Category Archives: Beaches

The Algarve – Train Ride to Lagos

Life at the Tui Blue Hotel was rather tedious I have to say with a looping Groundhog Day daily itinerary so we decided to break out and do something different.  A train excursion to the city of Lagos, thirty-five miles or so west of where we were staying at Olhos de Agua.

There was an expensive taxi ride to the railway station at Albufeira one of those taxi rides where I watch the meter ticking away and increasingly panic about the cost and then to compensate inexpensive train tickets to Lagos at less than five euro each return (seniors rate). The price was right but the train was soporifically slow and stopped several times and took over an hour to reach our destination and we arrived just about midday.

I liked it immediately as we walked from the station to the old town.  So much nicer than Albufeira with a a retained history, a nostalgia and a satisfying whiff of the past  Some of my favourites – aged doors with sun blistered paint and elegant iron balconies, cobbled streets and whitewashed houses.  Really lovely, really lovely.

Lagos was once a Moorish city, the capital of the Algarve and one of the most important cities in all of what is now Portugal.  How the Moors must have loved life in Iberia, excellent weather (not as hot as North Africa), no deserts, an abundance of fresh water, good fertile soil for crops and not nearly so many flies.

This idyllic lifestyle came to a sudden and abrupt end after the Reconquest when the Moors were forced to abandon their city after a brutal siege by Northern Crusaders.  In Spain and Portugal they celebrate the reconquest but in reality it was the replacement of a benevolent and progressive regime with a barbaric and medieval reversal of progress.

Without the Moors the city rapidly became neglected, the port silted up and the city went into a long period of decline.  This is something that always intrigues me, it is rather like the Roman Empire, great civilisations provide advancement in human development but Barbarians always come along and tear it down and set progress back several hundred years.  Rather like BREXIT in the United Kingdom right now.  It really frustrates me because we learn absolutely nothing from history.

What happened to the Ancient Egyptians, the Native Americans of USA, the  Classical Greeks, the Romans, they all showed great progress in human development and then they disappeared and the process was reversed.  What lies ahead for us I wonder?

Down at the seafront was a statue of Henry the Navigator, quite possibly, no, almost certainly the most famous of all Portuguese sailors and adventurers.

I had seen him before of course in Belem in Lisbon at the The Monument to the Discoveries. Located on the edge of the north bank of the Tagus, the fifty metre (I hate Boris Johnson and I emphatically refuse to go back to imperial measures) high slab of concrete was erected in 1960 to commemorate the five-hundredth  anniversary of his death. The monument in the capital city is sculpted in the form of a ship’s prow, with dozens of figures from Portuguese history following a statue of the Infante Henry looking out to the west, perhaps contemplating another voyage of discovery. 

The statue in Lagos is rather less spectacular.

Lagos was an important port during the Age of Discovery when Portugal was a major maritime nation as it built a World empire.  It competed primarily with neighbours  Spain to make discoveries in the New World and in 1494  after years of challenge a Treaty was signed which gave Brazil to Portugal and all the rest to Spain. For Spain this might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster  as it gave up the Amazon rain-forest and all of its riches for the barren Andes of Patagonia.

By the mid nineteenth century Portugal had the fourth largest European Empire but at only 4% of World territory was way behind France (9%), Spain (10%) and Great Britain at a huge 27%.  That is a massive amount of land grab but I wonder if the Roman Empire might have been even greater given that the known World was much smaller two thousand years ago.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon in Lagos, it was different, it wasn’t the tourist Algarve of Vilamoura or Albufeira, much more similar to Silves and Tavira; had a very pleasant pavement lunch and then took the train ride home, had a few stressful moments trying to secure a taxi ride to the hotel but eventually made it back to our accommodation,

We had tired of the hotel catering by this point but had discovered a very nice Portuguese restaurant in the village which served traditional food so were we glad to abandon the school dinner hall tonight and spend an excellent evening with proper food.

Tea Towel Souvenirs – Portugal

I usually bring home postcards but occasionally a tea towel.  I am unable to explain why.

The Algarve – A Tense Walk to Albufeira

 

“By the end…it was clear that … spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms… and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.”  – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.

I understand that breakfast service at the Tui Blue Faleseia was once used as an initiation test for new recruits to the SAS but it was discontinued because it was considered too tough even for this.

The food, it has to be said was very good indeed but the restaurant ambience was rather like Dante’s inferno!. Wooden chairs being scraped across tiled floors, cutlery being dropped on the floor with a clatter, great training for the ‘World Pushing In Championships’ and the constant attention of the cleaning up crews who, if you weren’t careful would whip your plate away from under your nose even before you had finished.

It was in the dining room that I first noticed the tattoos, because the amount of body art on display here was absolutely incredible.  Personally I cannot understand why anyone, unless they are a Maori, would want to disfigure themselves in this way but here at Tui Blue it seemed as though they were almost in the majority.  Here there were bodies decorated with lions, wolves and dragons, goblins, fairies and skulls, a comprehensive A to Z of boy’s and girl’s names and more Indian braves than General George Armstrong Custer  had to fight at the Battle of the Little Big Horn!  Why do people disfigure themselves in this way I wonder.

So we started off to Albufeira but as it turned out it wasn’t an especially good walk and less than half way there Kim began to complain.  Too hot, too hilly,  too touristy with which I had to agree but keep it to myself.

We walked through the resort town of Santa Eulalia which I remembered from thirty years ago as a quiet place with a couple of modern hotels.  Not so anymore, it is a noisy place with a couple of d0zen modern hotels and a nasty strip of English bars, ticket offices touting tours and car rental places.  Quite horrible.

But, if that was bad we (I) managed to take a wrong turn and we found ourselves in little Liverpool, a place for lads and tarts, tattooed from neck to knee, nursing hangovers and already drinking mid morning.  Praia do Oura or more correctly Praia de Horror was a dreadful place and this diversion didn’t improve Kim’s mood a great deal so I was glad to reverse the mistake, get out and carry on.

Thirty minutes later we arrived In Albufeira.

Up until the 1960s Albufeira used to be a small fishing village but is now one of the busiest tourist towns on the Algarve and has grown into a popular holiday resort for tourists from Northern Europe and even though this was early May it was surprisingly warm and there were a lot of people about this morning.

This was Albufeira when I first visited in 1985., the year the town acquired city status.  It is called Praia dos Pescadores. More fishing boats than sunbeds in those days.

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I have to say I found Albufeira both interesting and disappointing in equal measure.  It has clearly long abandoned its fishing heritage and the economy is now driven by tourism.  The Old Town is street after street of bars and cheap beach shops, travel agents selling tourist excursions and waiters waiting to ambush at every street corner.  We were looking for a tradional Portuguese restaurant that we had enjoyed three years earlier but when we found it it was closed and had clearly been so for some time.

Looking carefully beyond the shop facades and up above it was still possible to catch a glimpse of old Abufeira but sadly you will have to be quick because it is only a matter of short time before it is certain to go.

 

I am getting to sound like Norman Lewis now.  I suspect the place once had an easy sort of charm, fishermen’s cottages on the beach and whitewashed house with blue doors and elegant balconies in the old town but much of this is now hidden behind fast-food places and Chinese and Indian restaurants.

People have probably always complained about development and progress, it is quite likely the Saxons looked back at London with fond memories and complained about the Normans building new castles and Cathedrals.

After the discovery that the Portuguese restaurant that we had walked six miles to see was no longer there we stopped just long enough for a pavement beer and then took a taxi back to Olhos de Agua.where spent the remainder of the day on the balcony of our room.

 

 

 

The Algarve – A Stroll Along Praia da Falésia

“Imagine the Grand Canyon sitting on a beach. Welcome to Praia da Falésia. The beloved beach is characterised by its incredible red cliffs. In fact, the translation of the beach is Beach of Cliffs. Falésia beach is one of the best beaches in the Algarve. Even if you are not a beach lover, this beach is definitely worth a visit.” – Algarve Guide

It was a glorious morning, we took breakfast in the hotel dining room, watched sad guests bagging sunbeds and applying bucket loads of sun cream and preparing for a hard day around the pool and then set off to walk the four mile Praia da Falésia towards Vilamoura.

We had no desire or intention to walk as far as the resort. We visited Vilamoura previously  in 2019 and immediately wished that we hadn’t.  The official guide boasts that “Vilamoura is unlike any other Portuguese town, gone is the dilapidated charm, replaced with striking perfection, which is simply expected by the super-rich who frequent the marina.”

It is a modern purpose built tourist resort completely lacking in any sort of character  with roving packs of British golfers in between golf courses. And Chavs with tattoos.   We prefer ‘dilapidated charm’ and are certainly not ‘super-rich’ so stayed no longer than half-an-hour or so before quickly leaving without a single glance in the rear-view mirror.   As it happened on that day we moved on to Olhos de Agua and had lunch on the sea front but I had completely forgotten about that.

So we set off on the walk…

This was Olhia de Agua in about 1960.   It has changed a lot obviously.  I read a book before the holiday bu someone who lived in the Algarve in the 1960s and was forever going on about how development was ruining the place.  If he could come back now I tell you that he would have a mental breakdown.

This is not a great picture, it shows the village about sixty years or so ago and was on a menu at a local restaurant,  No concrete, no boulevard, just a sandy shelving beach and a fishermen’s village beyond.  Sigh.  Double Sigh.  Double Double Sigh.

I am not really a great fan of beaches, except for walking.  I cannot sit on a beach for a long time, about one hour is my absolute limit and that includes a fifteen minute paddle/swim.

This isn’t Portugal, believe it or believe it not it is Skipsea in Yorkshire, England and that is the North Sea…

Falésia is a good beach for a walk, soft sand, cool Atlantic water lapping over  ankles,  driftwood and shells to collect.  I always add a little bit of driftwood from each new beach that I visit to add to my own creation …

And wildlife.  We weren’t sure if this was dead or alive, Kim invited me to poke it to see but I declined the offer…

I was intrigued by the cliffs, sandstone eroded over time to reveal dramatic sculptures and I amused myself by looking for faces in the stone.  This one reminded me of the Semana Santa in Spain….

This one of a Viking Warrior…

It was a good day, it was a good walk, we enjoyed it…

Cofete Beach on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands still remains my favourite…

Portugal and the Algarve – Blue Flag Beaches

 

After two years of pandemic hibernation we were ready for a vacation.  Due to continuing uncertainty we agreed to book the sort of holiday that we wouldn’t normally consider and booked a beach hotel holiday with Tui holidays.  Part of our logic was that if things did go wrong then Tui are reliable at giving refunds.

Also, we had been to the Algarve in 2019 and had liked it there.

We chose a hotel in the Alarve in the village of Olhos de Agua  near Albufeira at the western end of the six kilometre long blue flag beach of Praia da Falésia which according to TripAdvisor is considered the number one beach in Portugal, the third best beach in Europe and the twelfth best beach in the World.

Maybe, maybe not, these things are always subjective.  No one ever agrees about these matters.  My favourite beach in Portugal is Bordeira on the west coast south of Lisbon.  Oh I did so like it there…

The Blue Flag beach award was originally conceived in France in 1985 where the first coastal municipalities were awarded the Blue Flag on the basis of criteria covering standards relating to sewage treatment and bathing water quality.

Two years later, 1987 was the ‘European Year of the Environment’ and the concept of the Blue Flag was developed as a European initiative by the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe to include other areas of environmental management, such as waste disposal and coastal planning and protection and in that first year two hundred and forty four beaches from ten countries were awarded the new Blue Flag status.  Thirty-five  years later in 2022 when the updated list was published there are over four thousand.

Spain has more blue flag beaches than any other participating country with six hundred and fifteen along almost five thousand kilometres of coastline.  The United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and twenty-nine in nearly twelve thousand,  five hundred kilometres.  Greece has the second most blue flags at five hundred and forty-four  and the most in the Mediterranean Sea.  Italy has four hundred and sixteen and France has four hundred and ten.

Portugal completes the top five list with three hundred and seventy two.

This one is in the north at Furadouro…

What is interesting however is to put this into context by relating success in terms of numbers to the total length of coastline because that reveals that Portugal has a blue flag beach every seven kilometres  and Spain and France only every ten.  Lust my opinion but beaches in Portugal are way better than Spain and France because they are all on the Atlantic coast.

In the United Kingdom you have to travel almost one hundred kilometres between each blue flag beach and that puts us twenty fifth out of the top twenty-five.  That is even worse than our annual performance in the Eurovision song contest.  Mind you would have to travel a lot further in Norway because it has only three blue flag beaches in eighty-three thousand kilometres of coast.

The journey was spoilt by a flight delay and chaos at Faro airport passport control and then a lot of faffing about on the coach transfer but eventually we reached our destination, the monstrous three hundred and fifty room Tui Blue Falésia hotel with its seven or so hundred guests.  We normally like something like a maximum ten room place.

We approved the accommodation and ignoring the pool, the gardens and the cocktail bar made directly for the village and something more our style – a beachfront bar/restaurant and sat for an hour or so, had a pleasant lunch and admired the beach and the never ending view out over the Atlantic Ocean to the horizon.

Kim worked on her tan…

I would have been happier staying in the village rather than the hotel but we had a half board arrangement so returned now to the dining room buffet.

Inevitably I made the first mistake about buffet spreads.

I did no forward planning, made no menu preferences  in advance, had no idea what I wanted to eat so just blundered in and ended up with a selection of bizarre food combinations which if I had been a contestant on Masterchef would have led to an instant elimination.  You know the sort of thing, fish, beef, chicken goujons  and a slice of pizza all on the same plate.  A real gourmet mess.

It was all rather disappointing, rather like a school dinners experience and we were happy when it came to an end.  Never mind, we had a lovely room on the top floor, a large balcony and a good sea view.  We agreed that in future we would do some planning ahead and be more tactical and selective.

Tomorrow we planned to walk the Praia da Falésia.

East Anglia – Bury St Edmunds and The Patron Saint of Pandemics

Bury St Edmunds was another town that I had never visited. A few years ago I drove through it and was struck by the elegant market place with a tall cathedral and fine Georgian buildings and I made a note to self to pay a proper visit one day.
This was it.
In terms of the weather we had unfortunately picked a very bad week to be on an English staycation and we weren’t too disappointed to be leaving the holiday home (caravan) so we packed up early and headed away from the coast and into rural Suffolk and drove through villages which had seen significant overnight snowfall. I thought that I was in Alaska. Contrary to popular folklore March had roared in like a lion and instead of going out like a lamb was going out the same way.
Fortunately the further west that we drove the weather began to incrementally improve and there were even some glimpses of elusive blue sky. We arrived in late morning which was too early to book into our chosen hotel so we made instead for the centre of the town. Local folk call the town Bury but being from the North I always think of Bury as being in Manchester so I prefer to think of this place as Bury St Edmunds. It sounds posher.

After Ipswich and Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds is the third largest place in Suffolk and we liked it immediately. After tea and biscuits in the Cathedral coffee shop Kim and Mum made directly for the High Street shops and I went off to investigate the Abbey Gardens and the Cathedral.
The Abbey of St Edmund was once one of the richest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in all of England. In 869, Edmund, King of the East Angles was murdered by invading Danes when he refused to renounce Christianity. For his stubbornness he was tied to a tree and shot through with arrows and had his head cut off to make sure. No half measures in those days. I wonder sometimes about medieval torture, surely the victim was well and truly dead before the torturers had finished. Vladamir Putin would have been a medieval torturer I am sure.

His death led to the building of the Abbey to house his remains and his shrine quickly became a place of pilgrimage. The Cult of Edmund flourished during the Middle Ages and he was temporarily revered as the patron Saint of medieval England until at some point he was replaced by Saint George.
Today he has the unlikely title of the Patron Saint of Pandemics so I imagine that he has been rather busy listening to prayers for the past couple of years or so. He is said to have been given this title after the French city of Toulouse (who claimed to have some important relics of his) became ravaged by plague in the seventeenth century. Residents of the prayed to Edmund after which the plague came to an abrupt end. As Michael Caine might have said “Not a lot of people know that”.

Maybe if more people had known this the World could have saved a fortune on developing Covid vaccinations and going into expensive lockdown. I wish that I had known that because if I had I would have said a prayer to St Edmund because a few days after returning home from East Anglia both Kim and I both tested positive for Covid.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s the Abbey naturally began to fall into disrepair and lots of stone was taken for alternative building projects around the town. I was quite surprised therefore to discover that so much of it remained in a vast well maintained town centre park.
Near the Cathedral there are houses built into the walls which reminded of Antoni Gaudi creations in Barcelona. I don’t suppose that Gaudi ever visited Bury St Edmunds but if he had he may have got inspiration here,

I spent some time in the Gardens, walked every path and read each and every information board.

Towards the end of the afternoon I made my visit to the Cathedral. Free admission by the way. Up to 1914 Suffolk didn’t have a Cathedral and was part of a wider diocese of East Anglia with the Cathedral in Norwich in Norfolk but it was then decided that it required one of its own. This presented the Church with a dilemma.

Ipswich is the biggest town in the County but Bury St Edmunds had the most famous church thanks to the St Edmund connection. The Church came to a compromise, Ipswich would get the Bishop’s House and be the base of the diocese and Bury St Edmunds would get the Cathedral and everyone agreed that that was a good idea except perhaps for the Bishop who has a hundred mile round trip every week to get to Sunday service which would have been much more of an inconvenience over a hundred years ago than it is today.

Ipswich is not unique, it is not the only County town without an Anglican Cathedral and there are others – Warwick, Cambridge (I mentioned that before), Northampton (I mentioned that before as well), Nottingham, Aylesbury and Shrewesbury are other examples. At the same time that Suffolk became a diocese so too did Essex with its own Cathedral in Chelmsford.

Not a brilliant Cathedral I have to say but it provided me with a pleasant fifteen minute visit, especially as the choir was practising which was very nice, before I left and rejoined the others at the agreed time.

I had enjoyed my afternoon in Bury St Edmunds and I was forced to concede that this was a town where half a day it isn’t long enough so I will have to make another note to self to return one day and stay longer.

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A to Z of Cathedrals – G is for Girona in Catalonia

I have had to decide between two strong candidates for the letter G, Granada in Andalusia and Girona in Catalonia.

I have picked Girona…

Eventually and inevitably we arrived in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain.

We found the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral but once there Kim declined the opportunity to go inside and left me to visit the interior of the building alone and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome.

Read the full Story Here…

This, by the way is the Cathedral in Granada

I also considered the Royal Monastery in Guadalupe but that technically isn’t a Cathedral so that would be cheating and I have to save my cheating for later…

East Anglia – The Evolution of Caravans and Fish ‘n’ Chips

Warning – the post contains images that some readers might find upsetting.

It had been a glorious day weather wise but the forecast for the next few days was really rather grim and although we arrived in sunshine  clouds were already worryingly close by and the prospects were depressingly bleak.

Before travel I had rather recklessly accepted a challenge from Kim to sometime this week take a dip in the North Sea and although this was only mid March I had rashly accepted.  There was a £10 bet resting on this and as I was not about to part with £10, even to Kim, especially to Kim, so I decided that it had to be done straight away.

Bloody Hell it was cold.  It reminded me of family holidays sixty years ago.

Bad weather didn’t stop us going to the beach in those days and even if it was blowing a gale or there was some drizzle in the air we would be off to to enjoy the sea.  If the weather was really bad we would put up a windbreak and huddle together inside it to try and keep warm.  Most of the time it was necessary to keep a woolly jumper on and in extreme cases a hat as well and Wellington boots were quite normal.

As soon as the temperature reached about five degrees centigrade or just slightly below we would be stripped off and sent for a dip in the wickedly cold North Sea in a sort of endurance test that I believe is these days considered even too tough to be included as part of Royal Marine Commando basic training.

It was rather like being submerged in liquid nitrogen and whilst swimmers in Australia were worrying about sharks we were busy avoiding bits of iceberg that had broken off in the Arctic Ocean.  I can remember one holiday at Walcote, Norfolk, in about 1965 when it was so cold that there was a penguin on the beach!  That is seriously true and being so far from the South Pole I can only imagine that it had escaped from a nearby zoo or aquarium.

I claimed the £10 bet but Kim reneged saying that I hadn’t fully submerged so it didn’t count and the bet was off.  I was too cold to dispute the finer points of the claim.

As promised in the weather forecast the next two days were desperately awful with rain, sleet, snow and high winds whipping in from Scandinavia so for much of the time we were confined to the caravan which was painful but not as bad as swimming in the North Sea.

I have horror memories of caravan holidays.  When I was a boy the family went to caravan holidays all of the time.  Caravans simply had no temperature control, they were hot and stuffy if the sun shone (so that wasn’t too much of a problem, obviously) and they were cold and miserable when it rained, which,  I seem to remember was most of the time .

They  had no bathroom so we had to use the communal camp washroom facilities, it had no electricity so we couldn’t watch TV, it had no kitchen so we couldn’t cook breakfast and it didn’t have heating so when it was cold it was really cold.  The only thing it did have was a bottle of Calor Gas and a one ring hob for boiling a kettle and for lighting hissing gas lamps at night which attracted insects and created so much condensation that after an hour or two, water was dripping off the ceiling onto our sleeping bags on the floor and we were sleeping in a puddle.

As I get older I appreciate more and more what my parents did for me.  They took us for a seaside in a tiny caravan and I can only imagine that they hated it, it must, after all, have been mind-numbingly boring, spending endless hours in a biscuit tin with only the popping of the gas lamp and the smell of  Calor Gas for evening entertainment, especially when it was raining. 

I am pleased to be able to report that modern caravans are much improved and our accommodation had all of the facilities of a modern home with central heating, running water, a bathroom, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen.  So we we filled the fridge with wine, cooked a Shepherd’s Pie that Mum had prepared previously, closed the doors and hunkered down for a couple of days in the comfort of our caravan.

As it turned out it wasn’t bad weather all of the time, only about 95% of the time  out so in between blizzard like Arctic showers and savage North Sea winds we did manage to get out for an hour or two.

I especially wanted to go to Aldeburgh because last time that I was there I had a mind to have some fish and chips from a highly recommended chippy but this was in August and there was queue which lasted well over an hour and however much I like fish and chips I wasn’t prepared to line up for that long.

Today there was no queue so I breezed in and ordered and took them away to the beach to eat them. I sat myself on the sea wall with an uninterrupted  view out over the North Sea, the colour of a day-old bruise, rippling away to the horizon under gunmetal skies. I unwrapped with anticipation and immediately received the anticipated aroma which, once released smells of all the good things in life in the same place at the same time.   The very warmth of it felt like a reassuring defender against the chill wind coming off the sea.

As it happened, the fish was good, the chips were poor, I enjoyed them but I wouldn’t queue for over an hour to buy them.

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Sunday Sunsets – Dingle in Ireland

“May every sunrise hold more promise, and every sunset hold more peace.” – An Irish Blessing.

When I woke early in the morning I knew instinctively that it was going to be a good day because the sunshine was leaking into the room through the gaps in the curtains and a peek outside confirmed a blue sky and a golden yellow sun centre stage.

The Dingle Skellig hotel served a good breakfast – a full Irish which in truth was much the same as we call a full English but with a white pudding (black pudding without the blood) which was something I had never had before but found rather to my liking.

Read The Full Story Here…

A to Z of Cathedrals – E is for Ely in Cambridgeshire

When I was a boy my parents took us on caravan holidays.  I only had bad memories of caravan holidays and refused to ever consider them again until 2006 when my pal Dai Woosnam persuaded me to give modern caravanning a chance.  I did so and now I am happy to have a once a year holiday in a tin shed.

I had been to Kessingland in Suffolk before but we were taking my Mum and she liked it there so we happily selected it again.  I have only been to Suffolk twice before so have missed a lot and cannot claim to be an expert so when I planned the itinerary from Rugby (where my Mum lives)  through East Anglia I looked for new places to visit.

Historically East Anglia consists of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and maybe Huntigdonshire.  Essex occasionally aspires to be included but has never been admitted for not being posh enough.  On the positive side however it does have a First Class county Cricket Team and the others do not.

I most associate East Anglia with “Sale of The Century”, the quiz of the week with Nicholas Parsons.

We started at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

I have never spent much time in Cambridgeshire, I have only ever been to Cambridge once (not to the University) and missed it out again this time as we took the by-pass and headed deep  into the Fens.  After a few miles of flat, featureless landscape we spotted Ely Cathedral rising majestically from the fields and soaring into the heavens.

I used to believe that every County in England had just one Cathedral but now I know different because Cambridgeshire has two.  Yorkshire has five cathedrals, Lancashire has four and as well as Cambridgeshire, Kent and Hampshire also each have two.  Cambridgeshire has two because of the changing geographical status of Peterborough.  Peterborough used to be in Northamptonshire and then in Huntingdonshire but in 1974 was transferred to Cambridgeshire which gave the County two Cathedrals but left Northamptonshire with none.

Other English Counties without (Anglican) Cathedrals are Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, East Sussex, Isle of Wight, Rutland and Shropshire.

The Fens are drained and reclaimed now for agriculture but  a thousand years ago they were a soggy, waterlogged sort of place and as a boy I grew up on stories of Hereward The Wake who fought the Norman invaders and based his army on the Isle of Ely because only he knew the safe paths through the bogs and safe channels.

This is Hereward the Wake, a sort of eleventh century Brexiteer who would today have a seat in Boris Johnson’s anti Europe government or be writing a column in the Daily Express…

Ely is a small city because the land was previously unsuitable for development so at just twenty-five square miles it is the second  smallest in England after Wells in Somerset and just ahead of Ripon in Yorkshire and Truro in Cornwall.

The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe is geographically the largest diocese of the Church of England covering nearly a fifth of the entire World including North Africa, Europe (but not the UK obviously because this is split between Canterbury and York), a bit of Asia (Turkey) and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Despite this immensity it has only one cathedral, the Diocesan Cathedral is the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar  and it is headed by the Bishop in Europe, Rob Innes.  Except for having to live in Gibraltar* that sounds like a rather good job to me.

We arrived in Ely and to my delight discovered that the City has free parking.  Free parking is something that is virtually unheard of in the UK.  The previous month I was in Yorkshire where every open  available space has a parking meter.  I am told that in Yorkshire you need a parking ticket when waiting at traffic lights.

Kim and Mum were not desperately keen to visit the Cathedral which was a good job because there is an entrance fee of £8.50 which is normally way above my budget so they slipped into the town to find a coffee shop and I searched the bottoms of my pockets in search loose change.  I still think £8.50 is a lot to pay but have to take into consideration that the annual maintenance budget for the Cathedral is £5m and has to be funded from visitor fees and public donations.

Once inside I had to agree that the admission fee was well worth it.  Not the biggest, tallest or oldest Cathedral but certainly on of England’s finest.  The Cathedral was begun in the seventh century but completed its first build under the Normans once they had dealt with the pesky Hereward The Wake.  It was built in stone quarried in Northamptonshire which is a bit ironic because they might have chosen to build there own but still don’t have one.

The stone was paid for not in gold or coin but in eels in a contract worth eight thousand eels a year.  (The name of the City is derived from eels).  A thousand years ago it seems people were rather partial to eels.  In 1135 King Henry I of England famously died after eating what the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon described as a dinner of carnes murenarum – the flesh of eels.

The king’s doctors had advised against him eating eels, but Henry took little notice and died later of food poisoning.  It turns out that eel blood is poisonous to humans if not cooked correctly.  Rather like the Japanese Puffer Fish and interestingly Japan consumes 70% of the World’s eel catch.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ely Cathedral and after an hour or so discovery returned to the streets to rejoin my travelling companions who had thoughtfully bought me a snack, thankfully not eels but a sausage roll.

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