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…..

Monday, 20 December 2010

Cannock Chase with Snow and Ice: The Nth Annual Fish and Chip Walk

For the second year running The Chip Walk, on the last Monday before Christmas, took place in snow. This year, however, it was much colder, –13 as I drove through Sandon on my way to the Chase. I claim no great accuracy for my car’s thermometer, but this is definitely the lowest figure ever seen on it.

Sue, Alison, Mike, Francis, Brian (hiding) and Lee
Cannock Chase

Starting from Milford, I noticed that Mike was not wearing shorts. He claimed to have considered the idea but, rather wimpishly, rejected it. We walked up the Heart of England way and onto the ridge above the Sherbrook Valley. The sheltered trees below the ridge were home to a substantial colony of large thrush-like birds identified by Francis and Brian as Redwing.

Hoar frost, Cannock Chase
Higher up the trees, coated with hoar frost, stood out against the misty backdrop of the valley with a stark beauty. After stopping to watch a young male Roe Deer walk calmly along the edge of a belt of pines, we reached the Katyn Memorial, descended into the Sherbrook Valley and climbed up the other side.

Down into the snowy Sherbrook Valley
Cannock Chase

And up the other side

We had coffee by the bird feeding station in Marquis Drive. There were a dozen or so robins, fluffed up to the size of tennis balls, bullfinches - a brightly coloured male and slightly duller female - and coal tits. There were probably others I do not remember, but I was not taking notes. Lee, with customary ornithological precision, identified a pigeon. He also claims he can recognise swans, but saw none.

Robin fluffed up to the size if a (small) tennis ball
Bird feeding station, Marquis Drive, Cannock Chase

We followed Marquis Drive, crossing the railway line and the Hednesford Road, and continued below Lower Cliff, where the icy cyclocross trails looked perfect for launching riders into the frozen pond below. We reached Stile Cop where Lee had cunningly parked his car before we started.
Marquis Drive, Cannock Chase

Five minutes driving took us to the ‘Swan with Two Necks’ at Longdon for the customary fish and chips and a couple of pints of Arkell’s excellent 3B. Arkell’s web site notes that in 1860, a gallon of Arkell’s XXX cost one shilling and fourpence (12p). A pint now costs £2.90. Swapping Bs for Xs turned out expensive.

We spent a little longer in the pub than usual – well, it was warm and comfortable - but eventually reasserted self-discipline and forced ourselves out. Shandy drinker Lee drove us through Rugeley to the Seven Springs car park.
Into the Sherbrook Valley again
Cannock Chase

The 7 km walk up Abraham’s Valley, over into the Sherbrook Valley, along the brook and then up
and over to Milford may have been far shorter than the morning, but was a long drag for a very brief afternoon. Sue and Lee set a storming pace, being the youngest and fittest, while others trailed in their wake. I would have cursed them under my breath, had I breath available for cursing. The speed was necessary, though, as we reached Milford just after four as the sun was setting.

Francis walks on water
Cannock Chase
Leaving the car park I noticed the temperature had risen to a balmy –5. There had not been a breath of wind, and I had never felt cold while walking. The white and misty Chase had been a beautiful and sometimes eerie place to spend (almost) the shortest day of the year.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Baswich to Swynnerton

This is a travel blog. I intended it to be about long journeys through strange and exotic lands.

Baswich to Swynnerton is a short journey, barely 11 miles as the crow flies, and it is hardly far from home – indeed, one end is home - but it is still travelling. Walking maybe the slowest form of travel, but it is the purest; it is all about the journey, never, until your feet start to hurt, about the destination.

It took us two days to walk; two Saturdays separated by seven weeks; two Saturdays in two different seasons. It took two days because we are not crows, because the shortest route crosses the centre of Stafford and then follows the A34 and no one would walk that way for pleasure and because Swynnerton is northwest of Baswich and we spent the first day trudging northeast to Milwich.

The Staffs and Worcs Canal

Lynne is no fan of walking, so leaving her at home on October the 17th I drove to Milwich to meet Mike. It was cold, with mist clinging to the trees and lingering over the fields, but Mike was wearing shorts. ‘It’ll warm up,’ he said confidently.

Mike parked his car and I drove us to Baswich, stopping briefly where a platoon of pheasants blocked the road, strutting about with the confidence of birds who have survived the first three weeks of the shooting season and believe themselves immortal. At Baswich we joined Francis, Alison and Lee - and a pile of bacon butties.

Canal enthusiasts enjoying the autumn sunshine

Several bacon butties later we left Francis’ house, marched over the park and down to the canal. It was still cool, but the mist had burned off and we strolled along the towpath under a clear blue sky. The Staffs and Worcs canal, built in 1772 by James Brindley, is part of the ‘Grand Cross’ linking the Rivers Severn, Trent and Mersey, but the few moving narrowboats carried not coal or steel, but canal enthusiasts enjoying the autumn sunshine.

We crossed the Trent, too small here navigation, left the canal and headed towards Tixall.

Staffordshire’s reputation as an industrial county depends entirely on the Black Country in the South (no longer actually part of Staffordshire) and the unlovely city of Stoke-on-Trent in the North. Most of the county is rural, much of it covered by the great estates once owned (some still owned) by the aristocracy.

Across the former Tixall Estate

1853 saw the end of the Tixall Estate. The hall, built in 1780, was finally demolished in 1927 leaving only the much earlier gatehouse, a remarkable Jacobean building, but not on our route. The estate was sold off piecemeal and we crossed the land of several farmers as our path rose gently towards the county showground.

At the showground, the ‘Motor Cycle Mechanics Show’ was in full swing, closing several paths and forcing a detour through the car park. For a bikers show, there really were a lot of cars. The public address invited us, repeatedly, to visit the ‘Wall of Death.’ Call me picky, but nobody really died.

Francis & Lee at Hopton Pools

Dropping down to Hopton Pools provided some peace, at least for humans; a heron peering into the water waited patiently for a fish to impale upon the ‘Beak of Death’. The announcements became audible again as we climbed to the road but faded as we rounded MOD Hopton - an ugly collection of buildings surrounded by a wire fence. I have no idea what the Ministry of Defence stores there, but the level of security suggests it is probably not nuclear weapons.

The battle of Hopton Heath in 1643, may not have been a major Civil War battle, but with two and a half thousand participants, it was more than a skirmish. The Royalist captured the Parliamentarian artillery, the Parliamentarians killed the Royalist commander, both sides claimed victory and then both retreated. The memorial is inside the MOD compound so we could only stare at it through the wire.

...we could only stare at it through the wire...
Leaving the MOD, we crossed the battlefield and climbed to the line of woods that marked the Parliamentarian front line. On a sunny autumn morning, it was difficult to imaging the turmoil that must have been there almost four hundred years ago.

We continued to Salt, where lunch at the Holly Bush, black pudding in a Staffordshire oatcake, seemed suficiently local.

Pitt's Column

North of Salt, we entered the Sandon Estate, passing through a small wood containing a Doric column erected in 1806 to the memory of Pitt the Younger. William Pitt died in January 1806, four months after Nelson whose better-known column was not started until 1840. Whilst it is pleasing that Staffordshire thrashed London in the column erecting stakes, it is hard to understand why this memorial to a man unconnected with the county was placed on this obscure hillside.

An even more pointless construction than Pitt's Column

Much of the Sandon Estate is a grassy plateau, commanding sweeping views across miles of farmland. Any walk in Mid-Staffordshire must contain at least one view of Rugeley Power Station, which looked surprisingly elegant – at least from that distance.  Being an aristocratic estate, the grazing sheep also need a folly to gaze at and improve their minds; it is an even more pointless construction than Pitt’s Column. By mid-afternoon it was not only sunny but warm, Mike had been right all along.

Once off the estate, poorly signed field paths took us, with some navigational discussion, to Milwich and the end of part one.

Seven weeks passed. Getting people together is difficult, and I did not help by disappearing to China for three weeks.  On December the 4th, Brian was able to join us, but Mike was unwell – probably a cold on the knees.

It does not snow every year in Staffordshire, but generally, we expect a covering for a few days, maybe a week, in January or February. It does not snow before Christmas, and if it does, never in November. Except this year when the snow came, the temperature plunged and the snow stayed. It was still there on December the 4th; indeed a sprinkling had fallen in the night, making the drive up the lane from Sandon to Milwich a touch slippy.

A sad monochrome world

The morning was as misty as the first leg, but there was no danger of it burning off. Had the day been colder and the sky clearer it might have been pleasant, but grey mist limited the view and the white fields and black limbed winter trees gave the world a sad monochrome appearance.

Although it was easy walking over the field paths to Hilderstone, we passed only one other party – everybody else had decided to stop indoors. We sat in the bus shelter outside Hilderstone to drink our coffee; the next bus was due on Monday morning so we were in no danger of being disturbed.

Crossing a stream, approaching Stone

More of the same brought us to Stone. The temperature had risen and a thaw had started as we walked through the farmer’s market in the High Street. There were pies and speciality sausages, cakes and patés, pheasants and partridges - oven ready or fully feathered - and many other goodies I might have liked to buy, but could not fit in my rucksack. We lingered by the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse stall, producers, in Brian’s well-informed opinion, of the world’s finest kippers.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent some ten miles to the north, is a dismal place, but produces things of beauty. I cannot get excited by Wedgwood, Moorcroft or Claris Cliff, but Titanic beers are another matter. Captain Smith of the Titanic hailed from Stoke, hence the name. We sat in The Royal Exchange and sank a couple of pints.

Walking through Stone, then up the small but busy road towards Yarnfield was not a great start to the afternoon.

A lurching the wrong direction

Turning onto the Swynnerton Estate was only a slight improvement. Ploughed fields under 5 cm of snow are not easy walking. Uneven footholds and a tendency to slither into the hidden furrows causes a sort of lurching stagger, as though we had spent too long in The Royal Exchange.

After a while, Lee looked at the field patterns on the map and decided we needed to turn left. I thought he was right and Francis nodded so we turned left. Francis soon voiced doubts. Lee was adamant and I agreed, but quietly as I know that disagreeing with Francis over map reading is a sure way to be wrong. Naturally, Francis was right, our detour bringing us an extra hundred meters of hidden ruts and a damp crawl under a barbed wire fence. do not show the roar of the adjacent motorway...

 Back on the right track, we found the underpass below the M6 and walked through a small wood. It was pretty as a picture, but pictures do not show the roar of the adjacent motorway nor the thawing snow dripped unpleasantly down your neck.

The Swynnerton estate is large and it was a long haul towards Swynnerton Hall, built in 1729 by the Fitzherbert family and still the home of Francis Fitzherbert, Lord Stafford. After more navigational uncertainty, we found the path that hits the lane behind the hall. The sun was setting, but it is only a short walk behind the big house, past the church and on to the more modest Dandly Towers where Lynne had the kettle on and the cake cut, bless her.

Travelling through remote parts of China may be more exciting, but it is always worth taking a look at the countryside closer to home. It is full of history, pheasants, snow and, just occasionally, sunshine. The beer is better, too.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Staffordshire, Quebec and Kunming: Coping with a Cold Snap

Snow on the roofs of North Staffs
I went swimming yesterday morning, as is my thrice-weekly wont. Driving home about eight o’clock, I glanced at the thermometer and saw it registered -6°. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that’s cold.’

Why the extreme cold had not registered as I walked from house to garage, or to and from the doors of the leisure centre, I do not know – maybe it was too early in the morning to notice anything. It certainly registered on the walk from the car back to the front door, all five freezing paces of it.

But I was being a wuss. In February 1998 I went skiing in Quebec. Watching breakfast television one morning, I heard the newsreader say: ‘It’s going to be a mild one today, with a top temperature of –7.’ Yesterday’s top temperature was a balmy +2, but I was still shivering.

Several weeks ago I was complaining about the cold in Kunming, when the temperature was - only just - in double figures. Perhaps I was justified, nowhere in Kunming - with the merciful exception of our hotel room - had any heating and the cold and damp seemed to seep into your bones.

A dusting of snow on Dandly Acres

This morning I woke up to a clear pale blue sky and a light dusting of snow. The rest of the country had snow yesterday, and along with it came the predictable chaos. Equally predictable was the moaning about how it is only in Britain that a little snow brings everything to a halt and how everywhere else deals with it so much better. Canada is always held up as the example, and indeed they cope with snow admirably – but then, it lies around for months on end, so they have to. This is the our first November snow for over twenty years; most years snow lies on the ground for two or three days in January or February, sometimes there is none at all. If Staffordshire spent the same money on snow shifting as Quebec, there would be letters in the local press moaning about expensive equipment sitting idle for 360 days a year. They would probably be from the same people who moan about the current situation.

We had a conversation with Wang about snow in Kunming, which is as frequent as snow here. ‘It’s chaos,’ he said, ‘the schools close, the buses slide off the road, everything grinds to a halt.’ The only difference between here and there is that the Kunming authorities do not have to put up with carping and ignorant criticism in the local press. Indeed, they do not have to put up with criticism at all. ‘The price of freedom,’ said Thomas Jefferson, ‘is eternal vigilance.’ It is also eternal moaning, but he never mentioned that.

Back to Quebec for a final thought. That week in 1998 eventually became so mild it rained. Not proper rain, but the sort of drizzle that might make you think about putting up an umbrella. What happened? The schools were closed, there was traffic chaos and the fire brigade had a backlog of cellars to pump out that would keep them busy until the thaw.

The observation that there ‘is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes,’ has been ascribed to Roald Amundsen, Billy Connolly and Dr Johnson, among others. I prefer Dr Johnson because he was earlier – and Staffordshire born – but whoever said it, it seems they were right, both literally and in a much larger sense.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Macau: Part 10 of China's Far Southwest

Surely it should be tarmac,
the view from inside the Kowloon Ferry Terminal
Hong Kong's Kowloon China Ferry Terminal is more like a cross between an office block and an airport than a ferry terminal. The entry off Canton Road gives no clue that water is anywhere near. The entrance hall is empty except for a bank of lifts. One floor up, in a small shopping mall, a ticket office hides in an unobtrusive corner. Following signs to the ferries brings you to a series of check-in desks where tickets are scanned, seats assigned and boarding cards handed out. Once through, you queue to have your passport stamped before following the signs to an airline-style gate. The first glimpse of water through the window is unsettling; surely it should be tarmac.

The enclosed cabin of the supercat is considerably more spacious than a plane, and if they don’t move quite as fast, they are still quick enough to cover the 70 km across the Pearl River Estuary to Macau in just over an hour.

Macau claims to have been the first and last European colony in China. A permanent Portuguese settlement was established in 1557 and governed by a Portuguese senate from 1583, though under nominal Chinese authority. However, it was not until 1887 – 45 years after the British gained sovereignty over Hong Kong - that the Chinese ceded the right of "perpetual occupation and government of Macau by Portugal". Unpopular colonial wars helped bring down the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, and the new democratic Portugal was happy to allow Chinese influence to grow in Macau. The colony was formally handed back in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong it is governed under ‘one country, two sytems’, has its own border formalities and its own currency, the Pataca. 1 Pataca is worth much the same as a Hong Kong Dollar and even the tiniest business is happy to take payment in HK$ and give change in whatever currency comes to hand.

Probably named for the same Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, worshipped in Hong Kong’s many Tin Hau Temples, Macau consists of three islands, joined by bridges or causeways. On a day trip we confined ourselves to the northernmost island, Macau itself - though it is not quite a island being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.

....a volcano and a desert fort,

The main business of Macau is gambling and the casinos were the destination of many, if not most, of our fellow travellers. The ferry passed under the Friendship Bridge linking Macau with Taipa and then, just to emphasis that Macau is spiritually twinned with Las Vegas, the brief run to the dock passed ersatz Dutch houses, the Colosseum, an Egyptian temple,  a volcano and a desert fort .

We had intended taking a taxi the couple of kilometres into the centre, but outside the terminal we encountered a row of free shuttle buses operated by the various casinos. As we were aiming for the New Lisboa Hotel, we boarded their bus and ten minutes later were disgorged into the bowels of the earth below the slightly tacky gilded splendour of the enormous hotel/casino complex.

The Old Lisboa, smaller and more
understated than the New Lisboa

I have to admit that both Lynne and I have a problem with gambling, not a ‘gambling problem’ but a difficulty with the basic concept. We just don’t get it. Although I live a pure and blameless life – of course -  I can vaguely comprehend the attraction of most forms of vice and wickedness, but gambling is simply beyond me. We have been to Las Vegas, but we just drove through lamenting the waste of a beautiful desert. I have never been inside a betting shop nor, until I dutifully trooped off the shuttle bus and followed the crowd through the doors that opened before us, had I been in a casino. I suppose I should have been curious, should have stayed to watch, maybe tried to understand the attraction, even had a flutter. We stayed in the casino as long as it took to find the escalator to the hotel lobby.

We emerged at the Eastern end of the Avenida do Infante Don Henrique, Macau’s main drag. Despite its name the Avenida does not look Portuguese, it is not quite like Hong Kong either, but it is a lot more like Hong Kong than Lisbon; tall buildings, a mass of Chinese faces and traffic that drives on the left. Given Britain’s century-long ownership of Hong Kong, driving on the left might be expected there, but in Macau it is harder to explain.

Street signs are in Chinese, Portuguese and English and after walking some way up the Avenida we turned right towards the , the cathedral. Once in the back streets it did feel a little Portuguese, the balconied houses might just have been in the Bairro Alta district of Lisbon. The Cathedral itself, a restored mid-nineteenth century edifice on an older foundation, is uncharacteristically plain. Portuguese as Asia can be....,
Largo do Senado, Macau
Continuing through the back streets we found the church of São Domingo, a seventeenth century Baroque building painted just the right shade of Portuguese yellow. From the church the arcaded Largo do Senado led back to the main road and the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) building. The pedestrianised largo has the same small cubical cobbles set out in the same sort of design as can be found in any pedestrianised square in Portugal. We even found an exact copy of the famed squid that adorns the Roman bathhouse in Milreu in the Algarve. Accepting that Chinese crowds are not quite like Portuguese crowds, and that something in the atmosphere says that you are unmistakeably on the edge of the tropics, Largo do Senado is as Portuguese as Asia can be.

We wandered on through the rather disappointing market, by now looking for somewhere to eat. Macau boasts some of the best Portuguese restaurants outside Portugal, but as regular visitors to the real thing that did not attract us. There is, reputedly, a Macanese fusion cuisine which we had hoped to stumble across, but all we found were a few hole in the wall restaurants which were either impossibly packed or uninvitingly empty.

Beyond the market the Avenida do Infante D Henrique becomes the Avenida de  Almeida Ribero, but both parts of the road are too busy with designer goods to bother with food.  In a small square south of Almeida Ribeiro we came across the interestingly named ‘God of Money’ restaurant. The menu was basic Cantonese – but there is nothing wrong with that.

We chose some deep fried cuttlefish and, at the management’s suggestion, sweet and sour pork.  This somewhat surprising combination worked remarkably well, the pork being a more cultured relative of the garish sweet and sour dishes available in every Chinese restaurant in England. Given the helpful attitude of the management, the quality of the food and number of diners, the God of Money may well be smiling on them. I could have ordered the cuttlefish in Portuguese, though sadly not in Cantonese, but that was unnecessary. The default non-Chinese language, written on the menu and spoken by the staff, was English.

Well fed, we crossed back over the road. Crossings in Hong Kong are controlled by lights. Nobody moves when the little man is red and and the crossing ticks portentously as if counting off the seconds to Armageddon. Then the man turns white, the ticking speeds up and everybody obediently scurries across. Macau, though, has zebra crossings. In mainland China, drivers regard the stripes as decorations on the road.  British and Portuguese drivers generally observe them properly but in Macau a pedestrain only has to think about crossing and twitch a muscle in that direction to bring the traffic screeching to a halt.

We joined in
Façade of the church of São Paulo, Macau

Half a kilometre north of  Almeida Ribeiro a set of steps leads up to the church of São Paulo. Begun in 1602, the façade at the top of the steps took twenty-five years to finish. Being designed by a Spaniard in an Italian style and built by Japanese craftsmen it could have been a disaster, but it is actually magnificent.  A dove at the top symbolising the Holy Spirit is flanked by the sun and moon. In the second tier Jesus stands among the implements of crucifixion and below this The Virgin Mary and angels are surrounded by a peony, representing China, a chysanthemum (Japan) a griffin and a rigged galleon (Portugal). Four Jesuit saints make up the lowest tier. The façade is the image of Macau, reproduced everywhere on shopping bags and t-shirts, and the steps swarm with the tourists of several continents all jockeying for the best position to photograph each other in front of the stonework. We joined in.

The church behind was beautiful, too, more beautiful than ‘all the churches of Italy, except St Peter’s’ as one 1630 visitor wrote. We must take his word for it as the church burned down in 1835. The floor plan is preserved, as is the crypt which contains some relics, church regalia and a rather disturbing painting of the crucifixion of  23 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597.

..the golden tailfeathers of the New Lisboa Hotel... 

More steps take you up to the Fortaleza do Monte where stunning views across Macau are dominated, at least to the South, by the golden tailfeathers surmounting the New Lisboa Hotel. The fort saw action once, driving off a Dutch attack in 1622, but today houses the Museum of Macau.

It is difficult to trace British influence in any existing architecture in Hong Kong. With the exception of the Murray House, relocated to Stanley from Central, there appears to be little interest in preserving old builings – knock it down and rebuild it bigger and shinier is the Hong Kong way. Despite that Hong Kong retains a distinctly British air. It is not just the use of English as one of the official languages, nor the driving on the left, there is an atmosphere, a way of doing things which makes the place feel like an, admitedly far distant, out-post of home. Central Macau, by contrast, retains a large area that looks exactly like a sub-tropical Portugal, but that is where it stops. The Portuguese language survives in signs and street names, but we heard no one speak Portuguese; we could discern no surviving Portuguese feel to the place.

Back down in the streets below São Paulo the main business was the manufacture and selling of flat sheets of what seemed to be pounded meat. We had ignored this on the way up, being full of cuttlefish and pork, but took a closer look now. Outside several shops girls were slicing off samples for passers-by. I am not convinced that the old-fashioned term ‘sweetmeats’ ever referred to food containing meat, but sweet meat was exactly what we found ourselves nibbling. Taking the sugar out and replacing it with garlic would have produced a decent salami – and I, for one, would have preferred it.
...the image of Macau, reproduced
everywhere on shopping bags...

Deciding that sugary meat products were not for us we found a coffee shop and ordered cappuccinos and a couple of Pastais de Nata, as they are called in Portuguese, though the menu called them custard tarts. The Macanese are very proud of their custard tarts and we are very fond of Pastais de Nata, indeed morning coffee in Portugal is not complete without one. The custard tarts were perfectly acceptable but, in all fairness, there are several hundred bakers in the Algarve who daily produce lighter, crisper pastry and sweeter, richer custard cream.

We returned to the New Lisboa Hotel hoping to take their shuttle back to the ferry port, but soon discovered a receipt for gambling chips was necessary for a free return ride. There was nothing for it, we either had to lose our gambling virginity or take a taxi. We took a taxi.

The warm November day had become increasingly breezy and by the time we reached the port the sea was distinctly choppy. The supercats, so swift and sure-footed in calm water, do not like waves. They leap from one crest to the next like a drunken kangaroo that is reluctant to get its feet wet. Our return to Hong Kong was less comfortable and considerably longer than our outward journey, and do you want to know about the length of the queues in Hong Kong passport control? Probably not.

In a day we did the tourist ‘must-sees’ but hardly scratched the surface of the real Macau. One day, we will have to go back.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hong Kong: Part 9 of China's Far South West

This was our third visit to Hong Kong, but the first as the postscript to a mainland trip rather than a prelude. Hong Kong has been part of China for over a decade, but they are one country in theory only. Hong Kong people are larger, better dressed and have more confident body language. Unlike any mainland paper, the South China Daily engages in debate and open criticism of the government. Less positively, our room in a Kowloon budget hotel did not just seem small compared with the spacious accommodation we had become used to, it really was miniscule and the window commanded a fine view of next door’s wall. On the other hand, it was clean, had all the necessary offices and the softest bed we had encountered for weeks.

Central, Hong Kong

With four days to reacquaint ourselves with old favourites and find some new ones, we started with our first ever trip to the south side of Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong public transport was, as ever, quick, clean and efficient. The MTR whisked us from Yau Ma Tei under the harbour to Central, a short walk took us to the bus station, and very soon we were climbing through the Wong Nai Chung Gap. The gap is hardly a mountain pass, Victoria Peak is a mere 500m high, but it is the easiest route over the island’s formidable rocky spine. Hong Kong Island is small, so we were quickly at the top of the gap looking down on the south coast and the South China Sea sparkling in the sun. On the top of a double-decker, on the left hand side of a narrow road approaching a mini-roundabout, we could almost have been in England, but for the subtropical vegetation.

Looking back from the Wong Nai Chung Gap

We reached the coast at Repulse Bay, probably named for HMS Repulse which helped free the area from pirates in the 19th century.  It is a resort with a fine sandy beach, though the Repulse Bay Hotel, once a rival to the Peninsula and a British command centre during the Battle of Hong, was demolished in the 1980s. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on the 8th of December 1941, some eight hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor. Vastly outnumbering the British and Canadian defenders, they landed on the north coast of Hong Kong Island on the 18th and fought their way through the Wong Nai Chung Gap and down to Repulse Bay on the 19th. The defending forces eventually surrendered on Christmas Day 1941.

From Repulse Bay the bus followed the coast eastwards to Stanley which sits at the base of a small peninsula. Alexander the Great rampaged round the then known world for eleven years and founded a dozen ‘Alexandrias’ from Egypt to Tajikistan. Lord Stanley, British Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1830s and 40s (and later Prime Minister), did no personal rampaging, but still gave his name to a county in Queensland, a town in Tasmania, the capital of the Falkland Islands and the Stanley we were arriving at.

Instead of alighting at the market we continued to the terminus at Stanley Prison, hoping to find a short cut through to the military cemetery. From 1942 until the Japanese surrender, Stanley Prison was a particularly grim civilian internment camp. It is now a maximum-security prison, and although today’s conditions are, I hope, more humane I would still rather be outside than in.

Looking across Stanley Bay to Chung Hom Kok
We had made a misjudgement and walked most of the way back to Stanley before finding a road down the west side of the peninsula to the cemetery. Built on sloping ground above St Stephen’s beach, it was the burial ground for the British Garrison from 1841 to 1866. Deaths were often the result of disease rather than enemy action, and there are many graves of the soldiers’ wives and children.

After 1866 the cemetery lay unused until the Second World War. Stanley was the last town to fall and the cemetery was itself the scene of fighting. Twelve Canadian soldiers are buried in the graveyard where they fell, though most of Hong Kong’s military casualties are interred at Sai Wan on the island’s northeast corner. The majority of graves are of civilians, many of whom died in Stanley Internment Camp. Among the British and Canadian dead are many local Chinese who died alongside them, a number of Indian soldiers serving the crown, and representatives from many other nations.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Like every Commonwealth War Cemetery we have visited, in France, North Africa and the Far East, it is an immaculately kept haven of peace.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Beaches apart, Stanley’s main attraction is its market which fills the streets between the beach and the bus station. It sells clothes, jewellery, electronics and just about anything else you can think of. It was fairly quiet and many of the visitors were from cruise ships, each wearing a badge with the name of the ship and the number of the bus that had brought them. You need every advantage you can get when haggling with Chinese stallholders, and wearing a big badge saying ‘I’m a sucker’ is not the best gambit.

By the time we had finished with the market it was lunchtime, but the dai pai dong (street food restaurants) promised by our guidebook had gone, dispensed with, like so many others, in the name of tidiness. By the sea front, a line of smart restaurants offered every cuisine under the sun (even including Chinese) at prices that looked eye watering – at least to new arrivals from the mainland. Eventually we found a reasonably priced dim sum place and enjoyed a good meal, including some chickens’ feet, the glories of which I have described before.

Dim Sum in Stanley -
dirty work, but somebody's got to do it
Mazu, goddess of the sea, is widely worshipped in coastal southern China. She is described in Mandarin as ‘Tian Hou’, Empress of Heaven, which in Cantonese becomes ‘Tin Hau’. Tin Hau temples can be found all over Hong Kong but Stanley’s, built in 1767, is older than most. Apart from seeming bigger inside than outside, it is a largely unremarkable building. Beside the door, a tatty tiger skin hangs inside a glass frame. The tiger wandered into Stanley in1942 and was duly shot by an Indian policeman. How the tiger came to be there is not recorded.

Tin Hau Temple, Stanley
The nearby Murray House was moved, stone by stone, when its original site in Central was redeveloped. They must have had a reason, but it was not obvious.

A walk up through a housing estate brought us to the Kwun Yum Temple. Once we had located the entrance it was not hard to find the six metre high statue of the goddess of mercy looking out over the bay - just look for the scaffolding. Not much was happening there, but the gardens were luxuriant and peaceful.

Kwun Yum in her scaffolding, Stanley
We caught a bus back through Repulse Bay, across the landward end of the Ocean Park Peninsula, home to a substantial theme park, and on to Aberdeen.

I was looking forward to visiting Aberdeen, having heard as a child about the floating restaurants and the people who live on boats in the harbour. I was prepared to be met by swarms of touts offering sampan rides and I had composed my mind into its best haggling condition. There was almost no one there. One man offered a sampan ride to the floating restaurants – which are not visible from the harbour – but in mid-afternoon it was an understandably half-hearted offer. We walked the length of the promenade, looked a the fishing boats in the harbour, which was mildly diverting, looked up at the high rise buildings, found the bus station and left. Maybe we were in the wrong place, or maybe Aberdeen harbour has been tidied up and the residents of the floating village transported to the high rises; that would be the Hong Kong way.

Aberdeen Harbour
The Aberdeen tunnel is a quicker, if less scenic, north-south route and we were back in Wan Chai in time for the rush hour.

Back to Central, Hong Kong
We dined that night at the ‘Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar’ a dai pai dong we have visited before and thankfully still exists. There are few things finer than Woo Sung Street clams in black bean sauce.

There a few things finer than clams in black bean sauce,
Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar
The following day’s visit to Macau deserved a post of its own (click here).

The day after, we took the Star Ferry across the harbour. In a deeply unsentimental city where nothing survives if it does not prove its worth daily, the continued existence of the Star Ferries is a minor miracle. Crossing Hong Kong harbour is one of the world’s great short journeys and at HK$2.40 (20p) one of the cheapest. The boats, with a bow at each end so they never have to turn, run every few minutes and the whole trip is over in ten. One disappointing concession to modernity is that some boats are no longer painted the traditional sludge green, but are decked out in their sponsor’s livery.

The island terminal had moved onto newly reclaimed land since our last visit, making the journey fifty metres shorter and meaning it is now a very brief walk to the outlying islands ferry piers.

Ignoring the supercats, we took the slow boat to Chung Chau. Chung Chau is a small, dumbbell shaped island a leisurely fifty minutes cruise away. It is densely populated, though without high rises, but its size means it is car free. There is little to see; a Tin Hau temple, some rock carvings (three thousand years old and rather indistinct), and an impressive Banyan tree in the town centre with a grisly past (it was used as a gallows by the Japanese occupiers).

Ancient rock carvings, Chung Chau

The main attraction for us, and many others that Saturday morning, was the row of seafood restaurants stretching along the side of the harbour. We walked slowly along the row being accosted by the various proprietors and having menus thrust into our hands. They were all much the same and it was less a matter of choosing a restaurant as locating the last unoccupied table in the whole of Chung Chau.

the row of seafood restaurants stretching
 along the harbour, Chung Chau

We ordered a steamed brown spotted grouper and a dish of lightly fried scallops with celery. The scallops were as soft and flavoursome as we could have wished, the large grouper lay in a pool of soy-based sauce, his baleful eye defying us to eat him. We did defy him, and delicious he was too.

All around us, Chinese families were out for Saturday lunch. Teenagers and younger children sat with their parents and, very often, grandparents, eating in civilized family groups. And they were not being fobbed off with chicken nuggets or burgers, they were eating proper food. I thought we had something to learn from that.

Dried fish stall, Chung Chau
Seafood restaurants are as attractive to cats as to humans and from our table by the harbour wall we could see several patrolling the shore, eager for a scrap or two to be thrown their way. One cat was stalking an egret. Its belly close to the ground, its gaze focussed and its head totally still, it crept forward as only a hunting cat can creep. It seemed unperturbed by being only half the size of the egret, or by the two metres of open water between the shore and the buoy where the bird perched. The egret took lazily to the air, thwarting the hunter’s lofty, if impracticable ambition. The cat raised his tail and sauntered off pretending, as cats do, that it had been what he was planning all along.

After an equally leisurely trip back, dusk found us in the Sheraton Skylounge, 26 stories up on the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. The big windows are designed to give the best possible view of the world’s finest free show, the lighting up of Hong Kong. The show might be free, but you need a drink to justify occupying their chairs. The £8 spent on Lynne’s Singapore Sling would have bought dinner for two (with beer and change) in Guilin while I found the price of a Dry Martini had escalated since our last visit. I settled for a frozen Gintini at the same price as the Singapore Sling. It was, I discovered, a gin slush puppy, though in a cocktail glass not a plastic tube. I rather liked it.

The lights come on, Hong Kong Island after dusk from the Sheraton Sky Loung

The next morning, our last day in Hong Kong, we took the MTR north to Diamond Hill where a short and well-signed walk took us to the Nan Lian (Western Lotus Pool) Gardens.

Having walked under a flyover from the Hollywood Plaza shopping mall, the peaceful atmosphere of the gardens came almost as a jolt. Small paths wound through a formal Chinese garden of precisely clipped trees and shrubs, opening up views of wooden pavilions and shimmering carp pools. One pavilion contained a display of exquisite models of Chinese traditional buildings, while another housed a zen rock garden. Looking up from the calm order of Nan Lian to the towering apartments blocks on the hill opposite gave a extraordinary feeling of cultural dislocation. Even stranger was the thought that before the apartments blocks were built in the 1980s we would have been looking at a poverty-stricken shantytown.

Nan Lian Gardens

Across a rustic bridge – actually spanning a busy road - we entered the garden of the Chi Lin nunnery where gravel paths form a grid around a series carp ponds festooned with water lilies. The nunnery was founded in1936 although the current building dates only from 1990. It is a traditional building in the Tang (10th century) style, its wooden beams held together without the use of metal nails. We walked clockwise, as one should, around the temples area, which houses statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, Guanyin and other bodhisattvas. It was not the first Buddhist temple of our trip, but it was by far the youngest, and convincing evidence that the Chinese genius for creating oases of serenity amid the frenetic bustle of daily life remains undiminished. A big ‘thank you’ to Brian and Hilary who know Hong Kong so much better than we do and recommended this place. Further thanks for the loan of their oyster cards, which made getting on and off trains, boats and buses so quick and simple.

Chi Lin Nunnery
Returning to Yau Ma Tei, we ate lunch before wandering through the jade market. We had an introduction to jade in Hotan in 2008. Offered jade in the street Khalil, our guide, could easily distinguish between mountain jade and the more highly prized river jade. Later, fossicking in the river, he lobbed a couple of apparently promising stones back into the water saying they were just green pebbles. Bewildered by jade, and slightly in awe of it, I would be frightened of buying anything in the market – I am convinced I would leave with an extremely expensive piece of green plastic.

Jade market, Yau Ma Tei
I felt less out of my depth in the vegetable market, though I had never realised the world held such a huge variety of root vegetables. We finished the afternoon joining the crowds for a Sunday afternoon promenade in Kowloon Park’ strolling through the gardens, watching the birds in the aviary and listening to the open-air concert.

Tofu, Yau Ma Tei market
In the evening we returned to the Woo Sung Street dai pai dong. The weather had warmed steadily since we had shivered in Kunming three weeks before. November in sub-tropical Hong Kong meant sitting comfortably outside at nine o’clock in short sleeves. We ate deep fried squid and an unspecified fish in black bean sauce - it was almost as good as the clams. I hope we will return to Hong Kong before too long, and when we do, the Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar has not been replaced by tidy but soulless modernity[Update November 2017: I am delighted to say it is still going strong].

Music in Kowloon Park
The next day we had breakfast in Hong Kong and dinner in Staffordshire.