I finally got there.

Day five of my trip dawned in Ilfracombe and was sunny yet again which was becoming somewhat of a habit and one I could easily get used to. I had set my alarm for once though I was up long before its rather annoying electronic insistence for today I had things to do, things I really could not afford to be late for. Much as I had enjoyed my weekend with dear friends in and around Torquay and pleasant as my brief stay in Ilfracombe had been, this was the big one as it was the day I was going to Lundy Island which was the main purpose of the trip. As I shall explain, there was one boat and one only to be caught and if I missed that then all was lost. As always I skipped breakfast and had told the lovely landlady the previous evening so she wasn’t cooking unnecessarily. I do hate wasting food. Thanking her husband for their fine hospitality I stepped out to face what I knew was going to be another good day, I could just feel it.

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I never even knew his name.

I swear I had not gone ten yards from the door when my eye was caught by what was to prove to be the first wonder of the day. In the UK we have “blue plaques”, although confusingly they come in many colours and designs depending on the originating authority but the vast majority are blue and either circular or occasionally oval. They are placed on buildings where famous people were born, died, stayed occasionally, lived or whatever and I am drawn to them like a moth to a flame to the extent that I seem to have an inbuilt radar which operates at the extreme edge of my peripheral vision.

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What a lovely home with such a literary history.

The radar started pinging and I was across the road to investigate a plaque on a modest but immaculate terrace house which turned out to be the home of Henry Williamson, author of “Tarka the Otter” amongst many other works. I had heard of the book obviously and the subsequent film although I have neither read nor seen these respectively. To my shame I could not have named the author who turns out to be a fascinating man although I shall not go into his details here as I have so much more to write about on this day and it really will turn into a complete rigmarole. I have hopefully included a link here to his appreciation society which you can have a look at if you are interested.

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There is always a queue.

I made the short walk downhill to the harbour which is the usual way of things except perhaps in the Netherlands where you can probably walk uphill to a harbour! My friend John (of whom much more later) had told me that all I had to do was turn up, give my name and everything was sorted. Ordinarily I would have been a little dubious about such an arrangement but I trust the man and so I joined the rather long queue outside the ferry office and spent the time watching the fairly feverish loading of cargo onto the ferry. This involved loading a huge number of crates onto the foredeck (if there is a hold it was not used) but was obviously all in a days work for the mobile crane operator, stevedores and hands on the vessel and went incredibly smoothly.

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Everything well under control.

It appears that staff on the island are allowed a number of “indulgence trips” as we used to call them in the Forces for friends and relatives and that was how it was all done. It is not a cheap trip ordinarily although I paid not one penny piece. I often wonder how I get so lucky so often, I must have done something really good in a previous life. Down then to the pier where all my kit was loaded onto one of a number of the huge crates that I had watched being loaded whilst waiting. I did ask the stevedore to be careful with my guitar which was only in a soft case and, bless him, I watched him walk it up the gangplank and stow it beside the purser’s desk so I could reclaim it when I had negotiated the gangplank. After several bad experiences I wish airport baggage handlers had the same respect for property. Having safely overseen that, it was time to board which I did without mishap.

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Oldenburg by name, Old ‘n’ Buggered by popular acclamation.

Unless you have your own light aircraft or boat, and there are landing facilities for both on the island, you have two choices of how to get to Lundy depending on the season and the weather. There is a helicopter service all year round (weather permitting) although between March and November you have the option of a leisurely cruise on the MS Oldenburg which was the vessel I had now boarded. It is a lovely old craft which runs from Ilfracombe (as I did obviously) or Bideford on certain days, generally Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Bideford departures are much less common so check the timetable on the website to make sure you go to the correct place.

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Close enough to the bar.

I had a quick look round the boat and selected a seat beside the bar (obviously) which proved to be a good move as I got into a great conversation with the purser / barman and learnt a lot about the island and the boat. Most people had elected to sit outside on the upper deck in the July sunshine which meant that the two pleasantly appointed saloons were fairly empty and I didn’t have to wait long to be served at any point.

The Oldenburg was launched in Bremen, Germany in 1958 which makes it marginally older than me and saw service as a ferry round the East Frisian islands. The Lundy Company then acquired her in 1985 to replace the former supply ship and she underwent a refurbishment at Appledore Shipyard where the original internal fixtures and fittings were retained, giving her a slightly old-fashioned but wonderfully comfortable feel. The staff on the island somewhat bawdily, rather affectionately and probably completely accurately call her the “Old ‘n’ Buggered and I know she eats a huge proportion of the island revenue with her annual winter refit. Certainly a few of the visitors to Lundy arrive by chartered helicopter for their weekends in “the Big House” which sleeps a small tribe and, occasionally and much to John’s utter chagrin their own chef but the Oldenburg really is what keeps the place ticking over. I adored her.

Should you feel hungry there is a small buffet in the aft cabin and here is an insiders tip for you. If you fancy a sausage roll, get in quick because they sell out fast as apparently they are the favourite item on the menu and I have this on the authority of the buffet steward!

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First view of Lundy, the charmingly named Rat Island.

The two hour sailing seemed to fly by and soon we were all on deck to catch a first glimpse of Lundy. To be honest, if I had never set foot on the island, the journey from London would have been worth it for the “cruise” alone but I had much more to do.

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My kit is in there somewhere!

Having tied up, I went down the fairly wobbly gangway to the jetty and just sort of waited around whilst having a cigarette, smoking not being allowed anywhere on board and I was gasping. I was waiting for my luggage which had been crated in a large wooden box and craned onboard at Ilfracombe (except the guitar obviously).

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This is what passes for a museum.

I wandered into a hut by the jetty  which seemed to be by way of a museum although it was really a small and somewhat random collection of objects thrown together, totally uncared for and with not a sinner near the place but it was vaguely interesting.

Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and more to the point I really didn’t care. It was just one of those situations where you knew nothing could go wrong. People call it instinct or “streetsmarts” or whatever and in the Forces some officer had obviously got his next rank by coining the phrase “situational awareness”. Call it what you will, you just know when things are right, when they may go a little bad, and when they are just downright dangerous. This fell very much into the first category.

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Lundy  pier, not a bad place for a smoke.

I spoke to one of the shore crew and was told not to worry, just to pick it up at the black shed. What black shed? I had no idea but this was Lundy and I had already got my head round the concept that things would probably work themselves out. I may well have been a bit apprehensive at being separated from all my kit anywhere else in the world but I was already working on “Lundy time” albeit that it was an expression I had never even heard yet. My friend John was later to tell me that you either “get” Lundy within a few minutes of stepping off the boat or you don’t. I reckon I had “got” it before I ever got down the gangplank.

Next, a guy called John, who is one of the island workers, and had obviously seen my guitar case (that does not go in the cargo hold!) approached me and said, “You must be John the Chef’s mate, jump in the Landrover and I’ll give you a lift up the hill” Hmm, it appears my infamy had preceded me! Lundy is like that, everyone knows everyone else even before you get there. I shared the journey with a lovely elderly couple who were staying in one of the accommodations on the island, of which more later. They were very pleasant company and the rather tortuous journey passed quickly if somewhat hazardously with the track being barely wide enough for a vehicle in parts.

I should mention that the drive / walk from the jetty up to the “village” is quite steep although very pleasant and the Land Rover is there for people for whom it may have been a bit much like my elderly companions.

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The wonderful Marisco Tavern.

I was deposited at the Marisco Tavern, which is a wonderful establishment and as the manager told me John was busy with lunch service I did not bother him although word was obviously passed as he appeared when the crowd had died down and we went outside for a smoke and a chat. He said he would go home for the afternoon for a rest as he had to prepare shortly for evening service and this was the height of season.

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Baggage reclaim, Lundy style.  Yes, it is a black shed!

I asked him about the black shed and my kit and he took me about 10 yards from the front door and across the small track that serves as the only thoroughfare on the island where there was, well, a black shed. I wandered in and collected my kitbag from the many pieces of luggage sitting around apparently totally unguarded totally unmolested. As I said, Lundy is like that. I think it must be the oddest baggage reclaim I have ever encountered but it just seems to work. He had earlier told me not to worry, it was all sorted and as I say, I trust the man.

On an island barely three and a half miles long and half a mile wide centred on a “village” you can walk from one end of the other to in the space of less than one cigarette it was a matter of about 100 yards or less from the “black shed” to his home. Home for most of the 27 permanent staff on the island revolves around a collection of pre-fabricated buildings which were long, long past their supposed use. I know some of the lads live up at the old lighthouse (accessed by quad bike so you get an idea of how remote it is) but mainly they are here. John did tell me the exact date when the buildings were due for demolition and it was frightening although they seemed well cared for and, once inside, remarkably cosy. I am sure that in the winter storms that occur here they may have a few structural defects but at this time of year it was a most homely place. Naturally for a chef the kitchen was the thing and although small and not overflowing with modern gadgets I just knew he could knock up a bloody good feed there.

We sat over a glass of very good wine (being a chef he is somewhat of a connoisseur and even his afternoon everyday tipple seemed a bit special even to one with such an uneducated palate as myself). We caught up as we had not seen each other for a while and got the logistics sorted. His home was a one double bed affair suitable for a singleton or a couple, of which there were a few on the island. Idyllic certainly but, shall we say, testing. It is very hard work there and you would have to be in a relationship as strong as the rock that is Lundy is to even consider it.

One bedroom meant obviously that I was dossing in the living room. I know we are very good mates but………… Anyway, the sofa I was sitting on was extremely comfortable but probably about a foot and a half short for my absurdly lanky frame. This was no bother. A seasoned road warrior like myself merely scanned the room, noted a couple of chairs and quickly calculated that there were more than enough cushions to provide a comfy nest which proved to the case later on. In truth, sleeping on a firm surface (doesn’t get much firmer than a floor) is actually good for my rather dodgy back which I have mentioned elsewhere on this site. OK, it is not the firmest available with that dubious honour being shared equally between a bath and a pool table, both of which I have done and sworn on the few things I hold sacred never to do again. I told you I live a fairly obscure lifestyle!

I should take a moment to tell you about John now. Apart from being a very well-respected contributor on a travel website that set the benchmark for all others (Virtual Tourist), John is a dear friend, experienced traveller, drinking buddy, excellent chef and all round good guy. I would go so far as to count him amongst my best friends in the world and like most of the best friendships, especially of travellers like us who are, by very definition, pretty nomadic, we will have not contact for months on end and then one or another of us will pop up out of the gloom to regain comms.

John and I have been friends for a long time and I know his CV which is pretty impressive to say the least, including 5* London hotels but that was never his thing albeit he can do it with his eyes closed. He much prefers smaller places and even ran his own “gastropub” before the term had ever even marched onto the pages of the broadsheet newspapers in the UK. The fact that he hosted me in his home (along with several other people from all over the globe at various times) shows you what sort of man he is.

I should mention here that for personal reasons John is now (as of 2018) back on the mainland “rattling those pots and pans” and I strongly recommend that if you can winkle him out (I’ll bet he does amazing things with winkles) then go wherever he is chef now. You will not be disappointed. I know he started in the kitchen at St. Andrew’s Golf Course, the home of golf, during one of the Open Championships preparing food for the world’s golfing elite and all the attendant hangers-on. Sounds like a baptism of fire to me. I know he has “saved my bacon” (if you will pardon the culinary pun) on several occasions when I have been required to cook, often in a campervan (RV) in the middle of nowhere and a quick mail on our old website along the lines of, “John, I have ingredients x,y and z and don’t want to do them just the usual way” would inevitably elicit a brilliant recipe, cooking things in manners I would never have considered. He’s that kind of guy.

I was also run through the house rules which were pretty simple i.e. use as little water and electric as possible. There is no mains electric supply from the mainland so it is all provided by a generator for which the fuel obviously has to be transported which is not cheap. There are no natural sources of water, save rainwater and in the very occasional drought conditions we encounter in UK water has to be shipped from the mainland which again is crippling expensive and eats into the finely balanced economy of the place.

This was fine as my time in the Forces mean I can shower in about three minutes flat, even turning off the water between the wetting, soaping and rinsing phases. At a push I can make do with a flannel and a small basin of water. I learnt in a hard school where even lukewarm water was a luxury.
Regarding the electric, the generator which supplies it all is turned off about midnight until about sunrise. I am not sure whether the larger accommodations have their own genny but a word to the wise is to charge up things like camera batteries when you can in the day / evening and do not rely on the usual overnight charging. Believe me, you will have more than enough use for the cameras. Obviously powerpacks are useful but do plan ahead.

Those were effectively the standing orders and they were no problem at all to me. Frankly, if you are looking for a 5* hotel experience with room service of foie gras at three in the morning, a jacuzzi and a swimming pool then you are in the wrong place as it really is not that sort of gig. What you do get makes up for that tenfold if not more.

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Parked in the corner away from the beasts.

John had to return shortly to the kitchen as he had evening service to prepare for and it is ludicrously busy at that time of year. I contented myself with another smoke and a stare out the back window onto a field he had told me constitutes the island campsite if you want to go on a bit of a budget. I must be honest here, as I always try to be in my travel writing, and say that as wonderful as Lundy truly is, it is not a cheap option. In fairness, the money made is ploughed back into running what is a fairly costly enterprise with the upkeep of merely keeping the place inhabited is phenomenal. I’ll deal with the campsite and the Marisco in future entries to try to balance out the content per entry but I did notice that at that point the “beasts of the field” outnumbered the tents about ten to one. There was one tent, although that was to change later in my stay and, well, at least ten beasties although I didn’t actually count them.

I allowed myself a bit of a relax which took no effort at all. I have heard “hippies” and younger people using and expression which is “blissed out”. Forget that. I was on a perimeter walk somewhere on the far side of blissed out. This is not hyperbole and I obviously cannot convince you completely of the veracity of the statement. I can only say that you have to be there to understand what it is about and my usual description of Lundy as a “magical, mystical place” isn’t too far from the truth of the matter.

I gathered myself and took off back to the pub which must have taken all of a minute. I scored myself a pint of very well-kept West Country cider (what else) and went out the back to sit on the little bench to have a smoke, that particular pleasure being denied me in public places now. It was no hardship as the quite enclosed little “yard” affords the most amazing view over a steeply sloping meadow, past the “Big House” which was the former residence of the owners of the island and out onto an ever-changing sea with not even a glimpse of the further shore even on a bright day. I really was in the back of beyond.

I should explain the logistics a little here. All the daytrippers leave on the Oldenburg in late afternoon so by the evening the only people left on the island and are the staff relaxing after a hard day’s work (and it is hard physical graft here) or those who are staying in some of the various accommodations. The former seemed to gravitate towards me with them all seeming to know who I was not to mention most of my life history and in a manner that John had been talking. Of the latter group I met some charming people who all appeared to “get” Lundy as I did and many of whom were on return visits. The evening passed quickly and very pleasantly and eventually John came out with service over and the kitchen cleaned down. A quick couple of pints and a few smokes before closing and it was time to head back the short distance to his place in the pitch black.

I know I have somewhat skimmed over details of certain things but, as I say, I wish to balance out the entries and this one has almost inevitably run to heroic proportions already. Back home and another bottle of very decent wine opened there was more chat until the lights went out. He had not told me about the power situation before but it was a matter of lighting his rather powerful torch and carry on. We didn’t stay late as John was in full high season mode with a small staff, a tiny kitchen and had to start early. He took off, I constructed the nest I had planned earlier and fell quickly into a very deep sleep which is a blessing for one like me with a sleep disorder.

I’d done it, I had finally made it here after years of talking about it and quite frankly I was not sure if I had entered some sort of parallel universe. I had been to some amazing places all over the world but this was just somehow different. Don’t ask me to explain, it just was.

Stay tuned and spread the word.

P.S. I have just noticed that I had a complete travelogue written for this day which I somehow managed to save from the excellent Virtual Tourist website despite the best efforts of the appalling TripAdv*s*r (don’t want to give them the traffic) and yet I have spent many hours effectively repeating it without the benefit of more recent recollection. I told you I was technophobic! I’ll try to find the rest of it for the next post which hopefully will not take me the two or three days this one has.

A trip across the county.

I have so far written less than double digits of posts on my brand new website here and have probably made a liar of myself on about half of that small number.

My problem is that I promise faithfully to be brief and I do start off with the best intentions but the road to Hell is paved with them as we were told when children. Inevitably, I end up getting side-tracked and writing a tome that would not disgrace Tolstoy on amphetamine. When writing historical posts I usually begin by looking at my images for that day as an aide-memoire and that process for this day, 15/07/2013 reveals a day of uneventful travelling South to North which should produce a novella as opposed to the sagas I have been churning out previously.

It was a Monday morning which is a time of slight depression for the majority of the working masses but is of no consequence to me in my happily retired state and the weather gods were obviously conspiring with the travel gods to give me a really good run. Fourth morning of my trip, fourth morning of utterly glorious weather and my spirits could not have been higher. Showered, dressed, my meagre possessions packed and my guitar slung over my shoulder I headed downstairs, pausing only to deposit the key and a potential confrontation with my landlady as to why I did not wish to eat her breakfasts (I do not do breakfast) and out to face the day.

I had a bit of a decision to make as I had to be in Barnstaple that evening for onward journey to Ilfracombe and then to my ultimate destination of Lundy island the next morning by ferry. Although it is not so far as the crow flies, and remember I was only travelling in one English county, it still takes about two hours on two stopping trains with a change at Exeter St. Davids but again no problem. I knew I could not check into my B&B until late afternoon so the decision to make was to head off early or have a day in Torquay and go later. I decided on staying for a while as I had grown very fond of the place in my few days there.

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Some instructions just have to be obeyed.

Even with the guitar I was travelling fairly light and so it was no problem on the downhill run back into town to revisit some of the places I had been over the weekend. I was greeted warmly in them all but in a couple I was obviously recognised and asked relevant questions like, “how was the trip to Dartmouth” or else the more standard, “Usual, Sir?”. This pleased me no end and presented a number of possibilities. a) I had spent far too long in these places and chatting to the staff, b) I am so physically noticeable (6’5″, long hair, beard etc.) that people remember me, c) they are exceptionally professional bar staff or d) any or all of the above. You decide. As happy as I had been in the morning, the addition of a few pints of fermented apples never hurts and it was a borderline euphoric Fergy that made his way to the station with still enough of what wits he has to get there in decent time.  The rather poor image shows a sign I saw in one establishment and was an order I felt strangely compelled to obey!

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My guitar (left of frame) enjoying the stunning Devonian coast.

I was sad to leave Torquay as I had enjoyed it much more on this trip than on my previous visit where I had breezed through it in a few hours. I promised myself to return and, although I have not fulfilled that vow, I shall in the fullness of time. As I mentioned, the trip to Barnstaple is a mere 48 miles (77km.) so do the maths yourself but whilst it can never be termed an express service it is most remarkably scenic and runs for a portion of its route alongside the sea, separated from the water by no more than a fairly narrow pebble beach. I hope the image here, which I tried to “artistically frame” in the train door, gives an idea. The whole line is semi-officially known as the “Tarka Line” and more of that famous otter in the next post.

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I love these old signs.  Nearly there now.

Remarkably for the rail system in the UK we arrived on time and I alighted at the adorable Barnstaple station complete with the old heritage rail sign you can here as opposed to the soulless corporate versions they have now. Job done and the day was ticking along nicely.

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End of the Tarka line, all change please.

Thinking ahead I decided to head straight to Ilfracombe which is what I did in good order. I knew all too well the perils of further pub visiting at that point and Barnstaple could well have been my downfall. The reason I was in Barnstaple at all was that there has been no train to Ilfracombe since 1970 when it was closed for commercial reasons as the car saw it off and so a short and comfortable bus journey was required.

I wanted to divest myself of my kit and was conscious of not inconveniencing the people in the B&B so I restricted myself to a quick one or two before heading there to be greeted by a note on the front door stating that they had had to pop out briefly but if I went to see Mrs. X at number Y across the road she would sort matters out. I did so and a charming lady showed me into her immaculate home, offered me a brew which I declined and made a quick ‘phone call which brought my hosts in double-quick time to show me to my very clean and tidy twin room with ensuite bathroom.

The room was obviously a partitioned larger room on the first floor of a Victorian / Georgian house and was not particularly spacious but what do I need? From any sort of accommodation I require a clean and comfortable bed, some hot water for my ablutions with added bonuses being a bit of peace and quiet and the absence of cockroaches, rats or other annoyances. Yes, I am a man of simple tastes and I have slept in some places that I would not wish on my worst enemy which undoubtedly assists me on my travels both financially and in terms of choice.

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A little short but very comfy.

The bed was very comfy, if a little short for my 6’5″ frame, but I do not expect landlords to spend a fortune on custom-made oversized beds on the off-chance that a lanky brute like me or taller may walk in the door. I have accustomed myself to all sorts of sleeping conditions and indeed, at age 58, I have recently spent three very happy) months sleeping on a tiled floor which presented no problem at all. Yes, there is a blog in that when I get the time). The water in the shower was hot both evening and morning and of vermin there was a marked absence! In short, it was very clean, tidy, warm, friendly, convenient for my destination and the town, totally devoid of road noise in a quiet side street, what more did I need?

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Compact but very cosy.

I could enter now into an entire discourse about the various options available to the traveller in the UK where accommodation options are not cheap but, on the novella principle outlined above, I shall refrain and save it for another post.

A quick sluice down and I was off to sample the nearby “fleshpots” of an Ilfracombe basking in the still warm rays of a declining sun. I am running out of synonyms for delightful and charming here so I shall say that it was very likeable which is appropriate in terms of the town which I liked very much. In terms of “fleshpots” I am sure they once existed as they do in any town with a maritime connection but I didn’t find any although whether they no longer exist or because I did not have the requisite local knowledge I could not possibly say. No, before you get the wrong idea, I was not looking for what the late Terry Pratchett so wonderfully described as “ladies of negotiable affection” but merely places with a bit of an edge.

What I did find was a few very decent pubs, at least one of which had been recommended to me by John Gayton who I mentioned in an earlier post here and who will feature heavily in future submissions. My images show me that I was back home a little shy of the witching hour (midnight) which is unusual for me but I had much to do on the morrow.

I do hope I have adhered to my self-imposed brief of novella vs. saga here.  Believe me, I really have tried and have omitted much in the arguably laudable interests of brevity. Again, I am very much finding my way and would appreciate any sort of feedback. Do you wish to hear all my often tangential musings on my rambles or would you just prefer me to stick to a strict recitation of events? I am entirely in your hands as I want this to be as enjoyable an experience for you as it can be given my obvious limitations. Having decided, against all logic, to start this site, I really want to make it the best my abilities allow.

Stay tuned and spread the word.

Sailing in history to visit more history.

Contrary to all expectations the first part of this travelogue on my trip to Devon and specifically Lundy Island seems to have been successfully published and so I am going to ride my luck here and go for a second instalment.

After the wonderful experience of the previous evening, the day of 13/07/2013 dawned bright and sunny which is not always the case even in what is often laughingly referred to as the “British summer”. It may have been the sun coming in the window of my very cosy bedroom where I had improbably slept the sleep of the just or it may just have been excitement at what I knew Malc had planned for the day. Passing on breakfast which is a meal I rarely take, I showered, dressed and took off for another day which found me retracing my route of the previous day with a few slight deviations by way of interest. In fairness there are not too many ways to go. You either go downhill to the sea or uphill out of down and so down I went as I was meeting our intrepid leader in a pub which will come as little surprise to those who know me.

I ended up again at the harbour which was as charming as the day before and this time I had time to have a look round which provided a most fascinating history which I shall deal with in the next instalment. No, I am not setting out to be a tease but if I do not do things chronologically and with the benefit of my saved images as aides-memoire I shall be completely lost and will undoubtedly miss points of interest that I should have mentioned.

With a fascinating and wholly enjoyable experience on the quay under my belt I retired to the London Inn to meet our inestimable leader. I remember fondly the time when he was overnighting in London and I had quite deliberately taken him to a particular bar in Soho, an area I know well having lived there for a while in the 90’s, which was the well-known haunt of transvestites and transsexuals. For those that do not know London, Soho is, shall we say, fairly liberal. Frankly, the look on his face was priceless and he still reminds me of it to this day. Now it was payback time (not literally obviously) and I was in his world. Not a problem as I can get by in most situations.

Malc was a touch late and so I contented myself with a pint in the pub which was then a Wetherspoon’s but has now apparently been sold on to Yates’s, another similar multi-outlet organisation. I shall deal with the concept of Wetherspoons in another blog as it is a subject worthy of discussion. One of their many virtues is that they tend to open earlier than the 1100 or 1200 opening times favoured by more traditional establishments and this suited as the Offshore was not yet open. Malcolm had everything beautifully organised (thanks again, mate) but insisted on trotting off to check on the arrangements which were all in place and the sailing was definitely on. The rest of the party duly arrived and soon it was time for the off.

A very short wander across the road took us to the pier and the waiting vessel.

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RML 497 Fairmile, a very fine vessel.

The plan for the day was a trip on the Fairmile boat round to Dartmouth (weather permitting at it certainly was) and I was really looking forward to this as I love being on the water. I also love military history (of which more anon) and I love Dartmouth, having visited that lovely place as a teenager and more recently when I had walked a portion of the excellent South West Coast Path some years previously, as mentioned before.

Wandering down the pier (as you look seawards it is the one to the right hand side of the harbour, almost opposite the big wheel) we saw a queue of people waiting to board. This was not a problem as Malcolm had booked ahead for us and so we stepped on board the Fairmile, a most wonderful vessel. I suspect it may once have been an HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) although I am not actually sure what the current designation is but we were welcomed by a very friendly crewman and took our places on the upper deck. As I mentioned, it was a gloriously sunny day and although there was accommodation downstairs, nobody was going to sit down there on a day like this.

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One of two bars onboard – happy days indeed.

As you can see from the photos (and apologies for the quality as my camera was playing up) there is a bar on the upper deck. Indeed, there is one on the lower deck but there was no need to open it on a day like this. Everyone was on the top deck enjoying the simply stunning views of the wonderful South Devon Coast accompanied all the while by the very informative commentary from one of the crew members.

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My kind of sick bay.

So what of the Fairmile? Well, as the crew members were more than happy to explain, it was a rescue vessel in the Second World War and now sports the original designation of her wartime service number RML497 (Rescue Motor Launch 497). Effectively, she was a vessel charged with rescuing Allied pilots downed at sea and rendering medical assistance where required. Much of the then recently refurbished vessel was given over to this medical theme as one of the images here shows.

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The wonderful Devon coastline.

There really is something quite magical besides being very sobering about sitting on a deck marvelling at the passing idyllic coastline whilst thinking about some poor half-drowned and possibly injured pilot who was defending our country against fascism being plucked from the Channel by a craft such as this. It was the loss of so many pilots from ditching over water during the Battle of Britain that led to small craft like this being employed which was effectively the formation of the SAR (Search and Rescue) facility that we take for granted today. I am sure that our future King, Prince William the Duke of Cambridge, would have thoroughly approved of this vessel as he himself was an SAR helicopter pilot in the RAF during his military service. This is not ancient history as many of my aunts and uncles served in that war and one even made the supreme sacrifice. The historical distance of one generation is not great in the grand scheme of things.

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Land  Ho!  Dartmouth from the sea.

Nowadays it is a peaceful, incredibly peaceful journey that greets the visitor safe from the attentions of German Luftwaffe pilots. You travel relatively slowly along the coast with the excellent commentary as mentioned above to assist you. For the twitchers amongst you, I should mention that there is an excellent selection of seafowl to be seen and the crew are at pains to point them out. As one who does not know a petrel from a petrol pump I much appreciated this. All too soon we were disgorged at Dartmouth for an afternoon doing our own thing and what a thing we did!

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A Devonian flag flies proudly over Dartmouth.

I first visited Dartmouth in 1975 as a teenager when I still harboured ambitions of being a naval officer and a kindly careers master at my school had arranged for me to go on a schoolboy’s summer course at the Royal Naval College there. In the event, I was far too stupid to get the grades needed to attend University which was required as part of the deal but I remember that week with great affection, in similarly glorious sunshine, messing about in Royal Naval vessels and playing at sailors. Dartmouth has a long association with the Navy which continues to this day and naval officers still train here.

Many the illustrious man has passed through the hallowed portals including HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York who entered as a middy (midshipman) in 1979. Despite his many and continuing PR debacles, I cannot help but admire the man for eventually successfully arguing against Royal courtiers that he should be allowed to serve in the Falklands War in the early 80’s. If reports are to be believed he spent many hours flying his chopper (he was a helicopter pilot by trade like his two nephews) and sometimes as “duty target” which is a military expression meaning to deliberately offer yourself as a target to expose enemy positions or assets so that your people can neutralise them first – hopefully. I can have no argument with his position on that.

The next time I visited was many years later, in my mid 30’s, when I was walking the hugely enjoyable South West Coast Path, one of a number of long-distance walking paths in the United Kingdom which I take great delight in using and mentioned in my previous entry.

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Dartmouth Harbour.

I remembered Dartmouth as being a very aesthetically pleasing place with delightful views, attractive old buildings and a very relaxed feel to it. It was with slight trepidation, therefore, that I returned in case the place had become somehow tarnished. It is always so disappointing to go back somewhere you have fond memories of only to find it has changed for the worse but I need not have worried.

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Street scene, Dartmouth.

Although we were only there for a few hours, I re-discovered a beautiful small town, obviously geared up for the many tourists that were there that lovely sunny Summer day. I have no doubt there are other strings to Dartmouth’s bow but tourism must be high on its agenda and there is much for the visitor. It is a wonderful place and any traveller visiting South Devon really should spend some time there.

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A fine lunch for normal people.

We repaired to the rather pleasant Dartmouth Arms pub where my fellow travellers enjoyed what looked like some very fine food whilst I contented myself with a liquid lunch as I rarely eat solids during the hours of daylight. That is a long story so don’t ask but I have to say the cider was excellent as they really do know a thing or two about my preferred tipple in this part of the world.

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A fine lunch for Fergy!

Much as we were enjoying each other’s company it was by mutual consent that we decided to split up with an agreement to meet up at a particular hour in the same hostelry as it was near the quay for the return trip.  Our splitting up was not at all unusual as we were all experienced travellers with different notions of what we wished to do and it was this type of loose arrangement that made Virtual Tourist meets such a joy as they were always designed to be as non-prescriptive as possible. If people wanted to hang out together that was fine and if they wanted to do their own thing, no slight was ever intended nor offence taken. I heard a lovely expression once that trying to organise VT members was like trying to herd cats and it is true. Almost by definition we were a fairly independent bunch and on this occasion I decided to strike out solo as that is my normal and preferred way of exploring.

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I told you it was historic.  Another fine watering hole.

I remembered from my one afternoon of “liberty” as a teenager that the Royal Naval College occupied a commanding position on a hill overlooking the River Dart from which the town takes its name and it is still there looking as majestic as my possibly rose-tinted brain remembered it. I briefly contemplated a walk up to it but my memories of the previous climb, admittedly somewhat clouded by scrumpy (a notoriously potent cider common to the West Country), deterred me a bit. Even if I had slogged up that hill again I was never going to get past the gates as the security situation in July 2013 was fairly tense with off-duty Fusilier Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers having been murdered in broad daylight by two Islamic terrorists not far from where I live in London not long before. I decided to keep to the relative flat topography of the town centre and see what I could find which turned out to be quite a bit.

I adopted my standard exploration technique, which I apply worldwide, of no map, no electronic assistance (I didn’t have any and still cannot use it even if I did) and just walking and seeing what I can find. Navigation in Dartmouth was pretty simple in comparison to some places I have been. Keep going downhill and you would come to the river. After that it was just a matter of walking along it until you found the quay again. A very low tech theory I know but it worked beautifully.

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Entrance to the Royal Avenue Gardens, Dartmouth.

Wandering around on this most beautiful of summer days which even the huge number of other visitors could not mar I chanced upon the Royal Avenue Gardens, entered by way of the rather splendid wrought iron arch you can see pictured. I found it absolutely delightful although a little research whilst composing this piece has revealed that like my shut down B&B and sold on regular pub in nearby Torquay things have changed from that halcyon day not so very long ago. Four years later, almost to the day, a report in the local newspaper tells a very sorry tale indeed. Have a read here.

 

I do hope they have rectified the situation in the intervening nine months to time of writing as the Gardens really are worth preserving. I would have thought that a local authority so dependent on tourism for revenue would have done better but they are probably too busy awarding themselves expenses increases and funding ludicrous politically correct schemes.

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Royal Avenue Gardens, Dartmouth.

Whilst the main gardens were indeed a joy there was a “gem within a gem” in the form of the Veale / Savill garden which was an unexpected and very satisfying find. As I increase the content in this blog, readers will notice that I have a great interest in military history of all periods and this extends to memorials, war graves and the like. This is not a morbid fascination at all but, as an ex-serviceman myself, I feel that the sacrifices made by generations before us should be remembered and it will be a theme I shall return to frequently.

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War Memorial, Dartmouth.

Obviously, before visiting the Veale / Savill garden I spent a few moments in quiet contemplation looking at the well-tended war memorial here and wondering just what the effect of the loss of so many young men would have meant to such a relatively small community. Like everywhere else, it must have been colossal. Regrettably it never seems to end and there is an addendum in the form of a small stone at the foot of the main memorial which commemorates those who have been killed since WWII. They were a sailor who was killed in China in 1949, a Scots Guardsman in Korea in 1950 and a “tankie” (member of the Royal Tank Regt.) in Afghanistan a mere four years before I stood in front of his memorial stone. It certainly gave me pause for thought.

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War Memorial, Dartmouth.

The Veale / Savill garden commemorates a most remarkable act of heroism during the First World War. In the charnel house that was the Battle of the Somme in 1916 an officer of the Devonshire Regiment, Lt. Eric Savill, lay wounded in no-man’s land merely yards from the German lines. Pte. Theodore Veale of the same unit ventured out no less than five times under heavy enemy fire (virtually point-blank) until he finally rescued his officer. During this action he recruited volunteers (one of whom was sadly killed) and lugged a light machine gun out to cover his comrades as they dragged the officer back to the relative safety of the British lines. For his outstanding heroism he was very rightly awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) which is the highest military valour award available in the UK and may only be awarded for actions performed “in the face of the enemy”. He was presented with his medal by King George V in 1917.

Remarkably, given the ferocity and appalling casualty rates of the Somme, both men survived that awful conflict. Pte. Veale lived to the ripe old age of 87 until his death in 1980. Savill (later Sir Eric Savill) went on to become Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park amongst other posts where he was renowned as something of an expert on cultivating magnolias, several examples of which adorn this small haven or at least did when I was there (see above link!). He died about seven months before his rescuer. I wonder if they kept in touch after the war or did the rigid class system of the time and the obviously traumatic effects of that brutal waste of life, which many men tried to block out, cause them to drift apart. I rather hope they did have some contact.

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Memorial plaque to Cpl. Theodore Veale, VC.

After the very interesting gardens I continued my wander round the town, trying to avoid the crowds and availing myself of the hospitality in several of the excellent hostelries that seem to populate every street corner here and appear determined to outdo each other in terms of quaintness and charm. Despite my various dalliances I made it back to our agreed RV at the Dartmouth in good time and we swapped stories of our afternoon over yet another pint, well another couple in my case anyway.

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Heading home.

A short walk regained our vessel and we set off back to Torquay. There was not much of a commentary from the crew on the way back as the vast majority of the passengers had been informed of all the points of interest on the outward leg but this merely served to allow us to savour the glory that is the British countryside in our very occasional good weather and which is seen to best advantage, I always believe, from the water.

Again, I have to be the bearer of bad tidings and again, it was only whilst I was researching this piece that I discovered that the Fairmile no longer plies the seas around Torbay so you will not be able to have the wonderful experience I did. Due to a cutthroat commercial battle between rival commercial ventures which was known locally as the “ferry wars” she became unviable. I cannot believe that in the space of less than five years my B&B has closed down, my usual pub sold on and this noble vessel removed from service. It seems like nothing stands still in and around Torquay. The one small consolation is that she has not been abandoned and has been acquired in 2015 by the National Museum of the Royal Navy which should at least ensure her future.

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Looks good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

Safely disgorged back in Torquay harbour the others retired to their respective hotels for a quick wash and brush up whilst Malcolm and I did the honourable thing and went straight back to the pub where we were to be having a “farewell meal” as the others all had to leave reasonably early the next day with fairly long journeys to undertake. When they returned not too long after, they all set about what looked like a very decent meal (Natalie’s Mediterranean seafood salad looked particularly good) although I was fully in liquid diet mode by this point. It was yet another lovely evening.  To paraphrase what I said in the previous blog entry, an evening spent eating and drinking well in very convivial company after a day in beautiful weather amongst the joys of the British coast, what more could a man require?

Farewells were duly made quite early with the obvious tinge of sadness although everyone agreed it had been a wonderful couple of days and that Malc had done a superb job organising it. With the others gone, he and I decided that another quick one wouldn’t hurt and that led to another and………. well, you get the picture and it was a very mellow Fergy that made his way back up the hill to his cosy bunk.

Stay tuned.

Another great day out.

The 5th of March came around and I cannot say it was exactly fair but at least it wasn’t raining and so another day out and about seemed called for. Somehow or another time had crept up on me and I realised that I had only a few days left on the island and still had much to see.

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The mighty egg banjo, saviour of many a hungry serviceman.

I couldn’t resist the image above of my breakfast which was a couple of “egg banjoes” , a staple of British Forces and something I am immensely fond of.  If you mention the term to anyone who was not involved with the Forces they will probably look at you blankly but, as you can see, it is nothing more mysterious than a fried egg sandwich. I remember many times coming in from jobs at some unholy hour in the middle of the night when the kitchen was shut but the cook would leave out a few dozen eggs, a few loaves and a larg container of the fairly awful “spread” (margarine) favoured by the military. A few minutes on the flat top cooker could produce a couple of dozen banjoes and with the hot water urn always on the go we had hot tea or coffee to wash it down. Michelin starred haute cuisine it most certainly was not but I can tell you it was very welcome in the circumstances.

With my vaguely nostalgic breakfast consumed, it was back on the bus to Valletta and after a walk round a few of the backstreets and a few images (pictured above) I found the National War Museum which is where I was heading for. Unusually, I had even formulated a vague plan for the day. As you can see from the images Valletta is a very contrasting city. Whilst vast amounts of EU cash are being thrown at prettying up the tourist areas you do not have to walk very far to see a very different scene of a city literally falling apart at the seams. It is a shame really.

Regarding the Museum, I shall let my original Virtual Tourist review stand here minus the obviously changed logistics which you can get an up to the version of on the website here.   As I have mentioned previously, this site of mine is as much a repository for all the hard work and content that was butchered by a criminal and his totally immoral organisation which has been successfully challenged in courts of law in various countries as it is a contemporary account of travels now being undertaken. At least I have the pleasure of knowing this site tells the truth. Here is the review.

“First of all, let me clear up a little confusion here. There are several “experiences” in Valletta which mention the Second World War in their publicity but this tip refers to the official War Museum located in the old St. Elmo’s Fort and administered by Heritage Malta.

My love of military history is well-documented on other pages and tips here in VT and so it was inevitable that I would visit the Museum whilst I was there and I am extremely glad I did. Whilst not huge, it is a very interesting place, cleverly laid out in a building that is itself of great military interest.

Initially built in 1552 it has withstood siege by the Ottoman Turks and was still in use in the Second World War as an artillery battery repulsing an attempted Italian seaborne invasion in 1941. As you walk through what must have been the old main gate towards the Museum, just have a look at the thickness of the walls and imagine what a formidable obstacle to attack it really is. You will also pass a stone plaque bearing the badge of the Cheshire Regiment showing the long association with the British who controlled the island for so many years.

When you get to the Museum proper you will be greeted by a friendly member of staff and pointed in the right direction. From there on, you are effectively on your own as I did not see any other employee present but do not worry, all you have to do is follow your feet. They have very helpfully painted a chronology on the floor, so just follow the years and you will be guided nicely through and miss nothing.

Interestingly, the first exhibits I encountered were from the First World War. I had a reasonable knowledge of Malta’s involvement in the Second World War, which is well-documented, but I had completely overlooked the part the island played in the first global conflict. Malta is very strategically placed in the Mediterranean which is what makes it so attractive to potential invaders. What interested me most and I suppose should have been obvious, was it’s function as a hospital base for the casualties of the appalling carnage in the Gallipoli campaign. This room is pretty small but well worth a good look round.

After this, you are then directed to the Second World War exhibits which are what I presume most visitors come here to see. Arguably the country’s finest hour and rewarded by one of only two “communal” British George Cross medals ever awarded, it is still very proudly remembered by the Maltese. Undoubtedly, there was a lot of source material on the island when the Museum was opened in 1975 following an earlier 1974 temporary exhibition, but it is fascinating nonetheless and very well presented.

I won’t go through all the exhibits for several reasons. Firstly, it would make this tip very long. Secondly, I have constructed a travelogue on the Museum to showcase some of the many photographs I took (non-flash photography is allowed throughout, I asked) and finally the attached website gives an excellent overview accompanied by professional photography which is infinitely better than my efforts. Please do take a look.

Having said all that, I will briefly mention a couple of items. Firstly, the actual George Cross as mentioned above, is on display along with the original citation letter from King George. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this medal in the Maltese psyche and to see the actual piece itself was a thrill. On a completely different scale but also dear to the hearts of local people is a Gloster Gladiator aeroplane officially designated N5520 but named Faith which was one of three in service on the island at the beginning of World War Two. Almost inevitably the others were named Hope and Charity. Despite being woefully unsuited to the combat of the time, they fought valiantly until Faith was bombed in her hangar in 1941 which blew her wings off. She was then ignominiously dumped in a quarry but was subsequently restored and now has pride of place in the centre of the Museum.

One final thing. You really should stop in the final room which showcases medals won by various Maltese people. Apart from the groups on display in the cases, you can pull out the drawers below to see many more groups which is fascinating”.

Wonderful as Virtual Tourist was on so many levels, it did have certain technical limitations due, for the most part, to using a pretty archaic system which may not have been state of the art but was pretty robust and reliable. I can remember very few collapses in the 12 years I contributed. One of these limitations was that it was only possible to append five images to any review. If you had more then you had to construct a travelogue where you could upload eight images per entry.  There is a reference to thse travelogues in the cut and pasted review above which I have left in deliberately.

If I go to a museum or other place of interest, it is not unusual for me to take many dozens of images and so it was with the War Museum. I propose here to vaguely reproduce these and to utilise my original comments as either captions for the images or accompanying text. However, I shall not do that just yet as I am constrained in my internet use to the local pub and it is going to close soon. I shall post that which I have constructed so far and continue as and when I can as the day was not nearly over yet.

PAGE STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION, PLEASE BE PATIENT.

Fast forward a day or two.

Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!

If you have been reading through you will know that the last entry here in my Malta travelogue was back on the 26th February 2013 and this one is all the way forward to the 4th of March so I should clear that one up first. The weather, which had been so poor for so many days thus far just set in nasty and it would have been no pleasure to go anywhere so I had a few days of sitting in Dick’s Bar as usual, eating lovely home made food (pictured as always) trying to catch up on my internet writing with varying amounts of success and that was about it really.

OK, I could tell you about the day I bit the bullet and went to the laundrette but you are probably not interested. I have to say I have never seen a laundrette with a table football in it before but I was on my own in the place so even that was not a lot of good. Just a very quick practical tip if you do need to do laundry here, do not go to one of the several service establishments whatever you do. I had seen one and the price they quoted me for a small bag of laundry was eye-watering. Luckily, my mate in the bar steered me to the self-service place which was a fraction of the price and run by a charming woman so job done.

By the 4th it was still very cold but at least the rain had blown over so it was time to get my tourist head on again. I was very aware that I had not nearly done justice to Valletta and there was much to see so that was the plan for the day.

I am generally loath to suggest that a particular thing to do is a “must see” as that is such a subjective concept and people all have their own ideas about what interests them. I would, however, venture to suggest that the Co-Cathedral of St. John in central Valletta does fall into that category and is probably high on most visitors list of things to do anyway. I know all my Maltese acquaintances recommended it highly. I have mentioned elsewhere that I have no religious conviction myself but I do find places of worship (of whatever faith) fascinating on a number of different levels and this place certainly didn’t disappoint when I visited.

The building has a long and fascinating history, much of it bound up with the history of the Knights of St. John of Malta (as evidenced by the name) and I shall give you a brief precis here, although the attached website gives an excellent overview. The building was commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere, built to the design of Gerolamo Cassar, a Maltese architect and was completed in 1577. Cassar was predominantly a military architect and I think this is reflected in the slightly sober appearance of the exterior of the building. It is the interior that amazes, of which more later.

I will not waste your time with long out of date logistics which are all dealt with on the website above. When I visited the admission price included an audio tour and admission to the Oratory and Museum, both of which were very interesting. The audio guide was available in Maltese, English, Italian, French, German and Spanish, perhaps more languages have been added now.

Photography is non-flash only in the main building and forbidden in the Museum and Oratory, hence I have no images of that. Decent dress is required as you would expect in a place of worship and ladies should note that stilettoes and narrow heels are not permitted to prevent damage to the floor. For mobility impaired visitors, I quote from the website, “Access is provided to St John’s for wheelchair users and visitors with mobility issues, although access to some areas is restricted. For more information, please contact us”.  Despite the photographic restrictions and my fairly cheap and cheerful little compact camera I shall post a few collages of my better images here.

As you can see to this day, each of the “langues” of the Knights Order was represented by their own chapel on either side of the building with the more senior langues in places of honour nearest the altar. As the Knights came from all over Europe they were assigned to a “langue” with people from their own region or at least who spoke the same language, hence the name I suppose. It was the same with the living quarters.

I suspect there was a deal of “oneupmanship” going on between the langues as they seem to be trying to outdo each other in the magnificence of their respective chapels which really are quite stunning.

In the early 17th century and with the emergence of the Baroque artistic style, the famous Calabrian artist, Mattia Preti was commissioned to re-decorate the Co-cathedral which he duly did. Preti is a fascinating character with a colourful life story and is well worth a little research should you feel so inclined. He is much associated with Malta where he lived for much of his life and examples of his work are to be found in many places around the country.

The next major event was when the Knights meekly handed over the island to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, effectively ending their dominance of Malta and, indeed, outside of their original lands. They were certainly forced back a very long way from the Holy Land which had been their raison d’etre. After a mere two years, the British arrived and removed the French with the building coming under the authority of the British Governor. Things remained fairly much the same until the Second World War with the British in control of Malta. Like so much else on the island, the Co-cathedral suffered extensive damage during the sustained aerial bombardment by the Axis powers of Italy and Germany. Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the War and the building is now restored to it’s considerable glory. It really is worth seeing.

I did spend a considerable amount of time in the Co-Cathedral and was well pleased that I did but I thought I had better go and see some other sights and so somewhat reluctantly dragged myself away in the direction of the rather grand main square where I took the obligatory couple of images including one which I believe is the main Courts of Justice building.

Somewhere along the line I had seen a sign for the Grandmaster’s Palace (aka State Rooms) and Palace Armoury and so with my fascination with all things military and the crusading knights in particular that seemed like a very good idea but as always it wasn’t quite that simple. Whilst bimbling about looking for the entrance I wandered into the charming courtyard you can see in the images and, you’ve guessed it, I learned something.

Bimbling, don’t you think that is a lovely word? I used to use it a lot but have neither used nor heard it used for many a long year. I do love the English language but enough of that and back to the courtyard. I suspect that with all this inanity there are those amongst you who would like to take me to a courtyard and stand me against a wall in front of a firing squad!

I knew that Queen Victoria was about as fertile as the Nile valley, spawning no less than nine children in a 17 year period. I suspect the Royal obstetrician was the busiest man in London, well either him or the Royal bed repairer! Having never been taught Victorian history at school where I was compelled to learn the French Revolution for “A” level and which I failed spectacularly due to a complete lack of interest, I knew very little of this brood. Obviously, I knew of the errant Prince of Wales but of the rest just about nothing.

A quick check shows that Prince Alfred was the second son and fourth child born on 6 August 1844. So there was now an “heir and a spare” as the expression is and so what to do with young Alfred? He expressed a desire to join the Royal Navy, a tradition that still exists in the Royal Family and at the tender age of 14 passed his entrance examination to be a midshipman, or “middy” in common naval parlance. I know that in this 21st century it sounds ridiculous that a boy of that age could go to sea when there was still the odd war kicking off here and there but that was what the priveleged did with their sons on the principle, I suppose, of “It’ll make a man of him”. Commissions in the Forces cost money in those days but that would not have been a problem, I feel.

 

He was posted to HMS Euralys and it was during a voyage of that vessel that he stepped ashore on Malta and hence the garden which, it has to be said, is beautifully maintained. If it seems incredible to us now the concept of a 14 year old boy commanding hardened sailors on a warship, how much more incredible is it that they would think of creating a courtyard to the same stripling youth just to commemorate a visit? Alfred must have had some sort of an affinity with Malta as his second daughter Princess Victoria Melita was born there on 25 November 1876, with her middle name being gven for the place of her birth. I actually think that is rather charming, Chelsea Clinton take note!

I had been walking about all day and my back was hurting a little so I sat for a few minutes in this calm and enjoyable spot. It is a great little place to take a rest from the rigours of a day sightseeing in the city and I hope the images give some sense of that.

Suitably rested, I set about my quest to find the entrance which actually was very simple had I not got sidetracked into the adolescent Prince’s private garden. As seems to be the way in Malta, it was a joint ticket for both sites (Palace and Armoury albeit in the same building) but that was fine as I wanted to see both anyway.

On a technical note here, I only found out late in my stay about the Malta Heritage Pass which gives access to nearly all the nationally owned sites on the island and, whilst it may look a little steep in price initially you will save considerably if you are like me and want to see most of the things on offer. It is good for several of the sites in Mdina and in Valletta where I had already been so it wasn’t really cost-effective to do it then but I would advise you to have a look at the website here. I believe it even covers several places on neighbouring Gozo should you wish to visit there.

With my ticket bought I took off into a most impressive building but it was clear almost immediately that there was a problem which the images above may give some idea of and that was the problem with maintainance, the place was literally falling apart at the seams. OK, only minor things like a broken tile here, some chipped woodwork there and a drop of pain required but the problem with buildings of this antiquity is that if minor cosmetic problems are appearing externally then you can only guess at what is happening to the plumbing, electrics, structure etc. etc. and the longer you leave them the more expensive it gets! Look at the rusted suit of armour, a competent armourer could clean that up in a day. I am glad to say that as I rewrite this in 2019 I believe the whole building is undergoing some refurbishment.

As I tend to do, I am going to become totally verbose here, I was completely alone so far off season here and I literally felt the hand of history upon my shoulder. I really did think that if I turned around too quickly that I would see some man wearing 16th century armour right behind me. I should stress that it was not spooky nor frightening, it was just that weight of history that I referred to earlier. As well as it’s function as a very fine Museum, I believe another part of the rather large building houses the official residence of the President.

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If the Palace was slightly disappointing due to it’s state of repair and lack of exhibits then the Palace Armoury was in stark contrast. Not only was it beautifully maintained and presented but the range and sheer quantity of weaponry on display was huge and more than enough to satisfy the military history buff in me. As you might expect, the vast majority of the exhibits date to the period when the Knights held sway on the island. Rather than going through a whole list of exhibits I shall let a series of image collages serve to give some sort of idea although I shall single out three which are linked by virtue of the fact they are the suits of armour of three of the Grand Masters of the island.

Looking left to right we have the backplate, breastplate and splint which belonged to Grand Master (1557 – 1568) Jean de Valette de Parisot, a man with whom I was becoming ever so slightly obsessed. I am still fascinated by him, particularly his heroic (I use the word advisedly) command of the defence of the island against the Islamic Ottoman forces during the famous Siege of 1565. As this armour has been dated to c. 1560 it is almost certain that his is the armour he would have worn during that historic period. I have described the Siege at length elsewhere in this series of blogs and do not intend to go into detail again here but it is no exaggeration to say that the repulse of the “Mohammedans” completely defined the course of Western European history to this day. I just stood and wondered at this genuinely important historical artefact.

The second set of armour belonged to Grand Master (1601 – 1622) who is also discussed at length elsewhere in this series. With the threat of Islamic invasion somewhat decreased by the time of his Grand Mastership he concentrated on the infrastructure of the island and much of what he created may still be seen today.

The third set is not 100% attributable to Grand Master (1595 -1601) Martino Garzes who I had not previously encountered. I have since discovered that there is very little written about him online and he seems somewhat of a “forgotten man” although it appears he laid the foundations, metaphorically if not physically, for several of the infrastructure projects for which his successor Wignacourt takes the credit.  As always my interest is piqued now and I am going to make it my business to find out more about him.  I’ll let you know what I discover.
The suit of armour is dated to c. 1560 and is of German design, possibly attributable to the famous armourer Wolf of Landshut.

As always I shall let a few of my better images serve in place of my inadequate prose and dot them about this portion of the entry.

In my usual fashion I had no plans at all for the day but I did spend possibly longer in there than I would have planned if I did travel that way and therein lies the joy of ad hoc rambling. I had spent a decent amount of time in one of the best collections of medieval military hardware I have ever seen.

The afternoon was wearing on and there would not have been time to visit another tourist site and do it justice so I called it a day and retired to a local bar which, as you can see from the image had a drinks menu some of which verged, as the name suggests, on the suicidal. My days of such lunacy are long behind me I am glad to say and so I contented myself with a couple of beers before heading back to Sliema and a quiet night before bed. It had been another great day and, weather notwithstanding, I was becoming increasingly pleased with my choice of Malta for my winter excursion.

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I hope you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I enjoyed being there and there is still plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.

Back to Mdina.

Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!

 

After my last entry on the 22nd of the month, the 23rd yields me a mere three images and these saved images are my default position for starting to write. Two of these were of the plug of my computer and the third was of the fairly abysmal weather which had dogged me since my arrival. I may as well explain the plug images which were taken to illustrate a practical point on another travel site I used to write for. The 13 amp square pin “British” plug, which is not overly common worldwide is still used here but other variants of two pin plugs are also in use so here is a practical tip for you if you go to Malta (recommended), don’t forget your universal adaptor!

Straight then to the 24th and again a fairly meagre day of things to report. Another rubbish day on the weather front, indeed the only fronts that seemed to be crossing the country were cold, wet and with very closely packed isobars i.e. very windy. Seemed like another day in Dick’s Bar was called for and why not? For all the reasons I shall not bore you with again it was as good a plan as any and apart from the excellent meal shown (I know, I just keep posting images of lovely things with chips / fries but why not?) I was reading one of the local newspapers, which I love to do. Even in countries where I do not speak more than a tiny smattering of the language, I can generally associate images with text and usually manage to learn a bit of vocab. that way. It is the same with watching TV news with subtitles. However, I quickly collapsed in my desire to learn Maltese as English is so widely spoken, there was always a local English language paper available and I was having my usual peruse when I came upon a full page article (pictured) that actually made me chuckle vaguely audibly (no, I do not LOL!) which was a report from the restaurant critic about the pizza house which had just opened upstairs from Dick’s, a place called Margo’s and which rather arrogantly claimed to serve the best pizzas in the world. I have mentioned it before here. This is the place where you can spend €1800 (that is not a typo, that is one thousand eight hundred Euros) on a single pizza and they do not even take credit cards! To say that the critic was less than impressed would be an understatement along the lines of saying that Mother Theresa wasn’t a bad sort really. The critic ripped the place to pieces. I mean no disrespect whatsoever with the Mother Theresa comment lest anyone take offence, a few more like her in the world and we might all be a lot better off.

Apart from that, nothing else happened apart from me half freezing to death on the way home but I did just like that walk along the front with the lights over the harbour, even though I could have jumped a taxi or bus easily enough. I took to my bed hoping for finer weather on the morrow to allow me a bit more exploration.

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Winter sun? Sadly not.

That turned out to be something of a forlorn hope and the 25th came around pretty miserable although not actually raining which was a blessing. It was just saving that up to hit me with later as the image shows! I had a bit of a wander about, took a few random images and generally cursed the weather although it was not a huge issue, more of an inconvenience really. My images indicate there was another visit to my “tame” kebab shop just up the road from home where they were getting quite used to me and friendly but that should have been no surprise. These guys were not native Maltese (Turkish, I believe) but the island in general just seems to engender a fairly laid back sociable feel.

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Looks basic but this was gorgeous!

With a tummy full of a (very small as I eat like a bird) kebab, planxty was off to bed and by now just hoping for fairly light rain the next day never mind any sort of sunshine. Please don’t misunderstand, the fault was entirely mine for not checking. I had stupidly worked out in my head that anywhere this far South must be at least bright this time of year but a Maltese acquaintance told me I had picked exactly the worst time of the year to visit. Nice one, planxty! As it turned out, it really didn’t matter to any degree as I just indulged myself in my usual pastimes of seeing a few of the tourist sites as circumstances allowed, meeting a lot of lovely people and making a few friends. How bad can it be?

On now to the 26th and my daily morning check of the back garden in lieu of a weather report showed that things were looking up, as indeed I was to a lovely bright morning. I guessed it wasn’t going to be overly warm and so wrapped up well and determined to go back to Rabat / Mdina. If you have read my previous entries you will know that Mdina was the old fortified Crusader town and the surrounding area was known as Rabat. I had spent a lot of time in the latter and do not regret a second of it as it was fascinating but I knew there was still a lot more to see behind the walls. Out came my “go anywhere” buspass and two comfortable bus rides took me back to a place where I had a head start as I knew the geography a bit. I do like Maltese buses.

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Maltese buses really are the way to travel.

There I was back in Mdina on a reasonably pleasant if not terribly warm day which promised to produce some decent images and so what next? I shall include a few of the images here just to give you a general sense of the place and it really is no surprise that so many tourists come here. I have to say I would not fancy it on mid-August with almost 40 degree heat and teeming with tour parties but on this day it was a joy.

Particularly interesting amongst these images are a few I thought I might point out above. The first is the sign for the old Jewish Silk Market which is long gone and with the sign rendered in either Hebrew or Yiddish, I am afraid I do not know the difference. The second is the long since sealed door of the Greek bordello with the third showing the sign denoting where it was. I was interested to see some apparently recent Greek graffiti on the door, presumably put there by some young yobs on a drunken holiday who had lost their way to the nightclub. Why do people do this in such a beautiful place? I do not write this to make the entry a salacious piece by referring to a brothel but merely to indicate what a multi-national crossroads Malta was and indeed still is.
Wandering about in my usual totally random style, I came upon the Chapel of St. Agatha. Obviously, I knew the name (not as a Saint) which I associated with P.G Wodehouse novels etc., as in, “This is great–Aunt Agatha”. For me it was just a very old-fashioned name in my home country. Let’s have a look first and then I shall get into my inevitable research!


The first thing I needed to find out was who St. Agatha was. A quick look online and, frankly, it does not make for pleasant reading. Look it up for yourself if you wish. When you have, I then decided to look up the church named for her (she apparently died rather horribly in 251AD) and I found there had been a church built there about 1410 but was pretty well wiped out in the massive earthquake of 1693. Malta lies on a fault line and gets a lot of this horror. The church was rebuilt but let us go back a little and look at the events of 1551, a year I do not think I have mentioned yet.
I know I have spoken of the Grand Siege of 1656 before but in what may have been a “recce” mission for it, the Ottoman Turks and associated allies, laid siege to the island and specifically Mdina, then called Notabile (see my earlier post about the stunning former casino). It is alleged that some nun in a local convent had had a vision from St. Agatha telling her that if she got all the people, both military and civilian, to attend mass in the church and then parade around the town carrying their banners and religious relics then all would be well. They did so and the Turks went away. Personally, I can see a host of alternative military and logistical reasons why the besieging force may have disengaged but that is the tale that still holds currency here. Hence, amongst other reasons, although Agatha never visited Malta as far as I can see, having died at about age 20 or 21 in Sicily where she was born, she is now one of the patron saints of Malta.
The building itself is relatively small and consequently quite intimate. Despite it’s minor dimensions it was still decked out in full finery as you can see and I shall not bore you with my thinking on this again but it is definitely worth a visit if it is open (it keeps somewhat irregular hours).
I read that during the last war the chapel gave sanctuary as a home for two refugee families, presumably bombed out by the Germans and Italians and after the war the place fell into somewhat a state of disrepair. I am pleased to see that the building offered it’s original purpose as a place of succour to those in need in the dark days of Axis oppression and also that the Maltese people saw fit to restore it later when opportunity allowed. Somehow it was just yet another reminder of the indomitable spirit of these people in the face of apparently unbeatable aggression.
I did rather like it here and found the altar particularly pleasing although nowhere nearly as grand as others I saw on the island. If you want to check up on the logistics, here is an official website with all the details.

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No wonder it was a fortress.

Yet again, I was just wandering and took myself to the walls at the “back” of the town (i.e. furthest away from the main gate) as I had done on my first visit and the views are stunning over the local countryside and all the way to the sea. That really is worth doing.
Unusually for me,even though it was well past “beer o’clock”, I fancied a coffee and picked, as always completely at random, the Old Priory Cafe.

Honestly, I thought I had walked into another Museum by accident but I was really in a cafe slightly oddly decked out with a plasma TV (thankfully turned off), modern, minimalist furniture all sitting amongst some tremendous looking oil paintings although I am certainly no judge. Top all this off with a roof that would not have disgraced a Christian church anywhere in the world, and which I nearly got a crick in my neck looking at, and it was the most wonderful setting for a very decent coffee.


OK, so I was being vaguely civilised and had not just retreated to the first bar so what to see next? Well, if the relatively minor Chapel of St. Agatha had been so rewarding then surely the Cathedral had to be worth a look and so it was to prove. After a few more images of the utterly charming alleyways and little curios of Mdina as depicted above, off I went. It is not difficult to find as it can be seen from just about anywhere within the walls.


On a technical note, you cannot buy tickets to the Cathedral at the Cathedral but only at the Museum although that is no problem as it is only round the corner. In truth, in a town the size of Mdina everything is just round the corner from everything else. You cannot buy a ticket just for the Cathedral, it is a joint ticket for it and the Museum but it is worth doing. I will not bother you with out of date prices and opening times but the website here gives all the logistical details.

In I went and it was just deja vu (have you heard that before?) as I was totally entranced by the place. My arguments against organised religion are well-rehearsed here and do not need repeating but I was literally looking round like some kind of rural bumpkin who had never been in a grand church before, it was magnificent. I was to find out some days later that it is a mere shadow of the Co-Cathedral in Valletta in terms of grandeur and yet here I was gawping at everything. Certainly, I have been in much larger, much more impressive Cathedrals than this but it was just that feeling again. I know that places like this were designed to cow people into subservience and giving money / tithes or whatever and I have to say they must have succeeded impressively. If it gets me this way, think what it must have done to an illiterate 17th century Maltese farmer brought up in fear of “eternal damnation”.


I have tried to analyse this for years and the best I can come up with is that it is not the religious aspect of the buildings that get me but rather the sense of history, which is a passion of mine. You cannot miss the history here as you literally walk on it wherever you go with the entire floor being constructed of the tombs of the “great and the good”, many of them Knights of the Hospittalers. Back again to another theme of mine about learning and I read only yesterday (albeit in a historical novel so I am unsure of the provenance) that the reason “important” people wanted to be buried in the place of worship and as close to the altar as their station and funds allowed was that there were usually relics of the Saints on or near the altar and on the day of judgement when the faithful will ascend to Heaven they will be somehow dragged upwards more swiftly on a holy “wind” as the Saints will be resurrected first. I shall leave you to make your own mind up about that one but it just reinforced to me about never ceasing to learn.


I shall, as always, let my pretty poor images stand in place of my totally inadequate words although I would draw your attention to a few of the images above and offer an observation, not my own I am sorry to say and we are always just a fraction away from a digression when I get going here so you might as well have another one but hopefully the above images will help to make sense of this.
In the sixth form at my school we had a Friday afternoon we all had to attend a “lecture”, normally from an outside and generally terribly boring speaker. We would do anything to get out of it but one particular Friday I couldn’t and our extremely affable Vice Principal, Mr. Fred Jeffrey(s?) took to the stage armed with an old fashioned slide projector. No “Death by Powerpoint” or laser pens in those days and off he went on an exploration of English architecture, backed mostly by his own monochrome images which probably dated to the 60’s or even earlier (this was ’77 or ’78). We all tried to sleep without being seen or dreamed about our potential exploits on the sporting field the next day or even our potentially “unsporting” exploits in the Botanic Inn pub that night with the young lady of our current affection.


At some point I happened to glance up at the rippled and not particularly good screen to see what appeared to me as the rather incongruous sight of a row of the upper storeys of quite wonderful buildings. Then he slid in the next frame to reveal street level and the standard British High Street look of the time, BHS, House of Fraser, the odd Wimpy bar and so on. He revealed the two images were taken from exactly the same spot at the same time and something just clicked in my bored, testosterone riddled brain. It was Oxford Street in London and with a few sad exceptions it is still much the case today over 40 years on.
No, I didn’t go walking about staring at skylines that afternoon (I had to get home and clean up for my evening out) but it is a concept I have held to ever since. I am not for one minute suggesting you walk about like these idiots taking selfies and walking into lamp-posts or over high cliffs or into the path of an oncoming bus but wherever you are, either indoors or outdoors, just stop somewhere safe and have a look up. You might just be surprised what you see. Dear old Fred was nearing retirement at the time of this story and if he is still alive, which I sincerely hope is the case, he must be a centenarian now or if not then damn near one. I know he had a wonderful career in education and instilling this small piece of knowledge into my unreceptive skull must rank fairly low in his list of achievements but I thank him for it nonetheless.
It has happened again, hasn’t it? What started off as what I thought was going to be a fairly short entry has turned into another complete rambling saga. In truth, I quite enjoy it as I generally sit up all night writing this stuff due to my somewhat obscure sleep patterns, if indeed there is any pattern, rhyme or reason to how and when I sleep. If it was a knitting pattern rather than a sleep pattern I would have by now cast on and knitted and purled myself towards a lovely baby cardigan that would suit an infant octopus as it would have so many arms in it! Perhaps my choice of website name is starting to make sense to you now so let’s get back to Malta which is what you are presumably here to read about.


With my head still full of the wonderful cathedral and vague notions of other things to see I headed back out into what was actually becoming a pretty passable day weatherwise. Again, there are a few more images above to give you an idea. I like to write chronologically when I can and do not cherrypick the “best” (a very relative term given my equipment and minimal skills) images for the top of the page. If the eagle-eyed amongst you spot that I have revisited the same alleyway, that is entirely plausible. I was completely lost, in the best possible way, and the back alleys of Mdina are fairly homogeneous and labyrinthine. How much would I love to use either of those words in a game of Scrabble! Less Scrabble friendly adjectives would have to include atmospheric, beautiful, historic and charming.
I would not suggest that you do such a thing but if you visit Mdina and do not enter a single building then your day would not have been a waste of time. Just to wander these tiny backstreets and wonder at the old names (Magazine Street for example, obviously where they kept the ordnance and not named for a glossy coffee-table publication), look at the little religious curios that seem to adorn every building and just drink in the centuries you would have had a wonderful day.
Of course, the great thing for the geographically challenged is that you cannot get lost! If you go too far away from the centre you come to what can only be described as a bloody huge wall (please excuse my vulgarity) with a totally suicidal drop down the other side so you know to go back. The cathedral is visible from just about anywhere and it is easy to find the gate from there. Mdina is really one of the great places to explore freely as the topography and architecture dictate that you can go anywhere you want and you will not go far wrong. It is a bit like Disneyland without Mickey and Minnie but you do not need a map and the best thing of all is that it is completely real, not dreamt up by some “imagineer” in Hollywood.


My next “port of call” was the Mdina Experience and the name should have told me everything as anything including the word “experience” in it’s promotion is usually rubbish although I know it is almost obligatory amongst marketeers these days. It describes itself as an “audio visual spectacular” although that possibly got lost in translation as spectacular it was not. I should have trusted my gut, as I usually do. It was, indeed, rubbish comprising of a series of tableaux with little or nothing in the way of actual artefacts. I cannot remember how much I paid and I refuse to endorse such a blatant ripoff by attaching a link here but please do yourself a favour and avoid this place like the horrible Plague of Malta of 1813.  Now, that is worth a bit of your time to read up on.  OK, I had been ripped off, I was not the first and I am sure not the last but it was not going to stop me on what was turning out to be another such brilliant and fascinating day so I just kept walking as is my way. The next “tourist trap” I came across was the “Medieval Times”. I really should have known better and I have not even the excuse of being drunk (maybe I should have been!). Another set of poorly rendered tableaux which the late Mme. Tussaud would probably have melted down for candles. Utter rubbish and again I exhort the reader to avoid this place and will not include details.
So, I had been gulled twice by shysters playing on the immense history of this walled town. Was I depressed by this? Yes. I was depressed by my own stupidity but how can you know? Was I depressed by my return visit to Mdina? Emphatically no. No visitor to Malta should miss this place, it is phenomenal and I have no idea how it must look now after all the work the EU funded. I reckon the old moat is a thing of beauty now (six years after I visited) and the town itself needed little in the way of beautifying but I am sure that has been done as well. It was a day very well spent and remains, after some years, one of my happiest “lunatic wandering” memories. Really this place is a gem set atop (literally) a crown in the Med. and you really should go if you can.

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Sunset in Mdina. How lovely.

The day was wearing on and I was just about “touristed out” and so a beer was inevitably called for but I thought that getting back to Valletta was probably a good idea even though I knew the buses ran late enough. I managed to get a couple of images of the outer walls of Mdina on the way out and back to the bus and I am a great fan of “shadow images” so I have included one of them here which I as quite pleased with. I love the outline of the trees so clearly marked in the setting sun. I am sure that with a proper DSLR camera, tripod and all the rest that I could have made a much better job but this is the trade-off. Would I have had a better day out in a town I had quite unashamedly fallen in love with for reasons as outlined above had I been carrying half a hundredweight of camera gear? I think not. Thankfully, I do not do photography for a living or I would have starved to death years ago but my trusty little compact, which is exactly the same size as my cigarette packet, still gets the job done.  At least I hope it gets the job done although perhaps I am deluding myself and, as always, I shall let my loyal little band of readers decide.

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I thought I deserved a beer.

Back to Valletta and a quick couple of beers before getting back home to Sliema and off to bed. What a great day yet again.
I was falling rather in love with Malta but then again that is a failing of mine if it can be seen to be a failing. I have had the great good fortune, not accorded to many, to have visited many countries, most of them amazing and perhaps it is a failing that I just seem to love everywhere I visit. I may have a simplistic or even childlike view of the world but I am fully aware of how lucky I have been. I have dear friends who have been to over 100 countries each but only one of them wants to do it as a “challenge” i.e. to visit every country recognised by the UN, which is generally regarded as the international standard.
For myself, I’ll just go where the road takes me and hopefully to as good a time as I have had thus far. I have obviously taken off on another digression here and I would offer this as an observation to younger readers (if, indeed there are any), and that is to travel as much as you can as young as you can. It is a very perverse state of affairs that the people that have the time and money to travel are old grey hairs like me and maybe do not have the physical abilities to do so as they once did. Don’t get me wrong, the “grey brigade” is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry (and has been for a few years now) and long may it continue but it just seems a little odd.
A while ago I was talking to a mate of mine with two grown up kids (both at Uni) and, in the course of conversation, he told me that he and the good lady were off to the Far East skiing. When I mentioned that it wasn’t really skiing country he smiled and said to me, “No SKIing” as in “Spending the Kids Inheritance” which I thought was brilliant. I have no kids so the argument is somewhat redundant in my case but you get the point.
Still more to come so in Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.