Stirling where we met while working at the hospital there. Our hotel, in the old town was the original Royal Infirmary and the hotel next door was the old High School. We watched the sun go down from the castle terrace.
In the morning we were at the entrance just as the castle opened and had a look around the palace which was restored in 2011.
As most of the other visitors were waiting for the guided tour, we had the place to ourselves, looking at the sculptures and views over the surrounding countryside. Staff told us that in the high season they get up to 5,000 visitors each day.
A few miles further on is the Wallace Monument. Like Stirling Castle, I had not been there since childhood. The path winds up the Abbey Craig where snowdrops and primroses were blooming with blue bells and dog’s mercury emerging. These are both indicators of ancient woodland.
A few miles further along the foot of the Ochil Hills lies the Broomhall. It was built in 1874 by John Foukes and Frances Mackison for James Johnstone. He was the younger of two brothers who owned a shipbuilding and mills business. After a family argument, James had the hall built in the style of Balmoral Castle with the tower so that he could look down on his brother. It is situated next door to where I lived from the late 1960s to 1974 on Long Row in Menstrie.
In 1906 the Castle was sold to an Italian Riding School and in 1910 became the Clifford Park Boys Prep School run under the auspices of William Herbert Leetham. Some sources say that in the early hours of Friday 28th June 1940 (others say in 1941) the building caught fire whilst the boarders were camping in the grounds. The fire seemed to originate on the second floor towards the rear of the building and the alarm was raised by the Local Defence Volunteers who were out on their night-time patrol. It took hold quickly and could be seen for miles as it lit up the sky. Under the direction of Fire Master Robert Cairns, water was pumped from the county mains near the old Menstrie railway station and it was brought under control before 9am. By this time a large crowd had gathered to see what had happened and offered what help they could. No one was injured but the building was completely gutted, although some furniture was saved. The cost of the damage ran into several thousand pounds but luckily Leetham had the building insured. Meanwhile, the boys were shipped elsewhere to continue their education. Information in the hotel (and other sources) state that a German schoolmaster took the boys camping on Myreton Hill and then set fire to it so that it could act as a beacon for the Luftwaffe returning from bombing Clydebank Shipyards in Glasgow. The Clydebank Blitz took place on the nights of 13th and 14th March 1941; nine months after some say the fire occurred at Broomhall. In 1946, and mostly in ruins, the proprietor of the house was Walter Alexander of Kork-N-Seal, a metal bottle cap manufacturer. By 1950, he had moved on and it belonged to Walter McAlpine Chalmers who rented it out to radio operator William James Sillars. During the 1950s the gardener’s cottage was sold to Tommy Kettles. I lived next door and went to school with his daughter; we used to play among the ruins although we were not supposed to as they were inevitably unstable and dangerous. The stables were converted into a house in 1977. In 1985 Broomhall was rebuilt and turned into a nursing home. In 2003 it was purchased by the current owners, who turned it into a small hotel with 16 bedrooms and a restaurant. The field which was in front of the hall and our house is now full of houses.
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.
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.