So in the end I did boldly go camping. ‘Never again’, I said. ‘Never again’, I always say. But I allowed myself to be persuaded by my very persuasive wife, and set off at an ungodly hour of the morning from the sunny South to the frozen North of England, to that bleak and beautiful wasteland that is The North Yorkshire Moors. And we were, as always, greeted on our first night’s stay by the obligatory gale force winds and driving rain. How does that happen? Every time. It’s never forecast and is always unseasonal, and we get it. But I withstood manfully and uncomplainingly all that the elements could think to throw at me, as you can clearly see from the picture on the left.

And another thing. For the second camping holiday in succession we have an inflatable bed that has deflated by morning. How does that happen? Six months old and punctured. And in the morning the weather is grey and damp and cold and Northern. I awake deflated.

Fortunately my son, who has inherited his father’s resilience and pragmatism in the face of this grim northern climate, wraps himself in arctic clothing and simply gets on with the many tasks in hand like tightening guy ropes, stressing braces and battening hatches and all the other basic hurricane procedures. Felicia, however, has awoken to the realisation that her inflatable bed has deflated.

Things have not started well. But hold on. What’s that unfamiliar shining object making a brief appearance in the sky? Can that really be sunshine? In June? In Yorkshire? And look, the tent’s drying out. The holiday seems to be beginning.

We take a drive across the moors heading north to Beck Hole and one of The World’s loveliest pubs, the Birch Hall Inn. This tiny place by the side of a tumbling river can hold no more than about a dozen customers inside, serves it’s fabulous local beer through a small hatch in the wall and offers just a roll or a pork pie by way of solid nourishment. But what a gem!

Next day we are emboldened enough to go walking. We find on the Ordnance Survey map a gentle stroll from the tent, through the woods and along the valley, a distance of about three miles, to bring us to a hotel called The Everley which has a garden overlooking the valley from the other side, and serves the most excellent food and fine Yorkshire beer. Things are getting better and better. I love Ordnance Survey maps and in time I’ll write a little eulogy to them, I’m sure. They are unique to the UK and one of our great institutions. Read them well and you can know exactly what kind of terrain you may be up against in your chosen route, and in this case it was obviously gentle and we were able to walk in flippy floppy plimsolls. Deep joy in the morning!

As the week progresses the days are becoming sunnier and we’re off to the beach with Paul, Dupe and Felicia to splash in the sea and paddle among the rock pools. Felicia just loves the fairground attractions and demands rides on scary stuff like the dodgems and the big wheel, and we old ‘uns are dragged onto these stomach churning, bone breaking ‘amusements’. What larks!

Then we are back to less trivial matters and another glorious little pub is discovered. The Moorcock Inn (titter ye not!) just a few miles away at Langdale End is that perfect English pub tucked away along a small country lane heading nowhere that you’ve always wanted to find. Here again the beer is served through a tiny hatch in the wall, and I’ve no idea exactly what the appeal is about such an arrangement except that it is unusual and age-old and I love it. You are offered only one choice of local bitter here which changes whenever the barrel is empty. And the bars inside are like well preserved Victorian parlours, complete with the most beautiful marquetry-inlaid upright piano. With the number of pubs in this country closing every week at an alarming rate we are very fortunate to still have beauties like these, but as is always the case, we must use them or lose them.

And then, all too soon, the week is over. With a tearful sob its time once again to pack away the tent and load it into the car. Its been a fabulous week under canvas, communing with nature. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Camping? I love it.

And I’m reminded of the Alan Sherman song from distant decades ago, ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.’ which concludes, ‘Wait a minute. It’s stopped hailing. Guys are swimming, guys are sailing. Playing baseball. Gee, that’s better. Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter.”

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to boldly go…

May 29, 2010

It’s now six o’clock Saturday evening and I’m about to pack the car ready for an early morning start. You see, once again I’ve allowed myself to be swallowed up in Maureen’s enthusiasm for a camping holiday, this time in the bleak beauty of The Yorkshire Moors. We do, I admit, have the additional company of Paul, Dupe and the delightful Felicia who is so exited at the prospect of this week away she’s been counting the days for a fortnight.

There are many ways to view the prospect of a camping holiday in the north of England, and generally I begin with the word bleak. You see, we’ve been camping before. Many times before. In fact it is, on average, twice a year, and I recall that this time last year we went to The Yorkshire Dales, Swaledale to be precise, arguably the most beautiful spot in the World, and the week’s weather began with 25ºC and too hot to walk, then rain in midweek until at the end of the week deep snow! Thick snow that settled! In June!

And again, last August in Cornwall, well OK Cornwall has a mind of its own, but on the 31st of August for goodness sake we had deep and freezing fog! The snap on the right was taken from our tent on that very day! Now forgive me for bleating, and Maureen is always ready to accuse me of being a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but is it really too much to ask for a drop of sunshine in the middle of summer? Didn’t summer used to be sunny and warm when I was a kid? Were the skies not continuously blue?

On the rare occasion when the sun did shine, or at least when the fog cleared, we could see the Atlantic Ocean from our seats outside the tent. In fact, I do remember one sunny afternoon sitting with a beer, gazing contentedly at the sun sparkling on the sea when Maureen said to me, “You’ve got bird shit on your back. How did you manage that?” What?

But we know that this year it will be different. This year will restore my faith in the English holiday, that is unfortunately now called a staycation (horrible word). It will also restore my faith in sleeping under canvas with nature nudging at my elbow. In truth, I know that I’m going to love this week away. We will be walking across the unspoilt wilderness that is the Yorkshire Moors, stopping for a pint and a sandwich at one of the county’s finest pubs by a rushing river and tumbling waterfall. We’ll be gallumphing around one of the delightful nearby beaches with Felicia, building sandcastles and booking donkey rides. Eating fish ‘n’ chips from the paper. Frying bacon outside the tent for breakfast.

I can’t wait. I will report back in full when I return next week, but brace yourself for a gushing appraisal of life in the heartbeat of England.

“So I looked out the window one morning,” said Jane, in a remarkably well preserved Liverpool accent,”and the racoons were eating the fish.” That’s right, Folks. I’m in America.

Maureen and I flew out on Monday April 5th to spend the best part of three weeks at Lianne and Louis’s house in Grosse Pointe, just outside Detroit on the banks of Lake St Claire.

During our first week here we visited the magnificent Henry ford Museum where they hold, as you might imagine, an astonishing collection of automobiles including, rather chillingly, the Lincoln in which President John F Kennedy was travelling in Dallas when he was gunned down. Not surprisingly its no longer convertible as LBJ had it bullet-proofed. They also have the bus that Rosa Parkes rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. But I think my favourite car was the Mulato, a beaten up old thing held together with string and gum, in which a father and son travelled from Argentina just to visit the museum. But the museum is not restricted to automobiles. It has fine collections of aeroplanes, furniture and some important artifacts from American history, among them the very chair in which President Lincoln was sitting in Ford Theatre when he was assassinated.

Last Saturday we had breakfast in town and then went into Eastern Market. After leaving the market we drove to the amazing Heidelberg Project where local artists have taken over some derelict houses and produced some of the most beautiful works of art I’ve seen for a very long time. Using found objects, fridges, supermarket trolleys, dolls, shoes, they’ve made wonderful sculptures rich in subtext.

We were in Ace Hardware down in the village yesterday shopping for Monkey Butt Powder when we caught a nice little snippet of conversation. A very camp shop assistant (bleached hair, orange face, very Dale Winton) was talking to his colleague, a middle aged woman rearranging the dried flower department. “My Mother really worried about me,” he said,”so she gave me a bell that I could carry around and ring whenever I needed her.” Mothers, eh? The same all over the World.

We’ve got a secret. That is to say we had a secret, then it wasn’t a secret and now its a secret again. The thing is that Louis’ mother and sister are flying over for a long weekend to attend Louis’ and Lianne’s marriage blessing, but it was intended as a surprise. Eventually all the intrigue and plotting was spotted so Lianne came clean. But then overnight came the news on BBC World Service that the whole of UK airspace was choked up with volcanic ash from Iceland (them again!) and consequently all flights out of the UK are grounded.  So now they were no longer coming. Then, after Louis had left for work, Lianne got the news that they’d scrambled onto the last flight out heading for Boston and would be in Detroit some time this evening. Surprise!

Saturday 17th April. The blessing. After much debate about where to hold the blessing Louis and Lianne decided to have a reception at home, beginning with a Buddhist ceremony followed by eating and drinking. Lianne, Maureen and I did the catering starting on Friday, while Louis busied himself with more cerebral matters like buying the wine. Pick-up-and-eat finger food was the idea, so Lianne made mini Yorkshire puddings which were stuffed with roast beef and horseradish sauce, just to stamp a bit of Englishness on the proceedings. Maureen made a vegetable curry and (get this) paneer cheese to stuff into jalapeno chillies. Lianne then made prawns on squares of pumpernickel and crab on cucumber slices. I made the bread, black olive bialy and onion seed rolls for sliders (mini burgers) and Maureen marinaded chicken and beef satays. On the day Maureen and I manned the barbecue and cooked the sliders and satays which all vanished as fast as we could put them on the table. Which meant that we were able to finish in time to enjoy the rest of the party.

Thursday April 22nd, and we leave for home tomorrow. The UK airports are all open for business and we’ve very luckily avoided all the chaos caused by the volcano, which shut down European airspace for five days. So we needed to make the most of our remaining time here. This morning Lianne, Maureen and I went to the Detroit Institute of Art on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. This is a lovely museum, and in about three hours we only managed about half of the galleries, but saw all of the twentieth century and contemporary work, a permanent collection containing some lovely and important work by Picasso, Modigliani, De Kooning, Warhol, and lots more, plus the native American galleries and the special exhibition of African art.

This evening we had dinner at the dirty dog Jazz Café on the Hill, just a short walk from Lianne’s house. What a treasure.

Friday April 23rd. And then we flew home.  A tearful farewell with Lianne, Molly and Sam seeing us off at Wayne County (And The Electric Chairs?) airport but otherwise no dramas. No volcanic ash. Smooth flight. Airline food. Jetlag.

India

March 22, 2010

Delhi. Exactly eleven years ago to the day we set off for a three-week trip to India, ‘we’ being Maureen, Paul and myself. The plan was to fly to Delhi, get an internal flight to The Andaman Islands, spend a week lazing in the waters of The Andaman Sea, then fly back to Calcutta and get a train up to Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Simple enough.

A couple of years earlier Paul had been backpacking around Rajasthan, Nepal and the Himalayan foothills for a four month spell with his then girlfriend Jo, returning for a few months to earn a bit more money, then to travel around the south from Goa to Kerala for another four months, so was intending to show us the basics of travelling around India on a shoestring.

With everything prepared we booked our flights for a bargain £400.00 return. We had originally wanted to fly with Lufthansa who were only £50.00 more expensive but they were fully booked, so it was Syrian Airlines or Aeroflot. We chose Syrian. We had our jabs and I stuffed into my backpack a warm woolie and jeans for the mountains and my snorkelling stuff for the islands, plus a brand new copy of Lonely Planet. We were leaving nothing to chance. What could possibly go wrong?

Well the first thing to go wrong was booking with Syrian Airlines. If you ever fancy a moan about Ryanair take a trip with Syrian. After the worst flight I’ve ever experienced in my life in what looked like a very hookey old second hand plane which conked out in Munich (a stop that was unscheduled so we must consider a bit of an emergency), and the only in-flight entertainment was a battered copy of Arabic News in Arabic, and really horrible food (A Hindu family near us were given beef and a vegetarian we met was given a bag of crisps), we landed in Delhi at three o’clock in the morning, almost a day and a half late.

So we fell into a cab and headed into town, slaloming at a terrifying speed between mighty lorries with horns blaring along the freeway. We were dropped of at Janpath guest house, just off Connaught Place in the centre of Delhi, a place Paul knew from his previous trips. But a guy at the door told us it was fully booked, so we went with a helpful motor rickshaw driver to look for our second choice. That too was booked, and so too was our third choice, so after driving for what seemed like hours all over Delhi, we eventually allowed ourselves to be taken to a hotel recommended by the driver which cost $100.00 a night. We’d been scammed. How did that work? We didn’t know, but we slept. Next day we booked into Janpath, asking them if they’d been booked up the night before, which, of course, they weren’t.

Next morning we went to the airline office to buy our flights to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands but we found they were fully booked for weeks to come, which called for a hasty change of plan. So we decided on the Rajasthan alternative. A fine decision as it turned out but it still meant lugging my warm clothes and snorkeling stuff across the roasting plains of India.

We had a couple of days to spend in Delhi before we left for Agra, about 150 miles to the south, so we took in a few sights including a rickshaw ride to the magnificent Red Fort in the old city, built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who also built the Taj Mahal. The fort has largely red sandstone walls but the beautiful pavilions surrounding the large courtyard inside are mostly marble.

Our rickshaw ride through the bustling streets of Old Delhi took us past roadside food stalls serving curries in bowls made of banana leaf, which are then discarded in the road for the cows to eat. So no litter. Brilliant. I think all McDonalds should be made to use these containers and keep a cow outside to clean up.

The train to Agra was due to leave at 6.15 in the morning so we got to New Delhi station in plenty of time, completely unnecessary of course as the train arrived a fairly predictable two hours late but no matter. We breakfasted on a delicious puri and vegetable curry freshly cooked on the platform, and drank plenty of chai served in plastic cups. A year or two earlier this would have been served in unfired earthenware cups which would be thrown on the floor and reconstituted, but now the dreaded plastic cup is considered cheaper, and are still thrown onto the tracks to create a hideous tide of litter.

Agra. The slow ride down to Agra was delightfully sluggish and relaxing, tipping us out onto the station forecourt to take a motor rickshaw to Tajganj and the Shahjahan Hotel, just a couple of hundred yards from the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

Checking in was tricky. Not because of any language or bureaucratic problems, but because an enormous cow had placed herself across the hotel doorway, and we had to clamber over her to get in.

Once in, the room was much as you might expect for $10.00 a night. Bare electric wires were hanging alarmingly around the walls, and we have slept in fresher beds, but we did have our own bathroom. OK, the bath was black but it was a bath. The room was at the front of the building on the first floor and the large picture window overlooked the bustling street below, and from the rooftop we could see the Taj Mahal.

We had a drink on the roof and then went straight to the Taj. What an astonishing sight as you walk through the arched gatehouse. I’m sure it is the most beautiful building in the world, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1653 in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz, who died during the birth of their fourteenth child. The Taj is built using white marble inlaid with semi precious stones and shines in the sunlight. Thousands of artisans and craftsmen were employed in its construction, and many of their descendants still live and work in Tajgang today.

One morning I got up before dawn to watch the sun rise over the Taj. This is really special. You see all the fabulous colours in the walls and realise that it only appears white in full sunlight.

On a hill a mile upriver is another of Shah Jahan’s red forts. And this one is where he ended his days. His son imprisoned him in a golden palace there overlooking The Taj because he was spending his son’s inheritance with crazy abandon, although today you can barely see The Taj for the dense air pollution. This pollution is extraordinary. It’s in the river, which is dead and stinking, as well as the air, which is choked by exhaust fumes and factory smoke. Early in the morning its hard to breath for the stench of the open sewers running along the roadside. Phew!

But you’d happily endure all of it for a glimpse of the beautiful Taj Mahal at dawn.

Jaipur. We stayed in Agra for three or four days then left to catch the train across the plains to Jaipur, The Pink City. This is a beautiful journey through abundant wheat fields, past villages of houses painted cobalt and pistachio and cow pats drying in the sun to burn as cooking fuel, and the women in their brilliantly  coloured saris working in the fields.

Arriving in Jaipur we took a rickshaw to the Hotel Bissau Palace just outside the city walls near the Chandpol gate. OK, I know this sounds really posh and luxurious, and in truth it was pretty nice but at five hundred rupees a night for a room with a marble bed (and if you’re very good you might get a mattress) this is delightfully cheap. The wonderfully (and naturally) cool rooms here surround beautiful flower gardens rich with what we consider quite rare birds like Kingfishers and Hoopoes, the trees ringing with birdsong and the carefully tended gardens hissing with the very musical sound of sprinklers. And this is what The Lonely Planet describes as middle range.

On the first morning after our arrival we walked into town through the long, arrow straight Chandpol bazaar, past traders selling spices piled high on steel plates and of dazzling colours. Families were selling wonderful aluminium suitcases and trunks, or clothes in rainbow stripes. Our senses were bombarded with sound and colour and texture. The beautiful crumbling buildings painted pink one hundred and fifty years ago in honour of The Prince of Wales’s visit seem to represent a testament to the enduring culture of this massive country.

We walked on to the fabulous Pink Palace, Hawa Mahal, and then the observatory, the Jantar Mantar, built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, who also built this fabulous city in 1727. The Maharaja was a lover of all things astronomical and astrological (and mathematical and astrophysical) and built the must-see observatory to further his studies. It’s graceful, and sculptural, and brilliant and very beautiful. It is also strangely modern looking. Here you will find a huge sundial, the height of a three storey building and a monumental effort to walk up, which gives the time accurate to the minute. There are mighty astrological structures (pictured right), each one dedicated to a different sign of the Zodiac. The whole place is a sculpture park and outdoor science museum of rare beauty.

In fact, this entire city is relentlessly fascinating. And the food’s good too.

Udaipur. However, on the morning we arrived in Udaipur I was cruelly laid low with an inevitable visitation of the squits, so the overnight train journey was less than wonderful. We had not planned where to stay in the city so placed ourselves in the hands of the rickshaw driver who did not disappoint. He took us to Hotel Jagat Niwas in the old town, a seventeenth century haveli or merchant’s house, on the banks of Lake Pichola. We booked a couple of rooms on the cheaper side of the courtyard, but enjoyed views from the terrace across the lake to five palaces and the fabulous sunsets over the water. For $10.00 a night we looked across to the famous five-star Lake Palace Hotel, where for $100.00 a night they could enjoy views of us. The restaurant here served excellent food and in the evenings we’d sit out on the terrace after dinner watching the return leg of the fruit bat migration over the lake. The sky darkened for maybe half an hour as a seemingly endless run of thousands of these creatures flew back to their roosts as the sun began to set over the lake. Quite a sight.

This beautiful ‘City of Lakes’, ‘The Venice of The East’, founded in 1568 by Rana Udai Singh, enjoys more history and more palaces than you can shake a stick at, although for the local population it’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that it was used as the location for a James Bond movie, ‘Octopussy’ I think. It’s everywhere. Posters hang in the shop windows and the movie plays in many of the restaurants and bars. It’s very hard to avoid but we managed.

Our few days in Udaipur were spent lazily wandering the streets, nosing into shops, sitting with a cup of chai haggling comfortably over the price of a piece of silver jewellery or a shirt, or just talking cricket. England were touring at this time and every food stall had a TV or radio transmitting ball by ball commentary.

Goa. Our trip to Goa involved a train journey to Mumbai (or Bombay as everybody who lived there called it) and then, according to the newly printed timetable, a two hour wait for a flight to Dabolim and then a bus to Benaulim. Well, needless to say there was no connection awaiting us so we had to stay overnight at an expensive hotel in town, and fly in the morning. That’s how it goes.

At Benaulim we checked into Oshin Cottages guest house on the outskirts of town. This place had been recommended by one of the many backpackers we met on our travels, and it suited us fine.

It was a fair walk to the beach and to town but that was OK. We arrived on Easter Monday and most of the beach bars were closed, this being a Catholic state after its Portuguese past. The one place open was Domnik Shack, so that was our choice for the week. Domnik was an excellent host selling good food (tandoori fish) and drink, as well as providing a book exchange. He was also a local activist protesting against the building of hotels in the area. At that time there was only one in the process of construction but Domnik knew that more would follow, which I understand has since been the case.

This became a very lazy week, just shuffling around this tiny place, buying some tourist tat, eating and drinking. Er, that’s it.

We stayed for about a week, then flew back to Delhi to check in for our flights home. That’s when things began to go wrong.