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, 28 January 2012

The Cowpat Walks: 2 Eccleshall and Cop Mere

Once upon a time Eccleshall (Eccle-shall is the unlikely but correct pronunciation) consisted of a manor house on the north bank of the River Sow and a single east-west street running down to the church on the other side of the river. This was enough for the several dozen people who lived here in 1068. Eccleshall’s population now exceeds 6000 so it could be a small town but feels like a large village. All subsequent development has been to the south but that original street is still the main street, so Eccleshall’s centre is, paradoxically, on the very edge of the village.

We started outside the church. The present edifice, built on the site of the Domesday church in the 13th century, is large and self-important, as befits the last resting place of six bishops of Lichfield.

Holy Trinity, Eccleshall
Cop Mere – our intended lunch stop - is only two kilometres to the west, so to make it a full morning we took a less than direct route. We started by walking round the edge of Eccleshall in a south easterly direction. It was a cold crisp day with a pale blue cloudless sky; it looked good, but we needed to get moving to keep warm.

Outside the village we passed Johnson Hall. There has been a manor house on this site since the 12th century, but the present building is 16th century (with an 1883 makeover).

Johnson Hall, Eccleshall

Leaving the grounds of Johnson Hall......

Leaving the grounds of Johnson Hall

....we crossed the A519 and made our way by lane and field path to the village of Ellenhall.

Field paths to Ellenhall

Ellenhall’s 300 inhabitants have no shop, pub or post office, but they do have a church and that church has seats in the churchyard so, although it was a little early, it seemed a good spot for coffee. The church is much more modest than Eccleshall’s; its oldest sections are 12th century, but the tower is a 1757 rebuild.

St Mary's Ellenhall

The low January sun was generating a little warmth, so it was a pleasant place to sit, although, after an hour’s walking we were now twice as far away from our intended lunch stop as we had been at the start.
Alison and Francis have coffee in the weak sunshine

Refreshed, we left the village via the grounds of the tautologically named Ellenhall Hall. It does not seem a particularly old building, though there has been a manor house somewhere in the village since the 16th century.

Lee makes a friend

A long, very gentle descent took us down to Lodge Farm and a string of fish ponds, and an even more gentle rise brought us back to the A519 near the hamlet of Whitely Heath. Crossing the main road we headed down Cash Lane. A row of churns had been placed on the verge outside a farm for decoration. Seeing milk churns awaiting collection on roadside stands was commonplace in my youth. At some point, probably in the late sixties, they disappeared, though I think it was some thirty years before I had noticed they had gone.

Milk churns beside Cash Lane

Turning off Cash Lane, field paths took us to Horsley Farm before another lane and more field paths brought us to the small road down to Copmere End. There seemed an inordinate number of stiles on this walk and many of them tricky to negotiate, being above steep banks down to slippery footbridges or hemmed in with hawthorn or in poor repair.
Another awkward stile

The Star at Copmere End is the sort of country pub that has been fast disappearing over the last decade. The Star, though, is very much open and was busy. Perhaps it shows that if the landlord can get the food, the beer and the welcome right, country pubs can still be viable businesses.

Lunch in the Star, Copmere End

Copmere End stands beside Cop Mere, but as the lake is roughly circular I struggle to see how it can have an ‘end’. Like Aqualate Mere, Cop Mere is glacial in origin - a shallow scoop in the Staffordshire clay made by retreating ice.

Cop Mere

Leaving the pub we walked half way round the Mere to its north edge before heading up across Sugnall Park to the B5026.

Mile post beside the B5026

Crossing the road we wandered up, across and then down Sugnall Hill before turning east and heading along the northern edge of the flood plain of the River Sow.

The 25 km long Sow (pronounced as in female pig) may not be one of the world’s great rivers but does have the distinction of being the longest river entirely contained within the Borough of Stafford. It rises at Fairoak, flows into and out of Cop Mere then through Eccleshall and Stafford before joining the Trent at Shugborough.
The flood plain of the Sow

Eccleshall Castle was some 500 m away at this point, and although we eventually walked right past it, this distant view was the best we had. A manor house on the site was originally fortified in 1200. It became a residence of the Bishop of Lichfield, played a walk-on part in the Wars of the Roses and was besieged and taken by Parliamentarian forces in 1643. After the Civil War, the castle was destroyed. The current house, built among the ruins some 50 years later, is privately owned - and remarkably difficult to see.

Back to Eccleshall

We re-entered Eccleshall across the Sow bridge. Eccleshall may be twinned with Sancerre, but that does not mean it produces wine of any great quality – or indeed at all. Beyond the bridge we crossed the water meadows back to our starting point by Eccleshall church.

Across the water meadows to Eccleshall church

[Note on Cowpat Walk numbers.
Francis thinks this was Cowpat 4, I have called it Cowpat 2. I have a long and complex justification for this which is far too tedious to bother with here. What it boils down to is: my blog, my numbers.]

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Aqualate Mere and Norbury Junction

The A519 from Eccleshall to Newport runs along a low ridge as it approaches Shropshire. I had arranged to meet Mike in Sutton, one of the villages on that ridge but finding nowhere to stop on the main road, I was forced to wander a little. I eventually found him parked on the verge where the minor road to Gnosall flattens out at the bottom of the ridge.

After two very cold days, Wednesday was considerably milder and we set off along the base of the ridge optimistic that the rain would hold off.

Across fields towards Forton

A kilometre across rough fields brought us to Forton, the next village along the ridge, the path coming out on the minor road beside All Saints church. First built in the 12th century, much of the present church is the result of an 18th century remodelling. It remains a handsome building of dressed sandstone.

All Saints, Forton

Forton Hall next door is also a handsome building. It was constructed in 1655 by Edwin Skrymsher (and more of the Skrymsher family later) for the cost of £100 – less than I paid for my walking boots.

Forton Hall - cheaper than a pair of boots

We strolled down the lane from Forton to Meretown, crossing a bridge that spans the defunct Newport arm of the Shropshire Union Canal and the River Meese at the same point. We paused on the bridge trying to understand how it all worked. The aqueduct built in 1833 to carry the canal over the river has gone, and the site is further complicated by an extra stream which we decided must be a mill race. According to Staffordshire Past Track, the dilapidated building by the stream was Meretown Mill, a 16th or 17th century construction, though there is documentary evidence of a mill being here since before the Norman invasion.

The remains of Meretown Mill hidden among the trees

Meretown is a hamlet today, but was an important centre in medieval times. The Domesday book describes Forton as being part of the manor of Mere, which had a fishery worth 4000 eels.

We left the road and crossed the boggy land towards the western end of Aqualate Mere, the source of those eels. The path was mainly dry, though in places we were glad the wet grass and mud were still frozen, allowing us to walk on the top of the ground rather than slog through the mire.

Mike and a tree, near Aqualate Mere

Aqualate Mere is the largest natural lake in the West Midlands (admittedly hardly a region famed for its lakes). A kettle lake formed by glacial melt water some 50 000 years ago, it is 1.5 km long, 0.5 km wide but nowhere more than a metre deep. The same glaciation formed the esker along the northern bank. The area is part of the private Aqualate Estate, but the lake itself and the wetlands to its west and north are a National Nature Reserve.

We made our way between two drains, past a wood and then back across the River Meese on a footbridge just to the east of the lake; the slow moving waters still carrying a film of ice. Here reed beds obscured our view of the lake, while from the north it is hidden by the gravel bank of the esker.

Reed beds on the River Meese

 We failed to spot any of what Natural England calls Aqualate’s ‘star species’; bitterns, ospreys or reed warblers (not that either of us would have recognised a reed warbler if we had trodden on it), but we did watch two geese launching themselves into the air some fifty metres ahead of us. Smaller than the common Canada geese with well-defined black and white markings, I am confident(ish) that they were barnacle geese, winter residents in British coastal regions, but occasionally seen this far inland.

As we paused for a standing coffee (it was too wet to sit) a group of roe deer came bounding round the edge of the wood and ran towards us. At first they seemed heedless of our presence, but as I stooped to pick up my camera they paused and sniffed the air. They disappeared, unphotographed, as quickly as they had arrived.

At other times of the year the wood at the southern end of the mere has a magnificent display of bluebells. It was only from here that we caught sight of the lake at all, a slate grey expanse beyond the trees, an optical illusion making it appear to be slightly above us.

There will be bluebells here - in a few months time.
The lake is somewhere off to the right

The lake is clearly visible only from Aqualate Hall and the private parkland to the south. The first hall was built in the 16th century by Thomas Skrymsher and rebuilt by Edwin Skrymsher (of Forton Hall) in the 17th.  It passed to the Boughey family in the late 18th century, was rebuilt again and then, in 1910, burnt down. The current hall, constructed in 1930, is hidden from the curious passing walker.

 Beyond the lake we studied the map and our watches and decided a direct route towards lunch would be appropriate. We turned north, through the woods and then over fields to the interestingly named Guild of Monks Farm, once the property of the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury. From there we followed the Humesford Brook and then crossed more fields to the lane below the Shropshire Union canal.

The little valley of the Humesford Brook

The canal here runs along a high embankment. We could have walked along the tow path, but did not fancy the upward scramble. Eventually the road ducks under the canal before rising to canal level at Norbury Junction.
Narrow boats moored at Norbury Junction

Norbury Junction no longer lives up to its name, the ‘Newport arm’ used to head off eastwards from here, but is now the dry canal we had crossed at Meretown. It remains busy though, dozens of narrow boat, some of them permanent homes, are moored along the canal, while the junction itself is a crowded marina. Few narrow boats are hired out in January, but there is cleaning and painting to do, so there are enough people about to justify the continued existence of the Junction Arms, which fed us an excellent sausage baguette and a couple of pints of Soggy Bottom (a Jennings Brewery offering from the soggy bottomless pit of ridiculous beer names)

Norbury Junction

It felt colder when we left the pub, but maybe it was just the effect of going outside. We considered taking the direct route to Sutton, but decided that would be lazy so, despite the threatening clouds, we re-crossed the canal and took the path towards Norbury manor. The right-of-way runs along a private road as far as the current Norbury manor with its neat outhouses and barn conversions. A little further on we passed the moated base of the original manor.

The moated base of the old Norbury Manor

Built around 1300 the manor was acquired by Thomas Skrymsher – yes, them again - in 1521. To see an engraving of how this spot looked in 1686, click here. Later acquired by the Anson family of Shugborough, the manor gradually became a ruin and was demolished in 1838. Its stones were used in the construction of the present manor, visible in the background in this picture.

The old and the current Norbury Manor
The path, now a farm track, rose steeply to join the A519. The threatening clouds had dispersed and it was even possible for an optimist to discern a little blue in the sky. We again crossed the canal, here in a deep cutting, and after a couple of hundred metres of traffic fumes, we thankfully turned down the lane to Norbury.

The poet Richard Barnfield was born here. He was an associate of and occasional collaborator with Shakespeare, though Barnfield’s poetry is more notable for its openly homosexual content than its quality.
Looking south from Oulton

From Norbury we crossed the fields to the hamlet of Oulton on the edge of the ridge. We descended and turned west heading towards the distant Wrekin. More field paths brought us back to the lane below Sutton, joining it where it meets the Via Devana, the Roman road from Colchester to Chester. The lane is remarkably straight where it coincides with the Roman road, but where it turns to gently ascend the ridge, the Roman road marches straight up it. There is nothing currently above ground to show the presence of Roman engineering.

Two hundred metres along the lane brought us back to our cars with an hour or so daylight left, a temperature still above zero and the rain still holding off. All in all, a good day out.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Breakfast in Kerala, Lunch in Libya, Dinner in Chengdu

So we have survived Christmas and the New Year. The season of Peace and Goodwill has passed with family harmony intact and without us drinking too much or grossly overeating.

No gross overeating then, but traditional Christmas fare is heavyweight winter food, suitable for these coldest and darkest of days. Do we still need such food as we sit in our overheated houses, occasionally sticking our noses outside to see if we can manage a stroll between showers? Obviously not, but what has ‘need’ got to do with it?

Having consumed my quota of traditional British fare, my mind wandered to other meals in other places. The Independent Saturday travel magazine Pointless Celebrity of the Week is always asked ‘what is your favourite meal abroad?’ If I was asked, I would struggle to limit myself to one, but here is a day’s worth of dining. None of these come under the heading of ‘fine dining’, but we enjoyed them…..

Breakfast: Idlis and chutney, Kerala, India
Bhagwaldas Kandath, known as Bhags, is the sixth generation of his family to reside at Kandath Tharavad, a palatial farmhouse in the village of Thenkarussi in Kerala. After thirteen years in California he returned to take over the family estates after his brother died in a road accident. He is now very much the village squire, but has also opened Kandath Tharavad for homestays.

Lynne at Kandath Tharavad

Bhags is a natural host. On our first morning he took us to a village tea shop for breakfast. Along with his other guests – a pleasant couple from Devon whose names I have forgotten - we set off on what we thought would be a short drive to the local tea shop. Half an hour later we arrived at the Sree Saraswaihy Tea Stall in the outskirts of the city of Palakkad. ‘The idlis here,’ said Bhags, ‘are special’.

Sree Saraswaihy Tea Stall, near Palakkad

I have to admit I had hitherto been unimpressed by idlis, pale, fluffy, utterly tasteless rice flour buns which appear on every south Indian breakfast table.

Two idlis were placed on our banana leaves which, as is usual in downmarket Indian eateries, were serving as plates. Food in such establishments generally circulates in stainless steel buckets, ranging in size from the full ten litre down to those too small for the smallest child on a beach. A mound of pineapple chutney was ladled out from a modest bucket. From a smaller bucket came a little pile of dust. We looked it uncertainly. ‘You make a hole in the middle’ said Bhags, demonstrating with his forefinger. A gleaming oil can appeared and the depression was filled with coconut oil. ‘Then you mix it to a paste.’ Bhags finished his demonstration, wiping his finger on an idli.

Bhags, Lynne and a 'man from Devon' eat Idli and Chutney
 Shree Saraswaihy Tea Stall

Keralan pineapples are the finest in the world, but Keralan pineapple chutney dithers uncertainly between sweet and spicy and is, I feel, a disservice to both pineapples and chutney. The powder chutney, on the other hand (or finger) was magnificent, concentrating the pure flavour of coconut in a way it never quite manages on its own. Served with Indian tea, made with condensed milk and poured from glass to glass from a great height so it arrives sweet and frothy, it even made an idli a thing of joy.

Unadorned idlis are outstandingly dull, but teamed with the right chutney their popularity suddenly became understandable. I took to eating them regularly after that. I have not come across powder chutney since, but when I do I will be first in the queue.

Lunch: Chicken and Chick Peas, Kabaw, Libya
On our way from the Greek and Roman ruins of Libya’s coast to the oasis town of Ghadames we passed through the Jebel Nafusa. ‘Jebel’ is Arabic for ‘hill’ but the Jebel Nafusa is less a range of hills and more a scarp where the land rises from the coastal plane to the desert plateau. When the Libyan War was at stalemate last year, the Berber people of the Jebel Nafusa quietly freed their towns from Gadafi’s control and descended towards Tripoli, decisively tipping the balance.

Massoud, our guide in 2006, was a Berber from the Jebel Nafusa and we called in for lunch with his mother, sister Seham, and brother-in-law Omar at home in Kabaw.

The main road through Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

Their house was a new single storey building by a rough road in a small development off the main highway.  A high wall cut off the clean and well-swept courtyard from the scruffy outside world. We were greeted by the family, Massoud's mother telling him quite firmly that he did not visit often enough. We were shown into a large entrance hall. In this land of heat and light, the curtains were drawn and the interior was cool. Then the women disappeared to the kitchen while the men (and Lynne) sat and chatted in a room with cushions around the walls but no other furniture. Massoud’s sister, a primary school teacher, had been given the morning off to cook for ‘important visitors’ -‘Don’t try this at home,’ I thought. The house seemed unnaturally tidy for a family home (we were to meet Omar’s children later) but whether that was contrived for guests or was just the way Omar lived (I could believe it of him) we never discovered.

There was no table; the food was placed on a cloth spread on the floor. The women served us and then retired, Lynne becoming an ‘honorary man’ for the day. This is not the way we would wish it to be, but as guests in someone’s home it would be inappropriate to challenge the way they do things.

The food was excellent. There was salad, noodles with chickpeas covered in a thick tomato sauce, portions of roast chicken with caramelised onion and a sort of quiche with pastry top and bottom, crammed with egg and diced vegetables. As Arab (or more exactly Berber) hosts must Omar and Massoud ensured the finest morsels were heaped high on our plates.

Lynne, Omar and Massoud have lunch

We were not allowed to finish until we were stuffed. Then the dishes were cleared away, tea, apples and cake appeared, and the children (Omar's three plus two cousins) were allowed in. The youngest climbed all over us as small children do while their very serious older brother read to us from his school English text book.

The women appeared again at the end, to say goodbye as we set off for the desert with Massoud, and Omar came along for the ride. It is always a privilege to be invited into someone’s home when you are travelling. Despite the lack of furniture and, more seriously, the regrettable invisibility of the women, family life in Libya is not so different from family life anywhere else. Well brought up, well behaved Libyan children are like well brought up children everywhere.

Since we visited there has, of course, been a revolution. We have lost touch with Massoud, so can only hope that he was all right. No fan of Gadafi, he was an impulsive individual who wore his heart on his sleeve. I can imagine him rushing to join the rebels and getting himself killed through an excess of zeal. I hope that did not happen. Omar was more thoughtful, and with a wife and family and a responsible job in the oil industry he had more of a stake in society. He was a devout Muslim and a decent man, I hope he and his family have come through without mishap.

Dinner: Sichuan Hotpot, Chengdu, China
The people of Sichuan do like a chilli; Sichuanese cuisine is indisputably the hottest in China, and maybe in the world.

Few Chinese restaurants in England do hotpots, but they are ubiquitous in China; Mongolian Hotpot is popular in Beijing and we have encountered hotpot restaurants in places as far apart as Shanghai and Guiyang, but the Sichuan version is, reputedly, the finest of all. The hotpot itself is a bowl placed in the centre of the table over some sort of heating device. It contains stock and various floating items probably including tofu, some random greenery and, in Sichuan, a lifetimes’ supply of chillies. You order your food and cook it yourself in the boiling bowl before you.

Hotpot restaurants were easy to find near our hotel somewhere in the south of Chengdu’s vast urban sprawl. The restaurant we chose, for no good reason, was the ground floor of a tower block with two absent external walls.

Management looked panic stricken as we walked in, a reaction we have met before in places where foreigners are rarely seen. We selected a table and realised the system was, no doubt inadvertently, foreigner friendly. There was no need to choose from a long list we could not read, all we had to do was walk to the counter and select from the many items skewered on wooden sticks.

While we were making our choice, some meat, tofu, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and several things we did not recognise but thought we might try, Management was busy. The chilli laden bowl was removed and replaced by the one containing plain stock, the one they keep out the back for when the eccentrics come to town. ‘No’, we said, though not in any language anyone understood, ‘this is not what we want, we want the one with chillies.’ Everybody in China knows that Europeans cannot stand chillies, so they stood looking confused as we pointed at the bowl in front of us and shook our heads, pointed at the bowls everyone else had and nodded. Convinced they were confronted with lunatics and perhaps worried that we might become dangerous, they relented and brought us a bowl with chillies. ‘You’ll be sorry,’ was the unspoken warning as they fired up the gas.
Sichuan Hotpot - the bowl with the chillies

Compared with other meals we had eaten in Sichuan it was not that hot, but we enjoyed ourselves for an hour or so chasing slippery mushrooms with chopsticks and watching our cubes of tofu slip off their skewers and disintegrate.

By the time we had finished, Management had reluctantly decided we might be alright after all. Calculating the bill was simple, he just counted the number of sticks and applied the appropriate multiplier. He wrote some numbers on a pad and held them up for us to see. 18 Yuan, then worth less than £1.50. We did have a tiny bundle of sticks compared with some of our fellow diners, but we had eaten well. Thinking he might have forgotten that we had a beer each, I pointed at the empty bottles. He nodded, 18 Yuan was the price, take it or leave it. ‘That bill is far too small,’ I roared, ‘take it away and bring me a bigger one.’ Of course I did not, but it is a rare joy to leave a restaurant with that thought running through your mind.