Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Return to Portreath

The last time I visited Portreath was to say 'goodbye'. It was a lovely, warm summer evening,  blessed with a glorious sunset – a sunset that implored me to stay and watch until the last trace of orange had faded from the horizon.

For 17 years Portreath had been the nearest beach to my Cornish home, but in 2012 I exchanged its pleasures for those of the Forest of Dean.  I'm very happy about my move, though it has put many miles of boring motorway between me and my mum, who still lives near Portreath.  I visited earlier this week and decided to seek out a few of my old haunts. It was time to return to Portreath.

There had been a few changes...

Colourful toilets (wow!). I love the bold proclamation that they are in Portreath Parish. Shades of Clochemerle, I felt, wondering whether the Parish Council chairperson had been called upon to perform the opening pee. With brass band accompaniment, of course.

 A bi-lingual sign, though hardly a welcoming one. For all its splendour it simply warns (only in English) of possible pollution in the river and sea after heavy rain.

A hole in the sea wall. Portreath's harbour wall got a fearsome battering in 2014 and four years later, to the day, it happened again. By the time of my visit work was well in hand to plug the breach and protect the nearby houses.

You can see the houses most at risk on the far right of this photo.  They were built on the old quayside some 20 years ago.

Portreath harbour was originally developed to export copper and tin ore for smelting in Wales, and to receive coal to power the mine engines. Coal traffic continued on into the 1970s, holding back Portreath's development as a holiday resort. The residents of a nearby house once told me that strong onshore winds would often blow coal dust up the valley and blacken any washing on the line. They learned to hang out the washing only when the wind blew offshore.

These days the only hazard to tourism is an occasional whiff of the Portreath Pong, produced when a blazing sun rots seaweed that collects at the far end of the harbour. Personally, I think they should bottle it and sell it for £10 a pint.

This little building used to be a signal station for controlling access to the harbour. It has the macabre name of Dead Man's Hut as it was occasionally used as a morgue for bodies recovered from the sea. You can see the other signal station at the end of the harbour wall in the photo below.

I presume that the safety tape was put there to deter sightseers during the recent storms.

Being a rebel at heart and sensing no danger, I stepped over the tape for a last look at the harbour entrance. Do you see the faint outline of another white building, above the cliff on the right? That is the Pepper Pot.

Here's a photo of it (not one of mine) on a much brighter day. It's a daymark for shipping – basically a lighthouse with no light. It has a claim to fame as the place where Laurence Binyon composed his famous poem, perhaps while watching a glorious sunset at the going down of the sun over Gull Rock:

They shall grown not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We shall remember them.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Alexa Battles

I admit it... I'm an unabashed gizmologist. A strange new object has appeared on our sideboard. Almost inconspicuous in grey and matt white, it sits – not always quietly – and awaits my command.

The blame for this lies squarely with my grandchildren, who really should know better how to care for their susceptible elders. There we all were, enjoying a tasty breakfast meal, when one says, "Alexa, play me some music... whereupon the Amazon Echo thingy on the windowsill burst into life.  Impressed, though not wholly by the choice of music, I called out "Alexa, play 'You never can tell'" (a Ukes 'uv Azzard favourite) and in an instant Chuck Berry was rockin' away for me. Great!

"Alexa," pipes up grandchild #2, "play something else" after Chuck had scarcely sung the first verse — and so commenced the Alexa Battles.  "No Alexa, play 'You never can tell'"... "Alexa, play 'White Christmas'"... "Alexa, what's the weather forecast?"... "Alexa, shut up!" There really was only one possible solution, and before the night was out my modest bank balance had been depleted by £89 and a Smart Speaker was on its way.

Mine is unashamedly a Google house. Google Calendar is my diary, Google Search directs me around the Internet and Google Play looks after all my favourite music, so it made sense to go for Google's own Smart Speaker offering — Google Home.

The initial Set Up went smoothly and within minutes glorious carols from King's College were filling the room. A glutton for 'free' offers, I promptly upgraded my Google Play to a subscription service (3 months free, then £10/month), so now I can also tell Google Home to play my treasured collection of Cornish folk songs.

To get full control of this cybernetic wizz-kid I've taught it my voice. Now, not only do I get personalised greetings but only I can access my own calendar and shopping list. It can be quite good fun; "Hey Google, good morning!" I chirp as I draw the lounge curtains. "Good morning, Angela," it replies. "The weather today in Lydney will be cool and dry with a maximum of 9 degrees...."  Voice control does, though, have its limitations, as you'll know if you've ever tried Google's voice feature on a smartphone. For instance, I just called out "OK Google, tell me about The Ukes 'uv Azzard" and it responded:

The Dukes of Hazzard are just some good old boys, never meaning no harm.

Grrr! Good we are, and old(ish) some of us may be, but we ain't the Dukes and Azzard doesn't start with an 'H'.  All attempts to make Google Home elicit the right answer have so far failed. Perhaps that's good news; screens and keyboards aren't dead yet.

There have been the inevitable security scares about these devices – as reported in the Daily Mail, so they must be true (cough!). But so much of modern life is susceptible to scams and security lapses that I'm resolved to take sensible precautions and not worry too much. I haven't been caught out yet.

Some may say that I should turn it off when not in use, but I'm not keen. After all, it would rather spoil the fun.  So instead, the last thing I do is to quietly say "Hey Google, good night."

Good night, Angela. 
Enjoy your time in Club Duvet

Monday, 11 December 2017

Snow is falling

Snow is falling all around me,
children playing, having fun.
It's the season of love and understanding,
Merry Christmas everyone!

I've sung that one with The Ukes uv Azzard a time or eight over the past few weeks, never imagining that it really might snow. But early yesterday morning it began, and it didn't stop for several hours.

Most 'sensible' grown-ups that I know cancelled their plans to attend church or feast at a pub and stayed indoors, telling themselves how awful it was outside. But this big kid was having none of it. As soon as the Sunday Roast had been devoured I joined the children playing, having fun then drove into the Forest of Dean for some fun of my own. 

It was lovely, but the sky was still grey and a premature darkness was falling. One guy, clearly concerned about this mad woman, warned me that the heavily rutted roads would soon be freezing, so gingerly I made my way down to Parkend and its deserted station, then headed for home...

... but then along came the Santa Special at Whitecroft. Happily, I waved to the passengers.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Today the skies turned blue, the sun shone and the whole forest took on a stunning beauty, the like of which I have truly never seen before. Back into the forest I drove, parked Bluebird just off-road in a moderate-sized snowdrift (what fun!) and set out on foot to record the scene. 

You can just glimpse Bluebird in the distance on the right. Happily, extracting her from her snowdrift posed no serious problems. I simply remembered what I'd learned after (frequently) running aground with a narrowboat – reverse out the way you came in.  Easy.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Tom Bawcott's Eve

Mousehole at it looks on Tom Bawcott's Eve - and on every evening
over Christmas
"Do you miss Cornwall?" is usually the second question folk ask me, after "Why ever did you leave?" It's understandable, of course. Cornwall is a land of golden, sandy beaches, quaint fishing villages, pasties, clotted cream and (if you're lucky) long, warm summer days. It's also a rather nice place to live. Having resided there for the best part of 61 years, I ought to know.

So do I miss it? Yes, of course. But I would miss the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley every bit as much if ever I had to leave... which I sincerely hope never to do.

In truth, it's not those balmy summer Cornish days that I miss most; it's Christmas.  For 17 of my 61 years I was privileged to live in West Cornwall and there – if you take the trouble to divorce yourself from the nauseating excesses of a world bent on spending as much money as possible between Black Friday and the last New Year Sale – Christmas is very different.

To start with, the carols are different, but I've blogged about them before – Helston 2, maybe 3.

The days of Advent pass in song and merriment. But just before the great day there comes a unique West Cornwall celebration - Tom Bawcott's Eve. Down on the quayside in Mousehole (always pronounced 'Mouzel'), outside the Ship Inn, the crowds gather to sing:

The Ship Inn

A merry place you may believe, 
is Mouzel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s eve.
To be there then who wud'n wish
to sup on seb'n sorts o’ fish.

When morgy broth had cleared the path,
comed lances for a fry.
And then us had a bit o'scad
and Starry Gazy Pie.

Believe me, what the song may lack in artistic merit is more than compensated for by the enthusiasm of the crowds – and all the more so if you've already warmed yourself with a glass of something alcoholic in the Ship!

Tom Bawcott (not Ballcock, as my friend Steve used to call him!) is a legendary figure who is said to have saved Mousehole from starvation by setting to sea one stormy December night. Brave Tom managed to catch enough fish to feed the entire village. Somewhat improbably he put the whole catch - comprising seven sorts of fish - into an enormous pie, which he baked with the fish heads poking though the pastry. Thus Stargazy Pie was born.  To my shame, I've yet to taste any.

Since moving to England (the Cornish rarely consider their land part of England) I've tried hard to preserve the excitement, warmth and humour of my West Cornwall Christmases, but I sense the magic fading, despite putting up my tree and decs a little earlier each year. The number of cards arriving is gradually diminishing as friends become infirmed or die, and others forget us or choose to save on postage. And when two of my grandchildren asked for shopping vouchers last Christmas I knew that the magic was truly departing. How can you get excited about unwrapping an Amazon voucher?!

Magic... that's it. Christmas needs magic to keep it alive, lest it descend into a meaningless festival to Amazon, Tesco and PC World. For me it needs family and good friends, traditions to revel in, rousing songs to sing and the renewed gift of the Christ Child.

Thursday, 23 November 2017


Last May I blogged about climbing Skirrid in the Black Mountains. Dru Marland, who regularly enthrals me with stories of her life on the Kennet & Avon Canal, left a comment about Raymond Williams' books "The People of the Black Mountains". Six months later I'm only half way through the second book in the series but fine fare should, I contend, be consumed slowly and thoughtfully.

Fifteen times in book one, Raymond Williams mentions a great cave. Here's the first, from the time when the last Ice Age was still receding:
There is also the story of the great cave, of Mamcala, where the sacred fire always burns. For the fire to burn men must kill and eat.

And later in the book:
'We heard the drum,' Tarc said. 
'It is the hunters of Mamcala. They are in the forest above us.' He pointed up to the hill on the other side of the river. 

Caves... forest... hills... Like so many places in the book – such as Broken Mountain (Skirrid) and Curve River (River Wye) – I felt that I ought to know this one, and at the end of the book my suspicions were confirmed. It was King Arthur's Cave, high above the River Wye near Symonds Yat, on one of my favourite walks.

I'm rather pleased with this photo, taken today in Autumn sunshine that just appeared from behind the clouds at the right time. It really is a beautiful spot.

I apologise for looking as if I'm on sentry duty, guarding the cave from the hunters of Mamcala. Obviously it's a role that I feel necessary to fulfil for here I am, back in 2013... Relax, Angie dear, relax!

This is my good friend Lucy, exploring the cave depths during a recent visit. Sooner or later, all my friends get dragged off to this spot!

Though "The People of the Black Mountains" is a work of fiction, it is solidly based on facts that have been gleaned through decades of archaeological research. Probably the first person to seriously investigate these caves was the Revd William S Symonds. In his 1872 book "Records of the Rocks"  he tells of  the well-known cave dweller of modern days, "Jem the Slipper", under whose guidance I first visited the hyæna's den and the other caves. Were Jem around these days he would be welcoming a steady stream of visitors, including me on at least 6 occasions.

I used to think of Victorian amateur archaeologists as being little more than blundering treasure hunters. Certainly, they lacked the rigours demanded of modern-day archaeology, but Revd Symonds clearly took his work very seriously. Here's an extract from his book:

This Earth was about two feet in thickness. In it were discovered flint flakes and chips, with three pebbles unmistakably chipped by human workmanship. Two of these are of black chert, evidently formed from rolled pebbles, while the third has been chipped, and is a pebble of some Lower Silurian rock. I excavated with my own hands one of the cores of chert from which flakes had been struck, and the second was found by my companion at the time, Mr. Scobell. Associated with these were the teeth and jaw of a Bear, with those of the horse, and in Mrs. Bannerman's cave those of the

One lasting reminder of Revd Symonds' work is the heap of soil that he shifted to gain access to the caves. And somewhere here, near the large cave entrance, remnants were found of a hearth on which fires burned 12,000 years ago.

There is also the story of the great cave, of Mamcala, 
where the sacred fire always burns. 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Gravy Boat

Vegetarians need not trouble themselves with this post, other than perhaps to say "I told you so." I write to my fellow omnivores.

Before July 2016 there was but one way in our household to make gravy for a roast dinner. No 'convenience' gravy granules here, dear me no. Instead we recovered the succulent meat juices from the roasting tin, poured them into a bowl, added a little flour to thicken and voila! Perfect gravy containing all the goodness of the meat. What could be better than that?

Well rather a lot, actually, and I have Slimming World to thank for enlightening me. Two tablespoons of that steaming liquid scored 15 syns – my allocation for a whole day. And who stops at two tablespoons of gravy? Not me! Reluctantly, we switched to the dreaded gravy granules. "All natural flavours," declared the tin, but in comparison to 'real' gravy the result was bland and uninteresting. So on the next Sunday I spiced it up a generous sprinkling of mixed herbs.  Not bad, not bad at all. Indeed, it was very tasty.

Slimming World has so changed my eating habits that I've never been tempted to revert to my old ways. Given the choice between 15 syns of gravy and 15 of fine wine, there really is no contest. However, last week S-- poured the juices from a gammon joint into a mug, set it aside with the intention of separating out the jelly from the fat....  and forgot about it.

This Saturday we found it again, languishing at the back of the fridge... and there at the bottom lay two and a half ounces (71g) of solid fat.  Half of that would have been mine. An ounce and a quarter of fat every week, and sometimes twice a week, week in, week out, raising my cholesterol level and furring up my arteries. Yuk!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Old Maps (2): Lumps, bumps and slag heaps

Looking at old maps can be endlessly fascinating, but for me they become even more interesting when I can relate them to actual features on the ground.  Thankfully, there is now a website of old maps covering the whole country – courtesy, strangely enough, of the National Library of Scotland. They're happy for me to reproduce their maps, so long as I give them the credit so... "Hooray for the National Library of Scotland!"  On this example from an Ordinance Survey 1 inch map of 1896, I've zoomed in on a fairly nondescript area of the Forest of Dean. Let's see if I can bring it to life.

Here's a closer look at the area on a 25 inch map from about 1885. There, at the top, is the Rising Sun Beer House (BH) where I join the Ukes uv Azzard on Thursdays to play my ukulele. Incidentally, the pond, clearly shown on this map, is still there. Perhaps it marks the site of even older mine workings.

Here's how it looked in about 1905 – unfortunately not as clear as the earlier map. Bethlehem Chapel has gone – perhaps it was a little too close to the beer house – but Crown Colliery has appeared, together with some new railway tracks.  It's time to put on my walking boots and go exploring!

Firstly, an even closer look at the 1905 map, with my photo locations marked




4. The air shaft on the right (marked on map)
ventilates Moseley Green Tunnel
To add a finishing touch, I found this snippet of an aerial photo, taken in 1946. There still seems to be some activity around New Engine Colliery (centre left, known by this time as Brick Pit) but Crowns looks abandoned.

There are, of course, far more interesting places to explore on maps and on foot, such as nearby Parkend (shown below on a circa 1885 map), and doubtless your favourite corner of the Kingdom too. A nice feature of the National Library of Scotland site is that maps can be overlaid with modern Bing aerial photos, though this proved well nigh impossible to show here.

I wish you many hours of happy exploration.