Hallowe’en with a hearty breakfast, a decent walk and a great gig.

It’s almost winter.

Fair warning first, this is another one of my rambles, both literally and in it’s writing form so you might want to grab a drink and make yourself comfy if you feel like doing it all in one hit.  OK, if you’re sorted, let’s get to it.

After the somewhat packed day on the Wednesday, which I hope you have read about in my previous post, there wasn’t too much planned for the Thursday the 31st of October. Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve if you subscribe to Judeo – Christian mythology or the Eve of Samhain and the last day of Summer if you are a pagan. Given my experience in the raw conditions of North Shields the previous evening Summer was far from my thoughts but it was a clear, bright day if still very cold.

I am actually composing this three days before Xmas 2019 and am once again amazed at the blatant hijacking of a long-standing belief system based on Nature, crops, the seasons and all things natural. I mention Xmas as I had long known that it was merely a means of imposing Christian beliefs onto non-believers by declaring Christ’s birth as the 25th December even though there is absolutely no historical evidence to support this. With my innate curiosity I had to look up the pagan calendar, which has taken a couple of hours and has proved fascinating not to mention explaining to some degree why I m always so far behind in my blog entries!

The first mention of a Christian celebration in late December does not come until 336 AD. Similarly, it was not until 1000 AD that the 2nd of November (not the 1st as it is now) was declared All Souls or All Saints (hallows being an old word for saints) Day was superimposed on the older Samhain festival and mimicked many of the rituals associated with it, especially bonfires.#

Just to add some further confusion to the whole matter, the Romans had not one but two festivals in late October / early November. One was Feralia which commemorates the passing of the dead and the second is the Feast of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees. Obviously the Romans controlled most of Western Europe for about four centuries and so the Christian Church was effectively tacking on a totally invented festival onto not one but two much older celebrations from different, and often warring, cultures. As final proof of this, All Saints Day was originally on May 13th and not in Northern Hemisphere autumn at all. QED. Right, enough of the history lesson, interesting though it was to research, and back to Fergy in Northumberland.

We had another Working Man’s Club gig in the evening but, with Sue volunteering at the shop again and Paul up to his eyes in work, I was going to be fairly much left to my own devices all day which suited nicely. A bit more looking round Jesmond and maybe a wander into the centre of town would fill the time nicely but Paul had something to show me first. He had mentioned a cafe nearby which he raved about and we took off there for breakfast.

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A great place for breakfast.

cafébar one (no, neither word is capitalised) was small and seemed terribly trendy probably because Jesmond is terribly trendy. It also gets extremely busy and we were lucky to get a recently vacated table on a late November Thursday morning. At one point there were actually people queuing for tables not to mention those sitting outside which I would not have fancied in that freezing cold. The menu is extensive to say the least and bang up to date with all the latest eating fads. There are options for just about every food allergy, intolerance and preference with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free offerings much to the fore. The selection of teas, coffees, herbal infusions and the like made my head swim.

I had a bit of a double take moment when, in the middle of all the superfood porridge and warm rice salads etc. I spied poutine. What, in Jesmond? If you do not know what it is, poutine is the unofficial national dish of Canada and I had sampled a few plates of it on my travels there. It is basically sautéed potatoes topped with cheese and sometimes bacon and then drowned in a homemade gravy. My friend Lynne’s father Ron, a fine cook from Nova Scotia, does a particularly toothsome version.

 

Paul and I are both of a certain age and so a nice, simple full English breakfast each was called for and quickly served up by the very friendly waitress along with the coffee you can see which was effectively a minor work of art. I have long wondered a) how people do this and, more importantly, b) why do they do it? It is very pretty but a bit pointless really. The breakfast, as you can see, was nice and simple as required and also extremely tasty. Paul really was giving me the full culinary tour of Tyneside. Again, it was only whilst I was researching this post today that I found out that they source all their food locally and even name all the suppliers on their website as provided above. Special mention needs to be made of the sausages which were the tastiest I have tasted in many a long year of eating fry-ups so credit to the Amble Butchers in Morpeth, a few miles to the North.

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Aptly named, I thought.

Duly fortified we headed off on our separate missions, Paul to slave over a hot keyboard and I to, well, I wasn’t quite sure. I knew I wanted to have a look round the two large cemeteries a short distance down the road but other than that I had little idea. All I knew was that I would find something to interest me and the first such item was the charming planter you see in the image above.

As you can see, this is the Cradle Well, so named because………. Go on, take a wild guess. Actually, it has given it’s name to this whole part of Jesmond and the frighteningly busy A1058 Coast Road is called the Cradlewell bypass along this section of it’s length. The well is long gone and I am guessing this was once a water trough for animals although it is rather pleasant in it’s present state.

With the images of the well duly captured I headed off at a brisk pace towards the cemeteries and City respectively. It was no day for dawdling and the dubious delights of the bypass certainly didn’t inspire stopping to take in the view.

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Not as bad as it might have been.

The next place of interest I came to was a sight that would normally have depressed me greatly and did at the time although subsequent research has lessened that blow somewhat. It was the remains of the Cradlewell Hotel which looked like it had been closed for quite some time, 2012 to be precise. Since then, plans to turn the upstairs into a bona fide hotel (the premises had been merely a bar for many years) were scuppered by local objections, mainly about parking which is ridiculous in that area. Later plans to convert the building into flats in 2016 foundered on the same rock.

The hotel was opened on the site of an earlier pub of the same name dating to 1833 by Robert Deuchar in 1904 and he is an interesting character with strong local ties. Originally from Scotland, he and his three younger brothers moved to Tyneside in 1861 and opened a pub, the Chancellor’s Head in Newgate Street which is sadly now demolished. They must have been good at the pub game as they went on to own forty of them and breweries in Edinburgh and Newcastle. The side street beside the hotel is even called Deuchar Street! Their Duechars beer, unlike their first pub, exists to this day under the umbrella of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh (now part of the Heineken attempt at world domination) and I even have one of their T-shirts in my vast collection.

The reason I was marginally less saddened than I might have been is that Paul and Sue told me that the Cradlewell was well-known as the meeting place for all the gangsters in the City and not at all a good place to visit although I do have a vaguely suicidal tendency to seek out the roughest bars I can find so no doubt curiosity would have got the better of me. I do wish they would do something with it as it really is a bit of an eyesore in an otherwise very attractive area.

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A very fine establishment indeed.

Not 100 yards further on I came upon another “hotel” which could not have been in more direct contrast to the Cradlewell. This is the Punch Bowl Hotel and it is odd! I am not sure how to begin describing it to you so I shall let them do the work themselves with a quote from their excellent website. “Three rooms, specialising in records, doggos, vermouth, craft beers, absinthe, live bands, cinema screenings, theatre, delicious plates of scran, stand up comedy and everything in-between”, and that is just the start as you shall see.

The Hotel has been there even longer than the Cradlewell and dates from the 1870’s although there was an earlier hostelry here. I liked the look of it externally and discovered later that it is Scottish Baronial style. Every day’s a schoolday. I also noted the distinctive blue star device above the door which I instantly recognised as the Scottish and Newcastle Brewery logo, brewers of the world famous Newcastle Brown Ale and now another minor cog in the Heineken machine. Sorry about the age gate on the website, it is a legal requirement by our nanny state.  It’s not as if under 18’s aren’t just going to lie about their age anyway.

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A brand new “old” bar.

I went in to one of the two bars, which is typical of old British pubs and it was very pleasant as it should have been having only very recently been refurbished to the tune of £1 million. Like it’s now decaying companion up the road, the Punch Bowl had lain empty for a few years, 2015 to be precise, until it was bought over by a company called Frank and Bird who had re-opened it in April 2019. F&B, as they style themselves, had performed a similar trick at the Brandling Villa in nearby South Gosford which they took on as a failing / failed venture and which is now one of the top venues in the area.

I said it was odd and it is. Many places try for an eccentric / quirky feel and most don’t manage to pull it off but this place does somehow. I ordered my pint of cider spritzer with an accompanying chat to the very friendly barman who was decent enough to sympathise with my alcohol predicament when I explained about the odd mixture. That was one plus point, friendly staff and on subsequent visits he was not a one off.
The place was pretty quiet at that hour so I had plenty of choice of seats in what is a fairly sizeable room and I naturally plumped for comfy looking Chesterfield sofa beside the real (enclosed) fire which was sadly not alight but the place was certainly warm enough. Chalk up plus points two and three for the seating and heating arrangements.

 

My “table” was, at best guess, made from a goods trolley, possibly at a railway station, with a Monopoly board inlaid, but not just any Monopoly board, it was Russian! Although I have visited the place where Cyrillic script allegedly originated (it is near Ohrid on Macedonia) I do not know the alphabet properly although I find it very similar to the Greek alphabet which I can get by with. Even I know that Mockba translates as Moscow which is where the board represented and I spent some time trying to translate the various locations with limited success as I do not know Moscow at all.
I thought this was just a little curiosity but not so. When I went to the Gents later, the signs for the toilets are in Russian as well. I found out that the upstairs concert area, which features music, poetry, comedy and cinema showings amongst other things is called Bobik which meant nothing to me at the time but which I have now discovered was the name of a dog in the Russian space programme who managed to escape before being blasted into space and certain death. Poor old Laika would have done well to follow Bobik’s lead. There are a few more nods to Russian culture around the place although I still cannot find out what, if any, the connection is to Tyneside.

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I really was not expecting this.

Speaking of the toilets, they are strange as well and I have to preface this paragraph by stating that I am not in the habit of taking pictures in public house toilets but I had to do this and there was nobody else there obviously. The facilities are spotless and rather retro as the cistern of the toilet suggests but what is below the cistern is anything but retro. It is a fully electronically controlled bidet complete with heated seat and inspired, apparently, by the toilets in a Tokyo McDonalds of all things. A bidet in a Gents in a Newcastle boozer? I don’t know what Alan Hull (RIP) would have made of it all.

I know I labour the point but travelling and even moreso writing about it both here and previously elsewhere really does teach me so much. Who would have thought that a simple lunchtime pint in a Geordie boozer would have taught me all about the Russian space programme’s use of dogs (and rabbits) or the sanitary arrangements in Japanese fast food outlets?


The Russian theme is continued on the cover of the menu which depicts a Soviet cosmonaut and it is also a bit zany with liberal use of Geordie vernacular. It is not entitled menu or food but scran which is a local word for grub and has passed into wide use in the armed forces, I use it frequently myself although some visitors might struggle with it. The vegetarian / vegan section is entitled Vegan Arseholes and the children’s menu goes under Your Little Shites. I kid you not (pun intended).

Perhaps the most unusual section of the menu, and one which I have never seen before is the one for Doggos. Yes, they have a dedicated menu for our canine friends and this is in keeping with the pub’s policy of dog-friendliness which I was to witness on a future visit. I had never heard of dog popcorn or ice-cream and how dog beer differs from the human variety is anyone’s guess but they are all on offer, at a price.

 

Hanging from the roof I spied a lovely little model railway set-up which, like the fire, was not in operation that lunchtime. Hopefully, this will give you an idea of what the Punchbowl is like and there was much more to be discovered in the other bar which I was to visit later on in the trip but I shall save that for then and for now we shall head back out into the cold and the noise of the bypass and make for the cemetery.

I love old burial places and the older the better as far as I am concerned but I knew before I went that the two cemeteries on opposite sides of the road were not going to be that old. The history of the area told me as much as virtually nobody had lived here until the middle of the 19th century. Judging by the size of the two graveyards many people not only lived but also died hereabouts in the intervening period. They were both well-tended and I had a bit of a chat with one of the chaps responsible for that as he was doing his sweeping. The memorials were pretty much what I would have expected from the Victorian period onwards and I only had a brief look round and the obligatory image or two.

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Something else I was not expecting.

About the only thing of real interest I discovered was that the little chapel in All Saints cemetery appears to be the meeting place for the local Russian Orthodox congregation of the Parish of St. George, hence the image of the eponymous holy man and his unfortunate draconine victim as pictured above. It always amuses me that George is the patron saint of England, amongst many other places, when he was from modern day Turkey and never actually set foot on the “green and pleasant land”.

Of course I had never previously considered the presence of an Orthodox Christian community in Newcastle but it appears there is one and it is fairly active if it’s Facebook page is to be believed. It seems like everyone has one now.

 

I crossed the road at the pedestrian crossing as doing otherwise would have been exhibiting a death wish which I really do not have, contrary to some people’s belief. The Old Cemetery there was not really that old, dating only to 1836 and so is much similar in it’s appearance to it’s fellow across the road. What is undeniably impressive is the entrance which is to the design of John Dobson who I have mentioned before. He was the man who seems to have virtually single-handedly designed Newcastle, including the wonderful railway station and is fittingly buried here as are other notables like Robert Deuchars who I mentioned earlier and the father of Lord Armstrong of Jesmond Dene fame, himself a noted engineer.

The list of those who have their final resting place here is long, about 25,000 or so and includes the man who invented the clear sticking plaster, the founder of Fenwicks department store which still trades in the city and Miss Muriel Evelyn Robb, the 1902 Wimbledon Ladies Singles Champion. Sadly, Miss Robb did not live long to enjoy her achievement as she died tragically young five years later.
What I found rather sad during my research was that the first interment here on 9th December of that year was Margaret Redford Hoy, the 14-year-old daughter of a Newcastle grocer and her grave was unmarked. I have long thought that all are equal in death and here is a prime example of this poor young lass whose kin could not even afford a headstone lying alongside the great and the good of the City.  OK Fergy, pull yourself together and don’t get maudlin because you still have a lot more places to show your good readers.
I knew that the bypass would lead me right into the centre of the city but I had had about enough of it by then and so I took off on another one of my *happily getting lost” treks. I had seen that there was a rear entrance, considerably less grand than the front and so I headed for that. On the way, I passed the South Lodge which I did not know at the time is a listed building and was originally home to the Superintendent of the Cemetery. I came out directly opposite the Sandyford Social Cluband idly wondered if Paul had sought gigs in there, it would have been walking distance from home for him.
I was working on the not unreasonable assumption that if I kept going downhill I would eventually end up at the river and hence the centre of town eventually so I took a completely random route along back streets which is a favourite pastime of mine. In total contradiction of the old cliche “onward and upward” I was heading very deliberately onward and downward and thoroughly enjoying it. I do hope that is not reflective of my life in general. People think I am crazy for taking pleasure in wandering unremarkable residential streets but I find it invaluable in getting feel for a place and I had not a care in the world, let alone the faintest idea where I was.

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It had to be worth a look.

Eventually I came to a main road which my map now tells me was the A193 if you are interested. I wasn’t then but I was interested in the New Bridge pub across the road which styled itself as a neighbourhood bar which sounded great to me. I have to say it was not what my pre-conceived idea of a Newcastle neighbourhood bar might have been but, then again, what exactly is a neighbourhood bar? Surely by definition surely every urban pub must be in a neighbourhood. Yes, I am rambling again and I shall stop. #

 

The bar was sizeable, modern and empty. I would not have expected much lunchtime trade round here and it looked much more like an evening sort of place with the big screen TVs, pool table and apparently occasional live music. What it also had was something I had never seen in a bar was the huge item you can see in the image which is apparently a shuffleboard. I thought shuffleboard was a game played on the decks of cruise ships but apparently it is becoming popular in bars if you have the room as I have since seen one in newly opened hotel / bar not five minutes walk from my home. I had a bit of a look at the rules and it looks a bit like shove ha’penny on steroids to me.

As I was getting used to in this part of the world, the welcome was very warm and I had a good chat with the two young ladies serving before having a seat and catching up on the sports news on the TV. Pleasant as it was, I knew I still had plenty to see and I was rationing my drinks so I could potentially visit more pubs and there was still a gig in the evening to consider.


Back out the door and a right turn as that was very clearly downhill and fairly steep to boot so I reckoned the Tyne was getting close as indeed it turned out to be. A couple more images here which may appear random but were taken for a reason. The first shows exactly how down I mean by downhill, I wouldn’t like to tackle this in the snow. It serves a double purpose as the buildings on the right, which look to me like a five year old’s attempt at a colouring-in book, are student accommodation. Maybe the bright colours are some sort of homing mechanism for when they roll out of the Student’s Union drunk.

The second image is of a gateway in the same building and shows why it is a student residence. If you look through the gates you see what looks a bit like an advertising hoarding with the logo GBRf on it but is actually part of a rather long freight train which was rumbling past literally feet away from the back wall of the building. Nobody but students would have lived there!
Following my downhill route to it’s logical conclusion I emerged onto the Quayside and the image above is the first of a rather large amount I took featuring the various bridge

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The first of many.

s over the Tyne from every conceivable angle. To avoid the blog turning into Bridge Enthusiasts Monthly I shall post a separate page of nothing but these images which you can skip if cantilever, suspension and cable stayed leave you cold (they are all types of bridges).  OK, I admit I slipped one of the Tyne Bridge in as the header for this page which was taken from about the same spot and I am very fond of because it of the lowering sun.  I work on the principle that if I take enough images I might get one I like every once in a while.

The Quayside has obviously had a few quid spent on it recently like nearby North Shields and it’s Fish Quay which featured in my last post and it is now crammed with upmarket eateries and watering holes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking it but again I couldn’t help thinking how different it must be from when it was a busy working quay with it’s attendant bustle, smells and noise.

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A fine old building.

There are still a few old buildings in more or less their original state and I was particularly taken by the old Custom House you can see above which dates to 1766 although it was altered considerably in 1833. Unsurprisingly it is a listed building now in use as barristers chambers. After a bit more Quayside and a lot more bridge imagery I decided to get away from the river again as there was a wind blowing up it that would have cut corn as they so delightfully put it in Northern Ireland.

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An unusual name for a steep climb.

A bit more random wandering and I came upon the wonderfully named Dog Leap Stairs which I decided to climb even though they looked a bit steep. Why? Because they were there, to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary. Up I went, blowing a bit as I was still not back to what passes for full fitness even at my age. The stairs themselves are fairly unremarkble and the I have since discovered that even the name is not as exciting as it might have been. I had vague notions of a brave canine having to jump down off them in the course of some heroic act or other but they are merely named for the dogleg in them.  They so get a mention in Dire Straits’ 1978 song ‘Down to the Waterline’ but thn again Mark Knopfler was brought up on Tyneside.

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It doesn’t look like much now.

As is so often the way I found an interesting if visually unimpressive item as I was pausing to catch my breath. The rather forlorn looking stone square is all that remains of the original Anglo-Saxon church which once stood on this site and long predates the nearby Castle. Equally interesting was that neither Paul nor Sue, who are both very well up on local history knew of it’s existence which only goes to prove how easy it is to miss things on your own doorstep. I know I am never done finding things in London in places I have been frequenting for over 30 years.

I had managed to get myself into the road called Black Gate which was rather unimaginatively named for the Black Gate of the Castle which gives the city it’s name. It was built between 1247 and 1250 which is Henry III vintage so it is going back a bit although there have been numerous additions over the centuries from the original functional defensive structure. You can visit the Castle but I didn’t bother as, to be honest, I fancied a bit more exploring.

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I’ll get there later on.

I didn’t have far to go for my next “find” although you could hardly describe it as such for it is hard to miss a bloody great bridge, in this case the High Level Bridge. With a great effort of will I took a quick snap of the lovely looking Bridge Hotel and didn’t go in! That situation was to be rectified later in the trip so I’ll leave the history of the place until then.

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More bridges!

If my walking past an open pub was a demonstration of willpower it was nothing to that I had to exhibit next. It is not called the High Level Bridge for nothing, it is a very long way down and I really do not like heights. What persuaded me was that I knew if I braved it that I could probably get some decent images of the other bridges. Again, I am only going to bore you with one of the images and put the rest in the gallery I shall post later. Despite my absolute terror, I think they were worth it, the sun was more or less shining, the river was flat calm giving some lovely reflections and whilst they were not Terence Donovan I was happy with them.

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A Geordie pub shut in the daytime?

Retreating sharply from the bridge I retraced my steps past the Castle Keep and Castle Garth, again resisting the temptation to go in for a look. I really must do that next time. I was just about ready for another drink now and the Empress Bar came in sight but it was surprisingly not open until the evening. Paul later told me that it wasn’t much of a boozer anyway so it probably wasn’t too much of a loss and investigating it led me to the next point of interest which, as the image shows, is the oddly named Amen Corner.

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I know a band of that name.

Readers of a certain age will immediately associate this with a moderately successful 1960’s pop group featuring Andy Fairweather Low, who is till touring at the age of 71 and Blue Weaver, also still active in the music business at 72 after stints with Strawbs, the Bee Gees and Mott the Hoople amongst others. I wondered if the band were from here but a quick bit of research gave the lie to that notion as the band was named after an event in a Cardiff night club. It also led me to discover that there are Amen Corners all over the place including the City of London which I thought I knew pretty well and lying off a street I know for a fact I have walked along often. I have never seen Amen Corner on that street but I’ll be looking for it now. The name itself and the fact that the two locations in Newcastle and London are close to St.Nicholas’ and St. Paul’s Cathedrals respectively, might explain it. It appears the clergy in nearby St.Nicholas Church were in the habit of processing round the grounds praying and this is where they finished up, hence the Amen.

With that piece of pop nostalgia and clerical trivia more or less sorted out, let’s carry on. I walked up past the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas which dates originally to 1080 although most of the building is 14th century and the tower 15th. It is the most Northerly cathedral in England and I would have liked to visit but kept on walking in search of that elusive pint. Just beside the cathedral is the rather fine statue of Queen Victoria and it is interesting that I took both the images above with my back to a revolting looking 1970’s office block called “One Cathedral Square” which houses the Department of Work and Pensions amongst other things. I have mentioned the appalling T. Dan Smith, corrupt politician (is there any other sort?), convicted criminal and architectural vandal and I would love to blame him for this eyesore but I can’t as it post-dates his destructive time in office. Ir is just another example of the blindness of town planners in the latter half of the last century.


Walking a mere 100 yards or so, I turned into Cloth Market and things were not going to get any better as about half of the lower end seemed to consist of long boarded up premises. I don’t know if this is the result of economic malaise or it is part of a planned redevelopment. I found one particularly poignant example of such a building, not only because it was a closed down pub but also because of an important local musical connection. The image above shows Balmbra’s in it’s last incarnation as a Motown Bar, whatever that might be. I had a look in the rather grimy windows and saw that the place was completely gutted although there was some wonderful tile work still visible on the walls which were totally in keeping with the 1902 date of construction but there had been pub on this site called the Wheatsheaf long before and it is this which has the musical association mentioned for it was here that George Ridley first performed “The Blaydon Races”.
If you have never heard the song, it is a sort of unofficial “national anthem” for Newcastle and the Northeast, supplanted only much later to a degree by Lindisfarne’s “Fog on the Tyne” in the early 1970’s. Much more of them later. Blaydon Races is one of those songs that tests the memory as it has about 108 verses (OK, it has six really) and it always reminds me of “The Rocky Road to Dublin” in the Irish canon, neither of which I can remember in full. Paul does a great rendition of the former and I do try and assist on the chorus which I have mastered. The pub is mentioned in the couplet, “Ah tyuk the ‘bus frae Balmbra’s, an’ she wis heavy laden, away we went alang Collingwood Street, that’s on the road to Blaydon”. Yes, it is in dialect! I wonder what the riders on the horse drawn omnibus would have made of Collingwood Street or the A186 as it is less pleasingly named now.

Yes, I know I am rambling again and I am going to do some more right now. One of the images above shows the sadly padlocked and graffitied door which was taken primarily to illustrate the demise of this once popular establishment but I didn’t pay much attention to the graffiti at the time as I just put it down to the usual mindless vandalism that is endemic just about everywhere in the so-called developed world today.

Amongst what are presumably the initials and barely legible “tags” of the idiots that do this you will see the numbers 420-710, so what is all that about? My readership is small, although I like to think they are an exclusive group, and I know many of them personally. They are fine, upstanding people to a man and woman which is why I am providing this little explanation. For reasons which I can explain but won’t bore you with the term 420 refers to smoking cannabis and 710 refers to cannabis oil which is one of the ways it is taken. Why 710? Turn it upside down and read it. So now you know, every day’s a schoolday, just don’t ask me how I know all this.


Balmbra’s was interesting in it’s way but not much use to me so I kept on walking and luckily didn’t have to go far until I was at the door to Pumphrey’s Bar although I wasn’t there long. I was straight through it and up to the bar to go through the rigmarole of explaining the cider spritzer again. This was a bit more embarrassing here than in some other establishments as it was clearly a “proper pub”. It was full of men (very few women) who were mostly intent on watching the various horse racing meets on the different big screens and constantly checking the Sporting Life and Racing Post and whatever other publications gamblers favour. I know nothing about it as I never gamble and would not even know how to fill out a bookies docket. I can only imagine that in more tolerant times the air would have been blue with cigarette smoke. I managed to find a seat and had a look round what was obviously a fairly old establishment.

Again, it was only subsequent research that unearthed all the secrets of the place and, you’ve guessed it, another interesting story. Pumphrey’s is named for Thomas Pumphrey and, as you can see, it is a very impressive hostelry indeed. This is hardly surprising as it had a £100,000 makeover in 2018 courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund and it appears to have been money well spent.

All is not, however, as it appears as the premises here was not the original Pumphrey’s which was elsewhere and it was most certainly not a pub as the business was originally a grocers and coffee and tea dealers founded by George Richardson who was a Quaker and abhorred alcohol. Pumphrey was his nephew and of similar ideas regarding the demon drink and it is only in 1974 that the former grocers, coffee roasters and popular coffee house was converted into a bar.  I do wonder what Messrs. Richardson and Pumphrey’s would make of the “Devil’s buttermilk” being sold in their fine, now listed premises.

The coffee side of the company flourishes with several branches and even a training establishment so, if you do not fancy a pint you can get a decent cup of Java in the coffee shop next door.

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Time to get back to base.

A quick stop into the excellent Army surplus store yielded a DPM (camo) headover which I use as a bandana and that pleased me greatly as I had been looking for one for ages. It is amazing how difficult those things are to find and my previous one was just about on it’s last legs. After that it was back to the Metro and the quick journey to Jesmond because I still had things to do.

As had been the case the previous day, I could have sat indoors that evening and been well content with an interesting and enjoyable day but I was here for a reason and we had another gig that night and so it was a bite to eat and then back to the Tube for the journey to Jarrow and the Alberta Club. As we were approaching Jarrow station I asked Paul if it was far to the venue and he smiled, pointed out the window and said, That’s it”. The club was literally across the road and it’s postal address is Railway Street which gives you an idea.

30 seconds brought us to the club and again I was amazed at how big and well-equipped it was. I wouldn’t like to say which was the larger between it and the Iona we had previously played in, there is not much on it. The Alberta has two bars, one much larger than the other and equipped with pool tables, dartboards and the like and then, to the rear, a sizeable function hall where we were going to do our thing. Honestly, the social clubs round Newcastle really are impressive. I have played in such establishments before but never anything on the sheer physical scale of these.

Here I was in a working man’s club in Jarrow and I could not help but think about the history of the area a bit, as I had been doing since Paul had told me we were playing there. Jarrow sits on the Tyne in Co. Durham and is effectively now part of Newcastle but in years past it was a separate community and is probably famous in most people’s minds for one thing – the Jarrow March.

The March, officially called the Jarrow Crusade, happened in October 1936 and was born out of the massive unemployment in the town (and the region and country generally) which had been caused by the closure of the local Palmer’s Shipyard in 1934. As it was effectively the only local employer of note this was a devastating blow and unemployment peaked in NE England in 1932 at a staggering 28.5%. Even by the time of the march it was 16.8% and unemployment nationally in the ship building industry was 33.3% so it is easy to appreciate the problem. The marchers, or Crusaders as they liked to be known, carried a petition all the way to London for presentation to Parliament asking for the establishment of some form of industry in the town to relieve the situation.

For much of the way, the march was led by Ellen Wilkinson, the firebrand one-time Communist and then Labour MP for Jarrow. She is very well remembered and there is an Ellen Wilkinson House a block of flats) not 20 minutes walk from my home as well as a primary school named for her a little further away in Beckton and a secondary school for girls, also named for her, in West London.

The March / Crusade made it to London, Wilkinson presented the petition, they went back home by train and that was that. They had achieved absolutely nothing but the endeavour is well remembered to this day as a symbol of the hardship of the times.  Coincidentally, in the interim period since I played there and writing this in January 2020 I watched an episode of the excellent Great British Railway Journeys series presented on the BBC by the former Conservative politician Michael Portillo which spent some time dealing with the march and I do recommend it if you can find it online.
When we walked in, we were greeted by a couple of people who had been at the “Fireside” gig in the Iona, it appears the band have a bit of a following. More were to arrive nearer gig time and I was surprised and extremely flattered that several people said hello and called me by name. It was certainly not an arduous gig as a couple of the “turns” were guitarists themselves, and far better than me, so I let them get on with it. There were several of the performers from the previous gig amongst the Iona contingent including Angelina who you see in the image above along with half of me and half of Paul which I should explain.

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Honestly, I did play and I can prove it!

Martin the percussionist wasn’t required for Angelina’s set as she sings mostly slow ballads and so he was sitting out and took a few images on his ‘phone. Why he used monochrome I don’t know but I think it makes a pleasant change and he was concentrating on the main event i.e. the lovely lady singer and so didn’t frame it with my ugly mug fully captured. Frankly, I don’t blame him for that but I have included this as it is probably the only image I have of me playing on the whole trip and it proves that I did knock out a few chords lest you think I am making it all up.

With the gig safely under our belts and the audience apparently well satisfied judging by the comments it was time for the Metro home, a quick brew and off to bed. This really was turning into a brilliant trip and I was loving it.

Just a final word before I sign off. Right at the top of this post I mentioned that it was three days before Xmas as I was composing this and that was indeed true. How I am now looking to publish it on the 18th of January is testament to a) the fact that I have been quite busy, mostly doing things I will eventually have to write about here and b) the grave failing that I have of being able to put things off almost indefinitely. I shall never get caught up at this rate but I’ll try.

In the next post I do something that I normally don’t do and have not done for years plus I have the most amazing tea so stay tuned and spread the word.

Gluttony in the George.

Viking Bay, Broadstairs.
My attempt at being arty.

I do not know if you have reached this page through following my exploits chronologically / sequentially or if you just landed here by reason of something very bad you did in a previous life! If it is the former you will know that I had been up eating snacks at 0430 on this morning and if it is the latter you will not have known this but you do now! Despite all this nocturnal noshing I still managed to awake at some ridiculously early hour and I knew I would not get back to sleep so it was up and shower and out to face a pretty decent if chilly autumnal morning.

You may know that I am following the Rugby World Cup when I can. Dave the manager opens the George pub early (his normal time is 1100) if there is a match of particular interest on but I could not for the life of me remember if he was opening before time on that particular day so I took a bit of a wander along the front and had a try at taking an “arty” type shot or two of the sun reflecting off the water. I’m not sure if this is arty or just a mess but I quite like it. The rather safer options of the pier and Viking Bay and the information board at least turned out vaguely competent

I eventually ambled up to the pub in time for the 1045 kick off New Zealand vs. South Africa fixture. If you don’t follow rugby, these are two big hitters either of whom could win the competition and it was always going to be a bruising affair. The NZ All Blacks are my tip for the Cup as they are just so consistently good. The game was as tough as it had looked on paper and NZ ran out eventual winners 23 – 13. Although it will dent their confidence a bit this is not a major setback for the Springboks (South Africa) as both teams should progress from the group stage to the quarter finals.

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Breakfast is served.

If it is an early kick off, Dave knocks up bacon or bacon and sausage rolls (free, gratis and for nothing) which he dishes up to all and sundry and much appreciated they are. He was not doing that on this day but he seems to have taken it upon himself to feed me up following my recent illness. In truth, I am a bit thin at present. To this end produced a huge bowl of chilli con carne which was left over from the quiz night on the Thursday although he had spiced it up just a little as he knows I like a bit of a kick to my food but it was still not terribly hot. What it was, though, was completely gorgeous as anything in the stew / casserole / curry etc. line is when left overnight and re-heated. I know that proper recipes for certain French dishes actually call for them to be left overnight to let the flavours “get to know each other” as I like to put it.

My dear friend Poetry the barmaid was in the pub although not in a working capacity and she had been partying all night. I remember the days I was her age and could do it as well. As it happens, I reckon I probably still could if the Doctors would let me. Well, for one night anyway. There was no way I could finish all that Dave had given me although I had a good go at it and Poetry asked could she finish it. I wish she had asked me earlier as we could have got another plate and shared it while it was still hot. She took one spoonful of it and what happened next was spectacular. I wish I had had the presence of mind to film it as it was comical. As I said , it was not really hot at all but she reacted as if it was a Phall curry with extra naga chillies on the side. She was fanning her mouth, gasping, calling for water and all sorts of antics, it really was hysterical. When she had eventually calmed down sh told me that she cannot eat spicy food at all. I would love to see her face off a proper Thai jungle curry some time, that would be worth watching.
After the rugby I had a bit of a catch up on this blog and about half three in the afternoon I was hungry again despite the huge amount of chilli I had consumed not five hours previously. Back across the road to the Seafarer which I have mentioned previously and a battered sausage and chips was soon enough delivered to my table in the pub, I love this system!

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A late lunch is then served.

More online activity and a couple of pints of my new tipple followed so I suppose I should tell you about that. I was in the Wrotham one evening and lamenting the fact that I had been forced to cut down on my consumption so radically to Mira the barmaid. I have known Mira for a long time and her husband is a musician in a couple of prog rock bands so we all get along very well. Mira asked me if if I fancied a “ciderwater”. A what? Mira is a cider drinker herself and she told me that she sometimes drinks it when she is working. It is effectively a cider shandy but made half and half with soda water instead of lemonade, hence the name. It sounded disgusting and I told her so but Mira has a habit of talking me into doing things I don’t want to do which hitherto had normally meant me having another pint of real cider and so I had one.

What can I tell you about “ciderwater” other than that I was right? It did taste disgusting although I am still drinking it and actually getting used to it a bit now. Certainly it is not a patch on the proper stuff but you can still taste a little something. I just could not spend a whole evening drinking soda water and lime or orange juice or whatever. Added to that it looks like a pint, albeit somewhat anaemic so I do not have the psychological thing of everybody knowing I am not drinking. I know it is not a problem but everybody round here knows my backstory and it would just take too long to keep explaining it. I must admit I still feel a bit embarrassed asking barstaff for it but they do not bat an eyelid. Changed times from when I was a young man when even driving was not deemed an excuse for not drinking, ridiculous as that is.

Of course there is the financial aspect of drinking and I reckon that with my new ciderwater regime coupled with the vaping instead of lining the Government’s pockets with their unjustifiable tobacco taxes I must be saving a fortune. Ordinarily I would put a windfall like this towards another overseas trip but obviously that is not currently an option. I’ll let you know what happens.

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An early evening snack is served.

Come about half past eight in the evening and that appetite of mine was rearing it’s not so ugly head again. Seafarer time again for a “snack” of two fishcakes, just to keep me going you understand. Being a Saturday night, it was a little later to bed that night although I still managed yet another few late night munchies before I got my head down.

There is important rugby in the next post (yes, more important than NZ vs. RSA) so stay tuned and spread the word.

Vincent, half a breakfast, two gigs and back to bed.

I woke up well rested again early on the morning of Thursday 15th August and due to my late arrival from London it was already the penultimate day of the Festival and I felt as if I had barely started. I had a bit of time to spare so I decided to go for a look round Spencer Square where the hotel was as someone had told me that Vincent van Gogh once lived there. It did not take me long to find the appropriate blue plaque commemorating the fact on the wall of number 11 on the opposite side of the square. I love blue plaques as I find them are endlessly interesting.

A few doors along there was another blue plaque, this time erected by the Ramsgate Society commemorating the residence of one John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) who I had never heard of but was apparently editor of the Quarterly Review which I had similarly never heard of although internet research shows it was a journal published from 1809 -1967. It appears that Lockhart was more famous for being the son-in-law of the writer Sir Walter Scott. Not much of a claim to fame really and I think I may have an answer to why about every third building in Ramsgate “boasts” a local plaque and that is that Margate, just along the coast is exactly the same. Ramsgate and Margate have traditionally been rivals and are now competing for the tourist second home and retirement home markets amongst others and I think there is some one upmanship going on. Of course, I could be wrong and it would not be the first time.

I had not really eaten for a couple of days and so I took myself to the huge Royal Victoria Pavilion, a fairly new J.D. Wetherspoons venue (OPENED 2018) on the seafront adjacent to the Royal Harbour. It is their largest outlet by far and was the largest pub in the UK when it opened. Despite this, it has some very strange menu / drink choices and one of them impacted on me here. JDW do a number of variations on the theme of Eggs Benedict of which my favourite is Eggs Royale which substitutes salmon for the traditional ham yet this is the only Wetherspoons I know that does not offer it. Nor does it offer Strongbow cider although it is on the tabletop advertising blurb. I noticed another omission from the normal menu but I cannot recall what it is just now. I really do not understand the thinking.

Eggs Benedict it was then, beautifully cooked and served promptly and yet my ever-decreasing appetite did not even allow me to finish it, tasty as it was but at least it was some food in me and I took what was supposed to be a bit of an arty image of the beach through the window from where I was sitting. I have to say that the views from the Pavilion are stunning and there will be more in further posts in this series.

It is only a short walk to the bus and another one at the far end in Broadstairs and I was once again setting up with Paul for yet another playaround. Happy days and again there was a reasonable crowd for this late in the week. When this was over, Paul and Sue again took off somewhere and I decided to sit tight again as the afternoon act was another guy I know called Gabe so I settled in for that, again drinking little and still not feeling quite up to par.

Gabe often plays troubadour but on this occasion was backed by another guy I know and have jammed with called Jeff on bass and another couple of musos who I did not know. Gabe does a few of his own but predominantly covers and he does love James Taylor (who doesn’t?) so that got a good outing. For me, the highlight was when he got Bessie from the Dealers band up for a number, which you can see here. I am not sure if the Dealers are actually still a functioning unit but it was Bessie and a guy called Pierre and they were very, very good. I discovered them at Folk Week years ago. Don’t worry about the name, it is nothing to do with drug dealing but rather that they come from the town of Deal in Kent, simple as that!

Not long after the band had finished my ‘phone went and it was Paul asking me if I fancied joining him and Sue for a pint in the Magnet, another of the numerous micropubs in the area. As it is literally 50 yards up the road and in the direction I would eventually be going anyway, that seemed like a plan and so I said my goodbyes at the bar, picked up my guitar and moved onwards, ever onwards.

When I went into the Magnet I met quite a few people I knew as well as Sue and Paul so it was another round of handshakes and hugs all round. I suppose I should give you a quick rundown on the place which I first encountered many years ago as the Fish and Beer bar which was exactly what it was, a Belgian themed establishment with an open kitchen, limited but tasty menu and a great selection of great if expensive beers. It was owned by a guy who owned a quite upmarket fish restaurant in Ramsgate and he really did not have time to keep both projects going so he put it on the market and it was bought by my great friends John and Jo who I have known for years. They changed the name to Reef and carried on much in the same vein as before although over the several years they had it the food took a gradually less forward role but there was still a superb selection of interesting beers. In 2018 they were forced to close for a while as the cellar was flooded by a mains leak in the road outside and I was asked to play the re-opening night which I did with my dear friend Noel McAuley and we had a great night. Well, it was a great night until the point right at the end where I misjudged the relative positions of the bar stool I was playing on and the wall behind and with my final, “Thank you, goodnight” ringing in their ears the crowd were treated to me doing a not very graceful dying swan off the back of the stool, cracking my head on the wall and ending up with my legs in the air in an undignified heap but still clutching the miraculously undamaged guitar.

Thankfully there was no harm done except to my pride and I will eventually get round to writing up when I put together Broadstairs 2018 as a project here! Don’t hold your breath though.

I was introduced to Will, the new landlord, and his good lady, was made to feel most welcome and sat down for a bit of a chat and a catch up. I really had no intention of playing any more that day but, as my dear friend Suzi once remarked to me, “You are just a party waiting to happen”. There is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in this as there is with most things she says and never moreso than when I am with Paul as we just seem to egg each other on.

Paul Lucas and Fergy Campbell at the Magnet micropub Broadstairs.
Paul and I doing what we love to do.

The original plan was that we would just go and sit in the “Musicians Corner” and play a few tunes and songs acoustically. Well, that was the plan anyway. Somehow it escalated into having one ambient mic just for a bit of poke although between my voice and Paul’s banjo we could fill that space three times over, it really is a micro micropub. As well as being a purveyor of fine alcoholic refreshment, Will is a card-carrying sound engineer and a very good one at that. His argument was why bother with one ambient when he had the full PA rig already deployed and ready to go and so we ended up as you see us above, fully stage rigged as we would be for a proper paid gig. Why not as I was still playing catch up to a degree and was relatively fresh despite my illness? Paul is just like the Duracell bunny, he never knows when to quit.

To make a long story short, we must have played another two hours and had a jolly old time. I know we attracted a bit of passing trade as people told us so later and were asking what our band name was etc. (we have never had one in all these years although Paul is currently in Shamrock Street and I played for years with the Northern Celts until the travelling made it impossible) and so everyone was happy. Will was getting a few £££ over the bar, we were having a ball and getting a few pints for our trouble and the punters seemed to enjoy it from their reaction and kind applause and the fact that they didn’t just walk out. What’s not to like?

I suppose we probably finished about 2100 and again I was feeling the pace so off for yet another early bed. This really was getting ridiculous.

Last day of Folk Week in the next post so stay tuned and spread the word.

Have you met Darth Vader?

Apparently nothing happened on the 8th as I do not have a single image but on the morning of the 9th my kid brother turned up on yet another one of his hugely powered motorcycles (he has a fleet of them) and I asked him to take an image. This one is his comfy BMW tourer that he uses to go away on with his missus.  He also has a CBX which he loves and is about 40 years of age but still pristine and a VFR which is a bit rapid to say the least.

He insisted on putting the visor down and so, ladies and gentlemen, I present my younger sibling, the very nice Mr. Vader (Darth by name) who really does not deserve the press he gets! Round the village / town where he lives (I am never sure of the proper designation) he is generally known as “Big Al” which makes me smile a little as I am taller than him. I dread to think what they call me behind my back. “Big Al’s Big Brother” perhaps or more likely, “That eejit that appears now and again, drinks a bit and plays the guitar and then buggers off again”. Really, at my time of life I don’t care.

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My brother, who really is a hardcore biker.

This admittedly short entry is only here to put this image in some sort of context.  Believe me, I head for mainland UK in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.

A strange day back in the old hometown.

Nothing to report for the next couple of days but on the 7th I knew I had to get to Belfast. As I have explained before it is ludicrously the only way I can buy a sailrail ticket back to London by travelling to the rail Travel Centre there. Still, I hadn’t managed to get to the city of my birth since I had been home so it was no great hardship.

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A pleasant enough journey on the train deposited me at the station and straight to the Travel Centre where a friendly guy dealt with me quickly and efficiently (look, I have my travel writing head back on now) so the rest of the day was mine. What to do? Well, obviously a drink or two would be called for but I fancied a bit of a wander round, just for the old times. Damn, I grew up here when it was a lot different.

First stop was always going to be the Crown Bar, a wonderful place which is actually owned by the National Trust and is arguably the most famous bar in the city. Nowadays tourists wander in the door, take a few photos and walk out without even buying a soft drink which I think is a bit rude but that is the modern world, I suppose.

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View from a snug.

I managed to bag a little snug by the door from which I could watch things going on whilst being relatively unobserved myself. Suits me and that is and was the purpose of the snug. If you don’t know what a snug is (they are all but extinct now) then look back to an earlier entry here where I explain it. A couple of pints and I was ready for a walk.

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Check out the windows, they are magnificent although sadly not completely original from years of IRA bombing of the Europa Hotel across the road.

Taking a couple of “back doubles” (i.e. backstreets and alleyways) I could still remember, I wandered down the side of Belfast City Hall which is a wonderful place to visit should you be in Belfast. They also have a really helpful Tourist Information place there. I only had a vague idea of where I was going, actually I had no idea, and so I headed for Royal Avenue which for the benefit of my UK readers is like the Oxford Street of London or, I suppose 5th Avenue in New York or wherever. It is basically the main shopping thoroughfare and I trundled along until a sudden thought hit me. I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.

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This is so typical of Belfast.

I thought I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
There are obviously some brilliant artists in the country and most of them tend to do their work on walls rather than canvas or paper. The murals in Belfast and, indeed, the rest of Northern Ireland, are famous and there are organised tours which do nothing but visit them. Many of them are sectarian and glorify terrorists and history that would probably best be left alone although the genre seems to have extended now to non-controversial subject matter. I just thought this was a beautiful piece of work, not that I am any sort of art critic.
Memo to self. Do a piece on Belfast murals when you ever get round to it.

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Another place of my youth.

Having had my artistic fix for the day (I was never going to go to a gallery) I made Kelly’s. This is quite an odd place in some respects, mostly associated with my youth. Belfast really was tribal when I was a teenager and walking down the wrong street would literally get you a kicking or worse. Being where it is, Kelly’s would not have been the type of place I would have gone to because it was on the “wrong” side. What actually changed a lot of that, if only for a while, was the music. In about 1976 or 1977 the punk explosion happened and all bets were off.
I liked the punk scene and the music although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I never really got into the whole thing very much apart from one awful attempt to dye my hair purple and wearing old jackets I had bought in charity shops but it really was the big thing.  Sectarianism was still killing hundreds of people a year in a country of (then) about 1.5 million people but that all went by the board with the punk scene. We had some bloody good bands too, Stiff Little Fingers probably being the most famous, but others like Protex, Ruefrex etc. were also doing good stuff. I always liked the Outcasts because I went to school with Greg the bass player. If I can find the image of when we met at a school reunion 30 years later I’ll post it here. He hasn’t changed (and still plays) but I just look bloody old!
The thing about Kelly’s was that it didn’t matter about your background or religion or whatever. If you were into the music, that was enough. Sure, it took the rest of the country long enough to catch up. In fairness, rock gigs were the same. When I used to go and see the late Rory Gallagher (in my not so humble opinion still the best white blues guitarist ever) and people like Horslips (brilliant Celtic folk-rock band) nobody gave a damn who you were or where you came from but they tended to play in big venues like the Ulster Hall (Rory) and the Whitla Hall (Horslips), both of which were in fairly “neutral” areas. Kelly’s was a bit different.
In I went and not a damn thing had changed in about 40 years, it was exactly as I remembered except for the constant stream of tourists coming in for a pint of Guinness, a few photos and a bowl of the Irish Stew, speciality of the house and which looked and smelt gorgeous although I didn’t try it, it was far too early in the day for eating. Yet another one for the memory bank and, dragging myself away from the brilliant barmaid who was cranking my Belfast accent up by about 10% per hour (I came back to England sounding so broad) I took off again.

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It is a lot different to what I remember.

Partly by accident and, I suppose, subliminally by design I found myself at Smithfield market. Well, the image tells you what it looks like. In my day it was a collection of wooden shacks selling everything imaginable and some things you possible would not wish to imagine. I loved the place. I bought my first guitar in there.
I had learned a few chords on an old Eko Ranger 6 that my Dad had brought home (and never even lifted to my knowledge although he plays keyboards well) but I wanted my own and I paid £15 for a Harmony six string which is not a great make but I wish I had it now.  I read a quote from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers saying it was his first guitar and it was unplayable but mine played reasonably well and I loved it.
As for the Eko, it still resides in my Dad’s house, bruised, battered but never broken and it features in an earlier entry in this set of blogs about this trip. Look for the entry where I constructed a capo from a bookie’s pen and a few hairbands! It has to be well over 50 years old now and the action is still pretty good. I suppose it is a bit like I am really – too old, rough round the edges and pretty ugly but still holding up a tune. I reckon it will outlive me!

Smithfield now is just sterile and wasn’t to my liking at all. Sure, I am glad they rebuilt it but it just isn’t the same. I had a look in a few shops but I might as well have been in Camden Market in London i.e. overpriced tat aimed at tourists. I do realise that I am starting to sound really old now but, as I have said, I can only write one way.
Leaving the 21st century predictablility of the new Smithfield I kept on walking as I usually do in search of something I could at least refer back to and which had not been swept away (i.e. blown up) by the the ravages of organised criminals posing as “freedom fighters” and subsequently replaced at huge expense to the taxpayer (i.e. me) on the back of the so-called “peace dividend”.

I obviously love the fact that you don’t have to walk about Belfast now wondering if you might have the front of a building blown out over your head and killing or maiming you, although that possibility still regrettably exists, but I cannot help but feel somewhere in me that the soul of the place has somehow got lost in translation. Certainly I have been away for a long time but I feel like a stranger in Belfast now even with my thick accent making me sound enough like a local to get by.

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An unusual hangout for me.

I walked along a few streets that I recognised by their location if not the premises there and came on the Mermaid Inn which is not a place I would have frequented when I was living there. This was not for any reason of personal safety as it is in a fairly neutral central zone, it just was not a place I used to hang out. It was OK although nothing special and a bit soulless so one pint in there was enough and back for another little trip down memory lane (there is an intended pun here for those that may know Belfast as it is an area known as the Lanes) with another aimless ramble.
I suppose it is entirely logical after 30 years but feeling like an outsider in a place I once lived was a very odd sensation. No, there was no animosity, far from it as Belfast people are renowned for their hospitality and I was greeted warmly wherever I went. I could not, however, help feeling like one of the numerous North American / European / Asian tourists who do so much now for the economy of a small country that would not have seen a foreign visitor thirty years ago as it was a war zone and that is not hyperbole, it is s simple statement of fact. I genuinely do not know how I feel these days about where I was born, strange as that may sound. Again, this seems a bit heavy but (all together now) I can only write one way.

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Leaving the Mermaid I took myself down to Cornmarket, quite a hub in the commercial area, and had a brief look at some meaningless piece of modern sculpture that someone clever enough to work the system had undoubtedly been paid a fortune to put there. You can get the same in any city but I could not help but look instead at a modern shopfront which, in my day, was the Abercorn bar and restaurant, basically a cafe and restaurant on the ground floor and a bar upstairs.

The Abercorn is etched on the minds of anyone who lived in Belfast at that time. On Saturday, 4 March 1972, it became the scene of one of the defining moments of so many others in the horror of what was wrought on my country by criminal terrorists posing as something noble over decades. The cafe was full of shoppers, mostly women and children when two teenage female IRA murderers left a 5lb. bomb in a handbag and walked out with it exploding two minutes later. It left two young women dead and about 130 injured, many with horrific injuries including losing limbs and permanent blindness. To call it carnage would be to much understate the case. For those not completely au fait with the politics of Northern Ireland, why was this done? Because the IRA believed that British soldiers used the upstairs bar. Why then place the bomb in the cafe? That was the thinking of what was effectively an organised crime syndicate masquerading under the pretence of being “liberators”.  Yes, I do feel strongly about his subject, very strongly and with good reason.
To use an ugly phrase with much currency in Northern Ireland at that time, they scored a spectacular “own goal”. The two young ladies they murdered were both Catholics i.e. on “their” side.  The lines are very blurred on this as not all Catholics are Nationalists and neither are all Protestants Unionists, as many of the first Irish Republicans were Protestant (e.g Wolfe Tone).  I really mean this, if you don’t know much about politics in Northern Ireland, then don’t try if you do not have many years left as it really is too convoluted and you will be dead before you ever even close to getting to grips with the intricacies.
Again, I understand that this is pretty heavy stuff and understandably incomprehensible to many who may some day read this. Remarkably for me, I make no apology for this writing as I seem to spend half my time here doing doing just that.
Perhaps I am finally getting my admittedly limited intellect around the concept of editorial freedom and I am actually finding it quite liberating after years of having to avoid even the most obliquely political comment on various sites for fear of bringing down the wrath of the usually self-appointed “internet police”. As always, I welcome any and all constructive debate here and I promise to answer everyone who may wish to contact me. In truth, it will not take much time as my readership is so meagre but I now have the “freedom” of the internet (on payment of a fee obviously). How I wish I had got into this gig at the start when it was a case of becoming a millionaire without getting out of your chair, what a life. Still, no point in crying over spilt milk and I probably couldn’t have managed it anyway, technophobe as I am.
Enough of all this and back to my nostalgic and ever so slightly disorientating meander round the capital of the country which seems to be causing all sorts of merry Hell in the Brexit fiasco currently being played out (October 2018) against a background of fine meals eaten by politicians and unelected bureaucrats in countries we either saved or fought against to save Europe from the yoke of Fascism.
If the reader is not aware (and why would they be outside Europe?) the major problem to implementing the democratic will of the British people (to paraphrase Robert Plant from a Led Zep live gig, “Does anyone remember democracy”?) that they should leave the much disliked Federal States of E is the border between Northern Ireland, the subject of this blog entry, and the Republic of Ireland.  The people of the Republic voted in a referendum some years ago against the will of Brussels (Treaty of Lisbon I believe although I may be wrong) so the public were sent back to the ballot box until the desired Brussels result was obtained.  They have done the same in other countries but that is the EU concept of democracy.
As far as I can see, E (as they will soon undoubtedly be called) stubbornly refuse to accept a “hard” border between a country that wants to bow the knee and one whose people voted not to. I was born in Northern Ireland in the 1950’s, lived there until the late 1980s and, for a long period of that time, there was a “hard” border. Yes, we were separate countries, yes there were border posts (before Republican terrorists started murdering Customs officers (my friend’s uncle was one such) as supporters of the British “apparatus”) but it never took more than a minute or two for my Father to drive my Mother, younger brother and I into the Irish Republic past the respective border posts. It may even have still been called Eire then, I cannot remember and life is too short to look it up. Anyway, it was never a problem. A “hard” border is only a problem to the multi-nationals who are all committed Remoaners (that is not a typo). Border posts are in place all over the world and yet it still keeps turning. Will the re-introduction of such cause the sun not to rise the next day? I think not.
Next up was a quick trip to one of the many “pound shops” that are such a feature of any British city centre these days and I love them. My primary purpose for visiting this day was that I was down to my last pair of reading glasses yet again. I really do not know what I do with them. I leave them lying at my backside, sit on the occasional pair and drop some others so often that the lenses become irrevocably scratched. I really am hard on them but fortunately I do not need prescription lenses so I stock up on as many pairs as I can lay hands on cheaply at any given opportunity. I cannot remember the name of this particular shop but, as the generic description of it I have given suggests, everything in there is £1 which is not a lot of money for any non-British people who may stumble upon this rambling.

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£8 the lot – bargain!

I bought three pairs of glasses, two hardback books which were each marked at about £17:99 and were titles by two of my favourite authors that I had not yet read. I bought three multipacks of chocolate bars for my Dad who loves anything sweet and the whole lot came to £8. At time of writing this in October 2018 that is $10:45US. To quote the Who, “I call that a bargain”.

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This brought back some memories.

Heading back vaguely in the direction of the train station I walked past the premises of Fred J. Malcolm Jewellers which has not changed one iota in at least 40 years. It was here that I bought an engagement ring the one and only time I ever started to descend the slippery slope to matrimony.  My late Mother knew the man running the place as she used to dabble a bit in collecting antique silver and so I got a good price although it was still an arm and a leg for a lovely piece, £800 as I recall in 1986 or ’87. That was a lot of money then but I was earning what was probably more than was good for an irresponsible young man like me in those days.
The engagement didn’t work out and I am quite prepared to admit now, as I did then, that the fault was entirely mine and that the young lady really did deserve a lot better than me. I did hear years later that she was happily married with kids which was what she always wanted. I have not heard of her for decades and I suppose she may well be a grandmother by now. I wish her all the very best and I do hope she is happy as she was a truly wonderful lady and how she put up with me as long as she did is still something of a mystery to me.

It is strange that even after all years a simple walk round Belfast city centre still provokes such strong emotions in me and there was more to come.

Time for a bite to eat and I knew where I was going as it was a Tuesday and therefore grill night in Wetherspoons pubs all over the UK. Again, for the benefit of non-UK readers Wetherspoons is a huge chain of pubs which all do food and they even have a few hotels now. I believe there are about 880 outlets at the last count and opinion is much divided about them. They work very much on economies of scale and rarely buy up pubs but rather convert old banks, casinos, theatres, Post Office sorting depots, churches and just about anything else huge that you care to mention and convert them, always with a local theme. I use the examples given as I have drunk in at least one of each type with my local in East London being the old Half Moon theatre which I can actually remember in it’s former incarnation.

There may be more than one ‘Spoons (as they are called colloquially) in Belfast now but the place I go is the Bridge House which is actually two buildings knocked through. One was a fancy goods box maker and the other an undertaker. What is of interest is that the architect was Sir Charles Lanyon whose other works include the glorious and technically challenging Antrim Coast Road, the Palm House in the nearby Botanical Gardens and the main building of Queen’s University which is also a short walk away. All of these will feature in future entries here if I live long enough.

I mentioned that opinion is much divided in the UK and Ireland where they have now expanded about the Wetherspoon brand so please allow me to briefly explain why. Many people like them as they offer very competitively priced food and drink and others decry them, claiming they are putting traditional pubs out of business as they cannot compete. I must say that I am firmly in the former camp.

Pubs were, and still are, closing at an alarming rate for a huge number of reasons which I am not going to go into here and it was nothing to do with Wetherspoons. If anyone ever even reads this and is slightly interested, send me a message here on the site and I’ll talk you through it. In the interests of fair reporting, which I have always tried to do on any site I have written for, and have even more reason to do so on my own, I must say that the service in a Wetherspoons establishment can be sketchy sometimes and nothing short of unacceptable at others. Part of the business model is to have as few staff as possible, although they are very good to them, winning award after award for being a great employer.

I have eaten and drunk in their outlets all over the UK many times and the only complaint I can make about the food is that I was once served an eggs Benedict with a cold Hollandaise, that’s it. It’s not haute cuisine, it is not meant to be, it is just reasonably priced grub (freezer to plate for sure) done well.

A year or two back I took my Canadian friend Lynne to this self same place when we visited Belfast on a tour of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Now, they know a thing or two about eating out in large chain bars there and we had spent manys a happy evening in various Boston Pizzas which I absolutely adore but I have a slight problem with their portion control as one of their pasta dishes for one feeds me for three meals! Anyway, I took Lynne here and I remember it well. She liked the bar, ordered a Philly cheesesteak (I think that is what it was called) and pronounced it very good. I thought that was pretty good coming from a “North American” and, please trust me, I am not on the JDW payroll to write this.

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I swear I could live off spare ribs!

I don’t know if it was just a bit of nostalgia or whatever but I managed to get the same table for two that we had sat at the night we visited. I started on one of the new books I had just bought and had a couple of pints before ordering my dinner which was exactly what I had had when I was there with Lynne but there was no element of nostalgia in this – the spare ribs in Wetherspoons are bloody brilliant and I always order them on grill night. I am so glad to see they have actually migrated to the daily menu so I can get them any time I feel like it. Yes, they were as good as they look albeit that it was a slightly bittersweet experience dining alone.

Another thing I like about Wetherspoons is that their head man, a guy called Tim Martin, who is obviously no mug to have built up such an empire (for such it is) speaks absolutely my language about the whole Brexit nonsense that is going on now.  Yes, we are back to that again. Not only does he “talk the talk” about it, intelligently deconstructing the fallacious arguments of the political class trying to protect their own gravy train, but he “walks the walk” by sourcing as much as possible from the UK, offering special deals specifically marketed as “Free Trade” or something similar where they are offering products from non EU countries cheaper than the brands currently protected under Federal States of E diktat. Here is a great example and proves far better than I ever could why it is such a good idea to get out of the EU, deal or no, as soon as possible. I have to say I am really relishing this freedom to actually say what I want.

To go back to a former “life” when I wrote for a great travel website I answered many questions for first time visitors to UK who had been frightened off a bit by reading about obscene prices for eating out and I always used to recommend Wetherspoons. That has not changed. Certainly you can eat cheaper by going for a “meal deal” from any number of supermarkets (which are great for a picnic in the park or whatever) but for a sit down meal Wetherspoons is as good as any and, again, I stress that I am not being paid to write this. The breakfasts are great and the curries on a Thursday night are excellent. I speak as one who has travelled a bit in South and Southeast Asia and whose dear friend makes the best curry in the world (I will accept no argument on this point, you really want to taste it).

Where were we on this lunatic series of digressions which have, one way and another, taken me four days to write? Ah yes, I had a bellyful of delicious spare ribs and headed back to the train station for a lateish train to Portadown and thence a cab home, the last bus having gone at 1750! Honestly, public transport in Northern Ireland is criminally bad.

Well, I didn’t expect my little jaunt to Belfast to buy a train ticket to have taken so long and with so many verbal excursions to describe but there you have it.

I shall finish off this little, or not so little, trip soon and get back to UK to head straight into another bit of an adventure so stay tuned and spread the word.

Same old, same old.

There are going to be a few days rolled into one here, as appears to be turning into a habit on my little site as, barring a day out in Belfast, mot much of note happened before I returned “home” to London on 10th August and which begged the question was I leaving “home” or going “home”. The facts of the matter are that I lived in Northern Ireland for the first 28 years of my life and have now lived in London (when I am not on my seemingly endless travels) in London for 30 now. As always, any comments would be most welcome on the subject of what you define as home?

I was helping to look after my Dad a little although his care programme, between some wonderful carers who attend him at home, and my brother and sister-in-law who live about 500 yards round the corner ensure that there is nothing to worry about on that score. I was just doing some little tasks and trying to help out where I could. In truth, I think he enjoyed the company, and I know for a fact that he was well pleased on one day when my S-i-L had arranged not to cook for him (she is a brilliant cook) and I knocked him up an Ulster Fry, the dish which has featured so much in this series of blogs and which he declared to be very tasty so that was good enough for me.

I had fallen into a bit of a routine which, on the evidence or previous visits home, had the potential to bore me to tears and yet it didn’t. I was quite happy pottering about the house during the day, taking the odd day trip to Portadown or once to Belfast for reasons which shall be explained later, going to the local pub in the evening for a few drinks with friends and jamming occasionally. I was eating regularly (as the images show and which is not necessarily the case at other times) and reading a lot of good books (my Dad has no internet access). Leaving aside my Father’s health for a moment, it appeared to be doing mine a power of good.

I do realise that this is all a bit heavy reading for the occasional visitor to the site who does not know me, and let’s be honest, I have a meagre bunch of followers here who I thank for their support but, as I said in one of my opening pieces here, this is my last shot at blogging. I am not going to risk another commercial site being pulled from under me and so this is, at times, going to be pretty brutally honest. At some point this site, such as it is and may eventually become, will eventually float about the ether and provide my epitaph to some degree. At least hopefully you’ll be able to read it online as a diary of mine would be totally illegible due to my utterly appalling handwriting!

Yes, this started off as a travel orientated site and it remains so although not exclusively. For the first time I have complete editorial control albeit I still cannot free myself of the mindset of travel sites but I am getting there. I have all sorts of odd ideas like daily limericks and who knows what else.

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Proper cheese on toast, Tandragee style.

So back to Northern Ireland on what had turned out, yet again in my case (a very small case as it happens) on what was intended to be a five or six day trip and I was two months down the road. If you have read some of my other exploits and if you read any of the many that are still to come then you will know that this is the way I am and, frankly, it suits me. My idea of travel Hell would be an organised trip as in breakfast at 0730 sharp, on the coach at 0800 sharp, famous museum at 0900 sharp, you get the idea.

I might as well start with one of my usual subjects i.e. the fry-up or ( often not so) healthy alternatives to it. The image above shows a little variant which is probably marginally less unhealthy than the Ulster Fry which has featured so prominently here. Let’s be honest, everyone loves cheese on toast but I love making it with soda bread. The effort pictured above features the said bread, Branston pickle, and a decent Red Leicester cheese I had picked up on offer at the little local supermarket. A quick crack of freshly ground pepper completes the dish. Again, I will digress here so I warn you in advance.

I am all in favour of a bargain in my food shopping and hunt out special offers in the same way I will go to a fresh produce market late in the day as they are virtually giving the stuff away. Also, I will mostly buy “own brands” from supermarkets for many things as they are every bit as good and often produced in the same factories as name brands but there are a few things I will not compromise on. Pickle of that type has to be Branston, English mustard has to be Colman’s and Worcestershire sauce has to be Lea & Perrins. Just about anything else is negotiable but these are not. Certainly there are a thousand other pickles and chutnies available and some of them very good, but this type has to be Branston.

I will certainly buy other styles of mustard (you can read in my European jaunt of 2017 on this site of how I went to Dijon in France purely to buy mustard for a foodie mate) but there is only one English mustard although the multinational Unilever, apart from their failed bit to Eurify to a single base in Rotterdam recently in September 2018 are moving from Norwich, it’s original home to two sites in Burton (Staffordshire, UK) and Germany. No surprise there and I wonder how that will play out when, or if, given the spineless nature of our alleged leaders, we eventually actually escape the mendacious clutches of the Federal States of E.
As for The Worcestershire sauce (which my Canadian friends call “W” sauce as they cannot get their tongues round the pronunciation, which admittedly is odd. I doubt I could cook without it (not that I can really cook anyway) to the extent that when I go to visit my friend in Sri Lanka I take a bottle of it with me as it costs a fortune when imported there for the expats. As a further digression off a digression, if such a thing be possible, why are there two pronunciations of the word pronunciation? Answers on a postcard please, as they say!

How can I write so much about a couple of pieces of cheese on toast? Very easily actually and I have just edited the above paragraph fairly seriously before I took off into a further digression about the origins of these fine British firms. Then again, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is MY site and I can do what I like.
I know opinion is very much divided about my writing style, if it can be called that, but on other commercial sites I have written for before more people seemed to like it than disliked it. In truth, I can only write in one style although I am trying to rein myself in a little bit. Being naturally inquisitive (for which read nosy if you like) I simply have to research everything I mention even tangentially in a blog entry and then include it in whatever I am writing. I reckon I’d have made a Hell of an intelligence officer in some field or another.

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What, no fry again?

Right, back to the narrative. That was brekkie on the 2nd of August, and the 3rd was equally subdued with a toasted sandwich and some tomato soup for the morning meal. What was I thinking?

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That’s better.

Thankfully, normal service appears to have resumed on the 4th as you can see above. A friend of mine who is a real foodie speaks of “food porn” which I used to scoff at a little but I reckon this is full on XXX rated. I am actually salivating now just looking at this image even if I did cook it myself. I swear this is turning into an Ulster Fry site!

I’ve rambled enough here so I’ll break off for another entry where I finally get back to Belfast so stay tuned and spread the word.

Last throw of the dice.

The very fact that you are reading this, if indeed anyone is, should be regarded as nothing short of a miracle.

The very fact that you are reading this, if indeed anyone is, should be regarded as nothing short of a miracle. Allow me to explain briefly as I am well aware that verbosity is one of my many failings, most of which I have only recognised relatively recently. Isn’t it funny how the passage of time gives you a much clearer picture of yourself?

I came to the fascinating mysteries of the world wide interwebnet.com or whatever it is called somewhat late in life and, after being shown the basics by a then 15 year old “stepdaughter” (I was not married to her Mother) along the lines of how to answer an e-mail and other such mysteries which she took for granted, I set off on a journey of exploration into the ether. Yes, I did get numerous withering looks of the kind that only a teenage girl can muster and which suggested, all too obviously if unstated, that I should just crawl back under my rock and await the Grim Reaper in due course. No doubt some of you will have fallen foul of it and I was still only in my 30’s at the time so hardly geriatric.

I have always loved travelling since my first “solo” holiday i.e. without parents aged 15 when myself, my younger brother and two friends cycled round the Antrim coast road in Northern Ireland, my home country. In the days before computers and in the prevailing circumstances at the time everything was planned to the last detail by “snail mail” and a visit to the Youth Hostel Association office in Belfast. A call on a public payphone (remember those?) had to be made to our parents every night but it was a start and I loved it. We were never more than an hour’s drive from home but it was an adventure and I was hooked. Everything was so much more innocent then even in the awful situation of my homeland in the 1970’s.

 

I promised to try to curb my verbosity so I shall precis this as best I can now. Armed with my newfound wanderlust, I took off to travel when I could and had left home. Nothing dramatic but some decent trips which were all organised (think package holidays) which merely served to inflame my passion for more adventurous travelling. Like the internet, I was a late starter to independent travel for various reasons too boring to go into here.

My first trip outside Europe was when I was 28 and went to New Zealand for a friend’s wedding which I turned into a month long trip as that was the longest period I could take off work. I had a stopover in Bangkok on the way which was the absolute definition of culture shock, a few weeks hitchhiking round Australia which regrettably is too dangerous to do now (hitchhiking, not Austtralia which is relatively safe) and undoubtedly illegal, a week in NZ for the nuptials with a 20 person honeymoon afterwards if you can believe that and then home. I enjoyed it immensely, the freedom, the new sights, sounds and especially smells which was the first thing I noticed when I got to Asia. I still never get tired of the smell of a Southeast Asian night market although I have been to literally hundreds.

I never had the opportunity to do the full-time “going on the road gig” as I had a steady job when I left the Forces in 1988. OK, I could have done that but I had a plan which has now fortunately come to fruition and that was to work very hard, manage my finances as best I could and hopefully retire relatively early to do my travelling then.

Path in an old railway bed, Lunenburg, NS, Canada.
A path along  a disused railbed in Lunenburg, NS, Canada.

In the interim I contented myself with working a lot of overtime and saving it for time off rather than payment which gave me the opportunity for one decent long haul trip per year. I was greatly assisted in this by a succession of very decent bosses and the fact that my workmates were nearly all married with families which meant that they wanted time off based on UK school holidays (July and August plus Easter sometimes). My preferred travel destinations are mostly in Asia so I could work like mad all summer to let the guys get time off for the two weeks break with the family and then I could take a month or slightly more off in January / February when nobody else wanted leave.

I worked hard and managed to get early retirement on a modest pension plus the werewithal to pay off my mortgage a few months shy of my 50th birthday which I thought wasn’t bad for one like me who is so totally useless at matters financial. It sounds like an ideal situation and so it has worked out but at the time I don’t mind admitting that I was utterly petrified. I had literally worked every day of my life and was really unsure what I would find to do with myself every day for the rest of my time on this planet. There was always the danger of just sitting about moping and I really didn’t want to go that way.

My entire retirement plan was predicated on travelling a lot and, almost as importantly, writing about it. I was fortunate in that I had been a member of a superb travel website called Virtual Tourist for a number of years where I had developed a love for travel writing hitherto undiscovered. I had literally thousands of entries and about 10K images there. I had travelled all over the world to “VT meets” and formed many firm friendships which endure to this day as well as discovering that I really did enjoy the writing almost to the point of obsession. I was active on an almost daily basis and it really did give me a purpose. I know this sounds a bit overblown but it is the truth and I used to set up little projects like walking several long distance paths primarily for the purpose of writing about them although I enjoy walking and exploring for it’s own sake. Then the sky fell in.

VT had been bought out some years previously by TripAdvisor and they announced at the beginning of 2017 that they were shutting it down. No provision was made for us to save our work although fortunately some of the wonderful members (including the former CEO and the original programmer) managed to get us some sort of a rapidly thrown together system without which I would have lost 12 years and literally thousands of manhours of writing, researching, cross-checking and a lot more. As and when I get this site up and running I shall attempt to transfer some of that content here from the disorganised shambles that constitutes my computer “filing system” although I do realise that it is unrealistic to try to move it all, there is just not enough time.

At time of writing in April 2018 I am not long returned from three months in Sri Lanka and I have a few other little half-formed travel plans albeit that my travel is usually arranged, booked and undertaken on a last-minute whim which is just the way I like it. Being a single man with no dependents I can literally just get up and go at a moment’s notice and regularly do.

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Typical “road” in Burma / Myanmar 2006.

Approaching 60 I am glad to say that I am in perplexingly rude health given my somewhat dissolute lifestyle with the one slight problem being a bad back which I ruined by playing too much rugby in my youth. I compounded the problem by not retiring when my excellent physiotherapist told me to (you were right, Roisin) and then ludicrously coming out of retirement which finally did for it and I was forced to quit for good at the relatively young age of 31. I have not even been registered with a Doctor for over 20 years which must tell you something! The spinal problem precludes proper backpacking but I do manage to undertake fairly extensive trips with a small rollalong case which is the next best thing.

I am hoping against hope that this will be the first of many entries on a blog that I am not going to shut myself down on!

Stay tuned.