After effects

MY FIRST TRIP TO TURKEY was in 1960. I had just finished primary school and was about to start preparatory school (8 to 13 years old) after the summer holidays. That summer we were travelling to Turkey, to Istanbul, where my father was a delegate at a conference. It was deemed necessary to have vaccinations to reduce the risk of contracting typhoid and cholera.

Our family doctor’s surgery in London’s Golders Green was close to my primary school. I had decided to get my ‘jab’ and then to go to school to help organise the annual sports day. When I arrived, I was assigned a task related to the high jump competition. At first, all went well. Then, after a few minutes, I began shivering and felt lousy. I excused myself and made my way home. I spent the rest of the day and the following in bed and the arm in which I was injected felt both painful and heavy. A few weeks later, I was given the second of the combined cholera and typhoid jabs. However, there was little or no after reaction.

Since that jab back in the summer of 1960, I have had numerous, indeed an uncountable number of, vaccinations. Each of these was accompanied by a small amount of discomfort at the site of injection, but no more than that. This was the case until early February 2021.

In February 2021, I was given the first of the two doses of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine to counter covid19. Within hours of the jab, I began feeling unwell. I did not feel as sick as I did after the first typhoid/cholera jab, but I was not at my best. I did not lose my appetite, nor did I develop an elevated temperature. This feeling of being a little bit ‘below par’ lasted no more than 36 hours. So, it was with some apprehension that I attended the clinic for my second jab in mid-April.

My general medical practitioner, whom I had consulted for another matter, advised me to take two paracetamol tablets (2 x 500mg) just before the jab and another two later in the day. Her advice seems to have been good. Now, nine hours after the jab, I am writing this piece and feeling far better than I did after the first shot of the vaccine. I had been told that just because one has had a reaction after the first injection, it is a matter of pure chance whether one has any reaction after the second. Maybe the paracetamol is working or perhaps I have just been lucky. In any case, I feel happy that I have had the full vaccination as is currently advised.

City of relief

THERE WAS ALWAYS a tin of pink coloured Isogel granules in the bathroom of my childhood home. One of my parents took a teaspoon of this daily to ensure regularity of bowel movements. An important ingredient in Isogel is psyllium husk, which is extracted from the plants Plantago ovata and Plantago psyllium. Basically, the husk is a polysaccharide gelling agent which, believe it or not, can be used to ameliorate both constipation and diarrhoea. It might also have other health promoting properties, including possible mitigation of Type 2 diabetes, and reducing cholesterol levels in the blood.

Recently, for reasons that need not be detailed here, we have taken to using psyllium husk. We did not buy Isogel, as my parents did, but a product from India called ‘Sat-Isabgol’, which my wife’s parents used in that country. This product is packed in a picturesque box that includes the company’s trademark: an old-fashioned telephone (B.G. Telephone Brand Regd.).  The box we bought recently proudly proclaims that the company is in its 80th year. According to the box, Sat-Isabgol is:

“… the upper coating of Plantago Ovata (Ispagul) which is highly purified by sieving and winnowing.”

Interesting as this is, what attracted me to the box was the fact that the Sat-Isabgol factory is in Sidhur, a place we visited in Gujarat (western India).

Sidhpur is far from being a major tourist attraction, but it is not far from the ruins of the magnificent Sun Temple at Modera, which does attract many sightseers. The main attraction in Sidhpur is a couple of streets lined with mansions decorated with ornate facades and other decorative features. These were built between the 1820s and the 1930s by a successful group of Muslim traders, members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect. The buildings incorporate many features of European neo-classical styles. Many of the houses bear their owners’ monograms in Latin lettering. The streets in this rural provincial town have a surprisingly un-Indian look about them and if it were not for cows and other animals roaming about them, it might be easy to imagine that one was not in India. While I was roaming around taking pictures, local people were extremely friendly to me. I got the impression that few Europeans visit Sidhpur. One exception was at the sad ruins of a Hindu temple, the Rudra Mahalaya, where the security guards were most unenthusiastic about seeing me with a camera. I was unable to photograph it. Constructed between 943 AD and 1140 AD, this temple is was in extremely poor condition when we saw it about two years ago. If it should ever be restored, it would make Sidhpur a fine excursion for tourists staying in Ahmedabad. I liked what I saw during our brief visit to Sidhpur, but was completely unaware that the town is home to the factory which has been producing something that has brought so much relief to people all over the world, since 1940.

Fingers in the cup: taking the water in Slovakia

THE ONLY MINERAL WATER you can get in London’s Hampstead today is bottled water from a shop or supermarket. In the 18th century, people came to Hampstead to imbibe the allegedly curative iron-rich chalybeate waters available from the spring in Well Walk or at the elegant spa rooms established on that street. Walking along that thoroughfare where once people flocked to take the water, which rivalled that which is still available at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, I remembered an experience in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia, before that country split into the separate Czech and Slovak republics in 1993.

With a friend, I drove to what was then Czechoslovakia in about 1992. The objects of my trip were to visit a country I had never been to before and to collect information about music in Czechoslovakia to help my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, who was writing a new edition of “The Blue Guide to Czechoslovakia”. 

Bardejov, Slovakia

The furthest east place in which we stayed was the small town of Bardejov in north-eastern Slovakia. We did venture a bit further towards the edge of the country, to the Dukla Pass where there was a Soviet Russian victory over the Germans during WW2, but only as a day excursion.  

At Bardejov, we booked into a hotel just outside the centre of the old, picturesque town. The accommodation was part of a spa complex, where people came to take the curative spring waters that issued from beneath the ground. My friend and I were keen to sample these, not because we were unwell, but out of curiosity.

The waters were dispensed in a building a few yards away from the hotel. It was late afternoon when we entered the tap room. A tubby woman in white uniform indicated that she was just about to close up for the day, but somehow, we communicated to her that we only wanted to taste one or two of the different spring waters. She was happy to oblige. She picked up a small porcelain beaker, and before filling it with some water from one of the springs, she rubbed the inside of the vessel with her (un-gloved) middle and index fingers. Seeing this, my travelling companion decided to give a miss to tasting, but I took a swig of the metallic tasting water.

I handed the beaker back to the attendant, who wiped it again with her two fingers, before filling it with water from another spring. I cannot remember that there was much difference between the tastes of the two waters I sampled. After thanking her for letting me try the waters, we returned to the hotel. At the back of my mind, I had two thoughts. One was that I hoped that I did not get ill after drinking from a glass that had been ‘wiped’ with fingers that had probably wiped many peoples’ beakers during the day. The other thought was that perhaps it was something in the lady’s fingers that gave the healing powers, rather than the spring waters themselves. I did not get ill but will probably never get to know whether my wild idea that it was the lady’s fingers that had curative properties, rather than the spring water, held even a grain (or drop) of truth.

A long time has passed since that visit to Czechoslovakia, but that brief experience at the spa near Bardejov lingers in my memory. Thinking about it makes me wonder about the  hygiene of the conditions prevailing when people came to Hampstead to take the waters in the 18th century, when not much was known about the role of microbes in the transmission of diseases.

This brings me back to the present, when in the UK cafés can only serve hot drinks in disposable cups. Often these are covered with special lids with orifices through which the drinks can be sipped without removing them. I always remove these lids for two reasons. First, I do not like sipping through a tiny hole and, second, I wonder about the cleanliness of the server’s fingers, which place the lid on the cup. I will leave you with that worrying thought.

At the sharp end

“THIS WON’T HURT A BIT” are words that I never used when I was practising as a dentist. However careful and gentle one is when giving an injection, the recipient is bound to feel at least a tiny bit of discomfort. So, I never uttered those words because to do so would be telling the patient something untruthful and that would have risked undermining his or her confidence in me. So, today, when I went to our beautifully well organised local clinic (at St Charles Hospital in London’s North Kensington) to receive the first of my vaccination ‘jabs’ to protect me from covid19, I was pleased that the clinician, who administered it did not say those words which I always avoided, but instead told me that I might experience some discomfort. Despite the needle being of a larger gauge than usual, my jab was not at all painful.

Years ago, a friend of mine, ‘X’, who was married to ‘Y’, a medical doctor involved in biological research, related her experiences of receiving vaccinations and other injections. Until she went into hospital to have her first child, she had always been given injections at home by her husband.

On arrival at the hospital, X was terrified when she was told she needed an injection. However, after it was done, her fears evaporated, but was left with a question in her mind. After she returned home with her baby, she asked her husband the question that had occurred to her in hospital. She said to Y:

“It’s really strange, dear, but the injections I had in hospital were completely painless unlike those you give me. I wonder why that should be.”

Y did not answer immediately, but after a short while, said:

“That’s easy to explain. I always inject you with the type of needles that I use for injecting, or taking samples from, experimental animals, the rats and so on.”

It is no wonder my friend found her husband’s injections painful. The syringe needles he used for laboratory animals were of a much wider bore than those normally used for administering jabs to humans. They were wide enough to be cleaned by pushing a wire along their length prior to sterilizing them.

This reminded me of the somewhat painful injections that our family doctor, Dr C, gave us when we were children in the early 1960s and before. Even though this was long ago, I can remember that his surgery had a gas fire, and its gas pipe had a small branch that fed a burner that heated a container in which he boiled his glass syringes and reusable needles between patients. These needles, like those used on animals and my friend, X, had to be wide so that they could be reamed out prior to being boiled. Furthermore, repeated boiling in water, blunted the needles and made them increasingly likely to cause pain when penetrating the skin. It was lucky that when we were vaccinated as kids, we did not come away with some infection as bad as whatever we were being protected against. There was no HIV in the 1960s, but there were other bugs, which were certainly not inactivated by boiling water.

Today, at the vaccination centre, a beautifully laid-out facility in a Victorian hospital building, I was shown the wrapped disposable syringe and needle, and felt confident that the vaccinator at St Charles had done a good job of jabbing.

Gushing from beneath the ground

AT SCHOOL, MY CHOSEN SPORT was cross-country running. Twice a week I spent an hour or so doing this in the grounds of Kenwood and the part of Hampstead Heath near to Highgate in North London. I have written about this before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/06/14/my-sporting-life/), but there is one aspect of it that I did not cover. Once a year, those who did cross-country running were accompanied by a teacher, Mr Bowles, who believed that getting covered in mud was an essential part of this form of exercise. I did not share his odd belief. There was one place on the Heath where filthy red coloured mud was guaranteed. This was at a point 410 yards south east of the centre of the grand south facing façade of Kenwood House and a few yards northwest of The Stock Pond, one of the series of Highgate Ponds.

The reason that this spot, favoured by Mr Bowles, was and still is, always sodden is that it surrounds a natural spring, which issues from a cylindrical stone well-head covered with stone carvings. These include depictions of a squirrel, a fish, and the head of a man with a luxuriant moustache. The water issues from a pipe emerging from the man’s mouth and then drops into a carving of a scallop shell before some of it falls into a drainage grid and the rest all over the place.  

This well head is called Goddisons Fountain. It was constructed in 1929 (https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/04/19/the-healing-springs-of-hampstead/) and named in honour of Henry Goddison, who campaigned vigorously for saving Kenwood and Hampstead Heath from being built on and for preserving it for the use of the public. It is not known whether there was a spring on this spot prior to 1929, but it is not unlikely that there was.

Goddisons Fountain is the last surviving spring issuing chalybeate (iron rich) water in the Hampstead/Highgate area. Prized for its supposed curative properties, especially during the 18th century, there were several springs issuing this kind of mineral water in Hampstead. A fine example of a now disused spring well-head can be seen at the eastern end of Well Walk in Hampstead. It was for public use and located across the road from the Hampstead spa that thrived during the 18th century (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

If, unlike many who stroll on the Heath, you do not wish to try the chalybeate water issuing copiously from Goddisons fountain, the next nearest source of this once highly prized water is about 47 miles south east in The Pantiles at Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The water flowing from Goddisons Fountain is one of many sources of the water in the Highgate Ponds, which include (descending the slope from Kenwood) the Wood Pond; the Thousand Pound Pond with the trompe l’oeil bridge designed by Robert Adam; the Stock Pond which is directly below Goddisons Fountain; the Ladies’ Bathing Pond; the Bird Sanctuary Pond, where I spotted a heron; the Model Boating Pond, where I saw no boats; the Men’s Bathing Pond; and Highgate Number 1 Pond. The water from the topmost pond flows through the lower ones sequentially. Most of these ponds were dug before the 18th century as reservoirs for London’s water. They were kept full by damming the Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the now hidden River Fleet, in 1777. In addition, numerous streams in the grounds of Kenwood and on Hampstead Heath were diverted to keep them topped up. Now, the ponds form a valuable publicly accessible leisure amenity. Hardy souls gain great enjoyment in swimming in the gender segregated open-air ponds, whose waters are not subjected to any purification or disinfection procedures. During the present covid19 ‘lockdown’, it is only wildfowl that can enjoy their water.

As we looked at Goddisons Fountain today in late January 2021, I recalled my muddy encounters with it in the company of Mr Bowles and realised that I had not seen it since early 1970, that is just over half a century ago. And it was not until I wrote this that I learned that the fountain is the last surviving chalybeate spring in the part of the world, where I was brought up.

A house, a spa, and Gray’s Anatomy

I ENJOY FINDING links between seemingly diverse subjects. Recently, I discovered a connection between an old house in Hampstead in north London and the famous textbook “Gray’s Anatomy”.

On crossing East Heath Road, having just visited the Vale of Health, I saw a pair of wooden doors framed by a substantial brick archway. These doors are the entrance to the grounds of Foley House, which stands on a plot at the corner of Well Walk and East Heath Road. Even though it is partially hidden by the trees that grow within the railings that surround it, the upper windows of this three-storey brick building can be seen. From its architectural style, I guessed that it was pre-Victorian, maybe 18th century. Just south of the main building, there is an outhouse with a white painted wooden weatherboard façade. The top of the façade has six small apertures each above one of two shelves. Presumably, these are parts of a dovecote.

One source (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) states that the present Foley House was built between 1771 and 1773 by the Holborn glazier Edward Helling. Helling, whose dates I cannot find, had already died by 1781. This house (or an earlier one on the same site) was built for Mr John Duffield. who was:

“… the first Spa manager …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1342099)

The spa was across Well Walk opposite Foley House.

In the late 17th century, Hampstead became well-known for its supposedly curative Chalybeate spring water, which is rich in iron salts. The spa was established on land that was leased in 1698 by Susannah Noel on behalf of her son Baptist, 3rd Earl of Gainsborough (1684-1714), who was lord of the manor, but a minor.  The lease:

“…granted 6 a[cres]. of Hampstead Heath, including the well of mineral water, to 14 trustees, who were admitted as copyholders at a rent of 5s. a year to use the income for the poor of Hampstead. The trustees leased all the property except the pond or springhead north-west of the mineral spring to John Duffield in 1701 for 21 years at £50 a year, on condition he spent £300 over 3 years improving it, and agreed for a second term for improvements worth £200.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).”

According to Thomas Barratt, author of the encyclopaedic “The Annals of Hampstead” (published 1912), one of these fourteen men was one Thomas Foley. The house might have been named in his memory.

Duffield was quick to develop the mineral spring into a spa. Christopher Wade, author of “For the poor of Hampstead, forever. 300 years of the Hampstead Wells Trust” published in 1998, quotes an advertisement for a concert that was to be held in the Hampstead Wells on the 18th of August 1701. By then, Duffield had built his Long Room, an edifice containing a ‘Pump Room’ and an ‘Assembly Room’. The latter measured about 72 by 30 feet and was tall and airy with large windows. It could accommodate 500 people The Long Room, which was demolished in 1882, was located where a house called Wellside (built 1892) stands in Well Walk today.

Wade wrote that Duffield:

“… had done well enough for himself to build ‘a goode brick house’ costing £1000. Some historians claim that that this became Foley House on East Heath Road, but the evidence is confused. (The house is not shown on a detailed map of 1762)”

The words “a goode brick house” are quoted from the manorial records of 1706. Barratt notes:

“Mr GW Potter is of the opinion from the description given in the record that this house was, in all or in part, that now called Foley House…”

Well, if the house that we see today was only built in 1771, it is not surprising that it was not shown on the map created in 1762. I looked at that map (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) and Wade is right. There is no building marked where Foley House should be found. However, in “The Buildings of England. London 4: North”, the architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner with Bridget Cherry write that Foley House was:

“… built in 1698 for J Duffield, the first spa manager …, but with mid-c18 three-bay front … Early c18 stables, weatherboarded.”

Pevsner and Cherry were describing the house that we saw, but its absence from the map is puzzling. I speculate the following. Duffield did have a house built in 1698 on the plot where the present Foley House stands. Maybe, it had been demolished by 1762, when the map was drawn, and then later replaced by the house built by Edward Helling, mentioned above. Alternatively, the map was incomplete or not 100% accurate.  

Several Victorian buildings neighbouring Foley House on Well Walk (currently numbers 21-27) bear the name ‘Foley Avenue’. Designed by Henry S Legg, these were built in 1881 on land that was once part of the grounds of Foley House.

And now for the link that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. One of the people who lived in Foley House was the physiologist and surgeon Sir Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862). In an autobiographical note (“The works of Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie … with an autobiography”, published 1865), he wrote:

“In the year 1828 I engaged a house on Hampstead Heath, which at that time was a comparatively rural retreat. My family resided there during the summer and part of the autumnal season, and I generally was able to go thither to dinner, returning to my occupation in London in the morning.”

Brodie helped to acquire the building at the north end of Kinnerton Street in Belgravia, which became the medical school for St Georges Hospital (while it was located at Hyde Park Corner in what is now ‘The Lanesborough Hotel’).  One of the students who was taught by Brodie in Kinnerton Street was Henry Gray (1827-1861), author of one of the most famous medical textbooks, “Gray’s Anatomy”. Gray dedicated his masterpiece to his teacher and colleague Brodie.

Brodie used Foley House between 1828 and 1837, when his lease expired. Then, he bought a property in Surrey. As Gray was under ten years old when Brodie lived in Hampstead, he would not have been a visitor to Foley House.

Had I not written about Kinnerton Street and its association with “Gray’s Anatomy” shortly before spotting Foley House in Hampstead, there would have been hardly any chance of me being able to realise the connections between the house, Brodie, and his student, the famous anatomist.

A hotbed of demoralisation and crime in north London

A WINDING LANE leads from Hampstead’s East Heath Road into the picturesque Vale of Health. I wrote about this isolated, small settlement surrounded by Hampstead Heath in the summer of 2017 (https://hampsteadadam.travellerspoint.com/2/) and have not revisited the place until today, the 2nd of January 2021. Little appears to have changed since then, but I have learnt a little more about the place.

As for its name, the place was not always as healthy as its name suggests. I wrote:

The land on which the Vale is situated is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD). It was then owned by the Abbots and monks of Westminster. By the 18th century this swampland in the middle of the part of the Heath, then known as part of ‘Gangmoor’, was inhabited by impoverished people and was malarial. In the 1770s, the area was known as ‘Hatches’ or ‘Hatchett’s’ Bottom, because Samuel Hatch, a harness-maker, had owned a cottage there before 1770. This unsavoury hollow was described in about 1817 as a “stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath” by the sculptor Joseph Nolleken’s wife (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73). It was a vale, but not a healthy one.”

However, by 1801 when the land had been drained and property developers began building houses in the area, it gained the salubrious-sounding name by which it is known today.

Apart from the famous Indian artistic genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who stayed in the Vale in 1912, the settlement was home to many other well-known people including the author Compton Mackenzie; the barrister Alfred Harmsworth; DH Lawrence; the philosopher Cyril Joad; and Stella Gibbons. Earlier notable residents included the law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818); the poet and essayist James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who entertained leading literary figures such as Hazlitt, Keats, Lord Byron and Shelley in his house in the Vale; the publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873); and, also, a Prince Eszterhazy.

During the 19th century, not only were the literati and wealthy attracted to the Vale but also it was a popular place for hoards of trippers, whose names never made it into the annals of history. The author of “The Northern Heights of London” published in 1869, William Howitt (1792-1879), describes these pleasure-seekers and what they did in some detail. He wrote that:

“This Vale of Health used, till of late years, to present a sight at once picturesque and pleasant. In front of a row of cottages, and under the shade of willows, were set out long tables for tea, where many hundreds, at a trifling cost, partook of a homely and exhilarating refreshment. There families could take their own tea and bread and butter, and have water boiled for them, and table accommodation found for them, for a few pence…”

And then, everything changed for the worse according to the puritanical-sounding Howitt:

“Recent times have seen Sunday dissipation reasserting itself, by the erection of a monster public house with a lofty tower and flag, to attract the attention of Sunday strollers on the Heath. Of all places, this raised its Tower of Babel in that formerly quiet and favourite spot, the Vale of Health … that taps and gin palaces on a Titan scale should be licensed, where people resort ostensibly for fresh air, relaxation, and exercise, is the certain mode of turning all such advantages into popular curses and converting the very bosom of nature into a hotbed of demoralisation and crime…”

This demoniacal-sounding establishment is marked as ‘Suburban & Hampstead Heath Hotel’ on a map surveyed a year before Howitt’s book was published. On a map surveyed in 1912, it is marked simply as ‘Hotel’. Just a few houses away southwest of it, another building is marked ‘Hall’, to which I will refer shortly. According to both maps, the hotel stood where today there is a twentieth century block of flats called Spencer House. Opposite this edifice, there is a caravan park, which has been in the possession of the Abbotts family for over 160 years. Since the late 19th century, this patch of land has been fairground land. About ten members of the family live on the site in caravans, and other travelling fair workers can camp there free of charge. In exchange, members of the Abbott family, who operate travelling fairs, are allowed camp for nothing on other fairground owners’ sites when they travel around the country.

Returning to the building that upset Howitt, “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73) notes:

“… the Suburban hotel (also called the Vale of Health tavern) with towers and battlements and accommodation for 2,000 was built in 1863 …”

This source also notes another establishment, which was being built whilst Howitt was writing or just about to publish. This was the ‘Hampstead Heath Hotel’, which was built in 1868. This stood between two groups of ‘villas’, that is between 1-6 Heath Villas and 7-12 Heath Villas. It was the building marked as ‘Hall’ on the 1912 map. It is now occupied by a mid-twentieth century block of flats, smaller than Spencer House, named ‘Athenaeum’.

The Hampstead Heath Hotel closed in 1877, when it passed into the ownership of Henry Braun. His great grandson, Frances Francis wrote (www.francisfrith.com/uk/hampstead/vale-of-health-hotel_memory-7431):

“My great grandfather Henry Braun owned the Vale of Health Hotel … overlooking the lake, from 1877 until the early 1900’s. The hotel was used as an Anglo German club called the Athenaeum and by 1908 had 1200 members – 500 English, 700 German, including many political radicals. The hotel became a factory during World War I and then remained derelict for some years. The hotel was eventually pulled down in 1958, when I was 15 and I remember with sadness watching ‘luxury’ flats being erected in its place.”

The club closed in 1914 and then became used as a factory until it was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1958.

According to the County History to which I have already referred, The Athenaeum club’s larger neighbour, the hostelry that Howitt detested was:

“The large Vale of Health tavern, originally intended as a hotel and sanatorium, was sold in 1876, became associated with the fair, was let as flats, and c. 1900 became a hotel again on a smaller scale, with the upper rooms let as studios … Spencer House (flats) replaced the Vale of Health hotel in 1964.”

Howitt would have been even more dismayed to have learnt that there was a third hotel built in the Vale of Health in the 1880s. It stood next to the Athenaeum on the site now occupied by Byron Villas. It was at number 1 Byron Villas that the writer DH Lawrence lived in 1915.

Today, Howitt would most probably be happier with the Vale of Health than he was in 1869. The hotels have gone, and there is not even the tiniest of stalls where refreshments may be obtained. He might disapprove of the parked cars and the caravan site opposite Spencer House, but there would be hardly anything that he could find to decry.  By the edge of its large pond, one of the sources of the River Fleet, the Vale of Health remains a quiet oasis in the heart of north London.

Sun and snow in Arizona

BEFORE WE DEPARTED for the USA in January 1995, three months before the expected due date of the baby, who was in my wife’s womb, we consulted our obstetrician. We wanted to know whether it would be safe for my wife, Lopa, to travel at this point in the pregnancy. Our obstetrician saw no reason why we should not make the trip but warned us:

“Make sure you have good travel insurance because a premature birth in the States will bankrupt you.”

We spent much of January 1995 driving around California and neighbouring Arizona. What we had not expected was the weather. We had wanted to visit Death Valley but were advised against it, not because of the heat but because of the bad winter weather there. On arriving at Yosemite National Park, we were turned away in order to buy snow chains for the tires of our hired car. Returning with the chains we ventured into the snowy wilderness that Yosemite had become.

Later in the trip we crossed a so-called desert, probably the Mojave, the first I had ever seen. It rained nonstop and instead of sand there was plenty of green vegetation. I was disappointed as it did not match my preconceptions of desert appearances. We were travelling east towards Arizona, a state that until that trip I had associated with heat and deserts.

One of our destinations was the south side of the Grand Canyon. We were really glad that we had the snow chains with us because without them it would have been impossible to reach our rented cabin close to the edge of the canyon.

We were adequately dressed for the cold but Lopa was terrified that she might slip in the snow and fall, possibly risking the health of our unborn child. We found her a tall, stout branch and she walked in the snow, looking rather like  Mahatma Gandhi on a march as depicted in many statues in India, but dressed in padded clothing.

We arrived at the Canyon after nightfall. The next day, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. The snow still lay thickly on the ground, on the trees, and in the canyon.

This was my first visit to the Grand Canyon and the snowfall enhanced my enjoyment of this spectacular place. The snow had fallen in such a way that it had only landed on the upward facing surfaces of the many strata that make up the walls of the canyon. This exaggerated their appearance in a positively aesthetic fashion. The Grand Canyon under snow made our visit memorable and exceeded all my expectations of the famous site.

From the Canyon, we drove south to Sedona, which is famous for its vortices that some people. including me, claim to be able to feel. Though not far south from the Canyon, the weather had improved considerably.

When we reached Phoenix, a city south of Sedona, winter had become summer. Whereas the temperature at the Canyon had been below freezing point, at Phoenix it was at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

From Phoenix, we drove west towards Yuma and San Diego in south California. On the way, we traversed a stretch of land that confirmed my preconceptions of what a desert should look like. It was neither soaked with rain nor lacking in sand dunes. On the contrary, it was hot, deserted, and sandy. And we saw occasional cacti. At last, at the age of almost 42 I had seen my first ‘real’ desert.  Since then, I have seen a few other sandy deserts including the vast wastes of Kutch in western India.

Although our obstetrician in London was unconcerned about our journey, everyone we met in the USA on that trip was horrified that we had undertaken it. Our holiday in the USA was a great success and our baby daughter arrived intact and healthy in early April. I cannot say for sure whether her in-utero journey across the Atlantic and around parts of California and Arizona is in any way responsible for her love of travelling, but there is a possibility that it was.

French connection

WE HAVE BEEN WARNED repeatedly that during the current covid-19 pandemic that travelling abroad, leaving the UK, is not without the risk that after returning home we might have to go into quarantine for fourteen days. The rules relating to quarantine are strict and include remaining at home twenty-four hours a day. This means, amongst other things, not emerging from home even for exercise, shopping, or going to work. For those who must leave home for work and cannot work from home this quarantine can lead to serious loss of earnings. Currently, the state will not compensate those who have to quarantine because they have returned from a country that the British Government considers having a higher rate of covid-19 virus infections or infection rates. I suppose the argument is that like heat, which flows from a higher to a lower temperature, the virus tends to flow from an area of higher infection to one with a lower one. The quarantining is meant to be part of minimising the risk of importing the virus into the UK from abroad.

Some countries may be visited by people living in the UK without the need for people returning from them to have to stay in quarantine. Until recently, the Government was happy for visitors to France to return to the UK without needing to go into quarantine for a fortnight. Because of this and despite warnings that covid-19 infections were on the increase in France, British holidaymakers were happy to take a risk by travelling to France. From the outset, the Government warned that at any moment there might need to be a change in the situation regarding quarantining after visiting abroad.

On the evening of Thursday 13th August 2020, the British Government announced that anyone who visited France and had not returned to the UK by 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August would need to go into quarantine for 14 days after reaching home in the UK. Between this late evening announcement and early Saturday morning, many British holidaymakers in France were panic stricken and tried to reach British soil before the 4 am deadline because they wanted to avoid being compelled to quarantine. Many of those people shelled out enormous amounts of money to obtain last minute bookings on ‘planes, trains, and ferries, in the hope of beating the deadline.

The panicked return was entirely understandable, and I do not blame anyone for trying to avoid a quarantine period that they could ill afford. What I cannot comprehend was what was magic about 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August. If the risk of importing covid-19 from France (or elsewhere) is so great that it is considered necessary to impose quarantine on returnees, why, for example is someone landing in the UK at, say 3.45 am on the 15th of August, any less likely to pose a danger to public health than someone arriving any time after 4 am on that day? In my opinion, if the chances of bringing in the virus from a certain country are deemed dangerously high and it is determined that quarantine will reduce the chances of imported virus from adding to the already significant local supply, the quarantine requirement should have been imposed immediately, without over a moment’s delay.

As for the effectiveness of the enforced quarantine on reducing imports of infection, that remains to be seen. Recently, the owner of a well-known budget airline poured scorn on the idea of quarantine. He pointed out that many travellers landing in British airports travel to their homes by public transport. During that journey to the places where they plan to quarantine for fourteen days, they have plenty of opportunity to spread the virus to others travelling on the same bus, train, or other public transport. By the time they get home, the damage might well have been done. This airline owner was saying this to help save his business from further destruction caused by ‘lockdown’ conditions, but what he said is true.

Life cycle

I HAVE OWNED ONLY ONE bicycle. My parents gave it to me as a gift when I was about twelve. My late mother, who was somewhat over-protective of my sister and me, restricted my use of the cycle to our not over large garden in northwest London. Cycling around in this confined face was hardly much fun. The bike fell into disuse.

BIKE 2

In the early 1970s, I met a friend in Luxembourg a few days before he was to be interviewed for a job in the administration of the European Parliament. We spent a night in a youth hostel in Echternach. On the following day, we hired cycles to do some exploring. We cycled over hill and dale, mostly uphill it seemed, through attractive forests until we reached the small town of Vianden about 18 miles away to the north. The bicycle, which I had hired, had a gear change lever attached to its handlebar. I kept fiddling with this as we rode through the summer heat, but it seemed to make no difference to how the vehicle moved.  

When we arrived in Vianden, we headed back on our return journey via a different route. We followed minor roads close to the River Sure, which forms the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany (in those days it was West Germany). There were many small bridges crossing the river and connecting the neighbouring countries. At each bridge, we moved from one country to the other, flitting through short tracts of, say, Germany before the next in Luxembourg. This was long before the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, but we were never stopped by border officials on either side of the river. That was lucky because both of us had (maybe unwisely) left our passports with our baggage.

When we got back to Echternach, we were both extremely thirsty and I was exhausted. We found a refreshment place with outdoor seats and tables and ordered chilled beers. I sat down and then promptly stood up again. Having sat on the saddle for so long, my backside had become bruised. It was at least three days after our excursion that sitting became comfortable again. It was only when we returned the cycles to the hire place that I noted that the gear adjuster lever was not connected to anything apart from the handlebar; the bike had no gear mechanism.

A few years later, in the early 1980s, I decided to go to the north of Holland, which was a part of the country I had never visited before. My plan was to cross the sea from Sheerness to Vlissingen on the luxurious Olau Line ferry, and then to travel from nearby Middelburg to various places in the north of Holland. At each place, I had decided to make use of the cycle hire service that was offered at Dutch railway stations. 

My first cycle excursion was around the peninsula on which Middelburg is located. On this first adventure with Dutch Railway cycles, I discovered three important things. First, the bicycles had no gears. This is not in itself a problem because Holland is not a hilly place. Next, the braking system is not operated by leavers on the handlebars. To slow or halt the cycle, the rider must reverse pedal. Thirdly, Holland can be a windy place. Cycling into the wind is as difficult as cycling up a hill. Well, the first outing was a useful learning experience.

Another thing that I learned but did not make use of was the fact that in those days most Dutch people woke up earlier than me. This meant that when I reached the cycle hire offices at railway stations, there were few cycles left for me to select. Most of those available were far too large for me. I was able to ride them, but unable to reach the ground with my feet when I was perched on the saddle. The only way I could cope was to cycle up to a lamp post or telegraph pole, and steady myself by putting one of my hands against it.

I stayed in Leeuwarden in the far north of Holland, a place that I had long wanted to see – why, I cannot recall any longer. I rented a bike to visit the picturesque coastal town of Harlingen. I returned in the early evening and had a brief rest at my hotel. At about 7.30 pm, I decided to look for somewhere to eat. Almost everywhere had stopped serving dinner because people dine early in Leeuwarden. After eating a pizza in a non-descript place, the evening was still young, but the city seemed deserted. Where was everyone, I wondered. Surely, they had not all retired to bed so early. I strolled the empty streets for a while and found a pub that was open. I entered. It was full, but far from lively. People were either chatting quietly or sitting in chairs reading books or newspapers. The pub felt like a rather crowded cosy sitting room.

One highlight of that visit to Holland was cycling along the Afsluitdyk, a man-made causeway constructed between 1927 and 1932. It is over 20 miles long and separates the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer, now an inland lake but once a huge inlet of the sea. The ride, like most others I made in Holland, was windy.

Since my Dutch cycling adventures, I cannot remember pedalling a cycle again until 1993, when I was ‘courting’ my wife. On one occasion when I visited her health club, she encouraged me to try an exercise bike. She sat on the machine next to mine and an athletic fellow sat on one on the other side of mine. My wife pedalled away energetically with the book she was reading balanced on the handlebar. My male neighbour pedalled as furiously as he might have done had he been chased by a cheetah or a jaguar. Meanwhile, yours truly was unable to get the pedals to move at all. Clearly, I had either reached a stage in my life cycle when my strength was ebbing or a previous user of my machine had set the pedal resistance at a very high level (and I had no idea that it was  adjustable).