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…..



Monday, 19 December 2016

Cannock Chase Mild and Dry - So Much Better: The (N + 6)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

I wonder how many annual Chip Walks I have been on? It may be as many as twenty - Francis and I have the honour (?!) of having walked every one of them - but this is definitely the seventh on this blog. Brian, an ever-present until 2011 but now removed to Torquay, kindly commented on last year’s post that I was still finding new things to say. Well that was last year, this year I am struggling...

Cannock Chase is the perfect place for a winter walk; a pile of pebbles a hundred metres high is always going to drain better than the surrounding Staffordshire clay. Unfortunately the Chase is not very big, at 68km² it is England's smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as we all live west of the Chase and the lunchtime stop is fixed at Longdon (or the Chetwyn Arms, Brocton, when the Swan with Two Necks was closed) available routes are not numerous.

We met at the Cutting Car Park at Milford on the Chase’s western edge, just like last year only this time it was not raining. Six participants is a healthy turn out and it was good to see Alison C and Sue who had been unavailable last year. Anne who has been with us the last two years was unfortunately unavailable and Torquay-based Brian, must be regarded as a permanent absentee from this, though not other walks.
Sue, Mike, Alison, Francis and Lee
Cutting Car Park, Milford

As usual we walked towards the Cutting itself (which I wrote about in ((N + 3) Jan 2014) and, again as usual chose the path along the top, avoiding the muddy bottom.

Choosing the path along the top rather than the one with a soggy bottom
 I rarely look into the Cutting, but I did this year and was surprised by its depth.
Looking down from the top of the Cutting, Cannock Chase
At the end we passed Mere Pits and, again as usual, walked along the lip of the Sherbrook Valley to the largely empty Coppice Hill car park. A small diversion took us to the bird feeding station. In last year's rain there had been many birds, but my attempts at photographing them were as dismal as the weather. This year there were fewer, but I got a reasonable shot of a great tit.
Great Tit, Coppice Hill feeding station, Cannock Chase
As on all these walks we eventually turned down into the valley and equally inevitably crossed the brook. There is not much of it this far up and some of us eschewed the stepping stones and strode through the inch deep water.

Down into the Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase
From here we turned onto Pepper Slade. 'We don't often come up here,' Francis remarked. Had a cheery Black Country musician appeared among the pepper vines and yelled 'It's Christmas' it really would have been different, but this is the Chase, where most paths look like every other path - and that includes Pepper Slade. I don't want to sound grumpy  - it was great to be out in the fresh air on a mild, dry December day - but I am just struggling for something new to say, and I discussed the local use of 'slade' back in 2011.
Pepper Slade, no Noddy, no spice
Near the top was a plantation of ‘Christmas trees’, though they were obviously not, as they were still there in late December - and a bit spindly too.

Not really Christmas trees, Pepper Slade

Progressing to Rifle Range Corner (though the WW1 rifle range has long gone) we paused while some thought was given to the route, not that there was much choice.
That's clearly not Santa  getting advice from a couple of dodgy looking elves
Rifle Range Corner, Cannock Chase
We followed the minor road (Penkridge Bank) for a couple of hundred metres before turning right down towards Fairoak Lodge. Well off the road and deep in the woods is a clearing with a few houses. We had intended turning left down to Fairoak Pools but missed the path, arriving in the yard of the last house just as the owner came out. 'I think Santa's lost his way, ' he said cheerily, which was odd as though Lee and Alison were impersonating elves Santa himself was not actually with us this year. He directed us back up the path where we found a small track descending in the right direction. Sue set off down it.

Sue heads off down the narrow track
There was no sign and it was so small I wondered if we were on a deer trail, but it soon widened and we quickly reached the path past the pools.

The path widens as it heads down to the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
We stopped for coffee at the same seat as last year. Although the continuous drizzle was mercifully absent this time everybody except Alison  decided the bench was too wet to sit on.

Coffee break by one of the Fairoak Pools
Last year the water fowl had been pleased to see us. This year they ignored us - perhaps they remembered that we had not fed them. We fed ourselves though, Mike generously sharing a tray of mini mince-pies.

One of the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
Refreshed, we continued along the bed of the River Budleighensis (see last year's report) past the two Fairoak pools and then turned right between the Stony Brook pools to cross the brook on the day’s second set of stepping stones.

Across the stepping stones between the Stony Brook Pools, Cannock Chase
We followed the path to the minor road, walked under the railway bridge to the Hednesford Road, crossed it and started the long drag up Miflins Valley. Every time we come here I describe it as a 'long drag'; it is a steadily rising path which seems to return little for the effort made. I am also irritated by my inability to discover the origin of the unusual name. The only notable Miflin I can find was Thomas Miflin, Governor of Pennsylvania in the 1790s, but his family came from Wiltshire.

The long drag up Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
Despite my dislike of Miflins Valley, I must admit it has some fine beech trees. I photographed one last year and some different ones this year.
Beech trees in Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
The path eventually runs into the continuation of Marquis Drive. It is difficult to believe that on such a well-worn track we could make the second navigational error of the day, but we did. The Chase is not an easy place to navigate; the rights of way shown boldly on the map are sometimes barely visible on the ground and the often substantial forestry tracks are faint on the map. We headed too far south and reached the wrong side of Wandon caravan park. I have never been to Wandon before but now know it is not worth the detour. The result was a slightly longer than expected walk along the minor road to the Stile Cop car park from where Lee drove us to Longdon and the Swan with Two Necks.
Arriving at the Stile Cop car park
The object of the walk is fish and chips. They tried to palm us off with their 'Festive menu' but we stood firm. 'We only have five small fish and chips,' the six of us were told. Sue, who in 2011 disgraced herself by eating chicken and pasta on a chip walk (‘I don’t like the greasy batter’) looked smug but redeemed herself anyway by ordering scampi and chips which has been deemed acceptable since at least 2014. Then Alison was informed that, despite earlier suggestions, none of the five remaining fish were gluten free. She had gammon steak, but under the circumstances escapes censure.
Lee, Sue and Francis get stuck into their fish (or scampi) 'n' chips
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
The fish was described as ‘small’ which clearly involved some use of the word previously unknown to me; I was well stuffed and failed to finish.
.
Stuffed
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
There was no question about whether there would be an afternoon walk - unlike last year when the atrocious weather was a terminal discouragement - but as lunch arrived just before two it was three o'clock before Lee had driven us through Rugeley and past the now redundant power station to the Seven Springs car park. My map does not mark any springs in the vicinity, let alone seven.

With sunset at 3.55 it was never going to be a long afternoon, but we left the ‘springs’ at a smart pace through an area of silver birches.
 
Through silver birches from Seven Springs, Cannock Chase

From here there is hardly any descent into the Sherbrook Valley and we crossed the stream on the third set of stepping stones for the day, but the first called The Stepping Stones.
Crossing the Sherbrook at the Stepping Stones, Cannock Chase

A very gentle climb up the other side brought us back to the Cutting car park just as the sun was setting. And so ended a very pleasant day’s walk.
And back towards the Cutting

Despite my misgivings I did find something to say - over a thousand words of something - though little of it was new (and the stuff about Thomas Miflin was deeply irrelevant!). I'll try again next year.

The Annual Fish and Chip Walks


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Peak, Markets and a Trip to Ap Lei Chau: Part 7 of Hong Kong and Macau

29/11/2016

In 2004, on the first morning of our first trip to Hong Kong, we took the tram up Victoria Peak. It was time to do it again.

After a leisurely start - best not to tangle with the rush hour – we took the MTR under the harbour to Admiralty and walked to the Peak Tram Station, pausing to admire the towers of Central.

The towers of Central, Hong Kong
Victoria Peak, more usually ‘The Peak’ is, at 552m (1,811ft), the highest point on Hong Kong Island – though there are considerably higher peaks in the New Territories. For most of the year Hong Kong is hot and humid and the more temperate climate of The Peak attracted the early European settlers. It remains a desirable place to live, boasting the world’s highest property prices.

The Peak, on Hong Kong Island, is due south of Central and one third of the way to the south coast

In the early days residents reached their homes by sedan chair. Warning: digressionary rant approaching. The sedan chair, along with the (man hauled) rickshaw, must be the most offensive forms of transport devised by man. If you take a taxi or even a cycle rickshaw you are saying, ‘I can drive/cycle, but I don’t have a car/bicycle available so I will hire yours.’ Taking a sedan chair was saying ‘I can walk, but I’m too important, you carry me.'

Difficulty of access limited development until the Peak Tram (actually a funicular railway, not a tram) opened in 1888.

The Peak Tram arrives at the lower terminus
The tram, which climbs 400m in a distance of 1.4km, originally had wooden carriages hauled by a static steam engine but over the years has undergone frequent upgrades and the occasional rebuild. Despite limited to Peak residents it carried a remarkable 800 passengers on its opening day, now open to all it transports 17,000 on an average day.

Lynne - one of today's 17,000 - waiting to set off
The well-documented optical illusion of the nearby towers appearing to be falling backwards into the mountain, is quite alarming. Being an illusion caused by motion it cannot be photographed so here is a view up the track instead.

The Peak Tram is on the way
The upper terminus is located in the Peak Tower shopping complex. In 2004 we had difficulty finding our way out and having become no cleverer in the past 12 years we again spent time travelling up and down escalators seeking the exit. Perhaps they do not want potential customers escaping easily - or maybe at all, the interior reminded me of a scene from Labyrinth where David Bowie’s Goblin King tries to prevent Sarah from rescuing her infant brother.

Inside the Peak Tower at the upper terminus
Egress was finally achieved! 150m below the summit (occupied by a telecommunications facility and closed to the public) is a round-Peak walk. We paused after a couple of minutes walking to admire(?) the Peak Tower from the outside. Locally it is known as The Flying Wok.


The Peak Tower - or Flying Wok
On a good day the walk offers magnificent views, and it had been a good day when we set off. Sadly by the time we reached the top the mist had descended and whether looking east over Wan Chai and Causeway Bay….

Looking east over Wan Chai and Causeway Bay
….or north over Central and across to Kowloon, the mist was the clear winner.

Looking over Central and across to Kowloon
We had a better day in 2004 but back in the days of film we took fewer pictures. The 2004 photo below is essentially the same scene, though concentrating on Kowloon rather than Central. The grassy point this side of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon shelter is now the West Kowloon Cultural District – and no longer grassy.

Looking over Central and across to Kowloon, July 2004
Trying to photograph anything more distant was a waste of time, but I include a murky view of Lama Island as we walked across it on Thursday (see The Transit of Lama) from the dimly visible power station to the bay on the left hand edge of the picture.

Lama Island
We completed our circumambulation of The Peak, a pleasant walk, if a poor photo opportunity, took the tram down and returned to Kowloon to find a lunch of beef and fried noodles.

In the afternoon we wandered through the food markets in and around Reclamation Street.

The regular meat market sold good quality produce….

Meat, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
...as did the fruit and veg stalls.

Fruit and Veg, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
The seafood area was more interesting, with large crabs….

Large crabs, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
….and assorted sea cucumbers.

Sea cucumbers, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
Tofu looks like cheese but the rich smell of Pont l’Eveque is absent. Although most tofu is bland, taking on the flavours of whatever it is cooked with, there is a ‘stinky tofu’ which smells far worse than the ripest of cheeses. It is not much sold in Hong Kong but can be found as street food (or so I read, I have not encountered it).

Tofu stall,  Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
And then there were the oddities we were not entirely sure about. Is this rat on a stick? Paddy field rats – very different from our sewer rats – are eaten all over SE Asia. We chickened out of barbecued rat on our way to the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, and once watched two lads cooking their own catch over an open fire in rural China, but we have not (yet) eaten rat ourselves.

Rat on a stick? Could be something else, Reclamation Street, Hong Kong
It was our last full day, so in the evening we returned to the Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar, ramshackle purveyors of fine Chinese food.


Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar
Feeling unadventurous we stuck with favourites new, the mottled spinefoot we discovered last Wednesday, and old, lemon chicken - a distant relative of the dish available from every Chinese take-away in Britain.

Fried mottled spinefoot with salt and chilli, Woo Sung Street Temporary Food Hawkers Bazaar

30/11/2016


Our last day, but as we did not have to be at the airport until the evening….

...we took the bus to Ap Lei Chau to see Brian and Hilary, now residents of Torquay, for 20 years before that residents of Stafford and for 20 years before that residents of Hong Kong, where their son and daughter both now live. Friends for many years, they have spent much of the last week showing us parts of Hong Kong and Macau we had not met before.

Conveniently the 171 bus stops in Gascoigne Road, 50m from our hotel. It travels south east to the Cross Harbour Tunnel….

Entering the Cross Harbour Tunnel to Hong Kong Island
…emerges in Wan Chai….

Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island
..and then heads straight for the Aberdeen Tunnel.

Entering the Aberdeen Tunnel, Hong Kong Island
Once on the south side of Hong Kong Island it is a short trip to the Ap Lei Chau bridge. Instructed to get off directly after the bridge we almost missed the stop; the bridge, crossing the neck of water between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau Harbours, is low key and we were looking for something more obvious.

Ap Lei Chau lies just off the south coast of Hong Kong Island
Ap Lei Chau (lit: Duck Tongue Island) is a small island off Hong Kong’s south coast. Formerly known as Aberdeen Island its single settlement was shown on a Ming Dynasty Map as Heung Kong Tsuen (lit: Fragrant Harbour Village) so it may well be the original ‘Hong Kong’. Its 1.4km² are home to 87,000 people, making it (according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia) the second most densely populated island on earth. Warning: Digressionary Factoid Approaching. Wikipedia’s most densely populated, Ilet a Bruee off the coast of Haiti, could hardly be more different. This isolated scrap of land smaller than a football pitch is home to 500, giving it a population density of 125,000 people per km² almost twice Ap Lei Chau’s 67,000. The curious might enjoy Is This the most Crowded Island in the World (and Why that Question Matters), an informative and thoughtful article by Alex McGregor.

One of Ap Lei Chau’s inhabitants is Brian and Hilary’s daughter Lauren. Brian met us at the bus stop and we walked back to Lauren’s apartment where they were staying.

Lauren lives in one of a group of towering up-market apartment blocks beside the harbour. Accommodation in Hong Kong is ludicrously expensive so the apartment is tiny (though bigger than the one our daughter and son-in-law lived in when they taught English on the Chinese mainland) but redeemed by a balcony overlooking Ap Lei Chau harbour. The sun had decided to shine today, so the four of us (Lauren was at work!) had coffee on the balcony.

Ap Lei Chau Harbour
The Jumbo Floating Restaurant (just above the tree tops on the left in the picture above) is world famous, but generally regarded as a tourist trap rather than a gastronomic resource.

After coffee we took a walk round the island’s northern shore. Although the harbour has many expensive yachts, at ground level it is easier to see it has working craft, too.

Ap Lei Chau harbour
In June Aberdeen hosts a Dragon Boat racing festival, and the boats were stored beside the harbour.

Dragon Boats, Ap Lei Chau
Further round we posed with the tower blocks of Aberdeen in the background…

The tower blocks of Aberdeen
We also dropped into the Hung Shing Temple.

Hung Shing Temple, Ap Lei Chau
Hung Shing was a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) government official who was so wise and righteous he was made a saint and continues to guard people, particularly fishermen, against natural disasters.

Hung Shing Temple, Ap Lei Chau
A little shopping for lunch also involved a look round some of the food stalls.

Sea food on sale, Ap Lei Chau
Back at Lauren’s apartment we had beer on the balcony and then a lunch of corn cobs, ham and smoked duck sandwiches, and custard tarts. Then we sat on the balcony until it was time to take the bus back to Kowloon – and that was pretty much it for this trip.

A big thank you to Brian and Hilary for this day and also The Transit of Lama, two days in Macau, and Sai Kung and the New Territories – see links below. In all these posts I conspicuously failed to photograph them, except at meals and occasional rear views.  I apologise, so in case there is any doubt, this is what they look like from the front.

Brian and Hilary eating flapjacks in a car park