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…..

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar: Gujarat Part 6

This is a new post though it describes the events of the 4th of March 2019.
It will be moved to its appropriate date shortly.

This post covers day 6 of a 14-day journey around Gujarat, following our circuit of Rajasthan last year. Smaller than Rajasthan, Gujarat is about the size of the Island of Great Britain and has much the same population.

5,000 years ago, Gujarat was a centre of the Indus Valley Civilization and subsequently played its part in most of the major north Indian empires. When Islamic invaders reached northern India in the 9th century Gujarat held out until 1300 when it became part of the Delhi Sultanate.

Today we drive from Bajana to Velavadar and the Blackbuck National Park
An independent Muslim sultan seized power in 1391and Gujarat maintained its independence until becoming part of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century and later the British Empire, though local rulers of a patchwork of Princely States had considerable autonomy. At independence in 1947 Gujarat was part of the State of Bombay, becoming a state in its own right in 1960.

With a long coast line facing the Arabian sea, Gujaratis have been sea farers and international traders for millennia.

Gujarat is the home state of both Mahatma Gandhi and the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Bajana to Velavadar

After a breakfast of omelette, stuffed parathas and fruit we set off on the 3½hr journey south from Bajana to the Blackbuck Park. We drove through agricultural land growing wheat, cotton, sesame and cumin among other crops. As usual cattle, sheep and goats were being herded along the highway while yet more cattle wandered at will.

This time it's cattle causing the holdup
After 80mins we stopped at a village – I am unsure of the name – where there was a market and celebration, something to do with Lord Shiva, Vijay told us. Makeshift stalls were laid out along the side of the road…

Stalls alongside the road, Gujarat village market
….in parked vehicles and on any available piece if ground.

Stalls in tuk-tuks and spreading up the alleys, Village market
As every English shepherd once had his crook, every Indian herder of beasts has his stick. Like the crook they are not for hitting, but for pointing, waving and generally being an extension of the herder’s arm. I would have thought that one would have seen out a lifetime’s herding, but business was brisk at the pole store.

Herders' sticks in the market
Being a holiday, there were entertainments for children. The bouncy castle looked a little underinflated and the round-about as minimal as they come, and both would have looked better without the litter - in India there is always litter – but for the village’s smallest citizens, I am sure they were objects of wonder.

Round-about and bouncy castle (not that it is, strictly speaking, a castle)
This was a religious holiday, so we joined the stream of people making their way to and from the small temple.

Lynne and Vijay make their way to the temple
We had plenty of stares, foreigners are rare round here, but inquisitive rather than threatening. At the temple Vijay said he would watch our shoes while we had a look, though elsewhere we just left them unwatched with all the others. Ours looked bigger, a little better quality but just as dusty as the villagers’ so we wondered why but said nothing. It was a small Hanuman shrine, with a simple idol and clouds of jasmine scented smoke; an attendant offered Lynne a tilak as we left. Vijay then asked us to watch his shoes while he paid his respects. They looked expensive and far cleaner than ours, but then he was always crisply dressed, regardless of the heat or dust.

The village temple and a collection of shoes

The Blackbuck Resort, Valavadar

After another 90mins driving arable land gave way to flat scrub, arid but less salty than the Little Rann of Kutch.

Arable farms give way to scrubby grassland as we approach Velavadar
We soon reached our accommodation, ominously appearing on our itinerary as the Blackbug Resort but actually the Blackbuck Resort. It consisted of large, comfortable well-separated traditional bungalows forming a loose semi-circle in the dry grass.

Our bungalow, Blackbuck Resort, Velavadar
We dumped our luggage and wandered back to the restaurant, a very smart affair with crisp tablecloths and quality china. Being on full board we ate a set meal, the smartly dressed waiter bringing a succession of small dishes, carefully explaining each. Peanut kofta, a variation on waldorf salad, murgh makhani, a vegetable curry based on bottle gourd, paneer with spinach, kulcha and pappads were all well-cooked, well-spiced and beautifully presented. A beer would have been a perfect accompaniment, but unfortunately Gujarat is dry (though not completely - I had a tourists’ liquor licence which allowed us a nightcap in the privacy of our room).

Returning to our bungalow during the midday heat, we sat on our large veranda facing the open savanna. Later we would visit the Blackbuck Nature Reserve, but the antelopes are common throughout the region and several visited as we relaxed in the shade.

A male blackbuck keeping a wary eye on us, Blackbuck resort, Velavadar
The Blackbuck National Park

A jeep arrived to take us the short distance to the National Park near the village of Velavadar.

In the tiger sanctuaries of Nagarhole and Ranthambhore (4 ‘safaris’ 0 tigers), where you can go is dictated by the terrain, in the Little Rann of Kutch we roamed freely but the savanna of the Blackbuck Park is neatly divided into rectangular sections by well-made, though unpaved, roadways.

We sat in the back of the jeep with Vijay, who enjoys these parks and has some knowledge of local birds, while in the front was a park ranger and a driver.

The park ranger with a remarkable talent, Blackbuck National Park
I had paid the expensive camera fee and hoped for some good pictures, Lynne’s phone camera was free but I doubted it would be much use in these surroundings. How little I know! Most of the pictures that follow were taken on Lynne’s phone by the ranger. We all had binoculars and he had perfected the technique of looking through one ‘nocular’ while holding the phone to the other and taking pictures. This would be easy for four-armed Lord Shiva, but in every other respect the ranger appeared to be an ordinary human.

A male blackbuck and part of his harem, Blackbuck National Park
Blackbuck were not difficult to find, the grassland on both sides of the road teemed with them and deciding which group to photograph was the biggest problem.

Juvenile blackbucks, Blackbuck National Park
Nilgai (also known as blue bulls), the other common antelope in this part of India, were present in slightly smaller numbers. Much stockier and less graceful than the blackbuck the males have stumpy little horns. Fully mature males look bull-like and really are blue, the nilgai below are juvenile males.

Nilgai, Blackbuck National Park

He also photographed birds. We saw both common and demoiselle cranes, they are similar, but we saw demoiselle cranes in Mongolia in 2007 and comparing photographs I think those below are common cranes.

Common Cranes, Blackbuck National Park 
Even more impressively he captured a series of sharp images of a montagu’s harrier in flight…

Montagu's harrier, Blackbuck National Park
…while I was still fiddling with the settings on my camera.

Montagu's harrier, Blackbuck National Park
The full bird list included snake eagle, short tailed lark, crested lark (flying up like a cloud from the roadway as we drove along), partridge, flamingo, spoonbill, bay-backed shrike, green bee-eater (brightly coloured little birds, I managed a reasonable photograph in Sri Lanka in 2015), laggar falcon, white-tailed bulbul and last, but not least, the very common red-wattled lapwing – my sole contribution these photographs in the park.

Red-wattled lapwings, Blackbuck National Park
It was not just birds and antelopes, we may have failed to see any of the resident Indian wolves, but we did see a wild dog, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a hyena, though it ducked down into the long grass before even the ranger could raise a camera. A wild pig was more cooperative…

Wild pig, Blackbuck National Park
….and yet another male blackbuck crossed the path in front of us as we headed for the exit.

A blackbuck bids us farewell as we head for the exit
Back at the Blackbuck Resort dinner was as good as the lunch, the centrepiece being a fine vegetarian thali with a mixed salad.

Vegetarian thali at the Blackbuck Resort


Thursday, 1 August 2019

Countryfile Live and Blenheim Palace

Countryfile Live

Fate kindly showered us with a couple of complementary tickets for Countryfile Live (thanks Gaby) so, on what promised to be a warm August day, we made our way down to Blenheim Palace just outside Woodstock in Oxfordshire

The grounds of Blenheim are vast with ample room for the show and the car parking. The complex logistical exercise of getting so many vehicles in and out seemed to go well, though locals must have endured some disruption with multiple temporary traffic lights and country lanes normally seeing dozens of cars a day suddenly coping with hundreds, if not thousands.

John Craven and Adam Henson

We arrived early and as soon as the gates opened headed for the ‘Big Barn’. Being regular viewers of the show, we wanted to see some of the presenters live so we settled on our hay bales (well it was Countryfile) to watch John Craven and Adam Henson, with producer Jo Brame, talking to Helen Fospero (GMTV, Lorraine, Watchdog and more).

Adam Henson, John Craven, Helen Fospero and Jo Brame (l to r)
Countryfile Live, Blenheim Palace
John and Adam have a good professional and personal relationship, and both picked as highlights the occasions when John (the television professional) had been roughed up by the livestock of Adam (the farming professional).

John Craven has been on our screens since John Logie Baird and admits to being 78. That makes him 10 years older than me, and I shall be delighted if I am in such good condition in 2029 – actually that bird may already have flown. Adam Henson mixes his farm work with Countryfile presenting, claiming in answer to a question from the audience that he divides his time about 50-50. He then detailed his upcoming Countryfile commitments, suggesting the farm might be well below 50% in the immediate future. His father, Joe Henson, who died in 2015, opened the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 and was the founding chairman of the the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

British Charcuterie

The nearby British Charcuterie tent gave us the opportunity to taste the wares of a dozen or so producers in (according to the Show Guide) this ‘booming sector of artisanal food production’. I love charcuterie but I am aware that sustainability requires us to eat less meat and health requires us to cut down on processed meat. I could use the ‘I am too old to change’ excuse, though it is not really true, but I expect I will go on damaging the environment and myself regardless.

Helen Browning, Wiltshire famer and Chief Executive of the Soil Association, is the organic farmer’s organic farmer – so it is not all bad. She produces a full range of charcuterie including an organic corned beef – not a product I had previously thought of as charcuterie. Her corned beef resembles Frey Bentos in little more than the name - who knew something so humble could be so delicious?

Helen Browning;s stall, Countryfile Live
We enjoyed the wild venison salami made by Good Game of Topsham in Devon, and the Suffolk Salamis from Lane Farm in the tiny village of Brundish. We particularly like the rosemary salami, though its fennel cousin has been the one nominated for awards.

Lane Farm Foods, Countryfile Live
Two stalls in the tent which nobody could call charcuterie had rather different but still excellent products. The charcoal salt from Churchfields Saltworks, Droitwich sold under the label of the Michelin starred restaurant Carter’s of Moseley (Moseley must have changed since my student days!) was complex and subtle, and capable of transforming a steak. Cult Vinegars, apparently based in a residential house in Balham, south London, were less acidic than most vinegars so tasting them was not wince inducing. The herb infused vinegars were herbal, the PX, Port and Bordeaux vinegars really did taste of sweet Pedro Ximenez, Port and claret. The English red wine vinegar was less distinctive (but that is the one nominated for awards.)

Cult vinegar stall, Countryfile Live
We are now owners of venison and rosemary salamis, a bag of charcoal salt and a collection of tiny bottles of very expensive vinegar.

Charles Hanson and Rick Stein

We had tickets to see Charles Hanson (Bargain Hunt, Antiques Road Trip etc) and strolled through the show to the appropriate venue. This took us through the ‘Dog Lovers’ Arena’. Doggy people naturally assume that everybody loves dogs as much as they do. I do not, I have an allergy – and I dislike their behaviour. Dogsters usually believe this character defect can be rectified by their particular darling slobbering on the defective. I keep my distance.

Pigs though are different, and there is little cuter than a pile of Saddleback piglets. There were once two breeds of Saddleback, Essex and Wessex. and in the 1940s they accounted for almost half the British pig population. In 1955 the Howitt Report decided that breed diversity was handicapping our pig industry which henceforth should concentrate on three breeds only, none of them saddlebacks. By 1967 the herd-books of the saddleback breeds had become so thin, they were merged to create the British Saddleback. The population has grown and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust now lists them as a ‘minority’ rather than a ‘rare’ breed.

British Saddlebacks, Countryfile, Live
My interest in antiques is less than all-consuming, but Charles Hanson spoke amusingly and answered questions for an hour that passed swiftly. I cannot remember anything he said, but over 37 years as a teacher, I suspect there were students who might have said the same of me, though perhaps their time flowed more sluggishly.

Charles Hanson at Countryfile Live
We dashed back to the big barn to see the end of Rick Stein’s chat. Food interests me more than antiques and we have eaten at Stein’s Padstow sea food restaurant. We also seem to follow each other round, we had the same local guide in Puebla in Mexico, and ate at the same street food stalls in Lucknow.

Rick Stein in the Big Barn, Countryfile Live
He was taken to task during the Q&A for the quantity of salt he uses when cooking on TV. I would sympathise with his defence: these are dishes for pleasure not survival (moderation in all things – including moderation), but I feel he throws in too much for pleasure.

Lunch at Countryfile Live

It was now lunchtime and there were many options.

Food choices, Countryfile Live
We settled on crispy duck wraps, Lynne had a freshly squeezed orange juice and I had a pint from the Three Fiends Brewery stall next door.  Three Fiends is a microbrewery set up by three friends in Holmfirth in 2014. Thankfully, their brewing is better than their punning and I can wholeheatedly recommend their Two Face Pale Ale.

Crispy duck wraps and the Three Fiends Brewery, Countryfile Live
We found a spare hay bale and sat down to eat and drink.

Pull up a bale and sit down, lunch at Countryfile Live

Sheep, Horses, Ducks and More

We spent the afternoon dropping in on various exhibits, starting with Stuart Barnes and his sheep show. With eight different breeds on stage I suspect there was some serious point to the show, but by the time we arrived music was playing and Stuart was showing the different dancing styles of the various breeds.

Staurt barnes and his sheeps show, Countryfile Live
More Countryfile presenters were appearing on the main stage, and we saw John Craven (again) and Ellie Harrison aided by two members of the public and, as there was a quiz of sorts, a member of the production team operating what the BBC might call a laser display board.

John Craven, Ellie Harrison and others, Countryfile Live
Unfortunately, I suffer the same (literally) eye-wateringly unpleasant reaction to horses as to dogs, but nobody looks at you oddly if you decline to pet their horse, so we spent some time watching dressage in the Mane Arena (it was a day for bad puns). Despite the best efforts of the enthusiastic commentator I still do not understand the finer points of dressage, indeed I do not understand the broader ones either….

Dressage, Countryfile Live
….and I am almost as ignorant about Morris Dancing. The Hereburgh Morris team, from the Warwickshire village of Harbury were giving their all, so we moved on before being co-opted onto the dance floor.

Hereburgh Morris, Countryfile Live
It was time for an ice cream, and having never previously encountered goat’s milk ice cream we took the opportunity. It was fine, but the familiar, distinctive goaty flavour was either absent or lost under the mint and chocolate chip.

Goat's milk ice cream from the Greedy Goat
 We have seen people carving Buddha statues from wood and marble with electric sanders in Vietnam, and Mike Burgess’ chainsaw sculptures fall into the same category. Not only could I not do this, I do not understand how anyone can; I am in awe of Mike Burgess and his Vietnamese confrères.

Mike Burgess and his chainsaw sculptures
Stuart Barnes had left his sheep and was in the arena with his ducks and dogs. He is a serious dog trainer and his insights into dog psychology, imparted with forthright Australian wit, explained convincingly why there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. Wary, as I am of dogs, I do like ducks, and we really came to see his Indian running ducks, wonderful if slightly unlikely creatures here doing a job usually undertaken by sheep.

Stuart Barnes with hsi dogs and ducks, Countryfile Live
Apart from some second visits for purchases decided on earlier, that was it for our day at Countryfile Live. It had been, as Wallace would say, a grand day out. Mostly visitors could have been unaware they were in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, though it can be seen from near the main stage and this post would be incomplete without a few words about this massive pile.

Blenheim Palace from near the Countryfile Live main stage

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace is a whacking great house, one of the largest in the country and the only ‘palace’ that is not a residence of the queen or a bishop. We visited in February 2017 with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

Blenheim Palace. Critics are divided about the building. In my humble (oh, so very humble) opinion it is a massive monument to ostentatious bad taste. 
Born in Devon in 1650 into the gentry rather than aristocracy, John Churchill’s successful diplomatic and military career was largely a consequence of his ability – though his wife’s friendship with Queen Anne probably helped.

Entrance Hall, Blenheim Palace
In the first decade of the 18th century Churchill led the Grand Alliance in a series of major victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, most notably at Blenheim. As a reward a grateful nation paid to build him a house on land donated by Queen Anne, who also made him the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

Ceiling, Blenheim Palace
Baroque was never a big hit in England, and Blenheim designed by Sir John Vanburgh, is one of very few English Baroque houses. The project was dogged by political in-fighting, and the Duchess’s falling out with the queen. Never particularly rich, the Duke of Marlborough spent what fortune he had completing the project.

Vases, Blenheim Palace
Despite many difficulties Blenheim has remained the residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. Winston Churchill was born here in 1875...

Winston Churchill was born in this room, Blenheim Palace
... and in 1895 his friend and cousin Charles, the 9th Duke ensured economic stability by marrying Consuelo Vanderbilt the daughter of American railroad millionaire William Vanderbilt. Charles got his money, the Vanderbilts got a titled daughter and the unfortunate Consuelo got a husband she never wanted.The couple separated in 1906 (after Consuelo had produced an heir and a spare) and divorced in 1921.

The Long Library, Blenheim Palace
The 11th Duke opened the house to the public, so us peasants can now (for a price) wander round the house and gardens. He died in 2014 and the 12th Duke, whose well documented troubles have including prison sentences and drug abuse, is now in residence. The house is administered by a board of trustees.

Formal gardens, Blenheim Palace

Blenheim also has family orientated attractions, situated a little way from the house so they provide a train to take you there.

Blenheim's little train
The maze is fun; being able to look down from above is both helpful and frustrating….

The Blenheim maze
…and the butterfly house provides welcome tropical warmth on a cold day. There were plenty of butterflies but they can be difficult to identify; the one below is  (I think) a red helen, a native of southern India.

A red helen (I think) in the Blenheim butterfly house
The butterflies share their home with a flock of zebra finches; common in central Australia, but looking pleasingly exotic in Oxfordshire.

Zebra finches in the Blenheim butterfly house
And there is a model of part of the town of Woodstock.

Part of the Woodstock model
You will be pleased to know that our grandson now has a full complement of teeth again
Blenheim provides a good day out, even in February when such things are rare – but its not a cheap day.