From the Big Peach to the Big D, via the Big Easy: Part III


A side street in the French Quarter – New Orleans

We left New Orleans at 6.30 a.m for the over five-hour trip westwards along the I-10.  I passed the time listening to music, reading, dozing and counting  the number of drivers texting single-handed on their cellphones whilst driving (I counted 23). In some states it’s only illegal if you’re under 18, in others it’s quite legal.  How very confusing for people crossing state lines.

Our breakfast/comfort stop was at a Love’s Travel Stop – a bog-standard service station on the Interstate, not unlike the motorway service stations in England.  Mooching round their huge store which sold everything from tacky souvenirs to motor oil and somewhat greasy chicken nugget-type foodstuffs (I didn’t look too closely) I was not a little surprised to see a good selection of  fresh fruit for sale. So with a handbag bulging with my five-a- day, we continued on our way and  before too long we rolled up at the NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

I was slightly taken aback.  On my last visit in 1999 there was strict airport-style security and we had to leave bags and cameras in lockers before being admitted.  Now all you need do is buy a ticket and line up for a while to be shown onto a Disney-like motor-tram.  In the queue I met a group of lovely but crazy guys. They hail from all over the States and Canada and know each other through their online gamer group. Their annual meet-up is at a different venue each year. The 2018 meet-up happened to be in Houston and so once the convention was over, they headed on over to the Space Centre.  Despite their weird  and very geeky appearance they were really friendly and informative. Somehow Walter, the bald one with the beard (centre) and I began a conversation about the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) which took place in the Texas/Mexican war.  I went to visit the battle site in 1999 and Walter knew a heap of stuff  that he was going to send me but I’ve mislaid his email address so will never know what it was.

Back at the Space Centre we visited Mission Control from where all the Apollo flights including the moon landings were controlled. It’s also the place where the International Space Station flights are monitored today.


Mission Control looking a little empty

Since my last visit NASA have been restoring the control room ready for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing (next year). Fifty years! That made me feel very old as I remember the excitement of staying up all night to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface.  Sadly the space race has lost its momentum and with it, the excitement I felt in my teens.

After a tour of the rest of the space centre, we set off again for our hotel at nearby Clear Lake, a lovely spot where I imbibed much Prosecco and enjoyed an early night.

Friday, 12th October – San Antonio

Another early start with breakfast watching the sun rise over Clear Lake.20181012_072153

The journey west, from Houston to San Antonio took over three hours with a stop for coffee -Texas is a vast state. I used my time well, boning up on the story of the Alamo.  I was trying not to get too excited having been told over and over that it was tiny and had been swallowed up by the modern-day city.  Almost as soon as we set off,  the theme tune to the John Wayne film about The Alamo – The Green Leaves of Summer – began going around and around in my head.

I was also looking forward to seeing our hotel, The Menger- it’s been a hotel since 1859, just 23 years after the fall of the Alamo and is right next door. When we arrived in San Antonio I dutifully visited Riverwalk, a city park and network of prettily landscaped walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River. It’s lined by bars, shops, restaurants, and public artwork.  When people told me The Alamo was inconsequential and that the go-to place to see in San Antonio was the Riverwalk, I said I’d go.



I did. It was okay (when you’re talking about shops and bars lining waterways there’s nowhere more incredible than Venice) – so I was a little underwhelmed and it was over hyped.  It’s a nice place to grab lunch but I didn’t have time. With my curiosity about Riverwalk satisfied, I rushed off to a place I have wanted to see since childhood – the Alamo.

In December 1835, in the early stages of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan volunteers overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo (a former Franciscan mission) and captured the fort, seizing control of San Antonio.


The Alamo

On February 23, 1836, a huge Mexican force (allegedly 7,000 soldiers)  led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began a siege of the fort. The Alamo’s defenders, commanded by James Bowie (famous for the Bowie knife) and William Travis, included the famous frontiersman and member of the House of Representatives, David (Davy) Crockett.  In total they numbered about 200 but they managed to courageously hold out for 13 days before being overpowered by the Mexican troops.


For Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became an enduring symbol of their resistance to oppression and their struggle for independence.  Their subsequent rallying cry ‘Remember the Alamo’ rang out at the Battle of San Jacinto which they won in April of 1836, bringing to an end the war and giving Texans their independence.  Of course this is an abridged version of events but the facts are that the Alamo was occupied by a very small number of courageous men, women and children. By that day’s end most of the women and children were escorted to safety. All the men died.

Back at the hotel, we decided to eat at The Menger, in the Colonial Room.  It was indeed a beautiful hotel and the food had a great reputation too.  We weren’t disappointed.


The Menger Hotel

Over several glasses of a rich, smooth, Merlot, our head waiter told us about the ghosts that inhabited the hotel. (I will admit that after checking in, while looking for my room, I did fancy I saw a set of twin girls standing together at the end of my floor’s very long corridor staring right at me.  Stephen King has a lot to answer for!)

The waiter showed us a photograph of the magnificent Victorian Lobby (next to the Colonial Room).  This is the original 1859 lobby of the Menger and has two beautiful  galleries with gilded wrought-iron balustrades. In his photo the ethereal figure of a young girl, wearing old fashion costume was leaning over the top balustrade and staring down to the ground floor – the photo was taken last year.

Menger lobby

Victorian Lobby – Menger Hotel

When the photograph was checked by an expert it hadn’t been tampered with in any way.  Unfortunately the ghostly girl clearly didn’t want to appear in my photograph.

After the creepy tales we had a dish of the magnificent mango ice cream (a legend at the hotel for over 100 years) and then decided to take a breath of air to visit the Alamo by night. 20181012_212827

It was very atmospheric.  As I stood there I could almost hear the shouts of the soldiers, the noise of the cannon firing and the smell of  gunpowder.

Walking back through the now deserted lobby of the Menger that night, I asked one of my friends to escort me back to my room. I was too freaked out to walk down that corridor alone.

Saturday, 13th October – Dallas

I was sad to leave San Antonio and the weather clearly came out in sympathy; it rained for almost the entire 5 hour drive.  Clearly now accustomed to the long journeys, as we headed north I hardly saw the countryside flying past my window.  I did notice Waco, Texas, forever notorious for a siege in 1993, as we passed through. A weird sect called the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh were, allegedly, holed up on their ranch with an arsenal of weapons. The FBI eventually mounted an attack on the place and the resulting inferno killed 76 people.  It’s one of those places that always brings up dreadful connotations of death and destruction.  Like Dallas.

We arrived in Dealey Plaza around midday, by now the rain was falling in sheets and our destination, the Texas School Book Depository fairly steamed with wet clothing.  The building, the place from where Lee Harvey Oswald (allegedly) shot and killed President John F. Kennedy, is now a museum.  It brought back in vivid detail that day – Friday, 22nd November 1963. I was a child watching television when a grave voice announced the assassination of the President of the United States in Dallas, Texas.  I was heartbroken. To me President Kennedy was a superstar and the USA a land of wonders. Although I’m an old cynic now and know a lot of things I didn’t then, I still love this country for its vastness, its landscapes, its diverse cultures and its incredibly friendly people. (I refuse to mention the T word here.)


The Texas Schoolbook Depository

The museum is impressive. Through a series of videos, posters and exhibits, it faithfully recreates that day.  I stood by replica boxes, which Oswald had erected as a screen to hide behind with his shotgun, and saw the President’s motorcade route spread before me, as he did – it was unnerving.


Oswald’s hide on 6th Floor

Like the Lorraine Motel, it is a location that is imprinted on the memory bringing back with vivid horror the dreadful events associated with it.  On the road just where the motorcade was hit are two crosses, to show where the first bullet struck the President and then the fatal bullet – a bit further along.  I got talking to a very nice Marine.  He told me the shot would have been an easy one for Oswald as I had thought it too far to be accurate.  ‘Maam,’ he told me, ‘we’re trained to shoot to kill targets over three times as far away as that cross on the road.  I’m not proud to say it but Oswald was a Marine before he defected to the Soviets’.


Lee Harvey Oswald’s view from the Texas School Book Depository. The man standing in the road is taking a photograph of the X’ on the tarmac where the fatal shot was delivered.

From the museum I braved the rain and walked just outside the building to the infamous ‘grassy knoll’.  It is just a patch of grass – very soggy when I was there – that some believe the fatal shot was fired from.  There are memorials and markers by the pergola on the knoll.  This place can never be associated with anything other than the events of 22nd November, 1963.


Taken from the grassy knoll. X marks the position of President Kennedy’s open-topped car when he received the fatal shot.

I didn’t expect to be so affected.  I have been to Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC and stood by President Kennedy’s grave but somehow, standing on the grassy knoll in the pouring rain brought back the feelings of utter hopelessness I felt as a child.  The dream of Camelot was over, it was the beginning of adulthood.

We left Dallas for our final destination- the Forth Worth Stockyards.  To be honest, I was still feeling in a sombre mood and wasn’t much interested in seeing a faux cattle roundup before the evening rodeo.  Nevertheless you couldn’t help but be affected by the enthusiasm of the crowds, clearly this is a Saturday night outing for many families who enjoy horsemanship and all things cowboy.


I had the opportunity of going to the rodeo but passed on that – somehow watching cattle frantically trying to rid themselves of the humans stuck on their backs, just doesn’t appeal.


Our flight back to Atlanta from Dallas-Fort Worth was uneventful and thankfully tailwinds whisked us speedily back to London courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.  The resulting jet-lag was brutal and so it took over a week for me to begin my blog.  The joy of blogging is to relive in detail the absolute pleasure this trip brought me. I had begun the tour trying to limit expectations in case of disappointment.  I needn’t have worried.


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November 14, 2018 · 09:30

From the Big Peach to the Big D, via the Big Easy: Part II

Saturday, 6th October

The 200 plus mile drive from Nashville to Memphis was an absolute delight. How so? Well, with responsibility for driving and navigation in someone else’s hands, I slipped on my headphones and enjoyed a Simon and Garfunkel songfest all along the I-40.


Fluffy white cotton fields

Passing fields of lazy, waving corn and white fluffy cotton, I sang along that I was ‘Homeward Bound’ and “…gone to look for America”. I was back in my twenties, not a care in the world.

Just as the journey was becoming a bit tedious I had a lovely surprise.  Our ‘lunch’ stop was at the ‘Casey Jones Home and Museum.’  Now when I was a child one of my favourite t.v. shows was ‘Casey Jones’. This series was set in the late 19th century, featuring the adventures of a well-known railroad engineer and the crew of the Cannonball Express steam locomotive. The t.v. show didn’t mention the true story – one that turned him into a folk hero.


Casey Jones’ home

Jones was indeed an engineer working for the Illinois Central railroad with a reputation for keeping strictly to the timetable.  On April 30, 1900, he volunteered to work a double shift to cover for a fellow engineer who was ill. He had just completed a run from Canton, Mississippi, preparing to return on board Engine No. 1 heading south.  The train was originally running more than an hour and a half late and Jones, determined to arrive on time, ran the steam locomotive at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour in an effort to make up the time.

As he took a turn into Vaughan, Mississippi, he was warned that there was another train parked on the tracks ahead. As quickly as he could, Jones grabbed the brake with one hand and pulled the whistle with the other in an attempt to warn those around the train. He instructed his fireman to jump to safety, all the while still trying to slow the train. The collision was brutal. All passengers on the train survived, with the exception of Casey Jones, who was struck in the throat while still holding one hand on the brake and one on the whistle.

Our journey continued on to Memphis but instead of singing along with Simon and Garfunkel, the Casey Jones theme was running around in circles in my head.  By early afternoon we had arrived in Memphis and our first stop instantly brought me up short.  We arrived at the Lorraine Motel, a place I’d seen so often, it felt like I’d been there before but, of course, I hadn’t. For this was the place where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by James Earl Ray in April 1964. Dr King was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage collectors and had given a speech before returning to his motel to change for dinner.


The wreath marks the spot where Dr King fell

The Lorraine was one of the few motels in Memphis known as friendly to African-Americans.  As he emerged from Room 306 a bullet hit him in the cheek shattering his jaw, several vertebrae and severing his spinal cord. Ironically just hours before he had delivered his famous ‘Mountain Top’ speech in which he spoke about his own mortality: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Just across from the motel I noticed a middle-aged African-American woman clearly protesting about something. I went to talk to her. Jacqueline Smith has lived on the pavement outside the motel since she was evicted from her room there to make way for the National Civil Right’s Museum, 30 years ago. She believes the museum dishonours Dr King’s legacy. “I have no problem whatsoever with a National Civil Rights Museum, but I truly believe that the Lorraine Motel is capable of being so much more than an empty space.”


Jacqueline Smith outside the Lorraine Motel

She’s a smart, funny woman, as keen to talk about British television sitcoms as she is to discuss why she has slept rough for 30 years but I get her back on track. “The Lorraine demonstrates the best and worst of what Memphis can offer. It could so easily be a testament to the spirit and teachings of Dr. King… offering support for the homeless and disadvantaged, health care and help for the old and infirm, job training and development to increase self-worth while reducing unemployment.”  As I leave her she presses a flyer into my hands, “Read that dear and think of me when you next watch Hyacinth Bucket – just love that woman.”


And so from the sublime to the ridiculous – we are whisked away to Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first record.

I could do no other than to have a go myself.  Since no-one came rushing out after me waving a recording contract, I can only assume they don’t know a great voice when they hear one.

Checked into our Memphis Hotel and had a deliciously refreshing shower just in time to join friends for a ten minute walk down to Beale Street, “the home of the Blues”.  We found a great place – the Rum Boogie cafe – to eat, drink and boogie to live music but I loved that I kept being asked for ID to prove I was old enough to drink. They take it very seriously here and if you’re under 21 you won’t be admitted to the street after 11pm. After my third Voodoo Love Child cocktail I decided that Beale Street was the real deal.


Beale Street

When we emerged late into the steamy night air, the street was packed with performers, protesters, police and tourists.  On Saturday nights, after 10pm it’s cordoned off and there’s a $10 cover charge to get in.  This charge pays for the extra policing implemented to deal with the serious crime problem that seems, mostly to have melted away.20181006_220459

There was just time to do some souvenir shopping before we left Beale Street, I found some tasteful toilet seats I could imagine my friends being delighted with but sadly they were too large for my luggage.


Sunday, 7th October – Memphis

First off, I should admit that I haven’t really liked Elvis since I was in his fan club at 6 years of age.  But time’s passed and he’s good enough for the nostalgia value to merit a visit to Graceland.  So I did.  Yet I’m struggling to find a way to describe how I feel about the interior design of the mansion.  Maybe back in the 70’s it was considered elegant but I doubt it. Green shag pile carpet on the walls of the ‘jungle room’, a yellow room with three televisions and a billiard room with pleated walls.  All I can do is show my photographs and let them speak for  themselves.


Graceland – the very yellow room


The Billiard Room

In the garden, near the surprisingly small kidney shaped swimming pool is a meditation garden and the place where Elvis and his parents are buried. There is a Disney-like warehouse-sized building away from the house which is the museum, housing Elvis’ outfits, cars, a cinema showing his movies and the inevitable gift shops, cafes and restaurants.  Outside also are his two private aircraft.  It was all a bit of a vulgar display of excess especially in view of my talk with Jacqueline Smith about the poverty and want in the city.


The Peabody Ducks

Our hotel in Memphis was almost next door to the famous Peabody.  This is a lovely old hotel which is known not just for its elegant old-style grandeur but for its famous march of the Peabody ducks.  Twice a day, five North American Mallards, escorted by a gentleman in a red coat and carrying a black cane (the Duckmaster), march down a red carpet to swim in the fountain in the centre of the hotel. They are watched by a large crowd of paying onlookers.  Why? Tradition. It’s been going on since 1930. I’m pleased to say the hotel never have duck on the menu.

Monday, 8th October – Memphis-New Orleans

The Amtrak train was two hours late. Annoyingly we’d had a very early start only to discover something was wrong with the Panoramic car but it did mean we could have breakfast so we went back to Main Street to The Arcade, the oldest restaurant in Memphis.  The diner was short staffed as there’d been an accident on the freeway and only one cook had made it in, so it took a while. Over my coffee and eggs over-easy, I admired the photographs plastered liberally around the walls showing the music legends that had also enjoyed their breakfasts there.20181008_085030

It was worth the wait.  Travelling on an Amtrak train had been a long-held ambition.  The sound of the train’s horn is so very particular that wherever I am when I hear it, travelling across the vast expanse of this heterogeneous country is brought immediately to mind.

It took most of the day  to get to New Orleans but the experience was memorable.  The views from the train were fantastic with the vast sweep of the deep south passing in front of me as I sat in comfort eating my Hebrew National hot dog.  Well, getting that was an experience in itself.  The restaurant car was two carriages along and as the train jerked and swayed it was necessary to grab onto the seat backs as I passed through, apologising for pulling hair or crushing feet en route. Eventually I found my rhythm and it became easier until I found myself between carriages trying to estimate a good time to jump between one and the other.  (Yes, of course they were joined together but the sway was so marked you had to ensure you chose your moment!) Coming back from the restaurant car carrying a cardboard tray laden with coffee and food was an even greater challenge.  (Did I mention that I limp quite a bit at the moment as I’m waiting for a new knee?  Well you’d be surprised how hard it is to synchronise a limp with the motion of the carriage.)

Arriving on the outskirts of the Big Easy was slightly unnerving as we passed over murky green swampland alive with alligators. 20181008_170342I wasn’t too keen on the site of rotted wooden pilings which had clearly supported previous roads or rail tracks.

Soon either side of us was water – the huge Lake Pontchartrain to our left and and Lake Maurepas on the right.

But all was well as we soon pulled into New Orleans station. I was surprised by a huge welcoming committee until I realised there was a big football match on.  The Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints is right next to the station – it took some time to get away to our hotel which was nice and central, right next to the French Quarter.

It had started to rain, the first bad weather of the trip and it was a bit of a shock.  Dodging puddles and roadworks, we made our way into the heart of the French Quarter at night, sure of our destination but not really knowing how to get there.

We made it eventually and were rewarded with a wonderful meal at Arnaud’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the city.  Opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman named Arnaud Cazenave it is today owned by only the second family of proprietors the restaurant has known.  While we ate, a small band played exuberant Dixieland jazz creating just the atmosphere I had hoped I would find in New Orleans.

Tuesday, 9th October – New Orleans

Sadly, by day I wasn’t so impressed.  Not having visited the city before Hurricane Katrina ripped out its heart, I have no idea what it was like then.  But today it seems rather tacky – as if it has somehow lost its mojo.  20181009_134144I went on a walking tour – the rain didn’t help to be fair – and admired the architecture, listened to the history but felt something was definitely missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

What I did enjoy was my visit to the Voodoo Museum.  I expected the place to be very touristy; there are many voodoo shops in New Orleans all offering readings and selling dolls, talismans and charms.  The museum was tiny and as I do-si-do’d around the other visitors in the museum shop, the atmosphere settled around me.


Madame Cinnamon Black – High Priestess

Greeting me at the ticket desk was Madame Cinnamon Black – who informed me she was a high priestess – now there’s a woman who could tell some tales.  She gave me some paper and I discovered this was for writing a wish which you then place in an old tree stump having  wrapped the paper around an offering of money. As I made my way past relics,  paintings and sculptures I read some of the history of voodoo in the city. I realised this is a religion that is taken very seriously but the place could do with a good dust and I wasn’t sorry to get out into the fresh air.

20181009_134302The rain had stopped so I went shopping for creole seasoning and gumbo mix.  Back in my hotel room I watched the Weather Channel, Hurricane Michael was swerving to the east of us. Tomorrow would be a better day.

Wednesday, 10th October – Oak Valley Plantation / Louisiana swamp

About an hour’s drive from New Orleans is Oak Valley Plantation at Vacherie on the west bank of the Mississippi.  On the drive there we saw the levees were very full.  With the hurricane about to make landfall in Florida there was some flooding en route to the plantation.

When we arrived we toured the house, it wasn’t huge but you got an idea about the people who lived there, the slave owners, a family called Roman.


Oak Valley Plantation – I’m smiling but regretting the mint julep

The house was originally called Bon Séjour  (I doubt the slaves had a good stay) and the plantation was established for the growing of sugarcane.  The most noted slave  listed in the inventory of 1848, after Jacques Roman died was “Antoine, 38, Creole Negro gardener/expert grafter of pecan trees”. He succeeded in producing a variety of pecan that could be cracked with your bare hands. His value was listed as $1,000.

After the house tour I thought it a good idea to try a mint julep; it always sounded like such a delicate, ladylike drink.  If I’d known  that the main constituent was whiskey, after my experience at Jack Daniel’s distillery I wouldn’t have bothered.  It was ten o’clock in the morning and I have only myself to blame for the feeling of nausea that followed me around Oak Valley, beautiful though the grounds were. We listened to a talk about the slaves, brought to life by an excellent docent. Yet I was struck by the difference in emphasis given on my last tour of a plantation (near Charleston, South Carolina) about twenty years ago, where the slaves were merely mentioned in passing.


Slave cabins

Sugarcane was a labour-intensive crop,  more so than tobacco or cotton. Numbers of the enslaved community at Oak Alley fluctuated between roughly 110 and 120 men, women, and children. For field slaves, life on a sugar plantation was hard, often violent and short. There were no pesticides back then and the crop needed constant attention with weeding and irrigating.  When harvested, the exhausted slaves often worked up to 18 hours at a time wielding machetes and operating dangerous machinery to turn the sweet cane juice into sugar and molasses. The lives of the house slaves were no easier, they were always on duty and at Oak Alley, women performed the majority of  the heavy maintenance work such as mending roads and levees.

From Oak Valley we threaded our way back to New Orleans, passing other plantations on the way.  Before we reached the city, we made a detour to the swamp. Here the flooding was very obvious.


Toilets underwater and none of us fancied a paddle

When we arrived we discovered the public toilets were underwater which made for quite an uncomfortable trip in a swamp boat. However, the upside was that we saw plenty of wildlife: deer, raccoons and alligators.


Alligator attempting camouflage



Curious raccoons

Our Captain Brandon kept us amused with stories of his life on the swamp and he was very accommodating, helping me to get some wonderful close up video of an alligator.

20181010_214143Returning to New Orleans for our last night we ate at a popular restaurant, Brennan’s. I wasn’t impressed, the banana daiquiri tasted like floor cleaner and the service was annoying.  (Our glasses of water were regularly removed and exchanged for fresh ones – seriously?)

Tomorrow we would be leaving Louisiana and moving on – to Texas.





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From the Big Peach to the Big D, via the Big Easy: Part I


There’s a romanticism to the Deep South of the USA that has lingered within me, I suppose, since I saw Gone With the Wind as a child.  That idealistic vision of big dresses and elegant plantation houses lined with oaks dripping with Spanish Moss was somewhat dented after a visit to one such plantation in South Carolina  some years ago.  But romantic ideas are hard to squash and knowing the hard facts about slavery and apartheid, especially in the South of the USA, I’d wanted to form my own opinions, to sample parts of the United States I had only thus far dreamed about.

Wednesday, 3rd October – Atlanta, Georgia

First port of call was the Centre for Civil and Human Rights (no, not using the American spellings in this blog).  I spent a lot of time in the The Civil Rights Movement gallery which presents the fight for equality by the Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

There are interactive displays giving an insight into the immensely courageous struggles of the many individuals who worked to transform the United States from the Jim Crow laws to equal rights for all.


Memorial at the Centre for Civil and Human Rights.

In this section is a reconstruction of the bus that Freedom Riders rode in Anniston, Alabama in 1961 with a short film taken inside the bus.  (Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states in 1961 and following years, to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decision ruling segregated buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government had done nothing to enforce them. Freedom Riders challenged this status quo by riding Interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups where segregation in seating was the rule.)

In Anniston the bus was set upon by a mob (which included some Ku Klux Klan members) attacking the black passengers with baseball bats and iron pipes. They also slashed the tyres and set the bus on fire, at one point attempting to hold the doors closed so the passengers would burn to death.

There is naturally a lot of space devoted to the  March on Washington of August 1963.  Earlier that year, in June, President John F. Kennedy had announced that he would deliver to Congress a strong civil rights bill.  This was a huge step forward in the struggle for black equality, a struggle founded on tMartin_Luther_King,_Jr.he disgusting violence and bloodshed inflicted on the American black community by racists from every quarter of society.

Yet the March on Washington was a peaceful march, supporting the forthcoming Bill and culminating in the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr – born and bred in Atlanta – it is one of the best remembered speeches in history.  (Ironically, Dr King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind.  A film that now, in my adult years, I realise portrayed insulting stereotypes of the  black characters in the story).

When President Kennedy spoke about the Civil Rights Bill, he defended it “not merely for reasons of economic efficiency, world diplomacy, and domestic tranquillity, but above all because it is right.”  Indeed it was but it, like the civil rights it was fighting for, had many struggles more to overcome before it was passed in July 1964, nine months after President Kennedy was assassinated.

From such a sobering start to the trip, we were driven through the lush green Georgia countryside to Chattanooga, a city on the rise. Once primarily an industrial city it has done an about-face and is now one of the tech-savviest and greenest cities in the South (there’s even a free electric shuttle to get around downtown). Lying next to the Appalachian Mountains and with a river running right through town, it was pleasant, if a bit hot and sticky, to walk down to the river passing some new restaurants, boutiques and museums en route.   Standing on the banks of the sparkling Tennessee River, for we were now in another state, Tennessee, having left Georgia behind; I noticed an 20181003_133501interesting sign.

When I asked our knowledgeable guide, what the sign referred to, I almost wished I hadn’t. In 1838 and 1839, as part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma.  The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and as many as 4,000 Cherokee people died before reaching their destination.  The forced removals also included  members of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago peoples.  They called this journey the “Trail of Tears” and now I understood why.

By now I was looking for a little light-hearted relief.  I found it in the Choo-Choo Hotel.  After a refreshing swim in the hotel pool, I took a walk around and soon realised my hotel had once been a railway station.  The huge booking hall has now been converted into a reception area for the hotel and a bar.  Alongside the hotel are the tracks and on those tracks… is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Track 29 … whoo, whoo…etc.


Thursday, 4th October – Chattanooga to Nashville

The next day took me up the (allegedly) steepest incline railway in the world to Lookout Mountain, operating since 1895.  More interesting for me was that a great Civil War battle was fought here in 1863.  After the Confederate Army victory at Chickamauga in the September of that year, they pursued the Union Army to Chattanooga. While the rebels encircled the city in preparation for a siege, the Union troops hunkered down to wait it out.  However, the Confederates were also perched high on top of Lookout Mountain where they could watch the Union Army below and use their artillery position on the mountain to choke off enemy supply routes and shell their positions on the river’s Moccasin Bend.

In November of 1863, when Yankee General Ulysses S. Grant had assumed command, he began to attack the lines surrounding the city.  The day afterwards he ordered an assault on the mountain, by then covered in fog; this was to become known as The Battle Above the Clouds.  With General Joseph Hooker commanding this wing, his men advanced towards the peak, expecting the granite crags to be hard to overcome.  However, the fog masked the Union advance and Hooker’s men managed the climb relatively easily. The Confederates, having overestimated the advantages offered by the mountain soon realised they were outnumbered – 1,200 rebels facing 12,000 Union soldiers.  As the hill was so steep the rebel’s artillery was useless and the attackers couldn’t be seen until they were almost at the summit.  The Confederates didn’t stand a chance.

For the rest of the Civil War, Lookout Mountain was a tourist destination for Union soldiers and civilians, and a photographer even established a studio to capture portraits of soldiers on the point.  A bit like I did.


My next stop was Lynchburg, Tennessee and if you’ve heard of it, then clearly you are a whiskey drinker.  Jack Daniel’s to be precise.  Though I’m not a fan of the drink, I really liked the place, it felt authentic.

In 1864 young Jasper (Jack) Newton Daniel left his home, having been orphaned by the Civil War. He was taken in by the Reverend Dan Call – a lay preacher and moonshine distiller (you couldn’t make it up). He was taught the trade by Call’s Master Distiller, an enslaved African-American man, Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green. In 1875, Jack came into an inheritance from his father’s estate and founded a legally registered distilling business with Call. He took over the distillery shortly afterwards when Call quit for religious reasons.


Jack Daniel was a very short man so he’s the only one standing (wearing a white hat)

Jack Daniel’s whiskey was a great success and he even won the gold medal for the finest whiskey at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He died at age 60 years (or thereabouts) after repeatedly forgetting the combination to his office safe, kicking it hard in frustration and hurting his foot.  He developed blood poisoning and died – at least that’s what they tell you.


Jack Daniel’s office with the infamous safe

I had to try some whiskey just to make sure I didn’t like it and I can honestly say, even though I tried it five times in five different flavours, I still don’t like it.  Nevertheless it made the journey through the Tennessee heartland go by very quickly and shortly before sunset, I was drawing up outside the hotel in Nashville.

I had been really looking forward to Nashville.  Never having been a country music fan in my previous decades, I was softening up.  Having watched every episode of the eponymous US series, I was feeling an eager sense of anticipation for the country music capital of the world.  It didn’t disappoint.

After checking in quickly to the next hotel, it was out again and down to the Cumberland River to board the General Jackson showboat where dinner and a country music show was laid on for us.

Gen Jackson

It was packed, it was noisy but it was great.  First there were cocktails, then a surprisingly tasty dinner, (though we endured a strangely terrifying and aggressive waiter who snatched away our food before we’d finished it and then yelled at us because we hadn’t tipped him). This was followed by a slick, glittering showcase of country music and a stroll up on deck, watching the paddle wheel of the showboat hypnotically moving us through the water at a stately pace.  As the Nashville skyline hove into view I heard a collective sharp intake of breath to match my own.  It was beautiful, especially the iconic (and believe me I hate using that word but it’s true in this instance) A T & T building – otherwise known as the Batman building.


I couldn’t wait to see it in daylight, but that was for tomorrow. The Jack Daniel’s samples, cocktails and wine with dinner ensured a good night’s sleep.

Friday, 5th October – Nashville

I was rudely awoken by the alarm at 5.30 a.m. needing to be up extra early to Skype with the family and send emails.  As a result, I missed breakfast and was smartly whisked off to the Country Music Hall of Fame – wow that is some impressive museum. It even made me ignore my rumbling stomach as the history of country music was revealed in some very imaginative displays, films and artefacts.  I just loved Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac which, for a reported $65,000 (a fortune in those days), was covered in 40 coats of paint, called “diamond dust pearl,” made of crushed diamonds and fish scales. The highlights and trim are 24-carat gold and the interior features gold lamé curtains, a record player with automatic changer, a gold-plated television, and a golden vanity case with hairbrush, clipper, and razor. The carpet is white mouton fur – I wonder if he removed his muddy cowboy boots before climbing in?

Having spent a goodly two hours soaking up everything country, I wandered through Nashville with my friends, taking pictures of this very likeable city.  The AT&T Building looked just as striking by day as did the Tennessee State Capitol building (clearly modelled on a Greek ionic temple). 20181005_111634(1)State capitol

Inside the Capitol, the Senate and the House of Representatives are both impressive legislative chambers but the bust of Davy Crockett  forced me to acknowledge my ignorance.

20181005_115935(1)I had only ever thought of him as the fur hat-with-the-fur-tail-toting, gun-slinging “King of the Wild Country” (I’m singing this as I write, be grateful you can’t hear it!). In fact, he was a well-respected statesman, elected first to the Tennessee state legislature and then to the U.S. Congress in 1826 where he was known for his opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (see reference to the Trail of Tears). This made my visit to The Alamo all the more poignant but more about that later.

But enough of the history; we were in Nashville and were looking for a good time!  And we found it.  The city is extraordinary for its many facets.  Walking down Broadway where the honky-tonks proliferate we stood and listened at huge open windows where the bands play to draw customers in. We were drawn into Nudies’ Honky Tonk, not a striptease joint but a bar/restaurant where the band was loud and the Fried Hot Chicken Salad wasn’t low calorie.  After a great meal and excellent entertainment, we emerged, blinking, into the steamy Nashville heat … and were almost run over by a party bike.

20181005_135416(1)If you haven’t yet seen one of these lovelies then it’s a cross between a bar and a bike where several drinkers perch precariously on stools whilst cycling through the streets raising their glasses to the passersby they almost eviscerate.  I have no idea about the legality where the drink/drive laws are concerned but they all seemed to be having a great time.

From Broadway we moved onto RCA Studio B – the recording studios that became famous for launching the careers of many vocalists and where the ‘Nashville sound’ was born.  Here countless recordings were made by legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.  20181005_164117I couldn’t resist a go at the piano where once Elvis played hymns taught him by his mother.

Back at the hotel there was just enough time to change before the 10-minute drive to The Grand Ole Opry.  A visit to Nashville would not be complete without a pilgrimage to this legendary event; a weekly country music stage concert (founded in 1925) that’s recorded live and is the longest running radio broadcast in US history.  The auditorium was cavernous but we were lucky enough to have seats near the front otherwise the performers would have been little dots far off into the distance and not worth the late night.  In truth, I was flagging a bit already and I would need all my energy for the journey to Memphis the next day.









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A dream of Erin

It’s been a long time coming but finally, finally I toured the beautiful Republic of Ireland.  In seven days I stayed in seven places and sampled seven very different types of accommodation, from the luxurious to the downright hysterical.  With a long-held fascination for Irish history and memories of the stunning landscape from movies like Ryan’s Daughter, my expectations were high but held in check.  I didn’t want to be disappointed.

The journey started in Dublin, landing at the airport and renting a car that, let’s say, had seen better days.  My very kind and indulgent husband agreed to share the driving with me so neither of us were slaving over a hot steering wheel for a week.  And ‘hot’ was the operative word. This was our first surprise.  We’d been warned and warned. “Visit Ireland but expect rain every day.  It’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing.” We just happened to fly in at the beginning of a heatwave.  We drove straight to County Wicklow, stopping at the glorious Powerscourt House and Gardens.

Powerscourt Estate

Now I ought to admit from the outset how I feel about the Anglo-Irish absentee landlords and their treatment of the indigenous Irish so a visit to a wealthy estate was not going to be a frequent occurrence.   I could feel my lip curl as soon as we entered the long driveway towards the house and resentment on behalf of the people living in poverty while the English lorded it over them and treated them like dogs was instant and furious.  (The 1st Viscount Powerscourt was Sir Richard Wingfield (1550-1636), an Elizabethan military commander, originally from Suffolk , given the Powerscourt estate as a reward for defeating the Gaelic Irish during the 1594-1603 rebellion.)

Nevertheless it was a beautiful estate and now the house has been turned into a shopping mall, the gardens are really the star attraction.  The current owners of the estate are not responsible for the English plantation of Ireland so I tried to let go of my ire for a couple of hours and just enjoyed the wonderful landscape. (I’ve only just noticed the irony here – for Ireland is indeed the land of ire as well as a land of beauty and lyricism.)  There was so much to admire here I turned into a tourist taking photo after photo, growling when other tourists got in the way of the scenery.

There are formal gardens and Japanese gardens, water features and statuary, all set perfectly within the glorious landscape of the Wicklow mountains.

After leaving the estate we took a drive into the Wicklow Mountains National Park and along the military road built in the wake of the 1798 rebellion to help the British army put down insurgents hiding there.  Here the scenery is wild and beautiful and standing overlooking Lough Dan, I could only try to imagine what life must have been like for the rebels.

Our journey ended in Wicklow Town where we stayed in a modest Bed and Breakfast establishment.  Perfectly comfortable and adequate.  We found a nice pub after a walk by the sea wall watching the locals teaching their children to swim by throwing them into the sea.

The Dunbrody

Before leaving County Wicklow the following morning on our long drive towards County Cork, we stopped at New Ross, a coastal town with an excellent visitor centre telling the story of Irish emigration during the famine years.  There is a wonderful reconstruction of the 1840s vessel, the Dunbrody,  with costumed interpreters bringing alive the story of people desperate for a new start in life.   The Dunbrody was a converted merchant ship.  So many tried to leave Ireland there weren’t enough passenger ships so some merchants took advantage of their  short supply.  If you were rich enough to travel as a cabin passenger, paying between £5 and £8, you could expect food and services to be provided on board.  The only other class of passenger, steerage, had to find for themselves.  They paid between £3 and £4 but even this was way beyond the means of the average farm labourer who earned about £1 per month.  Steerage passengers mostly fended for themselves.

New Ross is also the ancestral home of the Kennedy family (JFK et al) and a trust was set up in 1988 to commemorate his legacy through involvement in community projects.

The intention was for me to drive from New Ross to Cork and Kinsale.  However, our car was so knackered that the clutch was as stiff as a ship’s biscuit. With my dilapidated knees I was unable to depress it down to the floor so had to relinquish all the driving to my long-suffering husband.  Which, let’s face it, for me was blissful as I got to see all the stunning scenery (whilst carrying the burden of guilt around with me all week).

View from our bedroom window

So onwards towards Cork and Kinsale.    It was a very long drive but we were spurred on by thoughts of a swim in our hotel’s pool.  Finally, we arrived at Kinsale harbour for a quick walk.  It was nice but nothing out of the ordinary in the harbour department though we had been told it was the ‘gourmet capital of Ireland’.  We arrived at the Macdonald Hotel and Spa by late afternoon and were soon in the pool unwinding from the hot and dusty journey.  The Proseccos over dinner also helped.Waking the next morning, I was amazed by the view from our bedroom.  So keen had I been to swim and shower (not necessarily in that order) that I hadn’t really appreciated what a scene was before us as the curtains were parted.  Not a bad place for our breakfast on the terrace.  I seriously wanted to stay for the whole week.

Towards Kinsale harbour

But the itinerary was driving us (well my husband was) but we had an appointment with the Ring of Kerry and here was something I had longed to see all my life.  It’s legendary, the beautiful drive which you are told you must do in a clockwise direction.  This is because the coaches – and there are many – must travel anti-clockwise.  Now the advice is given to travel clockwise so you don’t get stuck behind a coach/bus slowing you down.  The problem then is that if you travel in the opposite direction going around the Ring, you are likely to meet them on a very tight, rocky, hairpin bend… and the bus ain’t giving way to you. Ever!  Shall we just say that it was a blessing I wasn’t driving as I had my eyes shut tight for much of that journey around the more hairpinny of the bends.  The Ring is very long, it is a lot of driving and there are a few viewpoints where you can stop the car and admire the wonderful landscapes.  But there are also long stretches of road where the trees get in the way of the view and you are travelling endlessly with little reward.


Along the Ring of Kerry



We stopped for home made ice cream in a small, pretty town called Sneem which had the river running through it on its way down to the sea.  The colourful shops and houses left you in no doubt that you were in wonderful Eire.  There’s a unique sense of peace and contentment that settles on you as you wander around the west coast of Ireland.  Surely I was a native here  in another life?  It just felt like home.

Originally when we set out, we thought we’d just get a little look at the Ring and then go back onto the main road towards our next destination.  But it was beautiful and heaven only knows if we’ll be back so we carried on.  It was worth it.

And so, tired and hot (the air conditioning in our heap of a car was useless) we arrived in Killarney.  I would like to spend more time here; there are some lovely houses to visit and Killarney National Park is on the doorstep for walkers and drivers alike.  Our hotel was a pleasant surprise.  On Trip Advisor it had been reviewed as good but in need of a lift.  When we arrived we were told our room was on the first floor.  I groaned about the lack of lift and the receptionist’s eyes lit up. “No, no. We have one.  There’s a lift now.  It was installed two weeks ago.  The staff can’t stop going up and down in it. Sure, it’s a wonderful thing!”  And it was.

The next morning I was slightly anxious.  The Dingle peninsula lay ahead of us and I was desperately hoping it wouldn’t be a disappointment.  From watching ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ an epic filmic masterpiece, over 40 years ago, I had longed to see this part of the west coast.  In the movie there were scenes of surf crashing onto rocks in force nine gales and our weather was calm, sunny and still.  Would it be as beautiful as I imagined?

We set off for Inch Beach, one of the early locations in the film.  It is a four-mile-long finger of golden sand, stretching out into the Atlantic ocean and behind it, an un-named range of velvet-green mountains.

Inch Beach

We parked on the beach and wandered down its length, enjoying the cool breeze and sounds of the surf as it slapped the sand.   Moving on towards the Dingle peninsula itself, there was nothing to disappoint.  The scenery was breathtaking at every new turn and with many places to stop and admire it, we took longer to arrive in the town than we had estimated.  Dingle is a nice enough place with a small working harbour of fishing boats and a yacht marina.  We headed westwards and veered off the coast road, climbing up into the hills towards the town of Dunquin.  Our overland route took us high above the coast and we were treated to some glorious views of the Blasket Islands, a few miles off the most western point, as we headed back towards the sea.

We stopped for lunch at the Blasket Centre, a cool, modern museum which tells the story of the Blaskets and the lives of the people who lived there including some well-known local writers whose names were too difficult to get my tongue around.

For me this was the absolute highlight.  As we wandered into the gardens, to our right was the hillside where the town of Kirrary, the fictional isolated village from Ryan’s Daughter, had been created.  No longer there as it was mostly built of hardwood flats, blown away over many years by the south westerly gales, you could still imagine what life would have been like for communities that did live here at the beginning of the 20th century.  The schoolhouse where Robert Mitchum lived with Sarah Miles is still there, albeit now a crumbling ruin, it has to be found by intrepid detective work via a sheep farm.

We drove on around the coast away from Slea Head towards Dunmore Head and encountered some of the most teeth-grinding hairpin bends that took you either to the cliff edge or within millimeters of sharp jutting rock.

Looking across to Coumeenoole Beach

The place I wanted to find is called Coumenoole Beach and is the location for the most dramatic scene in the film where on a storm-tossed night, guns are being landed to help the Republicans’ rebellion but are being dashed against the rocks in stormy seas.  The villagers, to a man, march down the slippery zig-zag path to the beach to help recover the arms.

We drove on and stopped at a small car park overlooking the sea and climbed up a steep hillside. At the top were a range of famine cottages; hovels where a family of farmers, starving during the potato blight, eked out a very poor existence.


Famine cottage

It was a salutary experience, bringing back the reality of the dreadful conditions that faced the local people.  Such ugliness amidst so much beauty was quite surreal.

As it was getting late, we headed back to Dingle where our B and B accommodation awaited.  Advertised as a ‘Deluxe Double’ room, I wasn’t expecting palatial quarters and was quite happy to just put my head down on a comfortable bed for the night.  However, when we arrived it was a bit of a shock.  First off, the front door, which admittedly did face the harbour, opened onto a steep flight of steps.  We had dragged our cases from the car and when we arrived at the stairs, could see no way to alert the proprietors that we had arrived (and could we have some help with the bags please?) We stood looking about us for a while and when it became quite obvious we would get no help, lugged our cases up the steep flight of stairs to the narrow corridor that led to ‘reception’ – a small counter off the breakfast room.  Our host, a very jovial man, was busy joking with another couple who had also just arrived.

After he showed them into their room, we were shown ours.  I can only describe it as a large en-suite cupboard.  The double bed was squeezed between the door and the side of the wardrobe. No space either side to put a glass of water, let alone bed-side tables.  The one window in the room was a Velux in the eaves which were so low hubby kept hitting his head.  The bathroom contained a sink, a toilet and a shower. Nowhere was there to hang towels, keep toiletries or even to lay out the shower mat without first doubling it over to fit the floor.

Dingle view

We looked at each other in dismay  I would wake up in this room on my birthday and it wasn’t quite what I had imagined when we planned the trip.  On top of it all, our host was jokey to the point of over-familiarity and rudeness, at one point suggesting we would be rolling in drunk in the early hours so would need the door code so as not to disturb him!  My sense of humour had trickled away on entering his establishment. And then I remembered the Dunbrody and the famine cottages and berated myself for grumbling about my first world problems.

The evening wasn’t wasted, we walked into the heart of the town and ate at a very nice hostelry returning to our cupboard and looking forward to moving on to somewhere more salubrious.   I would compare it to Fawlty Towers but that establishment at least had an entrance hall, staff that would help you carry your luggage and rooms large enough to swing a hamster.

The next morning after opening my birthday cards, we drove on, very regretful at leaving the Dingle Peninsula behind.  My sense of humour had returned now, it was Midsummer’s Day, my birthday and we were having a wonderful break.

So back on the road we drove north towards Shannon and Listowel. Our SatNav had a very strange idea of main roads at some stages.  One road didn’t even look made up and was more suitable for horses and carts than cars. Still it was an adventure and we ploughed on until we reached Foynes.

Replica of the B314 flying boat

We stopped here to visit the Flying Boat Museum as it was here that the transatlantic flying boat services began operating in 1937.  At that time, crossing the 3,000 miles of the north Atlantic with a commercially viable load of passengers or freight and the large quantity of fuel required, represented a huge technical challenge. There were few, if any, airports with runways suitable for the large, heavy machines proposed, so flying boats were the preferred option and the search for a suitable landing place began.  Survey flights for flying boat operations were made by Charles Lindbergh in 1933 and construction of a terminal began in 1935.   Foynes became one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe during WWII with the first non-stop translatlantic New York service commencing in June 1942 taking 25 hours and 40 minutes.  By 1946 technology had advanced, fuelled by wartime necessity and landplanes capable of true intercontinental flight had been developed.  When construction of Shannon Airport on the opposite side of the estuary was completed, flying boat services ceased.

This museum was fascinating and we both had a go on the B314 flying boat simulator.  I did really well, only crashing the aircraft once.

From Foynes we drove back the way we had come just a few miles to catch the Tarbet Ferry across the Shannon.  This would cut about an hour from our journey time and was a very pleasant interlude.  The next part of our journey was hot and a bit tedious. We travelled on tiny roads, across countryside which appeared to be a very long way around.

Cliffs of Moher

Ultimately we arrived at the huge car park for the Cliffs of Moher and it all turned out to be completely worth it.  The cliffs have been used as a backdrop in many TV movies and films and it’s no wonder why when you climb up and get your first view of them.  They are absolutely stunning.

Five miles of towering black rock-face rising out of the Atlantic ocean.  On a clear day you can see the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, Connemara Mountains and the Dingle peninsula from the top.  The cliffs rank among the most visited tourist sites in Ireland, with around 1.5 million visitors a year. 

We continued driving and arrived at an area called The Burren, reminding me a little of Dartmoor.  Wonderful countryside, very peaceful, we checked into our lovely hotel in the early evening.  This was a 180 degree change from our Dingle accommodation.  The Gregan’s Castle Hotel is an 18th century manor house which has welcomed guests since the 1940s.  Our tastefully decorated suite overlooked one of the private gardens and could not have been more perfect for my birthday.  The house is set in the most beautiful grounds and after opening more presents we had a walk before dinner, savouring the peace and tranquillity which has also been enjoyed by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney.

Gregan’s Castle Hotel

In the dining room we met a mother and daughter from California who were travelling around Ireland for the first time. After several glasses of Prosecco we had become quite the best of friends. When our meal arrived it was a gastronomical delight.  If it had been possible to stay another night in this hotel we would have done so but sadly it was fully booked and with good reason.

Ballyvaughan holiday cottages

The following day we moved on, just eight miles up the road to the sister hotel of the Gregan’s castle.  It wasn’t comparable in any way but was perfectly fine for one night.  En route we stopped at the Ailwee Caves for a tour of this mysterious subterranean complex.

Our hotel in Ballyvaughan overlooked the bay but before checking in we drove around the headland to Black Head, stopping at a viewpoint from which the Aran Islands and Galway Bay were clearly visible.  On the way back I admired the old cottages opposite the hotel discovering later, a little to my disappointment, that they were now holiday lets.

The next day we left the tiny roads behind and followed the motorway to Athlone, stopping at the castle on the banks of the River Shannon.  This castle has witnessed a huge amount of bloodshed and was the site of the great siege of Athlone in 1690, following the infamous Battle of the Boyne.  The visitor centre here was extremely good and a worthwhile stop on our way back to Dublin.

We turned up late afternoon at our last hotel – in Dublin.  It wasn’t great.  But by this time we had come to accept that you can put up with anything for just one night – and we did.  After squeezing our knackered car into the tiniest space in their miniscule car park, we went on a trek to find our room. The hotel was an old building grafted onto another old building and consequently finding anywhere was a major challenge.  When we eventually arrived we just were grateful to be there – until we realised that the window stay was missing. We were in the middle of a heatwave with no air conditioning and there was no way of keeping the window open.  Another major expedition was launched to find our way back to reception and they accepted our news courteously, apologised for the poor carpentry and handed us a couple of fans.  This is what saved us from drying out like a couple of desiccated apricots.  Later that evening we made our way to Dublin’s famous Temple Bar for our last night in Ireland, enjoying the ambience and a simple meal followed by an ice cream and a stroll by the Liffey.

The next day I walked to the Dublin Writers museum.  Some of the exhibits were quite interesting but as others have said in their reviews, it’s quite outdated and needs a major overhaul.  The shelves in the bookshop were almost empty, ridiculous for a museum about writers.  I was keen to buy some of the books  mentioned in the exhibits and had to wait to get home to buy them. Such a pity.

In the afternoon we visited Kilmainham Gaol the notorious prison where so many sons of Ireland sacrificed their lives for the cause of independence from England.  Opened in 1796, it is the largest preserved Victorian gaol in Europe. Many years ago I had studied the Irish rebellion of 1803 and was keen to see where Robert Emmet had been imprisoned before his execution in Thomas Street.

West wing of Kilmainham

His cell was in the west wing, the oldest and gloomiest part of the prison. Kilmainham has held scores of Irish revolutionaries, including the fourteen leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, who were also executed there.  The prison has been used in quite a few movies including The Quare Fellow, 1962. The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965 , The Italian Job, 1969. The Mackintosh Man, 1973. The Last Remake of Beau Geste, 1977. The Whistle Blower, 1987. The Babe,1992. In the Name of the Father, 1993. I certainly recognised the ‘new’ Victorian wing from some of them .

East wing


It was a very sad and sobering experience.

Leaving the gaol we drove back to Dublin airport and took our leave, with great relief, of our rental car.  That said, I am delighted we finally made the trip.  Nothing disappointed.  We were incredibly lucky with the weather, it just got better and better, if possible enhancing the truly spectacular landscape.

Even the flight home was fabulous – it was only 45 minutes on account of the tailwinds and in the brilliant sunshine, we flew low and enjoyed a wonderful view of the Irish sea and the North Wales coast before landing.  Writing this now a week later I feel I am still there.  My dream of Erin fulfilled but perhaps, just perhaps one day I might go back…




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Imposter syndrome

Now here’s a subject close to my heart.  When I heard that what I had was an actual ‘syndrome’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve always felt an imposter at virtually everything I’ve ever done and to have my feelings validated as an actual thing, well frankly I was disappointed.  I had always thought that the majority of people have a robust and indestructible sense of their own value and hoped that one day I might attain that.


Here’s the definition:  “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. ”

Many people I know lack confidence in their abilities. When it comes to something like creative writing or painting there is no doubt a strong urge to compare yourself with others and find yourself wanting.  I’m not convinced it is ‘common among people in ‘high-profile authority positions’ as the cartoon suggests.  But if it does affect people in these situations then maybe I’ll always feel this way.

Everyone I know thinks I am a super-confident person.  I guess it has something to do with the way I come across on first acquaintance.  To some I may seem a little loud, a bit of a know-it-all, certainly not shy.  But in truth I have fought shyness all my life.  My dad died when I was 15 and I was forced to leave school and go out to work.  I really wanted to study history and my teachers all supported me in this and begged my mother not to remove me from my grammar school.  Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t persuaded, especially as she thought academia was for ‘blue stockings’ and men didn’t like those.  Her idea was to get me married off at the first opportunity.

So with six months training in shorthand and typing, I ventured out into swinging sixties’ London and found a job working for what I thought was a pet food company in offices over Marks and Spencers in Oxford Street.  I was so green; I hadn’t heard of Public Relations and my naivety soon became evident.  Part of my job entailed answering the ‘BIB hotline’.  I should explain that BIB stood for ‘Budgerigar Information Bureau’, an organisation devoted to helping budgie owners with a range of problems from feather plucking to French moult.  Disseminating breeding information was also an important part of our raison d’être.  The BIB ‘hotline’ was a dedicated phone line for people wanting advice about their budgie problems. (I have to confess here that I have always been bird phobic and cross the road when confronted by a pigeon, so not an ideal occupation for me.)

I had also omitted to tell my new employers that I was terrified of the telephone and so did everything I could to ignore that large red plastic instrument that sat in the middle of my desk.  When, after several days of avoiding answering it, I finally was forced to pick up the receiver, the rather weedy voice on the other end said, “Hello…  I wonder if you can help me.  I have a skyblue cock.”

I was so shaken, my boss took me to the press room for a neat gin and explained that skyblue is the name of a particular budgie colour and a cock bird is, of course, a male.

Twiggy BIB

Twiggy on a BIB exhibition stand

So not a great start to my career and to explain why I believe I developed Imposter Syndrome you should know what happened next at the BIB (which was of course sponsored by a well-known bird seed manufacturer).

I reported to two women.  One was the Press Officer and the other the Administration Officer.  Within months of my joining the company, the Press Officer announced she had met the most wonderful woman and the next day they sailed off into the Caribbean sunset together.  While the laborious process of interviewing and recruiting her replacement was undertaken by management, they in their wisdom thought it would be newsworthy to promote from within (on a temporary basis) the youngest press officer in the country. Me.  It’s true that in those days there were no degrees and few qualifications for working in the public relations industry but I knew absolutely nothing about the PR business or budgerigars.

Nevertheless, I got on with the job with guidance (I did have a budgie expert to advise me) and I churned out press releases all day long.  My managing director would frequently wheel me into the press room to show off her protégé to the great and the good assembled there.  But it mattered little. Usually, by 11:30 a.m. on most weekdays, the majority of the staff  and gathered clients or press were paralytic on the contents of the press room drinks cabinet so there was little I needed to do to impress.  Nobody cared.

Several months after my promotion, our Admin Manager, a lovely down-to-earth but bored housewife in her thirties, announced that she was leaving. She wanted to be with her new-found love – a Czech baron who promptly whisked her off to Prague only months before the advent of the Prague Spring.  Promotion number two occurred before my sixteenth birthday.  I had no idea what I was doing and, in all honesty, I got so behind with the BIB correspondence, I dumped most of it in a drawer and hoped it would disappear like my two former bosses.  It didn’t.

So I learned early to fake it until I could make it.  I guess it’s not altogether surprising that I got used to feeling like an imposter.

All through my early working life, I felt deeply the lack of qualifications, despite gaining priceless experience in public relations, advertising and publishing.  I decided to do something about it after marrying and having children, taking A Levels while my kids were in nursery.  I became a freelance proof reader and that paid for my retraining as a psychological therapist. I spent eight years studying for a BSc in Psychology via the Open University and gained many qualifications for a new career in counselling and therapy.  I eventually worked in various GP surgeries and organisations in the West Country as a counsellor/therapist.  Despite having more qualifications and experience than some of my colleagues, I still felt inadequate and anxiously waited for someone to expose me.


Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford with my Diploma

A move to the Midlands for my husband’s job and being unable to find similar work there necessitated another career shift.  I returned to my first love – history.  I gained a Diploma in Local History at Oxford and at my tutor’s suggestion went on to study for my Masters degree.  When I graduated from the University of Birmingham I was more qualified than I could ever have dreamed.  But I still felt like an imposter.


Having studied psychology and learning all about myself through my therapy training, I understand how and why I am plagued with Imposter Syndrome.  I don’t think it will ever leave me, no matter what I do.  But I have learned to live with it and, I suppose, that’s what people in high-profile positions who also suffer with it have done.  Yet if I could have a fiver for the number of people who tell me how confident I am, I would be a very rich imposter indeed.





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The impossible task? Finding an agent.

When I was writing my novel, all my energies were focused on getting the plot right, the structure in place, the historical facts as accurate as research allowed. In the years it had taken to finally put The Perfect Pure Virgin into satisfactory form, I hadn’t given any thought at all about how to find an agent.  This was not due to any complacency on my part that it would be easy to get the novel published.  It was more that the story needed to be told and putting it together was my overwhelming driver.

It is an amazing tale of piety, sacrifice and single-mindedness set in 16th century England.  When I first came across this story, I was determined to get it published. Everyone knows of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot but they don’t know the real events behind it and the people who led perilous lives, wanting only to practice their faith in peace.

And so, when finally I had finished the last edit, I researched the best way of getting the book published.  To say that this is a difficult feat these days is a laughable understatement. A published author friend of mine told me to invest in a good supply of gin to help overcome the disappointment of rejection. Thousands of books every year are sent to publishers and agents which end up on the ‘slush pile’.  Many agents have no time to read these efforts while those who do are usually young agents starting out and looking to represent new and exciting authors.  Each year agents typically receive 2000 unsolicited manuscripts.  Out of all these they may take on 2-3 authors. They then have to pitch to their chosen publishers and may manage to sell two-thirds of those books they pitch. It is not an exact science and even if the agent is wildly enthusiastic about a book, this doesn’t guarantee it will be placed with a publisher.

There are many tales of well-known writers such as James Patterson and J.K. Rowling who endeavoured to find representation only to be rejected out of hand. Patterson’s first novel The Thomas Berryman Number was rejected by 31 publishers before he finally received a contract.  To date he has sold over 220 million books.   J.K . Rowling received 12 publishing rejections in a row for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  Eventually the eight year old child of an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing  begged to be allowed to read the rest of the manuscript and the rest, as the well-worn cliché goes, is history. Yet despite landing a contract, Rowling was told to get a day job as there was no money in children’s books!

It is these and countless stories like them that keep so many hopeful writers going.  Apart from a requirement for talent, staying power and good English, today’s writers need to develop a very thick skin.  One friend of mine who did get his novel published received a review that stated, “For this novel, the trees died in vain.”

There are few, if any, publishing houses today that will accept unsolicited manuscripts. Getting representation by an agent is almost the only way to stand any chance of being published in the conventional way.  Of course, many people self-publish these days and for some, writers like E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades of Grey series, this has proved very lucrative.  Unfortunately, it also means that there are countless books out there, available as e-books or in paperback form that are desperately in need of a thick red editing pen.  Having said that, there are, of course, many people who do self-publish and find the experience hugely rewarding.

But if the aim is to try for mainstream publishing houses, how then to go about finding an agent?

I attended an event last week at Waterstones in Piccadilly organised by The Writers’ Workshop. This organisation run extremely popular courses and a writers’ festival in York (September) where writers can meet agents and editors on a one-to-one basis.  I completed one of their Self-Editing courses in January and found it very full-on but extremely useful.

Harry Bingham, who hosted the event at Waterstones is a well-known published writer of police procedural novels.  He also knows his market.  The evening was split into two parts; the first where Harry gave useful information about finding an agent and the best submission procedure to adopt.  The second part of the evening was attended by three literary agents and the audience were invited to ask them questions.  Listening to these extremely savvy and enthusiastic women talking about their search for the ‘next big thing’ was very instructive.

What I took away from the evening was:

Make your novel as good as it can be: well-written, well edited, proof read and marketable.  That might seem obvious but listening to some of the horror stories agents tell, it clearly is not.

Although the covering letter and synopsis that accompany any submission are important, if the sample chapters are not good enough, no-one will publish your work.

One of the most useful tools given to the audience was a website:

This lists every UK literary agent and most importantly, provides photos, biographies, contact information, literary preferences and submission requirements.  There is no point whatsoever submitting an historical novel to an agent who represents crime writers or an agent who is not currently looking for new authors.

The cost of subscribing is extremely reasonable and, apart from saving loads of time, emails and phone calls, it contains all the information required to refine your agent search.  Once you have logged on, you are presented with a series of menus.  There are options for an agent, agency and publisher search.  If, for example, you wanted to find an agent who welcomes historical novels, you could click on the ‘agent search’ and then filter down by genre, agent experience, client list status, size of agency, number of clients and who represents who?

As soon as I clicked on agents who are open to handling historical novels, a long list of names appeared with their photographs and a short biography.  Most have specified what kind of books they are looking for.  This, of course, is priceless information.  In pre-internet days, an author’s most useful resource was a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook (who incidentally also have an excellent website now) and involved trawling through page after page of what was, probably, information that was a year out of date. The  website is very logical and user friendly and although it won’t be able to sell my book to an agent and then a publisher, I now feel that at least I have a good chance of sending my novel off in the right direction.

All that remains now is for me to ensure my novel is as good as it can possibly be, develop a thicker skin and get the gin bottle out!


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10 planes, 4 boats, 1 train, 1 rickshaw, 1 microlight and an elephant – India and Nepal

It’s going to take time to process but I need to put down my thoughts while the scent of cow dung and oleander are still with me.  It’s been a lifelong ambition to travel to India and Nepal and I knew they would be very different from any countries I’d seen before. People kept saying ‘Oh you won’t like the poverty or the dirt or the noise or the traffic’ and they were right and they were wrong.  I didn’t like it but it got to me in a way I didn’t expect.  And when we reached Nepal, in spite of everything, it worked its magic on me.

Day 1/2:  Arrived in Delhi with my group.  The flight was long and I was with a lovely gentleman who was visiting his family in the Punjab but who insisted on telling me every detail of his wife’s many and various medical problems.  Way too much information for an nine hour flight!  We’d flown overnight without any sleep so the transfer to the hotel was a noisy shock.  It felt like I’d been plunged into bedlam.    The streets were filled with traffic, goats, cows, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, coaches, cars and oxen carts.  If a vehicle carried a horn it was hooting.  There seemed to be no right of way or sense of giving way, it was every man/animal/vehicle for himself.

We were carried more than driven to the Qutub Minaret, the tallest rubble masonry minaret in the world.

Qutub Minaret2 (2)

Qutub Minaret

Construction began in 1192 AD  and despite various disasters including a lightning strike it was rebuilt.  Several examples of wonderful carving in the outlying buildings together with the oldest iron pillar in the world (4th century). Amazing as these sights were, I was longing to get to our hotel which thankfully was very comfortable. On arrival we were greeted with a ‘namaste’, a bindi planted on our forehead and a garland of marigolds.  This happened at every hotel we stayed in (and there were a few). (Note the matchsticks propping my eyes open in the photo!)  Felt better after a hot bath and two glasses of wine (not necessarily in  that order!)

Day 3: Early start, driving through busy Delhi streets and past markets.  It was everything I’d been told, filthy; noisy; cows wandering around with their noses in rubbish tips; dust so thick we all got sore throats. The shops were just a revelation. Butchers’ shops displayed parts of animals I didn’t know existed; chickens shut in tiny cases clucking pathetically; steaming cooking pots bubbled adjacent to the live animals cruelly demonstrating where they would end up.

Delhi streets9

Butchers’ shops

There were no pavements; the streets were like construction sites with piles of rubble, bricks and earth to clamber over.  The power cables amused me the most.These were draped over and round poles and buildings like black spaghetti. Some dangled so low over the road that buses drove into them but amazingly without any disasters.

Delhi power cables4 (2)From the chaos of Old Delhi we drove to see Gandhi’s cremation site by the Yamuna River and then into the British Colonial part of town – New Delhi.  It was like stepping into another world; landscaped with lush manicured gardens, large gated estates, their fences allowing a tantalising view of magnificent white-walled bungalows.  The road system began to be orderly, roundabouts appeared, even the horns’ noises lessened.  We circled the India Gate war memorial and arrived at the Viceroy’s House (which should, most definitely be described as a palace) and the old Parliament building.

Viceroy's palace Delhi3

Viceroy’s House

Lovely as all this was I couldn’t help but feel guilt that we had imposed our lifestyle on a country that clearly had their own culture and their own ideas of grandeur.  Our final stop before leaving Delhi was at Humayun’s Tomb, almost a forerunner of the Taj Mahjal but not quite as beautiful.

Humayun's tomb4

Humayun’s tomb

It was built for the Mughal Emperor Humayun in 1569 and designed by a Persian architect.  Having seen this wonderful piece of architecture, I began to fear that  when I did finally clap eyes on the Taj Mahal, it be an anti-climax.  We left Delhi then and drove through flat agricultural countryside for several hours.  The fields were lripe with wheat and other crops.  Several women squatted in the fields moulding cow pats which are used as fuel and roof tiles.  Eventually we arrived in Agra and settled into our hotel rooms but I had to rush to the hotel rooftop to get my first sight of the Taj.

Day 4:  The 5am alarm call wasn’t appreciated but after setting off in the dark, we stood by the West Gate waiting to be let in as the first rays began to climb up the red sandstone outer walls.  Eventually the gates were opened and I almost ran to the great entrance gate through which I caught my first sight of the Taj Mahal, the great white marble mausoleum built by the Shaj Jehan as a tribute to his adored wife Mumtaz.  It was most certainly not an anti-climax.

Taj Mahal27

Taj Mahal

The building shimmered in the early morning light accentuating the exquisite inlays on the white marble; the symmetry; the delicacy; set against a backdrop of luxuriant gardens and vibrant flowers.  I was transfixed.  On the other side of the Taj is the river, which at that early part of the day was veiled in mist; one lone fishing boat was just casting off as I stood and watched in relative isolation.  The story of the Shah Jehan who built this mausoleum for his beloved wife was slightly spoiled when we heard what happened to him. His plan was to build a version of the Taj in black marble for his own tomb.  His eldest son, fearing his inheritance would be used up, captured his father and imprisoned him in the nearby Red Fort.  We went to the Fort which was also an architectural masterpiece so not a bad prison.

Red Fort Agra13

Agra – Red Fort. Shah Jehan’s prison

However, it was poignant to see the misty view of the Taj from the Fort that Shah Jehan would have gazed at every day.  In the end he was buried next to Mumtaz.

Day 5: Early call and had a quick breakfast before going to the train station.  That was an experience in itself!  Very confusing signage but we had help and managed to find our seats.  Made the mistake of trying to use the ‘She Toilet’ – I’ll draw a veil over that.

From Jhansi station drove to Orchha Fort.  It was hot, humid and the fort had loads of stairs.  I only managed a few but met some lovely locals.  I found it quite odd at first but many of the local people kept asking if they cDSC00925 (3)ould take a photograph with us.  According to our local guide it was the novelty of my blond (ish) hair and pale skin.  After a nice lunch in beautiful gardens we drove on and stopped at a hamlet where our Tour Manager is a frequent visitor.  We were able to meet the local people and visit the school to watch the children at lessons.

Village stop15

Our hostess

Our guide helps them by buying pens for the children and we left sweets for them.  They kept calling out ‘Heeello!’ and ‘My pen’ and wanting to hold our hands. Although it was just incredible to see them, I felt a little like a voyeur and slightly uncomfortable. The houses were immaculately clean.  Got quite emotional to see such happy, well cared-for children who had so little compared to our own. The beautiful woman in the picture shares her house with 25 other people.  The house has two and a half rooms.

We then had a very long, uncomfortable drive through the countryside on bumpy roads arriving at Khajuraho after dark.  Settled into our hotel exhausted.

Day 6:  I’d woken in the night confused. I didn’t know where I was, then couldn’t get back to sleep.  Just managed a bit of fruit for breakfast before driving to see the Hindu temples at Khajuraho.



Such incredible sandstone carvings, many of them erotic and based on the Kama Sutra. Climbed barefoot into the inner sanctum of one of the temples and then walked in the beautifully kept gardens.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and beautiful though it was, the heat and humidity were getting to me a bit.

To the airport and boarded a Boeing 737-800 for a 40 minute flight to Varanasi.  We had a sudden addition to our itinerary. As there were elections the next day, many sacred sites were closed so almost immediately we drove to Sarnath, near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh.  This a very holy site for Buddhists as it is where Buddha gave his first sermon.



There was a stupa and a vast area of ruins which visitors sometimes daub with gold leaf as offerings.  A large party of pilgrims, led by the Buddhist monksSarnath were seated on the grass chanting and sweet scented smoke from the incense burners drifted past.  It was a very special place.

At Varanasi, we were given only minutes to check into our hotel before being whisked off to the Ganges waterfront. Took a large boat along the waterfront, past the ghats (flights of steps) which were full of people enjoying the Aarti festival, a Hindu ritual that takes place every night on the ghats (steps) of the Ganges. Light from wicks soaked in ghee is offered to one or more deities while hundreds of people sing and dance along the riverfront. Varanasi Arti festival1.jpg

Varanasi candles

As we sailed past we lit small candles set in saucers of marigolds and floated them down the Ganges in memory of loved ones. These had been sold to us by some very enterprising and insistent little girls  who looked angelic but were apparently lethal if you got on the wrong side of them.

We disembarked on one of the less crowded ghats having sailed past the cremation ghats. The boat fell silent as we passed the burning pyres and the relatives of those being cremated.  Nothing in our previous experience could have prepared us for that.  The steps were lined with bodies waiting to be burned and those that had been alight for some hours. Also on the steps were cows and goats and male mourners and the remains of previous pyres.

The walk through Varanasi was an experience in itself.  The pollution was so great we needed to put scarves over our faces and yet the streets were bursting with people, cows, goats, stray dogs, rickshaws, tuc-tucs, motorbikes and cars.  Horns hooted constantly but no-one took any notice.  Our Tour Manager thought it would be ‘fun’ for us to go back to the hotel on a rickshaw.  I didn’t realise I would be taking my life into my hands.  To even reach the rickshaws we had to cross the road which was gridlocked with vehicles and animals and no-one, and I mean no-one, was letting any pedestrians through.  Crossing that road could be put under the heading of ‘dangerous sports’ and I’m still amazed we all made it without incident.  And then there was the rickshaw ride itself…

For a start our ‘driver’ didn’t know where our hotel was so had to ensure he kept his cousin – another rickshaw driver taking others of our party – in sight.  The cousin was keen to get there and we kept losing him.  To say our driver took risks in trying to keep up is an understatement.  I held onto my companion for dear life but small though we both were, the rickshaw hardly held us.  Then the other rickshaw drivers kept ramming into the back of us in an effort to stop other drivers cutting in.  It was the scariest ride I have ever been on.  We made it back to the hotel but all needed a stiff drink before bed to calm our shattered nerves.

Day 7:  5am wake up call.  Drove back to the ghats and climbed aboard another boat to watch the sunrise over the Ganges.

Ganges sunrise17

Wasn’t feeling particularly keen on this but by the time the red sun rose over the steamy waters, I was sold.  Walked back through the streets and ran the gamut of the hawkers who pushed and pushed us all to buy souvenirs.  They were especially keen on selling fridge magnets depicting the burning bodies on the cremation ghats!
Needless to say there were Ganges sunrise21no takers.  Drove back to the hotel.  Packed and set off for the airport.  Flew back to Delhi.

When we arrived at our hotel, we were given the usual bindi and garland but today being World Women’s Day all the women were given a pink rose and we had our photo taken for the local paper.

Day 8:  Flew to Kathmandu.  It felt very different in Nepal.  Everyone seemed to be so grateful and happy we visited.  There’s a common misconception that much of Nepal was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. In fact, though damage was pretty bad and 9,000 people lost their lives and 22,000 injured, it is a country getting back on its feet. Checked into the Hyatt Regency, a beautiful hotel near the famous Boudhanath Stupa.

Hyatt Kathmandu3

Hyatt Regency foyer

We were greeted with huge smiles wherever we went, despite all its troubles, Nepal is a calm and beautiful place. Our local guide, Dipak, told us that though many of the wonderful temples were damaged or destroyed, there is a huge rebuilding programme going on.  He was a lovely man, who collected English idioms with relish.  Everything was ‘spiffing’ or ‘top hole’ and when he spoke of his lovely family, he referred to his children as his ‘cheeky monkeys’.  I spent the afternoon by the swimming pool doing not a lot.

Day 9:  Up at 5am in the hope of taking a flight around Everest.  Drove to the airport and waited while an aircraft took off to do a weather check.  When the pilot reported back that it was not good enough, we weren’t surprised, there had been rumbles of thunder all night and the day dawned very overcast.  It was a disappointment but we had two more chances so weren’t disheartened and it meant I could go back to bed for a while.

Drove to Kathmandu centre, to Patan Durbar Square, a World Heritage site and one that was damaged in the earthquake (though not as badly as Basantapur Durbar Square).

Patan Durbar Sq Kathmandu4

Patan Durbar Square

Although there was reconstruction work going on, this was still a most beautiful and serene place.  Patan Durbar Square Kathmandu12Visited several temples and ogled at the glorious architecture with exquisite carvings.  Thankfully there are still Nepalese artisans who have the skill to reproduce and repair the fine buildings and sculptures. Walked through Kathmandu mesmerised by the myriad of shops and markets. The streets were full of life, many still full of rubble too but we just climbed over it and continued on our way.

In the afternoon we visited the Boudhanath Stupa,

Stupa Kathmandhu7

Boudhanath Stupa

a short walk behind our hotel.  My friend insisted she knew the short cut having been there before and we found it quite easily.  The stupa is in the centre of a large circular shopping street.  To our left a tent housed a large group of Buddhist monks chanting and burning fragrant incense.  We joined everyone in walking clockwise around the stupa which is a mark of respect and reverence.

Stupa Kathmandhu1

Walking clockwise around the stupa

My companion also managed to do loads of shopping. As we circumambulated around the stupa, the sky grew ominously dark so we decided to return to the hotel for some tea. Unfortunately, my friend’s sense of direction wasn’t quite as ‘top-hole’ as our local guide’s and we got a smidge lost.  We asked several locals who all said they spoke English. They were trying to be so helpful but just succeeded in getting us more and more disorientated.  I was on the point of trying to find a taxi when an Aussie voice called out ‘Do you want the Hyatt Regency?’ and this marvellous woman, who clearly now lives in Kathmandu, gave us clear and concise directions back to the hotel but not, unfortunately, before the heavens opened and dropped an ocean of water on us.

Day 10: The storm flashed and banged all night but as we were trying again for our Everest flight my alarm went off at 4.45am.  We waited to hear from the airport, although it seemed obvious to me there would be no flying around the mountains today. Eventually we all descended on the breakfast buffet like a flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square.  After a bit of a lie-down, drove to the airport and flew in a Buddha Airways ATR 42 to Bharatpur. Fortunately the weather had cheered up by this time and we arrived in the central-southern part of Nepal in the Chitwan National Park  for our two-day stay at the Nariyani Safari Lodge. We drove through some colourful agricultural countryside watching the women working in the fields.  These were bordered by a pretty blue flower which, Dipak informed us, was a rampant weed – Ageratum – which I plant annually in my garden!

After an hours’ drive, we arrived at the lodge and were assigned our clean, crisp but basic rooms. I immediately found a large spider in my sink which, I’m ashamed to say, I dispatched quickly down the plughole.  So much for emulating Buddhist principles!

After a simple but satisfying buffet lunch overlooking the river, we were taken to a small enclosure and introduced to Somokali.

Elephant meet5

Meeting Somokali

Our ranger, Harka, gave us lots of information about the elephants and the safari we would be taking the next day. She was a sweet-natured elephant and allowed a few of us to feed her.  Later on Harka gave us a slide show in the lodge – some of the pictures were absolutely revolting.  They showed King Edward VII on a shoot in Chitwan with hundreds of tiger skins hanging up behind him and his party like curtains. I was so ashamed I needed several glasses of the excellent local wine to erase the memory from my mind.  My friends accompanied me back to my room before I turned in for the night, just to ensure I didn’t have any unwanted visitors.  All was fine. However, in the middle of the night, something fell on my head and woke me but I was too scared to look and see what it was until the morning.  I struggled to get back to sleep as the sounds of the jungle outside were loud and creepy.  Hoots and squawks and scrabbling at my window gave my imagination a field day.  It was a restless night but I did manage to get some sleep.

Day 11:  When I woke it was obvious something had dropped on me in the night. On my bed cover (and my head) was what looked like some bark fallen from the roof of my quarters.  Chitwan early morning2

Later on, one of my fellow travellers told me he had been bombarded by grubs mating so I counted myself fortunate and didn’t investigate the ‘bark’  too closely. Breakfast was at 6:30am on the terrace overlooking the river.  It was a beautiful sight with the mist rolling off the water.  Got a lift to the departure site and with my two friends was helped onto our elephant who, thankfully, seemed docile. We had dressed, as advised, in camouflage colours.  We followed another elephant and almost immediately she splashed through a river or shallow lake. All the elephants were female as the males can be quite aggressive.  They all clearly loved their mahouts.  Once we had become used to the swaying motion of the animal it was actually quite comfortable but I did have trouble steadying my camera enough to take photos.Chitwan safari - rhino

As the sun rose the ranger pointed out rhino, monkeys, many different sorts of deer, wild boar – one with her babies – and a rather excitable peacock.  Sadly no tigers though we did see a tree trunk with claw marks so there was one about.

Chitwan safari stags3

On our way back we passed a sadhu, sitting cross-legged getting quietly stoned on hashish who waved happily to us as we swayed past.  We dismounted and thanked the elephants but then a little later went down to the river to see them having their baths – a reward for their hard work taking the awkward humans on safari.

Chitwan - elephant bath6

Some of our group decided to join the elephants and got an impromptu shower and we were joined by a few local children who were celebrating the Hindu spring festival, Holi. This is the festival of colours and it’s not hard to see how they mark it.  Most of them sat fascinated and laughing, watching us as we were soaked by the elephants who were clearly enjoying themselves too.Chitwan - Holi day paint

After lunch we wobbled our way into some dugout canoes which were ably guided downriver by local boatmen. I was a little alarmed when our canoe began to take on water but I was told to stop complaining or I would be thrown in. This wasn’t an inviting prospect as there were several very large crocodiles on the riverbank watching and doing the croc equivalent of licking their lips, so I shut up and watched as my canvas shoes became waterlogged.  Chitwan - canoe trip2When we reached the other side of the shore we were told to keep quiet as we walked through the jungle to a crocodile farm.  I tried but my shoes squelched really loudly and I was convinced I’d be set upon by a croc or a tiger.  We passed more trees with tiger claw markings. This, we were told, was the way the tiger marks out its territory. Not a comforting thought.

The crocodile farm was a bit of a revelation – I didn’t know they got so enormous.  Chitwan - rhino swim3 (2)As we walked back to the riverside we were told to keep quiet; a rhino had joined us and was making his own way down to the river.  We watched him very carefully as we made our way back to the lodge – and he watched us carefully back!

As it was Holi day, after a really lovely meal we were treated to a display of some local dancing by some of the lodge staff. Then it was our turn. Our faces were daubed with pink powder and we were pulled into the dancing circle – I think the lodge staff were impressed, they were grinning, pointing and clapping a lot.

Day 12:  Another early start and we said farewell to the lodge staff who had been fantastic, particularly Harka the ranger.  We left as the sun was rising and were delighted to see our rhino who had strolled up to the river bank by the lodge to say goodbye.  Our next stop was to be Pokhara, a town in the foothills of the Annapurna range.  Before the earthquake the road trip took about five hours.  Unfortunately some of the roads were being remade and this meant a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride for closer to seven hours.  Despite the bumping and jolting it was a marvellous trip.  The scenery, as we climbed higher into the mountains, was breathtaking. Road to Pokhara

We arrived pretty exhausted but knowing we had a free day the following day, I went straight to the concierge and booked an ultralight flight round Annapurna.  Dipak and Matt, our Tour Manager, dragged us out straight away to the Gurkha museum as much of the selection and training for this wonderful army unit is done here. In 2015 almost 8,000 Nepalese men applied to join.  The selection is very rigorous and in the end, the British army only take about 230 men. Dipak, our local guide, had applied in his youth and failed to get in.  Pokhara is his home and he very proudly told us how it is a huge status symbol to be picked.  Sadly, in the last few years there has been much misinformation about the gurhkas’ benefits on British television news.  We were told that it is still a life that most young Nepalese men aspire to.

From there we drove to Lake Fewa, a large freshwater lake where we donned life jackets and climbed into rowing boats.  I did wonder why, in Chitwan, we had been rowed in dug-out canoes in a crocodile-infested river without life-jackets yet here they seemed to pay more attention to safety.  To be fair, the lake was a lot deeper than the croc-filled river. When we stepped ashore again we had a walk around the lakeside shopping centre and bought some souvenirs; then back to the hotel for dinner.

Day 13:  Alarm went off at 5.45am and I wore, as instructed, many layers – four to be exact. Met Princess, my Chicago/Filipino friend (yes, that really is her name) and we drove to Pokhara airport, just five minutes away from the hotel. After filling in a disclaimer – not worried at all – we got suited up.  I had a large jacket and trousers to add to my four layers as well as leg warmers, ear defenders, gloves and a helmet. Felt like I was being suited up for an Apollo flight rather than a small craft with a lawnmower engine.  Met my pilot, Saja who seemed very young.  I asked him how many hours flying he had on the ultralight and when he proudly said 200, my heart sank.  I then asked him the average number of hours it took to go solo and he said ‘usually 24 but I have broken the record, I only had 4 hours flying time before going solo’ – he seemed so pleased with himself I swallowed hard and shut up.  He strapped me into the rear seat and then climbed into the front and did some reassuring checks.  Then, we followed Princess and her pilot out onto the runway and took off.  Wow.  I’ve flown in many small aircraft, even open cockpit monoplanes but never one as open or small as this.  It was incredible.  We turned right towards the mountains and climbed away. As expected, it felt very cold up there, hence all the layers but so worth the discomfort for the amazing view.Ultralight1 (2)

Soon enough we arrived at the snow capped peaks of Annapurna and Saja pointed out the range, Annapurna 1,2, 3 and South.  The mountains were so close I felt I could reach out and touch them but as we climbed, it got colder.  Pretty soon I couldn’t feel my feet and though we chatted over the intercom, every time Saja asked me if I was cold I said ‘not really’.  What was he going to do about it?  How to describe the amazing views?  It’s almost impossible.  Being in the ultralight was like flying without an aircraft, I think the freezing temperatures added to the experience.  Not being able to feel my legs made it more real although I did wonder how long it took to get frostbite.

Ultralight2 (2)

Flying past the World Peace Pagoda and over Lake Fewa

All too soon we began descending and we flew past the beautiful World Peace Pagoda and Lake Fewa.  Then we began turning onto final approach for landing and the ultralight kissed the ground without any fuss or blood spilled.  It had been an amazing experience and one I shall never forget.  I even got a DVD of my flight together with a certificate to prove I survived!

When I arrived back at the hotel I sat by the pool to thaw out – it was actually very hot and I even got a bit sunburned – savouring every moment of my morning flight.  Later on we were all going out to dinner by Lake Fewa but Dipak kindly invited us to his house to meet his wife and cheeky monkeys.  What a lovely family – he has two girls, 7 and 14 and a six-month old son.  His wife was very sweet and we left after a cup of spiced tea.  The meal at lakeside was really nice and though we still had another day of the trip to go, this was to be our last opportunity to sit down together to break bread.  It was really enjoyable and as I sat next to Dipak I had a chance to ask him about Nepal and how the earthquake had affected them all.  He said it was the most terrifying experience of his life and I can imagine it was.

Day 14: Another early start but was used to them by this time.  Alarm call at 4:45, had breakfast and packed.  Our driver took us up some really narrow mountain roads, with traffic coming in the opposite direction.  It was a bit of a competition to see who won right of way.  I had my eyes shut most of the time, especially when we drove close to the edge of the road where there was a sheer drop of thousands of feet and no wall or barrier to stop us if we got too close.  We left the coach and began walking and as the terrain was quite steep, some of us got quite breathless very quickly though I like to think it was more the high altitude than my unfitness.  As it got light it became obvious why we had gone to such lengths.  The sun rose and cast a pink glow on the Annapurna range that was truly magical.

Annapurna sunrise8 (2)

Back to the airport for our flight back to Kathmandu and our aircraft went tech.  Our Tour Manager had arranged for an ATR 42 to be waiting on the tarmac at Kathmandu to whisk us off to see Everest but as we waited for a replacement aircraft to arrive at Pokhara we began to worry cloud would build up over the Himalayas and spoil our final chance to go. As it turned out the sick aircraft was a blessing in disguise as there had been cloud over the mountains which had cleared over time.  As soon as we landed at Kathmandu we crossed the tarmac to our waiting aircraft which the Tour Manager had chartered especially for us.  We each had a window seat and took off towards the Himalayas.  The views were spectacular and as we approached Mount Everest the flight attendants made sure we knew exactly which mountains were which.  The Captain invited us up to the flight deck individually and we managed to get some wonderful views of Everest. Everest from flight deck of ATR 42It’s clearly the tallest mountain around and looks quite forbidding even from the air.  We turned around and all got another view of it as we swapped over to the other side of the aircraft (I’m sure the Captain was madly re-trimming the aircraft to compensate for the weight differentials as we moved!)  Everest7

This really was the icing on the cake. Our views of the roof of the world were spectacular and Everest in particular absolutely stunning. The airline handed us certificates to say we had been there and some people bought souvenirs on board.  We returned to our hotel quite speechless and I had a quiet final dinner with two of my friends reflecting on our experiences.

Day 15:  The next day we were up early (again!) and drove to Kathmandhu airport for our flight back to Delhi.  We weren’t there very long before boarding for our flight back to the UK which took about 9 hours.  All in all it was an incredible trip. Ten flights, four boat trips, a train, numerous coaches, a rickshaw, an ultralight and an elephant but my goodness I need a holiday now.


March 24, 2017 · 11:35

Getting it right

I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, reading about people’s lives in the past and gaining  an understanding  of what made them tick.  In the main, I think, most historical novelists do try to stick to the known facts, that is the documented evidence, unless it gets in the way of the story and there’s usually a note at the back of the book to say where the author has gone ‘off piste’.Little Ease

In carrying out research for my novel, The Perfect Pure Virgin, I have endeavoured to include as much information from extant documentary evidence as is possible. In the case of my story, there are many factual gaps owing to the secret nature of my protagonist’s lifestyle –  which is a actually bit of a godsend for a work of fiction.


Little Ease today

I have researched in many places: the National Archives at Kew, the British Library, county record offices and grand country houses. I’ve read diaries, chap books, State Papers, judicial reports and autobiographies – the list is endless.  I have also been lucky enough to meet some incredibly helpful people along the way.

On a visit to the Tower of London, I was asking one of the yeoman warders if he knew the whereabouts of the dungeon where many of my characters were tortured.  I understood this dungeon to be in the White Tower probably in the sub-crypt, just below where the lower gift shop is today.  The yeoman warder I was talking to became extremely interested in the premise of my novel and asked me to follow him. He led me to a small opening in the wall, “This” he said “is Little Ease” – an infamous tiny holding cell measuring just 1.2m square (4 sq ft), its cramped conditions preventing the prisoner from ever finding a comfortable position. This was where Guy Fawkes was held before he was put to the rack.  After his interrogation poor old Guido was never the same again – a man broken in mind and body. Nowadays Little Ease it is just an archway leading into a public gallery.  In my photograph the cell is the small section in the foreground of the picture which has had its back wall knocked out to make a passageway.  Visitors to the Tower today walk through without even noticing it!

Sub-crypt tunnel

Sub-crypt tunnel

The warder then produced a large bunch of keys and led me through a series of locked doors, down a couple of staircases and into  a messy storeroom. This was where many of the most famous interrogations took place. I was surprised that a location of such infamy should today be relegated to a dumping ground for old exhibits and discarded packing materials. The warder allowed me to take photographs and the picture here shows one of the blocked-off tunnels.  It is believed that in the sixteenth century, the tunnel led from underneath the Lieutenant of the Tower’s quarters in what is known today as The Queen’s House, directly to the torture chamber.  The chamber would have contained a variety of ghastly instruments and although most people have heard of the Rack, many Catholic priests were subjected to the Manacles or Strappado. This latter was a device where  the unfortunate prisoner was suspended by their wrists until  the full weight of their body was only supported by the extended and internally rotated shoulder sockets.  The technique typically caused brachial plexus injury, leading to paralysis or loss of sensation in the arms.

Now as far as I can discover, there is no documentary evidence giving details of this tunnel, nor are there any maps that show its course from the Lieutenant’s quarters to the sub-crypt. As with much of history, various pieces of the jigsaw have been put together in a certain way – which, let’s face it, may not be entirely correct.  For the purposes of a good story though, I think making assumptions based on what has been handed down is probably as close as we will ever get.

At the end of the day, although fans of historical fiction like to know what they are reading is based on fact, they are also aware of the inevitability of poetic licence.

Another of my research outings was to Baddesley Clinton house in Warwickshire. This house was allegedly rented by my protagonist Anne Vaux and her sister Eleanor, to shelter the leader of the Jesuit church in England at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and Catholic priests were hunted down and arrested on a charge of treason.  The house certainly contains a few priest holes (Warwickshire boasts many Catholic gentry houses where the  owners were related and much intermarried).  There is no documentary evidence of such a lease on Baddesley Clinton but then since everything was done in the utmost secrecy, you wouldn’t expect to find any!  The owner must have been sympathetic enough to allow the priest holes to be built even though he was living elsewhere at the time.


Baddesley Clinton

I have visited this house on many occasions and seen the priest holes that are on show to the general public.  On one recent visit I got talking to a volunteer guide about the house and he became interested in my research. He introduced me to the House Manager who was incredibly helpful and generous with her time.   When I explained to her that I would like to see the priest hole that wasn’t on show to the public, she led me into her stationery cupboard and

Stationery cupboard priest hole

Stationery cupboard priest hole

pointed to a ladder inside – at the top of the ladder was a secret hide.  Later on that day she very kindly sent me a photograph of the priest hole which is only accessible once you get past the paper clips and ink toner!

History is constantly being revised and although we shall never know exactly how certain events came to pass, historical novels can contextualise and attempt to explain events of momentous importance to the past and also the future.  No matter how much research is done, the author will inevitably sometimes get things wrong but perhaps we can make some allowances for those poor historical novelists who do their very best to get it right.



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A good night’s sleep – something many of us take for granted…

Most people climb into bed at night, shut their eyes and…hey presto – it happens.  They escape into a place where rest is achieved, their bodies recover from theinsomnia1ir daytime exertions and healing takes place.  It’s so automatic that we don’t, generally, question it, wonder about it or give thanks for it.  For some it is so easy they become a little cocky about it.  (No names mentioned here!)

I’ve suffered from poor sleep for many years but about eighteen months ago I began to experience insomnia… couldn’t get to sleep for hours and when I did, I would wake up half an hour later to remain sleepless for the remainder of the night.

The following morning I would struggle to do almost anything, work and driving being the most difficult.  This was the direct result of coming off HRT – I subsequently discovered hormones are a major factor in insomnia in women.

The GP reluctantly gave me pills… not many, they were addictive she told me so only fourteen at a time.  I would cut them up into quarters and try rationing myself to a quarter a night.  After a while that stopped working and I had to increase the dose and soon I was taking a whole pill, alternating it with an over-the-counter remedy bought in drugstores in the US.   Of course in the morning I would feel doped up for at least three hours but it was better than the alternative.

So far, so good…

…except that the pills’ effect began to wear off after a while and larger and larger doses were required to bring about a decent amount of sleep.

Naturally I would mention my struggle to friends and relatives, only to be told by those who fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow that clearly I don’t need much sleep.  insomnia3  I’m amazed I haven’t committed murder several  times over!

So my doctor came up with another solution – there’s a website called which works out how much sleep you’re getting/not getting and what the quality of your sleep is like.  Then it gives you suggestions for promoting a better night’s sleep. All well and good.

Then there’s the Sleep Restriction program.  This is the bit where they tell you to stay away from your bedroom until 1.30 am and then and only then can you go to bed.  The alarm must be set for 6.30am. You will notice this makes for a very short night. (Times vary according to your personal requirements which are determined after you have completed a Sleep Diary for a period of time.)

Over the next few weeks I struggled with SR (as  fellow sufferers on the online forum called it) managing to get to sleep immediately and then waking several times in the night.  At 6.30am I would stumble out of bed feeling as if I’d had hardly any sleep at all.  But eventually it did begin to get better. At my weekly ‘chat’ with the friendly cartoon Prof who doles out the helpful suggestions, I was told I could go to bed an extra 15 minutes earlier until now, I’m going to bed at 12.30am.  I am now managing a good 4-4 1/2 hours’sleep and though it still feels like it isn’t enough, it’s a vast improvement on before and I am not taking pills.  Result!  Hopefully I will continue until I manage to get at least six hours sleep and wake up in the morning feeling rested.  That’s all I ask.

So, I am writing this at midnight and looking forward to being able to crawl into bed.  If you have a problem with sleep, I would recommend  In the end there’s no point in relying on medication, as sooner or later it won’t work.  Getting back into a proper circadian rhythm is the only way and though it’s been a real struggle, hopefully I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Night, night!sleeping-boy-8427435





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Russia – A very different way

Just back from a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  I expected it to be an eye-opener but the reality was, my eyes were opened in a totally unexpected way. Western assumptions about Russia are often still many years behind the times. It is a country trying to play catch up but the major towns, for example, have a very similar aesthetic. The concrete bunker-like buildings still exist but thankfully the Bolsheviks appreciated the value of many of their treasures and kept them safe. Sadly Stalin had different ideas and happily demolished the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for a gargantuan Palace of the Soviets. Construction was only halted when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and a replica Cathedral has now been built on the same site.  Moscow was an unexpected treasure.  I had thought St. Petersburg would be impressive and it really is but Moscow was a surprise.  It is on the one hand a modern city, trying to compete with every other international capital in its commercialism but it is also a monument to beauty and sumptuous splendour that leaves the visitor in no doubt why the Russian Revolution occurred.


St. Basil’s Cathedral

In Red Square, familiar from the old Soviet displays of military might there were preparations for an Edinburgh Military Tattoo style entertainment with posters of jolly Scotsmen hung around the seating area – the Russians admire the soldiers in their kilts apparently!  Opposite the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb is the major department store GUM. Once a major trading centre commissioned by Catherine the Great the store has seen many incarnations.  After Stalin’s wife committed suicide in 1932 it was used briefly to display her body. When it reopened as a department store in the 1950s, it was one of the few places where consumer goods could be bought and was the scene of queues stretching all around Red Square as the deprived Muscovites waited in line for necessities. Today it is host to stores like Cartier, Gucci and Prada to name but a few.

Nothing is more beautiful than the gold onion domes of the many churches and cathedrals glinting in the afternoon sunshine.  The Kremlin Palace, gilded and brilliant stands within the red walls but overlooks the Moscow River so that the people could see what wealth and excess was available to those in power.


Kremlin Palace

It is a bit of a cliché that the Americans like to show they have everything bigger and better than the rest of the world.  Surely it is the Russians though that boast this with their buildings and monuments.

Within the walls of the Kremlin is the largest cannon in the world. The story goes that the gun was never fired in anger due to the difficulty of loading the enormous cannon balls!

Largest cannon ever built

Largest cannon ever built

There is an awe inspiring monument in the river, dedicated to Peter the Great. Again myths surround this gigantic structure. Some Muscovites will tell you that it was originally commissioned by the Americans as a tribute to Christopher Columbus but for some reason they decided they didn’t want it and the Russians cut off its head and inserted Peter the Great’s head in its place.

Peter the Great memorial

Peter the Great memorial

Our journey took us to St. Petersburg, a long cherished destination on my wish list.  Having coped with some very backward facilities – some of the public toilets are no more than holes in the ground still – we were pleasantly surprised by the Sapsan, bullet train.  It is as luxurious as travelling by air in club class and quiet and efficient. The constant announcements became a little annoying as each one in English was prefaced with ‘Dear Passenger’ and we couldn’t contain our astonishment at the warning, ‘Dear Passenger – the tracks on which trains run are dangerous places and we would urge you not to let your children play on the railway lines!’

Sapsan bullet train

Sapsan bullet train

St. Petersburg was everything I had hoped for and more. The sheer number of palaces was dizzying.  It seemed everyone with wealth lived in a palace and some of them were just stunning.  In Moscow and St. Petersburg there are museums and theatres almost on every corner and even though Stalin sold off a lot of the art after the war, the galleries still have many treasures.  Michaelangeo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Degas…the list is endless.  You could spend months going round the various palaces and galleries and still never see half of it.

Of course, the most famous palace in St. Petersburg is the Winter Palace housing the Hermitage museum.  It is a beautiful building but I couldn’t help remembering the awful events of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 as I stood waiting to go in. A crowd of demonstrators was fired on by soldiers of the Imperial Guard as they marched towards the Winter Palace, hoping to present Tsar Nicholas with a petition. The end result, after the troops began firing, was that thousands of unarmed women, children and their menfolk were cut down. It is an enduring tale of shame and an event that was a catalyst in the Revolution of 1917.

Winter Palace, scene of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre

Winter Palace, scene of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre

Dreadful tales of deprivation sit alongside demonstrations of what is frankly, vulgar ostentation.  By my fourth or fifth room I never wanted to see gilding again.

However, having seen Catherine the Great’s coronation dress and the outrageous carriages used by the various royal families, there was a sense that your average Russian peasant must have looked on these people as gods and only utter desperation would have made them rebel in the way they did.

St. Petersburg, like Moscow, is a city devoted to culture.  They even have a square called Arts Square which houses only museums, theatres and galleries.

Whilst much of my sightseeing was done with a group, I did venture out on my own a few times and my journey to the Yusopov Palace gives an example of the way some things don’t quite work very well yet. I was planning on taking a taxi to the palace, the site of Gregory Rasputin’s assassination, after a wonderful boat trip through the canals and along the River Neva. After climbing off the boat I stood looking for a passing taxi – I was told you just stood and waited and one would eventually arrive.  One didn’t.  Our Russian guide, Vera, took pity on me and stood for some time with her arm in the air waiting for a passing cab.  Still nothing turned up.  Eventually, a man, whom I had been aware of standing by the waterside watching us, approached Vera and said something in Russian to her.  The next thing I knew she was bundling me into his car – an unmarked black Mercedes and he whisked me off to, as far as I was concerned, a life as a white slave!  He did stop at the Yusopov Palace fortunately but I was amazed at the trust Vera put in him, having warned us of the very shady characters still to be found, trying to get money off unsuspecting tourists.

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva

On my final day, I rushed out to the Peter and Paul Fortress on an island in the middle of the Neva.  This contains the Cathedral where all the Romanovs are buried, including Tsar Nicholas, his wife and children.

As I was in a hurry, my transfer to the airport would be only a few hours away, I ordered a taxi from the hotel – my previous experience of finding taxis leaving me jaded.  The driver arrived promptly and though he had little English, offered, through hand signals and phoning his English-speaking boss and passing the phone to me, to pick me up again.  When we arrived the driver slipped the security guard a back-hander for letting him onto the island in the car (I was told I would have to walk across the wooden bridge, no cars were allowed on the island!). The driver then refused to take money for driving me there and pointed to his watch, signalling he would be back in one hour.  I then visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to see the tombs of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and of course, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, shot and beaten by the Bolsheviks in 1918. It was, of course, a moving experience.  I would have been more moved if I hadn’t been knocked over in the rush by several tour groups and their leaders waving a selection of pandas, roses, flags and umbrellas in the air.  I left, wondering whether my driver would turn up, comforted by the thought that he hadn’t yet had my roubles.  Sure enough, he was waiting at our pre-arranged spot, eating a Big Mac and waving at me.  He charged me exactly what we had agreed.  I was amazed.

Interior of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Interior of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Barely time to catch my transfer back to the airport, I took one last look at the this amazing, beautiful, corrupt and confusing city.  Like Moscow it lives in two worlds and is struggling to catch up with the commercialised cities of its old enemies while clinging to its glorious, over the top, outrageous past.

Burial place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family

Burial place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family

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