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, 12 December 2015

Cannock Chase, Dismal, Dismal, Dismal: The (N + 5)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

The Chip Walk has been an institution since I don't know when. I first blogged it in year N, and this is now (N + 5) so I am running out of things to say. The participants and the route vary a little from year to year, but not much, while the lunch varies not at all (there is a clue in the title). The saving grace from the blogging point of view, the one uncontrolled variable, is the weather. This year's can be summed up in three words 'dismal', ‘dismal’ and ‘dismal’.

Anne, back from a lengthy trip to the USA, was again a very welcome guest and she drove me – just back from Thailand - through the drizzle to Haughton to pick up Mike, just returned from a nine week sojourn in Australia. Alison T questioned her husband's sanity and then she questioned mine. She was forthright and, as it turned out, entirely correct, it was a lunatic idea.

At the Cutting car park on the western edge of Cannock Chase we met Francis, just about to set off on a four week excursion to Australia and Lee, who is so young he still works for a living so hasn't been anywhere much since the summer. Brian was missing this year - he was in Hong Kong – but has re-located to Torquay anyway.

Anne, Lee, Francis, Mike
Ready to set off in the drizzle, Cutting Car Park, Cannock Chase
It was drizzling when we arrived, the mist hung in the air and snagged on the trees forming larger droplets to splash down necks. We set off along the cutting, choosing to walk along the top to avoid the mud.

The 2012 Chip Walk, (N + 2)th, is subtitled, 'in torrential rain'. In fact the rain, which had been torrential for the previous ten days, eased off during the walk. This year the preceding week had been mild, as Staffordshire December's go, and largely dry - we avoided the deluge that drowned half of Cumbria.

Reaching the top of the Cutting we could see Brocton lurking below us in the mist. For the last three years the Chip Walk has centred on Brocton’s Chetwynd Arms. The food has been fine, the service efficient and the prices good but its location limited the scope of our wanderings. This year we were heading for the walk’s original focus, the reopened and revived Swan with Two Necks at Longdon.

Brocton down in the mist to our right

Leaving Brocton behind, we passed a bird feeding centre. Blue tits, coal tits, great tits, blackbirds, dunnocks and several species I have forgotten were busily helping themselves. The old tree stump was festooned with birds most of the time, but my photo only catches a bedraggled pair of tits (make your own jokes) and a blackbird - it was that sort of day.

Bird feeding station, Cannock Chase 

We emerged onto the western edge of the Sherbrook Valley. A wooden sign pointed towards Freda's grave, but we ignored it. Freda, a Dalmatian, was the mascot of the New Zealand regiment stationed on Cannock Chase in the First World War. She died in 1918 and was buried here, while her collar and lead are on display in a museum in New Zealand. As we were not prepared to walk 50m to see her grave, there is little chance of any of us flying 18,000km to see her lead. Sorry, Freda.

Looking over the Sherbrook Valley

Progressing along the valley’s edge we passed, though again did not see, the glacial boulder. I include a photo from March 2006; perversely the boulder seems to have aged not at all, which cannot be said of the rest of us. The web sites of the Chase Chamber of Commerce and Walking Britain both quote the phrase ‘originating from Scotland it was placed here in the 1950s’ which could be read as suggesting it was brought on the back of a lorry some sixty years ago. Geograph confirm what I always thought (and I think the others mean); the boulder was carried here in a glacier – probably from the Dumfries area - during the last ice age. The largest of several erratic boulders on the Chase, it was placed on its plinth in the 1950s, though the concrete base dates from the First World War.

The Glacial Boulder, March 2006 on the Staffordshire Way walk
Geography teacher Francis appears to be delivering a lecture, Mike is not listening and Alison C (absent from today's drenching) might be enthralled - or not -  there is no way to know.

Further along we made a left turn and descended into the valley, though this far up it is only a fold in the land.

Descending into the Sherbrook Valley
Slogging up the other side through the unending drizzle Francis remarked that the weather was not that bad, it was at least mild and there was no wind. On cue we emerged into an exposed area where a cool breeze was made doubly chilling by our damp condition. We soon regained the shelter of the trees and, to be fair, Francis’ observation was largely accurate.
Lee makes light of the weather

We reached the top of the valley where Penkridge Bank meets Marquis Drive. The White House on the corner (both its name and description) was once a pub but is now owned by ‘One Another Ministries International’ who describe themselves as 'conservative evangelical Christians'. The notice on their rear gate to anyone with the temerity to use their premises to turn round struck me as being unwelcoming and, dare I say it, un-Christian.

We left Marquis Drive after a kilometre, descending towards the Fairoak Pools, a corner of the Chase I don't remember having visited before.

Starting the descent to the Fairoak Pools

There are two pools and as we approached the first the local residents - mallards, coots and moorhens - who connect humans with food, paddled over to greet us. On this occasion they were to be disappointed.
The first of the Fairoak Pools

We paused for coffee standing by one of the picnic tables, the seat was far too wet to sit on.

A damp coffee beside the Fairoak Pools

A moorhen ventured up for a closer look. When Mike lobbed his apple core in the direction of the lake all hell broke loose among the waterfowl, who seemed to recognise the throwing action. I have no idea if they ever found the core.

Inquisitive moorhen, Fairoak Pools

A sign board informed us we were standing in what may once been the bed of the River Budleighensis and the cutting enabled us to inspect the deposits it had laid down.

Cutting through the deposits of the River Budleighensis

250 million years ago a huge river is conjectured to have flowed north from Brittany across England to reach the Irish sea at the Solway Fifth. It deposited the river-rounded Bunter sandstone pebbles that form the Chase (and the plinth of the glacial boulder) and various other features across the Midlands and west of England, including one at Budleigh Salterton in Devon from which the river derives its slightly odd name.

Fully informed we strode along the path above the small Stony Brook pools….
The path above the Stony Brook Pools

….and crossed the Stony Brook by stepping-stones before descending to the railway and the A460.
Anne and Mike cross the Stony Brook

Over the main road we took the path that ascends Miflins Valley. It is not steep, but it is a long and tedious drag through the drizzle…
Up Miflins Valley

… and we paused for breath beside a venerable beech before continuing upwards to the road that runs along the top of Stile Cop. From here it was a march along the road to the further of the two car parks (why the further? Ask Francis) where Lee had left his car. We reached Longdon and the Swan with Two Necks exactly on schedule at one o'clock and found Lynne waiting.
Beech, Miflins Valley

The origin of the pub name may be well-known, but here it is anyway. The queen owns all unmarked swans on open water. The only other organisations entitled to own swans are two of the livery companies of the City of London, the Dyers’ and the Vintners. From the fifteenth century the Dyers’ Company swans were marked with a nick on the beak while the Vintners’ had two nicks. Over time, 'two nicks' has become 'two necks' perhaps because it makes for a more interesting pub sign, though there are, I have discovered, at least three pubs in England still called the Swan with Two Nicks.

A choice of two excellent beers, Sharp’s dark, malty, Doom Bar and Salopian Brewery's winter special, the light hoppy, very bitter Firkin Freezin’, (there must be a better name) accompanied fish and chips all round. The quality was high, the size exceptional. Whales are not fish, but I could have sworn I had a whole battered minke. I was one of several unable to finish - indeed I did not eat for the rest of the day, Lynne ate nothing for 24 hours.

Minke, chips and mushy peas (or garden peas for Lee)
Swan with Two Necks, Longdon
Outside the drizzle continued, there had been no let up all morning and no prospect of change. The bright spot of the day was discovering that The Swan with Two Necks, is again thriving. Perhaps we lingered longer in the pub than we should, but by the time we left the light was beginning to fade and with it our enthusiasm for further walking. Lee drove us to the intended start of the afternoon’s walk, but as we approached the car park and watched the windscreen wipers doing their work a group decision was made to call it off. Nobody dissented.

This has never happened before on a Chip Walk, and it was disappointing, but it is many years since we have attempted to walk on a day as dismal as this. Anne's ‘smart phone’ told us that in the morning we had tramped 6.5 miles and taken some 17,000 steps, so a walk was taken, fish and chips were eaten and tradition was maintained.

I expect I am not the only one looking forward to better weather for the (N + 6)th walk next year.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Cha Am and the Thai 'Way of Beach': Part 15 of Thailand and Laos

We reached Cha Am mid-afternoon. Unlike Phuket and other well-known Thai resorts, Cha Am is not aimed at the Western market; it is first and foremost a Thai resort within day-tripping distance of Bangkok – a sort of Thai Brighton.

Cha Am on the map of Thailand

On arrival we found our hotel was still under construction, bringing to mind not Brighton but 1970s Spain. The pleasant swimming pool and two storey accommodation blocks around it were finished, but some areas were still being paved and reception resembled a furniture store.
Still working on the paving, Cha Am

Three teenage girls appeared to be in charge and they offered us a choice of rooms. We selected one on the first floor (or second floor for American readers) with a balcony over the pavers rather than a door opening onto their workplace. Two of them quickly volunteered to carry our suitcases upstairs in return for a few baht.

Once settled in we strolled up to the small, appropriately decorated, seaside square.

Seaside square, Cha Am
From here we looked out over the beach, a thin strand covered with a forest of umbrellas, beach chairs and tables stretching away in both directions. On a busy Saturday the Bangkok day trippers were making the most of their weekend.

Cha Am beach
The design of the blue phone box visible in the picture of the square appears to be based on Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s red phone box (and, no, I will not call it ‘iconic’) but the makers allowed for Thailand’s very different climate by omitting the glass. Public phone boxes are largely obsolete in Thailand as everywhere else, but this one now doubles a Wi-Fi hot spot.
Glassless phone box and Wi-Fi hotspot, Cha Am
 Back at the hotel I had a swim in the pool while Lynne looked on and wondered why people do such things, then we wandered down the main drag to locate a cold beer – not for pleasure, of course, hydration is so important in a hot climate.

The main beach side road, Cha Am
There were a few other Europeans around, some couples, but also a contingent of middle-aged men wandering the streets with a predatory look in their eye. Most were alone, but some were accompanied by much younger Thai women. ‘Sex tourists’, we said to ourselves, which may be a slur on a few, but is undoubtedly true of the majority. Men exuding sleaze are not a great advertisement for western civilization.

For dinner we picked a clean, bright looking establishment mainly on the basis that it offered a preliminary gin and tonic. The clientele turned out to be almost entirely (respectable) Europeans and the chef/patron was a Swede who had been running this restaurant for a dozen or more years in partnership with his Thai wife and latterly with the help of their adult son. As a cook he maintained his Scandinavian bias - Lynne's dinner being the Nordic staple of pork and potatoes - though his menu included many Thai-style dishes, including my fried pork. He was certainly not afraid to throw chillies around, but I felt he had not quite mastered the subtlety of Thai spicing.

After dinner we walked back to the square, starting on the beach but discovering that after dark small biting creatures made this a bad plan. There was a music event so we stopped to listen for a while.


In the morning we asked at reception where breakfast was and they put us on the back of a motorcycle rickshaw and drove us down the road to another hotel.

We did little for the next hour or two, idly exploring the main streets and buying some more plasters for my scraped toes. Thais being small people like the Lao, the plasters were smaller than I wanted, but being considerably wealthier they sold them by the packet rather than individually.

After coffee we ventured on to the beach, which was quieter on the Sunday, and selected some vacant seats. Very soon the woman in charge came over and charged us 50 baht (£1) each for the use of chairs and shade, which seemed reasonable. A few minutes later we realised she was waving at us with a bottle of Chang in her hand. That seemed a good idea and for a small fee she brought over two chilled bottles and a plastic ice-bucket to put them in. Two beers are universally available throughout Thailand. Sangha (lion), a well-made flavoursome brew is slightly more expensive than Chang (elephant) and comes in smaller bottles. Chang is cold and fizzy, lightweight and with little flavour although a fairly hefty 5% abv. It is just the sort of beer I would avoid at home, but in Thailand in the midday heat, a cold Chang does a very particular job and does it better than I would have thought possible.

A bottle of Chang, Cha Am beach
Various food vendors wandered by. At lunchtime we bought deep fried squid, prawns and soft shell crabs with chilli dipping sauce from one vendor and pineapple and water melon from another. Lunch, plus a couple more beers cost us under £5.

Lunch on the beach, Cha Am
Out on the water there were plenty of jet skis, one of them pulling a banana boat which deposited its riders into the water at appropriate intervals. I went for a swim - it is hardly a blue flag beach, but the guide book claimed it is not a serious health hazard. The water was blood temperature with gentle waves, so I floated around pleasantly, while keeping an eye out for the jet skis which charge onto the beach at regular intervals. A head bobbing about in the water is hardly visible to the drivers so I felt a little more vulnerable than I would really like.
Looking out for those jet skis, Cha Am
The Gulf of Thailand, like the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, has no tide to speak of and the narrow strip of beach remained the same width all day. We find this disconcerting; early experiences of beach and sea for both of us were beside the Bristol Channel, where the 15m tidal range is the world’s second highest (the highest is 16.3m in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) and we expect the sea to disappear into the distance every 12 hours or so.

As far into the seas as some will go, even in the warm waters of Cha Am
We filled the afternoon with beach activities and in the evening, having enjoyed our breakfast, we walked down to the same restaurant for dinner. Both Lynne's sweet and sour pork and my shrimps in chilli paste with green beans, peppers and coconut were excellent. As it was our last evening we finished with the un-Thai indulgence of a dessert - and very nice it was too.
Un-Thai indulgences, Cha Am

The following day passed in a similarly restful and relaxing way.

Passing the day in a relaxed and restful manner, Cha Am
'See you tomorrow,' said our friendly beer and shade provider as we left. We told her we were going home. 'Oh, no,' she said throwing her arms round Lynne and giving her a heartfelt hug.

In the early evening a man came to drive us to Bangkok airport. Part of me was hoping he would not turn up, it might have been inconvenient, but we could happily have spent longer in Thailand - which was also how we had felt about Laos.

The journey from Cha Am to Staffordshire was uneventful, which is how such journeys should be, though one minor event was worthy of remark. At midnight, as we rolled down the runway in Bangkok the outside temperature was 30 degrees. Over a dozen hours later we were about to leave Frankfurt for the final leg to Birmingham. Boarded and awaiting departure we were told there would be twenty minutes delay while they called in the de-icing crew. Why do I continue to live in the wrong climate?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Following the Mae Klong to Samut Sangkhram and the Gulf of Thailand: Part 14 of Thailand and Laos

We were up early and on the road before nine, heading south towards the gulf of Thailand and the seaside.

Several stops were planned, but not until we had followed the Mae Klong River out of Kanchanaburi Province and across the flat land of Ratchaburi to Samut Songkhram, the smallest of Thailand’s 78 provinces and at 418km² only slightly larger than Rutland.
Thailand and with our day's journey from Kanchanaburi to the seaside marked in red
The low lying land near the river mouth is criss-crossed by waterways and the home of several floating markets. We visited Tha Kha, one of the smallest and more difficult to get to; largely unvisited by tourists it remains a genuine local market.
Parking some way down the road from a bridge, we walked past a line of shops and stalls mainly selling foodstuffs.
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
The market was small, but colourful and undoubtedly real, we saw no other foreigners.
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
Chart hired a boat for a gentle circular potter through the canals. The water may have been scummy but we enjoyed gliding peacefully past paddy fields and coconuts, well mostly we did….
Through the scummy waters of the canals, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
…One of those legendary, though possibly true, statistics is that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by shark attacks. This may be encouraging to those venturing into the sea around Australia or South Africa, but on a Thai canal, where the probability of encountering a Great White is vanishingly small, it is of little comfort. Even a near miss could punch a hole through the boat, immersing us in unpleasant water of unknown depth.
Potentially murderous coconuts, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
Despite our fears we returned unbombarded by nuts. Chart left us to our own devices for a while and we had a further look round before, perversely, buying a couple of (safely harvested) coconuts. There is no better drink on a scorchingly hot morning.
Lynne takes pre-emptive revenge on a coconut
Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

Walking back through the stalls with Chart we stopped at a business making coconut based sweets. Being Saturday there was no production and little to see so Chart suggested we look round the owner’s house, which was above the manufacturing area, behind a small menagerie.

Removing our shoes we climbed the wide stairs to the first floor accommodation of a large rambling house of dark, polished wood. Despite our misgivings the inhabitants seemed to think it perfectly normal for a couple of complete strangers to be walking round their home.

There was, as always, a family shrine...
Family Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
.....but in Thailand it is also common to find a royal shrine, with pictures of the King (taken some time ago, he is much older than that [update: he died 13/10/2016 aged 88]) his queen consort and offspring.
Royal Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
There was little furniture; South East Asians seem happy to sit, kneel or squat on the floor. Even the kitchen had no table - no one would think of working at the height we do. There is ample storage and equipment, but the cooker and sink are at floor level.
Foodie shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

A short drive away, King Rama II Memorial Park consists of a museum, which was closed, and traditional Thai houses in pleasant parkland.
Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
King Rama II, who was born near here, was a patron of the arts and the exhibits reflect that. Downstairs in the main house, next to the obligatory shop, a lesson in traditional dance was in progress.
Dancing lesson, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
Next door were models of local fishing craft while upstairs was an ethnographic exhibition where models showed aspects of daily life during Rama II's reign (1809-1824). Male and female roles were strictly defined, as Lynne noted (a little sourly, I thought) men worked, drank, wrestled and played games, while women raised children, cooked, sewed and took trouble with their appearance.
Fishing boat, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
Walking back to the car park we passed a pond with the most magnificent lily pads.
Lily pads, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram

20 minutes away is Bang Kung Camp with its statues of boxers – Thai boxing involves kicking as well as punching. The camp was an important outpost of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya during Burmese incursions.
Thai Boxers, Bang Kung Camp

On the same site, Wat Bang Kung is small temple so overgrown by a banyan tree that if the door had not been hacked clear it would have been entirely encased.

Wat Bang Kung, encased in a banyan tree

Inside is one of those Buddha images that people like to cover with gold leaf. Unlike in Burma, they allow women to apply the gold, which is, I suppose, a step forward in terms of equality but I wonder how impressed the Buddha would have been by anyone believing they gained merit by putting gold leaf on a statute. (Yes, I know. It is totally inappropriate for a lapsed member of the Church of England to tell Buddhists how to practice Buddhism)
Wat Bang Kung Buddha image with a woman applying gold leaf

Once you have applied your gold leaf you should nobly share the merit gained by banging a bell. Lynne was keen to do this, despite not actually applying any gold leaf. One of the bells was part of a repurposed artillery shell, common in Vietnam and Laos where such things are easily come by, but rare in Thailand which has enjoyed 70 years of peace.

Lynne shares her merit, Wat Bang Kun
It was now lunchtime, and little further on we pulled off the road into a ‘resort hotel’, two words guaranteed to make my heart sink.

A tour group was already in residence in the open air restaurant pleasantly situated beside the Mae Klong River. We perused the menu more in hope than expectation, selecting fish cakes and squid.

The fish cakes arrived first.  The flakes of firm, fresh fish accompanied by a fiery dipping sauce exceeded our expectations by a wide margin. The squid turned out to be a cook-your-own meal in a fish shaped boiler. We have encountered these before and it is a tricky business. Raw squid is tough, overcooked squid resembles a squash ball, and the window between the two is small and sometimes elusive. Experience has taught us that once the broth is boiling, it is best to turn off the flame and let the squid poach gently in the cooling liquid. For once we got it spot on, the squid was a fresh as those we used to enjoy at Maria's in Portugal, and the broth was subtle, lemony and in every way delightful. Our initial misgivings had been entirely misplaced, this was possibly the best meal of the trip, indeed one of our best lunches full stop.

Fish cakes and squid beside the Mae Klong River
Well fed we continued south to the coast and the city of Samut Songkhram. Near here in 1811 the wife of a fisherman gave birth to a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng. Locally they were known as 'The Chinese Twins' as their father was from Thailand's Chinese community, but when they were 'discovered' in 1829 by a Scottish entrepreneur and travelled the world as part of a freak show they became known as The Siamese Twins, a name which has stuck to their condition ever since.

In many ways the brothers were admirable. They took control of their lives and in 1839 they found they liked North Carolina and had enough money to settle there and buy a farm. They became American citizens, adopted the surname Bunker and married two local sisters. Between them they had 21 children. There are several questions I would love to ask about this, and maybe Chang and Eng (and their wives) would reply that it is none of my business. Their 1,500 or so living descendants meet at regular reunions.
Chang and Eng painted by an unknown artist in Paris in 1835 or 6
The painting is in the North Carolina Collection gallery, borrowed by me from Wikipedia
Other aspects of their life were less admirable; like most North Carolina farmers at that time, they were slave owners. The Bunkers supported the confederacy in the American Civil War, support which cost them much of their wealth. They died within hours of each other in 1874.

Samut Songkhram’s market is also, in its own way, a freak show. Strung alongside the railway track outside the station, some of the merchandise and parts of the stalls have to be moved every time a train comes through.
Samut Songkhram 'railway' market

The market sells an immense variety of goods and foods; we particularly liked the huge tiger prawns. The tiger prawns on menus all over the world come from Thailand and its neighbours. They look magnificent, but for both texture and flavour, I actually prefer the smaller cold water prawns of the north Atlantic.
Tiger prawns and other things, Samut Songkhram 'railway' market
The station had been closed for several months for engineering work so the market had been spared the continual moving and we did not get to see how it all works. I wonder if the locals might come to realise that a market uninterrupted by trains is a good idea and go somewhere else!

From Samut Songkhram we headed down the coast to Cha Am for two days lazing on the beach.

Thailand and Laos
               Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North