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…..

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Francis Crane M.B.E.


Extract from this morning’s New Year’s Honours List

Doctor Francis Gibbs Crane. Head of Geography and Duke of Edinburgh's Co-ordinator, Stafford Grammar School. For services to Education.

You could have knocked me down with a feather – I never knew his middle name was Gibbs!

Francis Crane M.B.E. lunches at the Ship Inn, Danebridge
Francis is the originator and organiser of most of the walks posted on this blog; he is also the map reader who is never wrong. Above is a picture of Francis in the pub (not exactly alien territory) as it is one of the few I have of his face. I have, though, hundreds of pictures of his back as I plod along behind struggling to keep up.

Francis, rear elevation
Francis and I both arrived at Stafford Grammar School in August 1989. I have retired, he is still there. I do not know if he introduced the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in the school, but he is entirely responsible for the huge success it has become. SGS is one of the smallest schools in the Stafford area but regularly gains the highest number of gold awards - in some years as many as all the other schools combined. Enrolment for the bronze award in Year 9 is entirely voluntary, though it is never far off 100%.

Francis turns left - well he is a Guardian reader

The time Francis has devoted to the scheme is mind-boggling. From the endless but ever efficient organisation, through the pre-expedition checks, six or more weekends every year for the expeditions themselves and countless hours chasing up unreturned tents and incomplete record books. And he gets to camp out in the Peak District in March. The reward for all this? The satisfaction of a job well done, the knowledge that hundreds (maybe thousands) of youngsters have had experiences and opportunities they would not otherwise have had, and the chance to drive into a cow in a Dartmoor fog. And that was all – until today.

Francis on Bredon Hill
Congratulations Francis, a well-deserved honour.  You now, though, lose the title of Unsung Hero – you just got sung.


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Cannock Chase in Torrential Rain: The (N + 2)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

The British climate can be described in two words – temperate maritime – the weather, though, is an entirely different matter. After the extraordinary cold of the Nth Chip Walk , and last year’s milder experience, this year’s Chip Walk was dominated by rain. And it was not just the day of the walk, the whole of the preceding week had seen persistent heavy rain.

Whenever I hear reports of flooding I comfort myself with the smug thought that I live on the top of a hill. This year I have been forced into a rethink; living on a hill, I have learnt, is a small step from living on an island. I have had to choose my routes from Swynnerton based on which roads are still above water.

To reach Cannock Chase, I detoured through Eccleshall, where the River Sow was still flowing under the bridge – if only just. In Stafford I crossed the little River Penk which had spread right across its flood plain, incorporated the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, and was doing its best to imitate the Nile (if the Trent can look like the Dordogne…..)

Staffordshire’s soil is largely clay – hence the pottery industry – but Cannock Chase is a pile of sandstone pebbles 100m high, so if anywhere is suitable for a walk on such a day at the end of such a week this is it.

The popularity of a wet day’s walking on the Chase can be seen from the photograph, but I eventually found a space in the Punch Bowl car park.

Here's my car squeezed into the last free space in the Punch Bowl car park
Lee and Francis arrived shortly afterwards. The Chip Walk was down to three people, which was how it started fifteen or more years ago. As we struggled into waterproof jackets and over-trousers we mused on the weakness of the others, though to be fair the shortage of walkers was more due to family commitments than fear of the weather, and I was the one who had been on the phone an hour before to see if anybody else wanted to cancel. ‘It’ll be the only exercise any of us will get over Christmas,’ Francis had said, and I found that a powerful argument.

We set off up the slope and turned left round Hart’s Hill to join the Sher Brook. Looking on the bright side, as one is apt to do after voluntarily setting off for a walk during a downpour, there was little wind so the rain was falling vertically rather than being blown into our faces.

Around Hart's Hill
We reached the stepping stones which were, I was surprised to see, still not submerged. I took the customary picture. It is not that I actually want anybody to slip and topple into the icy water, but if they did and I was standing there with camera raised, well….. Half way across Francis stopped. Lee did not walk into his back, though for a moment I thought he might. Francis turned round. ‘We’re not crossing the stepping stones, I only came here for the picture.’

Just for the picture
We continued up the Sherbrook Valley. What would normally have been a gentle uphill plod became an upstream walk as the Sher Brook (version 2.0) was flowing down the stony path.

The Sher Brook (version 2.0)

After 3½ Km we turned right to splash up the path that climbs out of the valley up to the Katyn Memorial.

Splashing up towards the Katyn Memorila

In places the water on this path was even deeper and flowed even faster.

Looking back 'downstream' into the Sherbrook Valley
According to the map there is no pond at the top of the hill, but I lacked the heart to explain it to the happily paddling mallard.

There is no pond here
We passed the memorial (for more information see Chip Walk(N + 1).)

The Katyn memorial, Cannock Chase

On the far side of the nearby road is the Springslade Lodge Café and after walking for an hour and a half it seemed reasonable to spend a short time under cover. We removed our outer clothing, sat in the warm, dry café drinking coffee and watching the rain splash down outside.

I was comfortable where we were, but lunch, and the fish and chips which lie at the heart of any Chip Walk, was an hour away, so we had to brace ourselves, replace our still damp outer garments and venture into the rain.

Lunch since Chip Walk 1 (nobody is quite sure when that was but I am confident that 10 < N < 20) has been at the Swan with Two Necks in Longdon. It once had pretentions to be a gastropub and produced exceptional fish and chips but has changed hands several times over the years and the food has usually been satisfactory rather than outstanding. This year, like so many other country pubs, the Swan with Two Necks closed. Consequently we were heading for the Chetwynd Arms near Brocton, a thriving pub beside a main road.

We headed out over Anson’s Bank......

Over Anson's Bank

.....and past Chase Road Corner, another popular car parking spot with hardly a vehicle in it, and turned left to descend the Oldacre Valley.

Into the Oldacre Valley

There is more top soil here, so it was distinctly squelchy underfoot as we splashed down towards Brocton Pool. ‘This has been a dry valley since the ice age,’ Francis remarked. I presume this was some technical geography teacher’s use of the word ‘dry’, it certainly had bugger all to do with the valley I was standing in.

The Oldacre Valley has been a dry valley since the ice age!

I am not sure what route we took round Brocton Pool, I never saw it, but we emerged on the minor road that leads to the A34 and the Chetwynd Arms.

This Chetwynd Arms is not to be confused with the Chetwynd Arms in Upper Longdon (which features in Cannock Chase: not for the first time) – and Upper Longdon should not be confused with Longdon, home of the defunct Swan with Two Necks!

The Chetwynd Arms, near Brocton

The fish and chips were satisfactory, if hardly memorable, but were pleasingly inexpensive (though ‘two meals for the price of one’ is not best exploited by three people eating together). The staff were friendly and efficient and it is clearly a well run business, even if it lacks the personal touch of an old fashioned village pub.

So its a Chip Walk.
Fish and Chips are compulsory (yes, Sue, that means you)
Leaving the pub we found that the rain had eased. We crossed the A34 and followed a narrow path round the back of some houses that leads, by way of a horse paddock and a playground, to the centre of Brocton village. We would rather have lunched in the pub on Brocton village green, but there isn’t one; the clichés of the English countryside sometimes let you down.

Brocton Village Green - a space crying out for a pub
We returned to the Chase, climbing up the Mere Valley...

Up the Mere Valley the tautologously named Mere Pool.

Lee passes the Mere Pool

From there it was a simple path round Hart’s Hill back to the Punch Bowl and the end of a short but relatively dry afternoon. Overall it may have been the shortest Chip Walk ever, but, despite the deeply unpleasant conditions we got out there and we did it, and I am glad we did. Tradition has been maintained.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Bangkok (2) Jim Thompson's House and Other Shrines

On a sunny morning we set off for Jim Thompson’s House, first making our way back to the bridge over Khlong Saen Saeb. ‘Khlong taxis’ ply up and down the waterway, but for this journey they were unnecessary, we only had to walk a couple of hundred metres along what at home would be called the tow-path.
A 'Khlong Taxi' passes as we walk to Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson arrived in Bangkok in 1945 to set up the local office of the OSS (later known as the CIA) and subsequently became Military Attaché at the US embassy. On leaving the army he created a business dealing in Thai silk, the huge success of his enterprise saving the country's ancient but then dying craft of silk weaving. He was an art collector and brought six old teak houses to Bangkok from the countryside and reassembled them as one house for himself and his treasures.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

It is a beautiful house set in a lush tropical garden which makes it difficult to photograph, but is so peaceful it is hard to believe you are in the heart of the city. We were shown round by a sharp-tongued guide, ‘don’t hang around taking photographs here you can do that later... put your bags in these lockers... don’t take any photographs inside... take your shoes off here’ but who revealed, as the tour went on, a dry and very appealing sense of humour.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

Thompson collected objet d’art from all over SE Asia including many statues, some like this one (outside, so photography was permitted!) lacking heads or other parts of their anatomy. To Thais this is eccentric behaviour; damaged statues bring bad luck and should be destroyed, not collected.
Headless statue, Jim Thompson's House

In 1967, while visited friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Thompson went out for a stroll after lunch and disappeared. Despite extensive searches no trace of him has ever been found. Many theories have been put forward and some, given his CIA background, involve interesting if improbable conspiracies. To our guide the answer was simple: that’s what happens when you collect broken statues. [update March 2017, Cameron Highlands: we saw the house from which he disappeared]

After coffee in Jim Thompson’s snack bar, we returned to the canal and hopped on a Khlong Taxi. ‘Hop’ is an appropriate word, the boat slows but barely stops and the already high sides are topped with a tarpaulin to protect passengers from the sun and splashes of the extravagantly polluted water. The crew, hard hats on their heads, clamber along the gunwales outside the tarpaulin, thrusting a hand through to collect the minimal fare. We only wanted to go two stops, but our boat terminated at the first stop and everybody had to climb off and then onto the next one – an interesting scramble above water you really would not want to fall into.

On the Khlong Taxi, Bangkok

Some poor map reading made it an unnecessarily long walk to Nai Lert Park where there is a small shrine…..

…. which is hardly unusual in Bangkok, but this one gained a reputation for promoting fertility, resulting in many interesting donations from those in hope and those giving thanks.

A small selection of the phalluses at the shrine
Nai Lert Park, Bangkok
We lingered briefly among the lingams before heading back to the main drag and turning right towards the MBK centre. We passed a shop which seemed a little early with its New Year message. In Yangon a few days previously I had photographed Father Christmas seriously overdressed for the climate. Here everything looked right, it was the music that was wrong. It is weird to hear a choir singing about ‘dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh’ when the temperature is on the high side of 30.

Happy New Year, Bangkok style
A little further along we passed the Erawan Hotel. Its construction had been plagued by a spate of accidents so instead of looking at their health and safety policy the builders constructed a shrine. This solved the problem and news of the shrine’s protective powers spread resulting in a steady stream of supplicants bringing their own petitions.[Update: In August 2015 the shrine was the scene of a bombing in which 20 died and 125 were injured. The bombing is believed to be the work of Uighur nationalists in retaliation for the extradition of one of their number to China].

Brahman shrine, outside the Erawan Hotel, Bangkok

We reached the MBK Centre in time for lunch. MBK is, I read, Bangkok’s trendiest shopping mall, though on some floors it looks more like a covered market. For us the attraction was the food court, which had been recommended by Hilary (who is reliable in these matters) and Lynne’s hairdresser Fay (who has yet to establish a track record). We made our way to the 6th floor, bought an appropriate supply of coupons and wandered round the stalls deciding where to spend them.
The MBK Centre, Bangkok

The food court is bright and clean and offers a variety of Asian cuisines at reasonable prices. It had the feel of a huge cafeteria, but I would forgive that – and the lack of beer – if the food was good. Selecting a Thai stall (well we were in Thailand) Lynne ordered Pad Thai prawns and I went for mussels on a sizzling dish with a variety of accompaniments. Lynne said her meal was nothing special; mine was so bland it could have been anything. Sorry Hilary and Fay, perhaps we picked the wrong stall.

After lunch we wandered round the shops failing to find a XXXXXL(local size) tee-shirt to fit my XL western frame.

We walked back in the hot afternoon and dropped into the 7/11 shop outside our hotel to acquire a couple of cold beers to drink in the air-conditioned comfort of our room. Grabbing some cans from the chiller I took them to the counter to be told, very apologetically, that it was illegal for shops to sell alcohol before 5pm. With that plan scuppered, we repaired to the little restaurant where we had eaten dinner yesterday and found them happy to deal with our hard earned thirst.

Traffic beneath the skytrain, Bangkok
At the hotel, we wrote some emails before attempting to look up King Bhumibol on Wikipedia. In China there are lots of bits of the internet you cannot access, Facebook for one, but in Thailand with its more-or-less functioning democracy and liberal tradition we were surprised to be greeted with a screen informing us that we were not permitted to view this page.

Accessing it at home we found little to upset the Thai authorities. The king, we already knew, is above politics and greatly revered by his people. He ascended the throne in 1946, making him the longest reigning monarch in Thai history and currently the world’s longest serving head of state (beating Queen Elizabeth by 6 years).

For once the evening was dry and we selected a street restaurant near our hotel. Although it had been set up by hand in the hour since dusk, there was an extensive menu (with English translation) and a good selection of drinks. Lynne chose a lightly fried fish which she said was excellent but my ‘duck north-eastern style’ was less successful. Livers are not my favourite part of the bird, and there was so much lemongrass it overwhelmed everything else – but at least it was not bland.

Elaborate street food, Bangkok

Dinner over, we strolled up and down the road. We would set off for home the next morning and felt unconvinced our short stay had allowed us to properly get to grips with Bangkok. Beneath the pedestrian bridge over the main road was a small shrine, and on that shrine was a cat, stretched out and asleep. In my memory this has become the defining image of Bangkok.

Cat on a shrine, Bangkok
Myanmar, Land of Gold

Monday, 26 November 2012

Bangkok (1): The Old Royal Centre

On the short flight from Yangon to Bangkok you are reminded to wind your watch forward half an hour. You also need to wind your mind forward sixty years, but no one tells you that.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is very much a 21st century experience. Myanmar markets itself as the Land of Gold, and lives up to its billing spectacularly; Thailand’s claim to be the Land of Smiles foundered on the stony faces of the immigration officials.

We took the fast, clean and efficient airport railway to the end of the line and transferred to the metro. Like the airport railway this runs not just above ground but above the streets, though calling it the ‘skytrain’ involves a little hyperbole. We needed to go one stop, but that involved lugging cases down and then up stairs to find the right entrance, the purchase of a ticket to the wrong station (though with a very similar name) and the purchase of the correct ticket after the discovery that ‘ticket offices’ only supply change for the ticket machines.

Bangkok at night
It was raining hard by the time we found our hotel. Faced with a range of hotels with rooms from £20 a night to £200+ I had guessed that Bangkok would be similar to Hong Kong and selected an ‘aparthotel’ at £50 a night. For that in HK you get a small room. The window will give a view of next door’s wall a metre away, there will be too little space to stand beside your bed, you must lift the mattress to open the fridge and maybe sit sideways on the toilet. On the plus side, it will be clean, the fridge will work and there may even be something to watch on the television. For the same price in Bangkok our 17th floor apartment had two panoramic wall to ceiling windows, a spacious sitting room with large screen TV, a kitchenette with full sized fridge and a separate bedroom.

Bangkok in the morning (through our other window)
Eager to experience Bangkok’s famed street food, we looked at the rain, considered our tiredness and settled for the restaurant in the apartment complex. It was cheap and cheerful, though my clams with chili paste could have done with more chili. We retired to our room, drank the raspberry infused firewater I had bought in Heho Airport and watched a film.

The morning was warm but overcast as we boarded a crowded skytrain. Our destination was the Ko Ratanakosin district, the oldest part of the city and we intended taking the train to the river and then catching a waterbus. Although hardly a direct route, a trip along the Mae Nam Chao Phraya (The River of Kings) is considered one of the city’s top attractions, so it seemed a good plan.
The dock, right beside the stairs from the train, was a confusing place with several possible destinations. Busy locals knew exactly which of the long queues they wanted while tourists hovered uncertainly. We duly hovered, then swooped on what we hoped was the right queue.
When the boat arrived we all piled on. The trip did not live up to its billing. Standing crammed together on a walkway, our views were limited and what we could see was hardly exciting. On the plus side the stops were clearly marked so we soon established we were on the right boat, it was a cheap way to travel and the sight of the conductor threading, cajoling and forcing her way through the crowd to collect the fares was an entertainment in itself.
The River of Kings, Bangkok
We disembarked at Tha Tein, made our way through a bazaar and emerged on the main road opposite Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok.
We disembarked through a market, Tha Tien, Bangkok
We found the ticket office, collected our ‘free’ bottles of water and set out to explore.

Constructed in the 1790s, though there had been an earlier temple in the site, Wat Pho is also a teaching institution with one of the oldest schools of Thai massage.
The sixteen gates are guarded by Chinese giants brought to Thailand as ballast in ships. One (not the one below!) is reputedly a likeness of Marco Polo (and you may believe that if you wish).
Guardian of the Gates, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The southern part of the complex contains a working monastery, while the main attraction in the northern section is an enormous Reclining Buddha. At 46m long and 15m high it may be only half the size of the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon but it is still big and is a much more elegant construction.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The head is serene and beautiful, whereas Chaukhtatgyi’s is reminiscent of Lily Savage.

Head of the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
On the feet, as always, are the 108 attributes of the Buddha…. 

The 108 attributes on the sole of Buddha's foot
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
…while around the walls are paintings depicting the life of the Buddha.
One of the paintings by the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
As well as the reclining Buddha there are four main halls, one central shrine,

Central Shrine, Wat Pho, Bangkok

....numerous courtyards,

Courtyard full of Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.....several hundred Buddha images....

Assorted Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

... and 92 stupas, the small ones containing the ashes of members of the royal family,

Small Stupas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.... the larger ones ashes of the Buddha himself.
Large Stupa, Wat Pho, Bangkok

If we preferred the Wat Pho Reclining Buddha we were less taken with the stupas. In Myanmar the best stupas are gently rounded yet still manage to soar into the sky, while these are angular and fussy.
Wat Pho, Bangkok
After a couple of hours we felt the need for refreshment. Outside the temple it was easy to find a pavement café. We lingered over a beer and then it was lunchtime so we ordered more beer and a plate of tempura chicken and vegetables with the inevitable sweet chilli dip. Lynne liked the notice in the Ladies toilet – so here it so for your amusement.

Notice in ladies' toilet
Restaurant near Wat Pho, Bangkok
The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are next door to Wat Pho, but they are surrounded by a high wall and the entrance is a lengthy walk along a road crammed with stalls selling tee-shirts and shoes, religious objects and coins, watches (old, new and ‘copy’), scarves and jewellery and much more beside.

Wat Phra Kaew (The Emerald Buddha Temple) was built in 1782 by King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty - the present King Bhumibol (Rama IX) is the 9th Chakri monarch - to enshrine the eponymous Buddha.

The 45cm tall statue was carved from a single piece of nephrite jade - ‘emerald’ refers only to its colour - and is the most venerated Buddha image in Thailand. It may be touched only by the king, who changes its gold vestments three times a year.

Lynne at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

According to tradition it was made at Patna in 43BC and found its way to Thailand via Sri Lanka and Cambodia. [see the 2015 post The Story of the Emerald Buddha] The style of carving, however, suggests it was made in the 14th century in the Kingdom of Lanna in what is now northern Thailand. There is good evidence that it was taken to Luang Prabang in Laos in 1552 and thence to Vientiane, the new Laotian capital, in 1564. The future Rama I of Thailand sacked Vientiane in 1776 and brought the Buddha to Bangkok.
Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

You may sit on the floor inside the hall (provided you keep the soles of your feet pointing away from the statue) and pay your respects - which we did for a while - but taking a  photograph would have brought down the wrath of god, not to mention the security guards. From outside, though, there is no restriction.

The Emerald Buddha
Wat Phra Kaew , Bangkok 

The extensive Grand Palace fills the rest of the compound. It was the home of the Thai monarchs until Rama V built Dusit Palace at the start of the 20th century and is still used for major state occasions including coronations - though it is 60 years since Thailand last had one of those.

We wandered round the various halls, and viewed the state apartments some of which are built in a vaguely European style….

Grand Palace, Bangkok
…. and some of which are not.
Grand Palace, Bangkok
After a couple of hours Lynne was flagging and sat in the shade while I went to see the extensive collection of armour and armaments in the Emerald Buddha Museum.

After that I was flagging too. We paused for a refreshing coconut before returning to our hotel. The boat was even more crowded than in the morning, packed with workers, schoolchildren, tourists, families with small children and a whole scout troop.
A refreshing coconut, Bangkok
Later, showered and rejuvenated we strode out into the warm night to sample Bangkok’s famed street food. Even along the four-lane racetrack outside the hotel there was plenty of choice. As we arrived it started raining and despite the stall holders’ hurried work with umbrellas and tarpaulins we judged it better to retreat into a small restaurant. The staff were friendly, the beer was cold, Lynne’s fried grouper with mango was good and my chicken with coconut and lemongrass was well-flavoured but I would have sacrificed some of the sauce for a bit more chicken – I suppose you get what you pay for.

The rain had stopped by the time we had finished eating and we strolled a little way down the road to the bridge over the Khlong Saen Saeb, Bangkok’s last remaining canal.


Myanmar, Land of Gold