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…..



Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Cowpat Walks: 9 Codsall

Francis, Alison, Mike and I met at Codsall Wood for the first Cowpat Walk for over eighteen months. Now that Francis has retired – the last of us to do so - it should be easier to get together, though experience suggests the opposite is actually true!

Since November 2011, the Cowpat Walks have formed a rough circle of circles as the starting points have moved clockwise around Stafford – and if that sequence has not been strictly adhered to, who cares? At Codsall Wood we had pretty well gone all the way round

Getting ready to set off, Codsall Wood
On a morning that was as warm as you want for walking and promising to keep dry - as good as it gets this summer - we parked beside the Crown Inn and set off in a north westerly direction along the road beside the old wall of Chillington Park.

The old wall of the Chillington Estate
The road forms part of the Monarch’s Way, a long distance footpath following the meanderings of the future Charles II after his defeat in the Battle of Worcester. At this point Charles would have been fleeing north from the battle and would spend the next day hiding in the famous oak at Boscobel House.

Striding out of Codsall Wood
We passed an apple tree. The fruit looked a little small to me, but some of them had promising rosy touches. Francis plucked one and took a substantial bite. His look of pain said all we needed to know about their ripeness.

The road crosses the M54, with its noisy concrete surface, and runs beside a big wood which, according to the map, is called Big Wood – sometimes place names tell you all you need to know.

Reaching the northern edge of both Big Wood and the Chillington Estate, we turned right into Lime Kiln Lane, leaving the Monarch’s Way, but still following the boundary wall of the estate. Obviously the Lime Kiln is little used, as the lane was unpleasantly overgrown. On a walk with hardly a contour in sight Alison had little need of her walking poles for their traditional purpose, but now she went to the front, pole in hand, to bash down the nettles.

Alsion leads down Lime Kiln Lane
When not overgrown, the path was boggy but after a kilometre and a half we reached a minor road. I would like to say that we emerged unstung, but it is no criticism of Alison's efforts to say that was not entirely true.

After his unsuccessful attempt to cross the Severn at Madeley, Charles Stuart returned to Boscobel House and then headed south east to sanctuary at Moseley Old Hall. We followed part of this route past the front of Chillington Hall where we paused for coffee.

Behind us was the long Upper Avenue which turns right in the far distance and becomes the even longer Lower Avenue. In the avenue a group of Chillington Hall’s Long Horns sat chewing the cud in mindful meditation or staring blankly into space - it is not easy to tell with cows.

Cows practice mindfulness in Chillington Lower Avenue
On the other side was Chillington Hall, home of the Giffard family since Peter Giffard (pronounced with a soft 'g') bought the manor for 25 marks and a charger of metal in the early 12th century. Sir John Giffard replaced Peter’s stone castle with a manor house in the 16th century and in 1724 another Peter Giffard demolished the Tudor house and built the present structure. The following year he planted the avenues, incorporating many older trees.

Chillington Hall
The hall is currently the home of John Giffard, the 29th generation of Giffards to live there. Perhaps unusually for a man in his position he joined the police on leaving Southampton University in 1973. Working his way through the ranks he became Chief Constable of Staffordshire in 1996, retired in 2006 and now serves on the sort of worthy committees that retired Chief Constables usually serve on.

We followed the Monarch’s Way down Chillington Street which, despite its name is a roughly surface lane, past some outstanding (or, if you prefer, twee) examples of English vernacular architecture. 

A house in Chillington Street
The 'street' becomes a grassy lane from which we turned south across a couple of field paths while the Monarch’s Way continued east.

Chillington Street becomes a grassy lane
By the time we reached the B road connecting Brewood with Codsall we had joined the Staffordshire Way, a 150km long footpath traversing the county from one end to the other. We walked it in 1997(ish) and again in 2005-6

We were on the road for 100m or so before heading towards a lane which reaches Codsall via the hamlet of Gunstone, a Norse name (Gunni's farmstead) although the boundary of the Danelaw was several miles north of here.

We re-crossed the M54, rounded Gunstone Hall, now a riding centre, and the pond beyond, much beloved of local fishermen.


Fishing Pool, Gunstone
The field paths beyond were well marked and Staffordshire County Council seems to have taken delivery of some new and distinctive signs - I wonder how many of these they had made.

The Stafforshire Way?
We reached Codsall at the church, once the centre of the village, now on the north west corner. Codsall is described as a large village, but along with Bilbrook - and to an amateur it is not easy to tell where Codsall ends and Bilbrook begins - it feels more like a small town. We walked down Church Street, across the square, which is now Codsall's focal point and down to the railway station.

Church Street, Codsall
At the station a train to Shrewsbury was just arriving, but although the train had brought Alison in the morning and would take her away again later, it was not why we were there. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, the station buildings have been turned into a pub.

Train to Shrewsbury anyone?
A pint of Holden's Black Country Bitter was very welcome. These days, when a new microbrewery opens every other week, Holden's is an oddity; it has been a microbrewery since 1915, long before the word was coined. Although Codsall is in the rural hinterland beyond the true urban and industrial Black Country, I decided to combine the Black Country Bitter with the ultimate Black Country lunch. While the others had a sandwich, ploughman’s lunches or all-day breakfast, I had faggots and peas. The faggots from the local butcher were good, the peas were mushy, but the gravy was, disappointingly, a product of commercial gravy powder.

Lunch at Codsall Station
My legs had almost recovered from the morning’s nettle stings by the time we set off along the surfaced footpath opposite the pub/station to the affluent village of Oaken. Across the fields in this flat piece of country we could see the tower blocks, and industry, on the edge of Wolverhampton. 'We are just beyond the outer edge of the conurbation,' Francis remarked, and then as a girl on a large and expensive looking horse passed us, he added: 'between industry and agriculture is horsiculture.' (That’s not an exact quote, but it has the gist)

Towards Oaken
The Staffordshire Way continued south and we picked up the northbound Monarch’s Way through a patch of woodland.

I was walking through this wood when I turned round and found I was being followed by three very scary people
We missed the right turn that would take us down to the bridge over the railway - it should have been better signed on a major footpath. Realising what we had done we took the path across the land of Oaken Park farm -which confirmed the accuracy of Francis' 'horsiculture' remark.

Horsiculture, Oaken Park Farm
Crossing the railway by Husphins Bridge we headed for Husphins farm beyond. I tried googling to find the origin of this unusual name and learned a) that a lot of other people had done the same, and b) nobody knows where it came from, it just appeared in the 19th century.

Mike and Alison approach Husphins Bridge
There was a simple farm track through the farm, but that was not the right of way and signing made it clear that we were expected to follow the official route. We were clearly unusually law-abiding as parts were so overgrown we may well have been the first to walk it this year. The tingling in my legs was back long before we reached the minor road.

Overgrown path round Husphins Farm
Passing some half completed barn conversions we took the path past Wood Hall Farm. The farm building dates from 1663, but the medieval moat - a scheduled ancient monument - was built to defend an earlier version of the building. The golf centre and paintballing business are presumably less venerable.

Wood Hall Farm with a medieval moat
The farm track/entrance to the golf centre brought us out on the minor road to Codsall Wood opposite Pendrell Hall which the map and Alison's memory suggest was a college of some sort (adult education?) but is now a 'country house wedding venue.'

From Pendrell Hall it was only a few hundred metres back to the cars.

It had been a short day as Cowpats go, and as flat a walk as can be imagined, but we have not done a great deal of walking recently so that was no bad thing. The sun failed to put in an appearance, though it had been warm enough, and more importantly, we had not seen any rain. Negotiations were opened for another Cowpat in the near future....watch this space.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Standing on the Sod: Abadan 2000, Part 3

This is the third and final of my 65th birthday posts. It follows directly on from
and

In the morning Hossein Afshar conducted a tour of Abadan, and there is no one who knows more about the city.

We crossed Breim, pausing briefly at his old house, and reached the northern shore of the island, passing the AIOC artisans’ dwellings. Built back from the coast they were denied the cooling breezes from the Gulf, but received the refinery fumes in compensation. Like the houses in Breim some were empty and decaying. A little further on the bridge to Khorramshahr was closed.  The surrounding area had grown up more recently and was little more than a shanty town with a tatty fly-blown market. We followed the coast westwards to a bridge under construction and then headed down the other side of Breim.

The part constructed bridge over the Karun from Abadan to Khorrmashahr
Here we would have seen the biggest and most imposing houses, but this area was within easy range of Iraqi artillery. During the Imposed War (or the Iran-Iraq War as we usually call it) the Iraqis invaded and occupied Khorramshahr, but never came onto Abadan Island, contenting themselves with lobbing shells across the Shatt-al-Arab. Most of the buildings still lay in ruins, the house of AIOC’s top man in Abadan, later a residence of the Shah, was a burnt-out shell.

Once the Abadan residence of the Shah
The road ended in a bank two metres high. Beyond was the river and beyond that Iraq, a land the authorities did not want us to see or even think about. Police stations and army posts were much in evidence and I had to take great care how I used my camera.

Damage from the Imposed War (The Iran-Iraq War), Abadan
Nearby, the Gymkhana Club was once the watering hole of the Abadan elite. During the 1951 riots much was made of the sign outside saying ‘No Dogs, No Iranians.’ ‘It never existed,’ Mr Afshar said. ‘It was invented for propaganda purposes.’ Despite its once well-stocked bar, the club looks like a village hall which should be somewhere else, but is held hostage in Abadan by a high fence and formidable iron gates.

The Gymkhana Club (with the refinery in the background) Abadan
The Church of England chapel had been destroyed long ago, though whether by neglect or malice was uncertain, and the gravestones in the expatriate graveyard were largely illegible. N hurriedly stopped me taking photographs as the church backed onto a police station and I was being watched by suspicious eyes.


The Site of the C of E chapel and the expatriate cemetery, Abadan
We left Breim and passed the refinery. Here the road came to the water's edge so the authorities could not prevent views of Iraq. Across the river was a green land fringed with palm trees, it hardly looked a threat to world security.

Planning their leave in 1951, my parents felt that their infant son should be gently acclimatised to the rigours of the north European climate. My mother and I left early, taking the slow route aboard the BP tanker ‘British Patriot’; my father flew out later. The jetty from which I embarked on the tanker is still there, if unused and unloved.

Probably the jetty from which I left Abadan in April 1951
The refinery bristled with ‘No Photographing’ signs and watchful guards, so I held my camera by my knees, raising it for an instant as we passed the jetty. Then we turned round and I did it again in case the first one missed. ‘Once more,’ I thought ‘and we’ll be arrested as spies.’ I did not dare photograph the refinery itself, once the biggest in the world but now running at only two thirds capacity.

As I had expected, the AIOC hospital was indeed opposite the AK Hotel although I had failed to notice it yesterday. At the entrance, despite Hossein Afshar’s eloquent pleading, the gatekeeper would not let us into the grounds and told me not to take photographs. I ignored him.

The Emam Khomenei Hospital, Abadan
Built on the site of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company nursing home
Once a company nursing home, it is has grown into a large modern hospital and is now named after Emam Khomenei. The Shah was indeed a despot and needing overthrowing, but Ayatollah Khomenei, who led the revolution, was an intolerant bigot. I look forward to the day, and it will surely come, when his name is no longer attached to my hospital.

Round the back of Abadan town Mr Afshar continued his commentary on the island’s development. He had been educated by the British and worked with them for many years and remained a (not-uncritical) anglophile.

Probably unaware of the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch he described how the British had organised a piped water supply in Abadan years before Tehran had such a luxury, and built a reservoir of untreated water feeding a separate set of mains for irrigating the city’s parks and green spaces. The British built hospital had originally been British staffed but, he said, trained Iranian nurses who went on to work all over the country. The houses of Breim and Bawarda were British built (by Costains using bricks imported from Bahrain) so they did not fall down during the war - unless they took a direct hit - and Abadan had its own television station, the second in Iran (after Tehran, this time) long before there was a national network.

The British also provided Abadan with Iran’s first football pitch. Football has since become big, to say the least, and the rejoicing when Iran beat the USA in the 1998 World Cup Finals united the whole country. That original pitch now has a stadium round it, four neat little concrete grandstands that I estimated would seat some fifteen thousand spectators (update: the ground’s official capacity is now 25,000). Inside is the brightest, greenest grass in all of southern Iran. Sadly Sanat Naft, the Abadan team, were relegated from the top division of the national league last year and must spend next season in the second tier (update: they have been up and down several times since and are currently back in the second tier).

Sanat Naft Football stadium, Abadan
We continued to the distinctive buildings of the British built Abadan Technical Institute and then to the more recent Abadan Museum, which was closed.

Abadan Technical Institute
Disappointed, we left the museum and almost immediately arrived at the Taj cinema ...

The Taj Cinema, Abadan
...and the entrance to Bawarda.

In 1950 access was restricted to residents and, of course, their servants. We drove in unchallenged and after only fifty metres I saw the house. ‘There it is,’ I said confidently pointing to a building on our left. Mr Afshar instructed N to take the next right. As we passed I looked for a number; I saw a board with ‘SQ something’ on it, but the paint had peeled beyond legibility. We drove slowly round the block whilst Mr Afshar examined the numbers, but we saw no houses of the right design. After a complete circuit we were back to the house I had first identified and this time I saw, written on the plasterwork of the bay, the number 1495.

SQ 1495, Abadan in 1950
“That is it.” I said, this time with complete confidence.

“So it is,” said Mr Afshar. “You know I lived next door for three years, but that is 1553 so I always assumed this house was 1552 or 1554.” There was little he did not know about Abadan, but we had taught him something.

SQ 1495, Abadan in 2000 - with N's car in the drive
The residents of 1495 were away, but there were servants in the house; they were expecting us and invited us in.

Inside SQ 1495, Abadan
The bay contained a large living room, unfurnished except for a Persian carpet. I immediately recognised the fireplace and mantelpiece from old photographs but the picture hung above was purely Iranian. Behind the bay was the bathroom. “That must be the original bath.” Mr Afshar sounded quite excited,.“It’s got no mixer taps. It must be British.”

Servants quarters and the yard where Ali and 'Nanny' shared a hookah. (I suspect the air-con unit was not there in 1950)
SQ 1495, Abadan
Behind the bathroom was a kitchen or, more properly, a pantry because the real kitchen was in the servants’ quarters which were just across the courtyard. My mother had often spoken of ‘Ali and Nanny’ sitting in this courtyard in the evening, leaning against the wall sharing a hookah. My imagination had seen a larger courtyard – here, a tall man would hardly be able to stretch out his legs - but I mentally propped them over by the door, their hookah glowing brightly as dusk fell. The arrival of a child, particularly a boy, had discomforted this apparently contented childless couple. Much to his wife’s distress my birth prompted Ali to spend time in the bazaar trying to acquire a younger wife who could bear him boy children. Polygamy was not, and still is not, illegal in Iran though the practice has all but died out. Ali never carried through on his threat.

Ali in my parent's kitchen, Mian Kuh, He later moved to Abadan with them
There was a dining room opposite the bay and two bedrooms behind, but there was no furniture in the house other than three fridges, two of them in the back bedroom waiting to be unpacked.

There were several children, a youngish man and an older woman who were milling round smiling. The older woman produced glasses of iced cherry juice and we stood around, sipping and smiling lamely at each other. The cooling system was not switched on and the house was over-warm and smelled of damp. It was tatty and run down, inside and out. Mr Afshar apologised for the state of the building, he could not understand the lack of furniture and seemed a little embarrassed.

Lunch was offered, which is the Persian way, and declined on our behalf by Mr Afshar, which is also the Persian way - you must offer three times if you really mean it (and decline three times, if necessary). Hands were shaken and we went outside for more photographs. There was still a eucalyptus on the front lawn, not the same one as in 1950 and not in quite the same place but close enough to approximately recreate the photograph on which my mother had written ‘My baby, my Eucalyptus’. Here I am standing, as close as I can to the very sod on which my father stood.

His baby, his eucalyptus 50 years on.
Sadly the original photograph has gone missing
Bawarda was designed by James Mollison Wilson as a garden suburb, a direct descendant of Hampstead by way of New Delhi where he had been an assistant to Lutyens. My first home was a house with no architectural parallel anywhere I know, in an Anglo-Indian style village tacked onto the end of an Arab town itself tacked on to a Persian country. No wonder I was confused about where I came from.

My father and me, September 1950, SQ 1495, Abadan
After what seemed only a few minutes it was time to move on. I wanted to linger but I could think of nothing to justify extending our stay; I could not just stand and stare at the house. As we drove away I turned in my seat, watched SQ 1495 slip into the distance and helplessly grasped at the sands of time as they slipped through my fingers.

The Williams family, SQ 1495, Abadan, September 1950
Cute, wasn't I? How times change.
I was sad to see so much decay and dereliction in both Bawarda and Breim. Bawarda was built to house both Iranian and European staff, but this innovative experiment in racial mixing failed, partly because Iranians did not want to live in Bawarda and partly because the Europeans did not want them there.


SQ 1495, Bawarda, Abadan, 2000
A last look
James Mollison Wilson had assumed that Iranians living in Bawarda would ‘desire British conventions of domestic life,’ and the houses were designed ‘along the lines of a European house with such modifications as climatic conditions impose.’ Northern Europeans live inside their houses; people in the much warmer Middle East tend to live in enclosed courtyards around their houses. Where Wilson went wrong was to build houses to live inside, and as the damp in SQ 1495 proved, he badly underestimated ‘the modifications that climatic differences impose.’ Building goes on apace across Abadan while houses in Breim and Bawarda remain empty, and no attempt has been made to repair the war-damaged dwellings. European style houses clearly fail to meet local needs.

We returned to our hotel via the centre of Abadan town which in contrast to Breim and Bawarda looked prosperous in an Arabic sort of way. A mosque and the Armenian Church were companionably semi-detached – a model that could usefully be followed elsewhere - and there were large well-maintained banks and shops selling heavy gold jewellery as well as the more usual stalls.

The centre of Abadan town
In the evening Mr Afshar took us for a brief tour of Khorramshahr . Saddam Hussein invaded Iran on the 22nd of September 1980 and Khorramshahr was in Iraqi hands by the end of the year. They swept on round the north of Abadan Island, but for reasons which are unclear they made no assault on Abadan and no attempt to cut the last bridge. Abadan remained in Iranian hands and connected to the mainland throughout the occupation. The Iraqis fought street by street to take Khorramshahr and in 1982 the Iranians regained it the same way. There was not a building that was not damaged or destroyed. I had been impressed by the smart new buildings as we drove through yesterday. Now I realised that had been the new section of town, the rest looked dishevelled with splatterings of bullet holes over the face of any building that was not new.

Fruit stall, Abadan town
Hossein Afshar might have once been the mayor of Khorramshahr but after so much enforced rebuilding he had difficulty finding his way around. After some circling we reach the corniche beside the Karun that was built when he was mayor.

On the far side was Abadan island and on its shore old ships had been brought to die. Rusting hulks by the dozen, launches, fishing boats, coasters were tied up by the jetties or hauled onto the land where they sat and rotted. If we looked right to where the Karun met the Shatt-al-Arab there was the coast of Iraq, its date palms green against the sky.

My father learned only just in time that if I was not registered with the British Consulate within three weeks of my birth I would automatically become an Iranian citizen and they would have difficulty taking me home. He hurried up from Abadan with Abed, his driver, and presented himself at the now long-vanished building. They gave him the birth certificate I still have, half a yard long and covered with enough official stamps to convince any observer that I was a subject of the British King George VI, not of Muhammad Reza Shah.
Abed, who was my father's driver for several years
I photographed Mr Afshar on the corniche pointing at the empty lot where the consulate had been. There this story ends, in the very same place that it officially started in September 1950.

Hossein Afshar and the former site of the British Consulate, Khorramshahr 
We took Mr Afshar back to the airport.

I had set out to find SQ 1495, or at least the site where it once stood. Thanks to BP-Amoco and the generosity of Hossein Afshar I had accomplished that and much more besides.

I had also wanted to find out something about my father who died during the initial planning. We had never found it easy to talk and in some ways I hardly knew him. I could not put into words exactly what I had learned, but it felt significant.

As we parked I tried to find the right words to bid farewell to Hossein Afshar, but as I searched my voice thickened and my final “thank you” sounded lame.

We shook hands. He turned and walked off towards the terminal.


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Return of the Native: Abadan 2000, Part 2

This is the second of my birthday posts, it will make more sense if you have read Part 1.
The events described took place on the 28th of July 2000.

The road from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr has two lanes, is a hundred kilometres long and has no gradients, no bends and no cross roads.

Leaving Ahvaz
At first we passed through scrubland so flat it stretched into the distance before dropping from view round the curve of the earth. In the hazy, shimmering heat a few stunted trees struggled for life and on the horizon there were shapes that might have been oil installations – or they might have been ghostly galleons marooned on a mud brown sea.

This is actually the road east from Abadan, but it gives an idea
The road ran almost parallel to the Iraqi border, but not quite, and as we veered towards it the roadblocks, now manned by smartly uniformed military policemen, became more frequent. They did not seem interested in us.

The already desolate land became even more desolate, the scrub disappeared and we found ourselves in an unrelieved brown plain with occasional pools of brackish water, some part covered by a film of salt.

Beside the road, every five kilometres or so, a burnt out and mangled tank or armoured car stood on a concrete plinth. Never before, nor since, have I seen war memorials so brutal and chilling.

Healthier looking blue lakes started to appear. Created by thirty centimetre high mud dams - all that is required to hold back several km² of water on such a plain - they were the breeding grounds of the Persian Gulf prawns that N ate last night.

On such a road I would have expected checkpoints to be visible miles away, but one suddenly loomed out of the desert and a soldier waved us to a halt. We were entering the restricted area and N looked tense as he pulled the Ministry of Tourism laissez passé from his file. The soldier read it carefully, nodded and waved us through into a tree-lined boulevard with flowers along the central reservation.

A road is usually a strip of sterile tarmac through the living green countryside, in a strange reversal this one with its trees and flowers was a line of life through a dead land.

Suddenly we entered Khorramshahr, the city appearing no less abruptly than the check point.

Our route took us round the edge of the city, along neat and prosperous streets and then across the Karun. Ships were moored along the banks, loading or unloading, but many more had been pulled from the water and sat rusting in the sunshine and salt air.

Over the Karun at Khorramshahr
Over the bridge we were on Abadan Island. Khorramshahr had crossed onto the island too, and we passed through an area of new housing with barrack-like blocks, most still under construction.

Khorramshahr ended, we crossed a kilometre of desert and then, beside the road, was a concrete sign. In jaunty primary colours we saw a smiling sun, a yacht propelled by a gentle breeze and the words “Welcome to Abadan.”

Welcome to Abadan
After fifty years I was home, after a fashion.

Before 1910 this island – an 80km long mud flat at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab - was home to a handful of Arab fishermen. The south-western end is still the domain of date palms and fishing boats, but we entered at the north east, home to the oil refinery and the city that grew up to service it. In 1950 Abadan was home to some 200,000. It subsequently grew, possibly to as many as half a million, but then came the ‘Imposed War’. The most recent census suggested a population of 170,000.

We arrived in Breim, the management suburb. No sign was needed; this was clearly an area laid out by a European eye. Behind privet hedges were bungalows with small lawns and swing seats on verandas.

Village Hall, Breim, Abadan
We drove through Breim and round the refinery to the bank of the Shatt-al-Arab (or Arvand River as the Iranians call it). On the far side, no more than a hundred metres away, were the palm trees of Iraq.

Past the refinery we came to the edge of Abadan Town, the Iranian quarter that grew up to serve the unofficial needs of the oil company, a densely packed square of dwellings and shops. I had studied maps and photographs of 1950s Abadan at Warwick University. The lay-out of the city – the five equal sized blocks of Breim, the refinery, Abadan Town, Bawarda and a tank farm, lying one after another beside the Shatt-al-Arab - was clear in my mind. Little seemed to have changed and I had the impression the city was lifting itself off the map like a pop-up model.

Turning left we skirting the town. The AIOC nursing home had been near here but while I was searching for a sign we stopped outside what appeared to be a derelict building. Over where the door should have been was the sign ‘AK Hotel’.

Next door had taken a direct hit during the war and part of the hotel’s façade went with it. Rather doubtfully we walked through the broken entrance and up a small flight of scruffy stairs towards an intact and a slightly smarter glass door.

The small, low ceilinged lobby was dingy but clean enough and blessedly cool. A gruff individual eyed us with suspicion and, after some persuasion, grudgingly accepted that we had a booking. A boy led us out of the cool room, up another flight of stairs and along a corridor with a peeling ceiling; the walls were not peeling because there was nothing left to peel. He opened one room for N, whose face was a picture of distaste, and a second for Lynne and me.

Our room had four beds, an old fashioned cooler, a ceiling fan and an odour of damp that made my eyes water. N came in and grunted. He opened the toilet door and grunted again, then he closed it and went back to grunt at his own room. I stuck my head into the bathroom. If the bedroom smelled of damp, the bathroom smelled like a rat had drowned there and was quietly decomposing in the bathtub. There was also a sizeable hole in the ceiling but whether this was bomb damage or the result of damp plaster simply falling off I could not tell.

I switched on the ceiling fan. At first nothing happened and then, with great reluctance, the arthritic motor started to wind the blade round. We watched as slowly and painfully it began chopping slices from the foetid air.

Lynne and I looked at each other. I turned down one of the beds and it at least seemed clean.

“It’s only for two nights,” I said.

‘Do not complain of hardship in your quest for knowledge;
No success can be complete without the suffering of pain.’

I came across these words of the poet Hafez later, but I expect N knew them, Persian conversation is peppered with quotations from Hafez, Sa’adi and Ferdowsi. I did, however remember the politely coded warning of Hossein Afshar in Tehran: “I know this hotel, it is an economy hotel… but it is all right.”

Hafez
(an 18th century portrait of the 14th century Shirazi poet!)

N knocked on the door, poked his head in and said, “Let’s go for lunch.”

Normally we discussed where to go, but today we sat in silence as N drove us back out towards Breim and pulled into the Abadan Azadi one of the two big hotels we had passed on the way in. Like the AK its nearest neighbour was bombed out, but unlike the AK it sat in its own a large plot and was itself in good repair.
The Abadan Azadi Hotel
The large, airy lobby was painted a cool green and filled with the busy hum of air-conditioners ensuring it felt as cool as it looked. In the dining room we picked one of the many empty tables and sat down.

At heart, I am a back-packer and I can rough it with the best of them, but my head knows that I have reached the age where I prefer hotels where the stars are in the guidebook, not shining where the ceiling should be. [And if this was true in 2000, it is doubly true in 2015]. In the economy hotel we were regarded with hostility, here we blended in; at least, we were no more odd than the Chinese Airline workers, furtive Persian businessmen and party of bewildered-looking central Asians who were our fellow lunchers.

I suggested upgrading. This is what N had expected me to say - indeed it was why he had brought us here - and his relief was palpable.

We booked in and returned to the AK to reclaim our luggage. When you employ a guide there are certain conversations you feel obliged to leave to them, so I happily allowed N to conduct the heated discussion that was required by the proprietor of the AK. As we left the phone rang; it was the police wanting to talk to N. The proprietor had notified them of our arrival and they wanted to know what foreigners travelling on tourist visas were doing in Abadan in July. N told them we had moved to the Azadi, which partly alleviated their suspicions - it is the sort of place tourists, should any ever some to Abadan, were supposed to stay. They said they would call that afternoon to speak to me.

Back in the Azadi Lynne elected to take a siesta whilst N and I and sat in the lobby, waiting for the police and discussing caviar. Then he decided he needed a siesta too.

For a while I sat on my own, savouring the knowledge that in six years my father had never lived in Breim, and I had made it on my first night. Then I became bored with waiting, so I fetched my camera, mentally prepared myself for the heat that would hit me as soon as I walked through the door and went for a stroll.

Actually, it was not as hot as Ahvaz - hardly forty degrees – though the humidity was uncomfortable. I had the streets to myself – sane people hide from the mid-afternoon sun – as I wandered through a weird sub-tropical Buckinghamshire. Some houses were deserted and decaying, but others were lived in and for a moment I felt I was walking through the 1940s. Unlike the 1940s, though, the unseen residents were Iranians, back then the only Iranians tolerated in Breim were servants.

Breim, a weird sub-tropical Buckinghamshire
In the evening we went to the airport to pick up Hossein Afshar. On the way N mentioned that his army officer father had been stationed in Abadan in the early seventies, and as a child he had actually lived in Breim.

Abadan’s small but busy airport sits on a corner of the island well away from the town and the refinery but quite close to Iraq. It is an international airport with flights to all parts of the Gulf, though not beyond. In 1948 my parents arrived here on a direct flight from London, or at least from Bournemouth; after three days’ fog delay BOAC gave up on Heathrow and bused their passengers down to Hurn airport.

The plane arrived and we saw Hossein Afshar bound down the steps with an overnight bag over his shoulder. Minutes later he was inside the terminal. “Let’s go,” he said as we shook hands.

Driving back down the dual-carriageway towards Abadan he told us that in 1950 this had been a single-track road carving its way through the date palms and that only a bridge of boats linked Abadan to Khorramshahr.

My parents had driven down this road from the airport and crossed the river. My mother spent her first night in Persia (as my parents always called Iran) in the AIOC compound in Khorramshahr. I tried to put myself in their shoes and imagined their feelings, my father perhaps worrying about how his new bride would cope with this rough, ready and, to her, very strange new world. My mother I imagined apprehensive, maybe even frightened, wondering what she had let herself in for. Her only previous experience of ‘abroad’ - a school trip to Paris – had hardly been a preparation.

My parents in Mian Kuh, September 1949
That carpet did duty on the floor of parent's living room in Buckinghamshire until it
was retired in the 1990s
I asked her when I got home and possibly my imagining was wide of the mark. She said that the whole journey was like a wonderful dream and on that first night she sat on the veranda of the Khorramshahr guesthouse and looked up at the clear night sky. There were stars in their millions, so large they shone like jewels and she felt she could reach out and touch them. She had never realised how wonderful life can be. Some weeks later, looking at my photographs she said that when she first saw Khorramshahr she had thought ‘Dear God, what sort of place have I come to?’ So maybe I was right and wrong.

I told Mr Afshar that we had moved to the Azadi and he looked as relieved as N had earlier. In Tehran I had realised he was a man of some status, now I learned that he had been mayor of Khorramshahr in the seventies, and when we reached the hotel he telephoned the local MP to announce his arrival.

We dined on Persian Gulf prawns – large and rather tough - and Mr Afshar told us that before the revolution the Azadi had been a night-club with a floorshow imported ‘direct from the Moulin Rouge’ and a clientele imported direct from less liberal Gulf states – special flights arrived early evening and left the following morning. The building had been owned by the national airline and he had been in their office when revolutionary zealots arrived to burn it down. He explained to them that the building was not to blame for the uses it had been put to and as they were now the government they owned it and it would be foolish to torch their own property. History records many incidents when people have been just that foolish, but this was not one of them.

As we were eating, a messenger arrived to say that some gentlemen were in the foyer waiting to meet us. Mr Afshar excused himself and went to see them.

The local MP had reasoned that if someone as important as Hossein Afshar was flying from Tehran to see me, then I must be important and he had sent the Chairman of the Co-operation Council, a sort of regional development agency, and his assistant to welcome me.

I sat in silence as Mr Afshar and the Chairman conversed in Farsi. Mr Afshar broke off to explain their plans to develop the area and provide employment. The Persian Gulf prawns project was up and running and ripe for further investment and they also had plans to irrigate the surrounding land. I made some comment about its saltiness, it seemed required of me. What Mr Afshar was too polite to translate, but N told me later, was that he was being asked how much I was planning to invest and would it be better to direct me towards agriculture or prawn farming. I am not a poor man, but neither am I rich and if they were looking for million dollar investments they were in for disappointment.

N thought it hilarious and suggested I should have gone through the VIP channel at the airport. I told him I would be a rich man if I had not spent all my money visiting his country. I then pondered as to whether I should be embarrassed, but decided not to be - at least the police would not bother me now. I spared a further thought for how embarrassing it would have been to entertain the ex-mayor of Khorramshahr in the flea pit that was the AK hotel.