There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Dingle Peninsula: Part 6 of the West of Ireland

This a new post though it describes the events of the 29th of July 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

We awoke to another dull, drizzly day, but fortified with a ‘full Irish’ - bacon, mushrooms, black pudding, white pudding and a fried egg – we set off to explore the Dingle Peninsula, the northernmost of the fingers of land that make up Ireland’s southwest corner.

Driving out of Tralee we rounded Tralee Bay and headed down the northern coast of the peninsula. When the N86 swung south towards the town of Dingle we continued on the minor road which eventually also turns south, approaching Dingle via the Conor Pass.
The Dingle Peninsula
The high ground down the centre of peninsula is rugged and remote, feeling more like mountains than hills. Winding our way upwards we paused at a pull-off beside a small waterfall. Above us, according to the Heritage Council’s informative signboard was a corrie known as Pedlar’s Lake.
Small waterfall below Pedlar's Lake
We set off scrambling up the rocks. Lynne was unimpressed and complained mightily, but it was hardly a difficult climb. A minibus drew into the pull-off and disgorged an American family with parents and three sons in their late teens/early twenties. The young men ran up the hillside, demonstrated just how easy a climb it was. Lynne snarled at their youth.
Pedlar's Lake, Dingle Peninsula
Reaching the top she moaned that there was nothing but a lake tucked into a hillside - well that is what a glacial corrie is. There were some good views though. When the American parents arrived, at a pace more like ours, we took their photograph and they took ours, so we can block out the view.
Blocking out the view, Pedlar's lake, Dingle Peninsula
We descended and drove the short distance to the top of the pass at 456m (1,496ft) from where we could see Dingle.

Dingle from Conor Pass
Down in the town we parked and walked up the main street. Though small - under 2,000 inhabitants – Dingle is the urban centre for a large area and has more facilities than most towns its size.
Main Street, Dingle
We followed one of the colourful side streets towards the harbour, pausing en route for a morning cappuccino. Father Tom, a retired Catholic priest and therefore inevitably an Irishman, is a member of the same book group as us. He spent his childhood summers on the Dingle peninsula and recommended our group read ‘Twenty Years A-Growing’ by Maurice O’Sulivan, a memoir of growing up on Great Blasket Island off the tip of the peninsula (of which more later). It was largely because of Fr Tom (and Maurice O’Sullivan) that we were here.

Dingle’s altered a lot since the 1950s Father Tom told us, and no doubt he is right, but Dingle today looks cheerful, well maintained and prosperous, and if that is a change it is for the good. Like Connemara, Dingle is a Gaeltacht area, and the language we heard most as we walked to the harbour was Irish – so not everything changes.
Down to the harbour, Dingle
Dingle harbour sits at the end of large sheltering inlet and has ample room for working boats….
Dingle Harbour, working boats
….and pleasure craft.
Dingle Harbour, Pleasure craft
The tiny village of Ventry is seven kilometres further west, the beach hiding behind a substantial caravan park. Drizzle had fallen at Pedlar’s Lake, but at Dingle the sun had emerged and the peninsula was looking its beautiful best. Even so Ventry’s climate would put it a long way down my list of desirable beach holiday locations.

Ventry Beach, Dingle Peninsula

The young Maurice O’Sullivan visited Ventry in the early years of last century, stowing away to join the adults for Ventry Races, competitions between boats from the local villages, and a great social occasion with much drinking and some fighting. The event has now grown into Ventry Regatta, a two day sporting and cultural festival, though racing curraghs, the traditional local fishing boats rowed by teams of four, is still a major part. I think beer is still involved, too, but fighting is disapproved of these days. We were ten days late for the 2016 version.

I remarked in the Connemara post that the hedgerows were full of wild fuchsias. Fuchsias are also common on the Dingle peninsula -  and so are irises.
Roadside irises, near Ventry
We followed the Slea Head Drive which would take us round the tip of the peninsula. We missed Dunbeg Promontory Fort which is off the road – and much of it has fallen into the sea – but did stumble across a group of clocháns, or beehive huts, a couple of hundred metres further on at Fahan.


The huts were a short walk up the hill from where we could look back down the peninsula.

Looing back down the Dingle Peninsula from Fahan

They are undateable, but could have been built any time between the Neolithic period and the 12th century. It is difficult to imagine how they were used; were they constructed for animals, humans or both and as homes, or merely refuges? Whatever their function they were certainly robustly built.
Clochán, Fahan
Fr Tom says you could once just walk up and have a look (I can remember when you could do that with the Pyramids and Sphinx) but now the farmer collects a fee. He looks after the site too, so it would be churlish to begrudge him a modest recompense.
Clochán, Fahan
Dunquin, at the tip of the peninsula, is more a scattering of houses over a large area than a village. We passed the nearest point to Great Blasket Island and continued to the visitor centre, a little further on but built where the view of the island is best.

After a light lunch we visited the Great Blasket exhibition. The island was abandoned in 1953 and the islanders ruined dwellings can be seen below and to the left of the newer white constructions. To the right of the houses are their few usable fields. Apart from the meagre products of their agriculture they lived by fishing, trading their surplus with the mainland, and were also happy to dine on puffins which they caught along the cliffs.
Great Blasket Island
The island had a school, off and on, but surprisingly in this most Catholic of countries, no church or priest. Attending Mass required a 2km row to Dunquin followed by a 3km walk to the church. They returned laden with the supplies they had ordered the previous Sunday.

It looks idyllic on a fine day, but it was a hard life. The population peaked at 160 in 1911, but by 1951 had dwindled to a couple of dozen and ultimately everyone was gone, some to the mainland, many to America.

The later years of Great Blasket were marked by a Gallic literary flowering. Encouraged by visitors from the mainland not only Maurice O’Sullivan (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin) but also Thomas O’Crohan (Tomás Ó Criomhthain) and Peig Sayers published memoirs and stories.
Maurice O'Sullivan in Garda Siochana Uniform
He joined the Guards when he left the island in 1927
Picture borrowed from First Stop County Kerry 

‘Twenty Years a-Growing’ was published in 1933 to critical acclaim, though given O’Sullivan’s background and sketchy education it was perhaps inevitable that some of the acclaim was distinctly patronising. It should not have been, O’Sullivan saw life through the eyes of a poet and in a translation which carefully retains his Gallic rhythms he places the reader in the heart of island life. ‘Twenty Years a-Growing’ is well worth reading.
We continued round the end of the peninsula through Ballyferriter, a village with a wonderful name, though as 75% of the population is Irish speaking it should properly be called Baile an Fheirtéaraigh. By the coast here are three small peaks like waves on the land known as The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters, Ballyferriter
 Through a maze of minor roads – we did not pick the easiest route – we found our way to the Gallarus Oratory.
You may park at the visitor centre, pay their fee, watch their film and spend money in their gift shop or you can drive up what the Rough Guide calls a ‘fuchsia lined one-track road’ park in the lay-by and walk in for nothing, which is what we did.
Fuchsia lined one-track road, Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
The oratory, a beautiful little gritstone building like an up-turned boat, is a mystery. It was ‘discovered’ in 1756 by an antiquary called Charles Smith. He decided, without any evidence, that it was a 6th century church. Later archaeologists have conjectured that it may be 12th century Romanesque Church or a shelter for pilgrims. Local tradition says it is the funerary chapel of the giant Griffith More, whose grave is nearby.
Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
 Whatever its purpose, it was probably built sometime between the 6th and 12th century, the later date based on the carved rounded stones that make the top of the single window. After the 12th century a proper arch would have been used.
Lynne and the tell-tale window, Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula

We had the oratory to ourselves until a minibus load of American tourists arrived. They were on a tight schedule and ran briskly round the site for five minutes before being herded back onto their vehicle. Some had seen Gallarus only through a viewfinder. That is why we do not do group tours.
We returned to Dingle by the direct route and headed back to Tralee along the main road which starts along the southern coast of the peninsula. We stopped to look at the spit which almost cuts Castlemaine Harbour from the sea. It is a strange feature with a windswept beach ideal for exercising horses….
Castlemaine Spit, Dingle Peninsula
 …but was less impressive than the view back up the coast of the peninsula.
Looking out to sea along the south coast of the Dingle Peninsula
We returned to Tralee and later found our way to a large pub called The Brogue. As always in Irish pubs we were greeted if not like old friends, at least like new ones and were installed in a booth where we could observe all the happenings in the bar without being seen ourselves. From such a privileged position it is disappointing that we can report nothing scandalous or exciting.
I like a good thick pub steak now and again, and if they can cook it rare – which does not always happen – so much the better. I have nothing but praise for The Brogue’s steak from which blood ran freely. Lynne enjoyed her hake garnished with tiger prawns and for some reason we received a free dish of potato gratin. Whether everyone gets this, or the chef had made one by error and needed to get rid of it I have no idea. As we both had chips, extra potato was not what we needed, but it was surprisingly tasty.
We washed it all down with a couple of pints of Guinness and by the time we were finished we were pleasantly stuffed. Fortunately we had just enough room left to continue our organoleptic examination of Irish whiskey. I am getting to like that, too.



The West of Ireland

Part 1: Galway

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, though slightly different versions appear in other ancient texts. We first came across it in 2014, and have met representations of it several time since, but it is not, I think, well known in the west.

Indra, the King of the Gods and his elephant Airavata disrespected the sage Durvasa who cursed all the gods making them so weak and feeble they lost control of the universe to the demons.
 
Indra sought help from Vishnu, the Supreme God, who suggested they co-operate with the demons to churn the Ocean of Milk and so release Amrita, the Nectar of Immortality, for their mutual benefit. Vishnu would then see to it that only the gods got to drink the Amrita.

Using Mt Mandara as a churning paddle they wrapped Vasuki the king of the serpents round the mountain and then first the demons pulled on the head, then the gods on the tail, back and forth until the churning was complete. A number of treasures emerged from the Ocean, including Lakshmi who became the wife of Vishnu, and Chandra the moon god. Finally came Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician, holding a pot of Amrita. Vishnu, in the form of the enchanting damsel Mohini distracted the demons while Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, delivered the Amrita to the gods.

The rest, as they say, is history – or in this case mythology.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Feb 2014
 
We first encountered the story at Angkor Wat

Demons heaving away on Vasuki, King of the Serpents
The carving, on one of the lower galleries at Angkor Wat, is so crisp it cannot be original.
 
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple between 1120 and 1150. It became a Buddhist temple when the Khmer Empire converted to Buddhism shortly afterwards, but 'The Churning' is a story Buddhists seem happy to retell. The story appears in non-temple settings as well...

The south Gate, Angkor Thom (Feb 2014)
On one side of the bridge the gods are pulling on the serpent, on the other side  are the demons. The figures here are original, except for some of the heads
  
 Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane, Laos, March 2014
 
In the 1950s, a few kilometres south of Vientiane, Bounleua Soulilat, a the holy man for whom the word 'eccentric' rather overstates his normality, built the Xieng Khuan Buddha Park.
 

Xieng Khuan Buddha Parl, Vientiane
The Park includes a globe.

The world, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane
 Entering through the mouth you find hell at the bottom and the world up a set of stairs. In the heavens above is a delightfully naïve 'Churning'.
 
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, Vientiane
Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 2015

Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, but 13% of the population, mostly Sri Lankan Tamils, are Hindu. Sri Lanka's oldest Hindu temple is the Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, also (for no reason I could discover) known as the Captain's Garden Temple. 
Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, Colombo
 Inside is a depiction of the 'Churning'.


The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil, Colombo

Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, India, March 2016

Not so far away, just across the strait, is Rameswaram, an island off the coast of India where we saw another 'Churning.'


A 'Churning' outside the building of the Swami Sadanand Pranami Cheritable (sic) Trust
The Swami Sadanand Cheritable (do they come from Surrey?) Trust runs schools and is involved with promoting blood donations.
 
A Little Background
 
As a child I loved the Greek legends. I reread the story of Jason and the Argonauts when we visited Colchis (now eastern Georgia), the home of the Golden Fleece. It is a wonderful tale though Jason and his crew are basically a band of brigands and Medea, Jason’s love interest, is a psychopath.

Medea and the golden Fleece. Europe Square, Batumi, Georgia (Aug 2014)
Modern Greeks, Romans and Egyptians are far removed from their classical forbears; monotheistic religions have eradicated the pantheon of gods around which their myths and legends were woven. No one today worships Zeus, Jupiter or Amun.
 
Southern India traded extensively with ancient Greece and Rome. It has been called the last surviving classical civilization and Hinduism retains a full, even overfull, pantheon – 33 gods, or 35,000 or 330 million, depending on your inclination.
 
Educated Hindus will explain that their religion is also monotheistic, that Brahma, the one Creator God is in everything, and the  multitude of other deities merely provide ways to understand the many facets of the Creator. At village level I suspect it is different, and the myths and legends still live.
 
The main sources of these legends are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, attributed to the poets Valmiki and Vyasa respectively in much the same way as the Odyssey and Iliad are attributed to Homer. All four texts are in poetic form making them relatively easy to commit to memory, so they probably existed in oral form long before they were first written down, which happened at much the same time somewhere around 600BC.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cannock Chase Mild and Dry - So Much Better: The (N + 6)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

I wonder how many annual Chip Walks I have been on? It may be as many as twenty - Francis and I have the honour (?!) of having walked every one of them - but this is definitely the seventh on this blog. Brian, an ever-present until 2011 but now removed to Torquay, kindly commented on last year’s post that I was still finding new things to say. Well that was last year, this year I am struggling...

Cannock Chase is the perfect place for a winter walk; a pile of pebbles a hundred metres high is always going to drain better than the surrounding Staffordshire clay. Unfortunately the Chase is not very big, at 68km² it is England's smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as we all live west of the Chase and the lunchtime stop is fixed at Longdon (or the Chetwyn Arms, Brocton, when the Swan with Two Necks was closed) available routes are not numerous.
 
We met at the Cutting Car Park at Milford on the Chase’s western edge, just like last year only this time it was not raining. Six participants is a healthy turn out and it was good to see Alison C and Sue who had been unavailable last year. Anne who has been with us the last two years was unfortunately unavailable and Torquay-based Brian, must be regarded as a permanent absentee from this, though not other walks.
 
Sue, Mike, Alison, Francis and Lee
Cutting Car Park, Milford

As usual we walked towards the Cutting itself (which I wrote about in ((N + 3) Jan 2014) and, again as usual chose the path along the top, avoiding the muddy bottom.

Choosing the path along the top rather than the one with a soggy bottom
 I rarely look into the Cutting, but I did this year and was surprised by its depth.
 
Looking down from the top of the Cutting, Cannock Chase
At the end we passed Mere Pits and, again as usual, walked along the lip of the Sherbrook Valley to the largely empty Coppice Hill car park. A small diversion took us to the bird feeding station. In last year's rain there had been many birds, but my attempts at photographing them were as dismal as the weather. This year there were fewer, but I got a reasonable shot of a great tit.
 
Great Tit, Coppice Hill feeding station, Cannock Chase
As on all these walks we eventually turned down into the valley and equally inevitably crossed the brook. There is not much of it this far up and some of us eschewed the stepping stones and strode through the inch deep water.

Down into the Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase
From here we turned onto Pepper Slade. 'We don't often come up here,' Francis remarked. Had a cheery Black Country musician appeared among the pepper vines and yelled 'It's Christmas' it really would have been different, but this is the Chase, where most paths look like every other path - and that includes Pepper Slade. I don't want to sound grumpy  - it was great to be out in the fresh air on a mild, dry December day - but I am just struggling for something new to say, and I discussed the local use of 'slade' back in 2011.
 
Pepper Slade, no Noddy, no spice
Near the top was a plantation of ‘Christmas trees’, though they were obviously not, as they were still there in late December - and a bit spindly too.

Not really Christmas trees, Pepper Slade

Progressing to Rifle Range Corner (though the WW1 rifle range has long gone) we paused while some thought was given to the route, not that there was much choice.
 
That's clearly not Santa  getting advice from a couple of dodgy looking elves
Rifle Range Corner, Cannock Chase
We followed the minor road (Penkridge Bank) for a couple of hundred metres before turning right down towards Fairoak Lodge. Well off the road and deep in the woods is a clearing with a few houses. We had intended turning left down to Fairoak Pools but missed the path, arriving in the yard of the last house just as the owner came out. 'I think Santa's lost his way, ' he said cheerily, which was odd as though Lee and Alison were impersonating elves Santa himself was not actually with us this year. He directed us back up the path where we found a small track descending in the right direction. Sue set off down it.

Sue heads off down the narrow track
There was no sign and it was so small I wondered if we were on a deer trail, but it soon widened and we quickly reached the path past the pools.
 

The path widens as it heads down to the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
We stopped for coffee at the same seat as last year. Although the continuous drizzle was mercifully absent this time everybody except Alison  decided the bench was too wet to sit on.

Coffee break by one of the Fairoak Pools
Last year the water fowl had been pleased to see us. This year they ignored us - perhaps they remembered that we had not fed them. We fed ourselves though, Mike generously sharing a tray of mini mince-pies.

One of the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
Refreshed, we continued along the bed of the River Budleighensis (see last year's report) past the two Fairoak pools and then turned right between the Stony Brook pools to cross the brook on the day’s second set of stepping stones.

Across the stepping stones between the Stony Brook Pools, Cannock Chase
We followed the path to the minor road, walked under the railway bridge to the Hednesford Road, crossed it and started the long drag up Miflins Valley. Every time we come here I describe it as a 'long drag'; it is a steadily rising path which seems to return little for the effort made. I am also irritated by my inability to discover the origin of the unusual name. The only notable Miflin I can find was Thomas Miflin, Governor of Pennsylvania in the 1790s, but his family came from Wiltshire.

The long drag up Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
Despite my dislike of Miflins Valley, I must admit it has some fine beech trees. I photographed one last year and some different ones this year.
 
Beech trees in Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
The path eventually runs into the continuation of Marquis Drive. It is difficult to believe that on such a well-worn track we could make the second navigational error of the day, but we did. The Chase is not an easy place to navigate; the rights of way shown boldly on the map are sometimes barely visible on the ground and the often substantial forestry tracks are faint on the map. We headed too far south and reached the wrong side of Wandon caravan park. I have never been to Wandon before but now know it is not worth the detour. The result was a slightly longer than expected walk along the minor road to the Stile Cop car park from where Lee drove us to Longdon and the Swan with Two Necks.
 
Arriving at the Stile Cop car park
The object of the walk is fish and chips. They tried to palm us off with their 'Festive menu' but we stood firm. 'We only have five small fish and chips,' the six of us were told. Sue, who in 2011 disgraced herself by eating chicken and pasta on a chip walk (‘I don’t like the greasy batter’) looked smug but redeemed herself anyway by ordering scampi and chips which has been deemed acceptable since at least 2014. Then Alison was informed that, despite earlier suggestions, none of the five remaining fish were gluten free. She had gammon steak, but under the circumstances escapes censure.
 
Lee, Sue and Francis get stuck into their fish (or scampi) 'n' chips
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
The fish was described as ‘small’ which clearly involved some use of the word previously unknown to me; I was well stuffed and failed to finish.
.
Stuffed
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
There was no question about whether there would be an afternoon walk - unlike last year when the atrocious weather was a terminal discouragement - but as lunch arrived just before two it was three o'clock before Lee had driven us through Rugeley and past the now redundant power station to the Seven Springs car park. My map does not mark any springs in the vicinity, let alone seven.

With sunset at 3.55 it was never going to be a long afternoon, but we left the ‘springs’ at a smart pace through an area of silver birches.
 
Through silver birches from Seven Springs, Cannock Chase

From here there is hardly any descent into the Sherbrook Valley and we crossed the stream on the third set of stepping stones for the day, but the first called The Stepping Stones.
 
Crossing the Sherbrook at the Stepping Stones, Cannock Chase

A very gentle climb up the other side brought us back to the Cutting car park just as the sun was setting. And so ended a very pleasant day’s walk.
 
And back towards the Cutting

Despite my misgivings I did find something to say - over a thousand words of something - though little of it was new (and the stuff about Thomas Miflin was deeply irrelevant!). I'll try again next year.