Posted by: travelrat | October 1, 2014

Marwell Park Zoo

Marwell Aug 14_copy

Marwell Zoo. 20th August 2014.

There’s a wide choice of attractions around here to which we could take our two youngest grandsons when they visited. But, when they heard there were dinosaurs at Marwell Zoo … not real ones, of course … it was no contest.

I swear, those lads were more interested in the fibreglass model dinosaurs then they were in the real animals.

Leopard at Marwell_copy

Marwell is a pleasant little zoo, not as crowded as some of the more popular ones. You can, of course, walk around it, but, if you don’t want to walk, there’s a ‘land train’. That cost nothing to ride, but you sometimes have to queue for a short while. Or, there’s a more conventional miniature railway, for which you don’t usually have to queue, but you have to pay.

There are, of course, lots of animals here. Possibly the high point, which the boys found fascinating, was when a pygmy hippos spreads its dung when it ‘goes’

More efficient, I’d say, than even the most sophisticated muck-spreader!

Rhino at Marwell_copy


Posted by: travelrat | September 29, 2014

Vale of Clwyd

Vale of Clwyd 1_copy

Ruthin: 23rd September 2014

In 1972, Denbighshire ‘disappeared’ under the Great Disorganisation, which saw our traditional counties replaced by the somewhat soulless ‘Local Government Areas’, and became part of Clwyd, which I am informed is Welsh for ‘gateway’, which is appropriate, because it’s the first area you come upon as you drive into Wales from northern England.

However, the ‘former counties’ are starting to make a comeback, and, in 1996, Denbighshire … or Sir Ddinbych in Welsh … made its reappearance as a local authority.

I wasn’t familiar with the area, so when I was invited on a Press trip, I really didn’t know what to expect. But, as I drove over the Welsh border, I’d hardly taken on board that the road signs were now bilingual, than I passed a brown sign saying I was entering an Area of Natural Beauty.This is countryside as it used to be … fields, trees and hedgerows, not the prairie-like expanses of elsewhere. We are now in the Vale of Clwyd, flanked by the gentle, flowing Clwydian Hills.

We were headed to Ruthin, where we were staying at the Ruthin Castle Hotel. And, here’s a caution … this is NOT to be confused with the Castle Hotel, Ruthin, where most of us went first; I had my suspicions, because it looked nothing like the place I saw on Google Earth!

But, it did give us a glimpse of the town we were to explore in greater detail later on. We saw quaint half-timbered houses, and shops which, although selling modern goods, have managed to be adapted without altering the character of the building overmuch. Just one example from many; the National Westminster Bank is in the Old Courthouse, dating from 1410. You can still see the stump of timber in the wall that used to form the gallows from which criminals were hanged.

Ruthin Castle Hotel is only a short way up the road, though … and it really is … or rather, was a castle. The present building was actually built in the style of a castle. But, enough of the original castle remains to make a fascinating exploration.

Disclosure: We travelled as the guests of North Wales Tourism ( but all opinions expressed are my own.

Ruthin 1

Posted by: travelrat | September 18, 2014

Lights and a Garden

Xi'an by Night

Xi’an: 10th/11th May 2014.

After we’d visited the Terra Cotta Warriors, we had a light lunch, followed by a demonstration of tea-making. That’s a ritual that’s almost a ceremony … alas, I never had a tea-break that long!

That evening, the rain had abated enough for us to enjoy the Xi’an By Night tour. That’s an extravaganza of lights, LED displays and a musical water fountain. Words and pictures can do it no justice … even video is no real substitute for actually being there. The highlight of the tour is the musical fountain … or rather, fountains; it’s the size of several football pitches.

Musical Fountain

The following day, we stopped at the Snow Goose Pagoda on the way to the airport. I was expecting just a quick photo stop, but we actually spent a considerable time there. It’s set in an extensive garden, where people take exercise, and join their friends in practising Tai-Chi.

Snow Goose Pagoda (2)

There’s also a cultural centre there, where they demonstrate Chinese painting and calligraphy. And, it was only as we got back on the coach that I realised … we didn’t actually go into the pagoda. But, an interesting visit, nevertheless

Chinese Painting

Posted by: travelrat | September 16, 2014

Drayton Manor and Thomas Land

Drayton Manor

Tamworth: 17th August 2014.

Normally, I don’t have a very positive view of theme parks. The more popular ones are usually overcrowded and you seem to spend more time queueing for the rides than actually riding them.

This isn’t the case at Drayton Manor, though. We visited in the middle of August, and there were many people there, but it didn’t feel crowded, and we got the stuff we wanted with a minimum of queueing.

There are train rides and a boat trip, and rides to suit all tastes, from white-knuckle rides for the thrill-seekers to pink-knuckle rides for the ‘tinies’ and those of a more nervous disposition.

The main attraction was ‘Thomas Land’; a theme park within a theme park, based on ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ the animated railway engine created by the Rev. W Awdrey … stories originally for his children, which grew into a series of books, then into a world-wide franchising operation.

Four-year old William is one of Thomas’ greatest aficionados, so we couldn’t not visit ‘Thomas and Friends’. And he knows all about it:

‘Come and have your photo taken with Thomas, William!’

‘That’s not Thomas! It’s Gordon!’

(Silly old Grand-dad! He should have realised that the model wasn’t a tank engine)

But, there’s much more besides. We didn’t have a ride on the train pulled by Thomas, but there’s another miniature railway outside Thomas Land … and that gives you a longer ride, and shows you much more.


Posted by: travelrat | September 11, 2014

Terra Cotta Army: Video

Terra Cotta Workshop

Xi’an: 10th May 2014.

We’d already seen some of the Terra Cotta Warriors at the Shaanxi Museum in Xi’an. Today, we were going to see the rest of them in situ.

But first, they took us to a factory where, as well as refurbishing the ‘originals’, they make replicas, some full size, others miniature, to sell to the visitors.

I thought one of them might make a good garden ornament, but then, thought of the shipping costs and decided against it.

Lacquer furniture_copy

They also made the exquisite lacquered furniture. Again, just for a moment I wished I had a bigger house … then thought of all the extra dusting.

Then, it was off to see the Warriors … through the lashing rain! But, we had umbrellas, and the pits in which the Warriors are ranged were under cover. So, sit back and enjoy the video.



Posted by: travelrat | September 9, 2014

On the Road Again

Forton Services

Near Lancaster: 15th August 2014.

I’ve said some pretty uncomplimentary things about motorway service areas in the past. They’re generally rather soulless places, and I tend only to use them if I absolutely have to. I usually fill up with fuel before reaching the motorway and I’d have to be really hungry before I’d eat there.

However, there are rare exceptions to this rule. I think that the quality of the food and service seems to improve the further north you go. I’ve already written about the super pies at Charnock Richard, near Preston, and the hot-pot at Burton in Kendal also deserves a mention.

I only stopped at the Lancaster (Forton) services because I needed the toilet … and to take some pictures. Usually, there’s not much to photograph in such places, but this one’s different, and rather special.

It’s the first one ever built on British motorways, and has a striking, futuristic style about it … well, it was futuristic, when it was built around 1960.

We used to call it ‘Spacefleet Headquarters’, because it was reminiscent of the buildings in the ‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future’ comic strip, which was popular among young lads of the time.

I did hear that there were moves afoot to make it a ‘Listed Building’; maybe it’s received that status already?

Posted by: travelrat | September 4, 2014

The Terra Cotta Army

Terra Cotta Warrior 1_copy

Xi’an: 10th May 2014.


In 1974, a group of farmers near the city of Xi’an set out to dig a well. But, instead of water, they came face to face with a model soldier. Not a miniature soldier, but a life-sized effigy, in terra cotta


When archaeologists investigated the site, they were astonished at what they discovered.


There was much more than the few figures that the farmers found. Here was rank upon rank of model soldiers, each one different. There were archers, cavalrymen, charioteers and foot-soldiers. Most of them held real weapons; some of these still exist, but many of these have either decayed over time, or been looted in the past.


These models date back to about 220 BC, and are believed to have been placed there to guard the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in the after-life, in a similar way to the ushbati figurines of ancient Egypt.


Most of the soldiers are still in their original positions, ranged in their files in the three pits which have been excavated so far. Some, though, have toured the world, visiting such places as London, Toronto, San Francisco and Sydney’


Terra Cotta Warriors 2_copyThe public aren’t allowed into the pits themselves. That’s a privilege normally reserved only for trained archaeologists and visiting Heads of State. There’s a balcony around each pit, though, from which they can be viewed. But, if you want some close-up images, there’s a gallery within the museum in which some selected figures are displayed in glass cases … most spectacular of which is the bronze chariot, provided to convey the Emperor in the afterlife.


Better still, there are more examples in the Shaanxi Museum, in Xi’an. We took many shots here, for we had heard that photography was forbidden around the pits themselves. We subsequently found that was wrong, although use of flash is not allowed. But, people appeared not to be taking a great deal of notice of that!

Terra Cotta Warriors 3_copy



Posted by: travelrat | September 2, 2014

Cornwall Wrap-up: Video

St Michael's Mount

So, our short Cornwall road trip has come to an end. I wish we could have spent longer there, but Garry and Joanne didn’t have much time in England. We put them, stuffed with Cornish pasties and ice cream, on to a train to London, from where they’d go to Europe and their river cruise.

That’s on our ‘to do’ list … but not a top priority. Maybe we should wait awhile, for it might get unfavourably compared with our cruise on the Yangtze, which I shall post about when the time comes.

Anyway, as per custom, here’s the video to sum it all up.



Posted by: travelrat | August 28, 2014


Dumpling Dinner

Xi’an: 9th May 2014.


We were promised a ‘dumpling supper’, and that’s exactly what we got. Dumplings, more dumplings and still more dumplings! But, not the balls of suet we put in our stew at home. These are more in the nature of thin pancakes wrapped around an almost infinite variety of fillings.


It’s a food speciality of the region, but they like to eat them everywhere, especially at New Year. The shape is rather like a tael, a weight used for weighing coinage, and is said to be a symbol of wealth and prosperity.



Very nice, but not all at once, please! It seems that, every five minutes, a server appeared and made a hole to put down yet another platter of dumplings with yet another filling.


But, I can forgive them for that, for the floor show afterwards was superb!


The Tang Dynasty Court Music and Dance gave a stellar performance of real … as their title suggests … Chinese music and dance. There was a screen, on to which sub-titles were flashed in English … but it wasn’t really necessary. It was easy enough to interpret what was going on with the eyes alone.

Dumpling Dinner 3

Posted by: travelrat | August 26, 2014

Looe: Things Ain’t Wot They Used to Be

Looe 2

Looe: 6th June 2014.

I wonder if I was thinking of somewhere else, for when we arrived at Looe, it was nothing like the charming village I remember when I last visited 30 years ago.

Then, it seemed, every other person you met was an artist, and every other house or shop was an art gallery or a studio. Maybe the artists felt their work was getting a bit cliched, and moved on?

Looe 3

But, some things remain. The narrow inlet, the colourful fishing boats … and you still have to leave your car a fair distance away from the centre of things, for those narrow streets are difficulty to negotiate without much argument and unseemly language … and, if you do manage it, you won’t find anywhere to park.

But, any disappointment was soon countered, for, like anywhere else in Cornwall, there are still bakeries that do great pasties … and an establishment that sells superlative ice cream.

Looe 1

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