Posted by: travelrat | July 28, 2014

Neolithic Houses: Slide Show

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The Neolithic Houses project at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre is now complete. Putting in a weekly volunteer shift at the Visitor Centre enabled me to take photos at various phases of their construction, and now it’s all complete, I’ve done my first shift within the houses also.

The aim is to show how people lived around the time Stonehenge was built, based on finds at nearby Durrington and elsewhere … a little guesswork is involved, too, but it’s based on the best evidence there is.

I was extremely surprised at the level of interest shown, especially by our younger visitors. There are a lot of replica artefacts in the houses, which we’re able to show, and let the visitors touch. I’ve also had several African visitors tell me ‘I grew up in such a house!’ So, I think we’ve got something right.

Anyway, here, in no particular order, are the pictures …

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Posted by: travelrat | July 25, 2014

Lunch in the Hutongs


Beijing: 8th May 2014

Hutong, I am told, originally meant ‘a well’. But, the name has how been assigned to the maze of alleys and narrow lanes which make up a part of Beijing.

The story of the hutongs began back in 1215, when the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan invaded the city of Zhoungdu, as Beijing was then called, and razed it to the ground. The surviving citizens built the hutongs from the rubble, possibly reasoning that narrow alleys would slow down, if not completely deter any future invasions.

As late as the 1950s, there were some 6000 hutongs, but, in 1990, it was decided to demolish the area, to make room for high-rise development. About 40% fell to the bulldozer, before reason prevailed. Many Chinese wished to preserve this important part of their heritage, and some parts became highly desirable places to live or work.

Some homes, however, remained in the possession of their original owners, or, indeed, their descendants. Such a house was the courtyard home of Mrs Fan, where we went for lunch. Not a restaurant, it must be emphasised; this was her home, where four generations of her family had lived. Our tour operator had an arrangement with her that groups would be brought to meet her, and be fed and entertained.

Although two groups … nearly forty of us … arrived at that courtyard, there was still plenty of room for us, and we were still served in the traditional Chinese way; quickly and efficiently.


The courtyard was lavishly decorated with hangings and banners; mainly red, for Chinese people regard this as a lucky colour, and a caged bird hung in the shade of an awning.

After lunch, Mrs. Fan shyly introduced herself, and told us a little about the house and the hutongs, then played her zither for us, which we’d already noticed standing on a table but thought was just for decoration. We could have listened to her playing for the rest of the afternoon, but our operator had arranged a rickshaw ride around the hutongs for us.


Posted by: travelrat | July 23, 2014

Cumberland Pies

Pies 1

A question came up on a quiz show I was watching recently. ‘What is the main ingredient of a Cumberland Pie?’ I didn’t know; even though I am from that area, I’d never heard of it.

Meat, maybe? I guessed, and it turned out that was the correct answer. Exactly the same answer Doug Lansky got when he asked what went into an Australian meat pie.

I came upon the pie itself only a couple of weeks later, in the window of Higginson’s, in Grange over Sands. Even in the shop window, with its golden crust similar to that of a Melton Mowbray pork pie, it looked tempting. I had to have one.

Pies 2

The filling is the same delicious spiced pork sausage meat that goes into another local specialty, the Cumberland sausage. They dealt with the additional moisture required by adding a little tomato puree, then they top the mix with a little Cheddar cheese.

If I was given a choice of sausages to buy, I’d go for the Cumberland sausage every time, if it was on offer. So, this tasty ‘spin off’ takes its place along with the sausage high on my list of favourites.

Posted by: travelrat | July 21, 2014

Land’s End

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Land’s End: 5th June 2014.

I last visited Land’s End in 1979, and a lot has changed since then. If I remember correctly, there was just the ‘First and Last House’, a car park and the opportunity to have your photograph taken by the famous signpost. Thus, you could go home and prove to your friends that you have indeed stood on the south-westernmost point of mainland Britain … but, most of all, enjoyed the clifftop views, looking out to the Wolf Rock and the Longships lighthouse … and, if you’re lucky, the Isles of Scilly.

(I am informed, incidentally, that the islanders take exception to their home being referred to as the ‘Scilly Isles’)





















Since then, though, it’s become a rather tacky tourist trap, with shopping outlets and a theme park. Lesley Gillilan, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly put it a lot better than I can, with the words:

‘… a dispiriting collection of buildings, with all the charm of a motorway service area …’

My sentiments exactly!

It does have one redeeming feature, though. There’s a stall in it that sells scrumptious Cornish pasties! That, I can forgive. And, they couldn’t take away the spectacular view … otherwise, I might have regretted not staying in St. Ives and taking that boat ride.

Lands End 3

Posted by: travelrat | July 18, 2014

Summer Palace, Beijing

Summer Palace 1

Beijing: 8th May 2014

Many guide books would have you believe that the Emperor ‘seldom left’ the Forbidden City. But, he had his ‘Summer Palace’, set in extensive gardens by a lake. We didn’t see inside the Palace itself, but, instead, took a stroll around the gardens. However, it wasn’t exactly the leisurely stroll we’d been anticipating.

At the entrance to the gardens, a sign proudly announced the number of visitors it receives; 59,990 the previous day, and forecasting 33,000 for that day. A quiet day, then?

We saw many boats on the lake, most of them offering cruises. We passed; there are plenty of cruises in the programme later. Some of the boats were carved in the shape of dragons; there was also a boat sculpted in marble on the orders of one of the Empresses. I wonder if it actually floats?

Summer Palace 3

In a bandstand, a group of singers and musicians were performing. They weren’t busking; I saw nobody giving them money … or, indeed, a hat or anything to receive donations. Maybe somebody paid them?

Neither, I was told later … they perform for the sheer pleasure of it.

Summer Palace 4

Posted by: travelrat | July 16, 2014

Inside Salisbury Cathedral

Cathedral 6141

I was once asked to sum up Salisbury in as few words as possible. ‘Interesting rocks and a big pointy church!’ I replied.

Now, I often post about Stonehenge, the ‘interesting rocks’ … I work there as a volunteer one day a week … but the ‘big pointy church’, I’ve only seen from the outside, until recently.

I refer, of course, to Salisbury Cathedral, and the main offput was the ticket office inside the door, where they ‘requested a donation’. I just wish I had the cojones to emulate a certain rather stern lady I know, who fixed the ticket-wallah with a basilisk stare and:

‘I’ve never paid to enter the house of God in my life, and I’m not starting now!’

Yes, you have to admire the architecture inside, which is just as good as the exterior. But, looking at all the graves, memorials and laid-up regimental colours, it seems the place is more for the glory of past citizens of Salisbury and the area, and God comes a poor second.

Cathedral 6142

The temporary centrepiece is the sculptures around the altar. Now, my idea of good sculpture is that I should be able to interpret it … not always accurately … without the aid of an ‘it says here’ leaflet. For a moment, I thought of chess pieces, then China’s Terracotta Warriors, then the planter in which one of my neighbours grows strawberries.

But, it says here that it’s ‘The Apostles Speaking in Tongues, Lit by Their Own Lamps’ by Nicholas Pope.

It doesn’t do it for me … but that’s just my opinion. Maybe you think differently?

(The sculptures will be there until 3rd August 2014)

Cathedral 6143

Posted by: travelrat | July 11, 2014

As I Was Going to St. Ives …

St Ives 3

St. Ives: 5th June 2014.

‘As I was going to St. Ives ….’

… I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t meet the ‘man with seven wives’ … or, more likely, a piece of heavy farm machinery … on a blind corner on that narrow minor road. I really don’t know whether to praise the County Council for letting the verges just grow, with all those lovely wild flowers, or curse them for not cutting the grass, so that motorists could see where they’re going.

Like many Cornish seaside places, at St. Ives, you have to park some distance away from the good stuff, for the chaos caused by too many cars down those narrow streets doesn’t bear thinking about. Thankfully, they haven’t seen fit to widen those streets, thus retaining the old fashioned charm of the place.

It’s about 20 minutes walk from the car park to the harbour, and, if you don’t want to make that walk, there’s a shuttle bus. We’ve always preferred the ‘walk downhill; bus uphill’ for obvious reasons!

It’s a busy working harbour, bounded by Smeaton’s Pier … the same John Smeaton who designed the Eddystone Lighthouse, which now stands on Plymouth Hoe, and the Queensberry Bridge, at home in Amesbury.

Boat tours are on offer; one of the many operators said she’d seen a pod of dolphins and a minke whale that morning. I was sorely tempted, but over-ruled. We had other places to go …

St Ives 2

Posted by: travelrat | July 9, 2014

Jade, Bird’s Nests and Kung Fu

The Bird's Nest

Beijing: 7th May 2014.

We had lunch in a restaurant on the upper floor of the Jade Gallery. We were told of the role of jade in Chinese culture, and, of course, had the opportunity to buy some. I did wonder whether the primary objective of the visit was lunch or the jade?

On the way back to town, the coach stopped briefly so we could photograph the 2008 Olympic Stadium, known locally as the ‘bird’s nest’. In truth, though, I found the nearby ‘wiggly tower’, apparently, designed by an architect smoking some serious stuff … more photogenic. However, it did cause me to wonder if, possibly, architects compete for a prize for The Most Outrageous Design.

The Wiggly Tower

After dinner, we went to the Red Theatre, to see the ‘Legend of Kung Fu’ show. This tells the story of a small boy who becomes a monk, and learns the skills from an early age. This is the genuine article, too, for all the performers (with, I assume, the exception of the women) are really monks who have spent all their lives learning the art … a layman just couldn’t manage some of the feats we saw.

Kung Fu show

Posted by: travelrat | July 7, 2014

Tea in China

Tea 2

We often use the expression ‘I wouldn’t do it for all the tea in China’. ‘Char’, the slang word for tea is one of the few words we’ve imported from Chinese. Yet, at home, we rarely drink Chinese tea; our usual ‘brew’ comes from India, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Or, sometimes, we just toss a tea-bag into a cup without paying much attention to where it comes from.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of tea in China, and sometimes, they make quite a ceremony of preparing it. Usually, when we went for a meal, the first thing on to the table was a pot of green tea; I assume its main purpose was to clear the palate for what was to come.

(You knew, didn’t you, that you don’t put milk or sugar into green tea … if you want a sweeter brew, though, the slightest smidgin of honey is permissible)

Or, you can take your tea in a tea-house; the place where Chinese people go to relax. They make your tea by putting the leaves into a cup, then pouring hot water on it. The cup comes with a lid, so you can use it to keep the leaves in the cup while you drink your tea. And, from time to time, a waiter comes around to top up your brew with hot water … I once had five cups without diluting the flavour at all. Which means, you can stay as long as you like; a useful feature when you’re tired of shopping, but have some time before you meet the rest of the group.

Tea 1

Posted by: travelrat | July 4, 2014

Port Isaac

Port Isaac Pano

Port Isaac: 4th June 2014.

It might appear that our road trip to Cornwall was rather rushed, but our visitors particularly wanted to see the county, and we wanted to show them as much as possible in the limited time available. So, we only paid a short visit to each place, but still got some nice photos.

We’ve long been fans of the TV series ‘Doc Martin’. Mainly because Martin Clunes is such a fine actor; we couldn’t help contrasting his grumpy, irascible ‘Dr. Ellingham’ with a previous role as the caring, likeable undertaker in ‘William and Mary’.

Port Isaac Doc Martin's House

The setting was a big draw, too. The series is set in the fictional village of Porth Wenn, but was shot in Port Isaac. You can see ‘Doc Martin’s House’ and the school. In fact, the whole village looks pretty much as it appears on TV.

Port Isaac School

It’s still a working fishing port, though, and, although some ‘touristification’ has taken place, neither it nor the TV connection have taken the place over completely.

Port Isaac

We’re staying just outside Marazion, where a main selling point is that it’s within walking distance of St. Michael’s Mount. However, we haven’t visited it yet, just photographed it from a distance while the light was good, which it may not be tomorrow.

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