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.

Madagascar: back in the highlands

RN 7 headed east through grassland, dry savannah with red earth before rising into the highlands. At Andiolava we crossed a river where laundry was underway. Before we reached Ihosy, mountains began to appear on our left.

Ihosy is the capital of the Bara tribe and most of the people are zebu shepherds. There was chaos at the petrol station where supplies were running low. It was thought that the government might have been late in paying for it. A large truck driven by Sri Lankans who were in Madagascar to buy sapphires took a lot. Our drivers managed to fill up as there was no guarantee there would be any more fuel further ahead on our journey. Hills were all around us on the savannah and we passed through a number of small communities. In some, children were back at school. Two mountains pointed out to us were Ifandana (1405m) which means ‘no surrender’ and acquired its name during tribal conflicts when unification was attempted. Some refused to surrender and jumped off the mountain. Many did not survive. The other was Pic Handa porta del Sud is higher (9549m) and our driver said it resembled a bishop’s mitre. In Ambalavo we visited a paper factory. We were shown the tree whose bark is used; the process involved and the small shop which sells paper good and other items made by local artisans.

There was also a silk making workshop.

Our hotel was in the Betsilio highlands. They are the third largest tribe and specialise in rice cultivation. Unlike the single storey Bara houses, most of the homes are brick built. The surrounding hills are called the Three Sisters and we watched the sun go down behind them.

The following day we visited the Parc Écotouristique d’Anja. Previously the villagers trapped lemurs to sell as pets but since 1999 the reserve which has a small portion of original forest has been run by the villages who hope to expand it.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in groups of 10-30 headed by a dominant female. They can live to 20 years and have one baby each year. Occasionally twins are born. When they are about to die, they leave their range and into the ground.

We also saw a magpie, pygmy kingfisher and several chameleons. Back in town we visited the zebu market which was very busy. Each animal is worth about £200 here, more in Tana and further north.

Afterwards we were back on RN7 to Fianarantosa, a university town where we stopped for lunch. On the way out we passed a disused railway line and many taxi-brousses heading into town. After passing through a number of towns, we left RN7 for N25 which runs up the side of a valley up into the forest and then back down to rice fields in the valleys. We passed several forest fires. Some are natural, ignited by lightning but many are started by farmers burning trees to find land to grow crops on. Our destination was Ranomafana National Park. It was created in 1991 to protect two species of lemur: the golden bamboo lemur and the greater bamboo lemur only discovered in 1986. It has Andriamamovoka Cascade

orchids

and other lemurs such as ruffous and pygmy mouse. We did a short night walk along the edge of the park to try and catch glimpses of the nocturnal animals but this was very busy. Back at the hotel there were some interesting spiders to see before  it was time to sleep.

Madagascar: Isalo National Park

 

Departure time was 7.15am on the day we spent exploring Isalo National Park. First, we had to stop at the next village along the N7 to pick up our guide as it is not possible to enter the park without one. The park was created in 1962 and consists of an eroded Jurassic sandstone massif with gorges and river tributaries sited among grassland. We parked and began our short hike up one of the gorges. There were several groups setting out as it is a very popular park and reminded me of how busy Snowdonia and the Lake District get. There were quite a few ring-tailed lemurs among the rocks.

Cairns are dotted around the park, built by the Bara people who add a stone to make a wish/request of their Creator via their ancestors who act as intermediaries. They are the dominant tribe in the area, are descended from the Bantu people in southern Africa and are mostly crop and zebu farmers.

We were also shown a silkworm on a plant.

There is a botanic garden within the park. There are 400 plant species and some of the  endemic plants are Aloe, Euphorbia, Pachypodes, Kalanchoe. The Tapia is the most common tree and lemurs eat its fruit. There are also some plants which we were told were miniature baobab but I later learnt they are in fact a different species.

Earlier this year on the fringes of the park reforestation projects were underway. From the summit there are 360-degree views of the park.

Then we walked downhill to the river. En route we passed the coffin of a rich person which was highly decorated. The tribe place the dead in natural caves and later collect the bones and carry them in a parade, family members dance with them in matching clothing and hold a reburial after wrapping he body in fresh silks along with sacrifices and feasting.

The Piscine Naturelle was popular and a few members of our group had a swim but it was a little too busy for me.

There was a walk over to a campsite where we were to have lunch with a 300-step descent which I was a little concerned my inflamed would knee survive. Before we began, we were sitting in the shade, we were joined by an 87-year old Italian woman who had walked up with two sticks and her friend and who put my concerns into perspective. During the walk I was chatting to the park guide. He said that polygamy was still common in the south. If a first wife did not produce a son, others would be sought. He told me that his brother had seven wives. He also told me that some taxi-brousses which would carry coffins back to the tribal area, would also act as drug transport. One coffin had been found to be full of cocaine. I told him that ice-cream vans also sell illicit drugs in housing estates in many of the cities in the UK. After the descent we reached the campsite where we had lunch. This is also a place that ring-tailed lemurs visit regularly.

We also saw some insects and a chameleon, a bee-eater and Madagascan hoopoe. In the evening a few of us went down the road to la Fenêtre d’Isalo:, a window in the rocks which faces west.

En route we stopped at a rock entitled ‘La Reine d’Isalo. Dinosaur remains have been found nearby and are located in the local museum.

It was sharp elbows and selfie territory at the sunset but worth putting up with.

 

Madagascar: Mikea to Ilakaka

On the way out of Mikea we stopped at the sand dunes which had views back over the village and the sea.

Continuing down the coast, the road passed through several small villages. Many only had one zebu rather than a herd. Larger communities had herds of both goats and zebus. It was Sunday so many people were going to church in their Sunday best. A larger rural commune had a post office and police station and just outside the village, a large open-air church service was underway.

Not long afterwards we were back on asphalt and RN9. The villages we passed through looked considerably better off than those of the previous few days; better quality housing than the wood, bamboo and straw thatched ones we had been among. We arrived at a bay with a mangrove swamp and boardwalk which was an opportunity to stretch our legs. There are eight species of mangrove in Madagascar, three of which were at this location.

Pools further along the road were coloured green, pink and orange presumably due to algae. After crossing the dry Fiherenana River, we arrived in Toliara, a port city where we had lunch. There was a delay in leaving as the garage was waiting for a fuel delivery so that the cars could fill up. We had a walk around town

where the vegetable and meat markets were closed because it was Sunday but this shop was open – you can have a chair only in purple!

Outside the lycée, the results of the recent Baccalauréat were posted on the walls.

Leaving town, we headed inland with hills ahead and passing some tombs.

 

There were stalls along the road with what looked like plastic bottles of water for sale but were told that it was sugar cane rum. Our destination was Ilakaka but we passed through a number of towns containing gem stores. It was one of the first few places to have discovered sapphires. Many of the mines now are illegal and even located in nature reserves. Trees are uprooted, streams diverted and many workers hope to get out of poverty this way; often juggling jobs in agriculture with illegal mining. Other demands are for crystals such as quartz, amethyst and others due to beliefs that crystals conduct healing energy described in the New York Times in 2017 as ‘the great crystal boom’. Mining can be dangerous due to landslides and the fine dust can lead to silicosis. Child labour is also a problem and mining is threatening the small amount of rainforest that is left. We found it a bit of a shock to be in a busy hotel with a large queue at breakfast for coffee but it was located next to the most visited national park in Madagascar.

Madagascar:Belo sur Mer to Morombe and Mikea

There was time for a short beach walk in Belo sur Mer before we left. The fishing boats had already departed and Pied Crows were scouring the beach for something to eat. Travelling back over the dunes and the salt flats was reminiscent of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was followed by a slow ascent through desert-like landscape before reaching the greener highlands again. We crossed the River Lampaolo which was dry and passed through several villages with crops and irrigation channels. Some people were walking back from the market carrying bags of rice on their heads. Madagascar is the largest consumer of rice per head of population in the world. They grow a lot and rice fields are present in most of the fertile valleys we have passed through but they also have to import it. In Western and Northern Madagascar many women paint their faces with a mask derived from grinding a branch of the masonjoany tree. It is said to act as a sunblock, a moisturiser and to remove blemishes. It is removed at night. Just before we reached our last and biggest river crossing, we saw bushes with white seeds and were told that this was wild cotton.

I also noticed that several termite mounds had had their top removed and learnt that the locals used the termites to feed their hens. The following morning, we were on R9 by 7am amongst a rock-strewn landscape. Further on baobabs and red soil appeared.

Our first stop was at a local school that the local tour company supports. Gifts were presented and we met some of the staff and pupils.

On the blackboard was an anatomy lesson.

R9 descends down to rivers and fields of crops but cacti and more desert appeared before we crossed a tributary and then arrived at theRiver. It is the biggest river in Madagascar. The ferry’s engine was broken so the boat was being pulled across the river which was shallow due to it being the dry season. This would not have been possible in the rainy season.

The other side of the river was sandy. A tributary had been dammed upstream and on the riverbank was another dam with a road on top. Other work suggested that a bridge across the river was under construction by a Chinese company.

We were now on the N35 and passed a line of baobabs longer than the Allée.

After a cactus forest we arrived at Morombe on the coast, our destination for the night. I had a wander along the beach spotting a phone-charging sign on a village hut. It looked incongruous but mobile signals are very good in Madagascar.

There was plenty of time to watch the sun go down over the sea.

The following morning was bright and sunny. Down at the sea, was the same boat with a patchwork sail.

Back on the dirt road we passed through the Spiny Forest where the Octopus Tree Didierea madagascariensis grows to 12-15 feet high with branches always pointing south. It grows on coastal red sands north and south of Tulear. The locals use it for firewood.

The road then ran alongside a mangrove swamp between it and the sea. Further on were date palms, a few villages and several taxi-brousses. Our next stop was at one of the largest baobabs, said to be around 1000 years old.

Lunch was at a small town Andavadoaka at the Olo Bé Lodge. It had only recently opened and was owned by a man born in Mauritius and brought up in Australia. He was a mining engineer and had come to Madagascar to prospect for minerals while running the hotel as a hobby. There were sea views from the restaurant.

The remainder of the journey to Mikea was on deeply rutted sandy tracks. The next day we had time to wander along the beach while some people went snorkelling off the reef. Crabs scuttled down holes as we approached and a few seabirds were feeding by the water but flew off too quickly for photographs.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby forest through cacti, succulents and mini baobabs. We met a man and two of his children from a hunter-gatherer tribe who have little contact with the modern world. His wife and other children were away collecting water. He showed us how he made fire. They spend only a few days in each area before moving on.

We walked the short distance back to our hotel to get ready for the next day’s departure.