Newfoundland: the quirky and the memorable

I have been in reflective mood this week, looking back on a road-trip around Newfoundland, Canada exactly five years ago. We were there a month, covering the length and breadth of what the locals fondly refer to simply as “The Island,” driving around 6,500 km (4,000 miles) in the process.

The icebergs were impressive

I wish I could tell you it was the best holiday we’ve ever had, but sadly it wasn’t. Although the icebergs were impressive and most of the people were friendly, many of the roads were cratered with pot-holes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the moon. The food was largely uninspiring, and while there were some undeniable scenic highlights, we had to drive past one hell of a lot of tedious fir trees to find them. And, to make matters worse, I got a spectacular (positively Vesuvian!) dose of food poisoning.

There’s a lot about our visit to Newfoundland that I’d rather forget, but reading back over my blog of the trip there was plenty of good stuff too, much of it quirky and some of it pretty damned memorable. So today I thought I’d share some of the better moments with you, the readers of Now I’m 64.

Quirky Newfoundland (1): Bilbo Baggins and the Warhol Prophecy

This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 8 July, 2017

Andy Warhol famously suggested that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become known for something, albeit most probably something rather insignificant.

A case in point is Huntsville, Alabama. Passing through the city a few years ago we were surprised to discover that Huntsville is, according to the people who decide these things, the Watercress Capital of the World.  Now, pleasant enough as watercress may be in a mixed-leaf salad, it seems rather desperate of the city elders to fly their colours from this particular mast, not least because the same city boasts an outstanding space museum, including a genuine Saturn 5 rocket.

Newfoundland, Elliston, 2017 (1)

Elliston doesn’t ‘do’ modesty

Huntsville’s dubious claim to fame came to mind again yesterday when we drove into the small town of Elliston, which, as signage at the side of the road indicates, styles itself as the Root Cellar Capital of the World.

For the uninitiated, and I guess that’s just about everyone other than the good burghers of Elliston, a root cellar is an underground vault in the garden in which you can keep your root vegetables, and other produce, cool and fresh.  The British aristocracy had their ice houses and, not to be outdone, Elliston folk built rutabaga (turnip) larders that work on a broadly similar principle.  It is a must-have garden accessory around these parts; every home should have one and indeed, in days gone by, most of them did.

Newfoundland, Elliston, 2017 (2)

There are hundreds of root cellars dotted about the town

There were hundreds of root cellars in this area of Newfoundland at one time, and although most have fallen into disrepair some are lovingly maintained. The best look as if they’ve come straight off the set of a Lord of the Rings movie, giving the impression that at any moment the door will open and a hobbit will emerge, puffing contentedly on his pipe.  ‘Hello’, he says, ‘my name’s Bilbo Baggins, pleased to meet you I’m sure.’

‘Well, hi there,’ replies Andy Warhol, ‘that’s a fine root cellar you have there. I’m pleased to tell you, Mr Baggins, that one day you’re going to be famous.  But only for 15 minutes.’

Quirky Newfoundland (2): When did you last see a vegetable?

This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 25 July, 2017

You’ll be familiar with the painting.  A small boy dressed in blue stands in the centre of the picture facing to the right, where his inquisitors are seated at a table.  His family look on, anxiously.  The canvas depicts an imaginary scene from the English Civil War, and was painted by British artist W. F. Yeames in 1878.  Its title is “When did you last see your father?”

“When did you last see your father?”, by William Frederick Yeames, (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Skip to Newfoundland, July 2017, where a new interpretation of the painting has been commissioned.  The venerable Platypus Man stands in the centre of the picture, facing his inquisitors.  His head is bowed, his shoulders hunched.  Tears flow from sunken eyes, cascading down his deathly-pale cheeks.  Mrs P watches, her face contorted with pain and suffering.  The title of the painting is “When did you last see a vegetable?”

You see, vegetables are in short supply around here.  To be fair, we’ve eaten up-market two or three times during the trip, and on these occasions veggies have been available.  Although at those prices I should bloody well think so.

Mostly, however, we’ve eaten “cheap and cheerful.”  Until yesterday this meant that just about the only vegetables we’ve eaten have been potatoes of the chipped persuasion. Newfies apparently feel the same about healthy eating as Roman Catholic bishops feel about contraception – they’re vaguely aware of the concept, but have decided it’s not for them.

Yesterday, however, we experienced a bona fide miracle.  We ate “cheap and cheerful” again, and got both broccoli and carrots.  Now you have to understand that I’m not a big fan of broccoli.  I once heard a comedian on television refer to it as Satan’s Fart-weed, but didn’t even crack a smile – I mean, what’s funny about the patently obvious?  But yesterday, so grateful was I for something – anything – green, that I ignored the ghastly intestinal consequences and wolfed it down ravenously. 

And as for carrots (also not my favourite veggies, on the grounds of being too orange to be taken seriously … a bit like Chris Evans and Ed Sheeran, I suppose), Peter Rabbit himself couldn’t have made quicker work of them.

However, we’ve discovered in northern Newfoundland over the last couple of days that some locals have seen the light and taken matters into their own hands.  They’ve fenced off areas of land by the side of the road, miles from the nearest town or village, and planted veggies there.

Around here settlements are invariably on the coast, where neither climate nor soil are conducive to the growing of vegetables. But by moving inland along the main roads, conditions for horticulture are improved.  Every weekend the “owners” drive out to tend their little allotments, lavishing love and care on them that would put celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh to shame.

Apparently anyone living here can, quite legally, drive a few miles out of town, put up a bit of fencing to keep out the moose, and claim a parcel of land to set up a vegetable patch.  Ownership of the roadside gardens is respected – no Newfie would dream of nicking his neighbour’s carrots – and nobody pays rent or tax on the land that has been thus acquired.

This all sounds wonderfully progressive, and could work well in the UK.  I think I’ll drop Keir Starmer an email and suggest it for inclusion in the Labour Party’s next election manifesto.  I have my eye on a nice patch of ground next to the A38, slightly north of Derby, that’s just crying out to have vegetables grown on it.  I won’t even have to worry about the moose.

I will, however, definitely give broccoli a miss when sowing my crop.  After all, a man should follow his gut instinct.

Quirky Newfoundland (3): Ticklish names and monstrous squid

This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 27 July, 2017

The time has come

The Platypus said

To talk of many things

Of ticklish names and monstrous squid

And salmon fit for kings.

With apologies to Lewis Carroll ("The Walrus and the Carpenter")

Today we ventured to the coastal village of Leading Tickles. Yes, that really is a place, not a dubious seduction technique that I once employed in my pursuit of Mrs P!  In these parts a tickle is a narrow strait, so narrow in fact that it tickles the sides of your boat as you sail along it.  There are plenty of other tickles to be had in this neck of the woods, including Dark Tickle and Thimble Tickle.  Boringly, the latter is now known as Glover’s Harbour. Less boringly, it’s a place of world renown…if cephalopods are your thing, that is.

In 1878, the world’s biggest known squid, weighing in at two tons, 17m (55 feet) in length and with an eye that had a diameter of nearly 41cm (16 inches), was washed up here. It has received the official stamp of approval from the Guinness Book of Records, so we can be sure it’s kosher.  Given that there is absolutely nothing else that a tiny, isolated place like Glover’s Harbour is going to become known for, the locals have latched on to it.  The squid has achieved celebrity status; there is a decent interpretation centre, and a life size model which really does bring home what a monster it was. Although, sadly, climbing on it is strictly forbidden!

On the way to visit Squiddly Diddly we took time out to visit the Grand Fall Salmon Interpretation Centre, and view the salmon ladder. Historically, salmon were unable to progress upstream beyond the 30m (100 feet) high waterfall located here, meaning that less than 10% of the entire watershed was available for breeding. However a fish ladder comprising 35 steps has now been constructed, enabling them to by-pass the falls and continue their journey upstream to the spawning grounds.

Watching the fish leap up the steps was mesmerising; some got it right first time, others failed multiple times before finally perfecting their technique and progressing to the next level. We were also able to watch from a glass-walled underwater viewing deck, enabling us to see them from side-on at very close quarters.  Some carried flesh wounds caused by mishaps on their journey upstream, though others were unblemished and beautifully marked.

While some of the salmon were modest in size, others were huge.  These have probably done the journey multiple times before.  Unlike Pacific Salmon, the Atlantic Salmon does not die after breeding, so most of the fish we saw today will return to the sea after mating, and will hopefully make the same intrepid journey again next year.  Here’s wishing them a safe journey.

Memorable Newfoundland: Picturesque places, beautiful birds and wonderful whales

This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 29 July, 2017

For the past week we’ve been in the far west of Newfoundland, but this evening at 4.30pm, we’re booked on a whale watching trip departing from the town of Bay Bulls on the east coast. We therefore have a hard day’s driving ahead of us, hundreds of mind-numbing kilometres in which to contemplate the majesty of the fir trees lining our route.  We can hardly contain our excitement [overseas readers please note that the English are famed for their ironic sense of humour! A man can see too many fir trees, and today this man will.]

Newfoundland, Salvage, 2017 (16)

The pretty fishing village of Salvage

At least it’s no hardship to leave our current accommodation. We suspect the innkeepers received their training from the Basil Fawlty school of hotel management, from which they were evidently expelled for failing to meet the required standard.  They don’t say goodbye when we leave, but this isn’t really a surprise as they didn’t say hello when we arrived either (although they did get their assistant to collect our money pretty damned quick).

As soon as breakfast is eaten we’re on our way, whistling the theme tune from The Great Escape as we drive out of the car park.  Within a couple of minutes we’re on the Trans Canada Highway (TCH), Newfoundland’s equivalent of the M1.  Joy of joys, just like our own M1, the TCH is being widened and chaos is therefore in the air, which doesn’t improve my mood.  It’s a nightmare, but after much misery we finally leave the mayhem behind us.  I slip the car into cruise, settle back and prepare to watch the kilometres sail past.

A couple of hours later I’m going stir crazy. We decide to leave the TCH for an impromptu side-trip to the coastal village of Salvage.  It’s an inspired decision.  Salvage turns out to be one of the most picturesque places we’ve visited all trip. The fishing shacks and associated paraphernalia are particularly fine, hinting at a way of life that it is completely alien to us.  Mrs P loves photographing them, and snaps away happily until it’s time to hit the road again. 

Puffins are unmistakeable, and understandably popular with everyone who spots them

Suitably refreshed by our unscheduled visit to Salvage I put my foot down, and we reach Bay Bulls in good time for our whale watching trip.  The boat takes us first to a small offshore island where seabirds nest in their thousands.  The skipper brings us in close to the shore, giving us great views of the birds on the cliffs and rocky outcrops. Gull Island boasts a colony of handsome guillemots. There are also some puffins to be seen on the island, while others swim past our boat or fly overhead with beaks full of little fish with which to feed their chicks.

Bird watching over, we move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales.  For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish that congregate here to breed.

The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.

Newfoundland, Bay Bulls, whale watch, (David), 2017 (52)

Squadrons of gulls feed on fish scraps left by the humpbacks

A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish.  Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head slightly above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, sometimes lying motionless at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed. Encrustations of barnacles are clearly visible on their skin. The humpbacks are compelling, awesome creatures, and time seems to stand still as we revel in their majesty.

Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum.  After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish.  The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu…except fish.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.

Farewell, my friend

* * * * *

POSTSCRIPT: If you’ve enjoyed these random memories of our trip around Newfoundland, why not check out my 2017 blog of our holiday. There are a few laughs, plenty of surprises and loads more excellent photos by Mrs P, like this one of picturesque Quidi Vidi harbour.

Quidi Vidi harbour

You can find the blog by clicking on this link.

Wardrobe woes

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, a three-door, five-drawer solid pine wardrobe in which to store my suits and shirts and socks and stuff. It was a big beast, to be sure, but we liked the look of it, and never gave much thought to how we’d get it up the stairs and into our bedroom. And anyway, it wasn’t really our problem: the guy at the furniture warehouse said they could deliver anywhere, and we took him at his word.

In the event it took a four man lift, and a lot of colourful cursing, before my new wardrobe made it to the top of the stairs and could be coaxed into its final resting place in a corner of the bedroom. And there it remained, unmoved and unmoveable, for more than a quarter of a century. Until we decided to redecorate.

Mrs P said in no uncertain terms that the time had come: the time for a new carpet, new curtains and a decent paint job. She looked at me meaningfully: painting is my territory, though I rather wish it weren’t. I said that I agreed – and I did agree, honest! – but in order to do a decent job we first needed to move the wardrobe. And that wardrobe was, as I explained, way too big for a man of my age, with my bad back, knackered knees and history of hernias, to contemplate moving.

The wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room

So there we left it for a year or two, the wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room. Until, one day about three weeks ago, Mrs P suddenly announced “I’ve had an idea!”

My heart sank. Don’t get me wrong, Mrs P’s a lovely lady (I married her, after all) but whenever she says “I’ve had an idea”, I know that my life’s about to get more complicated.

“And what idea is that?” I asked innocently, hoping fervently she’d already forgotten.

“Simple,” she replied brightly, “the bedroom desperately needs redecorating. If the only thing preventing it is that wardrobe, you’ll have to get rid of it and treat yourself to a new one.”

“Of course,” I responded in a flash, “but aren’t you forgetting something? Before we can buy a new wardrobe we’ll need to get rid of the one we’ve got now. And, as I may have mentioned previously, we can’t move the bloody thing!”

“No worries, we’ll offer it to a charity. They’ll collect the wardrobe. No problemo!

I had to admit, her idea sounded like a good one. Charities are always on the look out for quality items of furniture that they can sell, thereby raising much-needed cash to support their good causes. The wardrobe seemed like it was worth a bit, and local charities would surely be queuing up to take it away.

* * *

And so, just 24 hours later, we’re in the local offices of a big health charity, agreeing the deal. I whip out my mobile phone, and show the lady on duty a photo of the wardrobe.

“Ooh, how lovely,” she purrs, “we’d be pleased to take it off your hands.”

“And you’ll collect, of course? It’s a wee bit heavy and awkward to manoeuvre,” I caution, with a degree of understatement that verges on the criminal.

“Our guys will do their very best,” she responds, “but they have the right to refuse if they think it’s impossible or unsafe to proceed.”

“Oh, that’s OK, I’m sure they’ll manage just fine,” I lie. She smiles, plainly convinced by my reassurances. I just wish I felt the same.

* * *

A week later, the collection crew arrives. It’s a modest outfit, just two blokes and a van. “We’re doomed!”, I mutter to Mrs P as we usher them up to the bedroom.

They inspect the wardrobe from all sides. “Big, isn’t it?” one of them says unnecessarily, his voice trembling ever so slightly.

They then check the route they must take, the impossibly tight 180 degree turn needed to get the thing out of the bedroom and on to the landing, the limited vertical clearance of the stairwell, the narrowness and steepness of the stairs.

There is much scratching of heads and furrowing of brows. Finally they agree they’ll give it a go, and manage to drag the wardrobe a short distance away from the wall, unscrew the top half from the bottom and lift it off before waving the white flag.

“Sorry,” the head honcho says “can’t be done. I don’t know how the hell anyone managed to get it up here, but it ain’t going back down.”

And then they depart, leaving our hopes in tatters and the wardrobe, now in two halves, abandoned in the middle of the bedroom floor. So Mrs P and I have no option than to spend the rest of the afternoon dismantling the thing completely, taking it apart bit by bit and dragging the wreckage downstairs to dump in the garage. Even the individual pieces take a monumental effort to move, and we are left in awe of the crew that successfully delivered this monolithic piece of furniture all those years ago.

So the good news is that, after much heartache, we now have a new, wardrobe-shaped space in the bedroom. But the bad news is that I now have absolutely no excuse not to get on with the painting. Woe is me!

Rutland’s horseshoes: a tale of superstition and obsession

Popular culture tells us that horseshoes bring good luck. If this is so, then Rutland should be the luckiest county in all of England. A tradition dating back hundreds of years requires nobles visiting Oakham, Rutland’s biggest town, to present the local Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe. All horseshoes thus gifted to the Lord are displayed on the wall of his Great Hall at Oakham castle. As we discovered when we visited Oakham earlier this year, the horseshoe collection numbers over 200 and continues to grow.

Ornate horseshoes big and small adorn the walls of the Great Hall of Oakham Castle

But in a cruel twist of fate, Rutland’s horseshoes may not be lucky after all. Traditionally, British people believe that horseshoes can only be lucky if they are hung with the closed cup at the bottom, and the two open ends pointing skyward. But in Rutland they do it the other way round. Are these people crazy, or have they got a point? Read on, and I’ll tell you more.

Why are horseshoes considered lucky?

To begin, however, let’s explore why horseshoes are considered to be lucky. In times past the blacksmith was regarded as something of a benevolent magician. Here was a man who could, with only fire and brute strength to assist him, conjure from useless rock a valuable metal with a thousand useful applications. If blacksmiths were magicians, then iron and the wares they fashioned from it, such as horseshoes, must be imbued with good fortune too.

Added to this was the fact that horseshoes were traditionally secured with seven nails. Within our culture seven is regarded as the luckiest number, and this – combined with the good fortune attached to blacksmith magicians – confirmed the association between horseshoes and good luck.

The horseshoes quickly became status symbols, intended to show off the wealth, good taste and fine breeding of the people presenting them.

There’s also a religious dimension, dating from the 10th century. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan worked as a blacksmith. One day the Devil appeared before him and asked the future Archbishop to shoe his horse. Although recognising his visitor, blacksmith Dunstan said nothing, while secretly hatching a cunning plan.

Instead of fixing the shoe to the horse’s hoof he nailed it to the Devil’s own foot. The Devil howled with pain and rage. He probably swore a bit too, and demanded to be released. However Dunstan stood firm, and only agreed to remove the shoe after receiving Satan’s solemn promise that he would never enter a dwelling with a horseshoe nailed to the door. And so, according to the story, horseshoes are so imbued with good fortune they can even keep the Devil at bay.

The traditional British way of hanging horseshoes, with the cup nearest the floor, is said to ensure that the good luck will be safely stored there, and will not spill out to be wasted. Rutland folk, however, believe that nailing a horseshoe to the wall with the open end at the bottom will ensure that good luck falls onto those passing beneath it. This way of hanging it is also said to prevent the Devil hiding in the cup of the horseshoe, from where he might otherwise orchestrate mischief and mayhem.

Horseshoes presented by two members of the family of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill

So which way of hanging up a horseshoe is correct? Who knows?…I certainly don’t, but anyone of a superstitious disposition may be wise to have two horseshoes, one hanging with the cup at the bottom and the other with it at the top. It’s called risk management, guys!

Rutland’s historic obsession with horseshoes

Anyway, moving swiftly on to Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes, which dates back many hundreds of years. At the time of the Norman Conquest, one Henry de Ferrers was Master of Horse to the man who became known to history as William the Conqueror. Henry’s coat of arms featured six black horseshoes (with the closed, or cup, end at the top!) on a silver background. Later, as a token of his gratitude, William rewarded Henry with many grants of land, including the manor of Oakham, where the de Ferrers family later built a castle with a Great Hall.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of York have both presented horseshoes

The de Ferrers family name is a corruption of the word French word ferrier (farrier – a person who shoes horses – in English), and therefore hints at the family’s long association with the iron industry. So at some time in past, probably after too much ale had been consumed, some bright spark in the family came up with the crazy notion of demanding that all noble visitors be required, on their first trip to Oakham, to acknowledge their host’s heritage by presenting the Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe.

It tells us something about the power of the de Ferrers family that visitors went along with this daft demand. But typical of the aristocracy, before long they’d turned it into a contest, visitors trying to outdo one another with the size and extravagance of the horseshoes they presented.

The oldest horseshoe remaining in the castle collection was given by King Edward IV in the late 15th century, and is decorated with the royal coat of arms. From the late 18th century onwards the practice emerged of donors decorating their horseshoes with coronets to signify their rank within the British peerage system. In a stroke, therefore, the horseshoes were turned into status symbols, showing off how wealthy and “well-bred” the donors were.

Oakham castle’s Great Hall dates from 1190. It is believed to be the earliest and best preserved aisled hall in northern Europe

Although there are approaching 250 horseshoes on display in Oakham castle’s Great Hall, this is only a fraction of the number that have been presented over the centuries. In the early days of the tradition, horseshoes were displayed on the castle gates rather than the inside wall of the Great Hall, making them vulnerable to theft. Also, over the years, some of the less impressive donations have been quietly “mislaid” and forgotten. And in the early 20th century great numbers of horseshoes were melted down as scrap metal to help the war effort during the First World War.

Despite all of the losses, the collection remains mightily impressive. The internal walls of the Great Hall are festooned with the good, the bad and the ugly of the horseshoe world. And yet it’s still possible to find room for a new one when a member of the Royal Family comes calling: in 2003 Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, presented a horseshoe. Eleven years later his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, followed suit.

Rutland’s horseshoes come in all shapes and sizes!

Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes is quintessential British quirkiness. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s also strangely endearing, a bit of harmless fun. I just wish they’d hang their horseshoes the correct way up. In these troubled days of pandemics and wars, climate crises and mass extinctions, mankind needs all the good luck it can muster. Carelessly allowing good fortune to leak out and blow away by hanging your horseshoes upside down just isn’t good enough, Rutland!

Isle of Man highlights – (5) The magic roundabout

Well, not magic really, but definitely quirky. The roundabout on the children’s playground at the Isle of Man’s Silverdale Glen is powered by water flowing from the nearby boating lake. Shifting the lever releases water which drives a waterwheel, which in turn powers the carousel. The roundabout is the only working example of its kind in the British Isles.

Silverdale Glen was developed as a visitor attraction in the last years of the 19th century. The site included a boating lake, café and a park for games and walking as well as roundabouts, and is a legacy of the Isle of Man’s growth as a tourist destination.

The waterwheel that drives the carousel originally came from the nearby lead / silver / zinc mines at Foxdale. When the mines were closed in 1911 the wheel was transported to Silverdale and reinstalled near the lake to provide the power needed to drive the ride-on horses. The link below will take you to my short YouTube video of the roundabout in action.

The roundabout has undergone numerous renovations in the century since it began operations. In 2007 the wooden horses – which were acquired second-hand from a steam-driven funfair in England – were removed and replaced with fibreglass gallopers and rowboats. One of the originals has been restored and deposited at the excellent Manx Museum. You can view the catalogue image here.

Postscript – while researching the history of Silverdale Glen’s magic roundabout I came across this fascinating post by WordPress blogger Pat English. Written way back in 2010, when we were younger, more innocent and had never heard of Coronavirus, Pat’s post explores the history of roundabouts. It includes lots of colourful carousel horse designs, one inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Definitely worth a look.

Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

GUEST BLOG: The world according to Milky Bar

When I started this blog one of my first posts was about Milky Bar, a cat who visits our garden most days.  I’ve been quite busy since we got back from New Zealand, what with Christmas coming up fast and me not having bought a thing yet for Mrs P, so I invited Milky Bar to write this week’s post on Now I’m 64

But just to be perfectly clear, I take absolutely no responsibility for anything he says.

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Hello everyone, my name’s Milky Bar!

Hello everyone, my name’s Milky Bar.  At least, that’s what Old Man Platypus calls me, but what does he know, eh?  Him an’ his missus are weirdos, that’s for sure. They gives names to all the cats what visit their garden, call ‘em after types of chocolate!  That’s why I’m Milky Bar, see. An’ then there’s Malteser – he’s a good pal of mine, knows who’s the boss – as well as Minstrel, Oreo an’ Mars Bar.  Not to mention Toblerone, of course.

Me and Malteser. He knows who’s the boss around here: me!

Toblerone!  I ask you, what kind of person calls a cat ‘Toblerone?’  Poor little mouser, no wonder he don’t show his face round ‘ere no more.

But what’s in a name anyway?  Old Man Platypus thinks callin’ me Milky Bar gives him power over me, thinks if he shouts out my name I’ll come runnin’ like some lapdog.  But I won’t. Cats don’t do that sort of thing, not this cat anyway. 

Here I am, planning how to catch a goldfish. Malteser watches the master at work!

Like I care about him, which I don’t, obviously.  I just sit an’ watch him makin’ a fool of himself.  Laughs at him I do, all this “Ooh, what a lovely cat you are, Milky Bar” an’ “Ah, what a little cutie you are, Milky Bar.”  Yuk!

I think he secretly wants me to move in with him at Platypus Towers, like some mistress or his bit on the side.  No way, José. I mean, if he’s serious about this relationship he needs to work at it, buy me stuff an’ all. You know, he’s never once opened a tin of tuna for me, or bought me a packet of Dreamies!  The man’s a total waste of space, that’s what I say.

Who’s a pretty boy then? Ah, that would be me, the one and only Milky Bar

One time he accidentally drops some pellets what he feeds to the goldfish in his pond, then watches to see if I’ll gobble ‘em up.  Maybe he reckons I won’t even notice, that I’ll think them pellets was meant for me. Me? Fooled by some lousy fishfood? I don’t think so!

I’m tellin’ you, Old Man Platypus ain’t got a clue.  If I was writin’ his end-of-term report I’d put “Must try harder” an’ give him a D-minus.  But only if I was feelin’ generous, like.

Sometimes, when it rains, I have a “bad hair day”

What makes it worse is he can be a good bloke when he wants to.  There’s this rabbit what lives in an ‘utch at the bottom of the garden.  Ugly thing it is, ears like a donkey. But Old Man Platypus thinks it’s wonderful, calls it Attila the Bun.  Attila the Bun, get it? No, neither do I.

Attila the Bun. Ears like a donkey, but Old Man Platypus reckons he’s wonderful

Anyway, Old Man Platypus is always out in the garden talkin’ to that rabbit, tellin’ him what a fine fellow he is.  Like the rabbit can understand him, I mean rabbits ain’t clever like cats, are they?

An’ every day he gives this Attila a massive pack of fresh food.  I tell you, that rabbit eats like a king … if kings eat carrots an’ kale an’ cabbage an’ cauliflower an’ celery an’ spinach an’ sprouts an’ watercress an’ lettuce an’ beetroot an’ broccoli an’ rocket an’ apples an’ pea shoots an’ pears.  Not to mention mixed leaf salad, whatever that is.

That rabbit eats like a king, but does Old Man Platypus ever give me tuna? NO, NEVER!

So that’s why I don’t come on too friendly with Old Man Platypus, ‘cos he ain’t serious about me.  I mean, if he was serious like, he’d cut back on stuff for that wretched rabbit an’ give me a nice big bowl of tuna.  Or salmon, of course. At a push I’d even put up with cod, but no, even that’s too much trouble for Mr Parsimonious Ratbag Platypus.  Fishfood, that’s the extent of his generosity where yours truly’s concerned. Huh!

Madame Platypus ain’t much better.  Always creepin’ up on me and pointin’ her camera in my face she is, tellin’ me not to move an’ to look straight into the lens an’ to tilt my head on one side so I look extra cute, an’ never, ever to blink. 

I like to hide under trees and bushes, an’ keep a lookout for them Mice-With-Wings

Sometimes her camera lens is clickin’ away like a flamin’ flamenco dancer playing the castanets. How’s a cat supposed to sleep with all that goin’ on? I tell you, if I had any credit left on my cell phone I’d ring up the cops an’ get her arrested for disturbin’ the peace.

OK, I admit it, she said I could have some of her photos for this blog.  Good job too, means you can see what a fine lookin’ feline I am, most ‘andsome mouser in the neighbourhood.  So Madame Platypus has her uses, only don’t tell her I said so. I mean, we wouldn’t want gettin’ above herself, would we?

One day I climbed on the special table where Old Man Platypus feeds them Mice-With-Wings

An’ to be fair – me, I’m always fair, of course I am – Old Man Platypus has his uses too.  He likes watchin’ them Mice-With-Wings, puts out food for ‘em on a special table, even has a water bath for ‘em. 

Here I am on a bad hair day, drinkin’ from them Mice-With-Wings’ water bath

Typical, ain’t it, food’n’drink for his little feathered friends, and nothin’ for yours truly. But I forgive him ‘cos I loves drinkin’ from that water bath, I do.  On a good day you can taste ‘em in the water, them Mice-With-Wings!

Old Man Platypus don’t do much gardenin’, says he’s got a bad back, but really it’s just ‘cos he’s an idle bugger.  So, ‘cos he don’t cut back the bushes there’s places for me to hide an’ watch the Mice-With-Wings.  Luck me, eh?

Sittin’ on the water bath, watchin’ out for Mice-With-Wings

I caught one once I did, big as a rat it was, more like a Rat-With-Wings.  I tell you, there was feathers everywhere. Tasted OK too, though ‘cos I’m a cosmopolitan kinda cat I prefers tuna.  But that day I felt real great, goin’ back to my roots, showin’ the world just how it’s done. Milky Bar, King of the Urban Jungle, that’s me. 

I’m the King of the Urban Jungle. Here I am, roaring (or maybe yawning?)

Anyway, I’m gonna stop now.  This bloggin’ business is hard work, so I needs a snooze.  An’ some tuna. Are you gettin’ this Old Man Platypus, do I have to spell it out, I needs tuna.  That’s right, T-U-N-A … TUNA!

An’ I needs it now, so be a good chap an’ nip down to the shop an’ buy me some.  About a dozen cans should do nicely. Until next week, that is.

Here I am, the most ‘andsome mouser in the neighbourhood. I’m very modest too. An’ I LOVE tuna!

Postscript: If you’ve enjoyed The World Accordin’ to Milky Bar, please click on “comment” and tell Old Man Platypus. If enough people tell him they like what I’ve written maybe he’ll let me have another go! With love from your new Best Friend Forever, the cat what always gets the cream (but never any tuna), the one and only Milky Bar. 😺

And now, a message from Old Man Platypus: Milky Bar isn’t the first cat to claim ownership of our garden, although he is the rudest. Old Man Platypus indeed! Click on the link below to find out about Sid, a much politer cat who used to visit.

Keeping the zombies in

Watching wildlife always plays a big part in our holidays, but I wouldn’t want you to think we’re one trick ponies.  We like to mix it up a bit: history, scenery, architecture and gardens all feature in our itineraries. Moreover, Mrs P is a notorious Captain Quirk, always on the lookout for the unusual, weird or downright bizarre to add a touch of the exotic to our expeditions in the UK and overseas.

And when we’re talking about quirky, you’d find it difficult to beat these mortsafes we found in a graveyard at Cluny in Aberdeenshire, on our way back from Shetland earlier this year.

Four mortsafes in Cluny Graveyard, Aberdeenshire, in front of the mausoleum of Miss Elyza Fraser (1814)

Mortsafes were a 19th century invention designed to prevent body snatchers stealing corpses and selling them to be dissected by students at medical schools.  They were impregnable cages made from heavy iron plates, rods and padlocks, and were used to enclose coffins for a period of about six weeks until bodies had decayed sufficiently to render them unsuitable for dissection. 

When the danger had passed the mortsafe was removed and could be reused to protect another coffin.  It is, incidentally, comforting to note that in these far-off times recycling was alive and well, even if the deceased were not.

Close-up view of the mortsafes

This is the official explanation of the mortsafe phenomenon.  However in the 21st century our society seems to have an uneasy relationship with the truth, one in which all propositions are true for a given definition of the word “true.”

If you think I’m being unnecessarily cynical in this assertion you should check out the nonsense that’s circulated on social media regarding the link between autism and the MMR vaccination.  To say nothing of the way certain world leaders deny the evidence for mankind’s role in climate change because they find it politically expedient to do so. 

And as for some of the nonsense spoken in the name of Brexit, don’t even go there.

The era of fake news plainly provides endless opportunities for mischief. With this in mind, I’d like to point out that although no-one is much troubled these days by the prospect of body-snatching, many of our more suggestible fellow citizens seem to live in fear of an imminent zombie apocalypse. 

That being the case I propose that the real purpose of a mortsafe was not to keep the body snatchers out, but rather to keep the zombies in.

All propositions are indeed true, for a given definition of the word “true.”

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