From Cornwall to Poland and the Himalayas

THE CORNISH VILLAGE of St Kew, though small, is an extremely attractive place to visit. Its name derives from that of a Welsh saint called ‘Cywa’ who might have been the sister of Docca, who founded a monastery near the present village of St Kew. In the centre of the village, close to a bridge crossing a stream, there is a lovely pub, The St Kew Inn, which was built in the 15th century (www.stkewinn.co.uk/). We stopped there for much-needed liquid refreshment on a hot afternoon in late June 2021. Close to, and on higher ground than, the pub, there is another 15th century edifice, the parish church of St James.

The church contains much to fascinate the visitor including fine stone and wood carvings, remnants of pre-Reformation stained-glass, a carved stone with ancient Ogham script, a carved gravestone bearing the date 1601 and a depiction of a lady in Tudor dress, and wooden barrel-vaulted ceilings. All of this and more makes St James one of the loveliest churches we have seen in Cornwall. Although I was highly enchanted by all this antiquity, it was one modern memorial in the church that intrigued me most.

The monument on the inside of the north wall of the church reads:

“In memory of Alison Chadwick-Onyskiewicz of Skisdon, St Kew. Born May 4th 1942.  Artist and Mountaineer. She made the first ascent of Gasherbrum III. 26090 ft. And died on Mt Annapurna, Nepal, on 17th October 1978.”

Well, I was not expecting to find this when I entered the church at St Kew.

From Alison’s obituary on the alpinejournal.org.uk website, I have extracted the following information about her. She was born in Birmingham but spent her formative years in Cornwall. Whilst studying at the Slade School of Art at University College, London, she became interested in mountaineering. Her climbing experience began in North Wales, before gaining experience in the Alps and rock faces in Devon and Cornwall.

In 1971, she married a well-known Polish mountaineer, Janusz Onyskiewicz, who was also a mathematician and twice Poland’s Minister of National Defence (1992-1993 and 1997-2000). In the 1980s, he was a spokesman for the Solidarity Movement. Alison lived in Poland after she married him in Bodmin, Cornwall. She and Janusz were two of the four members of the Polish expedition that conquered Gasherbrum III, which was at the time the highest yet unclimbed peak. The obituary notes:

“Alison’s climbing ethics were always of the highest standard and on high mountains she wished to compete with men on equal terms with the minimum of oxygen and Sherpa assistance. Perhaps it was for this reason that she chose to accept an invitation to join the 1978 American Ladies Expedition to Annapurna rather than accept a place on the more glamorous Franco/Austrian Expedition to Everest. On the Annapurna expedition Alison’s contribution was crucial, leading the ice-arete between camps 1I and III which proved to be the crux of the route. After the summit had been reached on 15 October, Alison and Vera Watson were killed in a fall while making a second summit bid.”

Although Janusz was in the Himalayas 40 miles away from the scene of the fatal accident, news of it took two weeks to reach him.

So, that is, in brief, the story of the lady commemorated by an oval slate memorial in St James Church in St Kew. I have yet to discover where she was buried and who placed the memorial in the church. Discovering this connection between St Kew and the Himalayas was yet another delightful surprise that enhanced my enjoyment of the southwestern county of Cornwall.

A town in the Himalayas

“NO PATH IN DARJEELING IS STRAIGHT” is the title of an excellent small book about Darjeeling and its environs. I bought a copy shortly after spending an enjoyable week in the Himalayan hill town close to Nepal and Sikkim and not too far from Tibet. Being so near to these places on the fringe of Central Asia, the area in which Darjeeling is located is populated by a large number of different ethnic groups. The book describes some of these and their histories.

Written by someone who lived and worked (as an academic) in Darjeeling for several years, the author Parimal Bhattacharya, provides an evocative series of observations about the town and around it. He imparts much fascinating information about the place and its people and their problems in almost poetic prose. He also manages to convey his feelings of delight and excitement with the reader.

If I have any criticism of this wonderful book, it is that he does not provide any reference to further reading about the Hungarian explorer and orientalist Sandor Csoma Koros (1784-1843), who died in Darjeeling on his way to the Silk Road. But, this is only a minor criticism.

This book, which I loved reading, gives a great sense of place. It will delight readers who have visited Darjeeling, and will intrigue those who have yet to do so.

A HIMALAYAN HOTEL AND WHO WILL BE THE NEXT MR SIKKIM?

The hotel where we stayed in Gangtok (Sikkim, India) had a spacious, clean, comfortable bedrooms. However, it was staffed and managed (rather, mismanaged) by amazingly incompetent people. To avoid embarrassing them, I will not name the hotel, which was, surprisingly, highly rated on a well known travel website.

On our first night, we ordered dinner to be served at 830 pm. The manager said that would be alright and that he would call us in our room when the food was served. At 840, we had not heard anything. So, I rang reception and was told that the food would be ready soon. It was after 9 pm that we were served an unappealing meal.

Some days later, we met the owner. He told me that we complained because as we were “Britishers” and we believed that “the sun never sets over the British Empire”, we expected dinner to be served on time. I pointed out that my wife, although British by naturalisation, is an Indian and I am only first generation British because my parents were born outside the former British Empire. So, our complaint about the meal had nothing to do with nostalgic ideas about imperialism, but much more to do with the poor management of the hotel. I have described this in detail not because it was the only or worst example of the establishment’s failings. It was just one of very many.

Because our hotel’s carering was so unsatisfactory, we dined in another hotel nearby. On our last evening, the dining room of this hotel filled with young Sikkimese men, all with carefully styled hair. We discovered that the hotel was hosting the finalists for the “Mr Sikkim 2019” competition that was soon to be judged. All of the finalists looked pleasant enough, but none of them appeared to be particularly outstanding. I thought that the judges would have a tough time choosing the winner.

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel to settle the bill for our accommodation. We had been assured several times that payment by card would be acceptable, but when we arrived with our card, the manager (hotel owner, possibly) told us that because of poor internet signal, card payment would not, after all, be possible. In that case, we replied, we would not be able to pay. Expecting to pay by card, we had not drawn out nearly enough cash. The manager called one of his assistants, a room boy, who appeared to be savvy with mobile phones. He managed to get the card machine to work, but charged our card one percent of what we owed. Being honest people, we pointed out his error. The young man who was not challenged by IT, was weak in arithmetic skills. Much palaver ensued whilst we waited for him to set up the payment system once more. Throughout all of this, the manager, rather than assisting his numerically challenged employee, stood by, watching helplessly. Meanwhile, I had to stifle my laughter. This cumbrous settling of our bill was yet another example of what John Cleese would have considered fine material for episodes in the comedy series “Fawlty Towers”.

FIRST DAY DAWDLING IN DARJEELING

ISTANBUL AND GJIROKASTER (in Albania) share something in common with Darjeeling. The three places have no shortage of extremely steep inclines. However, Darjeeling beats the other two in steepness. Its footways and streets often seem almost vertical. The thoroughfares are so narrow in many places – wide enough for only one car, and as few of them are one way streets, Darjeeling’s drivers have to be skilled in reversing long distances along them. Driving difficulties are compounded by the oft appalling road surfaces, the steep drops along edges of some streets, and deep gutters.

The Mall and Chowrasta (a square where four roads meet) are vehicle free pedestrian precincts. Some of the buildings in this area are over 100 years old and recall the ‘heyday’ of Darjeeling, when it was a high altitude resort for British colonialists. One of these old structures houses the well stocked Oxford bookshop. It specialises in books about the Himalayas, tea, and natural history.

Two long straggling bazaars start at Chowrasta: the Mall Market that is under a fabric roof supported by bamboo poles, and the Mahakal Market. The latter runs along a path which overlooks a lower part of the town. The Mahakal Temple and a Bhuddist temple perch atop Observatory Hill. These can be reached by walking up a very steep winding path, which was lined by mendicants soliciting alms, often pitifully.

We ate lunch in the very popular Kunga restaurant, which serves Chinese style food. One visit there is enough for me. The restaurant is near a large Victorian gothic edifice with a tall clock tower. Built in 1850, this used to be Darjeeling town hall.

Our quest for a Samsung service centre led us down a long, perilously steep pathway to the busy Chauk Bazaar area. This typical bustling bazaar divided into areas that specialise in one line of business, be it, for example, vegetables or tailoring or sweetmeats or shoes, is laid out higgledy piggledy on an area of level ground that is large by Darjeeling standards.

A taxi conveyed us at great speed up steep winding streets to the huge Sinclairs Hotel where our new friends from Lincolnshire kindly offered us sundowners – well, the sun had actually set long before we reached them.

Returning to our lovely homestay, our young driver forced his poorly powered tiny Suzuki Maruti car along some absolutely appalling roads, which reminded me of some of the worst byways I have experienced in rural Albania and off the beaten track in South Africa.

Toy Train to Darjeeling

My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.

Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.

We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.

The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.

The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.

The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.

The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.

Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.

Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.

Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.