Sunday, January 28, 2007

Not ringing the changes - 27 January 2007

Somewhere in ClerkenwellOur London walk this weekend was from Angel station down through Clerkenwell to Barbican. To be brutally honest, it was not that fantastically exciting but we did discover some new areas of London and walked past a building that we believe is used in the Hercule Poirot TV series as the building Hercule lives in.

St John's GateWe then made our way back to East London to finish of the section of Brick Lane that we missed on our last visit before making our way to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

This business holds the record for the longest running manufacturing business in Britain having documented evidence from Smithfield Market1570, although new research suggest the earliest records may go back to 1420. Over 500 years doing nothing other than make bells that typically don’t wear out is not a great business model in this throw-away age but they have managed it somehow, in what is now an incredibly cramped 1/3 acre site.

Gateway to St Bartholomew's the GreatThe most famous bell they have cast is “Big Ben”, the bell that strikes the hour in the Great Clock of Westminster.

They have occupied the current site for over 200 years and at a casual glance one wonders if anything has changed in that time: it is so delightfully quaint and atmospheric. Of course some things have changed: concrete floors, electricity and so forth. But other things have not changed: the mixture for making the casting moulds is still sand, clay, goat’s hair and horse manure.


The guided tour is well worth it and our guide, who had been at the foundry at least since 1956, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the craft and foundry history making the tour both interesting and entertaining.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wiltshire wanderings - 20 & 21 January 2007

MarlboroughThe Wiltshire town of Marlborough has an appealing main street / market square that merited a return visit so off we set on beautiful winter Saturday morning. Our journey took in a few pretty Wiltshire villages before driving through Britain’s only privately owned forest along the longest Avenue in Britain (4 miles), and into Marlborough.

Storm damageEvidence of the storm that had hit the UK the previous week was all around, not only here in the Savernake Estate but in other places we visited on the weekend.

After walking Marlborough’s square and doing a little shopping we made our way to Wotton Rivers to start a walk that took in a 3-mile section of the Kennet & Avon Canal. Kennet & Avon CanalUnfortunately the excess rain that the UK has had recently meant that the fields we were walking across could equally have been described as ‘swamps’.

As our walk ended, the sun was dipping, and with it the temperature, so we made our way back to Marlborough for some more shopping.

Steam MuseumIt was a special day for one of us so we splashed out on a fabulous meal that evening at the Carnarvon Arms Hotel.

After a slow start, Sunday also became a lovely sunny day. We dipped into Swindon to have a look at Steam, the Great Western Railway Museum. Donnington CastleThe railway workshops where they manufactured engines and rolling stock at Swindon were quite extensive and the Museum is based in the old buildings.

The old workshop buildings are also used for a large shopping complex, decorated in a style sympathetic with its railway heritage.

Aldworth GiantsAfter a quick jaunt through the shops we set off on tour along the Valley of the White Horse, through a number of cute Berkshire villages: some with the first snowdrops of the season; and over the Berkshire Downs to visit the Aldworth Giants before joining the motorway for the run home.

East GarstonEast Garston

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Euston to Camden - 14 January 2007

The British LibraryThe British Library has a fascinating exhibition on at present called ‘London: A Life in Maps’ so we began today’s walk at Euston Station and made the British Library our first stop.

The map from 1726 was the first example, on display, that covered the area out as far as where we live and the main road near our place, East Lane, was clearly labelled.

We could have spent much more time there but the weather was far too good to spend inside so we wandered past the St Pancras Station St Pancras Old Churchwhere all the re-development for the new Channel Rail Tunnel terminus is happening and came across St Pancras Old Church which stands on one of the most ancient sites of Christian worship in Europe, possibly dating back to the 4th Century. The current building, dating from the 11th or 12th Century, has had a chequered history: ruinous in the 13th Century; Camley St Natural Parkre-built in the 14th; half abandoned in the 16th; restored in the 17th; and substantially re-built in the 19th Century.

The next surprise was the London Wildlife Trust’s 2-acre Camley St Natural Park. It is on the banks of the Regent’s Canal and has meadow, marsh, woodland and pond habitats and runs educational programmes for local schools as well as providing a haven for wildlife and people escaping the bustle of the city.

Crossing the canal we joined the towpath for the section up to Camden Lock and Camden Market: Canal tunnelalways a bustling place with its Goth, Punk and Heavy Metal focus providing plenty of visual interest.

One tends to experience London in ‘sight-bites’ as you pop-up from the Underground to see this place or that and in so doing miss the bigger picture of what is near to what. We were surprised to realise that it was not far to walk from Camden back to our starting point at Euston Station.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

East London - 12 January 2007

Museum coin collectorThe V&A Museum of Childhood recently re-opened after they had spent £4.7 million on it so we thought we had better go and check it out. I must confess we could not see where the cash had been spent, but then we never saw it beforehand. Doll's HouseWhat they should have spent some money on was some simple acoustic treatment mounted in the roof truss framework: the place is a reverberant barn, but since it is a listed building they are probably prevented from being practical.

We were captivated by the doll’s house display. They have a wonderful collection including one furnished by Queen Mary. The oldest doll’s house, built 1673, was originally used to teach young girls how to run a household.

Artillery PassageWhile in the East London area we wandered back from the Museum via the Brick Lane/Petticoat Lane market area. The markets there and at Spitafields had finished for the day but the narrow winding streets and lanes lined with their old brick buildings are quite atmospheric. Wilkes StMarket Stall

Monday, January 01, 2007

Marrakech Express - 30 December 2006

Sunset over Koutoubia MosqueLooking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Dar Si SaidHope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you

Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakech Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakech Express
They're taking me to Marrakech
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

Medina street sceneI've been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair

Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Coloured cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear you now

Dar Si SaidWouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakech Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakech Express
They're taking me to Marrakech

Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakech Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the
Marrakech Express
They're taking me to Marrakech
All on board the train, all on board the train
All on board

Crosby Stills & Nash

And so it was time to return to the cold and rain of London.

"Had to get away to see what we could find" - 29 December 2006

Goats tied in a tree to trap the tourists"Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind

Had to get away to see what we could find"

Our second early start took us west to the coast to visit Essaouira. Argan Oil Co-operativeEn route we stopped to see the production of argan oil. The Argan trees only grow in this area of Morocco and in Mexico. Goats climb the trees and eat the fruit, spitting out the nuts. Women collect these reject stones as well as shaking the trees to get more nuts, split them to get the bitter almond-like kernel. At that point, they are ground for cosmetic oil or roast then ground to make cooking oil. The old Portuguese FortFrom 100kg of the fruit – only harvested once the fruit has shrivelled and lost most of the moisture, they achieve 1 litre of oil. However, nothing is wasted: by-products include animal feed and fuel for fires.

Essaouira was designed by a French architect, in 1765, at the request of Sultan Sidi Mohammed, ben Abdallah. Before the town was built a plan was displayed and the name is derived from the local language for ‘look at the picture’. Street sceneThe ‘new’ town was built behind the Portuguese fort of Mogador and as a planned town it is well laid out with wide main avenues running in ‘cross’ arrangement. Behind the shopping area, the normal narrow maze of streets takes over.

The blue boatsBlue & White

Whereas Marrakech is red, Essaouira is predominately white with blue trim. This theme carries over into the port, where the small boats are all blue as are the taxis bicycles and hand carts.

SpicesWhether being on the coast, with a beautiful beach nearby was the reason or not, we really enjoyed the atmosphere of the town, which seems very relaxed and friendly, with a lot less ‘hard-sell’ from the vendors.

Market day at Thursday Village - 28 December 2006

The High Atlas Mountains up the valleyOur final, and most relaxed, excursion into the Atlas Mountains was the trip up the Ourika Valley. This very attractive valley, with villages at regular intervals along the river, was the site of devastation in 1991 when a flash flood killed 200 and wiped out many houses and villages built in the riverbed. Evidence of the damage is still visible with collapsed buildings dotted up the valley.

A Berber kitchenWe visited another Berber house, which although built right on the river had escaped the flood. Unusually it had a internal, river-powered, mill. This gave another interesting glimpse into the lifestyle of the local Berber people in the way that they extend their houses as each new generation gets married.

The Weekly MarketWe also had the opportunity to visit the local weekly market. The weekly markets are the centre of village life as all the people from the surrounding villages meet at their central village to barter goods at the market, visit the barber, get their postThe Weekly Market (and have it read by the postman as the illiteracy rates in the countryside are very high), visit the hospital, get married or divorced. It all happens on the one day per week and the village takes its name from the market day, so we visited ‘Thursday Village’. The markets are only attended by the men who have to do all the buying for the household. The Weekly Market(The wives in our party were not impressed with that concept having witnessed the purchasing efforts of their respectives.) As well as clothing and household items, there was plenty of meat and produce on sale although I am not sure I would have been happy to partake of any of it.

"Travelling the [bus] through clear Moroccan skies" - 27 December 2006

Ait Benhaddou KasbahA long drive required a very early start for the bus journey over the Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate. At 2260m above sea level, this is apparently the second highest road pass in Africa. The road up and over the pass is a stunning drive as it climbs switchback style for the last few hundred metres following the route used by camel caravans in years gone by.

The Kasbah TaourirtOuarzazate is a fairly new city built around the Pashir’s Kasbah and is now primarily devoted to film production. There are a number of studios and the guide rattled off the names of many movies that had been shot in and around the town.

Pick a prop, any propWhile in Ouarzazate we toured the Kasbah, which overlooked a studio with what appeared to be a graveyard for disused movie props.

Although it was a long day and a long time sitting in the bus, the scenery was spectacular with the rugged mountains and earth coloured Berber villages.

Berber villageThe week that we were in Morocco was the week leading up to Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice where Muslims kill a sheep to remember the provision, by God, of a sheep for Abraham to use when God tested Abraham’s faith with the command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.

As a sheep to the slaughterSo, everywhere we went, sheep trading was in full swing. However, having purchased the requisite sheep (one per wife) one had to get the beast home. The modes of transport we spotted were: On pushbike, moped, motorbike, on the back of a donkey; in the donkey saddle bags – one sheep each side; on top of cars, trucks, utilities, vans; in handcarts; and even in a wheelbarrow.

Asni Valley - 26 December 2006

Asni Valley
We took a four-wheel drive tour up the Asni Valley to the Berber village of Imlil. On the way we experienced the traditional Berber tea ceremony. Berber tea ceremonyThis is preformed with great flourish by the head of the household. A handful of green tea, a huge bunch or fresh mint and a very large lump of sugar went into each pot. The pots were heated to re-boil the water and then it was poured, from a great height, into the tiny glasses.

At the passBefore lunch, we went, off-road, above the snowline to the pass at the head of the valley, 7500ft. The area is picturesque, but poor, tourism must help the local economy considerably.
The countryside is a strange mix of age-old farming techniques and modern communications as cellphones and satellite dishes are everywhere. Even way up this remote valley, there was cellphone coverage - the UK could learn a thing or two.