Ford Green Hall: a snapshot in time

We really enjoyed our visit to Ford Green Hall, a fine example of a timber-framed farmhouse built in 1624 on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire. Who wouldn’t appreciate such an iconic building, positively dripping with atmosphere, creaking at the seams with nearly 400 years of history? Such places are strangely comforting, aren’t they, islands of calm and stability amidst a raging ocean of rapid change. They seem timeless, as perfect and wonderful as the day they were first conceived all those centuries ago.

Rear view. The half-timbered black and white core of the building dates from 1624. The brick-built extensions to left and right were added about 100 years later.

But look a bit closer and you’ll quickly realise that it ain’t necessarily so.

When approaching Ford Green Hall the visitor’s attention is drawn to the picturesque timber-framed parts, which are plainly very old. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it, to see some old stuff. We conveniently block out from our minds the fact that to either side of the building’s black-and-white core are two rather more modern and less attractive brick-built extensions.

Front view. The black and white projection towards the right of the hall is a gabled two-storeyed porch, added just a few years after the hall was first built. This extension is early evidence of the building’s dynamic history.

The plain fact is that by the early 18th century Ford Green Hall wasn’t meeting its owner’s needs, so around 1734 he added two new wings. To our modern eyes these wings are somewhat unsightly – perhaps even a little ugly – and serve only to disfigure the majesty of the half-timbered building to which they’ve been attached. Back in the day, however, the owner will have felt very pleased with himself for modernising an inadequate building that appeared to be stuck in the past.

Worse was to follow – from our modern, sentimental perspective – in the years that followed. Half-timbered buildings fell out of fashion to such a degree that the external timbers were covered up altogether, coated in stucco to disguise the hall’s 17th century origins. The name of the game was modernisation: out with the old and in with the new, and if you can’t get rid of the old altogether at least do the decent thing and hide it from view.

The Hall Chamber (first floor) was originally used as a bedroom, and at the time of Hugh Ford’s death in 1712 it contained 3 beds.

In the nineteenth century the long term owners of the hall – the Ford family – moved away, prompting a further decline in its fortunes. Divided first into three and later four cottages, which housed local coal miners, the building’s glory days appeared over until the local council stepped in.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council purchased the hall in 1946 and, following a major restoration – including removal of all the hideous stucco – opened it as a museum in 1952. They furnished is sumptuously, in the style of a 17th-century yeoman farmer’s house.

The Hall (ground floor) was the most important room of the house. Originally much of the cooking would have been carried out over the hearth in this room, and the family would also have eaten their meals here.

When the Council ran into financial difficulties (don’t they all, sooner or later?) in 2011, the museum faced closure. At this point the voluntary sector came to the rescue, with a charitable trust taking over its running. And they’ve done a good job: as far as we could see, when we visited a few weeks ago. Ford Green Hall is thriving once again despite the best efforts of local government and the Covid virus to throw spanners into the works.

This restoration project has done a great job of preserving a historic structure that would otherwise have perished. However it’s important to remember that what exists today doesn’t reflect the vision of the man who commissioned the building in the early 17th century, and gives few hints as to its varied history.

The Parlour (ground floor) was originally used as both principal bedroom and sitting-room.

When we visit Ford Green Hall, or any other historic building that has been restored for its heritage value, we are simply being treated to a snapshot in time. The true history of such places is always much more dynamic and complex than is apparent to the casual observer.

My first cat

Next Saturday, (8 August), is International Cat Day. To mark the occasion, this post tells the story of a cat who first came into my life almost 60 years ago.

Mum and Dad twigged early on that I was crazy about animals, so when I was about eight years old we got a cat. It was a Siamese, and boasted an impressive pedigree. The neighbours thought we were getting above ourselves, way too big for our boots. Why couldn’t we make do with a tabby or a basic black-and-white job, just like everyone else down our street, they demanded peevishly.

In truth, however, the choice of a pedigree-toting Lilac Point Siamese had little to do with social pretentiousness. Rather, it was a simple matter of financial logic. “Our Mo,” as we called him, had a slightly mis-shaped (square-ish) head, meaning he would never win prizes on the show circuit. As a result we got him dirt cheap, and could therefore afford to eat for the rest of the week!

Our Mo, c1966

I can clearly remember my excitement, dashing off to school the next day to tell my class teacher, Miss Milbourne, about our new arrival. Miss Milbourne was a formidable battle-axe, at least 120 years old by my reckoning at the time, and built like a World War 2 American tank.

“Please miss, please miss,” I whined, “we’ve got a CAT!”

“Hrrmph,” Miss Milbourne grumbled moodily, “cats!” How is it that some people can invest so much contempt in a single word, a word just four measly letters long? The subject was never mentioned again.

Despite Miss Milbourne’s evident disapproval, I quickly came to worship Our Mo. There was so much to admire about him, including an uncanny ability to catch birds in mid-air and a visceral hatred of dustmen (aka “trash collectors” in North America).

Our Mo quickly learned how to open the living room door, leaping up to the lever handle and pulling it down with his paw to release the catch. After this it took him just a second or two to hook his paw around the edge of the door – which would now be slightly ajar – and ease it open. This neat trick enabled him to take himself off to bed whenever he felt like it.

When we first had him, Mum tried to persuade Our Mo that if he wanted to sleep on my bed it would have to be in a sturdy paper bag. I don’t think that lasted a week, and pretty soon he’d abandoned his paper bag and was lying wherever he chose. Often that would be in my bed, his head on the pillow facing mine, purring softly and twitching as he dreamt.

In his younger days Our Mo was a bit of a bruiser. He would regularly exact violent revenge on any other cat encroaching on his territory. One woman from across the road complained that we should teach our cat some manners, and do more to keep him under control. Even at my tender age, I recognised this was a preposterous suggestion. Cats will be cats.

Anyway, Mum and Dad didn’t like this woman much, and the fact that our cat was regularly able to give her cat a good pasting was a source of great vicarious pleasure. The only cat Our Mo ever tolerated in our garden was the next door neighbours’ elderly moggie, who was apparently given special visiting rights on the understanding that he knew who was boss.

Our Mo also terrorized the local wildlife, and as well as birds would regularly bring home mice and shrews. We’d have preferred him to leave nature alone, but like I say cats will be cats, however much we might wish they’d tone it down a bit.

One morning Our Mo laid a fully grown rat outside the back door and stood proudly beside the corpse, waiting for his hunting talents to be admired. Dad must have been at work because I can remember Mum getting very distressed. I was told to stay indoors, the cat was chased off with a flea in his ear (a bit of a change from where his fleas could normally be found!), and the next door neighbour was summoned and told to bring a shovel to dispose of our cat’s unwelcome trophy.

Once, and only once, Our Mo met his match. One day he came in from his adventures drooling at the mouth, sneezing violently and looking very sorry for himself. He was in a terrible state, and it was quickly decided he had to go to the vet.

This in itself was a bit of an ordeal. The vet’s surgery was several miles away and we had no car, so he had to be taken by bus. We didn’t have a pet carrying basket. I don’t know if they were even invented in those days, but if they were we wouldn’t have been able to afford one. So instead, Our Mo had to be taken in a zip-up shopping bag with just his head sticking out of the top.

Siamese cats have a loud, plaintive miaow at the best of times, but the stress and indignity of travelling by bus in a shopping bag with just your head poking out provoked a non-stop vocal protest that sounded for all the world as if he was being tortured. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from the accusing eyes of our fellow passengers, who plainly believed an act of unspeakable animal cruelty was in progress.

The vet examined our cat thoroughly, thought for a bit and asked if we had toads in our neighbourhood. Mum gave me a stern look, and I had to admit that although there were none on the riverbank that backed on to our garden, one of my collection of pet toads – my second best specimen, known as Walter – had gone AWOL a few days previously.

The vet’s diagnosis was that our cat had encountered Walter in the garden and had tried to dispatch him with a swift bite to the neck. However, he explained, toads are blessed with special glands to help them cope with just this sort of emergency, glands that can release a noxious irritant producing a swift and massive allergic reaction in the attacker. Case solved. The cat was given a vitamin shot and instructed to rest. I was given a telling off and instructed to keep better control of my outdoor menagerie in future.

Talking of trips to the vet, Mum was a very proper lady who had certain standards, and one day she decided that Our Mo’s feet were unacceptably smelly. The wretched creature was dragged off to the surgery again, where the long-suffering vet had to sniff his paws. Poor man, seven years training to be a vet, and he ended up snorting a cat’s feet to earn a living!

To make us go away the vet advised that we dip Our Mo’s paws in TCP (a particularly stinky disinfectant) every night, which resulted in them stinking of TCP instead. Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the illness. The neighbours thought we were completely out to lunch, and in this instance you have to see their point.

Our Mo cat died when I had just turned 18. I have no brothers or sisters and was a bit of a loner, so when the cat’s kidneys failed and we had to have him put down it felt as if a great chasm had opened up in my life. I can remember the three of us – Mum, Dad and me – hugging each other and gently sobbing in the living room. He was truly one of the family, a real character, and we missed him dreadfully.

A few months later I went to university. I’ve always thought that it was probably a good thing that Our Mo had already passed on when I left. He would never have understood why I wasn’t at home any more, and would probably have pined. Mum and Dad knew he was irreplaceable. They never had another cat.

* * * * * * *

Follow these links to read about some other cats who’ve crossed my path over the years

  • Click here to read about Sid, one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met, as dapper as a card sharp at the opera, who broke our hearts in 2014
  • Click here to read about Milky Bar, a cheeky chap who is the undisputed king of our Derbyshire suburban Serengeti
  • Click here to read about Malteser, an unmitigated rogue who visits us whenever he needs a snack

The very best thing about being retired

Exactly three years ago today, on 31 March 2018, I trudged out of the office for the last time, bade farewell to the world of work and joined the ranks of the retired. Technically I was made redundant, my post deleted as part of yet another local government cost-cutting exercise. But since the manager who designed the restructuring exercise was me I could have no complaints, particularly as my employers compensated me handsomely for my noble sacrifice.

And anyway, I was exhausted. The restructuring had been dragging on for months, and many valued colleagues – several of whom I had personally appointed and nurtured – were certain to lose their jobs. I was doing what had to be done in the context of a rapidly shrinking budget, but I’d had enough. Surely, I thought, there must be more to life than this. Just give me my pension, and let me get on with it.

But adapting to retirement took longer than expected. Work brought a welcome structure to my existence, a secure framework of expectations, routines and relationships around which to arrange the rest of my life, and without it I was all over the place for a while. In addition it had given me purpose and status – I had an important job to do, and many people relied on me – but overnight all this was swept away. My social interactions also diminished when the daily water cooler banter and tea point chats abruptly ended. Suddenly I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

On the positive side, retirement brought an end to the frantic rushing around that had characterised my earlier life. I could do domestic chores when it suited me and take as long as I liked over them, rather than desperately cramming everything in on weekends. More importantly, it freed up time to travel as and when we wanted, rather than at times dictated by the business needs of my employer. Our rewards have included six weeks touring New Zealand, and a magical return trip to Yellowstone National Park. Nearer to home, until Covid intervened we finally found time to visit many of those places in the UK that had been on our “to do list” for years.

There are lots of things I don’t miss at all about work: the morning commute, for example, as well as the stifling risk aversion and mindless bureaucracy that are endemic within local government culture. But the thing I miss least of all is regular contact with politicians. During the last decade of my career I had the dubious pleasure of spending a lot of time with politicians.  As this was in local government their capacity to wreak mayhem and misery was geographically constrained, but it didn’t stop many of them having a damn good try.

The average politician is less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache

To be fair, some of the politicians I had dealings with were capable, decent, well-meaning human beings, regardless of party affiliation.  They simply wanted to make life better for their local community. However the majority were, in my humble opinion, cut from an altogether different cloth: ignorant, incompetent, self-important, totally lacking in self-awareness and less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache. Time spent in the company of politicians is rarely time well spent, as I learned to my cost during my last few years at work.

And so I am pleased to report that despite all the wonderful things Mrs P and I have done since 31 March 2018, the very best thing about being retired is that it is now 1,096 days since I last spoke with, or was in the company of, any politician. Long may it continue.

Pillow talk (Cat in mi kitchen)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that ownership of our garden is claimed by two visiting cats. Although Malteser and Milky Bar are pals – we think they live together in a house further up our estate – they are very different characters. Throughout the pandemic Milky Bar has been content to abide by the government’s tough Covid restrictions. He obeys the rules on social distancing, keeping at least two metres away from us at all times and never coming indoors for a bit of illicit socialising. Milky Bar is a model citizen, and deserves a knighthood.

Malteser claims ownership of our garden. Here he sits on top of the rabbit hutch

The same cannot be said for Malteser. If the local constabulary knew what Malteser’s been up to in recent months they’d have fined him £200. Multiple times in fact, probably every day. Such is his disrespect for the law he would most likely have ended up in chokey. Malteser is an unmitigated rogue.

OK, I admit it, Mrs P and I have encouraged Malteser’s wayward ways. When travel opportunities were drastically curtailed by the pandemic and we found ourselves pretty much confined to our house and garden for months on end, we decided it was a good time to develop the relationship with our ‘borrowed’ cats.

In the utility room, transfixed by the washing machine

Recognising that the best way (the only way?) to a cat’s heart is through his stomach we invested heavily in packets of Vitacat Filled Pockets, which the packaging explains are crunchy pillows with a soft centre. They’re available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, and guaranteed to tickle the fancy of the fussiest felines.

To start with we stood in the doorway leading out to the garden and tossed pillows onto the patio in front of our feline friends. After a cautious investigation both cats wolfed them down greedily. Milky Bar pronounced himself happy with this arrangement, but Malteser soon calculated that there might be more to be gained by getting up close and personal First, he approached us on the doorstep to have his ears rubbed and back scratched. Within a few days he was brave enough to follow us indoors, stopping off first in the utility room to stare, transfixed, at the washing machine. Pretty soon he found his way into the kitchen, taking pillows from our fingers while purring loudly.

Cat in mi kitchen, taking a pillow (salmon flavoured!) from my own fair hand

It’s a ritual now. The centrepiece of any visit from Malteser is feeding him by hand. Mostly we sit on a kitchen chair and hold a pillow in front of him. He stands on his back legs, putting two paws on our knees to give himself extra balance while he reaches up for the tasty treat. A couple of quick crunches later the pillow has been swallowed and a few crumbs have been dropped unceremoniously onto the tiled floor. And then he looks imploringly into our eyes, eagerly awaiting a repeat performance. All the time he’s purring as loud as a chainsaw, making sure we know that his continued affection depends on a steady supply of pillows.

Having plucked up sufficient courage to cross the threshold Malteser soon decided he might as well explore the rest of the house. He particularly likes the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms, study and library. His idea of heaven is to roll on his back on the stairs, showing his belly while inviting us to fondle his ears. Honour having been duly satisfied, he climbs another three or four stairs before rolling on his back again and demanding we pay him further homage.

At the top of the stairs, purring loudly, waiting for his ears to be fondled

Upstairs there’s a whole new world for him to explore. In Mrs P’s study he likes a game of attack the piece of scrap paper, balls of which he obviously perceives as mice that need to be swiftly despatched to rodent heaven. He’s also fascinated by the door, which he tries to hook open with his paw. Then he’s off to have a sniff around the bathroom, and would happily drink from the toilet if we’d let him.

Malteser also enjoys visiting the library, particularly now we’ve set up a bed for him on the old sofa. If he’s in the mood he’ll snooze there for an hour or so, while Mrs P and I get on with the rest of our lives. It’s good to know that he feels so comfortable in our house, trusting us totally.

Resting on the library sofa

But he remains his own cat, beholden to no one, and when the time is right he makes it clear that he wants to leave us. And leave us he does, trotting off into the garden and over the fence with scarcely a backwards glance. We’re under no illusions: Malteser is an advocate of free love, and although we are doggedly faithful to him we’re certain he has relationships with other households up and down our street. But we can forgive his dubious moral character, recognising that his frequent visits have made the Covid lockdowns more bearable.

And anyway, we know Malteser will be back before too long. A cat and his tasty pillows can’t be separated for long, particularly if a couple of mugs are available to feed him those pillows by hand.

Back in the garden, belly full of pillows!

***

Pillow Talk : An ode to Malteser during lockdown 
(with apologies to UB40, a wonderful 70s/80s reggae band from Birmingham, England)

Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
I'm gonna feed that cat that's what I'm gonna do
I'm gonna feed that cat

No pain, no gain: Reflections on getting the Covid vaccination

The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.

The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.

PHOTO CREDIT: CDC via Unsplash

So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.

Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.

And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.

While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.

I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.

Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!

Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.

* * *

Postscript: Mrs P had to wait another four weeks for her first jab. Other than a bit of a sore arm she suffered absolutely no side effects at all. Huh!

Celebrating World Whale Day: whale watching around Newfoundland

Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.

However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.

Having a whale of a time

4 July 2017

The tell-tale spout of a whale announcing his presence

Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!

The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose.  But yesterday we hit the jackpot.

Pretty soon we are amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks

St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world.  Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello.  We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.

Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.

A clown’s white-gloved hand waving farewell to his adoring fans

I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant.  But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit.  Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back.  They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them.  Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.

In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay

27 July 2017

Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly 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 (capelin) that congregate here to breed.

Surfacing with a loud, fishy-smelling blow of exhaled air and tiny water droplets

The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling 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.

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 above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.

They approach so close we can see barnacles growing on their skin

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.

Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay

31 July 2017

Our last day on The Island.  We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.

Whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind

This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early.  This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position.  We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat.  The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.

Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”.  There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.

We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.

Little and Large (Notice the puffin in the bottom left corner of this shot!)

There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath.  A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.

But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year.  And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.

As they dive they wave their tales, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes

It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives.  In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.

Whale song

Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017

One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition.  Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland.  Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.

Some come so close we can almost touch them

We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player!  The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants.  The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip.  The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan

This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done

Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Poignant, n’est pas?   I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages.  Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.

The whale watching surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us

Public declarations of love: Bakewell love lock bridge

Bakewell is a picturesque market town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Built on the banks of the River Wye and most famous for the Bakewell Pudding, the town also boasts a range of pretty stone buildings and a church founded in 920. The handsome five-arched stone bridge across the river dates from around 1300, and is much admired by tourists, photographers and painters.

Mrs P and I have dropped in at Bakewell many times over the years so it was a surprise to discover, during a post-lockdown visit last summer, that as well as the five-arched masterpiece the town is also home to another notable bridge: the Weir Bridge.

This second bridge, a footbridge linking the town centre to the local Agricultural Business Centre, has no great age to it. Neither is it good to look at – in fact, it’s a functional steel monstrosity, probably one of the ugliest bridges the world has ever seen. No, the reason for its fame is altogether different. It’s a love lock bridge, dripping with padlocks large and small, many engraved with the names of couples intent on declaring their love for one another to the whole world.

For the uninitiated, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about love locks:

love lock or love padlock is a padlock that sweethearts lock to a bridge, fence, gate, monument, or similar public fixture to symbolize their love. Typically the sweethearts’ names or initials, and perhaps the date, are inscribed on the padlock, and its key is thrown away (often into a nearby river) to symbolize unbreakable love…Since the 2000s, love locks have proliferated at an increasing number of locations worldwide. 

Source: Wikipedia, retrieved 8 January 2021

The tradition of love locks fastened to bridges is said to have begun in Serbia during World War I, after a schoolmistress died of heartbreak when her lover deserted her for a woman whom he met when he went off to war in Greece. Other local women, horrified at befalling the same fate, began to fasten padlocks bearing their own names and those of their true loves to the bridge where the schoolmistress and her lover used to meet.

Padlocks first started appearing on Bakewell’s Weir Bridge in 2012, and now there are thousands of them. An enterprising local tradesman sells and engraves padlocks destined for the bridge, and is presumably making a tidy profit if the number of padlocks we saw that day is any guide.

The trend for these public declarations of love divides opinion. Some people are enchanted by the romance of it all, while others are appalled by the brutal ugliness of your average padlock. Meanwhile, civil engineers are worried that the sheer weight of so many padlocks will cause bridges to collapse, with the situation in Paris being regarded as particularly serious.

Personally, I’m relaxed about love lock bridges. Plainly where there’s a danger of a bridge collapsing the padlocks must be removed and / or outlawed. And they are inappropriate on structures of great architectural merit or historical interest. But on a bridge as sturdy, ugly and insignificant as Bakewell’s Weir Bridge, what’s the problem?

At their best I find love lock bridges quirky, inoffensive and strangely reassuring. Think how many good news stories are symbolised by the padlocks on the Weir Bridge. Despite all the problems facing the modern world today, isn’t it good to know that love is still alive and well amongst visitors to Bakewell, and is also dear to the hearts of couples visiting hundreds of love lock structures scattered across the globe.

***

UPDATE: MARCH 2021: On 22 March 2021, just weeks after this post was published, the Derby Telegraph reported that Derbyshire County Council intends to remove all the locks from the Weir Bridge, and will not allow any more to be attached in the future. Councils, don’t you just love ’em? NO!

Cat-astrophe avoided: Milky Bar gets his mojo back

It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. We’re sitting in the garden room, listening to music and watching the midwinter sun die slowly in the western sky. Overhead, gangs of starlings flock back to their roost, chattering noisily to one another as they pass. Then, to our right, a familiar clatter. It can mean only one thing: our good friend Milky Bar, the visiting cat who calls our garden home, has leapt onto the rickety fence that separates our property from Jim’s.

The injured party: Milky Bar

Yes, there he is. But something’s wrong. Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance. Today, however, he’s struggling, jerkily swaying to the left and then to the right, like a drunken tightrope walker in a tornado. Indignity – and possibly serious injury – seems just seconds away.

But when we look more closely we realise he’s already injured. Milky Bar’s standing on three legs, holding his right front paw clear of the fence. It looks badly swollen, and we can tell by his demeanour that he’s in a lot of pain.

Maybe he’s broken a bone in a freak accident? Perhaps he’s ripped out a claw fighting with a cat that dared invade his territory? Or has an infection set in, sending poison coursing through his frail little body? This look serious.

For several minutes Milky Bar maintains a precarious balance on the fence, before finally taking a leap of faith into our garden. As he lands a shockwave runs through his whole body, and he immediately snatches his damaged paw back into the air. He just stands there looking stunned and dishevelled, apparently unable to take another step. The boisterous, confident cat we know and love is gone, and he looks so fragile that a gentle puff of wind could topple him.

Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance

We discuss what to do. If we knew where he lives we’d go fetch one of his family, but Milky Bar’s domestic arrangements have always been a mystery to us. We agree that if he doesn’t move on after a few minutes we’ll bring him into the house, keep him warm and give him some food. We’ll even try to track down an emergency vet, though on Christmas Eve in the middle of a pandemic that could be tricky.

Finally, after an agonising wait for all parties, Milky Bar gathers himself and hobbles off slowly towards the area of the estate where we suspect his family lives. He looks so sad, so crushed, and we fear that we may never see him again.

* * *

We spend a restless night, haunted by the prospect of losing another “borrowed” cat. It happened once before when Sid disappeared suddenly and without trace, and we can’t bear the thought of history repeating itself.

To reward his bravery we offer Milky Bar some cold roast turkey, and he’s pleased to tuck in

Christmas Day dawns and we work our way through the familiar routine: opening presents, phoning family, whacking a turkey the size of a small ostrich into the oven. It’s business as usual, but our spirits are subdued as we worry about Milky Bar’s fate. We scan the garden every few minutes, but he’s nowhere to be seen. We fear the worst.

And then, when we’ve all but convinced ourselves that he’s not coming back, Milky Bar appears. He’s limping badly and his paw is still swollen, but at least he’s made it through the night and must be feeling a bit better to venture away from home. A couple of minutes later he leaves, but we reassure ourselves that he’s on the mend.

We don’t see him again for the next couple of days, and our anxieties start to return. In particular we worry that infection has taken hold, perhaps because his family were unable to find a vet to give him some urgently needed antibiotics during the festive holiday. But still we check the garden regularly, hoping for good news.

“Please don’t disturb me while I’m eating my lunch”

And finally, at last, our borrowed cat re-appears, cheekily peering up at us through the kitchen window. We can tell immediately that he’s feeling much better. The sparkle’s returned to his eyes, and he’s moving more freely.

To reward his courage we offer our brave little soldier some cold roast turkey, tossing it onto the patio in front of him. Milky Bar’s on it in a flash, tucking in greedily and looking cuter than ever. Clearly, this moggie’s got his mojo back.

Then, to round off a perfect day, Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also puts in an appearance. Never one to turn down food, he wolfs down some turkey too.

Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also wolfs down some turkey

Having filled their faces, the two cats swagger off in search of their next adventure. But hopefully this time Milky Bar will take a little more care. It’s been an anxious few days, and we could do without a repeat performance any time soon.

* * *

Postscript – do you want to know more about Milky Bar and Malteser? Follow the links below for earlier posts featuring the feline superstars

Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.

Beyond amazing: Joana Vasconcelos at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My last post described a recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Some of the sculptures displayed there can be seen in traditional galleries while others are to be found in the open air, in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. The undoubted highlight of our visit was Beyond, a temporary exhibition by celebrated Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971).

Here’s how the Park’s website describes Joana’s work:

Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects from saucepans to wheel hubs. She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society

Sounds a bit wild and wacky, doesn’t it? I’m happy to say that the exhibition fully lived up to its billing. Joana Vasconcelos’ creations are amazing, a true delight in a year that’s been painfully grim.

There was an early indication of what to expect as we drove up to the car park: a multi-coloured rooster towering nine metres above startled visitors. It’s called Pop Galo [Pop Rooster] and is inspired by the Barcelos Rooster (aka the Portuguese Rooster.)

I’ve never been to Portugal and the legend of the Barcelos Rooster had therefore passed me by, but research for this post tells me that it’s regarded as the embodiment of the Portuguese spirit and love for life. Always vividly coloured, the Barcelos Rooster is a cultural icon and the unofficial symbol of the nation.

In Portugal the Barcelos Rooster is traditionally rendered as a colourful piece of pottery. Vasconcelos has fashioned hers from no fewer than 17,000 glazed tiles, creating a monumental and unforgettable artwork. Stunning!

And while we’re on the subject of monumental artwork, Solitário [Solitaire], is also pretty damned impressive. Standing seven metres high, it comprises golden car wheel rims topped with a huge diamond crafted from crystal whisky glasses, all fashioned into a stridently ostentatious engagement ring.

The website explains that Solitaire shouldn’t be seen as a blingy blot on the landscape but is, rather, a piece of caustic commentary on modern societal values. It says: “representing the stereotypical ambition of our society to acquire wealth and material possessions, the work unites symbols of luxury – cars, jewellery and alcohol – which bridge social classes.” So now we know!

Joana Vasconselos was born in Paris but lives in Lisbon, and trained initially as a jeweller before becoming a sculptor. The change of direction has enabled her to develop her craftsmanship on an altogether grander scale. In her world big is most definitely beautiful, whether outdoors or in.

And moving along to one of the indoor galleries, another of Vasconcelos’ startling pieces is Marilyn, a pair of oversized silver stilettos made entirely from hundreds of stainless steel saucepans.

The work’s title references Marilyn Monroe and is, in the words of the website, “[a commentary] on social conventions [highlighting] the division between women’s traditional domestic and contemporary public roles.”

Another work to be seen in one of the indoor galleries is Red Independent Heart #3, based on the Heart of Viana, a well-known Portuguese emblem symbolising life, love, friendship, honesty and generosity. It stands over three metres high and hangs from the ceiling, slowly rotating. As it turns, expressive and melancholy Portuguese fado songs play in the background, speaking of love, loss and the conflict between emotion and reason.

The piece is made entirely from red plastic cutlery which have been shaped and manipulated until its individual components are barely recognisable.

I’m not sure how I feel about plastic sculptures – there’s way too much plastic in the world already. But let’s give Vasconcelos the benefit of the doubt, and assume the thousands of items making up her Red Independent Heart are recycled cutlery that were otherwise destined for the nearest dump.

Plastic features in another of the works that make up the Beyond exhibition. At four metres high, Tutti Frutti dominates views of the landscape in which it sits. It’s made from plastic moulds of apples, pears, strawberries and croissants – all suspended from a stainless steel frame. Portuguese children apparently use these moulds at the beach to make a local version of sandcastles.

Tutti Frutti is one of those sculptures that can’t fail to raise a smile – who can resist such garishly whimsical frivolity? But beneath it all is a serious message about modern society’s tendency towards overindulgence and superficiality. The artist proclaims that the seductive moulds beguile and captivate unwary onlookers, who fail to spot the hollowness at their heart.

Of course cynics might argue that this is a metaphor for all of Joana Vasconcelos’ work, but I say “to hell with cynics!”

And finally, take a look at I’ll Be Your Mirror. Standing over three metres high and composed of countless elegantly-shaped mirrors, this work presents the classic Venetian mask as we’ve never imagined it before.

Masks have traditionally offered a hiding place, and never more so than in this year of Covid-19. We all wear masks at the supermarket these days, and behind each I see someone just like me, lying low and hiding from the virus. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere…

Joana Vasconcelos’ work will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed you may find it crass, pretentious or even banal – this reviewer for one was clearly unimpressed.

I will admit that her sculptures don’t magically reveal the meaning of life. But for god’s sake, they’re fun aren’t they? And don’t we all need a bit of fun in these dark, dark days? For me these monumental pieces are genuinely joyful, they have a “wow factor” and – if you so choose – they can make you think about stuff in a slightly different way.

If this is art, then give me more. Joana Vasconcelos, you are beyond amazing.