A small adventure in Kazakhstan

A small adventure in Kazakhstan

(Yes I know I have jumped a few weeks but I have to catch up sometime, I have 3 wedding to report and will do them when things get quiet again but this was an interesting trip)

We arrived back in Moscow at midnight last night and are now at 6:45 am we are on our way to the airport off to Kazakhstan. This time Sheremetyevo which has been improving as of late. There is an express train (I say express but it does not go fast it just does not stop) going direct from the center of Moscow to the airport in 45 minutes and it has new carriages which makes it an impressive ride for your 300 rubles ($10). We catch the 7:00 am train for a 9:55 am flight giving us lost of hanging around time.( Judi is logistics for this trip).

We are in a brand new terminal “F” only opened a few days ago. I went out of “E” another new one the other week on my way to Paris. F is very very new, so new they have not taken the wrapping of the big screens everywhere and empty spaces where the shops should be. A vast hall of a place with lots of nothing in it. There is a café which is serving coffee (you can order black, white or espresso nice) and is acting as a smoking area as they have not finished building the official one and don’t look to be making much progress from what I could see the builders were all in the café.

Russians are an interesting group, they instinctively queue so every time someone went up to our departure desk they would impulsively get up and move toward it. When the person moved off they would all disperse. It is a very interesting phenomenon and I am not sure if it is an unconscious or involuntary thing. Probably a hangover from when they had to queue for everything you know see a queue and you must join it. Anyway with no screens working there is no way to check if everything is ok and on time so people go and ask and others form a little queue. I am watching whilst drinking my white coffee. 

The flight is to Almaty once the capital of Kazakhstan it is now the second city which is Astana and we are on “Air Astana” a new carrier for me but we are on an Airbus so not nervous about it, the only drawback is the flight is around 5 hours. 3100 kilometers and remember yesterday we were in London 2500 kilometers further west so quite a lot of travel for 24 hours. Now I am a tourist on this trip but unfortunately Judi has to work. The only perk she gets is to fly business but I am ok with the rank and file. I get an aisle seat which is fine for me and have a fairly elderly couple by my side. I have to be careful here as they may be my age but they look older. The plane is quite full and another trait of the Russians is to always take between 3 -6 plastic bags as hand luggage. They are enthusiastic duty free shoppers and always seem to board planes with lots of extra items they cannot live without.

The companions by my side may not be frequent fliers as they are collecting souvenirs and seem to be putting the magazines, the seat safety card and the sick bags into their carriers. I wonder what they will do with the food tray when it comes around later. The film is “Date Night” which strangely enough I saw on a plane so I get chance to sleep with my iPod playing country and western softly in the background.

If you look up Almaty you will see it is close to China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and a couple of other “Stan’s” one of the Turkic States (whatever that means)an ex-Russian state it claimed independence on Christmas day 1991 which is interesting as it is a Muslim country. There is a large mountain range to the South of the city but the wet weather means I will probably not get to see much of them as we land.

Once on the ground we get through customs very smoothly, far more smoothly than when it went to get my vise the other week which will get a blog of its own. 10 minutes waiting for the bags and we are outside. We have a taxi organized with a rather large chap driving and talking on the phone the whole way into town. I think he should have been paying more attention to the traffic so I calm myself by looking at the buildings. Giorgio Armani,  Mexx, Maxa Mara, Mmmmm. The town seems to be all glass and steel and almost brand new. There are some older buildings but mostly new malls and hotels. Our Hotel is a brand new Holiday Inn which appears as we turn a corner.

So where was I ?

So where was I ?

That’s right we were in John’s caravan in Conway, its Wednesday (possibly) and we have to get back South so that Jo can pick up her ferry back to France and I have a car to pick up at Heathrow. Jo has managed to move her sailing time (nice technical term) back a few hours so we don’t need to be on the road until 10 am. Not that we were planning to cook breakfast, had enough of them for a few days but we do have time for coffee and biscuits outside on the patio, (it’s a very nice caravan).

I spot what I think is a Robin bobbing around but dismiss the thought as it is late June and they should all be somewhere else like Spain or Portugal. This however turns out to be a personal choice of the individual robin and not a lemming like requirement as there is definitely one hopping around our little patch. Normally these little birds with a bright red breast are not overly friendly and will stay at a safe distance. I did once have one follow me around the garden one spring as I was turning over the soil. It would wait until I mover on a little then hop around the newly turned sods looking for enticing items for breakfast. This one however looks like it is waiting to be handed breakfast so we oblige with some crumbs which seem acceptable to it.

It even hung around whilst I fiddled putting a big lens on the camera so I could take a few shots. It is not often you get the chance to take close-ups of these so I make the most of it. It likes the biscuits and invites a friend along for a while. We do have to be going so reluctant as I was it was time to jam everything back into the little car and move on.

Driving in England in the sunshine is a great experience and our Sat Nav has chosen a particularly scenic route of us to start with. Back along the coast towards Chester then South via Wrexham, Oswestry, Shrewsbury and Telford before joining the Motorway just North of Birmingham. We take the toll road which is a recent innovation, well Dec 2003 (I’ve been away a while) although it was first discussed in 1980 so 23 years from idea to opening. I actually was partially closed for repairs only 5 weeks after it opened which should be some kind of record even for England. It is 5 pounds well spent and we speed along with little or no other cars around. Not sure it is filling its expectations if nobody is using it Mmm.

So on an South towards Heathrow we go stopping for coffee somewhere. Interestingly when you buy coffee these days you have lots of choices, none of which it understand, how do you know that you like double skinny latte with caramel or whatever code they are using. I still like coffee with some milk please which normally get a sneer as a response. This particular establishment seems badly planned and the payment area is also the pickup area as these peculiar concoctions are brewed, distilled, swilled, mixed and blended which all takes time. (Two people taking money and one fermenting is not the right ratio methinks however they know best). This means there is a throng of people hanging around some waiting for drinks and some waiting to order and neither knowing which is which. Being English people are politely asking each other, “are you queuing” “are you waiting” “is this the queue” “have you ordered” whilst the 2 Barista’s are shouting loudly “who’s next” and “can I serve someone” which only added to the chaos. This of course is only exacerbated when the person gets to the head of the throng after 10 minutes and then has no idea what they want and stare aimlessly into space (probably trying to invent a new combination, if you want to try it then here are the options you have http://www.quicksilverweb.net/sbucks/sbcharts.htm). I’m sure I heard someone ask for a double espresso “decaf” now I ask you why can’t we have these people taken out to the car park and flogged. Decaffeinated espresso, next it will be a double gin and tonic with no alcohol please. So you see asking for just a coffee with milk avoids all of this hanging around. Please take note when next you are in your local coffee house. (bit of a rant there sorry)

Ever onward we go and navigate the ring road of the airport with some ease if I say so myself. (I used to spend a lot of time going back and forth out of this place) The car hire is inside one of the hotels on the perimeter which avoids the airport surcharge normally. For some reason I get what they call a “free upgrade” which is interesting as I seemed to get exactly the car I ordered. Never mind next is to point Jo in the direction of Portsmouth and her ferry. “Try and keep the sun on you right hand side” I shout as she drives off (it’s a man thing)

Day 3 not another English Breakfast, enough already !!!

Day 3 not another English Breakfast, enough already !!!

Yes given we are in a hotel we get breakfast again then off to see my other daughter Katrina. Only slightly early to invade her space being that it is only 10 am. Spend an hour or so catching up then on at my sisters insistence to find a “Poundstretcher”. (99 cent store) where it is believed bargains abound. Not so sure myself however 3 tablets of Pears soap for a pound looks like a good deal, unfortunately I am not in need right now (I am collecting hotel toiletries and am good for a week or so).

Whilst Jo ransacks the place for kids stuff for her own grandchildren I wander around the shopping precinct. We are in Swinton and the place looks a little sad. I have a theory about these strip malls, if there are more than 3 charity shops then the whole place is on the decline. There are 5 that I pass which says a lot about the place. Every shop seems to be selling 2 for 1 or buy 1 get 1 free. Is nothing normal in England anymore?.

I pop into “Greggs” the Pasties and Pie shop where in my youth I used to acquire cheese pasties which were so hot you could take the skin off the roof of your mouth. I fell for it every time straight in and Ahhhhhh. Probably not allowed to happen now even McDonalds has to mark coffee cups stating contents may be hot, “quell surpris”. Anyway I am on the hunt for cakes as we are going to stop off at a cousin of ours close by.

I finally get Jo out of the shop and as we return to the car I wonder where we are going to cram all the bags? They all end up squashed into the back and with a firm slam of the boot (Trunk) lid we are off again. Elizabeth is waiting with tea and there is only a small dispute over who gets which cake, lucky I had bought a spare one so everyone ends up happy. I saw Elizabeth last November but Jo maybe has not seen her for 15 years or so. Quite a long time so pictures taken along with tea and the cakes of course and we are once again on the road. Liz lives on the housing estate I grew up on and it all looks so much smaller than I remember. I did move when I was 11 so maybe I was still small and it was big then.

We are on route to Conway about 70 miles away in North Wales. Now you should know I took the family on holiday there one year, yes only 70 miles from home and it was an adventure I can tell you. This was the days before Motorways (Freeways) so it took half a day to get there with all the traffic lights and roundabouts. These days it takes 1 hour 30 minutes and it is a breeze. A vivid memory I have of the place was taking the kids to a circus. “Circus Apollo” it was called and it was a travelling affair. We bought tickets from this young girl in the ticket booth who later appeared as the female bareback horse rider, later as the tightrope walker, juggler and trapeze artist. She may well have sold us refreshments as well think we had stopped playing “Where’s Wally” by then. The thing is although she kept changing her costumes and hair style she continued to wear the fishnet tights with holes in the back (it was a bit of a giveaway). I only have to mention the words Circus Apollo to my girls to have them burst out laughing (Berni try it next time you see them).

We arrive at Bryn Morfa where Johns caravan is and soon have ourselves settled in. Jo wants to find some “Gram Flour” so we need to find supermarket but first we need to find Auntie Zita. She has already left a not at the caravan asking if we had arrived. So of we pop, it’s not far to her house and when we arrive there is another note on the door saying it is open and she is in the back garden.

We enter and make our way through to what is a small but refulgent (not sure that is the right word but I have always wanted to use it) garden. It is not big but it is packed with plants and flowers far too many to list but the Clematis and the Japanese maple were stunning.  Not sure if I mentioned but Zita is 79 and lives alone, smokes roll up cigarettes, plays 3 holes of golf every morning and thinks nothing of travelling around Europe in her little car. All credit to her and I can only hope to emulate he active lifestyle as I progress.

Hearing about the Gram Flour she decides to take us on an expedition to find some. We pass through llandudno (pronounced Khlandundo its Welsh and they are funny about that sort of thing). It is one of those archetypical seaside resorts. Big 4 story guest houses in a terrace style block all along the promenade. It is probably used extensively for period films and looks as if it has not changed for 100 years. Now did you know the Alice (Liddell) who was the inspiration for “Alice in Wonderland” lived here. There are violent arguments both for and against this theory (not a lot of people know that).

After an all too brief glimpse of the town we trek through both Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s to get some provisions including my sisters item ( she says it is for Bhajji’s) and some odds and ends (inc pork pie).

Back at Zita’s she insists we stay for dinner which she also insists on making, we dine in the garden with the sun drifting off into the west over the shore, all in all somewhat idyllic.  Zita is the family archivist and has traced my mother’s and the whole of the matriarchal side of the family. There are pictures and facts regarding people I have not knowledge of which trip of her tongue at the drop of a hat. Now sure she has got as far back as “William the conqueror” yet but she must be close by now. All this whilst fascinating is also somewhat frightening.

We retire when it gets dark, glad that we made the effort, I even helped her with some computer stuff so everyone wins. We slip back to the caravan and plan the following day. Jo has an early afternoon ferry and I need dropping off at Heathrow so probably 9 – 10 hours on the road.

More on the next posting

NB I am off to the UK Tomorrow for a wedding so no blog, Monday we are off to Kazakhstan, yes that’s right Kazakhstan Almaty  to be precise so if you don’t hear anything for a few days don’t worry.   

Day 3 Over the top

Day 3 Over the top

Manchester appears in the valley before us, as I said earlier it used to be a little grimy but these days it is all bright and shiny, steel and glass, the Lowery centers, Castlefield the trendy place for the young rakes to be seen these days and the remodeled city center devastated by a rather large IRA bomb once again a thriving hub of activity. There is a building which stands out these days a Hilton hotel built in the shape of one of those Tetris things like the upside down “L” Completed in 2006 at a cost of £150 million, the Beetham Tower in Manchester, is the highest building in Manchester, the tallest residential building in Europe and the 7th tallest building in England it is 168.87 metres high, has a total of 47 floors. I am not sure if it is a monstrosity or something wonderful to behold. I think if it had been a different color and not had the slate gray appearance I might have found it more endearing.


I wanted to point out the Manchester music scene which bears closer interrogation to redress the myth that Liverpool was the center of English music. Well it certainly was once but were you aware that Manchester is the starting point for the following groups.

 The Bee Gees,    Oasis,    Take That,    The Smiths (inc Morrissey),    Buzzcocks,    10cc,    David Gray,     Hermans Hermits,    James,    Happy Mondays,    Joy division,   Davy Jones (The Monkeys) need I go on, surely not my friend. You probably have at least one if not more of these artists in your vinyl collection or maybe you iPod or whatever you use. Manchester was also served as the venue for Madonna on her first performance in the United Kingdom, on 27 January, 1984.  

So today’s Manchester is very different to the town of my youth except of course it is the same place.

We are on route to visit one of my brothers (John) fresh back from Spain and therefore unable to join our little reunion over the weekend. Given this is an adventure (of sorts) we decline to warn people we are coming however when we arrive we are treated as if we had just nipped down the road for a newspaper. He is busy adding to the decking at the end of his garden which a little energetic and I decline the offer to assist as he looks like he knows what he is doing.

We explain our trip so far and that we intend to travel to Conway (North Wales) to visit Auntie Zita who will have got back home by then. On their insistence we take the keys for a caravan John & Brenda have located in the same area, an offer we find too good to turn down as I have not yet booked a hotel. A couple of happy hours spent updating everyone one recent events and we are on to the next stop.

We spend some time with one of my daughters Joanne where we spend a relaxed hour recounting the trip we took in March to Florida with other members of the family. (Not sure where we will end up next year maybe the same place) as ever we need to keep moving and tonight we are booked into my favorite “Novotel” in Worsley.

A place I have used possibly 25 times in the last 10 years. Even though I believe I am a frequent guest they still insist on taking all of my details every time I arrive and explaining the workings of the hotel. Where the rooms are and what time breakfast is etc etc. I should have kept a record of the rooms I have used as I must be close to completing the whole of the first floor by now. They have an interesting lift which clearly announces “Front doors closing” as it starts to ascend. You might thing that this indicated there are doors at the back but not so there is only one door so why it needs naming I don’t know but there is something familiar about it which always makes me smile.

Dinner is in the “Ellesmere” pub which like all inns in the UK now has to serve food to survive. Around 3250 pubs closed in 2009 and the number continues to fall as attendance declines, many suggest the smoking ban is the biggest contributing factor but to be honest I think it is more a change in peoples attitude and to the different types of entertainment available these days. There are so many TV, Internet options that more and more entertainment is found at home rather than out in the community. You can make your own conclusions as to what the cause and effects are.

We choose local favorites for dinner and opt for a walk around Worsley afterwards as it is very familiar area to Jo and I. We used to attend the “Sea Cadets” which was a little like a junior version of the Navy. Not exactly why we did but at one point there were five of us attending something which even the local newspaper felt worth four of five inches of column space including a picture. (fame is so fleeting anyway)



Day 2 (and part of 3)”A funny sort of day”

Day 2 “a funny sort of day”

We awaken to the gentle lapping against the side of our boat, quite pleasant for a while then I got to the “enough already” point and had to up. Our accommodation was called the “Lily May” not exactly sure why floating vessels have names but they do (I should Google it sometime). Lily May has what we call all mod cons, that is electricity, hot and cold running water, Cooker, Fridge, Satellite TV, microwave etc and interestingly a wood burning stove. 

It has a walk through bathroom that is you walk from the lounge through the bathroom to the bedrooms. The bathroom has a shower sink and a toilet which has instructions on how to use stuck all over it. You might think this strange? surely everyone knows how to use a toilet? Well not so this one, you had levers to pull and pedals to stamp and a specific sequence to follow. I believe in the days of old people just “went” (euphemism) over the side. I think I am going over the side inside but decide to not worry about the chambers mechanics and go and make coffee.


The owner Barbara who I had booked the reservation with had at my request left all the ingredients for a full English breakfast (as I said you only eat these when you are in hotels) the downside of this today is that it needs “Gatovit” a word my language teacher uses for “cooking”. Lucky for me we have an expert in the guise of Berni to assist. Not sure how he performs these things but you just place provisions near him leave for a short time and a meal appears. One day I might test him by leaving a couple of pigs ear around but would probably receive sisig in return. He can also paint seemingly without effort which I think he inherited from mum.

Pictures of our morning feast


Our repast finished all too soon and the dog walked around the towpath, I think Willow actually dragged Michelle around but no matter, we spoke to some Narrowboatman who was sunning himself sans shirt and saw a canoeist paddling sans shirt with great vigor back and forth on the canal. (far too vigorously for my taste on a Sunday morning). What is it about Sheffielders that they don’t wear shirts in the mornings?  Well not waiting to find out we set the Navigation to take us to Castleford where we believe there is one of those English cultural phenomenon’s known as a Car Boot sale.

Originally a way to sell all of your rubbish to someone else it has now progressed into an industry. Items used to be sold “as seen” so no guarantee it worked or was fit for use which meant at times you could put your life at risk if you were not too careful. These days it is much the better for intervention of the “Trading Standards Office” and “Health and Safety” teams who have legislated some order into the chaos. 

You can still find lots of things you never knew you could live without, (That Elvis wig looked really cool). However if nothing else it passes the time on a Sunday morning and you always end up with something. For me it would seem I cannot live without some wild bird seed which is impossible to get back home and a small sewing kit which has been on my list due to the loss of several buttons from my favorite shirt. (I used to collect the sets from hotels but have run out) Jo gets an Iron for Louise, can’t remember exactly what Berni got but it looked suspiciously like dried “Oreille du Cochon” although they may be for the dog.

We are going to nip into Castleton for a short while more later

Day 2 “It’s not at all what we expected!!!”

Day 2 “It’s not at all what we expected!!!”

That was the comment from all of my travelling companions as we stood close to midnight cases in hand and viewed our accommodation.

I need to back up a little, we did not leave the gathering until after 11 pm which was ok we were all enjoying ourselves and the noise was dying down as one by one the children fell asleep mainly through the exhaustion of running around and laughing all day took its toll. The adults gaining the vocal initiative and the conversation drifting backward and forwards through all the different methodologies of fixing the world (Judi would have made a matrix I’m sure).

Philomena who is my Godmother decided we wanted to go for a walk around 8, I hadn’t realized I felt the need but one does not resist such edicts one just follows the process. Out across fields and through such delightful places such as Fairy Woods, Church corner, the hollow, the gully, the cluff etc. We stopped so I could be shown the “new” houses the village. These had been built 40 years ago so you can imagine the place is a little sleepy if these are still considered “new”. Back from our ramble across fields and dales we emerge close to where we started an hour or so later.

My travelling companions at this point asked where our overnight hotel was. During our planning meeting held over a 2 way Skype and Google talk conference the week before I had said I would look after accommodation (now they really should know better than to leave it to me). True to my word it was booked and they were ok to take “willow” (the dog). The fact that I was not entirely sure where the accommodation was should have been taken as a minor detail and nothing more. I had GPS and a map printed off the internet so how difficult could it be.

I had not actually disclosed either the location or the type of hotel it was. This shows either a great deal of faith in me or a naivety on their part. Around 11 pm we set off and the navigation system instructs us to head East towards the bright lights of the city of Sheffield. Once famous for steel production I am not sure exactly what they do these days. We start to descend off the tree less hills and see the town stretched out before us. Sheffield boasts an urban area covering 7 hills just the same as Rome although of course not the same at all although you might remember it was the setting for “The Full Monty” that cultural phenomenon or 1997 www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA3W36JVnRc . Decending into the town we go past the lines of people waiting to get into night clubs and the rows of taxis waiting to take people to various as yet unannounced places.

Down down into the city center with its new flyovers and overhead tram system its renovated factories which proudly announce their new industry as “Executive Loft Apartments”. Shiny steel and glass shopping precincts not longer called “Arndale”  (the designer of the originals) but by more poetic titles such as “Meadow Hall (boasts as being the largest in Europe, god help us), Orchard, The Moor, etc” they still compete against each other to be both modern but retaining a hint of tradition.

I am scanning the bright lights for the Hilton Hotel not that we are staying there but because it is next to where we are heading. I can see it sometimes and once even got within 300 yards but the one way road system sucked me of down a side street as the GPS struggled to keep up with me.

One slightly dodgy (Google it) maneuver later and we were heading right towards it, my compatriots must have wondered “what the ……” as we drove straight pass and into the Quays Car Park lower down. I was now following Barbara’s specific instruction (which was difficult with my fingers crossed). She said park on the middle floor and take a specific exit on that level. I thought for a moment the exit was locked as the sign firmly stated it would be. So there we were in the middle of a strange town in the middle of a car park 4 people and a dog wheelie suit cases and plastic bags in attendance heading through a door to who knows where. My family must have either a lot of faith or patience in me.

Outside our accommodation was there exactly as Barbara has predicted. I had hired a couple of Canal boat for the night. Technically they are known as Narrow boats as they are 7 foot wide and up to 70 foot long. They were used in the golden age of the canal to ferry everything back and forth across the country.


UK Canals quick facts the Golden age was 1770 to 1830 (overtaken by railways) there are around 4000 miles of them. Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice (but I know where I would chose to holiday). Drawn along by large horses along a Tow path alongside the canal, size 7ft wide and up to 70ft long limitations due to the size of the locks (a means to raise or lower vessels (how else would they get them over hills)). The craft is called a narrowboat one word and never a barge or longboat or a ship.

Now over the initial shock my siblings and associates are eager to get settled all we have to do is get into them. We have the codes for the stout locks but it seems not the expertise to transfer the knowledge into actually opening them. Gaining assistance from a passing “narrowboatman” we manage to crack open the hatches and settle down.

Tomorrow Breakfast alfresco

Day 2 Now where were we before I got all maudlin

Day 2 Now where were we before I got all maudlin

Yes we had finally arrived on one of those all too rare warm sunny days of the short English summer. We (that’s Berni and Michelle with willow the dog, Jo and I) stopped first at The Beeches and walked in finding uncle Michael the current family tennant and one of his daughters with a brand new grandchild. After a few minutes trying to work out who is who we settle on names and are informed that everyone is in the Priory which is just beyond the Church. We troop out promising to return later to chat and catch up on things. (Given it is around 13 years since I was last there it could be a long chat)

As we stroll past the church I hear a voice say “Is that Stephen” from over the wall and we immediately fall upon half a dozen Aunts and Uncles, Children and grandchildren there are kids everywhere. Also in attendance are two of my brothers Joe and Philip which is a welcome surprise (more about them later)

There are lots of hugs, kisses and handshakes and 3 people mistake me for my brother Jeremy which is unfortunate as he is around 12 years older and 12 inches shorter than I am so this prompts me to call for the name tags we had made (just to ensure there are no repeat errors during the rest of the visit). It’s my fault of course for being absent for so long.

One of the first things that strike’s me is how many of my aunt’s look like my mother, now of course families do tend to look alike and this is not a new phenomenon and with big families there is possibly more opportunity to see this. It was still somewhat of a shock. They don’t look exactly like mum of course but enough to make you stare a bit. It is probably only now as they move through and beyond their 60’s and 70’s that they show the blood line more prominently.

Not sure if I mentioned my mother was one of 12 children, lead in my memory by Grandma Malone. I never knew my maternal Grandfather he died just before or after I was born which must have been disappointing to have survived the Great War but not lived on to enjoy the rewards of the freedom. He left behind quite a clan. In order Philip, Maria (my mum) Austin, Michael, Zita, Elizabeth, Josephine, David, Philomena, Gillian, Francis and Mary. (Thanks to my sister Jo for the list there was no way I would have remembered I was not even sure how many there were). As a young child they all scared me a little, not that they were scary they were just different.

They are a lot less scary now; well Zita still makes me apprehensive but anyone who at 79 thinks nothing of driving the length of Britain or Europe rolls her own cigarettes one should be a little wary of.

The multitude of kids swarm back and forth like little bees, visiting the feeding station and flying off again to go and play in the large garden and attached fields which are serving one as a car park and one as a camping ground for those staying over. Not a camper myself I have other plans (it’s a secret) for tonight. There were probably 20 children there and not a PS2 or Game boy or Nintendo or whatever they are called in evidence. No princesses clamoring to watch “The little Mermaid, Finding Nemo or Beauty and the Beast” for the umpteenth time and no teenagers with earphones in slouching moodily in corners. They were just kids playing at being kids and running around not a thing which required batteries or miniature screens was in evidence.

Much amusement was had trying to guess names and relationships, I helped out by pointing to my name tag to speed up the process. Berni has less of a problem as everyone agrees he looks the spitting image of…….. Anyway everyone identified correctly we can settle down and try and work out who owns which children.

The day passes slowly as we swap adventures and travels and generally catch up with the gossip which has waited over a decade to be spoken. Food and drink comes and goes without issue although I do spot a savory Pork Pie in the kitchen. It is a foot long and the shape of a couple of house bricks which I think has my name on the side of it and if not it soon will have, made by some friendly butcher in Birmingham.

A word about the two of my brothers who are in attendance. Philip is a confirmed bachelor who has steered pantechnicon’s around England most of his life supposedly retired about 15 years ago he still seems to be on the road a lot and still enjoying himself. Joe joined the army as a boy soldier and saw action in many of the world hot spots (Yemen, Kenya, Northern Ireland, etc) as the British tried desperately to exert its influence onto bits of the empire they should have released, a wild child in his youth he spends his days at home in North Wales or travelling around in a camper van having fun.  (Maybe travel is in my blood)

I see these two every day even though we live in different parts of the world. When I get up in the morning and go shower my hair has the same look as Philips, it has overnight developed a mind of its own and is sticking out in unruly tufts in different directions, my face if I have not shaved for a few days is wiry and I recognize Philip staring back at me through blurry eyes, this has the effect of spurring me unto the cubicle. Afterwards when clean shaven and combed I see Joe’s face staring back at me, hair neat and flat skin with not a trace of bristle about it. Now given both of these siblings are older than me I think I should be worried. I resolve once again to take up the “Beckham” routine, that’s the one where he regularly uses facial scrubs and cream to hold back the ravages of time not the one where he gets photographed in his underwear for celebrity magazines.

On the up side seeing these faces in the morning I now know what the future holds for me, on the downside I now know what the future holds for me. 

Tomorrow what is 7 foot wide and 70 foot long and floats on water.

Day 2 Change at Chinley

Day 2 Change at Chinley

Change at Chinley was the instruction given to get from Manchester Central Station if your destination was on the Sheffield bound train. You could then get off at Bamford. Manchester Central Station is now the G-MEX International conference center and Concert Hall (Grade I listed) but my recollections were of this cavernous space filled with smoke from the steam trains (no giggling please or I will stop right here….. yes I am old enough to have travelled on steam trains). You could now see pop bands and rejuvenated rockers on your nights off but I digress. Going to see my Grandmother was quite a logistical feat. I was one of 10 kids and normally 4 or 5 of us went along with my mum so getting everyone organized and in the right place at the right time was somewhat like herding cats. 

It never really seem to take much time once you were on the train, a quick change at the aforementioned Chinley then Hope, Edale, Bamford and you were there. After Chinley it was all countryside and apart from the train smoke obscuring the view or filling the carriage with if God forbid you failed to close the window through the tunnels (I said stop sniggering) the vistas were to my young eyes breathtaking. Rolling hills, big fields and lots of trees. How impressionable is a young child?

Once off the train a quick body count and we were off. The station was at the bottom of the village and the walk to Grandma’s was up the hill. I say hill it was probably only a 3 degree incline but it looked like a hill back then. Up past the Derwent Pub past the post office and the villages only hair salon, past the Anglers Rest (the river Derwent flowed somewhere close by) past the shop which sold almost everything around the corner a there you were.

“The Beeches”, my Grandma lived in a house with a name, (it probably had a number but to me it was always The Beeches). Two stout wooden gates secured the drive which once opened allowed access to the gravel path leading right around the side of the house. Entrance was normally through the kitchen door at the back rather than the front and neither would ever be locked even when unoccupied.


The house was built of stone big stones not bricks it was a village house and it will stand forever give or take a few new windows and roofs. It overlooked the valley and the village and the view lives with me every day of my life. I can just close my eyes and it is there. The train line we had just alighted from ran along the floor of the valley. You could not see the train but you could follow the smoke trail as they chugged to and frow at regular intervals there were less delays and cancellations those days (last warning about the laughing by the way).  

The mind pays tricks on the young and I never noticed that the original residence had been split into three houses so it would have been very very large at one time. Lucky for me the home of my mother’s family was the one at the end. Furthest from the road and overlooking the farm and the whole of the valley beyond it. It had a dry stone wall which was always a fascination, it was sturdy and looked like it would withstand all natural disasters although I was told off a few times for running along the top, I was a kid and that’s what kids did.

Anyway an impressive house and a greenhouse half stone with glass top which had a vine in it (funny the things you remember) which had grapes, Grapes in the middle of England wow who would have believed that, although I never remember tasting them. There was always something growing in there and it is another of those “I must have one of these when I grow up” things. It is on the list of items we will have in the French home we continually think about buying.

The whole place looked big, possibly a lot bigger than it really was but I am happy with my memories of the place. The building behind the house was the Catholic Church which suited Grandma very well (more on that later on). the house was a place where people dropped in and left at irregular intervals adding to the exciting and the relaxed almost anything goes atmosphere. Wild and cultivated flowers and a few trees dotted about the garden and real cows in the field not 5 yards away. Now of course I knew about cows but you rarely got to see them up close and personal. (There are not many cattle ranches in Salford) Frightening beasts and so big (remember I was around 8 years old) and smelly.


Walks would be taken and sights seen from various vantage points some of which I planned to reenact on this trip. As I grew up and managed to acquire my own transport we would travel over the dreaded A57 “The Snake Pass” which is the only road over the hills to this quaint spot. The road is aptly named as is snakes around the hills with almost no straight patches. There is now a Motorway 20 miles north which is very fast and very straight but where is the fun in that. You need adventure in your life or it is not worth bothering.

Tomorrow back to talking about the trip we are on (promise)

Day 2 oh to be a country boy

Day 2 oh to be a country boy

Talking about root which we are (well I am anyway) my home town of Manchester sits in a sort of bowl surrounded on three sides by hills, not mountains just hills and you can get to any of them within an hour by car. If you have spent any time with me you will know I appreciate a view although I seem to have spent the last 12 years living in flat places so maybe my desire for a scenic location is just me harping back for that view I had as a child.  I remember you could see the hills, you rarely went out to them but they were always there. Rainy days hid them but they were still there just hiding behind the drizzle.

Manchester the place of my youth was a fairly grimy town then. probably due to the fact that it was at the heart of the “Industrial Revolution” (you should have concentrated more at school that bit was important). The first cotton weaving mills were in this area due to the climate which is always slightly damp; It’s nickname was “Cottonopolis” and Manchester is still famous for being damp with an annual average of 32 inches of rain and 185 rainy day a year which means it rains slightly more often than not. (You could rightfully ask if they have developed webbed feet yet and the answer is possibly).

It was typical dirty smoky place in those days even though it boasted some world events, the first passenger railway went through Eccles (my town). Karl Marx and Engles spent time there but don’t blame us for Marxism it was his idea honest. We had an ocean going seaport 32 miles inland via the Manchester Ship canal and the world’s first moving viaduct (A canal over a canal with a bridge which moved. The largest industrial zone in Europe called Trafford Park a name adopted my favorite Soccer team for their ground “Old Trafford” sometimes known as the theater of dreams J.We had the first motorized fire truck in England. Oh the excitement of it all I could go on for hours like this.

Historian Simon Schama (he is on the TV a lot) however noted that “Manchester was the very best and the very worst taken to terrifying extremes, a new kind of city in the world; the chimneys of industrial suburbs greeting you with columns of smoke“. An American visitor taken to Manchester’s blackspots saw “wretched, defrauded, oppressed, crushed human nature, lying and bleeding fragments“. Not sure I remember it being that bad but then again I was young and it was my home town so perhaps I am biased.

There was a typically grim film made there “A taste of Honey” a sample of which you can see on this link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4Q5OqJp4b8  The music from “The Smiths” is modern the original song was a Beatles tune. The film gives a harsh but real view of the place. The plot is simple, young girl with abusive drunken mother befriends homosexual and gets pregnant by an itinerant seaman who wanders off. All normal stuff then, although I don’t remember my youth being in black and white I though there were spots of gray around as well.

I lived on a council estate a couple of miles west of these clips in Eccles which did not seem that industrial through my adolescent eyes. We had a brook (stream) at the end of the road, a cricket ground beyond that (although you got chased off if you tried to play there) a forest, well Worsley Woods about a mile away trips to which were rare but exciting. There was Cleavley’s playing field where on weekends 15 to 20 soccer teams would play games alongside each other. Pitches separated by only a yard or so of once grassed but now beaten down by the linesmen’s boots into muddy ruts. Looking across the field you saw a riot of colors with teams in stripes, hoops and other frightening combinations. All the colors of the rainbow were represented.

On Saturdays those groups of players who still retained ambition to rise to the heights of perhaps a professional or semi professional league and on Sundays by the “Pub team” made up of people from the various hostelries’ around the area. Some old some young, some rotund some actually fat, with more hope than skill or more optimism than ability. You watched football on a Sunday for a laugh then you went to the Pub to talk about it.

Most of my brothers played here at one time or another (Saturdays and Sundays), I watched, John, Jeremy, Philip, Patrick, Bernard and possibly Joe go toe to toe with these weekend gladiators. I never played there myself my body would never faithfully obey the commands of my mind enough to actually play successfully but I loved to watch. The only team I ever made was the schools inter-house team and that only because I was house captain and chose the team. (Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely);

The reason I am setting the scene is to try and show the impact of where we are travelling to. Bamford in Derbyshire is the opposite of where we lived. It was green dotted with a few buildings rather than the buildings which were dotted with green (well brownish). It was the real countryside and the hills were closer so close you could actually walk up them. It was the archetypal English countryside of postcards; I have subsequently seen prettier places mostly with vineyards and sunflowers as the backdrop but then when the furthest I had ever been was Liverpool or Blackpool (both around 50 miles from home) this seemed like paradise.

It is only now that I can look back and see the influences all these things had on me. My mother used to tell me “all these experiences server to add color to your life” and as usual it is 50 years on that I begin to understand and appreciate the words. It is probably true that “Youth is wasted on the Young”.

Tomorrow the road to my maternal homeland (steam trains included)

PS: I remembered this last night and though to include it  

I took a rare trip home late last year for a birthday party and whilst there purchased a book of “Old Eccles” you know the type full of pictures from the past showing the development of the town through time. The reason I mention it is because I could remember the town as shown in the pictures which possible makes me older than I would like to think I am. Quite a shock so remember not to buy these things if you are older than 55 as you might be in the picture yourself.

Day 2 (finally) on the road North.

Day 2 (finally) on the road North.

I know we are heading in the right direction as the sun is on my right, this should be easy, head for Chesterfield and turn left can’t miss it. If you get to Sheffield you have gone too far.

I have a CD I want Jo to listen to, given we are “going back to our roots” sort of thing I though a little entertainment from our past might be in order.  Now they do say “Nostalgia is not what it used to be” however some things are timeless. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) used to (and still does occasionally) made some outstanding 30 minute comedy shows. The Navy Lark, The men from the Ministry, Much binding in the march, beyond our Ken and the one I purchased at a recent fuel stop “Beyond our Ken”. Now the memory is a peculiar thing and maybe these are not really funny now they just retain the recollection of being funny from my past, you absorb a great deal before your tenth birthday.

These wireless broadcasts were full of innuendo and strictly none PC (that’s politically correct not Personal Computer) I am sure if you tried to produce the same style you would not only be drummed off the stage you would be publicly castigated. Really you could say they were a little rude and it was always up to the listener as to their interpretation. Funny how these days we have action groups who unfortunately seem hell bent on “looking after our interests” where we like it or not. A shame really as comedy needs to be pushed over the edge every now and again or things become stale.

Back to my CD of “Around the Horn” indulge me for a while whilst I recall some of the cast members who’s very names can still make me chuckle Betty Marsden played “Dame Celia Molestrangler”, and Hugh Paddick was ‘ageing juvenile’ Binkie Huckaback. Other characters included J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (Kenneth Williams), the world’s dirtiest dirty old man (who wanted, above all else, to get his hands on Judith Chalmers). He was also the self-styled King (later Dictator) of Peasemoldia, a small slum area of the North of London just off the Balls Pond Road.  The shows also featured old English folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, played by Williams, who sang such delightful and parodic nonsense ditties as “Green Grow My Nadgers Oh!”, “Song of the Bogle Clencher”, and the timeless “Ballad of the Woggler’s Moulie”.

You can listen to an episode at the end of this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tb9j7 It is definitely not the best episode from series 4 but it is ok

I know this is all nonsense to most of you but hey it’s my blog.

The CD finishes all too soon and we are contacted by my brother Berni (as you assume short for Bernard) who is on route and we should collide (well meet up) somewhere around the aforementioned Chesterfield. Only a slight delay for Berni due to a conversation initiated by a member of the Yorkshire constabulary. This gives Jo and I time to stop and actually take a look at where we are.

Now we are heading for Derbyshire which is nestled slight between and below Lancashire and Yorkshire two places which do not really like each. Actually they have never liked each other and it all came to a head in 1455 when they fought the “War of the Roses” Red for Lanc’s and White for York’s and before you ask no they did not fight over flowers the roses were their badges, they were fighting for the throne of England. As a Lancastrian I am happy to report we won and Henry Tudor became Henry VII. (that’s the dad of the TV series one you have been watching recently)

Now there is no real fighting going on except over sporting fixtures between the two counties. Normally Soccer or Cricket matches are the catalyst for these events. Very much like in days of old groups of young and not so young men dress up in local garb now known as football shirts and scarf’s paint their faces in the colours of their team Steam over the Pennine hills on the one motorway it has (see only one road easy to defend)  and go and invade the others territory. Not as much looting and pillaging as there used to be as you need to be back on the coach home 30 minutes after the game finishes which rather limits the carnage but it’s the though what counts as they say.  I have taken part in these rights of passage attacking Leeds and defending my homeland from the hordes from Hull (in my youth of course not recently). My Mother was from Yorkshire and I was born in Lancashire so there was always a level of rivalry even at home.

The countryside is not what you would describe as pretty, it’s not ugly more functional. The hills (not mountains) go above the tree line and dip and rise continually as you wend you way through the little villages.  So what you get is 5 minutes in a very pretty stone built village and then 10 minutes as you rise over the crest of the hill and you think you were in the middle of nowhere. The one thing it is is green everywhere is green. As the Pennine hills sit in the middle of the country they force the clouds from both West and East to deposit rain here so it is always green (Not withstanding this there is currently a hose pipe ban, it would seem the water they use actually comes from somewhere else where it’s not actually raining, go figure).

Berni arrives as expected, I assume the constabulary was checking his passport as these Yorkshire folk can be a little funny and his car plates show he resides in the South which is a whole world away for some of these yokels, sorry, sorry I meant Locals.