Saturday, 30 May 2015

Howth - dosh and chips

A year or so ago, waiting at Portsmouth to board the ferry to Santander, we had a short conversation with the man in the queue in front of us. He was Irish and interesting of course, and recommended a brilliant tiny hotel in Northern Spain (Palacio de Prelo, look it up!) which we went to stay in a while later.  The owner of the Palacio (who is another fascinating character in his own right) told us that this Irishman was actually a great landowner in Howth, and we looked him up on Wiki or somewhere. He inherited great chunks of Howth as a young man following the death of his uncle (or something), though not the title which had gone with it.

So today, looking for somewhere to go, we chose Howth as our destination, wondering if we would bump into him again, to thank him for recommending the Palacio at Prelo.  (We didn't).
But we have had a marvellous day.

We set off to drive north round Dublin Bay which is a remarkable bit of sea - a huge wide shallow sandy estuary as you could see from my photo in the last post. It is embraced by the low mountains and hills along the coast to the south, and of the Howth peninsular to the north, and Dublin is pretty much in the middle of the back of the bay. There are restos and cafes in various large houses facing the sea - Indian, Thai, Pakistani.

Once we had passed Dublin Port, we turned off the strand to our right to go to Bull Island - a pier-like promontory on the north side of the bay, which turns out to have been more or less invented by Capt Wm Bligh (of the Bounty), who was asked in 1801 to find a way to stop the River Liffey from silting up. In effect, and with later alterations and additions, his idea worked and now, with the accretions of decades of sand, and great boulders added after storm damage, etc., it is a beautiful sociable enticing place to walk or cycle. There are steep steps for swimming from, and sand-dunes filled with wild-flowers, and families and runners out enjoying themselves.  A tall statue of the Virgin Mary complete with halo decorates the end, and that is marked underneath by a large important-looking stone announcing that it was put in place by a particular Archbishop of Dublin, the Rev Dr someone-or-other... we speculated that he came to bless the statue on condition that his name appear on this rock, but we may have been maligning him, although we thought the statue would have been more mysterious and inspiring without his name being added to the bottom of it.

Further round the bay we stopped at an open food market, being held at the Red Stables of what was once a private park and estate called St Anne's, belonging originally to the Guinness family. The mansion burned down in 1943, and the (then) Corporation of Dublin took the whole place over, later building lots of houses on the edge of the park up the hill and running the rest as a recreation ground for the community. It is a terrific place, still expansive and park-like, well-kept, with swathes of large old trees and sweeping lawns, and lots of people out enjoying themselves.  The food on sale in the artisan market included Chinese dumplings, Thai, Indian, pizzas, vegetarian and vegan, baked goods, and greengrocery - once again it seemed like foreigners are setting the pace.... We bought a coffee from an Irish lady who had a Gaggia set-up on the back of a Piaggio tricyle thing (like a Lambretta or Vespa)... so sweet.

On we went - round the coast of Howth itself - rich, rich, rich... exclusive with its high garden walls and large houses commanding the fantastic views over the bay.  Reaching the harbour, we found our free parking place and started our stroll round, looking for lunch. There's hot competition.... lots of ethnic foods as you would expect. The old railway station is now converted to something called The Bloody Stream, and in front of that is another ramshackle-arty place called the Doghouse tearooms.

We walked on.  At last we reached a run of fish places - selling wet fish (local catches) and meals.. Beshoff was stylish (and later I ran back for a couple of John Dory), and then we had - ah - so many to choose from ... Nicky's Plaice ('Hooked on Fish for Generations') was staffed by what seemed to be Chinese salesmen.  Tapas, Brass Monkey, Crabby Joe's, Aqua, Wrights of Howth, all with variations of fish, chips, chowder, etc etc. But we chose The Oar House (geddit?) and had an excellent fish lunch including chowder, fish-and-chips, mussels and crab salad between us.  A large party of Chinese was on one table beside us, and an equally large party of German guys on the other. It's all very international. The chefs in the Oar House looked Iraqui (I didn't ask so that is just a guess).  The servers in all the fish-shops we went into were mostly Polish. Families walking around were Nigerian.

Once again, invasion or settlement or exploration based on food. There is such energy and power in this sector. People love fresh food, offers, choice, competition. It brings - money. You can see the international labelling, just in this photo....

If our acquaintance from the Santander ferry ever reads this, I hope he knows we are dead impressed. His Jag may have been dented but his influence is creative and productive.


We had a superb show of bluebells in Kent this year, along with all the spring blossom. The cold weather kept everything brilliant and cool - it all lasted so long.  But the bluebells have very nearly finished now in the south, and it was a joy to find them still in their prime as we moved north through the country.
The wild flowers in the verges have been a delight - the cow-parsley I mentioned, making the scene a study in green and white, but have had yellows and pinks and blues too. I wish I was more knowledgeable about the species. We have a book with us and I will try to learn more as we go.
When I lived in Norfolk I was in awe of the wild-flowers along the roads - their county council had a management policy which allowed the plants to set seed and thus continue and the variety was spellbinding. England must once have been like this all over.  It's sad to see the cutters going along swathing everything down before the next generation of flowers has been allowed to settle in.
Up in North Wales, the trees are also a week or so behind Kent - the ash still only very small in leaf.  But in Oxfordshire, I would say they were a bit ahead - maybe there is a heating effect being in the centre of the landmass of the island.
Here's what things looked like as we arrived in Dublin yesterday afternoon... thanks to my cousin Lynn-Marie Gandolfo for editing my slightly squiffy phone-snap. The sky was amazing, with dense showers hurling themselves past, and brilliant sunshine in between.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Hen Bont

The Saxons stuck to the wood-country, and pushed the Celts into the stone lands. So I do wonder if Celts hung about in the Cotswolds a bit longer than elsewhere, during that mysterious age of settlement, when the English placenames were bestowed on the land by the wandering tribes making their way across Britannia after 'the Romans' left.

Was it a time of fire and plunder, or adventure and trade? Where are all the corpses if it was war, war, war?  Welsh monks (esp Gildas) bemoaned what happened, but there's precious little evidence (so far) for rape and pillage.

It is a stunningly beautiful countryside which the Germanish tribes came for. We've just driven across it, via Oxford and now up to Anglesey, ready to cross to Dublin today on the ferry. Can I rage against motorways here? The boredom, the noise, the claustrophobia, the powerlessness, the reduction in all forms of human experience and spirit. If something goes wrong, a crash, a jam, something horrible, then thousands of people's lives are altered. These horrible gadgets are bad and should be amended - with multiple small-emergency exits along their routes. Speed is an evil siren.

Once off the damned motorway, into old England. Winding lanes, ditches, a mesmerisingly beautiful frill of cow-parsley all along. Fields, hamlets, trees, some sort of story or meaning, an account of how this bit of land here, this slope, this meadow, has had to be managed over the centuries. It is a pity we don't have the French habit of naming each river as we cross it with a clear sign, or the useful practice of putting a 'you are leaving X village' here, with a red diagonal through the name of the place.  We should have more respect for our countryside and landscape. But nah - it's let's push this motorway through here, or this fast-track train.

Actually travel across England now is really difficult. Timetables, schedules, access for walkers and urban pedestrians, bus services, the scarcity of railway stations and connections... Getting into a car is handy, as long as you avoid those huge roads.

We had lunch at the Beaconsfield Services, choosing a vegetarian Indian take-away from Mint Leaves, and eating it on a plastic (!) picnic table out in the sunshine on a grassy bank overlooking the carpark. A red kite came to see what was going on.  We went back in for some yoghurt and blueberries. Really this was a delectable feast.  Then we doodled along the old A40 which I used to know like the back of my hand when my parents moved us all to Sydenham in the early 1960s. Now it is scarcely recognisable to me, with so many new houses and so on. But the marshy playing fields at High Wycombe are still there beside the Loudwater, and the verges at West Wycombe are still plush and trimmed. We went quietly through Stokenchurch where my mother was a teacher for so long (her mental and financial salvation once Daddy left us), and then down through the beechwoods on the great slope of the Chilterns.  Postcombe, Tetsworth (remembering the young man of that name who was part of our scene as teenagers), and finding Great Haseley Windmill, lovingly restored, and commanding a view for miles all around.  And we went to Waterperry Gardens. Statuary, plants, teas, garden furniture, photos of gardening students from decades ago, and a marvellous museum of gadgets. Ah, this is worth going for.

It's a pretty little barn furnished with lots of glass-fronted cases and these are filled with hundreds of 'things' - leather shoes for horses, sheep and goats, moustache-trimming scissors, plumbers' beads, a nanny's brooch with space for needle and thread, bosses for beer-barrels, a choir-master's double pitch-pipes, a glove-moulding hand, industrial pencil sharpeners, bird-scarers, and best of all, a brass thing for getting wasps off windows. The man in charge is a kindly and unobtrusive guide and conversationalist. It's a monument to human ingenuity and craftsmanship, and worth whatever donation you put in the box.

Then we arrived at Clive's house at Islip - he was drowsing on a chair listening to Bach played by Schiff.... We had a wonderful visit, discussing family, lemon-drizzle cake, Chinese porcelain, English toby jugs, memory loss, and more. We went down into the garden to decide where our little gift of a red thistle might go, and sat looking at how he has been transforming his garden shed into a dacha by applying various ornaments to the front, and then we looked at the double portrait of David and Jo which we are taking to the subjects in Ireland. He approved.  I poured him and me some sauvignon (New Zealand) and we waited till Penny came back from her training day in Winchester... Then we set off for dinner to their fave place. I shall not name it.

It was an old pub, spiffed up, and with prices to make your eyes water. The meal was  - well - average. More and more, I value how we cook at home, though we are not chefs and lack the presentation skills... But we have more finesse, seek out more interesting ingredients, develop better flavours, and keep the price down.   Our share of the bill was £110.  The wine (£39 a bottle) was sauvignon and nothing like as interesting or delicious as the NZ one at Clive's.

The most interesting thing about the meal was what happened on the adjoining table. There were two men and one woman. One of the men was in a fancy wheelchair, and all was calm. The lady went off (to the loo, presumably) and was away quite a while. One of the amateurish young waiters came to announce (in quite a loud voice) that there was nothing to worry about but the lady had passed out and hit her head on the floor. An ambulance was on its way.  The two men seemed unperturbed. Time passed.   Eventually the lady came back to the table. Then a fire engine arrived and their paramedic team came in (presumably they were nearer than any ambulance, out there in the country). They took her outside (quite chilly, in fact, out there), and attended to her with questions. She had had a migraine earlier, it seemed, which may have been related.  She came back again. Then more emergency staff arrived... All through the two men sat and chatted at their table, paying little attention to the drama.    Eventually, both we and they were leaving and the wheelchair man got his chariot to perform the most amazing tricks. It reared back and forth to get him over the window-sill and out into the courtyard. It rose up, became a Segway - walked him on wheels through to the carpark. He made it do tricks for us, swivelling this way and that. The balance is all done by gyros inside, and he need do nothing but click a few levers. He was driving his party home, with the fainting lady and all.  Amazing. He said the man who made this thing makes them no more, but went on to make Segways and a fortune.  We have just looked it up - it's the iBot wheelchair. Fantastic. Worth the price of the meal to see it in action.

In the morning, off across England - Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and heading towards Worcester... Chipping Norton with that huge chimney on the old tweed factory, Moreton-in-Marsh (do people say 'in the marsh'?) We stopped for coffee at Evesham - the friendliest place. The coffee was fantastic, presented in Buongiorno Cafe in Bridge Street: the young Italian owner said it is a 60/40 mix of Arabica and Robusta, grown in Peru and Columbia, roasted in Manchester, and never more than 3 or 4 days old when delivered and served in his cafe.  In the square at the top of the town we wandered into the Town Hall, were invited to a keep-fit class by a gaggle of beaming old people, given a tour of the building (including discussing how the full-length portrait of a past Mayor had had an egg thrown at it, and shot at with an airpistol. The man had a lovely face. It's a shame the painting was vandalised thus, and they will have it repaired).   The buildings - lots of black and white - use more of a square-panel construction than we see in Kent, and this seems to allow them the chance to build much more complicated, taller and bigger structures, such as the Town Hall, and the Round House.   The old abbey (now vanished and transformed into allotments) still has three churches in its precincts. One was specially for nasty scary dirty disease-carrying pilgrims. Foreigners - stay away!

We stopped for lunch - and a funicular ride - at Bridgnorth, where in 1888 the first cliff-car was installed in Britain - so the oldest and the steepest. With sandwiches from Sainsbury's in our bag, we dawdled through the crowded high street and round to the High Town station and paid our ticket (£1.20 each, return) and into the 1950s bus-style car. Down we went, with children ooh-ahhing as we went.  We picnicked by the river, accompanied by pigeons and watching the geese on the far bank. This river had barges and trows working it as far down as Montgomery, carrying goods in and out of Cardiff - timber, spices, wine, etc.  Not now.  Times change.

Along the whole way we found so many pubs or inns turned into houses, or (more generally) turned into Indian (or sometimes Chinese) restaurants, and lovingly painted and maintained.

The countryside was ravishingly beautiful. Green, distant, calm. We avoided the motorways, headed up towards Shrewsbury (more wonderful buildings and bridges), Oswestry (by-passed), and into Wales... And slowly the hills and mountains started to gather round, and we stopped at the famous and unpronounceable aqueduct at Pontcysyllte which apparently means Bridge Connecting Two Places.... A marvel of engineering by Thomas Telford taking the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. The valley is breath-takingly beautiful.   Up and up, through the woods, winding and sweet.  Bettws-y-Coed meant a 70p carpark charge just to access a loo, but Capel Curig reminded me of childhood trips there, camping, taken as a companion for another little girl who lived in our road. Janet. That, there, that's the field! That's where we got our milk.  That's Moel Siabod. Up, up. The small fields are filled with tranquil beasts, cattle of different colours, cows with their calves, sheep and cattle altogether. Once, we saw a herd of buffalo.  Couples striding along - walking. That serious kind of walking.

Eventually down the other side of the high lands, through Bethesda with a row of the tiniest cottages I have ever seen anywhere (what were they?), and eventually over the Britannia Bridge and into Anglesey.  We found our B&B - Hen Bont - which means Old Bridge. And indeed, just in front of this old farmhouse is an even older bridge - stone, with three arches, and built on a diagonal across the little river, the Afon Alaw (the blue river) - which floods up onto the meadow from time to time. Ceri tells us they never get snow, but the rains can fill the valley.    Out exploring - found Wales' only surviving working windmill just up the road - Melin Llynnon, closed but photogenic and surprisingly similar to Great Haseley mill which we saw the day before. We found supper down at Trearddur Bay in an Italian cafe (not bad and £30 all up including wine) and with a fantastic view of the rocky bay....   We found a marvellous old watermill on the way back, Howell's Mill - restored about 40 years ago but now a bit vandalised, and you'd have to hope it remains safe.  The satnav brought us back to our bed along an old unmade road, perfectly passable but narrow and rough-footed, truly a million miles away from motorways... a completely different kind of road.  Marvellous.

And so to sleep.

I know there are lots of people who worry about our islands being taken over by foreigners, immigrants, and that it's not big enough, too crowded, things have gone too far... But all you have to do is go and look at the countryside. There is a vast amount of the land which remains pretty-well empty, unspoiled, medieval. Rivers, woods, bridges, market towns, small villages, fields, stone walls, sheep, rooks, buzzards, kites, magpies, lanes, churches, chapels.  There are immigrants, to be sure, settling in - many of them running our pubs and restaurants - Italians, Indians, Chinese. Calm enough.  Maybe this is how the Saxons arrived, cooking their way into Celtic Britain, 1600 years ago.

Today we'll be on the fast ferry to Dublin, to see the young Mussetts.