Enjoying space in France

WE LIVE IN A SMALL flat without neither garden nor a balcony, but near the centre of London and two large parks. For several years, we used to drive to France, where we hired country houses in rural locations from an organisation called Gîtes de France. A ‘gîte’ is essentially a furnished house available for rent to holidaymakers.

The organisation used to issue handbooks listing the houses available in various regions. Each home is given a category between the lowest 1 and the highest 3 ‘épi(s)’ (ears of corn). When we planned our trips, we used to choose from the houses on offer in the 3 épis grade. We had several criteria that determined our choice of holiday home. First, it had to have at least 100 square metres of usable space because we wanted to experience living in a spacious place for at least one week per year. Second, it had to be equipped with machines both for both clothes and for dishes.  In addition to fulfilling these requirements, there was one more thing we always wanted: a barbecue.

My wife had hired gîtes before we married, which is why we considered doing this for our family holidays. The first one we hired was in a small village, Poilly-sur-Serein near the famous wine-producing town of Chablis in Burgundy. The building was easily large enough to house my wife, her parents, who had flown over from India, our daughter, and me. We used the barbecue almost every evening, preparing vegetarian kebabs for my in-laws and meaty ones for the rest of us. Staying in Poilly-sur-Serein whet my appetite for trying other gîtes.

One April, we hired a lovely house in the south of Provence, not far from Orange. It was next to a cherry orchard and had a large garden. We could not use the garden much during the day because that year there was a heatwave in the south of France. Temperatures were hovering around 37 degrees Celsius and the best place to be was in our air-conditioned car, in which we explored the local and not so local sights.

One of our favourite hires was also in the south of France, in the Aveyron region. The house was located inside the walls of the ruined Templar’s castle at St Jean d’Alcas, which is but a few miles south of Roquefort-sur-Souzon, the centre of Roquefort cheese-making.   We visited the small town of blue cheese fame several times and ate some meals in its restaurants. At one of these, a cheese trolley bearing thirteen different types of Roquefort was wheeled to our table. Although they looked alike, our waiter patiently explained the characteristics of each before advising us that it was best not to select more than four of them on a plate at any one meal. At another eatery in the town, I could not resist sampling the ‘Menu Roquefort’, a three-course lunch consisting of dishes that included the town’s famous blue cheese. My starter was an omelette which incorporated the cheese. This was followed by meat in a sauce based on Roquefort. The dessert was a Roquefort soufflé. Although this might sound heavy, it was not because whoever prepared it was a good cook with a light touch.

The gîte at St Jean d’Alcas was so lovely that we hired it a second time, a year after our first visit. During the second stay, there was a grand celebration in the tiny village. It was probably Bastille Day. Long tables were set out in the lane running alongside our house. In the evening, we were invited to feast with the locals, who had flocked in great numbers to the usually deserted village. We joined the friendly crowd seated at the tables and were offered one of two main courses. On offer from huge cooking vessels, there was either tripe in a delicious sauce or grilled local sausages. It was a fine occasion with unlimited wine. The following morning, the tables and benches had disappeared, and the picturesque village had returned to its normal sleepy state. 

There was only one shop in St Jean d’Alcas and its merchandise was limited in range but delicious. It sold bottles of a liqueur like ratafia, but with a different name. Apart from that, we had to buy our food supplies elsewhere, mainly in street markets and supermarkets. Shopping for daily needs was one of the many attractions of having our own home away from home.

One curious feature common to all the gîtes that we hired was that each of them had only one toilet/bathroom however large the building. In 2000, we hired a large house in the Haute Loire at a tiny village with a ruined castle, Arlempdes. Its location next to the castle walls was wonderful. It overlooked a sharp curve in the river. This four-storey building had accommodation for eleven people, but only one toilet and shower. Both were inconveniently located in the basement of the gîte. Had there been eleven of us, or even just five of us, having only one toilet would have been extremely inconvenient. As we were looking for extra space to enjoy, this property more than fulfilled our requirements.

We gave up driving through France several years ago. Most of the places we wanted to visit were more than a full day’s tiring drive across France. On the way out, this did not matter as we had an exciting holiday to enjoy. But the return journey was never much fun. There was the long drive through France towards the English Channel, much of which involved driving through the often-dreary areas of the northern part of the country. Then, there was a shorter but much more exhausting ‘schlep’ through Kent and south-east and central London … and the prospect of returning to work. By the time we reached our tiny flat, we were ready for another holiday.

A small village near Cambridge

SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.

We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.

Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):

“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”

The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:

“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”

Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.

Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.

The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.

Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.

Brighton and the Alps

‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father.  He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.

Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.

On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.

After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:

I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”

And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.

I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’.  Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.

Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open.  Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.

She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.

After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.

I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.

Luck of the Irish

ONE EASTER LATE in the 1970s, some friends and I made a trip to County Kerry in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. We travelled by sea from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire (close to Dublin) and hired a car. We drove to Kilshannig (near Castlegregory), where my PhD supervisor and his wife had a cottage, which they lent to us.

On the Saturday evening of the weekend that we were spending at Kilshannig, we decided to sample the local nightlife. We drove through Castlegregory to the main Dingle to Tralee road, and stopped at an isolated bar with a few cars parked outside it. On entering the warm, noisy, crowded bar, we were welcomed as if we were long lost friends. Soon after we had bought drinks, musicians began playing Irish folk tunes, and people began singing and dancing. We had stumbled upon a ‘ceilidh’ (a party with dancing). When we left at the end of the evening, we  had all fallen in love with the Irish.

I also came across the welcoming warmth of Gaelic and Celtic people to strangers when I was travelling through Wales with Michael Jacobs, who was doing field research for his book, “Traveller’s Guide to Art: Great Britain and Ireland”, which was published in 1984. It was on a Sunday evening that we drove into the tiny port of Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsular, which projects from western Wales into the Irish Sea. This place, which resembles the village in the 1983 film “Local Hero”, was a predominantly Welsh speaking community and serving alcohol on Sundays was not allowed. We took rooms in the town’s only hotel, which also functioned as the village’s pub.  As we ate our non-descript dinners alone in the dining room, wishing that we could have washed them down with a beer or something stronger. But we knew of the ban on booze. Throughout the meal, we could hear a great racket coming from somewhere else in the building. After dinner, we left the dining room and were on the point of taking a post-prandial stroll when some double doors burst open and two young girls shot out. When they saw us, they dragged us back through the double doors, and invited us to join the lively private party that was in progress. We were warmly welcomed by a friendly group of Welsh speaking youngsters who plied us with alcoholic drinks. Clearly, even in this isolated spot, the embargo on Sunday drinking was far from sacrosanct. Now, let us return to Ireland.

One morning soon after enjoying the ceilidh near Kilshannig, we decided to drive over the Conor Pass to Dingle on its westward side. The weather was fine when we set off and remained so until we reached a lay-by near the highest point on the pass, where we parked, and then locked the car. We all rushed up the hillside, a slope of Mount Brandon, next to the car park. After a short while, the sky clouded over and the rain began to pelt down as it did every few minutes during the day, and we decided to retrace our steps back to the car. It was windy and as we ran down the hill, I noticed a handkerchief or tissue flying out of Nandan’s pocket. I thought little of this apart from being amused that the breeze was strong enough to be able to do this. When we returned to our locked car, Nandan, our driver, fumbled about in his pockets for the car key. It was nowhere to be found. We returned to the rain-soaked hillside, and looked around for the missing keys, but did not find them.

It was a bank holiday. There was no telephone box in the area, and mobile telephones did not exist in those days. Nandan and another of our party decided to try to hitch-hike to Limerick that was at least 80 miles away. The town had a car-hire office, which we hoped would be open. When they had left, the rest of us hitched a lift into Dingle, and headed for the police station, where we reported the loss of our keys. The police were very friendly and welcoming, and plied us with tea and biscuits while we awaited the return of the rest of our party.

While we were in the police station, a middle-aged couple entered to report that they had found a set of car-keys on the slopes of Mount Brandon. They were, as you might be guessing, ours. We were overjoyed, but still had to await the return of Nandan and his companion. They returned empty handed, telling us that as it was the Easter weekend, we would have to pick up the spare set of keys when they were delivered to the office in Limerick 2 or 3 days later. They were disappointed to have to report this, but soon cheered up when we revealed that the keys had been found. We all piled into a police car, which ferried us back to where we had abandoned the car. Inside the car, we found a note which read ‘found your keys at the bottom of the hill. Happy Easter’, but it omitted to say what the writer of the note had done with them.

People talk of ‘the luck of the Irish’. We were fortunate enough to sample some of it.

Autobahn

SOME YEARS AGO, I began listening to music performed by the German group Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 in the West German city of Düsseldorf. They specialise in electronically generated music, a field in which they were pioneers in their country. In the 1980s, I used to drive across Europe from my home in North Kent to places as far afield as Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. The cars I drove at the time were equipped with music cassette players. I recorded my own cassettes from LPs and CDs in my own large collection. Amongst the music I found satisfying during the long journeys I made were some of the creations of the Kraftwerk band. Amongst my favourite of their albums were “Autobahn” (first released 1974) and “Radio-Aktivität” (released 1975). The music was a great accompaniment to speeding along the highways of Europe including Germany’s Autobahns.

I used to break my journeys along the highways at regular intervals, stopping in villages or towns to take a short rest and refreshment. On one journey, I drove off the Autobahn into a picturesque small town in Bavaria, whose name I have forgotten. I entered a busy Gasthaus (pub with a restaurant) and found a vacant seat next to an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a stein of lager.

I remember seeing people sitting nearby drinking beer with slices of lemon. However, what I remember most is the brief conversation I had with my elderly neighbour. My German was, and still is, rudimentary but sufficient to have a simple conversation. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I explained that I was driving to Yugoslavia. Then, I said something about the high quality of motorways (Autobahns) in what was then West Germany. The old man smiled, and said (in German):

“Naturally. They were made by our leader Adolf Hitler.”

I was at a loss for words because few if any Germans I had met until then had ever mentioned Hitler and certainly not in such a favourable light. Without waiting for me to respond, he explained that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians during WW2 and had spent many years in prison camps there. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in detail, but my German was not up to it and also, I had to get on with the journey I had planned for that day.

Most people, including yours truly, credit Hitler with stimulating the building of Autobahns and similar highways. This is a mistake depending how one defines a motorway. In this context, a motorway is a road often with limited access and limited to motorised vehicles.

While Germany was being ruled by the government of the Weimar Republic, work began on an ambitious scheme to build a car only highway/motorway linking Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main and Basel (Switzerland). Parts of this were constructed before Hitler came to power. That road lacked a central reservation as found on modern motorways, but excluded traffic such as cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles pulled by animals. The Autobahns constructed after Hitler came to power were similar to those currently constructed.

In the 1920s before Hitler ruled Germany but after Mussolini became Italy’s dictator, Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways reserved for motorised vehicles travelling at speed. The first Italian autostrade (motorways; singular: autostrada) were completed between 1924 and 1926 and by the end of the 1930s, the country had over 250 miles of both single- and dual-carriageway autostrade. It is sad to relate that the UK had to wait until 1958 for its first motorway, the Preston by-pass, now part of the M6. In 1959, the first section of the M1 was opened, linking Watford and Rugby. This stretch of highway had no central reservation, no lighting, no crash barriers, and no speed limit. Things have changed since then.

When I used to cross Germany, the motorways (Autobahnen) had long stretches where there were no speed restrictions. Once, I decided to check out the ability of my box-like Volvo 240 estate car on a German Autobahn. To my surprise, the vehicle whose shape looked anything but aerodynamic, effortlessly achieved a speed of 105 miles per hour going up a steep incline. When driving at high speeds in Germany, you can be sure that there will be plenty of vehicles that shoot past you at even higher speeds.

After the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, many former East Germans flooded the Autobahns with their poorly powered Trabant vehicles. Often when driving along the motorways in Germany I saw these slow-moving cars valiantly sitting in the overtaking lanes trying to pass vehicles with far more powerful engines. The drivers of speedy cars like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, needed fast reflexes and good brakes to avoid crashing into the Trabants being driven by those who were enjoying the freedom of travel after many years of repression in the former DDR.

My days of driving across Europe from the UK have ended. The short journey from Kensington to the Channel crossings is tedious on account of the heavy traffic in London and South East England. Also, it is tiring to drive for at least a day and a half before reaching lovely countryside, be it the south of France or the mountains of Switzerland or Austria. I still enjoy driving but not the great distances I used to cover, and my enjoyment of the music of Kraftwerk remains as great as ever.

Czech point

 

MUCH OF WHAT HAPPENED when we visited the Czech Republic in 1999 was our fault, but what followed left a bad taste in our mouths. We drove to Loket in the western part of the country, in what was once known as the ‘Sudetenland’ and stayed in a nice hotel, where we had stayed two years earlier, in the centre of the small town near to Karlovy Vary. Every day, we used our car to explore the country.

 

LOKET wiiki

LOKET in Czech Republic  (Source: wikipedia)

One day, we drove to Teplice (Teplitz in German). It was here that Beethoven met Goethe at the town’s well-known spa. On the way, we stopped in the square of a small town near to Teplice.  My wife and our small daughter were standing, waiting for me, when a car sped towards them and skidded to a halt about a foot away from them. Had it come any closer and they had not run, my family would have been badly injured or worse. Why had the Czech youths driving the car done this? Was it to scare them or even to hurt them because my Indian wife looked to them like a gypsy? The gypsies in many central and eastern European countries face much hatred and prejudice from those who regard themselves as true locals.

Somewhat shaken, we continued our journey to Teplice, where I parked in a spot (next to a police station) where one needed to purchase a parking ticket to display in the windscreen. Inadvertantly, I did not buy a ticket. We went off for a walk for an hour or so, and then headed back to the car. Before we reached it, I went into a music store to look at CDs and the others walked ahead to the car. A few minutes later, I reached our dark blue SAAB.

Our vehicle was surrounded by policemen. My wife was shouting at them in erratic German, accusing them and the Czechs of behaving like Nazis and trying to murder us. It was only after a couple of minutes that I noticed the clamp attached to one of our wheels. Blue in colour, it matched our car perfectly. It had been placed because of my not having bought a parking ticket. We were required to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked.

“1500 Crowns”

“I don’t have that much cash.”

“How much do you have?”

“Five hundred,” I replied.

“Not enough. Go to that cash machine. Get more.”

We paid 1500 Crowns (about £25 in 1999) as required, and then asked for a receipt for what seemed like an excessive amount to pay for a parking infringement. One of the police officers brought a receipt book. He wrote something on one page, and then tore it and 14 other pages out of the receipt book. We looked at the fifteen receipts we had been given, each one to the value of 100 Crowns. Only one of them bore a date and our car’s registration number. The fine must have been 100 Crowns, and the rest a gift to the policemen of Teplice.

The following day, our penultimate in the Czech Republic, we ran out of cash. I suggested that as it was a Sunday and banks were closed, that we drove to a border crossing where we were likely to find a bureau de change. Why we did not look for a cash machine, I cannot remember. We drove along a road that led to a frontier post on a road into what had once been East Germany. On the way, we passed a road sign that I did not recognise but will now never forget. As soon as we drove into the Czech frontier post compound, our car was once again surrounded by uniformed men. They told us to drive into a small gravelly parking lot where I noticed an abandoned car with British registration plates. We were asked to disembark and hand over our passports. At this point, my wife, who was already fed up with the corruption of Czech officialdom, began banging her forehead against our car. Meanwhile, our passports were taken into a hut to be photocopied. Our crime was that we had driven to a frontier post that could only be used by local Czech and German pedestrians.

It transpired that the solution to our problem was to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked, trying to explain that we had arrived at this post hoping to change some money.

“How much have you got?”

Having already learnt that 500 Crowns was likely to be insufficient, I said that I had enough Deutschmarks to pay up to 1000 Crowns.

“You will pay one thousand Crowns. You can change money there,” we were informed by one of the uniformed officers who pointed at a booth nearby.

Once the transaction was over, our passports were returned, and we headed back to our hotel in Loket, thoroughly disgusted by the corrupt behaviour of some Czech officials.

My wife and daughter went up to our attic bedroom to rest whilst I stayed at the reception to settle our bill.

“I have come to pay for our stay.”

“36,000 Crowns,” announced the receptionist in impeccable English.

“But,” I replied, “you agreed 18,000 in your confirmation email.”

“Your daughter has extra bed.”

“No, she did not. We brought her bed from London, as agreed in the email.”

“No, it is 36,000”

I took out my credit card. I knew that the hotel was trying to cheat us and that if I fell for their price, my wife would have found it hard to forgive me after what had happened to us already in the hands of the various officials we had met recently. Waving my card at the receptionist, I said:

“18,000 and no more.”

“We need 36,000”

“18,000, and no more,” I said more forcefully that I am usually and placing the credit card back into my wallet.

“Ok, 1800 will do.”

We left the Czech Republic the next day and have not yet felt the need to return. This is a pity because the country, which I have visited four times, does have a lot to offer the visitor.

Many years after our unfortunate trip to the Czech Republic, we were in Bangalore (India) when I learnt how to deal with corruptible policemen. Our driver, ‘R’, decided to take a short cut by driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. A policeman stopped him. We said to R that we would pay the fine. Getting out of the car, he told us not to worry.

After a few minutes, R returned smiling. He told us:

“Fine is usually 300 rupees. I told him that if he accepted 100 rupees, it would save him the trouble of writing out all of that paperwork. He was happy with that.”

Clearly, a considerate crook can expect considerate behaviour from a crooked cop.

Why go abroad?

MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND acquaintances are itching to travel abroad after at least three months of enduring ‘lockdown’ caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Although I fully understand their wanderlust, I would not feel happy travelling abroad for quite a long time despite the easing of restrictions that is on the point of happening in the UK and elsewhere. I am not even happy about travelling on public transport despite the enforcement of wearing face coverings and attempts at separating passengers by so-called ‘social distancing’.

 

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Waterend House

We used to own a car until it decided to give up the ghost in the autumn of 2010. Living in Kensington with access to a rich network of public transport and the fact that we used it no more than twice a month, we felt that replacing it was unnecessary. So, for almost ten years we used buses, trains, minicabs, the occasional rented car, and more recently Uber cars. With the advent of the Corona pandemic, we gave up using public transport and confined our activities to where we could reach comfortably on foot, in our case not much more than two and a half miles from home. As it seems likely that Britain will not be free of risk from infection until eventually there is a vaccine for the infective particles, and that might be a long way off, we decided to travel in ‘splendid isolation’ by buying ourselves a motor car. Recently, we bought a small ‘pre-loved’ motor, and this has allowed us to widen our horizons, to roam around a bit more.

My wife and I are amongst those who prefer to travel to foreign parts and have therefore largely neglected the wonders that are literally on our doorstep: the joys of Britain beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Over the years, it has always struck us how different London is from the rest of Britain. Leaving London and travelling beyond sometimes as exotic to us as crossing international borders.

One part of England that is on London’s doorstep but is completely different is East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk). Much of Essex contains the eastern spread of the metropolis and is not too attractive, but further away from London the county is full of pleasantly delightful surprises.

Recently, we drove to the tiny village of Tollesbury near the River Blackwater, one of the numerous inlets on the coast of Essex. Nearby, is the estuarine port of Maldon, made famous for its granular salt that is highly regarded by cooks. We spent a couple of hours sitting in Promenade Park next to one of the streams of the River Chelmer. Unlike popular beaches like Brighton and Bournemouth, Malden is enjoyed mainly by the town’s locals.  The small town, which is on a hill overlooking the river contains many old houses and a fine church containing the grave of President George Washington’s great-grandfather.

Another trip, which I have described elsewher, took us to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. From there, we visited the Suffolk village of Clare. Dominated by the ruins of a castle and the superb perpendicular style Church of St Peter and St Paul’s, and containing several old pubs and other buildings, this small place was once important in the wool industry. Clare College in Cambridge (founded 1326) was so named in honour of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), an heiress of the Dukes of Clare. She gave the college a handsome endowment. The three red chevrons on the town of Clare’s coat of arms also appear as part of the coat of arms of the Cambridge college. We spent no more than half an hour in Clare, but that was sufficient for us to want to linger there longer on a future visit.   Our route back to London took us through other picturesque villages in Suffolk and Essex, all of which deserve future visits.

Shortly after our trip to Suffolk, we travelled a mere eighteen miles to Hatfield. Our friends took us from that small town deep into the Hertfordshire countryside to a tiny place where Waterend Lane crosses the upper reaches of the River Lea. We parked next to a lovely well-preserved mainly brick building, Waterend House. The historicengland.org.uk website describes it as: “An exceptionally complete example of a mid-C17 medium-sized country house”, and states that one of the fireplaces within it bears an inscription with the date 1692. I would have loved to visit its interior. Instead, we walked around the almost one-mile perimeter of a huge sloping field.

The field and its surroundings were a ‘breath of fresh air’. The upper part of the field was filled with ripening barley, which swayed like waves when the stems were caught by frequent strong gusts of wind. We walked up a steep slope and turned a corner to join the bed of a long since disused railway track. Near the corner of the field an old brick bridge still exists. Long ago, trains used to run below it. While our hosts’ two dogs sniffed their way around the field, M and G pointed out the various wild plants that flanked our path.

The lower half of the field was a sea of daisies. It looked as if the ground was covered with snow. The daisies were not alone. Small patches of blue flowered thistles and red poppies added to the picturesqueness of the scene. Every now and then, we spotted teazels, both green and fresh and, also, dark and drying out, towering high above the daisies. Along the side of the field that runs parallel to the riverbank, there were elderberries and elderflowers as well as many nettles. M pointed out something I had never noticed before. That is, the leaves of nettles are home to numerous ladybirds. In addition to the large numbers of these creatures I spotted many other small beetles, some of which resembled the ladybirds.

I felt that walking around the field, seeing the swaying crops and taking in the details of nature proved very uplifting and therapeutic after our spell of urban ‘lockdown’. It made me pleased that we had taken the decision to buy our own vehicle to explore the countryside on London’s doorstep, and eventually further afield. England outside London feels like ‘another country’ and is well worth exploring. And, in these times of health uncertainties, it provides a worthwhile alternative to the exotic destinations that we have chosen to visit in the past.

Climate changes

BLOG CLIMATE

 

DURING THE 1980s, I lived and worked just over fifty miles south-east of central London in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns in Kent. Usually, I drove to London on Saturday afternoons after my morning dental surgery session ended at 1 pm. Then, after buying innumerable gramophone records and later also CDs and seeing friends, I would spend the night at my father’s home before returning to Kent late on Sunday evening.

One winter Sunday evening, after visiting friends, who lived in South Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital, I began driving towards Kent. When I reached Lewisham in south-east London, snow began falling lightly. I thought nothing of it. By the time I arrived at the start of the M2 motorway, the situation had changed considerably. The motorway was under several inches of fresh snow. The few vehicles travelling at that late hour drove on a pair of groove-like tracks made in the snow by vehicles ahead of me. It was rather like the page in the song “Good King Wenceslas: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly … In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted’.

The snow continued to fall and by the time I reached the motorway exit west of the Medway Bridge, I decided that it might be better to drive through Strood, Rochester, and Chatham rather than along the motorway that by-passed these places along a hilly exposed rural route, which I believed might have been badly affected by the snow.

It was about 2am when I left the motorway. I joined a line of cars that was crawling slowly towards Rochester – a traffic jam at 2 am. Eventually, I drove across the River Medway on the bridge at Rochester. The traffic was slow moving and dense despite the time. I decided to leave the main road and follow a back road that wound around Rochester Castle and avoided the city centre. I drove about fifty yards upwards along a steep snow-covered lane and then the car would go no further. Its wheels were unable to grip the road and I slid down to the bottom of the hill where I had started. There was no choice. I had to re-join the slow procession of traffic crawling through the interlinked Medway towns.

When I reached Gillingham, it was long after 3 am. I turned off the main A2 road and drove, or rather slid, downhill along Nelson Road which was covered with deep snow. At my street, Napier Road, the snow was even deeper and had not been compressed by passing vehicles. I headed towards my house but could not reach it because my car became wedged in a drift of densely packed snow. It remained locked in the snow for over three weeks.

The following day, the Medway Towns were almost paralysed by the snow. However, the only stretch of railway that was still operating was between two neighbouring stations, Gillingham and Rainham, where my dental surgery was located.  I managed to reach my surgery by train in my Wellington boots and wore these whilst treating the few patients who decided not to cancel their appointments. The only patients who struggled through the snow that day were elderly people who considered that cancelling appointments was disrespectful to the professional. All those brave souls, who made it through the hazardous snow, were seeing me about false teeth.

Although the snow did not disappear from the Medway Towns for over three weeks, the rail service to London resumed quite quickly. So, I continued to make my weekly visits to the capital. Fifty miles from snow-covered Gillingham, London was free of snow. Exaggerating slightly, visiting London was like travelling from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Few of my friends in London could believe that my home in Kent had sufficient snow to keep most skiers happy.

The spectacular change in climates that I experienced that winter when shuttling between London and Gillingham occurred long before the concept of ‘climate change’ became widespread in the public eye.

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.