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…..

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Cannock Chase a Little Warmer: The (N + 1)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

I am unsure exactly how long the Chip Walk tradition has been going, but it is over a decade. In the early days it was not always on Cannock Chase: I remember once reaching the Hollybush in Denford on a day when any self-respecting owner of a hammer and a cubit of gopher wood would have been building an ark, and dripping our way through lunch. In those days it was not even called the chip walk; it was merely a celebration of the end of the Christmas term.

I think, though I may be wrong, that I have been a Chip Walk ever-present, as has Francis and, until this year, Brian. Strangely he decided that a two week tour of Burma followed by Christmas and New Year in Hong Kong would be preferable to legging it across Cannock Chase. Mike and Alison T were also missing, the prospect of winter sunshine in Lanzarote being enough to lure the weaklings away.

The remaining hardy souls gathered at the Coppice Hill car park on the 20th of December, a year to the day after the Nth annual Chip Walk. In 2010 the ground was covered in snow and the thermometer as I was driving to the Chase dipped to -13°, the lowest I have seen. This year there was no snow, not even any frost, and the temperature was a balmy +7.
I only said 'smile for the camera'

Arriving at the car park, Sue and Lee spotted the only deer we would see all day. I was driving so I missed it. Starting at Coppice Hill on the ridge to the west of the Sherbrook valley saved the usual upward slog at the start of the walk. The track along the ridge gives good views over the valley. A jay flew across our path and sat in a tree, watching us. It was about the only wildlife I saw all day.

Looking across the Sherbrook Valley
We strode on past the Glacial Boulder, missing it by just enough not to be able to see it. It is not much of a boulder, really; it is interesting only because it is in the wrong place, left solitary and forlorn when the ice-age glaciers retreated.
Alison and Francis near the glacial boulder

After missing boulder-no-mates we also missed the Katyn Memorial by some fifty metres, so this is a photograph I took on another occasion.

Katyn Memorial, Cannock Chase

In May 1940, 22 000 Polish army officers, policemen and intellectuals were massacred in the Katyn forest in Russia. The Nazis were officially blamed, though many Poles remained doubtful. It was not until 1990, in the era of glasnost, that the Russians admitted responsibility, the order having come directly from Josef Stalin. Although Staffordshire has been home to a substantial Polish community since 1945 it is not entirely clear to me why, in 1979, a memorial to the victims was erected on Cannock Chase. I have read that the forest here is very like that at Katyn, though I have no idea if that is true.

Near the Katyn Memorial - like a Russian forest?
Either before or at the Katyn memorial we usually turn east, descending into the Sherbrook Valley. On this occasion we carried straight on to another Chase oddity, the German War Cemetery. The bodies of almost 5 000 German servicemen who died in this country during the two world wars were moved here in 1959. The site is administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under an agreement with the equivalent German organisation. Like all the Commonwealth War Graves we have seen in Europe, North Africa and the Far East it is immaculately kept.

German Military Cemetery, Cannock Chase

We continued south before turning east across Brindley Heath. This is a long way round to the visitor centre - where tradition demands we drink coffee by the bird feeding station - but it avoids having to dip into and climb out of the Sherbrook Valley.

Slogging across Brindley Heath, Francis remarked that we rarely visit this corner of the Chase. He paused for a moment before observing that it actually looks exactly like every other bit.

Across Brindley Heath
There was little of interest at the bird feeding stations. Robin’s hopped right up to us, as they do, and there was a bullfinch on the feeding table but little else worthy of comment.

 Following Marquis Drive south east, we descended to cross the railway and the A460 before climbing up towards Stile Cop. As we passed Parson’s Slade, and have elsewhere encountered (among others) Pepper Slade and Haywood Slade, Lee asked the very reasonable question ‘what is a slade?’ As resident know-all and smartarse I was embarrassed by being unable to answer. Chambers tells me that ‘slade’, from Old English slæd, is ‘a little valley or dell; a piece of low moist ground.’

Sue and Alison approach Stile Cop

From Stile Cop we descended to Horsepasture Pools. Here, and all along Marquis Drive we passed mud-bespattered peddlers on mountain bikes. The bikes’ gearing is remarkable, and on steep uphill stretches riders spin the peddles with enormous speed and effort to achieve only minimal forward momentum. Walking seems much easier uphill and much safer downhill.

Mountain bikers near Horsepasture Pools

From the pools we ascended Hare Hill to Upper Longon where Lee’s car was parked. There is supposed to be a great grey shrike resident in the clear-felled area near the village. ‘They are not difficult to see,’ Francis said, ‘they sit quite openly in the tree tops.’ Not on this occasion, they didn’t.

Binoculars at the ready, but not a shrike in sight

As we reached the lay-by, two other cars arrived and disgorged more occupants than seemed possible. One of them carried a camera with a telephoto lens longer than my arm. By the time they had crashed through the undergrowth, the shrike would be half way to Derbyshire.

 Lee drove us down to the Swan with Two Necks in Longdon. A decade or more ago somebody (Francis?) noticed that the Swan with Two Necks served excellent fish and chips. Good fish and chips are easy to cook, but stand-out fish and chips are another matter. The freshness of the fish and the crisp, light batter made The Swan with Two Necks an irresistable destination for the pre-Christmas outing, and the Chip Walk was born. Sue, sadly fails to understand tradition. The large bowl before her contains pasta with chicken and bacon in a cream sauce. It looked good, on another occasion I might have eaten it myself, but this is a CHIP WALK, SUE! Like many rural pubs the Swan with Two Necks has seen several changes of ownership over the years. The fish and chips are still good (if no longer stand-out) and, thankfully, the place remains open.

The essential ingredient of a Chip Walk,
The Swan with Two Necks, Longdon

After lunch we drove back through Rugeley – no day out is complete without a viewing of the power station – and on to the Seven Springs car park near Little Haywood.

Last year we had a long afternoon session with a detour down Abraham’s Valley. This year we kept it short. The stroll down to the Sherbrook is enjoyably different as it is one of the Chase’s few remaining areas of deciduous woodland.

Towards the Stepping Stones

At the stepping stones Lee and Sue plodded steadily across……

Lee and Sue plod across

….while Alison employed a different technique. Sadly, she never succeeded in taking off.

Alison attempts to fly

A steady climb up the other side brought us back to Coppice Hill. The second shortest day of the year still had half an hour’s light left, but we felt enough exercise had been taken to justify our intake of calories. Whether the same can be said of the rest of the Christmas period is another matter.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Three Favourite Taoist/Daoist Temples: Hong Kong, Huizhou and Qingyan

See also
Three Favourite................

Taoism/Daoism is not an easy religion for a westerner - most specifically this westerner - to get his head around. The opening words of the Tao Te Ching/Dao De Jing, Taoism/Daoism's key text are: The Tao/Dao that can be expressed is not the true Tao/Dao.

But before failing to express it, you should decide how to spell the Tao/Dao. In Chinese it is , which means way or path (to which English happily adds –ist or -ism), but how do you render in Roman lettering?

There are two main translitertation systems. Wade-Giles, developed in the 19th century and the most widely used until the 1970s, gave us ‘Peking’ and ‘Mao Tse Tung’. Pinyin, developed in China in the 1950s prefers ‘Beijing’ and ‘Mao Zedong’. Pinyin is used throughout China (conveniently for western travellers all street names, road signs, metro stations etc., etc.  display their names in pinyin as well as Chinese characters). Pinyin is a better approximation to standard mandarin pronunciation and has now been almost universally adopted. Almost, but not quite. A tourist in 北京 (Beijing) can still eat Peking duck, drink Tsingtao Beer and visit a Taoist Temple. In pinyin that would be Beijing duck, Qingdao Beer and Daoist Temple.
Once a spelling has been chosen you then have to consider the distinction between philosophical Daoism (spelling choice made!) and religious Daoism. Some argue that they are not even related, they just happen to have the same name, others that the religion grew from the philosophy.

Philosophical Daoism was developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and is concerned with the individual’s position in the natural order. It emphasises the ‘Three Jewels’, compassion, moderation and humility. Religious Daoism arose some 700 years later probably from a melding of Chinese folk religion with Daoist philosophy. To add further complications, Daoism has no organisational hierarchy, although the same cannot be said of the gods; the Daoist pantheon mirrors the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy, with gods being promoted or demoted on the basis of performance.

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong

Daoism is Hong Kong’s main religion. Temples to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, are ubiquitous, but Hong Kong’s biggest temple is dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, a mythical shepherd boy whose job it is to cure illness and bring good fortune.
Wong Tai Sin Temple
Hong Kong

Built in 1973 the temple is probably the least spiritual religious building we have ever visited. Hong Kong is a relentlessly materialistic society and worshipping Wong Tai Sin is just another commercial transaction. The devotees buy some incense sticks and dutifully bow their heads, and in return Wong Tai Sin sorts out whatever needs sorting out. Frequently this involves ensuring luck for gamblers.  Devotions over, temple goers scurry off to shake a pot of bamboo prediction sticks or consult the fortune tellers, whose booths - over a hundred of them - surround the temple.

Devotees at Wong Tie Sin
Hong Kong

A Muslim Uighur we met in Xinjiang (China’s westernmost province and in theory the Uighurs’ Autonomous region) said, rather contemptuously of his Chinese neighbours (and rulers) ‘They have no religion, only superstition.’ While that might be unfair of the Chinese as a whole, Wong Tie Sin would seem to support his contention.  On the other hand there is nothing sanctimonious about the worshippers, and there is a complete lack of hypocrisy. For that reason - and for its optimism and vivacity, I liked the place.

Nine Dragon Wall, Wong Tai Sin

Daoist Temple, Huizhou, Guangdong Province

Huizhou is an unremarkable city in the People’s Republic, some 100 km northeast of Hong Kong. It was here our daughter Siân spent 18 months teaching English, and it was visiting her in Huizhou that sparked our interest in China. Now, seven years later, we have visited the country five times.

I generally find Buddhist temples to have a serene and spiritual quality, but I am much less comfortable with Daoism. Siân, on the other hand, complains that, in Huizhou at least, the only contact she had with Buddhists was as persistent and even aggressive chuggers.

Daoist Temple, West Lake, Huzhou

To escape the crowds, which are ever-present in heavily populated Guangdong, she would retreat to the park, the small entrance fee sufficient to provide some peace. The Daoist Temple stands on the edge of the park.  I really liked [it]’ she said ‘because it wasn't special, or glitzy (well, enormous gilded statues not withstanding), but...  like a church, it had atmosphere….. I always used it in visualisations when you have to choose a place you feel relaxed in when learning to meditate in preparation for childbirth.’ No one would say that of Wong Tie Sin.

Qingyan Daoist Temple, Guizhou Province

Qingyan walled city

Huizhou may be unremarkable, but the same cannot be said of Qingyan, just south of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in southwest China. Since the 1970s China has become quite good at looking after (sometimes over-restoring) its ancient monuments, but there are fewer examples of preserved vernacular architecture. Qingyan is an artfully pickled Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) walled city.

Qingyan Daoist Temple

The Buddhist temple is quiet and serene, the nearby Daoist temple is bustling and busy. The many temple attendants, in all-black uniform, wandered around, always present, always doing something but not apparently interested in us – like shop assistants in Dixon’s.

Raised stage, Qingyan Daoist Temple

What cannot be denied is that with its incense and urns, with its raised stage and surrounding carvings, the place has some style.

Detail of Carvings, Qingyan Daoist Temple

See also
Three Favourite................

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Kochi and Lisbon: The Two Graves of Vasco da Gama

Kochi, formerly called Cochin and the second largest city of Kerala, India's most south-westerly state, is well worth a visit. I will get round to writing about it in full one day [I did, after our second visit in 2016, click here] but this short post concerns only the Anglican church of St Francis. Although the church is firmly on the tourist route, it is fair to say that for most people it will not produce one of their abiding memories of the city. It is a plain building, which must be why I took no photograph. The picture below is stolen from Wikipedia.

St Francis, Cochin
India's first European church was built on this site by the Portuguese in 1506. That wooden construction was replaced by the present building ten years later. When the Dutch took Cochin in 1663 the church converted to Protestantism and then, after the British arrived in 1795, it became Anglican.

There is not a great deal to see inside, either.

Inside St Francis, Cochin

The long narrow pieces of material apparently dangling from two low beams are actually punkahs. In the days before air-conditioning, the punkah wallahs sat outside pulling on the ropes, which can be clearly seen, and the punkahs wafted a cooling breeze over the worshippers inside.

Like many churches there is a visitors' book and the name above ours is that of Sir Peter de la Billière, Commander-in-chief of British forces in the 1990 Gulf War. He is the elderly gent with a military bearing and blue shirt at the far end of the church. The shambling non-military man in a blue shirt nearest the camera is me.

Vasco da Gama led the first expedition to sail from Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in Calicut, a little north of Cochin, in 1498. His three voyages to India opened up the trade route and established a Portuguese presence on the west coast. Some of his trading practises were indistinguishable from piracy, but he did India, and indeed the world, a great service in introducing the chili to the sub-continent. He died in Cochin in 1524 and was buried in this then rather new church.

Lynne by the grave of Vasco da Gama, Cochin

But we thought that we had seen the grave of Vasco da Gama before.

Santa Maria de Belém was once a fishing village 6 km west of Lisbon, though it was long ago absorbed into Lisbon's urban sprawl. It is most famous for the Torre de Belém, built beside the River Tagus about the time that Vasco da Gama was in India, and intended as part of Lisbon's defences.

The Torre de Belem, Lisbon

The Jeronimos Monastery dates from the same period and is just a short walk away.

Jeronimos Monastery, Belem, Lisbon
It now contains the National Maritime Museum as a well as a church. Inside the church........

The Grave of Vasco da Gama, Belem the grave of Vasco da Gama.

He was, it seems, buried in Cochin and then, fourteen years later, dug up and taken home to Lisbon. They did not want his body to fall into the hands of Hindus, Muslims or, worst of all, Protestants.

Vasco da Gama certainly got about, but I would have thought that one grave was enough for anyone.