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…..

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The new Library of Alexandria
One August evening in 1966 the SS Nevasa docked at Alexandria carrying over a thousand sixth formers on one of the then fashionable ‘educational cruises’. In the morning, the students embarked on a fleet of buses bound for Cairo.

Me aged 15 and the Sphynx, aged 4500
August 1966
I was one of the youngest of those students, a few weeks short of my sixteenth birthday and taking my first steps outside Western Europe. It changed my life. We drove through the delta and were then shown the pyramids, the Egyptian museum and the citadel. I still recall marvelling at the donkeys and the palm trees in the delta, at the heat and the honking traffic in the city and at the colours and the costumes everywhere. I particularly remember sitting in front of the Sphinx and telling myself ‘you are here, you are really here’ and slapping my leg to prove it was no dream. I had not believed it possible to actually stand beside something so fabulous and remote. I had seen the pyramids in books and until then I had assumed that in books they would remain.

To borrow a cliché, I thought it the ‘trip of a lifetime’. I had no idea how much easier and cheaper travel would become, and I was seriously underestimating the opportunities ‘a lifetime’ could throw up. I have been fortunate, and many more times, and in many more places, I have slapped my leg and told myself that yes, I was really there.

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet had been on the reading list for the cruise – and I had diligently read the first book – but we had largely ignored the city in our rush to the pyramids, as thousands of cruise ship passengers still do today. Lynne and I have been to Cairo three times since then, but I had never been back to Alexandria and Lynne had never been there at all, so when we visited Cairo last month it seemed appropriate to rectify the omission.

One minor disappointment marred the Nevasa trip. Having driven south through the delta, we were scheduled to return by the desert road. I had never seen a desert and was excited by the prospect, but the road was closed and we had to return the way we came. This time there was no problem and although I have travelled through several deserts since, I still experienced a frisson of excitement as we set off in the relative quiet of a Cairo dawn.

The desert road might have been romatic in 1966, but today it is a six-lane highway. The poor maintenance and erratic traffic provided a little interest, but essentially the trip was as dull as a hundred motorway miles usually are. And we passed through scrubland on the edge of the cultivated delta rather than true desert.

Egypt’s Alexandria was one of several founded by Alexander the Great as he rampaged from Greece to India via North Africa. For defensive reasons he placed the city on the narrow strip of land dividing Lake Maryut (or Mareotis in Greek) from the sea. It thus became a long thin city and retained this shape even after outgrowing the confines of the lake. Today its 4 million people live in a 30 km strip along the Mediterranean coast, but the desert road from Cairo still arrives at the lake’s north shore before tracking round it.

Durrell describes a duck hunt on Mareotis. The well-healed participants were punted out to a pavilion on stilts where they spent the evening carousing. A short sleep and a hearty breakfast later they stealthily set out into the marshes for the dawn slaughter. With this in my head, I was unprepared for my first sight of the lake. We topped a slight rise to be confronted by a sheet of water, the far side lined with towering petro-chemical plants, their flares a dirty yellow against the clean morning sky. There are still ducks on the lake; sometimes they quack, sometimes they cough.
The Haramlik Palace, Alexandria

The pleasure grounds of Montazah lie at the city’s eastern end. For a small price, you can drive through well-tended gardens, around a few hotels and down to a series of private beaches. Ramadan was in August this year, the usual Cairene holiday month, so those who could took their holidays in July. The beaches, both private and public were full and Cairo was, allegedly, empty - though to me it looked as frenetic and crowded as ever. Also within Montazah, is the once royal palace of Haramlik, now a Presidental palace. In 1952, during the coup that would eventually bring the Alexandrian born Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, King Farouk fled from here into exile.

After leaving Montazah it became clear that nothing of interest is deemed to have happened in Alexandria between the burning of the Great Library in AD 293 and the opening of the new library in 2002.

The Roman Theatre
The Alexandria national museum is much newer than the Cairo museum. Many exhibits have a local and/or Ptolemaic provenance and are better displayed, but Cairo’s shear quantity of artefacts – never mind its ramshackle charm – makes this very much second best.

Pompey,s Column,
The Roman theatre is small, but beautifully preserved, while Pompey’s column is an impressive piece of masonry set on mound above a nilometer. It was actually erected by Diocletian rather than Pompey, but his name lacks the romantic cachet. Below the ground, lie a temple of Serapis and the Daughter Library. By 50 BC the Great Library of Alexandria contained over half a million manuscripts. As it continued to grow, it spawned this subsidiary ‘Daughter Library’. The Mother Library, stuffed with ‘pagan knowledge’ was torched by Christian mobs in 193 AD; her Daughter suffered a similar fate a century later.

The Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqfa are reputedly Alexandria’s most memorable monument. The largest Roman burial site in Egypt is entered by a spiral staircase seemingly screwed into the earth. There are family burial niches, a triclinium where relatives feasted on stone coaches, and an atmospheric central tomb guarded by bearded stone serpents and medusa-headed shields. There is also a ban on photography which is, I discovered, rigidly enforced.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Pharos, was partly dismantled in 700 AD then reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1303. We had a look at the toytown citadel of Fort Quaitbey, which replaced the building that replaced the Pharos. Down by the beach with the bathers and trinket sellers I struggled to get a feel for the place as it once had been.

The Fish Market
Lunch was a relief after so much antiquity. The Fish Market is an upmarket restaurant aimed at foreigners rather than an actual market; it might have been better if it was. The ‘salads’, perhaps mezze would be a better word, were excellent. We enjoyed the tahini, hummus, baba ghanoush and other dips we could not name, scooped up with flat Egyptian bread, but the unidentified fish seemed tired and the strips of squid had far more chew than is desirable.

Across the curve of the Eastern Harbour we could see the new library, a squashed spiral of ever-so shiny granite, sparkling in the sun. We drove round the almost elegant corniche (Michael Palin described it as ‘like Cannes with acne’) to Alexandria’s newest jewel. With a cultural centre and art galleries, in addition to many, many books, the striking building is a fitting successor to the great library of antiquity.

We spent most of the day being driven from ancient site to ancient site, but the modern city surrounds them and would itself repay exploration. I had naively assumed that because Alexandria was on the Mediterranean, and was once a Greek city, it would be wealthier and more liberal than Cairo. It was quickly obvious that neither was the case. Many streets looked poor and the women were even more covered up. Sharifa, our guide, told us of a Christian friend who moved to Cairo when her husband died because it was too difficult walking round without a headscarf – not that this troubled Sharifa, though she had come with us from Cairo. In the 1950s several hundred thousand Greeks remained in Alexandria, now there are virtually none. ‘Where have they gone?’ I asked. Sharifa shrugged. ‘Assimilated,’ she suggested, but with no great confidence.

E M Forster produced a guidebook to Alexandria; Lawrence Durrell and Nobel Prize winning poet C P Cavafy, wrote about the city in their different ways, and all described a formerly cosmopolitan metropolis in terminal decline. Modern Alexandria would point to the library as a sign of its rebirth, but there remains a sense that this once great city has been by-passed by history and overtaken by brash upstarts like Cairo. Alexandria, though, is still worth much more than a day trip and it is a shame that cruise passengers will continue to merely pass through on their way to somewhere else.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Goldcliff, Redwick and Magor

Pottering back slowly from South Wales to Staffordshire we turned off the M4 west of Newport and followed the ring road south of the city. We passed the old transporter bridge and the docks before reaching Liswerry, where a minor road took us into the Caldicot Level, the alluvial wetland that lies between the M4 and the Severn estuary. This dank, flat marsh was the home of my paternal grandmother’s family until they moved into Newport at the start of the last century, and we were in search of family graves.

It is depressing territory all the way from the last urban and industrial gasp of Newport right out to where wet cows chew dispiritedly in meadows of long wet grass. Drizzle fell from a grey sky; it seemed the natural state of affairs.

Goldcliff has no gold and no cliff. This world is flat, drainage channels covered in green scum keep the land just about dry enough. We found no centre to Goldcliff, though there is a church somewhere, but what we did find was a mile long dribble of houses lining the narrow road. There are well built farmhouses and a sprinkling of new buildings, many of them large, some of them very large. People with money have chosen this bleak place to build their homes. I have no idea why. I am forced to conclude that this landscape has charms I fail to see.

We had to track a mile or two inland and then back out toward the estuary to find Redwick. The village is remoter and closer to the coast than Goldcliff, not that there is any sign of salt water. There is no harbour between Newport and Chepstow, the tidal mudflats being unable to shelter even the smallest fishing boats, and the villages have turned their back on the coast and made their living from agriculture - at least until the boom in commuter housing.

Around Redwick the land seems lusher and the atmosphere less desolate – though perhaps I was fooled by a pause in the drizzle. The village does at least have a centre - a pub facing a church across a bend in the road. The pub looks well kept and cheerful, festooned with colourful hanging baskets. It also boasts a ‘Piste de Boule’ suggesting the Bristol Channel is not the limit of its horizons. Outside the church a stone shelter houses a collection of artefacts from the agricultural past, most notably a cider mill and press. I had never thought of my Monmouthshire ancestors as cider drinkers despite the county bordering the English cider heartland.

St Thomas’ church is an ambitious structure, big enough to accommodate the whole of Redwick and still squeeze in several bus loads of visitors. They are proud of their peal of bells and, helpfully, have a list of who is buried in the churchyard. None of them were the ancestors we sought. Outside, on the porch, a scratch shows the high water mark of the great flood of January 1607, though as New Year then started in March the scratch is dated 1606. On the 30th of that month a huge storm surge – or possibly a tsunami – rolled up the Bristol Channel. The Welsh coast was inundated from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire all the way up to Chepstow, while on the English side the water swept across the Somerset levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor. 200 square miles were flooded, livestock and villages were swept away and over 2000 people died. And this was where my ancestors chose to live.

Barely a thousand people live in Goldcliff and Redwick put together but Magor is a much bigger village, maybe even a town. We parked by the ruins of the 13th century Procurator’s House and strolled into the central square. There are dignified old buildings, shops, pubs, restaurants and a profusion of hanging baskets and flowerbeds. The town looks smart, freshly painted and prosperous. It is also far enough inland to have grown a modern estate to the south, spreading up the side of a rise which protects Magor from the sea. To the north there is a little industry, the M4 and Magor’s very own motorway service station – well nowhere’s perfect.

If Redwick church is too big for the village, the 13th century builders of Magor church evidently expected their village to grow into a major city. It is surrounded by a well-tended burial ground and we scanned a few gravestones searching for the ancestral Attewell family.

Lynne is openly scornful (but, I think, secretly impressed) that the graves of my mother’s family can usually be found by locating the largest monument in the cemetery. It worked at Trealaw where my great-great grandfather’s statue sits on a plinth even Nelson might envy while his son and much of the rest of the family lie under a substantial tangle of angels and cherubs in the more bucolic setting of Penderyn. The biggest monument in Magor churchyard is not huge or excessively showy, but it does tower over its rivals and yes, it is the resting place of the Attewells.

The simple, spire-shaped monument was built to mark the grave of Mary Attewell, my great-great-great grandmother who died in May 1887. My great-great-great grandfather William Attewell joined her there in 1890, followed by an assortment of sons, daughters and in-laws though not my great-great grandfather Thomas Attewell who was born in Magor in 1833 but had moved to Newport before he died in 1917.

Inside the church we met a friendly local engaged on writing a history of the church. Old photographs, she informed us, showed the now weathered Attewell monument to have once been shining white. Maybe they, too, were concerned with being just a little showy.

The Attewells had a farm near Magor and their sons and daughters married natives of Goldcliff and Redwick. They clearly made some money; William and Mary lived lives which were long and, I presume, comfortable by the standards of the day. I was surprised to find that all three villages were prosperous and remain so, though for rather different reasons. Clearly there are those who do not find the landscape of the Caldicot Level desolate and depressing but I am not one of them. I am glad Thomas Attewell left, even if Newport is hardly the city of anybody’s dreams. They all went eventually, but even so the population of the coastal wetlands looks to be growing, not shrinking. And as for the people who live there now – well they’re welcome to it; this branch of the Attewell family is unlikely to want it back.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Manchester, Llantrisant and Beijing

Last Thursday to Manchester to hand in our Chinese Visa applications. The comfortable, spacious offices of the new Visa Centre mean it is no longer necessary to queue – usually in the rain - outside a pokey little room at the Consulate in Didsbury; and as the Centre is in Manchester’s Chinatown, it seemed a good idea to book a morning appointment and follow it with lunch.

Arriving a tad early gave us time to look round a Chinese supermarket and make a few purchases before ringing the bell at the Visa Centre the approved ten minutes before our scheduled appointment. Perhaps because of the appointment system, perhaps because visas can now be obtained by post, not only was there no queue, but we were in and out in five minutes.

With an hour and a half to kill, we were pleased to discover the city art gallery – a most un-oriental building – squatting on a Chinatown corner. It houses a large collection of mainly British paintings. We saw a couple of Lowrys and several memorable Manchester cityscapes by his onetime teacher Adolphe Valette. The Victorians are well represented with the obsessions of Rossetti and Holman Hunt, curly-haired ginges and God, respectively, fully explored. There is also John William Waterhouse’s uncomfortably sexy Hylas and the Nymphs, a copy of which I recently encountered in a Malvern B & B, where its prolonged contemplation was unavoidable by anyone taking a bath. Finally, there are as many eighteenth century portraits and landscapes as one could wish for.

Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s A Distant View of Llantrisant Castle is actually less remarkable than his name (he was born in 1759 by Caesarean section and was, allegedly, acutely embarrassed by his exotic monicker). In such small dark landscapes it is difficult to make out what is going on - I do not know if they were supposed to be like that, or are in need of a clean, or the paint is deteriorating. A view of Llantrisant from the south is well known to anyone who has driven along the M4; its church is clearly silhouetted on a hill, but we had never seen it from the west and never knew it had a castle. Maybe, we mused, it had existed in the 1790’s but was there no longer.

As fate, or luck, would have it, we were in South Wales the very next day visiting Lynne’s extensive but aging tribe of aunts and uncles. Our last visit was in Llantwit Fadre, after which we made our way to Peterston to spend the evening with a friend. Our route, inevitably, took us through Llantrisant, and yet again we had an hour to kill.

Modern Llantrisant sits on the flat land below the hill and has dual carriageways, irritating road works and a huge Tescos. Turning off the main road and winding our way upwards we found an older, quieter Llantrisant centred on a small square at the summit of the hill.

The car park was free and offered us a suggested walk through the old town, including a visit to the castle. The coffee shop was less welcoming: “No, you can’t have a cappuccino, we close in forty five minutes.” We were graciously allowed a filter coffee, though it was not very good.

Me and William Price, Bull Ring, Llantrisant
The square is still called the Bull Ring though the bull baiting that gave it its name was banned in 1827 - not for reasons of animal welfare, but because it attracted unruly crowds. It is home to a statue of William Price, surgeon, druid, chartist and eccentric. Price could hardly claim to have invented cremation, but it was not practiced in England or Wales between the Roman Empire and the death of his infant son, Jesus Christ Price in 1884. He was prosecuted for burning the body, but argued that as the law made no mention of cremation it could not be illegal. The judge agreed and within twenty years the practice had become established.

Price had another son whom he named Jesus Christ II Price (he later changed his name to Nicholas!) Although invariably described as an eccentric, Price was actually a 24-carat nutter. In his statue he wears his druid’s tunic and a fox skin hat and looks every inch a man marching gloriously to the beat of a drum only he can hear. This alone could have made him a hero in Wales, but he also gave freely of his medical expertise to help the less advantaged members of society, and espoused the Welsh language, and his own idiosyncratic version of Welsh culture, at a time when the professional classes were determinedly aping everything English. When the time came for his own cremation in 1893, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to watch.

Llantrisant Castle
Twenty metres down the road, beside the old Weight House, is the entry to the castle fields. A shattered remnant of one tower is all that remains of the stone structure built in 1246 by the Norman Richard de Clare, Lord of Glamorgan, to replace an earlier wooden fort. The rebellious Welsh damaged the castle in 1294 and 1316, and it may finally have been destroyed by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. It was certainly in ruins shortly after that date, but has deteriorated little since Julius Caesar Ibbetson came here over two hundred years ago. Where he stood to get his ‘view from the west’ is a mystery, his angle apparently requiring him to hover fifty metres above the plain and be able to see right through Llantrisant’s substantial parish church. Such is artistic licence.

The positioning of Manchester Art Gallery on the edge of Chinatown is, doubtless, coincidental, but from the number of Chinese faces looking at the paintings, the coincidence is appreciated. Our subsequent arrival in the Little Yang Sing restaurant was less accidental, but we were equally appreciative. We went to Manchester for a visa and a lunch and discovered Julius Caesar Ibbetson and Llantrisant Castle. Ibbetson also visited China; in 1787 he was official draughtsman on the very first British embassy to Beijing, producing watercolours of the plants and animals encountered on the journey. Small world.

[and having acquired our visas we duly set off for China. Kunming and the Stone Forest, the first part of that story, is just a click away]