The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco

(This is a long post about my love affair with San Francisco which started in 1965)

San Francisco first hit my radar way back in 1965 when “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas hit the British charts. Knowing nothing about LA or indeed California, anywhere that offered warmth in winter seemed like a good place to be to me. By the time Scott McKenzie was singing “San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” a hit in the spring of 1967, I was hooked. This was one USA state I had to visit. Haight-Ashbury frequently featured on the television with its flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibe hippies during the summer of love (1967) and I fell in love with the whole enchilada. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s I too became an incense burning, peace-loving hippy myself, though it was an awful lot more years before I would get to San Fran.

The next time the city nudged its way into my life was in 1972 when I was working for a brief spell in Zürich as an au pair and came into contact with a group of Americans from California who were over in Europe to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Falling in love with a gentle, flute-playing, blonde haired surfer from San Francisco made me yearn to visit that golden state again. All too soon he took off for India and I returned home to the UK, alone. The years passed and the USA was no longer on my ‘must see’ list and San Francisco faded from my dreams. The summer of love was long past… Continue reading The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco

Daily Prompt: Local Flavour

This is my introduction to Ludlow, which was where I lived from 2011 to 2016. The name Ludlow comes from ‘lud’ the loud waters and ‘low’ a tumulus. If you were to ‘Google’ Ludlow you would find that it is the largest town in south Shropshire and has over 500 listed buildings. You may also discover that it is known as one of the best ‘foodie’ towns in the UK with regular open-air markets, local produce markets and both a Spring and Autumn food festival lasting over the weekend

Ludlow has been described as the “perfect English town”. It is situated on the River Teme in the southernmost part of Shropshire, on the Welsh Marches. It has a medieval street pattern and many ancient buildings including a castle and a magnificent parish church as well as streets lined with medieval and Georgian properties.

” The secret of Ludlow resides in the fact that, like York, it was once a seat of government in Tudor and Stewart England. A sense of its own identity and importance has never quite left it. That accounts for its strength of character and the lingering sense of authority. This is a town which, although the tide of history has receded from it, still manages to preside magisterially over the countryside one glimpses at the end of every street. ” – Sir Roy Strong

The natural starting point for a stroll around the town would be the Castle Square where the market is held several days a week and on the second or fourth Thursday of the month when the local produce market is held you can load up with local cheeses, meats, real ales from micro-breweries, bottles of home-made chutneys and preserves, soaps and even fresh herbs if you so desire. It is a traditional open-air market with 20-30 stalls selling produce from within a 30 mile radius of Ludlow.

From here you can visit the castle. It is a ruin, but quite an interesting one, and it dominates the skyline from the river side of the town. It has a combination of architecture from Norman, Medieval and Tudor times. Parts date from the 11th century when built by Walter de Lacy. It was enlarged by Roger Mortimer in the 14th century and has been in the hands of the Earls of Powis since 1811. The castle was a seat of government for Wales for a time and it was involved in the Wars of the Roses with a major battle taking place at Ludford Bridge. Often events are held in the castle such as the Christmas Medieval Fayre (late November) and the Ludlow Festival held in the summer which features an open-air production of Shakespeare.

After visiting the castle, we’ll wander along the track around the castle and down to the Dinham Bridge and Millennium Green, where you can have a spot of lunch at the Green Café before feeding the ducks or swans and watch the children play on “Ludlow beach” a strip of shingle which is very popular for paddling on a warm day. Here is the Castle Weir where leaping salmon can be seen during the run in October/November each year to reach upstream spawning grounds and don’t forget to look at the restored Water Wheel which generates electricity for the building. As well as ducks crowding the river you can see the occasional heron, swans and even a kingfisher.

Next walk over the bridge, stopping to take a classic photo or two of the castle and the river, before choosing whether to head up to Whitcliffe Common via the Donkey Steps (once part of the packhorse route moving iron-ore through the county); right along a quiet road into the countryside; or left along the Breadwalk which stays close to the river and leads to Ludford Bridge. The Breadwalk was so named after being rebuilt in 1886 following a devastating flood in the town. The unemployed men, grateful for some work, were paid by Lord Clive in bread and blankets – a hard-hearted Victorian form of unemployment relief. It was first known as ‘The Bread and Blanket Walk’.

woodland walk - packhorse steps

As you are a first-time visitor we’ll head up through the mixture of deciduous woodland and onto the grass common of Whitcliffe with its wild-flower meadows where you have the best views over the old town with the Clee Hill in the background. Sit a while on one of the conveniently placed benches and relax. There are also two sites of scientific interest on the Common– Teme Bank (The Ludlow Bone Beds are famous for exposures of Silurian strata with deposits of marine life forming beds as the sea retreated from the area) and the Long Trenches. It is likely that they were dug by the parliamentarians during the siege of Ludlow in 1646. Keep a look out for the Hawfinches which feed on the Hornbeam trees.

We can now head back down to the Breadwalk and continue along the river to Ludford, the site of the ‘Battle of Ludford Bridge’ on 12 October 1459 in the early years of the Wars of the Roses. If you want to pause for refreshment before tackling the last hill then the Charlton Arms can offer a series of comfortable terraces from which to enjoy views of the river and towards the town. If you head downstairs you can visit a room with a collection of the Shakespeare posters by Ludlovian artist Polly Hamilton from past productions of the summer festival at the castle.

Take a short detour across the road where St Giles Church and Ludford House (once a leper hospital) turn their backs to the road with the old Job Charlton almshouses skulking at the side of the road to the church. The polygonal lodge cottage served as a toll house for the main Worcester road until 1836. One of my favourite quiet spots is along the lane past the Old Bell House, once a coaching inn, and through the kissing gate onto a field which is forever changing crops from wheat to rape, and with two very photogenic trees. Ludford is a delightful area and often missed by visitors.

Retracing our steps we’ll cross over the Ludford Bridge, with a glance at the Horseshoe Weir, the third weir on the Teme in Ludlow, where you always find ducks and if you’re lucky a heron, then we’ll walk up Lower Broad Street, the centre of cloth working in the Middle Ages, towards the sole surviving gate through the old town walls. This road has lots of lovely cottages on the left-hand side with large displays of flora in numerous containers, and several shuts leading to private hidden gardens; very pretty. Next to the Broad Gate we pass by the Wheatsheaf Inn which is the best place for a Sunday carvery and they do a pretty mean mixed grill and steak and ale pie too.

Climb up the hill on Broad Street which is one of Ludlow’s widest streets and lined with large Georgian fronted houses (some of which have medieval buildings behind the façade) passing the Methodist Chapel on the left opposite the house belonging to Marmaduke Gwyn, the father-in-law of Charles Wesley, the Angel, a former coaching inn, and de Grey’s tea room and bakery on the right where you can have a very fine English high tea.Finally at the top of the street is the Buttercross built in 1744 and formerly a butter market.

If you turn left here along Market Street you will find yourself back in the Castle Square where we began the walk.

Thanks to the Daily Post for giving me the opportunity to “Write a piece about a typically “local” experience from where you come from as though it’s an entry in a travel guide.” I hope you like it 🙂

Note: Sadly De Greys tearoom closed at the end of January 2014, but there are several other independent cafés and tearooms in Ludlow – try Emporos in the Bull Ring (go through Attorney’s Walk one of Shropshire’s Shuts).

A tale of cassowaries and aliens…

Photo of a cassowary is courtesy of betta design on flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I chose to stay in the youth hostel in Mission Beach, northern Queensland because of its unusual name and location. The Treehouse built on stilts and surrounded by verdant rain forest is a big open plan log cabin with bare wooden floors and bamboo framed glass-less windows with shutters.

The small number of bamboo doors that exist are open at the top so all sounds drift effortlessly inside and out. Comfortable shabby sofas are arranged in cosy corners encouraging the residents to gather together and chat or make music. Or you can grab a random paperback from one of the many bookcases and curl up in a hammock on the shady veranda and lose yourself in the plot. The air is filled with incense and a touch of dank decay.

On my first morning I am woken early by the torrential rain, thunder and lightning and with the smell of rich earth assaulting my nostrils it almost feels like camping and only slightly drier. The close proximity to the rain forest also means that as soon as dawn cracks an opening in the night sky a cacophony of kookaburras crash into your dreams with the subtleness of falling pan-lids.

It is not a place conducive to much sleep.

It is here that I meet Andy. I have noticed him over the past few days as he bumbles about the place. He’s a quiet, unassuming young man who appears very solitary. On the third morning I am disturbed by the cleaners who start sweeping the floors at 5 am and I can’t get back to sleep. I feel irritated and headachy; I had a hard time dropping off last night due to a group of travellers talking and drumming well into the early hours. The swish, swish of the brushes sweeping over the wooden floors is as annoying as the whine of a mosquito. It’s no good, sleep eludes me. Drowsily I stumble into the kitchen and find Andy with his head in the fridge. Over strong coffee and cereal on the sundeck overlooking the swimming pool we exchange names and watch as the rain drips languidly through the forest. He then tells me about the cassowaries that live here.

Later that morning, once the rain has eased, I catch one of the shuttles into Mission Beach and ask to be dropped off at the Rainforest Walk, which is about a 6 or 7 km circuit. It is very green and very gloomy in there and almost silent apart from the occasional shriek of a bird. I strain my ears listening out for the ‘boom’ sound which the southern cassowary makes and every time a twig snaps or a giant leaf falls noisily to the ground I can feel my heart pounding in my throat remembering Andy’s story.

…a single kick from one of them birds can rip open your stomach as they have a dagger-like claw

It strikes me as a rather unpleasant way to die with your intestines hanging out; alone in a soggy, dark forest. Fresh droppings close to the pathway do nothing to ease my anxieties and as I walk I nervously consider every tree as a place to hide behind should one of these magnificent flightless creatures run across my path.

The fathers will be minding the chicks now and are fiercely protective, don’t get anywhere near them.

The air is thick and still, the plants and trees still dripping from the night’s rainfall; it all feels extremely claustrophobic.

That evening, back in the safety of the Treehouse, Andy shuffles over with a bottle of cheap plonk and over a glass or two we chat some more. Obviously relieved that I’d survived any cassowary attack he makes a decision to confide in me.

I was driving through the outback, not so far from here when I noticed that there were lights behind me. I thought at first it was another truck. I slowed down to let the truck pass, but it appeared to slow down too. The lights moved up and down and sometimes disappeared altogether, before coming back closer and brighter. They were definitely tracking me.

The lights are known by the aboriginal people as “Min Min” lights and some scientists explain their appearance as a natural phenomenon; however Andy, along with many others, is convinced that the lights are from aliens who are attempting to communicate with us.

Some people think I’m not the full quid, but I am you know, I’ve seen these lights around Melbourne too.

At 10 o’clock, light-headed with exhaustion, I make my excuses and head for bed; it’s all getting a little bit creepy. And as I stare at the full moon piercing the shadows I shudder to think what might be out there.

Less than 2 weeks later I found myself in Winston, the centre of the area which is known for the ‘Min Min’ lights, but sadly I didn’t see any aliens.

(Daily Post: Creative Commons)

An Italian Adventure: when spur of the moment decisions lead you into the unknown …

A few years ago my adult daughter decided that it would be nice for us to spend a few days somewhere warm around my birthday (October), and share some “mother and daughter” time. She tried searching on the ‘net for a cheap break away in southern Europe, but became frustrated when time after time she reached the final page only to find that the holiday was unavailable on those days or for that price!

Eventually we decided to take pot luck and take a cheap flight from Stansted airport to Lamezia Terme International Airport with Ryanair. No, neither of us had heard of it either. The airport is located ten minutes outside the town Lamezia Terme in the boot of Italy so we figured that from there we should be able to go to the Calabrian coast and find somewhere warm to hang out in for a few days. Armed with a small bag each containing not much more than a change of underwear, some lire, a toothbrush and an Italian phrase book, off we went.

Arriving at the Italian airport we thought it would be easy to find someone in the terminal who spoke English and who could direct us to a nice hotel on the coast. Wrong. Not only did there appear not to be an information desk, nor did anyone speak English. Out came the phrase book. After much pointing and tentative attempts at speaking Italian, we finally decided upon a little place called Tropea on the coast where we led to understood we would easily find somewhere to stay. We were given a phone number of a small hotel and directions to get there by catching a bus and two trains. It meant changing in Rosarno, otherwise we’d end up in Villa san Giovanni, the terminal to Sicily!

We caught a local bus to the town of Lamezia Terme and found the railway station where I purchased two tickets to Tropea and even managed to work out from a very complicated diagram which platform the train would depart from. We headed to Platform 3 and waited …. and waited …. I headed back into the station to confirm that we were indeed waiting on the correct platform. We were, but it appeared that the train was running late. We were a little concerned as by now it was getting quite late and at this rate by the time we arrived in Tropea everything would be closed.

Eventually a train arrived and on we got. Our seats were reserved so we made our way to our seats in one of the old-fashioned corridor trains with separate compartments (think “Orient-Express“) and found ourselves in with an Italian couple and another English guy who was heading over to Sicily. Our main fear was in missing the stop at Rosarno as we couldn’t see very much from on the train and many stations seemed to be unlit. Still if we did miss it, we could always carry on to Sicily: it would be as good a destination as anywhere else.

Rosarno was one of the larger stations though and well-lit. We said “ciao” to our new friends and went to find out where the train to Tropea left from. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait long, but even so it meant that we arrived in Tropea at close to midnight. Hoping for a taxi outside the station, we were once again disappointed. Nothing. No taxis, no signs and no staff on duty. Sighing we went back into the station to look for a telephone followed by what could only be the town drunk on his bicycle – don’t ask me how or why it is that we always seem to attract the town drunk, but we do! A most bizarre conversation took place with him slurring away in Italian and my daughter telling him to get lost in English. I left them to it.

Getting through to the hotel on the number we had been given was not a problem, communicating with them was, as no-one spoke any English. Trying to decipher what the person on the other end was saying and then looking it up in the phrase book was a slow process. Finally we understood that the hotel was full, but the manager would send a taxi to pick us up and take us to another place with a room. At this point we were trying to fix a time and the chap kept repeating “ora” which I thought meant hour so I kept on repeating “dodici” (12 as in midnight). Found out later that ora also means now!! Duh!

We were picked up to find that the town centre was only about a ten minute walk away (but it was pitch black outside the station and we had no idea of the direction the town lay in from the station) and we were taken to an Irish Bar / Nightclub which apparently had rooms on the second floor. On being given a double room, we made several trips back to reception armed with phrase book to ask for items such as “blanket” “toilet roll” and “check-out”? It wasn’t five stars, but it was very cheap!

Finally we fell into bed, long after the witching hour, and lay there listening to the boom, boom beat of the disco below and the rhythmic thudding of a bed against our wall, completely out of sync, accompanied by various gasps and groans. After 15 minutes of this, in silence and embarrassment, we both suddenly yelled out in stereo “for goodness sake get on with it”, and broke into waves of hysterical giggles. Needless to say we didn’t bother going to bed until at least 2 a.m. on the following nights.

PS Our Italian did improve over the course of the next 5 days (well it had to really) and we also learned that German was widely spoken (lots of German tourists there) so were able to get by a bit with that. I got quite used to going into a nearby coffee shop every morning and ordering a “un tè con latte e un caffè nero” only to discover on the last day that the owner did speak some English when he greeted me with “Good day, would you like the usual?” I must have kept him amused all week with my hesitant Italian.

Walking the Right Bank Passages in Paris

I had come across references to “Les Passages” in a Paris guidebook and decided to take a closer look at them during my last visit to “The City of Light”. So on a very wet and chilly spring day I set off on my Passages Walk. Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Right Bank included a network of 140 covered passageways – the fashionable shopping arcades of the time. In a city without sewers, pavements or sheltered walkways, these arcades allowed shoppers to stroll from one boutique to another protected from the filth of the city streets. Today there are fewer than 30 left, some well-preserved with their original mosaic floors and neoclassical decoration. It was time to check them out and find out what it was like living in 19th century Paris.

Galerie du Passage Véro DodatStarting from the Metro station Palais-Royal I headed east on Rue Saint-Honoré towards Place Colette and then turned left into Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau to enter the Galerie du Passage Véro Dodat. This is one of the prettiest and oldest passages, built in 1823. It has mahogany panelling and an old-fashioned floor of chequered black and white tiles, Corinthian columns and gas globe fittings (which have been converted to electricity). There are 38 identical boutiques with narrow arched windows surrounded by gilt edging including the beautiful window display of musical instruments in Luthier. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling either as you will be rewarded with beautiful gilt framed 19th century murals.

metro comedie francaisRetracing my steps towards the Louvre I took a detour through the Louvre des Antiquaires as it had started to rain heavily. It is a most extraordinary store of antiquities on three levels, with goods ranging from Eastern carpets to Baccarat crystal and delicate Sevres tea sets to incredibly ornate porcelain decorated grand pianos. A very interesting complex to while a way a few rainy hours, but definitely not a place to take children! Being a little too expensive for my pockets (and anyway, where would I put that enormous baby grand?) I exited onto Place Colette and retraced my steps towards the Comedie-Francaise (interesting metro design) next to the Palais-Royal with its Revolutionary history (another story entirely) and entered the Jardin du Palais Royal where elegant 18th century arcades (1786) surround a very peaceful garden. Although not strictly passageways they are considered to be the prototype of what was to come. Continue reading Walking the Right Bank Passages in Paris