Category Archives: World Heritage

The Royal Garden Party

Buckingham Palace Garden Party Invitation

This is my story of the day that I went to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen.  I first posted it in June 2009 and since then it has become my second most visited blog with almost 21,000 visits.

I have got a different following circle now so I thought it worth posting a link to the story just in case any one is interested…

Read the Full Story…

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Entrance Tickets, The Budapest Parliament Building

Budapest parliament (1)

The five of us debated entrance to the Parliament building.  Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.

The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.

Read the Full Story…

Eugene Schieffelin, William Shakespeare and Starlings in the USA

Eugene Schieffelin

Although the Sparrow and the Starling are on the conservation red list in the United Kingdom it is interesting that by comparison they are doing rather well in the United States.

The European Starling was introduced into North America in the 1890s, and quickly spread across the continent.  It is a fierce competitor for nest cavities, and frequently expels native bird species and is therefore widely regarded as a pest and has been blamed for a decline in indigenous bird populations, especially the infinitely more attractive Bluebird.

The Sparrow and the Starling together with the Pigeon are the only three unprotected bird species in North America, they are all introduced and there are more of them than all the other birds put together.

European Starling

The European Starling is resident in the US because in 1890, a wealthy American businessman called Eugene Schieffelin introduced sixty Starlings into New York Central Park and then another forty the following year.  In doing so he radically and irreversibly altered America’s bird population because today European Starlings range from Alaska to Florida and even into Mexico and their population is estimated at over two hundred million.

Schieffelin was an interesting man who belonged to the Acclimation Society of North America, a group with the seemingly laudable, if misguided, aim of aiding the exchange of plants and animals from one part of the world to another.  In the nineteenth century, such societies were fashionable and were supported by the scientific knowledge and beliefs of an era that had no way of understanding the effect that non-native species could have on the local ecosystem.

Actually, in his defence, some recent revisionist thinking has concluded that the introduction of the Starling was perhaps not as devastating has had previously been suggested and one thing is certain and that is that is was not nearly so thoughtless as the introduction of the European rabbit to the continent of Australia in 1859 by a certain Thomas Austin who wanted them there to satisfy his hunting hobby.

rabbit

The effect of rabbits on the ecology of Australia has been truly devastating and entirely due to the rabbit one eighth of all mammalian species in Australia are now extinct and the loss of plant species is at present uncalculated. They have established themselves as Australia’s biggest pest and annually cause millions of dollars of damage to agriculture. The introduction of the rabbit was an ecological mistake on a monumental scale!

Similarly the humble hedgehog to the Hebrides Islands in Scotland. The prickly interlopers were introduced in 1974 in a misguided act of biological control of slugs and snails. As the numbers of hedgehogs spread across these islands, so the breeding success of many of the internationally important populations of wading birds decreased. A link was made – hedgehogs are partial to eggs, and these hedgehogs were emerging from hibernation just as the birds were laying a smorgasbord of eggy delight. Now the UK Government spends thousands of pounds of taxpayers money trying to eradicate them.

When he wasn’t tinkering with the environment Eugene Schieffelin liked joining clubs and societies and his obituary in the New York Times in 1906 listed his membership of The New York Genealogical and Biographic Society, The New York Zoological Society, The Society of Colonial Wars, The St. Nicholas Club, the St. Nicholas Society and the Union Club of New York which in the 1870’s was generally regarded as the richest club in the world. Obviously Schieffelin had too much money and too much time on his hands!

Birds of Shakespeare

There is an alternative story behind the introduction of the European Starling. It is said that Schieffelin belonged to a group dedicated to introducing into America all the birds mentioned in the complete works of William Shakespeare because they they thought it would be nice to hear the sound of the poet’s birds warbling their old world songs on the tree branches of America. If this were true he must have been unusually familiar with the works of the Elizabethan bard because Shakespeare’s sole reference to the starling appears in King Henry IV, part 1 (Act 1, scene 3): “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’”

As well as the Starling Schieffelin was also responsible for introducing the House Sparrow, which was released into Brooklyn in New York in 1851 and by 1900 had spread as far as the Rocky Mountains and is today common across the entire continent. The sparrow too is regarded as a pest as it is in Australia where it was introduced at roughly the same time, paradoxically as an experiment in pest control.  How badly wrong can an experiment go I wonder?

Schieffelin wasn’t always successful however, probably just as well, and his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks were not successful.

Interestingly the House Sparrow gets four mentions in Shakespeare’s works, in Hamlet, As You Like It, The Tempest and Troilus and Cressida. The full list of avian references in the works of Shakespeare were researched by the Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie and recorded in his book published in 1916, ‘The Birds of Shakespeare’ and they are the Blackbird, Bunting, Buzzard, Chough, Cock, Cormorant, Crow, Cuckoo, Dive-dapper, Dove and Pigeon, Duck, Eagle, Falcon and Sparrowhawk, Finch, Goose, Hedge Sparrow, House Martin, Jackdaw, Jay, Kite, Lapwing, Lark, Loon, Magpie, Nightingale, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Partridge, Peacock, Pelican, Pheasant, Quail, Raven, Robin, Snipe, Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Swan, Thrush, Turkey, Vulture, Wagtail, Woodcock and the Wren.

Some people research some very strange things!

I have told you before about my Dad’s schoolboy notebook about birds, well, this is his Starling page…

Dads Starling Page

My Holidays in Malta, Valletta

Malta Valletta City Guides

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  – Benjamin Disraeli

The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.  Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.  But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his memory.

Valletta Malta postcard

We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like.  Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques.  This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.

We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration.  In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War.  If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.

The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.

Valletta City of the Knights

Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it.  Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.

It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre.  On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

Eventually we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate.  That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.

We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

It was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.

There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.

Very good but a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed  the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand years it went missing.  No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox  monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.

Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich (a bit odd, if you ask me).   Other JTB heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens  in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.

Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist.  I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton in Warwickshire where I grew up.

hillmorton church

When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.  I really do not like those awful cruise ships!

It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal.  There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand.  We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.

Malta Bus Chaos

* I have driven through Cetinje  in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.

My Holidays in Malta, Mellieha and St Paul’s Island

Mellieha Malta

As I have said I have been to Malta several times and always to the town of Mellieha on the north coast close to the ferry port with a crossing to neighbouring Gozo.

I think I recollect correctly that on each of these visits I have visited the town but have always been drawn to the top of a steep hill where the Church stands close by to the main square and a ribbon of traditional shops and restaurants.

This is what Mellieha looked like when I first visited in 1997 but it is a lot more built up now.  The Mellieha Bay Hotel can be made out on the far side of the bay…

Mellieha 1991

I thought it was time for a change so this time after I had walked around the waterfront and the and the sandy beach and as I reached the fork in the road that led up to the town I turned left instead of carrying on and walked along the rocky southern shoreline of Mellieha Bay.

I followed signposts to a small museum housed in an old watch tower right on the edge of the harbour.  Apparently it is a museum about tuna fishing and I am certain that I would have found that interesting but it was closed for renovation.  Apparently the three hundred year old tower is collapsing under the weight of tons of concrete poured onto the roof during the Second World War when it was part of the Island’s defense network.

So I carried on walking.

Mellieha Weekend Homes

The further away that I wandered from the beach and the harbour area there was not much to see, no shops, no bars then a private road with a gate and some holiday flats beyond so I had to turn back and then some interesting weekend homes.

Interesting because rather like railway arches in big UK cities they were built under an elevated section of the road,.  Many were boarded up and barricaded with hefty padlocks but in some the shutters were open, children were playing, there was a smell of Mediterranean cooking and damp laundry was dying in the gentle breeze.  It seems that these are weekend retreats for people from Valletta who drive down here on a Saturday, open the doors, give their washing a good blow in the breeze and enjoy a few hours out of the busy city.

I had walked about four miles or so by now and I was coming to the end of the urban development, the asphalt road became unpaved track and thereafter a dusty footpath that kept going to the end of the peninsular and I carried on because at the end of the mainland there was something I wanted to see – St Paul’s Island.

St_Paul's_Island_As_seen_from_Mellieha

Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta because in 60 AD he was shipwrecked on the island, an incident which is recorded in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul was on his way back to Rome to stand trial but a great storm sank the ship close to Malta and Paul and everyone else on board took refuge on a crop of rock and all were saved.  Today there is a statue of him there to commemorate the event.

Malta is the most religious country in Europe…

…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and whilst there he went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.

But my story of St Paul’s Island does not end here and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate.  Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued and transferred safely to Bugibba.

saint-paul-shipwreckMalta waves

My nostalgic curiosity satisfied I turned around now and headed back the way that I come, back towards Mellieha.

For the record there are three more St Paul’s Islands that I can find, one in the Bering Sea (Alaska) another in Nova Scotia and a third in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and I am fairly certain that Paul wasn’t shipwrecked on any of these.

feast-of-st-pauls-shipwreckSt Paul's Grotto

Other Saint Stories…

Saint James and Santiago de Compostella

Saint Patrick and Ireland

Saint Spiridon and Corfu

My Holidays in Malta – Privatisation and The Buses

Malta Buses

“We are determined to deliver the highest quality service possible in Malta. Customers and their experiences are at the heart of our service. All our customers are important and no effort will be spared to ensure that all of the services we are trusted to deliver will be provided.” – Malta Public Transport

I knew that some things would have changed since my last visit in 1997 and the first and most obvious thing was the buses because up until 2011 Malta had a wonderful bus service with a fleet of vehicles mostly imported from the UK, privately owned, lovingly maintained, customized and painted in a distinctive orange livery with gleaming chrome decoration that required sunglasses just to look at them.

Even in the late 1990s these old buses with their growling engines and banging gear boxes were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age and by 2011 the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions and their fate was sealed a thousand miles away in Brussels and the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified.

Sometimes they weren’t even that safe…

Malta Bus Accident 1978

Under the old system each bus was owned by its driver, who would decorate it himself, giving each its own personality and charm. Some buses had been passed down from father to son, or even been hand built by the family that owned them.

The service was crudely privatised which meant that the Maltese Government no longer had to pay expensive subsidies (this is a lot like the sad demise of the old Island Ferry service story) and was taken over by a British private sector company called Aviva whose modern fleet replaced Malta’s beautiful vintage buses which now languish, awaiting rescue in storage somewhere at Valletta harbour.

Gozo Ferry (2)

The Perils of Privatisation…

By all accounts the transfer was chaotic and farcical, three hundred buses were reduced to one hundred and fifty, the old bus drivers either refused to work for Aviva and didn’t turn up for work on the first day or couldn’t be employed because many of them didn’t have driving licences, the new routes  were inefficient and the buses too big for the narrow Maltese streets.  Articulated ‘bendy’ buses rejected by London were sent to Malta and three of these caught fire because the heat melted the rubber bendy bit in the middle.

The Company name of Arriva is Italian for ‘arriving’ (a language that many Maltese speak due to the close proximity), soon after privatisation it was quickly nicknamed Aspetta  – ‘waiting’.

“Unfortunately, the new designed routes take you half way around Malta in order to save money on buses – that is the problem when an accountant comes in with an Excel sheet and dictates with no real knowledge of what the people need, want or require.” – Malta Tourism Authority (2013)

Buses of Malta postcard

This doesn’t surprise me at all.  I have worked for the private sector trying to provide public service and it rarely ever works on account of the public sector ethos of service and private sector profit being completely incompatible.  Based on my experience I think I am well qualified to say that privatisation never results in improvement despite all of the extravagant promises.

It was an operational and financial disaster and by December 2013 Arriva had run up losses of over €50 million.  The contract was terminated by agreement and the service reverted to public control as Malta Public Transport. The Government didn’t really want the burden of the service however so in January 2015 it awarded a new contract to Autobuses Urbanos de León who appear to have picked up where Aviva left off .

This reminded me of when I worked for a company called Cory Environmental  in refuse collection services.  One man I worked with thought he had a brilliant solution and produced work schedules in alphabetical order!  All the roads beginning with A-F on Monday, G-K on Tuesday and so on throughout the week, it didn’t occur to him that this meant driving hundreds of unnecessary miles and wasting hundreds of pounds worth of diesel.  I seem to remember that he had only a very short career in waste management.  Rather like the tendering team at Arriva who won the Malta contract I imagine!

Malta Bus

 

My Holidays in Malta, Mgarr in Gozo

Fishing Boat Mgarr Gozo Malta

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.”  – Nicholas Monserrat

Mgarr GozoSculpture Mgarr Ferry Port Gozo Malta

This is the port of Mgarr in 1997 when I first visited…

Mgarr 1991