Southport pier 2

As child I was taken to the seaside at Southport on the few occasions we strayed from Lincolnshire, to stay with cousins on the other side of the country. An abiding memory is of the long walk down the pier and the tram you could take down the pier’s length to make the journey back easier. And then there was the question of the sea – it wasn’t always there, just miles and miles of beach.

Southport was created in the great Victorian railway/seaside resort boom, and very grand it was, too. Its pier, built in 1859, is the oldest iron pier in the country. At 3,635ft (once 4380ft) it is the second-longest in Great Britain, after that at Southend. In it’s heyday the pier was visited by steamers conveying tourists along the coast. By the 1920s increased silting meant steamers could no longer reach the pier, which fell into disrepair, until restored in the new millenium. The tramway recalled from my childhood ran in various forms until 2015, but the recent austerity meant it could not be maintained and the tram is now replaced by a little road train, which looks not bad on the featured photo.

The same silting in the water channel allowed for land reclamation, which is why some of the pier now runs over what is now dry land, reclaimed from the sea. This provided for the creation of the Marine Lake, now a very good location for paddleboarding.

Of course, the pier can be relied on as the foreground to some great sky photographs, but most usually with a base of sand rather than sea.



The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.Read More »


I have previously written of the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Amboise. Recently we again tarried in that crossing point of the River Loire, to be impressed this time by just how photogenic Amboise is. The featured image shows what is left of King Francois I’s chateau, and the bridge over half of the river from the island, beautifully enhanced by modern lighting. Here’s a larger version.


Go onto the bridge and look to the right and you see the beautiful sunset over a wild part of the River Loire, ‘Europe’s last untamed river’.

amboise sunset

There were plenty of cormorants and gulls on the river, too, but I didn’t get any shots worth sharing this time.

The four little girls

Birmingham (Burr-ming-HAM) Alabama is renowned for its role in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, that were spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 there was the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist church that was at the heart of the movement, 4 little girls were killed. Birmingham police with dogs and water cannon attacked defenceless crowds, including children, in the nearby park. All this was orchestrated by the renowned mayor Bull O’Connor. I remember it all so well from the UK media of that time.

That park (Kelly Ingram Park) is now a moving memorial to these events, with a number of evocative statues. Near the entrance are statues to the four little girls, and to King himself.Read More »

Petrochemical dream or nightmare?

So we took the grandchildren to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which we’d much enjoyed in previous years, particularly to see the new Wiess Energy Hall.

What a spectacular set of exhibits this provides, summarising all you might know or wish to know about the oil and petrochemical industries. Many working models and explanations keep young and old engaged and interested for hours. What a monument to the wonderful creative spirit that has engaged humanity for a century and mostly created the modern world, with its variety of fuels, chemicals, plastics…

If you want to know about different types of oil rigs, the fracking revolution, oil pipelines, and much more, this is the place to go. Maps show the incredible scales of operations in the US.

There are even sections on nuclear power and renewable energy sources, albeit at a lower level than the obviously dominant petrochemicals.

Sadly, there are things it does not tell you, issues it does not address – like how this petrochemical dream is running into the buffers.

It does not tell you about the global warming and climate change that is being caused, nor of the suppression of knowledge of this by those who first knew – the oil industry.

It does not tell you how the land and sea are becoming increasingly polluted with all those plastics, not to mention the regular oil spillages, escaping methane, frack-caused earthquakes,…

It does not tell you how the very soil we grow our crops on is being denatured by those chemical fertilisers.

It does not tell how insects, birds, vegetation, mammals, fish are all being depleted, species destroyed at an alarming rate as the chemicals and plastics spread around the environment and the industrial scale enabled destroys the intimate spaces of nature.

It does not tell how human populations have been subjugated and their politics subverted by the imperative for this energy.

It does not tell how the earth cries out at this painfully rapid change, and is harnessing its resources for survival, ensured by its wonderful yet frightful variability – the heatwaves, coldwaves, biblical rainfalls and fires and floods, hurricanes, typhoons, thunders and lightnings…

In short, like most human endeavours, this industry’s continued prevalence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, which it resists to the death throes. But why would all those so-generous oil industry related sponsors of this exhibition in the oil capital wish to tell that story?

Featured image shows one of the exhibits: “Energy City,” a 2,500-square-foot 3-D landscape representing Houston, the surrounding Gulf coastal waters and the terrain of southeast and central Texas, aiming to bring to life the energy value chain.

Le Puy en Velay

I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.

st michel aiguilhe

This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.

Read More »

Another Place

One of my favourite places to visit in the North West of England is Crosby Beach, home to Antony Gormley’s Another Place. The beach is studded with statues of a man looking out to sea, and the effect is remarkable.

The statues, beach, sea, skyline and offshore wind farms provide almost infinite possibilities for photography (not forgetting the starlings).

another placeI rather like this one, at telephoto zoom, showing pooled water on the beach, with the windfarm in the background. In between is the deepwater channel where you occasionally see vessels making their way to/from Liverpool. The shadow on the horizon is the hills of North Wales.

The large sandy beach makes a good place to walk, but is not usually appropriate for traditional ‘bucket and spade’ activities as there is usually a fair wind.

And what’s this about wind farms being an eyesore? In the right place they can even add to the natural beauty of a location, which is not really something you can say about a nuclear power station. Yes I’m biased.


British Lawnmower Museum

Following my recent post on matches, which was inspired by the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, I was interested to note that the first lawnmower was actually invented by Edward Budding in Stroud in 1830, just after the perfection of a reproducible striking match in 1825/6. What an inventive time were those days of Great Britain’s industrial revolution.

The Southport museum contains an example of Budding’s invention, and a fine piece of engineering it was, operated by two people, one pushing and one pulling. But extremely heavy because of its cast iron manufacture.

It was interesting to discover from Brian Radam, who established the museum, that this is a true lawnmower. Later modern rotary ‘mowers’ are in fact ‘grass cutters’ that work by shearing and tearing, rather than by cutting.

Altogether, a visit to the lawnmower museum proves rather more interesting than you might think, with a number of rooms full of old machines and stories that Brian, a great enthusiast, will regale you with. And you get to see an old machine once owned by Nicholas Parsons of ‘Just a Minute’ fame!

George HW Bush Library

George HW Bush was one of a small number of Republican US presidents since WW2 who I do not recall as being regarded with great trepidation by the rest of the world. Bush still lives in Houston with wife Barbara, and it was apparent from the recent superbowl in Houston how affectionately they are regarded locally. We made the day trip to visit the presidential library for this the 41st US president, in College Station, Texas.

This rather grand building lies in the campus of the enormous and rather drab Texas A&M University. The museum is efficiently run, and well staffed with enthusiastic volunteers, well laid out with introductory video and audio guide – the US does such museums well. The presidential library itself is not accessible to the general public.Read More »

Monster Jam

Monster Jam is one of the purported great ‘experiences’ Houston has to offer, so I duly accompanied grandchild, friend and a couple of parents to experience it. The venue was the very arena where the superbowl was held a week ago.

First we had to be prepared and take ear plugs and ear defenders (both). The vehicles involved have very noisy engines.Read More »

The autumn rut

We’re walking by the lake in Cheshire’s Tatton Park on a grey late October afternoon. Red deer often congregate near the Knutsford entrance, but today are not to be seen there. Further into the park we hear the baying of a stag, then and answering roar from a slightly different direction, and so on.

Turning up towards the bank covered in the great avenue of beech trees we pass a few delicate roe deer, and then catch the pungent smell of the red deer, a deep pungency that you only get at this time of year.

Higher up, a couple of women are stopped, looking over to the right. Gaining height, we suddenly see what they are looking at – two large groups of red deer, each with a large stag at its heart, surrounded by females and younger deer.

The great stag with magnificent antlers lets out a mighty roar, soon answered by his counterpart with an equally mighty roar. The other deer appear to ignore them and carry on munching, or standing or sitting taking the air. Apart from the stags, only the watching people seem to be greatly impressed, slightly afraid even.

Power and dominance are clearly established, there are probably enough females to go around; it never comes to the locking of antlers.

Pink footed migration

One of the marvels of autumn is the great bird migrations, some of which we can see in the UK. We were lucky enough to go to WWT Martin Mere in Lancashire a couple of weeks ago for a late evening opening to see thousands of migrating pink footed geese coming in for the night. We spent a happy couple of hours in bird hides, as the light gradually faded, watching skein after skein of geese, some going in different directions, come in to land or splash, until lake and banks were covered.



The most easily visible geese were the greylags that are at Martin Mere all year round.

Pink footed

The migrating pink footed geese were more difficult to see close up as they keep their distance. These are darker than the greylags, but easily confused as both have pink feet! These geese use Martin Mere as a staging post and move further south after a few weeks.

It’s not just about the geese. In the quiet of evening we also saw hares, a kingfisher, a marsh harrier, a murmuration of starlings, many lapwings, shelducks and others. Martin Mere also has enclosures containing birds from many parts of the world, and otters.

Martin Mere is also really child oriented, with things to do and a really good children’s play area. Granddaughter loves going there so that she can feed the great variety of ducks from the supplied bags of seed (small fee).

WWT Martin Mere is well deserving of support for all the conservation work they do, not only in UK but across the world – birds do not know of coountry boundaries.

Redmire Force

The Wensleydale Railway runs between Northallerton and Redmire through green and pleasant Wensleydale in Yorkshire. Redmire is only a small village, but our tourist information indicated that there were waterfalls here, so we decided to seek them out. Not an easy task. There are no signs, so we had to resort to asking friendly locals where we could find them.

You go through the attractive village and down a countryside track for about half a mile, and suddenly find yourself in this beautiful and peaceful green oasis. The River Ure tumbles down through rocks and low falls into calm stretches banked by trees and sheep-mown grass.

redmire_falls_2Over the fields you can see in the distance Bolton Castle, indeed this riverside and footpath is a part of the Bolton estate.

Just one family was there on a Sunday morning, enjoying a paddle and play around the waterside. Walk along the path up by the falls themselves and you are on your own to enjoy the ambience, bathed in greenery and the sound of running water.

Caught one
Pied wagtail

Pied and grey wagtails flit between the rocks, feeding on insects accompanied by quick swooping movements. By contrast, black-headed gulls follow long gliding paths and sweep up their prey.

Of course, the river here is nowhere near as spectacular as at the more famous nearby Aysgarth Falls that attract the crowds, but the falls at Redmire are just as special in their own way. Relative inaccessibility contributes to their charm.

Tourist notes: The Wensleydale Railway is being extended to Aysgarth, at which point Redmire will probably have even less visitors. The Bolton Arms in Redmire does an excellent lunch.

Inspiration from North Wales

It’s difficult to recapture that oppressive atmosphere of the early 1980s – Thatcher, Reagan, US missiles in UK, the threat of nuclear winter, Greenham Common, support of unsavoury regimes… A time when things did not make sense. Environment and recycling didn’t get much of a lookin.

Then we took the children to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology in a reclaimed quarry near Machynlleth in North Wales. What a refreshing experience! Here sustainability was king – alternative energy sources, solar panels, windmills, recycling, composting , growing vegetables, conserving energy, explaining nuclear dangers… I still recall the relief that someone was taking these things seriously and doing real practical stuff. I’ve supported CAT and its development ever since.

Research and education have always been key themes for CAT. Leading light Peter Harper gave an inspirational talk as part of our series of  New RenaissanceLectures in Knutsford in the early 1990s. I’ve added used cardboard to the compost heap ever since!

It was a pleasure to recently receive Issue 100 of their magazine Clean Slate, still going strong, with news of the latest developments at CAT. In case you’re not aware, CAT is leader of the Zero Carbon Britain initiative, a source of inspiration to many across the world.

Congratulations to all involved with CAT, and may you continue to inspire us for many years to come. The need for your work is as great as ever.

Incidentally, the centre an excellent place to visit – friendly staff, good displays well explained, water-powered funicular, ‘green’ café, child-friendly, nature walks,…

Featured image of CAT funicular courtesy of Dr Neil Clifton , via Wikimedia Commons

Jervaulx Abbey

Whilst in Yorkshire recently, we visited Easby and Jervaulx Abbeys, reminders of the time when Cistercian monks and abbots were at the heart of medieval life, dominating much of the local economy and providing sustenance and refuge for the poorest.

jervaulx_abbey_2Jervaulx is particularly attractive, as its privately-owned, extensive ruins are not set out quite as clinically as the National Trust norm. They have been designed to be incorporated into a semi-natural garden setting, evoking the romanticism of ruins of the Victorian era. The result is magnificently different in this calm and peaceful setting.

Jervaulx (corruption of ‘Ure Valley’) was one of the great Cistercian Abbeys of the north. Sadly, the last abbot of Jervaulx, Adam Sedbar, was implicated in the ill-fated rebellion of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ against Henry VIII in 1536. Having seen off the rebels, Henry took his revenge, executed Sedbar and ordered the Abbey buildings to be destroyed. All those great gothic arches were undermined and brought down.

When we see such acts of vandalism performed today in the Middle East, we should perhaps remain aware that our own history included similar acts when we were dominated by the despotic mindset of an all-powerful king. Most of today’s humanity has fortunately grown beyond what we regard as a primitive ‘medieval’ mindset.

A veneer of culture?

We visited Weimar in Germany a few years ago and were very impressed by this grand city with its tree-lined streets, parks and grand cultural connections – a superb place to visit for a few days. It was therefore with some interest that I read the recent article by David Blackbourn ‘Princes, Counts and Racists’ in the London Review of Books. It was all about Weimar, and told more than I had learned from tourist literature and being there – particularly its dramatically contrasting associations with Wolfgang Goethe and Adolf Hitler.Read More »

A Tale of Renewal

We first went through Winnington, near Northwich, Cheshire, in 1970 in our first car – a split-windscreen Morris Minor affectionately called ‘Creeping Moses’. I have a vivid memory of the grey ash that covered everything in Winnington – bushes, trees, terraced houses – in the vicinity of the enormous Imperial Chemical Industries chemical works with huge industrial buildings and smoking stacks. It was like an abandoned land at the end of some SciFi catastrophe.

It was only a few miles from our destination of Marbury Country Park, a former country house and WW2 prison camp which had even then become quite a pleasant park between Budworth Mere and the Trent and Mersey Canal. It was bordered by a huge stretch of lightly used industrial land belonging to ICI, spanning several miles between Winnington and another huge ICI factory at Lostock Gralam. Apart from the country park, this was definitely an area to avoid.

Over the intervening years, things have changed. The great ICI conglomerate was broken up and much of the chemical work has, I believe, moved elsewhere (perhaps that pollution is now in China?).

Anderton Boat Lift

The boat lift at nearby Anderton, linking the canal with the much lower River Weaver, was refurbished in 2002 and made into a visitor attraction, complete with cafe and boat trips. As part of the Mersey Forest initiative, Anderton Country Park and Northwich Community Woodlands were established on the former ICI land linking the two sites – now fully connected with Marbury giving a much larger country park, and also linked by footpath to central Northwich.

There is a fine set of well-maintained footpaths criss-crossing the entire area, and we find it ideal for a Sunday walk, as do many dog walkers and cyclists. The area is still home to old industrial pipes, some apparently still in use, but they do not intrude. The only problem I could find was the succession of dog waste bags that have been attached to or thrown into bushes, rather than the provided bins – now what is that all about?

newmans flash
Neumann’s Flash
Crested Grebe

The settlement ponds have become nature reserves for birds, with bird watching hides. On our visit yesterday we saw swans, coots, tufted ducks, moorhens, shelducks, crested grebes, a buzzard and the ubiqitous canada geese, mallard and gulls, also a clacking of rooks. Only a grebe came close enough to capture on our small travel zoom camera. Neumann’s Flash is usually a good place to see hundreds of lapwing, flying in formation with those lazy flapping wings, but yesterday we were restricted to a token flyby of around twenty.

What a transformation of this area over 45 years from industrial wasteland to a haven for wildlife and recreation. It does show what can be done, and we should never despair at the depradations done to our environment. It will recover, but slowly, and I suspect that the biodiversity of this area is still somewhat limited – at least in terms of butterflies, bees, hoverflies and the like. But nothing can recover the lives that were undoubtedly blighted by that pervasive pollution.

It was interesting to drive home through Winnington. The grey ash is long gone. The (now) Brunner Mond chemical works are still there. Some of the old industrial buildings are obviously derelict but still standing, some are in process of being dismantled, and new housing estates are rapidly expanding into the area being freed up. There is even a garden centre. This area truly is being renewed, bit by bit.

In Praise of The Beans

Beans Cafe, Eldridge, Houston

It was the last visit of our time in Houston to the ubiquitous Beans Cafe (mentioned in several of my posts), which is one of those locally run independent coffee shops that are done so well in the US, alongside all those regional and (inter)national chains. The feeling is homespun, the service friendly, the coffee is great, the music always discreet and well-chosen, the seating old-fashioned armchairs, but quite comfortable. Wifi is free and reliable, and many appear to use it as a temporary office with their laptops, as they linger over their drink or food. It just feels comfortable to be there, hence our regular visits.

Such local independents seem to turn up in most of the towns of the US we have visited during several road trips. Trip Advisor is good at unearthing them and the reviews are usually good, as is the food, drink and ambience. At the Village Cafe in Bryan on our way to Fort Worth there was even live music following the lunchtime rush.

Of course, the same is true in the UK. Many high streets have their own independent coffee shops or tea rooms, alongside the inevitable Costa, Nero or Starbucks. So the choice is local colour versus the known standard of the global brand.

Now it seems to me that the rules are somewhat stacked against these local shops, in that their ability to avoid taxation is not on a level playing field with the Starbucks of this world, with their international financial arrangements, paying taxes where it most suits. And the big chains can run outlets at a loss until they have killed off the local competition. Yet local shops are effectively largely recycling money in the local economy, so good for local prosperity – whereas the chains are slowly sucking money out of the local economy. The local shop is probably paying its staff better, and forms much more a part of the cultural ‘glue’ of the local community. It’s the same story that has over the years seen American high streets denuded of small business shops, replaced by chains paying peanut wages.

Free market enthusiasts will say that it’s just natural that small shops may get crowded out by chains, they just have to be good enough to survive. Well yes, but at least we should make sure that the playing field is level. It does not appear to be. Maybe the field should actually be biased towards local businesses, because of the benefits they bring to the community as a whole? By all accounts, and the evidence of my own eyes, the capitalist free market seems to have done a pretty good job at destroying any sense of community and individuality in many places in US and UK. The high streets and malls are all pretty similar, the same set of stores and cafes with their national/global branding. We need more unique outlets with their own style, local colour and individuality. Let’s support them and move the political environment to encourage them…