There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 23 September 2018

San Cristóbal to Palenque via Toniná: Part 9 of South East from Mexico City

This is a new post, though it covers the events of the 28th of November 2017.
It will be moved to its correct date in a few days time.

Leaving San Cristóbal de las Casas

We were up so early for our 220km journey north to Palenque that we had to rouse a member of staff to unlock the front door and let us out into the dark, cold morning.

Lynne outside the Hotel Cuidad Real at 5.55 in the morning, San Cristobal de las Casas
Al and his driver Freddy were on time, but our packed breakfast was not. Al chased up the hotel kitchen while we hung around shivering. During the drive we would drop from San Cristóbal’s 2,200m to a mere 60m, so this was, we hoped our last cold morning.

Early morning in the park opposite our hotel, San Cristobal de las Casas
We set off a little after 6.00; the driving would take 4¾ hour, but with things to see on the way - and the possibility of unscheduled stops - it would take far longer, and then Al and Freddy had to drive back.

We travel north from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque across Chiapas, Mexico's most southeasterly state
Some Problems on the Road to Ocosingo

The road wound across the plateau, occasionally giving us views down into cloud filled valleys.

Looking down on a cloud filled valley outside San Cristobal
It was slow going, the twists and turns and the recent earthquakes’ legacy of landslips and sudden dips had to be negotiated carefully and then there were the traffic calming measures. We passed through no settlements for the first forty minutes, but there were many buildings alongside the road and at each one a narrow ridge of tarmac ran across the highway. Hitting them at speed was uncomfortable.

A school beside the highway as dawn breaks outside San Cristobal
[These were not the only dangers. On April the 19th 2018 two cyclists, one German, one Polish, riding from San Cristobal to Palenque were robbed and murdered outside San Cristobal, their bodies and bikes thrown over a cliff to make it look like an accident. Mexico had 31,174 homicides in 2017, 25 per 100,00 inhabitants compared with 17 in the USA and 1.2 in the UK.]

After and hour and a quarter we reached the small town of Oxchuc and joined a line of stationary traffic.

Coming to a halt in Oxchuc
‘Roadblock,’ Al told us. This, I have learned, is not unusual in Oxchuc, sometimes the road is closed for 12 hours or more. As we waited a man knocked on the window, Freddy opened it a crack and the man pushed through a leaflet explaining the peoples' grievance: in short, the government were not providing necessary financial support for the community, so they were gathering it themselves.

The cone at one end of the roadblock, Oxchuc
Two policemen sat in their car, watching. ‘They are corrupt,’ Al said. ‘The new mayor promised to end corruption and they burnt her house down.’ The Mexico News Daily, 9th of January 2016 has a different story. The mayor was (probably justly) accused of corruption and an angry mob rampaging through the streets set fire to her house, among much else. They also torched a tourist bus; the American/Canadian tourists were not harmed but it must have been alarming.

Our encounter ended quickly and without conflagration. After ten minutes, leaflet man returned, demanding 100 pesos (£4) from each car. We paid, the cones vanished and it was over.

A little further on Freddy recognised the car in front as being from his company. He flashed his lights, both cars stopped and there was a consultation and some phone calls. They weighed the probable delays (and possible dangers) of continuing against returning to San Cristóbal and taking the alternative route which would add three hours to an already long day. 

We went on - they had the local knowledge so we accepted the decision. For the next hour nothing happened so we ate our breakfast and had a nap.

At Cuxulja we encountered a second roadblock. They claimed a villager had been unfairly dismissed from the Coca Cola plant in nearby Ocosingo and denied compensation - and if Coke would not pay up then we had to. At Oxchuc the approach had been polite, the roadblock a line of plastic cones; here a plank bristling with nails had been dragged across the road and a crowd of men milled around, some with baseball bats, others with police nightsticks and one or two with machetes. The situation was uncomfortable and drawing attention to ourselves by taking photos seemed foolish, so we didn't. Al and Freddy looked irritated, but not frightened, which was reassuring. We waited and eventually there was a knock on the window and another request for 100 pesos. We paid, the plank was hauled clear and we were relieved to move on.

We stopped again before Ocosingo, but this time voluntarily. Freddy pulled into a service area where he and Al had breakfast and we drank coffee.

The service station above Ocosingo (it does not look much like Newport Pagnell!)
Afterwards a short stroll led to a view over Ocosingo lying in the valley below.

Ocosingo down in the valley
Ocosingo, is a town with a reputation for roadblocks and awkwardness, but all was sweetness and light as we drove through.

In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the Mexican establishment. A vaguely Libertarian-Socialist movement, the Zapatistas drew support mainly from Mexico's southern states and particularly the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. The EZLN immediately occupied several Chiapan cities, notably San Cristóbal, withdrawing as the Mexican army arrived from everywhere except Ocosingo, where dozens died in days of fighting. The EZLN have since concentrated on civil disobedience rather than violence and have recently flirted with mainstream politics.  They still control much of rural Chiapas – which may be relevant to our difficulties.

The last few paragraphs have featured murder, mayhem, civil disobedience and armed insurrection. It is only fair to add that the vast majority of Mexicans we encountered were decent, honourable people. Polite, calm and tolerant they treated each other with respect and consideration and offered us friendship and fairness. We encountered no aggressive begging, and Mexico is not a country with a scam merchant on every corner… but a dark side does exist.


A side road took us the 12km from Ocosingo to the Mayan site of Toniná.

Toniná from a distance
Toniná was a city state of the Mesoamerican Classic Period (200-900 AD). Most of the Early Classic structure was built over later, but the site is rich in Late Classical stucco sculptures, monuments and inscriptions. Between the 6th and early 10th century Toniná was aggressive in its struggle for dominance over its neighbours, most notably Palenque, 130km to the north, and inscriptions in Mayan hieroglyphics give the names and dates of most of the rulers of this period. One inscription bears a date in the Mayan Long Count Calendar equivalent to the 15th of January 909, the latest date of any Mayan inscription so far discovered.

We paused beyond the car park to examine a stone model. It shows Toniná sitting on a 6ha platform, the ‘acropolis’ at its northern end having seven terraces partly set into a hillside and climbing 71 metres above the platform.

A model of Toniná with an EZNL poster in the background
I did not notice that I had also photographed an EZNL banner behind the model. Beneath the slogan Libertad Justicia Dignidad are images of Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos, the EZNL leader shown in typical pose smoking his pipe through a hole in his mask. The rest of the words are largely obscured by reflections, but it was a reminder about who is in charge here.

Walking down to the entrance Al commented on the fences beside the path. ‘They should not be here,’ he said. 'The national park is open to everyone.’ We were already aware that Al had little respect for his indigenous fellow countrymen and the sight of a dwelling being built inside the fence provoked a rant about indigenous people ignoring the law and no one doing anything about it. He never mentioned the Zapatistas, either not wanting to acknowledge the insurgency, or deciding we were better left in ignorance, so the point he never made was that it was the Mexican government’s national park not the Zapatistas; this was EZNL territory and their support came from the indigenous people.

We eventually reached the platform. Beside it is a sunken ballcourt built, according to inscriptions, in 699 by K'inich B'aaknal Chaak to mark three victories over Palenque. Nobody knows how the game was played on the I-shaped court, but surviving indigenous games involving nudging a ball with hip and shoulder.

The ballcourt, Toniná
Bound prisoners of war are a frequent motif at Toniná and the ballcourt features half a dozen captured vassals of Palenque’s ruler.

Bound captive ballcourt, Toniná
Yax Ahk (Green Turtle) is the only one known by name.

Bound captive, ballcourt, Toniná
Some say the losers of the game were sacrificed to the gods, some say the winners (which can’t have done much for the quality of play),  but maybe nobody was sacrificed. Whatever the truth the ballplayers had a better outlook than Yax Akh and his unfortunate friends.

We climbed out of the ballcourt and onto the platform.

Standing on the platform with the 'acropolis' behind
The steps up to the first and second levels are narrow and uneven but not difficult. The entrances to the Palace of the Underworld on level 2….

The entrance to the Palace of the Underworld, Toniná
…led to a series of narrow passages with a definite underworld feel. The passage roofs and entrances have a stepped arrangement topped by a lintel; the builders having not quite developed a true arch, but working towards it.

Inside the Palace of the Underworld, Toniná
The Palace of the Frets is on level 4…

Place of the Frets, Toniná

…with a throne-like seat (and a ‘no sitting’ sign).

'Throne', Palace of the Frets, Toniná
The ‘frets’ are brickwork decorations to the left of the throne. The central X-shape may refer to Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent, or to the Sacred Mountain, or to something else. Some stucco decoration survives top left of the X which, gives a clue as to how it must once have looked but we can only imagine the colours. The sign at the bottom says no climbing. I would have preferred some informative signs around the site, Al knew his way about but he could not be a specialist on everything.

The frets, Palace of the Frets, Toniná
There is a lot on level 5, another ‘palace’ of sorts…

A room of unknown purpose, Level 5, Toniná
 …a view over the Palace of the Frets…

Looking over the Palace of Frets, Toniná
…a lot of stucco in sheltered spots…

Stucco, Level 5, Toniná
…none of it easy to interpret….

More stucco, Level 5, Toniná
….and a mysterious plaque on the ground.

Plaque, Level 5, Toniná
Lynne looked at the steep steps to level 6 and shook her head but Al knew a longer way round that avoided them. Lynne was happy to reach level 6…

Lynne on Level 6, Toniná
…but access to the final level was only possible by high, steep and narrow steps. I climbed them on my own.

I proceed carefully up to Level 7, Toniná
The top two levels were the only place on the whole site where we encountered other visitors. Those of us on the top congratulated each other for having made it and enjoyed the spectacular view….

The view across Toniná and beyond from Level 7
…and I looked down on Al and Lynne.

Looking down on Al and Lynne from Level 7, Toniná
The young descend facing forwards, I turned the other way, and proceeded carefully using hands as well as feet. About half way down I remembered that scorpions habitually bask on old, warm stones. It was a thought I could have done without but I continued placing my fingers on ledges I could not see - nothing bad happened.

That was the end of our visit, though it took some time to complete out descent and return to car. We had enjoyed Toniná, there had hardly been half a dozen other people there and we had been able to wander and clamber at will. A time will come when conservation issues and health and safety will conspire to stop that and, as at Angkor Wat, wooden steps and walkways will sprout up to keep people and archaeology apart. I understand why it will be necessary, but I am glad we got here first.

Misol Há Waterfall

The 120km from Toniná to the Misol Há waterfall took over two hours, but only because the road was slow and twisty, we encountered no further roadblocks.

The Cascada de Misol Há lies just off the main highway some 20km before Palenque. Misol Há mean ‘waterfall’ in the local Mayan dialect and it lives up to its name, the waters of the Rio Misolha (sic) which later joins our old friend the Grijalva fall 35m into a circular pool in a single cascade.

Misol Ha Waterfall, Chiapas State, Mexico

The clear pool set among tropical vegetation has attracted film-makers; among others Johnny Weissmuller swam here as Tarzan and Arnie and the Predator prowled around. The pool is suitable for swimming, even if you are not Tarzan, and I was tempted. We almost had the place to ourselves but one man was swimming. ‘How is it?’ I asked. ‘Kalt’ was his terse response. We have spent too much time recently being kalt (froid, freddo and more appropriately frío) and as I was now warm I decided to stay that way.

The Chan-Kah Resort Hotel, Palenque

We reached our destination in the late afternoon. We wished Al and Freddy well as they dropped us at the Chan-Kah Resort Hotel facing a long journey back to San Cristóbal.

The hotel was one of those out-of-town holding pens for foreigners we try but sometimes fail to avoid. We would stay the night, visit the Palenque Mayan site, stay another night and go. We would not visit the modern city of Palenque, which may not be much, but it is Mexico and that was what we came to see. That said Chan-Kah offered us a rustic looking but pleasant, even luxurious, cabin, extensive grounds, swimming pools and a restaurant, what had we got to complain about? We went to find a beer and bitch about our fortune, then had a stroll through the grounds – more in the next post – a shower and a rest.

Our cabin, Chan-Kah Resort, Palenque
Dinner at the Chan-Kah Resort, Palenque

Despite lack of altitude Palenque was not as warm as I had hoped, or expected this far south, but eating in the open sided restaurant was comfortable - with a sweater (and Christmas decorations). We had few fellow diners until a coach party arrived and commandeered all the waiters – not unusual in resort hotels.  We started with nachos and tequila, our very first tequila not in a margarita; it seemed disappointingly bland after mezcal. My beef with chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeño chilis) rice and salad was an ordinary beef stew with a mild smoky/spicy flavour while Lynne’s steak, mushrooms and French fries was hardly Mexican, but she enjoyed it. After being offered only Spanish wine the last few nights we chose a more local product. Vino Verdades Cabernet Sauvignon from Baja California (2,000km away, but at least in Mexico) was an impressively solid wine at a reasonable price and perfect with beef.

Dinner at the Chan-Kah Resort, Palenque

South West from Mexico City

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Algarve: Depredations and Delights

First published on the 6th of October 2010, this post now has several updates and many later pictures
Links are to other Algarve posts on this blog

The unhealthily pale old man and the sea, Algarve Oct 2010
We have just returned from our seventeenth [25th in 2018] trip to the Algarve. It was simply a holiday; unless you hail from Ulan Bator or the Kamchatka Peninsula it is impossible to pretend you are a traveller in southern Portugal, there are only locals, expatriates and tourists.

It was different thirty years ago when my father retired and bought a house by a golf course in the new development of Vale do Lobo. In 1982 we drove through the scruffy town of Almançil, skirted a sun blasted vineyard and passed several shepherds watching their grazing flocks before reaching the half finished ‘luxury resort’. There we left Portugal and entered never-never land. It is a long time now since that road has seen a shepherd. New villas, a dozen restaurants, an outbreak of tennis courts and a chic garden centre jostle for space where once there was only dust. Freshly painted Almançil is today packed with estate agents’ offices, banks and golf equipment shops. The N125 – the main road running the length of the Algarve - by-passed the town centre long ago and has itself been reduced to the status of a country road by the construction of the A22 motorway. Val do Lobo is no longer half finished, but runs into Dunas Douradas, which runs into Quinta de Lago, equally upmarket but becoming more and more characterless with each successive building phase.

That house on a golf course and a much younger me
Val do Lobo, April 1992
And it is not just this corner of the Algarve that has seen the developer’s bulldozers. Villas have sprouted from Vila Real on the Spanish border to Sagres in the west, leaving only windswept Cape St Vincent untouched. New resorts like Vilamoura and Praia de Rocha have sprung up, while old fishing towns like Albufeira and Quateira have blossomed into major holiday centres.

My parents’ house was sold years ago, and Lynne and I now rent a comfortable ground floor apartment with a pleasant garden in Carvoeiro. Situated in a narrow ravine running down to a beach that is little more than a breach in the cliffs, Carvoeiro has managed to retain more of a village feel than its larger neighbours. But even here, in defiance of geography, villas have climbed the walls of the ravine and spread along the cliff tops. In the streets you hear more English and German than Portuguese and in the summer the locals, as in much of the Algarve, are a minority in their own town. Even in winter there is no relief as the extensive and largely grey-haired expatriate community – British, German, Dutch, Irish, Scandinavian – avoid the rigours of the Northern winter in a region where frost is virtually unknown and even in January temperatures reach 17°.

Carvoeiro Beach
It is not just their languages the tourists bring with them, it is also their food. Carvoeiro’s out of town supermarket sells sliced white bread, baked beans and marmite. The village boasts an ‘English Restaurant’ and other establishments offer ‘all day English breakfast’ or ‘traditional Sunday roasts.’ ‘Pubs’ sell beer to foreigners and entertain them with all the premiership football matches that Sky Sport can provide.

And do the locals complain? They must do, it is human nature, but they do so quietly and among themselves. Within a generation tourism has turned the Algarve from a forgotten backwater of Western Europe’s poorest country into a thriving, prosperous province with a quality of life outsiders envy.

In the 1980s old ladies wore black dresses and thick woollen stockings. Little black trilbies - always a size too small – perched on their heads and were secured by a scarf tied beneath the chin. Picking one’s way through the potholes - a major feature of any road other than the N125 (and of that, too, west of Lagos) – the sight of horses pulling brightly painted traditional carts was commonplace. Back then, the carts were painted, but little else was. Buildings were usually grubby and dilapidated, chipped azulejo tiles and sagging roofs were normal. Now the black dresses, trilbies, potholes and carts have gone. Even the remotest village has a good road, and the houses are gleaming with white paint; tiled façades are grouted and washed, one wall often painted in a pastel blue or pink.

The old cuboid fishermans' cottages of Olhão, now all smart and clean (2010).
There are improvements every year. Loulé market, traditionally our first port of call from the airport, was closed in 2006 and 2007. It reopened in a bright, clean and airy new building. Everything was back as it was, only its soul was missing. Between 2008 and 2009 the centre of Carvoeiro was extensively remodelled. Even this year, when Portugal has theoretically run out of money for public works, we arrived to find Loulé’s main thoroughfare closed and workmen busy laying the grey cubical cobbles that are Portugal’s favoured surface for pedestrian areas.

Carcoeiro's new centre (Oct 2009)

I preferred the old unimproved Algarve, the Algarve that did not pander to north European tastes, the Algarve where it was possible to feel like a traveller not merely a holidaymaker. I must not be unreasonable, deprivation may not have been abolished but you have to look hard to find it, and I cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty to please me. But something has been lost in the process.

So if the Algarve has been comprehensively built over and ruined, why do we continue to visit? Why have we been there every year for the last eleven years? [18 years as of Nov 2017]

Because despite the depredations of the developers, despite the efforts of those tourists who arrive in a foreign country and try to make it exactly like the one they just left, most of what made the Algarve great remains intact.

Maria’s restaurant, which has stood on the beach at Dunas Douradas for over thirty years, provides a fine example (It used to, bit no more!). In the early nineties, as the picture shows, we approached the then isolated beach hut via a cliff top path. By 2000, erosion required us to take a route through woods behind. One year we arrived to find building plots staked out among the pines and a year later Maria’s had become fully integrated into the urbanizacão.

The path to Maria's in 1992

In 2008, we went there after our first visit to the newly reopened Loulé market. ‘I expect,’ I said, in jest while driving through Dunas Douradas, ‘we’ll find Maria’s has been knocked down and rebuilt, too.’ And, of course, it had. The old wooden hut had been replaced by a new structure, still wooden, but no longer a hut.
Until 2008 Maria's was a hut, then this happened
What has never changed, though, is the quality of the food. Maria’s grilled squid, so fresh it could almost swim, so perfectly cooked the flesh is firm, yet yielding. Served with boiled potatoes, a glass of white wine and a view of the sun sparkling on the sea, it is a simple yet deeply satisfying pleasure. [Sadly, Maria's changed hands and name in 2012. The magic went and we no longer go there].

Maria's same food in a smart new building (Oct 2011)
The year before Maria's sad demise

And then there is the climate. The Algarve enjoys more sunshine than anywhere else in Europe and in autumn, when we usually visit, the temperatures reach a pleasant 25°. A laze on the beach and a dip in the sea are quite possible well into November. Then, just as autumn becomes chilly, spring arrives; there is no winter. But it is not only temperatures. The gentle blueness of the sky and the extraordinary quality of the light lift the soul, while the white painted buildings shimmer in the sun, and bougainvillea trails a purple blaze across the walls.

Bougainvillea on a vila in Carvoeiro - its not all purple (2010)

The very air is a delight. I know of no other country where it is a pleasure simply to breath. The scented air is obvious from the moment you step from the plane, even over the jet fuel smells of the airport. Wafts of scent pass over you everywhere, and if you become habituated during the day, just walking into the early morning garden provides an instant reminder that you are living somewhere special.

Ferragudo 2007
To get away from the coastal strip and drive along a country road is a journey among delights. Nothing matches an orange orchard in spring, but the warm woods - eucalyptus, figs, olives, pines, and, higher up, the gnarled cork oaks - are a pleasure to the eye and nose in every season. Huge cactuses and prickly pears cling to old walls and villages bask in the sun.

Away from the coast and off the beaten track, October 2011
‘Traditional Sunday roast’ may be available, but the overwhelming majority of the Algarve’s many hundreds of restaurants are more tipico, specialising in fish as fresh as it can only be within minutes of the fishing port. After so many visits we have inevitably developed favourites. Sardines are always eaten at Dona Barca in Portimão. The décor is functional - they retain the once typical long communal tables - the fish are barbecued outside in the square and the prices are low enough to be reminiscent of the good old days.

Sardines at Dona Barca with Mike and Alison (Oct 2016)
I am delighted to say that since we first ate here in 2003, the prices have risen (but not by much) and nothing else has changed. Why should it when they are packed on a Thursday lunchtime
At Dois Irmão in Faro, another venerable restaurant, I usually chose the pork and clams, an Algarve speciality, while Lynne opts for the grilled cuttlefish. Somewhat exceptionally, these restaurants are frequented by locals as much as tourists.

Lynne and a cuttlefish Dois Irmão, Faro (Oct 2013)
Elsewhere the fish of the day – usually sea bass, or golden bream - is reliably excellent as are swordfish or tuna steaks. Fish stews and cataplanas using the wonderful Portuguese refogado based on olive oil, tomatoes and garlic should not be ignored, nor should chicken piri-piri. Salt cod - the local staple - is also worth a try. I shudder at cafés offering ‘all day English breakfast’, but mainly I feel sorry for their customers. When it comes to the pleasures of the table, the Algarve ranks with the best in the world.

Fish Cataplana, Restaurant Vimar, Carvoeiro Oct 2011

You do not have to eat in restaurants to eat well. Every town and village has a market selling the freshest of fish. Chourição (sausage) and presunto (air dried ham) are wonderful, the scrawny looking chickens have more meat than you could imagine and taste like chicken used to. There are olives and salted almonds which go down so well with a glass of port, as do the cheeses which range from the mildest, youngest goat curd, to curado cheeses matured to a rich stinkiness.

A light lunch of Chourição, Cheese and salad
Portugal’s inexplicably underrated wines are available at all prices from negligible to eye-watering. Even the wines of the Algarve, long ignored (and with good reason), are improving. I am not a Cliff Richard fan, but his Quinta do Cantor has started a trend that is benefiting producers and drinkers alike.

It may be grossly overdeveloped, but nothing can change the sunshine and the scented air and nothing has changed the Algarve people themselves. Quiet and unassuming, without the tendency to arrogance of their Spanish neighbours, they treat the vast occupying army of tourists with good humour and courtesy. With rare exceptions they deal honestly and fairly with all – which cannot be easy, given the profound ignorance and ingrained idiocy of some tourists. For all its imported faults, the heart of the Algarve still beats strongly. As long as there are squids at Marias in the sea we will return and return again. [OK, Maria's went 5 years ago, but we are still coming back. Martin's in Carvoeiro grills a pretty fair squid]

This post is currently (16/04/11) a feature on the Algarve Daily News

Other Algarve posts

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Harrogate and Knaresborough


To celebrate Lynne’s birthday we headed north to Harrogate.

Hardwick Hall and Stainsby Mill

We broke our journey in Derbyshire, dropping in on the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick.

Hardwick Hall, built 1590-7, Derbyshire
Bess was born in 1527 the daughter of a yeoman famer who died when she was young. Four judiciously chosen marriages, sharp business acumen and, I suspect, a ruthless streak enabled to her to rise from relative poverty to become the Countess of Shrewsbury and the second richest woman in England, after Queen Elizabeth I. She built Hardwick Hall, now owned by the National Trust, beside her childhood home – now that was making a statement!

The Long Gallery, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Her descendants became Earls, then Dukes of Devonshire. They settled in Bess's other Derbyshire residence, Chatsworth House, and they are still there.

Stainsby Mill is a 19th century watermill on the Hardwick Estate. It has been restored to full working order by the National Trust.

Stainsby Mill, Hardwick Estate, Derbyshire
Crown Hotel, Harrogate

We arrived in time to catch the traffic so Lynne’s phone routed us round the town centre enabling us to catch the school run instead - which might have been worse. It meant, though that we drove the full length of The Stray, 200 acres of open land, dotted with the wells that made Harrogate famous. Given to the town in 1778 by the Duchy of Lancaster, The Stray curls around the eastern edge of the urban centre giving the impression that Harrogate is all large houses and open spaces.

300 years old, and right in the centre of town, the Crown Hotel is typically Harrogate.

The Crown Hotel, Harrogate
 After checking in…

Lobby, Crown Hotel, Harrogate
…we claimed our complimentary cream tea.

Cream Tea, Crown Hotel, Harrogate
We took a stroll to orientate ourselves and at the appropriate time presented ourselves for dinner – also part of the deal. The menu was stuffed with pub favourites - battered haddock, giant Yorkshire pudding, baked salmon – but more interesting offerings lurked among the comfort food. Neither of us could resist venison carpaccio; the meat was soft and flavourful, the pickled cauliflower and carrots expertly done and the gently dressed salad leaves corralled in an exemplary parmesan tuile.

After that promising start the excruciatingly named ‘Eee Baaaa Gum’ was a hearty pan-fried slab of lamb with good dauphinoise potatoes, and a selection of nicely cooked vegetables.

Lynne’s vanilla pannacotta was too 2-D to wobble properly, but Yorkshire rhubarb was all it is cracked up to be. My parkin was fluffy and treacly, and the ginger ice cream showed every sign of being made in-house.

It was an excellent meal and we had the feeling there is a chef behind this who must churn out the steak and ale and pies but likes to spread her/his wings – and deserves the opportunity to do more.

06/09/2018 Lynne’s birthday

Lynne opened her cards and a present or two.

The breakfast buffet was well up to standard and the breakfast room even more impressive than the lobby.

Lord Byron stayed here in 1806 and wrote ‘To a Beautiful Quaker’; a framed copy hangs by the door. Is it just doggerel, or have I missed something?

Breakfast at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate
Taking the Waters at Harrogate

Tourist attractions do not open early, so we went for a walk.

In 1596, recently returned from a grand tour of Europe, William Slingsby noted that the water from Tewit Well on the Stray was similar to the waters of Spa in Belgium. In the 17th and 18th centuries further chalybeate springs were found in High Harrogate, and chalybeate and sulphur springs in Low Harrogate. As ‘taking the waters’ became fashionable these hitherto insignificant hamlets grew into ‘England’s Spa’ and Harrogate led where Bath, Tunbridge Wells and several dozen others followed.

In the early days, guests at the Crown Hotel dipped their cups directly into the muddy sulphur springs to the right of the entrance. The Royal Pump Room was built over the springs in 1842 so the well-off could buy their water from a tap and drink it in comfort...

The Royal Pump Room, Harrogate (The glazed annex was added in 1913)
 …while the poor were provided with an outside tap. The notice beside it says that the water is unfit for consumption – times change - but we thought the appalling smell of hydrogen sulphide was far more off-putting than any notice.

Very smelly sulphur water outside the Royal Pump Room, Harrogate
The Royal Baths are nearby. It is a huge complex, part of it now a Chinese restaurant…

The Royal Baths, Harrogate
…while the Turkish Bath (entrance round the corner) is one of only two Victorian Turkish Baths still operating in England.

The Turkish Bath, Parliament Street, Harrogate

Knaresborough Market Square

Mid-morning we drove to Knaresborough, the short journey being mostly through outer Harrogate and past the town’s golf club. After only a few hundred metres of open country we crossed the River Nidd turned up the hill along Knaresborough High Street and parked near the market square.

Knaresborough Market Square
While Harrogate is largely a product of the late 18th and 19th centuries, Knaresborough is much older and was for a long time the bigger and more important settlement. With 15,000 inhabitants it now has less than a quarter of Harrogate’s population and lies within the Borough of Harrogate. Central Harrogate’s Georgian and Victorian grandeur contrasts sharply with Knaresborough's old centre, a comfortable jostle of several centuries of English vernacular architecture.

Knaresborough market received its Royal Charter in 1310 and a weekly market is still held, with two of Knaresborough’s favourite citizens in attendance. Despite his disability ‘Blind Jack’ Metcalf, was a pioneering civil engineer and road builder in the 18th century….

'Blind Jack' Metcalf, Knareborough Market Place, by Barbara Asquith, 2008

…while Mother Shipton is more problematic. A soothsayer and prophet she supposedly lived from 1488 to 1561, though the first book of her prophecies was only published in 1641. She was not connected with Knaresborough until a 1684 edition alleged she was born in a cave near the ‘petrifying well’ beside the River Nidd. As the petrifying well was already a tourist attraction (reputedly Britain’s oldest) perhaps the connection with Mother Shipton was ‘convenient’. Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well remain Knaresborough’s major attraction. We visited many years ago and I can confirm the petrifying well, actually a small waterfall, is well named; the mineral content ensuring that anything hung in the splashing water, be it a teddy, cricket bat or pair of socks, does indeed become coated in stone. Mother Shipton, I suspect, is mythical, but her statue has sat opposite the very real Jack Metcalf since 2013.

Mother Shipton, Knaresborough Market Square, by Christopher Kelly
We had coffee in the pleasant Lavender Café on the square, upstairs from what claims to be the oldest ‘chemyst’ shop in England.

Knaresborough Castle

Knaresborough remains entirely on the east side of the Nidd but has expanded onto the lower ground around the old town which is perched on a bluff above the river. This easily defended site attracted the earliest inhabitants and in the 11th century the town was known as Chanaresburg (Cenheard’s Fortress) though no one knows who Cenheard was. The Normans built a stone castle around 1100 and the outer ward would have seen most of the town’s commercial activity before the development of the market place. Little remains of the outer curtain wall.

The Inner Ward with remnants of the curtain wall, Knaresborough Castle
Even less remains of the inner wall, though the view over the river explains why this spot was chosen.

Looking down from the Inner Ward of Knaresborough Castle
The railway viaduct was completed in 1851 and is still in use
In 1140 four knights, led by Hugh de Morville, Constable of Knaresborough, murdered Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. On discovering their actions had not pleased Henry II they fled to Knaresborough and holed up in the castle for a year before being granted a pardon, provided they made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In 1210 King John visited Knaresborough Castle on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) and distributed alms to the poor, starting a tradition that has continued to the present day. The gifts, originally in kind, are now in coin and the practice of the monarch washing the pauper’s feet has not survived (I wonder why?). Today’s recipients, selected for their contribution to the community where the year’s ceremony is held rather than their poverty, receive a bag of specially struck Maundy coins. The coins are legal tender, but their silver content and collectability make them worth much more than their face value.

In 1317 the castle was taken during Thomas of Lancaster’s revolt against Edward II, and the wall was breached when it was retaken for the king. Thereafter all was quiet until the Civil War. Following the Battle of Marston Moor (1644) the defeated royalists retreated to Knaresborough and the castle was besieged and eventually taken by Parliamentarian forces. 

After the war Parliament ordered its destruction, the work being carried out by the local people who found it a convenient quarry for building stone. The dungeon remains – Knaresborough needed a prison…

The dungeon, Knaresborough Castle
…and part of the keep still stands above it.

The remains of the keep, Knaresborough Castle
The Tudor courthouse in the inner ward remained untouched.

Tudor Courthouse, Knaresborough Castle
Now sitting behind a bowling green (!?), it contains the original courtroom and Knaresborough Museum.

Tudor Courtroom, Knaresborough Castle
In the outer ward, in the middle of the putting green and surrounded by iron railings is the entrance to the castle’s last remaining sallyport.

Entrance to the sally port, Knaresborough Council
The tunnel, allowing messengers to get in and out during a siege, was used in the civil war. A potential weak point in the defences, it could be closed with a heavy portcullis, no longer in place.

Inside the sallyport, Knaresborough Castle
Cave spiders lay their eggs in white tear-drop shaped sacs hanging from the ceiling. Two species live in this country, this is, I think, meta bourneti. They are harmless – unless you are a woodlouse.

Cave spider, sallyport, Knaresborough Castle
Back to Harrogate

Lunch in Bettys

I was a Bettys virgin until we visited York last year on a May Sunday when we had to queue for a table. I did not expect the same on a September Thursday, but I was wrong. Bettys is not the sort of place I should like. ‘Tea rooms’ are not my natural habitat, (though Bettys will serve a glass of wine or a beer to those who need prefer it) but it has a magic that I appreciate without fully understanding, though it may be something to do with the quality of the fare.

Bettys, Harrogate
The story of how Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont came to Harrogate is complicated and includes him arriving in Yorkshire by accident after getting on the wrong train at King’s Cross. He opened the first Bettys (it has never had an apostrophe) in 1919, the company merged with long established tea merchant Taylors of Harrogate in 1962 and now has six tea rooms, all in God’s Own County.

Some of Bettys more whimsical confectionery.
Belmont may have been a confectioner, Bettys may be a 'tea room' but they serve snacks, savouries and main courses, too  
Lynne claims their egg mayonnaise sandwich is a work or art, my open sandwich with salad and Yorkshire goat’s cheese was delightful and the tea was as good as expected. Bettys is relatively expensive, some say you pay for the name, but top quality ingredients are never cheap.

Lynne outside Bettys, Harrogate
Who, if anybody, the original Betty was remains a mystery.
Harrogate – A Walking Tour with Harry

Harry is an enthusiastic young man who conducts free walking tours. We joined his small group by the large war memorial opposite Bettys…

War Memorial, Harrrogate
...and set off down Montpellier Hill which brought us to the familiar surroundings of the Crown Hotel. Harry pointed out how many of Harrogate’s central streets have borrowed names from well-known London thoroughfares citing Oxford Street, King’s Road and the inappropriately named Parliament Street, and just like Cheltenham, Harrogate has a Montpellier district. It made companies feel at home, he said, putting these addresses on their letterheads.

Montpellier Hill, Harrogate
Much of his walk covered ground we had already tramped, but he was well-versed and entertaining on the history.

Agatha Christie and the 'Swan Hydro'

Up the hill opposite the Royal Baths is the Old Swan Hotel. In 1926 Agatha Christie was overworked and depressed even before her husband asked for a divorce. After a quarrel on December the 3rd he went to spend the weekend with his mistress. At 9:45 that evening Christie wrote her secretary a note saying she was ‘going to Yorkshire’ and left home; her car was later found abandoned near a flooded quarry in Surrey. Her disappearance made the front pages of the newspapers, and not just in this country. Over a thousand policemen, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes joined the hunt amid fears that she had committed suicide.

The Old Swan, Harrogate
On December the 14th she was recognised in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan) where she had checked in under an assumed name. She claimed to have no memory of the previous ten days and never talked about it again, entirely omitting the episode from her autobiography. It has been suggested she had suffered a dissociative fugue, or was attempting to frame her husband for her murder or it was just a publicity stunt. Nobody knows.

The End of ‘The Cure’

When Charles Dickens visited in 1858, he observed ‘Harrogate is the queerest place with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading and dining.’ The ‘strangest people’ were the crowds taking the cure, and Harry produced a 19th century document 
advising them how best to divide their day into periods for drinking foul-tasting water, reading the newspaper, resting, drinking more water, strolling, drinking more water and socialising. The ‘oddest life’ seemed a fair description, but when it was the height of fashion those less acute than Dickens did not notice.

The fashion faded in the 20th century, the increasingly anachronistic 'Bath Chair Brigade' finally killed off by the Second World War. During the war, the Swan Hydropathic (they dropped ‘Hydropathic’ from their name, in favour of ‘Old’ around 1950) and other big hotels were commandeered as government offices and army headquarters – they were less likely to be bombed here than in London. Learning from that, post-war Harrogate reinvented itself as a conference centre.

Valley Gardens

Harry led us into the Valley Gardens, 17 acres of greenery stretching west from the town centre.

Valley Gardens, Harrogate
A glass covered walkway allowed takers of the cure to exercise gently in all weathers. The gardens also have 36 mineral springs, accounting for its original name of ‘Bogs Field’. Valley Gardens sounds much more attractive and I wonder if they will ever rechristen the ‘Magnesia Wells Café’.

Valley Gardens, Harrogate

The End of Harry’s Tour and of our Visit to Harrogate

Returning to the centre we processed through Wetherspoons following Harry’s placard – not without comment - to view the ghost of a glass covered arcade incorporated into the modern building…

Part of the glass acracde, inside 'Spoons, Harrogate
…and then back to Bettys. Harrogate is the home of Bettys, but we had not, we discovered visited the original - Bettys moved (though only across the road) into its current premises relatively recently.

So our Harrogate sojourn ended. We dined in All Bar One on Parliament Street, although not usually fans of chain restaurants, it had a bright, welcoming interior and the menu suited our mood. There is nothing ‘authentic’ about their chicken katsu, European-style slabs of meat with a Japanese crumb coating, perched on sticky rice from south-east Asia sitting in a puddle of Indian Korma sauce with added chillies – but I enjoyed it.

Pre dinner gin, All Bar One, Harrogate