Have Bag, Will Travel
- 916,283 hits
Search my Site
The sun was shining when we left the Spanish east coast town of Rojales just south of Alicante in the Province of Murcia. It is close to sea level so it didn’t occur to me to take a rain coat or even a pullover in the event that it might later turn cooler as we drove inland and into the mountains.
We were in Spain and the sun always shines in Spain – doesn’t it?
We were driving inland towards Andalusia on the way to the city of Granada and just a few miles after we left the clouds began to build and the temperature began to drop. Kim worried about this and concerned for my welfare asked if I needed to stop and put on something warm. I shivered but didn’t own up to not packing anything that might usefully be described as warm so this wasn’t an option. She pulled a cardigan out of her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. My sister, Lindsay did the same. I tried to look brave.
Shortly after bypassing the city of Murcia there was some improvement and we took a planned detour through the Province of the same name towards Andalusia and towards the small town of Puerta de Don Fadrique which is a small village that makes the extravagant claim to be the prettiest in Spain.
As it happens I have been to a number of self-proclaimed prettiest villages in Spain so I was interested to see how this one compared.
Santillana del Mar in Cantabria is a picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain along with Cudillero, Almagro, Ronda, Trujillo and Alcala de Henares. This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain in 1938 (“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”) although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgment. Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!
The approach to Puebla de Don Fadrique was indeed stunning set against the backdrop of the Sagra mountain range and we continued to climb to three and a half thousand feet before eventually arriving in the town. As we parked the car I couldn’t help noticing that everyone was wearing pullovers and coats. By necessity (not having a pullover or a coat) I declared it warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves!
It was time for refreshment but the first café was closed and so was the second and the third. The whole place was completely desolate as though there had been a nuclear accident and the place had been abandoned in a dreadful hurry.
Everywhere was shuttered and closed which led me to speculate that maybe Puebla de Don Fadrique was suffering from a collective hangover from a Festival the day before, which is usually just my luck, or maybe it just doesn’t open on a Monday.
It was a pretty little place for sure, whitewashed houses and black metal grills in the Andalusian style but without people it lacked any sort of vibrancy or interest, no bars, no restaurants and no shops. We walked through the streets half in anticipation and half in disappointment and made our way back to the car and suddenly there was signs of life as a group of men in coats and pullovers were sitting at a street corner debating the big issues of the day and at the end of a street about a hundred yards away we finally spotted a bar that was open.
So we made our way towards it, alarmed the owner by sitting down and ordering a coffee and then slightly bemused by all this left and drove out of the village and resumed our journey towards Granada.
As we drove further west the weather continued to rapidly deteriorate. Ahead of us we could just about make out the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at eleven and a half thousand feet the highest in Spain and the third highest in Europe after the Caucasus and the Alps. But the storm clouds were gathering, the sky turned black and it started to rain. The temperature sank like a stone and I began to plan my first task in Granada, to find a shop to buy a coat. And I am not a great shopper!
A few miles out of the city we passed through the wet weather front and the mercury and my spirits began to rise once more and by the time we reached our destination I was pleased to see people wandering around in tee-shirts and short sleeves. Almost effortlessly we found an underground car park located conveniently next to a supermarket and just a couple of hundred yards from our accommodation.
We found it easily and after we had declared it completely satisfactory and had settled in we set off to find somewhere for late lunch and a bit of a stroll.
Although I lived for many years close to Nottingham in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire I never in all that time visited Sherwood Forest or the Major Oak.
I think it was because driving anywhere north of Derby and Nottingham was such a pain in the backside as it involved driving through one small town after another through a succession of bottlenecks. I always preferred to head north-west towards the Peak District attractions.
I thought it might be easier approaching it from the north but this turned out to be a false hope as this also involved driving through one small town after another through a succession of bottlenecks and the sixty mile journey from Grimsby took nearly two hours.
We were visiting Sherwood Forest upon the request of my grandson who has lately developed an interest in Robin Hood but the journey took so long that as we approached he declared himself bored and that he had changed his mind. I told him firmly that this wasn’t an option and when we eventually arrived we paid the £3 parking fee and followed a forest trail into the greenwood.
Sherwood Forest is now a small country park and National Nature Reserve but at the time of the Doomsday Book (1086) it is estimated to have covered a quarter of the county of Nottinghamshire and extended into Derbyshire to the west and Lincolnshire to the east. Over the years it was cut down for fire wood, building materials, land clearance for farming and to build the ships for the British Navy of Horatio Nelson but it was still big enough today to fill an afternoon of moderate activity.
Like most English boys I have always liked the stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, I grew up watching Richard Greene in the TV series ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and at Saturday Morning Pictures watched Errol Flynn in the 1938 movie also called ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.
We made our way to the Major Oak which according to folklore was Robin Hood’s hideout where he and his merry men met and plotted against the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Hole in the Tree Gang perhaps? It weighs an estimated twenty-three tonnes, has a girth of more than thirty feet, a canopy of ninety feet and is about eight hundred to a thousand years old. In a 2002 survey it was voted “Britain’s favourite tree” and in 2014 it was voted ‘England’s Tree of the Year’ in a public poll by the Woodland Trust.
This is the Major Oak: on account of its great age it now needs an arboreal zimmer-frame and support to keep it standing and according to the information board it gets a health check every day. If this thing dies it will be another Princess Diana moment in the history of our Nation.
Woodland people believe that spirits live in the Forest and as we walked we passed by several other impressive oak trees and if you look closely you might just see some of them.
In 1971 Walt Disney made his own Robin Hood Film just called ‘Robin Hood’, Robin was portrayed as a fox and on the trunk of an ancient oak I found him being carried through the Forest by Darth Vader!. Look hard, it is there, take it from me!
No one knows if there really was a Robin Hood, no compelling evidence has ever been found or presented. The traditional story line is that he was a sort of proto-socialist, a thirteenth century idealist who redistributed wealth in a popular campaign of ‘robbing the rich to feed the poor’. Even today most people seem to like this idea and hold him up as a hero of the people. Some things change however and today the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn who proposes similar egalitarian policies is mocked and hated by the rich and privileged.
If there was no such person as Robin Hood my favourite story then has to be that he was an incarnation of the English folklore character The Green Man, a mythical creature who symbolises optimism, regeneration and rebirth. Mabe this explains the legend of Robin Hood? A time when Saxon rule would reaffirm itself over the Norman oppressors, a time when King Richard would return to oversee the welfare of his own people, a time when their practical Pagan faith and beliefs would not be persecuted by an increasingly influential, and affluent Norman Church.
Three Cheers for Robin Hood! Actually this theory is central to another Robin Hood Film of 1991 starring Patrick Bergin unimaginatively called ‘Robin Hood’ and which (in my opinion) was vastly superior to the Kevin Costner film of the same year called ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’. Some people may probably disagree.
Anyway, if you ever get to visit Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak, be sure to keep a look out for the spirits of the Forest. These are my three…
The city of Hull was the 2017 UK Capital of Culture which came as rather a surprise to a lot of people but not to me as it was in competition with the city of Coventry which is a truly dreadful place!
As part of the celebrations the City came up with an idea to bring in tourists – wall paintings to commemorate the fishing heritage of Hull.
One day in May I crossed the River Humber and went to see them.
Fifty year ago the Hull trawler fleet was the biggest fishing fleet in the world (see footnote) and deep sea fishing in Arctic waters was amongst the most dangerous work anywhere. A trawlerman was seventeen times more likely to be killed at work than the average British industrial worker including coal mining.
At the beginning of 1968 some of the worst ever winter storms hit the Icelandic fishing grounds. In the space of three weeks three Hull trawlers were lost and a total of fifty-eight crew members died.
The St Romanus sailed from Hull on January 10th 1968 without a full and experienced crew, most significantly without a properly qualified radio operator to work the ship’s main transmitter. This left communications to the relatively inexperienced skipper with his much less powerful bridge-mounted radio telephone. The last contact was a radio telephone call on the evening of the day they sailed. Despite hearing nothing the owners did not raise the alarm until January 26th.
A life raft found on January 13th had come from the St Romanus. A search began, but by January 30th the families were told that there was little hope for the vessel and her crew.
The second trawler the Kingston Peridot had also sailed from Hull on January 10th with a crew of twenty and by January 26th she was fishing off north-east Iceland in really bad weather.
The ship radioed another trawler that she was having difficulties with ice build-up and moved east to join them. No further contact was established and on January 29th one of her life rafts was washed ashore. News of her loss reached Hull on January 30th just as hope was fading for the crew of St Romanus.
The third lost trawler, the Ross Cleveland, sailed on January 20th, before the loss of the first two trawlers became known. She was bound for the north coast of Iceland.
Conditions were atrocious and on February 3rd she made for a relatively sheltered inlet on Iceland’s north-west coast. A number of other ships were gathered there to wait out the long and hurricane-force snowy storm. A dangerous amount of ice was forming on the vessels superstructure and radar masts. The captain attempted to move her to a safer position but the ship was overwhelmed by the wind and sea, capsized and sank.
News of the Ross Cleveland sinking reached Hull on February and at first it was believed all aboard had died, but on February 6th Harry Eddom, the mate, washed ashore in a life raft barely still alive, the other two men in the raft had died of exposure.
The news of the three lost trawlers devastated the whole of the Hull fishing community but a group of women fishermen’s family members decided to do something more than mourn – they would fight to make the industry safer.
Lillian Bilocca, Christine Jensen, Mary Denness and Yvonne Blenkinsop called a meeting which resulted in the formation of the Hessle Road Women’s Committee. The group became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries. Bilocca and her women comrades led a direct action campaign to prevent undermanned trawlers from putting to sea, particularly when the ship had no properly qualified radio operator.
Bilocca was a working class woman of Hull. She married a Maltese sailor who worked as a trawlerman. Her father, husband and son all worked on the Hull fishing trawlers. She worked on-shore filleting the catch.
They gathered over ten thousand signatures on a petition (that was a lot pre internet and social media) for a fishermen’s charter and sent to the Minister for Fisheries in Harold Wilson’s government.
As well as radio operators the women had other demands including improved weather forecasts, better training for trainee crew, more safety equipment and a mother ship with medical facilities to accompany the fleet.
Eventually Prime Minister Harold Wilson met the women and subsequently government ministers granted all of their demands.
Lillian received death threats from some of the trawler owners and letters telling her not to interfere in men’s work. She lost her job and was blacklisted and she never found work in the fishing industry again.
In 1990 Hull City Council unveiled a plaque inscribed: “In recognition of the contributions to the fishing industry by the women of Hessle Road, led by Lillian Bilocca, who successfully campaigned for better safety measures following the loss of three Hull trawlers in 1968.”
This brave woman should have been included in the One Hundred Greatest Britons but that was never going to happen, the list only included thirteen women anyway!
This is not Hull, it is a statue in the Portuguese city of Póvoa de Varzim …
Footnote: The port town of Grimsby on the south bank of the Humber makes a similar claim and they are probably both correct because they use different criteria.
Upon my return from Naples I thought I might update my map of places that I have visited in Italy.
“You could hear the wails of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men… many raised there arms to the gods, others declared that the gods were no longer and this was their last night on earth”, Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus
These are some of the pictures that I captured when visiting Herculaneum. I have edited them a little and given them some colour because although I am no expert on these matters and I am mindful that I am doing an Arthur Evans here, my guess is that the walls and the mosaics were much more bright and vibrant two thousand years ago…
“At every ticket window customers were gesticulating wildly. They didn’t seem to be so much buying tickets as pouring out their troubles to the… weary looking men seated behind each window. It is amazing how much emotion the Italians invest in even the simplest transaction” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs from Naples to Sorrento and we enjoyed a cramped but scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges. I first used it in 2004 and from memory it was clean and efficient but now it is gloriously chaotic, battle scarred and overcrowded with danger seeping out of every corner.
After half an hour we arrived at the station of Ercolani Scavi, which is barely half a mile away from the entrance to the excavations.
You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line. Compare this to the French, for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!
For those short of time, Herculaneum is a good alternative visitor site to the more famous Pompeii. After the eruption the town was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and almost intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709 who dropped into an underground Roman Theatre. After a bit of inevitable plundering the excavation process began soon after but is still incomplete and today the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation because you can’t just knock down a living town just to get to Ancient Rome.
Actually the excavation has now been indefinitely suspended to help preserve the ancient city. The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of good preservation but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the rapid process of deterioration. This was not helped by previous methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, sometimes rather crude which generally prioritised recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the safeguarding of the infrastructure.
Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the structures. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.
So long as Vesuvius doesn’t erupt again these archeological endeavours can wait. No one knows absolutely for sure but it is estimated that visitors can only see only about a fifth of the city which led me to speculate on what great treasures there must be waiting to be discovered in what remains perfectly preserved underneath the foundations of the modern town directly above.
I had been to Herculaneum once before in 2004 with my son, Jonathan, this is him at an ancient fast food restaurant…
I tried to recapture the cool pose fourteen years later…
… and failed miserably on account of not having a hat.
From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep quarry through the twenty metres or so of tufa and down to the site itself and it became immediately apparent that Herculaneum is most unlike the remains at the site at Pompeii.
Pompeii was destroyed and the citizens were killed by fumes and ash that were carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction from the volcano but Herculaneum was on the other side of the mountain to the west. During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of gas, ash, and rock that had reached a temperature of five hundred degrees centigrade racing down toward Herculaneum at a rate of sixty miles an hour. No chance to outrun it, a Roman chariot could only achieve speeds of half that and only over a short distance. When the flow reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape to open sea and the intense heat killed them in an instant.
This is the scientific bit. A pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano and the temperature within a flow may be so great that it is sufficient to burn and carbonise wood immediately upon impact. Once deposited, because of the intense heat, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments deform and weld together. Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.
This process of filling from the bottom in this way was important because at Pompeii most of the buildings were destroyed by the overhead weight of the ash and they inevitably collapsed but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum. Good for us visitors two thousand years later but not so good for those living there at the time.
The excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii but because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found it to be more interesting. The buildings are intact and the frescoes and the wall paintings are much more vivid and it is possible to visit the houses of important people (including Julius Ceaser’s father-in-law) and the shopping areas and public buildings and the boat houses where most of the inhabitants died as they tried to make their impossible escape from the approaching boiling lava flow.
Whereas Pompeii takes a full day to explore, Herculanem takes just a couple of hours so after we had walked the ancient streets we left and ran the gauntlet of the restaurants and bars with pushy waiters back to the railway station and a return to Naples.
Herculaneum also reveals that things don’t really change so much, this is a sign on a wall setting out prices two thousand years ago…
… and this is a modern day fast food shop in the city of Naples…