Dictionary definition: 1. extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension or fear. 2. extremely good; excellent

People use this word so habitually that it becomes meaningless; however, today I am happy to use it myself. I have been to a place in accordance with both definitions.

 mirror-lake-boulderWhat has reduced my vocabulary to a single word, uttered with a breathless wonder? I will tell you. Only a few days ago I was standing on an empty beach alongside the River Merced in the heart of Yosemite Valley, surrounded by vast slabs of granite in all directions and facing one of the world’s iconic mountains – El Capitan. The nausea, the dizziness, the swollen ankles and shortness of breath may have been the result of mild altitude sickness – after all this valley floor is still 4,000 feet above sea level – or possibly the 4 mile hike you have to make to reach this spot if you are without a car.

Yosemite: It’s like you have arrived at the very centre of the earth, at the planet’s temple. It is strong, powerful and very moving. These rocks, those waterfalls – they came out of nothing and now stand two thousand metres high.

I have teetered on the edge of the Grand Canyon, I have marvelled at the balancing rocks in Marble Canyon, I have gazed in wonder at the red sandstone hoodoos of Bryce’s Amphitheatre and shaken my head at the craziness of climbers scaling the sheer side of Angel’s Landing in Zion. Although each and every one of these has filled me with surprise and astonishment at the unique formation of their landscape none have moved me quite like this place. It doesn’t have to be Zen, but it is a place where you can breathe and be inspired.


The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco

(This is a long post about my love affair with San Francisco which started in 1965)

San Francisco first hit my radar way back in 1965 when “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas hit the British charts. Knowing nothing about LA or indeed California, anywhere that offered warmth in winter seemed like a good place to be to me. By the time Scott McKenzie was singing “San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” a hit in the spring of 1967, I was hooked. This was one USA state I had to visit. Haight-Ashbury frequently featured on the television with its flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibe hippies during the summer of love (1967) and I fell in love with the whole enchilada. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s I too became an incense burning, peace-loving hippy myself, though it was an awful lot more years before I would get to San Fran.

The next time the city nudged its way into my life was in 1972 when I was working for a brief spell in Zürich as an au pair and came into contact with a group of Americans from California who were over in Europe to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Falling in love with a gentle, flute-playing, blonde haired surfer from San Francisco made me yearn to visit that golden state again. All too soon he took off for India and I returned home to the UK, alone. The years passed and the USA was no longer on my ‘must see’ list and San Francisco faded from my dreams. The summer of love was long past… Continue reading The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco

Daily Prompt: Local Flavour

This is my introduction to Ludlow, currently my home town. The name Ludlow comes from ‘lud’ the loud waters and ‘low’ a tumulus. If you were to ‘Google’ Ludlow you would find that it is the largest town in south Shropshire and has over 500 listed buildings. You may also discover that it is known as one of the best ‘foodie’ towns in the UK with regular open-air markets, local produce markets and both a Spring and Autumn food festival lasting over the weekend

Ludlow has been described as the “perfect English town”. It is situated on the River Teme in the southernmost part of Shropshire, on the Welsh Marches. It has a medieval street pattern and many ancient buildings including a castle and a magnificent parish church as well as streets lined with medieval and Georgian properties.

” The secret of Ludlow resides in the fact that, like York, it was once a seat of government in Tudor and Stewart England. A sense of its own identity and importance has never quite left it. That accounts for its strength of character and the lingering sense of authority. This is a town which, although the tide of history has receded from it, still manages to preside magisterially over the countryside one glimpses at the end of every street. ” – Sir Roy Strong

The natural starting point for a stroll around the town would be the Castle Square where the market is held several days a week and on the second or fourth Thursday of the month when the local produce market is held you can load up with local cheeses, meats, real ales from micro-breweries, bottles of home-made chutneys and preserves, soaps and even fresh herbs if you so desire. It is a traditional open-air market with 20-30 stalls selling produce from within a 30 mile radius of Ludlow.

From here you can visit the castle. It is a ruin, but quite an interesting one, and it dominates the skyline from the river side of the town. It has a combination of architecture from Norman, Medieval and Tudor times. Parts date from the 11th century when built by Walter de Lacy. It was enlarged by Roger Mortimer in the 14th century and has been in the hands of the Earls of Powis since 1811. The castle was a seat of government for Wales for a time and it was involved in the Wars of the Roses with a major battle taking place at Ludford Bridge. Often events are held in the castle such as the Christmas Medieval Fayre (late November) and the Ludlow Festival held in the summer which features an open-air production of Shakespeare.

After visiting the castle, we’ll wander along the track around the castle and down to the Dinham Bridge and Millennium Green, where you can have a spot of lunch at the Green Café before feeding the ducks or swans and watch the children play on “Ludlow beach” a strip of shingle which is very popular for paddling on a warm day. Here is the Castle Weir where leaping salmon can be seen during the run in October/November each year to reach upstream spawning grounds and don’t forget to look at the restored Water Wheel which generates electricity for the building. As well as ducks crowding the river you can see the occasional heron, swans and even a kingfisher.

Next walk over the bridge, stopping to take a classic photo or two of the castle and the river, before choosing whether to head up to Whitcliffe Common via the Donkey Steps (once part of the packhorse route moving iron-ore through the county); right along a quiet road into the countryside; or left along the Breadwalk which stays close to the river and leads to Ludford Bridge. The Breadwalk was so named after being rebuilt in 1886 following a devastating flood in the town. The unemployed men, grateful for some work, were paid by Lord Clive in bread and blankets – a hard-hearted Victorian form of unemployment relief. It was first known as ‘The Bread and Blanket Walk’.

woodland walk - packhorse steps

As you are a first-time visitor we’ll head up through the mixture of deciduous woodland and onto the grass common of Whitcliffe with its wild-flower meadows where you have the best views over the old town with the Clee Hill in the background. Sit a while on one of the conveniently placed benches and relax. There are also two sites of scientific interest on the Common– Teme Bank (The Ludlow Bone Beds are famous for exposures of Silurian strata with deposits of marine life forming beds as the sea retreated from the area) and the Long Trenches. It is likely that they were dug by the parliamentarians during the siege of Ludlow in 1646. Keep a look out for the Hawfinches which feed on the Hornbeam trees.

We can now head back down to the Breadwalk and continue along the river to Ludford, the site of the ‘Battle of Ludford Bridge’ on 12 October 1459 in the early years of the Wars of the Roses. If you want to pause for refreshment before tackling the last hill then the Charlton Arms can offer a series of comfortable terraces from which to enjoy views of the river and towards the town. If you head downstairs you can visit a room with a collection of the Shakespeare posters by Ludlovian artist Polly Hamilton from past productions of the summer festival at the castle.

Take a short detour across the road where St Giles Church and Ludford House (once a leper hospital) turn their backs to the road with the old Job Charlton almshouses skulking at the side of the road to the church. The polygonal lodge cottage served as a toll house for the main Worcester road until 1836. One of my favourite quiet spots is along the lane past the Old Bell House, once a coaching inn, and through the kissing gate onto a field which is forever changing crops from wheat to rape, and with two very photogenic trees. Ludford is a delightful area and often missed by visitors.

Retracing our steps we’ll cross over the Ludford Bridge, with a glance at the Horseshoe Weir, the third weir on the Teme in Ludlow, where you always find ducks and if you’re lucky a heron, then we’ll walk up Lower Broad Street, the centre of cloth working in the Middle Ages, towards the sole surviving gate through the old town walls. This road has lots of lovely cottages on the left-hand side with large displays of flora in numerous containers, and several shuts leading to private hidden gardens; very pretty. Next to the Broad Gate we pass by the Wheatsheaf Inn which is the best place for a Sunday carvery and they do a pretty mean mixed grill and steak and ale pie too.

Climb up the hill on Broad Street which is one of Ludlow’s widest streets and lined with large Georgian fronted houses (some of which have medieval buildings behind the façade) passing the Methodist Chapel on the left opposite the house belonging to Marmaduke Gwyn, the father-in-law of Charles Wesley, the Angel, a former coaching inn, and de Grey’s tea room and bakery on the right where you can have a very fine English high tea.Finally at the top of the street is the Buttercross built in 1744 and formerly a butter market.

If you turn left here along Market Street you will find yourself back in the Castle Square where we began the walk.

Thanks to the Daily Post for giving me the opportunity to “Write a piece about a typically “local” experience from where you come from as though it’s an entry in a travel guide.” I hope you like it 🙂

Note: Sadly De Greys tearoom closed at the end of January 2014, but there are several other independent cafés and tearooms in Ludlow – try Emporos in the Bull Ring (go through Attorney’s Walk one of Shropshire’s Shuts).

A tale of cassowaries and aliens…

Photo of a cassowary is courtesy of betta design on flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I chose to stay in the youth hostel in Mission Beach, northern Queensland because of its unusual name and location. The Treehouse built on stilts and surrounded by verdant rain forest is a big open plan log cabin with bare wooden floors and bamboo framed glassless windows with shutters.

The small number of bamboo doors that exist are open at the top so all sounds drift effortlessly inside and out. Comfortable shabby sofas are arranged in cosy corners encouraging the residents to gather together and chat or make music. Or you can grab a random paperback from one of the many bookcases and curl up in a hammock on the shady veranda and lose yourself in the plot. The air is filled with incense and a touch of dank decay.

On my first morning I am woken early by the torrential rain, thunder and lightning and with the smell of rich earth assaulting my nostrils it almost feels like camping and only slightly drier. The close proximity to the rain forest also means that as soon as dawn cracks an opening in the night sky a cacophony of kookaburras crash into your dreams with the subtleness of falling pan-lids.

It is not a place conducive to much sleep.

It is here that I meet Andy. I have noticed him over the past few days as he bumbles about the place. He’s a quiet, unassuming young man who appears very solitary. On the third morning I am disturbed by the cleaners who start sweeping the floors at 5 am and I can’t get back to sleep. I feel irritated and headachy; I had a hard time dropping off last night due to a group of travellers talking and drumming well into the early hours. The swish, swish of the brushes sweeping over the wooden floors is as annoying as the whine of a mosquito. It’s no good, sleep eludes me. Drowsily I stumble into the kitchen and find Andy with his head in the fridge. Over strong coffee and cereal on the sundeck overlooking the swimming pool we exchange names and watch as the rain drips languidly through the forest. He then tells me about the cassowaries that live here.

Later that morning, once the rain has eased, I catch one of the shuttles into Mission Beach and ask to be dropped off at the Rainforest Walk, which is about a 6 or 7 km circuit. It is very green and very gloomy in there and almost silent apart from the occasional shriek of a bird. I strain my ears listening out for the ‘boom’ sound which the southern cassowary makes and every time a twig snaps or a giant leaf falls noisily to the ground I can feel my heart pounding in my throat remembering Andy’s story.

…a single kick from one of them birds can rip open your stomach as they have a dagger-like claw

It strikes me as a rather unpleasant way to die with your intestines hanging out; alone in a soggy, dark forest. Fresh droppings close to the pathway do nothing to ease my anxieties and as I walk I nervously consider every tree as a place to hide behind should one of these magnificent flightless creatures run across my path.

The fathers will be minding the chicks now and are fiercely protective, don’t get anywhere near them echoes in my head.

The air is thick and still, the plants and trees still dripping from the night’s rainfall; it all feels extremely claustrophobic.

That evening, back in the safety of the Treehouse, Andy shuffles over with a bottle of cheap plonk and over a glass or two we chat some more. Obviously relieved that I’d survived any cassowary attack he makes a decision to confide in me.

I was driving through the outback, not so far from here when I noticed that there were lights behind me. I thought at first it was another truck. I slowed down to let the truck pass, but it appeared to slow down too. The lights moved up and down and sometimes disappeared altogether, before coming back closer and brighter. They were definitely tracking me.

The lights are known by the aboriginal people as “Min Min” lights and some scientists explain their appearance as a natural phenomenon; however Andy, along with many others, is convinced that the lights are from aliens who are attempting to communicate with us.

Some people think I’m not the full quid, but I am you know, I’ve seen these lights around Melbourne too.

At 10 o’clock, light-headed with exhaustion, I make my excuses and head for bed; it’s all getting a little bit creepy. And as I stare at the full moon piercing the shadows I shudder to think what might be out there.

Less than 2 weeks later I found myself in Winston, the centre of the area which is known for the ‘Min Min’ lights, but sadly I didn’t see any aliens.

(Daily Post: Creative Commons)

“Here be dragons…”

Dragons were drawn on ancient maps to symbolise an unknown place or place to be explored. You may well be thinking there’s nowhere like that left in England, but you could be mistaken.

Rainbow over the Moors
Rainbow over the Moors

It was Easter and I took my teenage sons to North Yorkshire to spend some time bonding with the great outdoors. We stayed in Runswick Bay a few miles away from the delights of Whitby with its maritime heritage, tales of Captain Cook and Dracula and the 199 steps to the Abbey. We were in a teeny cottage clinging to the side of the steep cliff. It was barely big enough for the three of us and certainly had no room to swing the cat, which fortunately we’d left at home.

We were woken early by a squillion gulls that perched on our roof screeching annoyingly down the chimney; no alarm clock required. Our days were spent trudging over the moors on ancient Roman tracks or stepping over streams, admiring the masses of dancing daffodils and newly born lambs gambolling in the fields. We discovered sea urchins and lumps of jet on the beach and got soaked from the heavy sleeting showers then warmed ourselves with mugs of real hot chocolate along with heavily buttered toasted teacakes in a steamy little café in Staithes, before returning along the coastal path, the wind tangling our hair and blowing us backwards.

We set out each day armed with corned beef sandwiches and bottles of lemonade and cheese and onion crisps. Pre ‘Sat Nav’ (GPS) made exploring the many narrow lanes an adventure in itself. Arriving at a junction or a fork where there were no signposts (removed in the war to confuse the enemy should they land and which have never been replaced) the boys would take it in turns to shout out directions to me – left, right – it didn’t really matter as we always found somewhere to park and explore.

One such wintry day on our way back from climbing up Roseberry Topping (where Cook glimpsed his first sight of the sea) we saw a rainbow. Not just any rainbow, this was a magnificent example, a 3D Technicolor arch, the rainbow of all rainbows spreading over the blackened sky with both ends touching the earth. We decided in an instant to head for one end of the rainbow and zigged and zagged over the moors, sometimes even going under the bow itself in an attempt to reach the end. We didn’t of course, but the journey was exhilarating and laughing still we reached our cosy cottage to spend yet another evening pouring over the road map to try to guess where we’d been today and wonder whether there were any more dragons left to find tomorrow.