Sunday, 22 September 2013


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Monday, 26 August 2013

Walking with a sat nav

Traditional walkers who favour big leather boots and hairy socks still seem to look down on satellite navigation for walkers. Yet bit by bit the practical value of these remarkable products of the electronic age are creeping up on us.
So I recently bought one.
My gadget, from Satmap, isn’t quite the same as a sat nav designed for cars in that it knows nothing of footpaths and how to walk from A to B without getting lost. Instead it has a GPS location map linked to another map such as a digital version of a standard OS map. So basically, the thing is an electronic map which records your route and shows your current position. It does far more of course, but that’s the pared down nuts and bolts of the thing.
In fact there are numerous extras such as a compass, altimeter and facilities for geotagging photos, not all of which I’m likely to use, but modern gadgets are prone to include a host of unwanted frills and I'm used to ignoring the bits I don’t find useful.
My wife and I originally saw the capabilities of these devices while walking the Cumbria Way with a small band of pensioners from our local Ramblers group.
The Cumbria Way is a lovely walk and not at all difficult for reasonably fit walkers. Our route covered eighty five miles in six day. Even though it is a reasonably well marked national route there were quite a few occasions when our leader found his sat nav very useful, in spite of being an experienced walker leading a group of experienced walkers.
For me, the sat nav has three main advantages over a paper map. 
  • I am able to record walks such as those organised by my local Ramblers Association.
  • A large number of walks can be downloaded from a variety of internet sources.
  • I know where we are when the path is unclear. 
As an example of the last point, we recently found ourselves unsure of the right path while walking in Somerset. Apparently confronted with two paths skirting a large field of wheat, our book of local walks said to take the right hand path. Fair enough – off we went.
However, the sat nav soon showed that we were deviating from the OS footpath, so we retraced our steps and soon discovered a signpost to a third path buried in the hedge. Maybe this meant the middle path was the right hand path referred to in our guide?
Wrong again according to the sat nav.
In the end it became obvious that the OS path went straight through the field of wheat but walkers simply skirted the field and rejoined the official path on the other side. The sat nav showed that this was indeed the right conclusion.
Okay – it would have been easy enough to work this out with a paper map, but the sat nav showed us we were going wrong after about fifty feet or so – no messing about looking for landmarks and no need to dig out the compass. Once we’d reached to other side of the wheat field, it also confirmed that we were back on the right path.
Even so, I don’t use the thing without a paper map unless the walk is one I’m familiar with, but the sat nav comes out far more often than the paper map these days.
An additional benefit is that it records miles walked, average speed, time spent actually walking and total ascents.
The last one is a little misleading, because a recorded total ascent of say 2000 feet does not necessarily imply a stiff climb or two. Instead it is the sum total of all the undulations of the whole walk which may have been somewhat less strenuous than a figure of 2000 feet appears to suggest.
In the end, the gadget is a digital map, a GPS system, a route recording system and access to a library of walks on the internet - all neatly packaged in one device. It makes walking life easier and I think a little more enjoyable.
Will these gadgets get more people walking though? Maybe - they do work rather well.
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Friday, 23 August 2013


Perranporth, between St Agnes and Newquay on the north coast, is named after St Piran, one of the patron saints of Cornwall. He is said to have been flung by pagan Irish into the sea with a millstone around his neck, but miraculously floated. I have read a more secular explanation, which is that he came over in a light boat - a coracle? - and the millstone was placed in the bottom as ballast to provide stability in the choppy seas. What mystifies me more is why numbers of missionaries came over from Ireland in the Dark Ages, and why they waited until the Romans had left, when Rome's official religion had been Christian for well over a century. Perhaps King Arthur invited them.

The flag of St Piran - a white cross on a black background, sported by so many tourists' cars, is said by some to represent the melting of white tin out of a black stone in Piran's hearth. Again, I think we underestimate the ancients. I don't believe glass was accidentally discovered by Phoenicians lighting a beach fire, either. If our forefathers had been dumb but lucky then at some point they would have run out of luck and we wouldn't be here. Even the invention of bread remains something of a mystery, when you consider how many processes are required to turn wheat into something edible. I believe there were proto-scientists and technologists much longer ago than we flatter ourselves to think.

It was a beautiful morning when we arrived, and the beach was packed. What with striped windbreaks and mini-tents, the British seaside looks like a cheerful refugee encampment these days.

Parking is tight and a bit expensive on the seafront, but if you turn off a little way uphill, into Wheal Leisure Car Park, you may be lucky. There's loos there and a pedestrian shortcut down to the shops.

We had lunch at the Pavilion Boatshed on the beach approach. It has stylish décor and the chef knows how to cook fish.

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Charlestown, St Austell

If you're around St Austell or passing through, Charlestown is certainly worth a visit. It has visual beauty, historical interest (especially for those who have a nautical bent) and a number of good places to eat and drink.

The place was a commercial development started in 1790 by Charles Rashleigh, to cater for the export of the copper mined nearby (and later, the clay). In ten years or so the harbour, storage rooms and workers' houses were all built together out of local granite, so there is a quiet grey architectural harmony about the place.

The Rashleigh name recurs in this part of south Cornwall. The family were merchants who bought the manor of Trenant (near Fowey) when that disastrous spendthrift Henry VIII dissolved (and sold) the monasteries. This didn't do the royal finances much good, because a great part of the cash had to be used to support the people who'd been turned out; but it was a Big Bang for money-minded Protestants and their descendants' terror of losing it all again is reflected in the 1688 Bill of Rights, itself the inspiration for the American Constitution.

At any rate, in Charlestown you have the Rashleigh Arms - good for a family meal in wood/brass/carpet surroundings; the cobbled car park is a feature, though it may test your car's suspension a bit. (In nearby Polkerris there is the Rashleigh Inn, right by the beach; and the Ship Inn in Fowey also used to be a Rashleigh family property. They're all good, as it happens.) And for the younger crowd, there's a couple of dockside café/wine bars that have a more modern décor.

But our favourite is the Harbourside Inn (at the Pier House Hotel). The food is good, some of the furniture converted from oak barrels, there's a window seat if you get in early enough, and the local beers are excellent. Most of all, the ambience is friendly and unstuffy. Behind the bar is one of those people who turn their work into art; his movement and multitasking are like a kata for engaging several opponents and he clearly enjoys the buzz of business. It's a treat to watch him. Popular on the taps when we went were the disgracefully logoed (this should cure Americans of thinking the British are reserved) Cornish Knocker and Sharp's Special - both flavoursome, but Doom Bar is what the barman rightly calls a "session" ale.

Something else not to miss is the Shipwreck & Heritage Centre. Divers will be particularly interested in the section on old diving equipment, including the heavy helmeted suits and an eighteenth century precursor made out of wood, but the range of exhibits is impressive and entertaining.

It's possible to walk along the coast in either direction, to Porthpean and Polkerris and beyond. Or one could visit either and end up in Charlestown for lunch or an evening meal.

To conclude, here are a couple of Youtube videos of Charlestown and the path from Polkerris to Charlestown, beautifully shot (you may want to mute the music):

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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Porthpean Beach

The couple on the next table at the B&B told us they'd spent the day there and enjoyed it, so we gave it the once-over. Porthpean Beach is less than a mile down a winding lane off St Austell's A390 ring road.

Map: Google Maps (search "Porthpean Sailing Club")

It's a small sandy beach, secluded and facing south-east so that it enjoys the sun most of the time. Vehicles aren't allowed on during the day, and the car park across the road is only £2 (with an honesty box for when the booth is unoccupied) - rabbits included.

The café was closed by the time we got there, but a group was burning some food on a disposable barbecue and children pattered about on the sand. The sailing club overlooks it and as it was after 6 pm, a car was reversing its trailer into the waves to release a dinghy.

It looks a good place for bucket and spade, as well as for older types to lollygag. When thirst calls, there's a footpath by the club that goes over the cliff to Charlestown, which has several of the nicest pubs in St Austell.

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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Totnes: Cats Cafe

"I'll bring your coffee and then you can meet the staff," said the proprietress to my wife. There are six of them: a big black tom who lives under the counter, a woolly ginger who spend most of his time stretched full-length on his favourite chair, a b&w with a tail shortened by mishap (yet still named Felix), Glee the torty, a pretty grey-and-white affair called Lilac and Rolo, a bluish tabby whose favourite game is Scrabble "(especially in the litter tray)", as the profile scrapbook reveals.

Out came the cat treats for the customers to offer, and up came the staff, all cupboard love. This is when I entered the café, via the door-release airlock that seals in the workers until home time. Mango the ginger hardly stirred as I stroked his head; Lilac and Glee competed for the cat biscuits in the plastic containers we held.

Another lady sat next to my wife and we compared the cats we had owned, and how long they had lived; she now had five of them. She was a little disappointed at the obviously ulterior motives of the ménage here, but as I explained, they didn't know us from Adam.

I sipped my tea and glanced through the second book, full of cuttings about the therapeutic benefits of cats. We are such a valetudinarian lot these days, are we not; even sex is to be performed for the sake of your health. I simply like cats - and dogs, and so on.

But as the posters in the window informed passers-by, cats' cafes started in Japan for high-rise dwellers who couldn't keep pets. Cat lovers, the Japanese: Hello Kitty started there, and Maneki-neko, the lucky waving cat (I have one myself). I asked the owner how she had selected her team. She said she'd previously run a hotel-cum-cats' rescue and so had had the opportunity to assess their temperaments.

Children can't come in - because of insurance ("the White Man's Burden", as the Goon Show called it). Some visitors have asked if the café is for bringing their own cats; that would be something to see: even in a Pupil Referral Unit, group dynamics change radically whenever someone joins or leaves. The experience of a bring-your-own-cat playgroup would certainly be educational. Perhaps the café could charge corkage (or Korky-age, for Dandy readers).

We cleaned ourselves with the alcohol hand sanitizers and left, but we'll be back.

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Monday, 19 August 2013

Best pasty in Cornwall

Photo: BBC

While we waited for the minibus to take us from the field to Trevaunance Cove, I saw one of the parking stewards contentedly eating a pasty (end first; I'd heard that the Cornish miners used to eat the middle and throw away the grimed crust, but our hands are cleaner these days). I asked him, "What's the best pasty in Cornwall?"

"The best one in St Agnes is from the bakery, by the church." And so it was, as we found later. Or at any rate, it was excellent, even if we hadn't tried any other outlets there. And the cake slices looked dangerously good, and large.

But in the whole of Cornwall? Barnecutts in Bodmin, he replied, his mate adding that it was the best of the reasonably-priced ones. Even better, the men agreed, was Aunty Avice's, made "at the back of a garage" in St Kew. It sounded like Jeremy Clarkson's ideal sports car manufacturer, a couple of blokes bashing metal in a unit on an industrial estate.

Then we got onto the bespoke ones. One woman would "go mad" if you dared use any sauce with hers; though he agreed you should have a lot of pepper in the mix. Wikipedia mentions a combination sweet and savoury version formerly eaten in Anglesey, but Cornwall does them, too: my former co-worker Gary from Wadebridge was asked to bring one of his mum's pasties back for a mate in Birmingham, and she made one of these combos that was so big it filled the back shelf of the car.

Pasties are taken seriously, and this year the Eden Project hosted the second World Pasty Championships. In the company category, the winner was from Bath; but the runners-up from St Just and Scorrier, both in Cornwall. Among individuals, Cornishman Billy Deakin from Mount Hawke won the amateur title for the second year running, while the three top professionals came from Bodmin and Padstow. ThisIsCornwall ran a story featuring five leading makers at the time, back in February.

According to the Cornish Pasty Association,

"A genuine Cornish pasty has a distinctive ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side, never on top. The texture of the filling for the pasty is chunky, made up of uncooked minced or roughly cut chunks of beef (not less than 12.5%), swede, potato and onion and a light peppery seasoning.

"The pastry casing is golden in colour, savoury, glazed with milk or egg and robust enough to retain its shape throughout the cooking and cooling process without splitting or cracking. The whole pasty is slow-baked to ensure that flavours from the raw ingredients are maximised. No flavourings or additives must be used. And, perhaps most importantly, it must also be made in Cornwall."

That last point is borne out by EC Regulation 510/2006 (pdf), which drew unhappy comment from manufacturers outside the county. But it's no more than DOCG for Italian wines and cheeses, and I rate Cornish pasties as a similarly fine, characteristic regional product.

The nicest we've had is a steak pasty from the snack shop opposite Fowey ferry car park - really succulent, with a rich, thick gravy. Made in town, we were told. Don't know if that counts as a traditional Cornish pasty, but so what.

Our researches continue.
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Sunday, 18 August 2013


Richard Dadd: Caravan Halted By The Sea Shore (1843)

Pounding up the packed M5 yesterday, I noticed that caravans are like a red rag to a bull for the rest of us drivers, even if they're doing a good speed. But I also used one or two in the middle lane as markers to see if staying in the outside lane is better than switching to whichever queue seems to be making better progress; it is.

And as I drove, I wondered whether there is a Best Place. Cornwall and Devon are so lovely, so do the people who live there go elsewhere on their holidays, and if so, why and where? You could do an experiment, perhaps using information from travel agents: find out where the majority in one location take their breaks, then go to that place and see where the locals take theirs, and so on. Would you end up somewhere that is perfect, or simply so poor that the natives don't go abroad? Would you end up back where you started? Would the trek never end?

Perhaps it is not so much about venturing into the unknown, as escape from the known. Gertrude Stein: "What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there."

Richard Dadd: Artist's Halt In The Desert By Moonlight
Arabs - the Bedouin kind - have long caught the British imagination. Like birds, they seem free. Some of the happiest-looking photographs of the SAS are taken when they're wearing their shemaghs, and the first couple of lines of the following quote from James Elroy Flecker's "Hassan" appear on the memorial Clock Tower at 22 SAS' Stirling Lines base in Hereford:
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
I suspect that Flecker originally wrote the scene as a stand-alone tribute to the heart's desire for the journey without end or final purpose, like Tennyson's Ulysses, and only afterwards turned it into a drama (all the rest is in prose).

And so, with regret, passing Gormley's awful Willow Man at Bridgwater (now thankfully dwarfed by the massive, gaudy-green decorated shed of the Morrisons depot) we took the Golden Road back to Birmingham, intending to return to the West Country as soon as possible.

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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Re cycling

We’ve just returned from a week in the caravan at Minehead, Somerset. We use Minehead as a base for walking in Exmoor and the surrounding area. Not quite as rugged as Derbyshire, but a most attractive area for walking.

Withypool to Tarr Steps and back via Knaplock is a fine circular walk if you are ever in the area.
One thing we notice about these caravan jaunts is how many caravans and motorhomes have a couple of bikes stowed somewhere conspicuous.
Another thing we notice is how rarely we see any of these cycle owners actually cycle off somewhere. The cycles are unloaded from the car roof or the back of the motorhome right enough, but after that brief burst of activity they seem to lie around as a mute sign of good intentions.
Can’t do that with walking boots I suppose.
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Saturday, 10 August 2013


We were lucky: a young couple having an in-car heart-to-heart vacated their space for us at the Rashleigh Inn. We'd gone there to catch the westward view over the bay, where the BBC Weather site had forecast a clear sunset.

It was a gray evening and the tide was out. Adults and children wandered over the harbour beach and wall. A wraith of mist stood on the sea over by Charlestown, as though someone had lit a bonfire on the water.

In we went and ordered a pasty, which turned out to be locally made and excellent. I nicked chips from my wife's plate. We sat at a long table under a large portrait of a sixteenth century Spaniard in his fine clothes and chain of authority, his gilded helmet beside him. A shih tzu and a Jack Russell-terrier cross fidgeted at our feet, while their middle-aged owners examined a property online and discussed ideas for refurbishment and building a new house on the back lot. At the bar counter, an old man with a bent back sat open-eyed and unmoving, while the evening swirled about him.

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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Strictly Confidential

After inedible rubber chicken skewers at the Brasshouse, we went to the matinee of Craig Revel-Horwood's "Strictly Confidential" at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Led by the ebullient Lisa Riley, it gave us all permission to enjoy ourselves, a very underrated mission.

The over-bright wood panelling that usually reminds patrons of its existence throughout performances was black-curtained round the stage to set it for a properly theatrical experience. Lisa and the cast gave it plenty of welly, fighting the architecture and the natural reserve of us Midlanders. When played to a full house at night and in a traditional theatre it'll be a storm; as it was we loved it anyway.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Catlin's Indian portraits

Catlin's painting of Little Wolf

The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of George Catlin's American Indian Portraits has come to Birmingham Museum (until 13th October). Well worth a visit, for the social history and the powerful personalities Catlin painted.

The NPG has published a hardback catalogue (£25, but currently available for as little as c. £15 + P&P via Amazon).

Friday, 5 July 2013

Victoria & Albert Museum: Jewellery Collection

The spiral staircase in the Jewellery Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 04 July 2013. (Photo: author.)

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Sunday, 24 June 2012

Hayward Gallery: "Invisible" exhibition (2012)

And so yesterday we walked through a warm and busy London to the South Bank, where, after sharing a doughy cheese pierogi off the real food street market, we ascended bloodstained concrete stairs to the Hayward Gallery.

The exhibition is entitled "Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957 -2012". We paid, were given tickets after reminding the counter clerk (was this a foretaste of the installation?) and gave them to the attendant at the door, who said something we didn't catch, so we asked him to repeat it. It was "Can you see me?" with what I suppose he hoped was an appropriately ironic smirk; I guess we should have replied, "Yes, but we can't hear you."

In we went, noting an avertissement that warned visitors that some might have difficulty reading the labels. Which were printed in white, on transparent plastic sheets, against white walls. Not that there were that many exhibits; now call me middle-browed, but if I'm offered nothing I want a lot of it for my money. In keeping, the gallery was sparsely attended, though one woman was making up for it by gazing very intensely at an empty section of wall. My wife speculates that she might have lost her glasses and thought she was looking at something. Or perhaps she was merely entering into the spirit of the thing (or the nothing).

The first item I inspected with any care was a press cutting from 1959, about Yves Klein's stunt "Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle." Klein sold tickets in exchange for shreds of gold leaf (20 grams for the first exhibition - rising later to 80 grams, such are the effects of inflation). If the buyer opted to convert these into an immaterial experience, he burned his ticket (at least he got one first time of asking, I assume) and the artist threw half the gold into the river Seine; otherwise Klein kept the lot. So the artist got something tangible and conventionally valuable, whatever happened. Gallic cunning? But it's possible, of course, that I may be doing Klein an injustice, for in 1980 one of his pieces was discovered quite by accident in an Italian convent, having been anonymously deposited there in 1961 as a votive offering by the artist, who prayed for success and the increasing beauty of his works.

I do suspect that French philosophy is basically for impressing French chicks. It worked with Simone de Beauvoir, for one; and years ago in Paris, my beloved and I were watching TV and caught an interview with Serge Gainsbourg (conducted by Jane Birkin, as I recall) where he was acting the literary lion à la française - unshaven, Gauloised, possibly well-oiled as we used to say, and spouting un grand tas de testicules about la vie, l'amour etc. Fortunately we were well-oiled too, and understood him as drunks do each other. French women know that their role is to serve the gorgeous peacock; one remembers H E Bates' "A Breath of French Air", where muscular Adonises play ball on the beach, admired by mousy-looking girls with what the Irish call streely hair.

Maybe, as with Sartre in 1943, the concept of nothingness (or for others, the numinous) is a reaction to a time when you were supposed to join one team or the other, with no standing on the sidelines (it's getting like that again now, I sense). À bas les salauds, and all that; spit in the eye of those "assured of certain certainties"; let the spirit off the leash of Reason. 

Having said that, Sartre seems to have been able to redirect his gaze to concrete matters when it suited him, as witness the controversy over his stepping into a Jewish professor's job when it became forcibly vacant under the Nazis; and in the 1968 Paris student riots, he suddenly abandoned his fundamental stance on existentialism and became able to believe in collective freedom, at least for a while. Perhaps his volte-face and surrender to the authority of Marxism is the core of surreal rebellion. As a paper already cited says, "Hysterical questioning is critical of power (“Why have you done this? This is not just!”), but beneath it all is a provocation to the father figure to appear and to interpellate more successfully."
Back to the matter in hand. There was other stuff here, including Robert Barry's Energy Field (AM 130 KHz) from 1968 (a wooden box with a battery and coil), and a room with a couple of air coolers (my wife said she found these things very welcome after a sauna). One room was a blackout (pictured below; fortunately I captured another visitor, so I got both ground and figure, the essentials of all Western art).


Then there was a wide upper gallery. This space spoke to me: it said, 'You paid fourteen quid for this." And finally, something for the kids: Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth. You know, like those inlaid floor mazes found in some theme parks and gardens, only here you had to memorise the routes.

Good art (like radio plays) makes you do some of the work, and there's no shortage of clever people stropping their intellects on this one:

Of course, reviewers don't pay to get in, and on the whole, nor would we have, if we'd known what was in store. But surely every show must have a closing number, and to play you out here's the orchestral version of John Cage's 4' 33'' so you can have something to hum as you leave:

Coincidentally, the show we saw after, "Yes, Prime Minister" at the Trafalgar Studios (Whitehall Theatre as was), also featured a nothing, this time the Prime Minister, described in the play as "a vacuum". It was funny and beautifully acted, but edgier and darker than the old TV programmes - as with Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, we scent in the artist's work a storm coming to us in real life.

A shame then that five minutes down the road from there we have a PM who is the human equivalent of a German beach towel, merely keeping the place for a real person to come later. Like Jim Hacker, we now see Cam thrashing about with a handful of Blairite eye-catching initiatives to divert attention from his failure to achieve anything*. As we passed the now-gated entrance to Downing Street I said, make the most of it, you've got twelve months.
*... and, sadly for him, draw attention to his own "housing benefit".