Holidays in Arizona: Living the American cliche

Arizona is one place that I always really fancied going to. But for one reason and another, I’d never actually made it, even when living in California at the turn of the Millennium.

But seeing as it was my 50th birthday this year, it fell to me to choose our holiday destination and so I wanted to go somewhere that felt at least vaguely meaningful. After tossing up and rejecting places like Sri Lanka, which I’d love to go to but have no emotional connection with, inspiration hit. Arizona with its red cliffs and mesas rising out of the desert floor was the only place that would do.

As I’d not returned to the US since leaving there 16 years ago, however, I didn’t want just any old vacation. It was the full American cliché or nothing: a road trip in an RV (recreational vehicle) a la Jack Kerouac – or not quite, but you know what I mean. A burst of hedonism in Vegas, Nevada, where my Beloved and I got engaged. A dash of kitsch in the stunning New Age mecca of Sedona, renowned for its energy vortexes and UFO tours. All topped off with stacks of natural wonderment at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the scene of so many old cowboy movies in the north of the Navajo Nation reservation.

Sedona
Sedona

And what do you know – the US was just as I remembered it. Big and brash and beautiful – subtlety isn’t generally the word that springs to mind for this fascinating country.

But sadly, one thing that had changed was simply the cost of the place – in fact, it was eye-wateringly expensive. In my day, eating out and going out and clothing yourself in fine raiment was a relatively cheap activity, especially when compared to the UK.

But no more. The whole sterling-crashing-through-the-floor thing since the Brexit referendum decision undoubtedly hasn’t helped, but the US is bloody pricey for a Brit these days. The country’s average median wage of $55,775 (£45,336) has shot ahead of the UK’s £27,600 and it’s reflected in the everyday cost of living.

Even in Vegas, which we initially flew into and where at one time food and drink was as cheap as chips in order to keep everyone in the casinos and in or around the gaming tables, prices were exorbitant. The most cost-effective meal we could find, for example, was an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Wicked Spoon restaurant in the Cosmopolitan casino and hotel, where we were staying, for $27 (£22) per head.

Which incidentally served truly excellent fare and meant that we didn’t have to eat again that day – just waddle back to the astounding so-called “wrap-around suite” with bedroom, living room, kitchen, two huge bathrooms and an immense balcony surrounding it (hence wrap-around, I guess) that my Beloved had cleverly managed to blag with tales of our Vegas engagement and the fact it was my 50th.

Anyway, the reason for the hike in Sin City’s food bills is, it seems, linked to hotel occupancy rates. Oversupply and dwindling demand means that they’re now hovering at around 50% so it’s all about making up the shortfall elsewhere – and that’s despite the fact that the average punter budgets to spend a huge $530 (£433) on gambling during their stay – according to the local freebie guidebook, ‘Vegas2Go’ that is anyway.

Another world

For our obligatory night of hedonism though, we decided to abandon the Strip altogether, which is uptown, and follow our taxi-driver-from-the-airport’s advice to go downtown – to Fremont Street, which is in fact the original Vegas and where it all started in the first place. And what a great decision it was.

Despite having visited for years, it was our first time there. And it was fab – just like the Vegas of old. Tacky and glitzy and over-the-top – and a fraction of the price of the now largely sanitised Strip.

The Strip, Las Vegas
The Strip, Las Vegas

One old cliché that I was pleased to see hadn’t gone bye-the-bye though was the vast quantity of food still dished up in restaurants and diners. So huge are the meals, in fact, that the only ones we didn’t share were the entrée-sized starters, and we didn’t eat many of them really – we were in an motorhome remember, which meant barbecuing most nights in one of the excellent fire pits provided in RV parks dotted around Arizona.

Incidentally so common is the whole RV experience in the state that even regular parking lots have huge spaces marked out to cater for them, which given their massive bulk is a real godsend.

And that leads me on to the life of the RVer, which it must be said is another world. A lifestyle pursued by many so-called snowbirds or retirees who sell their worldly goods to buy motorhomes and move south to warmer climes for the winter, it has a language all its own.

There are “full hook-ups”, which mean you can connect to the RV site’s water and electricity supply rather than use your own. There are dumps, which as you might suspect are special holes in the ground in which to pump your “black” (toilet residue) and “grey (washing up and shower water) waste” into the cesspit lurking beneath.

And then there are “pull-throughs”, which is shorthand for saying that on leaving, you can drive your vehicle straight through your assigned plot on the RV park rather than have to manoeuvre the damn thing to get out. Which is no mean feat.

At only 22 feet, our motorhome was just a baby known as a “Minnie Winnie” (Winnebago). I never actually quite got up the courage to drive her though, being somewhat put off by the fact that, even though my Beloved is a very experienced motorist, he spent the first couple of days racked in terror trying to handle her huge dimensions.

In fact, every time we took off across one of the vast, open plains that seemed to link many of our destinations, his arms were nearly ripped out of their sockets trying to keep her in a straight line as her massive surface area led to us being buffeted about by the wind. By the end of our trip though, it should be noted that my Beloved had developed serious RV-envy and was unable to let even one of the immense bus-size creations lumber by without obsessive online searching so he could sigh over their vital statistics.

Other great clichés

Another great cliché lived and experienced, meanwhile was getting to travel on Route 66. In fact, this most famous of US roads also known as the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road” kept popping up all over the place, and not necessarily where you’d expect either.

One of the country’s first highways connecting Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica in California and romanticised in song, we first picked it up on our initial stopover after Vegas in a non-descript town called Kingman – which nonetheless makes the most of its meagre assets by pushing itself as “The Heart of Historic Route 66”, complete with nostalgia-inspired motels and diners for tourists.

We then ran into it again passing through a similar town called Seligman. And somewhat surprisingly once again going up to the Painted Desert in the north of the Petrified Forest National Park, with its ancient trees that have turned to multi-coloured stone and crystal as a result of water containing minerals seeping through the mud, sand and volcanic ash in which they were buried and filling up the decaying wood.

But that’s Arizona for you – just full of amazing natural beauty. In fact, much as I love California, which is definitely more diverse, I would have to say that Arizona has the edge in terms of sheer, unadulterated drama – not least because it’s amazing mesas and buttes are, in the main, a breathtaking red.

And despite being a shameless tourist trap, the reddest piece de resistance of all is, of course, Monument Valley  (which is actually on the border with the state of Utah) in the 16 million acre Navajo Nation, by far the largest native American reservation in the US. Full of astounding sandstone shapes towering out of the ochre desert floor, you might well have seen it in one of director John Ford’s old cowboy movies with John Wayne as the main man.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

As to how Monument Valley came to have this starring role though, that was thanks to a white couple, Harry Goulding and the wife he nicknamed “Mike”. They had come to the area in the 1920s and established a trading post there for the Navajo tribe to exchange their livestock and handmade goods for foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

By the 1930s, however, the Great Depression had hit and people on the reservation began to starve. But Goulding had heard that a movie production company was scouting for film locations in the area and so set out with Mike for Hollywood with their last $60 in their pockets to round up interest.

A combination of luck and perseverance led to them meeting Ford, who on seeing photos of Monument Valley was sold. And the rest is history, as they say – although the plight of many native Americans in their own country is, sadly, still marred by the same poverty that afflicted them in the 1930s and the same racism that weaves through the very fabric of those old-fashioned westerns.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that, with only one or two exceptions, the Americans we met of all colours and creeds were as friendly and as positive and as welcoming as I remembered them. And I really can’t think of a better cliché to live up to than that.

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Essex mysteries: The secret Battle of Assandun

Who would have thought that one of the major turning points in English history – albeit one that no one knows much about – allegedly took place just up the road from where I live in Essex?

 

So just what is this momentous event, I hear you cry? Well, it turns out to be a lost, and almost forgotten, fight apparently almost on a par with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in terms of significance. But this one’s known as the Battle of Assandun and took place almost 50 years earlier to the day in October 1016 – a vast 1,000 years ago.

 

As to why it’s so important, it just happens to have been the last in a series of battles between Edmund Ironside, King of England and son of AEthelred the Unready, and Canute, King of Denmark and of holding-back-the-waves fame, which resulted in the little-talked-about Danish conquest of England.

 

In reality though, the conquest had seemingly been going on for a number of years. While Canute’s dad Svein first invaded England in 1013 and took over great chunks of the place, Viking raids had been going on for 20 years or so before that, and the Danes had been raiding and settling for a good two centuries previously.

 

But ‘A Clerk of Oxford’ explains in his/her blog just why losing the Battle of Assandun mattered quite so much: “This invasion changed the history of England. If Svein [King Canute or Cnut’s father] and Cnut hadn’t wreaked such chaos in AEthelred’s family early in the eleventh century, the kingdom would not have been up for grabs in 1066, when William of Normandy decided to put his oar in – and no Norman conquest means an entirely different England.”

 

On winning the Battle of Assandun, Canute signed a peace treaty with Edmund, which resulted in him becoming King of all England, apart from Wessex (Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) that is. Wessex remained Edmund’s – until he died only six weeks later, possibly of his wounds, although foul play was suspected, obviously.

 

But the Clerk also offers some interesting reasons as to why the Battle has slipped our collective mind so completely. Firstly, although the Danes told stories about their conquest, unlike the Normans, they generally told them to each other in the comfort of their own long houses rather than write them down for posterity. There’s also no Danish equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is possibly the most iconic work of medieval art and was “almost solely responsible for popularising the most famous ‘fact’ about the Norman conquest, that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye”.

 

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

What The Clerk believes to be the most important point of all, however, is that “the Danes were a different kind of conquerors [to the Normans] – and arguably better. The conquest itself was violent (on both sides) but after a few years of bloodshed, Cnut became a king both English and Danes could accept.”

 

1000th anniversary

 

In fact, The Clerk continues: “There’s no evidence of English rebellion against the Danish conquerors, nor much sign of ethnic tension of the kind we associate with the aftermath of the Norman conquest….the real achievement of Cnut’s conquest was to make the aftermath of conquest seem fairly painless – and thus less memorable. As a result of these factors (and others), the Danish conquest has never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman conquest. Its effects seem less traumatic, less long-lasting, and less well-recorded.”

 

But it probably also didn’t help much that no one’s entirely sure just where the real-life Battle of Assandun actually took place. My favourite contender though has to be the village of Ashdon in North West Essex, about four miles from my current abode of Saffron Walden. But there’s also another, generally more popular, candidate in the shape of Ashingdon near Chelmsford in the south east reaches of the county (boo).

 

Apparently historians have argued inconclusively over the pros and cons of each site for years, but the case for Ashingdon is as follows: After Edmund’s death, Canute apparently built a church to commemorate all of the soldiers who died in battle. This is believed to be Ashingdon Minster, which still stands to this day.

 

There are documents to show that Canute attended the Minster’s dedication with his bishops, and also that he appointed his personal priest Stigand to work there. Although the church is now dedicated to St Andrew (the Apostle), it was believed to formerly be dedicated to St Michael, an archangel who is associated with the military as he is said to have led the fight against Satan and is known as the defender of Heaven.

 

As for Ashdon, a couple of Anglo-Saxon wills clearly show that it was the original site of the Battle, and the church that was rebuilt in stone there in the early 11th century to replace an earlier wooden structure would fit perfectly with the time of Canute’s conquest. So who knows.

 

Ashdon church
Ashdon church

Just how I came to find this little lot out, meanwhile, is due to a series of events that have been widely advertised locally throughout the spring and summer to celebrate the Battle’s 1000th anniversary. We’ve had lectures, a couple of re-enactments and even a village picnic and hog roast in the village of Hadstock, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it as far as I’m aware, but obviously just wanted to join in the fun.

 

But it all comes to a close on 16 October, the day of the Battle itself, with a commemorative service held by former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams at the church in good, old Hadstock again. And then that’ll be it for another 1,000 or so years, I guess.

Newmarket: The home of English horse racing

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – particularly if you happen to go to Newmarket, otherwise known as the home of English horse racing and birthplace of the ‘Sport of Kings’.

 

So to continue the ‘great British tradition’ theme that seems to have permeated my 50th birthday celebrations so far  (although that will change somewhat when we go off on our road trip to the American Southwest and the stunning state of Arizona), my Beloved and I took ourselves off by train to the pleasant rural county of Suffolk.

 

Once at Newmarket itself, we recklessly upgraded the free tickets he’d managed to blag and sashayed elegantly from the Grandstand and Paddock to the Premier Enclosure  – with more than a pang of regret on my part for failing to dress up a bit more, it must be said.

 

Drinks at the Premier Enclosure
Drinks at the Premier Enclosure

But as the action started and our luck kicked in, the smart-casual state of my attire was the last thing on my mind. Three straight wins off the bat, followed by second or third placements in the final four races – and most of them outsiders. Incredible. Certainly a good bit of birthday fortune there. Literally.

 

In fact, we made a tidy £70 profit for our trouble – not bad for a minimum bet each way of £2, which I’d misunderstood in the first place anyway, thinking it would cost me £2 rather than the £4 it actually did. Duh.

 

And the secret to our success? Instinct – or certainly more luck than judgement anyway. So unlike many of the serious race-goers there, it was all about going for the names we liked, or at least had some connection with. None of this studying-the-form-and-being-guided-by-the-odds nonsense. But it obviously worked, which is quite something if you’re as rubbish at racing as we are.

 

Before one of races, for example, after exclaiming about the greyness of the horses and how pretty they were, we found it was actually the ‘Pantile Stud Grey Horse Handicap’. At another, we were so busy looking for my Beloved’s horse which we felt had to be at the back of the pack that we completely missed the fact it had won – until it was announced, that is, and we nearly collapsed.

 

First horse racing meetings

 

We didn’t even choose our bookie based on the odds, but more on the fact she was a woman – a relatively rare entity in such a male-dominated world even today – whose queue looked smaller than the others but who seemed nice. So we thought we’d give her a go – and again it paid off. Despite having to fork out each time we returned, she was gracious in defeat, limiting herself to a wry smile and an “Oh, it’s you two again, is it?” through gritted teeth.

 

As for Newmarket racecourse itself, it was much more expansive than we’d expected, with not just one but two racetracks: the Adnams July course that we were at, and the Rowley Mile. But the importance of the sport to the town shouldn’t be too surprising perhaps as it turns out to be the place where the UK’s first horse racing meetings ever were held – as we’d know them today anyway.

 

Newmarket's July race course
Newmarket’s July race course

While it was the Romans who first brought the idea of horse racing to our hallowed shores, for hundreds of years it was a mainly informal pursuit that tended to occur on public holidays at big, local fairs and festivals.

 

The first recorded race gatherings didn’t actually take place until the reign of King Henry II when in the latter half of the 1100s, knights, earls, barons and other assorted nobility would apparently gather at Smithfield in London for a bit of bartering at the annual St Bartholomew’s horse fair to the sound of young men galloping around the open spaces of the square and park.

 

Although racing remained a favourite royal sport for another 400 years or so, it was James I who really started it on the path to what it is today, after interest had waned during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. In 1605, he happened to be out hawking when he came across the then small village of Newmarket and decided it was the perfect spot for a bit of racing fun.

 

In fact, James spent so much time at his new amusement that Parliament petitioned him on more than one occasion to get himself back down to London to do a bit of ruling rather than playing about with his horses  – the reason perhaps that the town is still known as the sport’s true home. In fact, the Rowley Mile, which as previously mentioned is one of its racecourses, still bears his name to this day. James was, it seems, given the nickname ‘Old Rowley” after his favourite nag.

 

But where royalty goes, everyone else inevitably follows and so regular race meetings started taking place up and down the country, and silver bells began to be offered as prizes. The fact that it was de rigueur for nobility and a royal must-do also led to the moniker, the “sport of kings” being adopted, which is still used to this day.

 

A great British tradition

 

The first racing thoroughbreds didn’t appear for another 100 years or so though. Interestingly, they are all descended from three Arabian stallions imported to the UK in the early 1700s called Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and most famous of all Godolphin Barb, which happens to be buried quite close to my home town of Saffron Walden in the tranquil setting of Wandlebury Country Park in Cambridgeshire.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

Anyway, these stallions, which were known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares to create a perfect combination of speed and endurance, henceforth making them the racing standard all over the world.

 

And by the middle of the 1700s century, horse racing had upped its game to such an extent that it had become a professional sport. Which led to various assorted aristocrats getting together in 1750 in the now-deceased Star & Garter pub on London’s Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club in order to regulate it.

 

Their meetings moved to Newmarket a couple of years later, however, and it was from there that the Club set and administered the rules of British horse racing until 2006 when its responsibilities were passed on to the British Horseracing Authority. It still owns a good number of iconic British courses to this day though, including Newmarket, Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham, all of which are important fixtures on the domestic and international sporting calendar.

 

Due to Britain’s former empire, which stretched its tentacles into so many corners of the world, meanwhile, horse racing proliferated around the globe. But while it transmuted into many forms based on different distances and track types, most of the breeds and regulations that control the sport are still based on our originals to this day.

 

And it’s still a hugely popular pastime here too. Worth around £3.4 billion per annum both directly and indirectly to the British economy, it is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after our collective national obsession in the shape of football.

 

In fact, some would even go so far as to say that horse racing is an intrinsic part of our national identity – which truly would make it a great British tradition indeed.

 

 

Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.

 

But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.

 

The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.

 

The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

 

The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.

 

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

 

Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.

 

The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

 

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.

 

Labyrinth-walking

But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

 

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

 

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.

 

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

 

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

 

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

 

But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

 

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

 

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Durham Miners’ Gala: End of an era?

June and July are peak festival season in the UK. Whether we’re talking traditional county shows, extravagant food fairs or music fests such as Glastonbury, we Brits certainly seem to enjoy a bit of commingling once the sun pokes its head out from behind the clouds – or even if it doesn’t actually.

 

Maybe it’s something to do with those long summer days with their 15 to 16 hours of unfettered sunlight that compels us all to go out and about so much – before it all fades to a memory again over the winter months and we’re lucky to see eight hours.

 

Whatever the cause though, some of my fondest memories of these seasonal festivities relate to the “Big Meeting” in my home town of Durham, which is known officially as Miners’ Gala (pronounced Gayler) and is now hitting the ripe old age of 145.

Durham
Durham

Whether it was meeting up with friends at the Racecourse and making myself sick on the funfair rides or seeing my first punk on Silver Street with my brother and Irish grandma, I always loved it. It was heartfelt fun and frolics and everyone went, whether they were of mining stock or not.

 

By the way, just for the record, my first punk was a perfect specimen of the kind you’d see years later on those tourist-y postcards – green Mohican, red tartan bondage trousers held together with safety pins and nose chain-to-ear piercings. And the 10 year-old me looked on transfixed as he pushed his way against the vast flow of human traffic. Which was all very symbolic, thinking about it. “Don’t look,” my grandma said as if she thought it might encourage him in his “boldness”. But I did anyway.

 

As for Big Meeting itself, it was traditionally always held on the second Saturday of July. First staged in 1871 by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), which still puts it on to this day, it quickly developed into the largest unofficial trade union gathering in the UK – hence the name, “Big Meeting”.

 

At its peak, the occasion attracted over 300,000 people, nearly five times more than the population of Durham City itself. And even though the last pit in the county closed in 1994, it still manages to pull in a very respectable 100,000 or so, presumably as some kind of nostalgia or heritage event – although I must admit that I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to partake of its faded glory.

 

David Hopper

 

And who knows if I’ll get the chance again now. David Hopper, a hard leftie and good marra (a local term for friend) of divisive Labour Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who he shared a platform with at the last Big Meeting, died of a heart attack only a week after the event.

 

But it was he who, as DMA secretary in charge of sorting out compensation for former pitmen, had organised the do for years. And it was he who more or less singlehandedly kept it going even after the pits went, creating “The Friends of the Durham Miners’ Gala” fund in a bid to secure its future.

 

But it was also Hopper who, controversially, uninvited a tranche of north-eastern Labour MPs to the official reception this year, branding those who had backed the Parliamentary vote of no confidence in Corbyn a few weeks earlier as “traitors”. They were also banned from sharing the traditional balcony at the County Hotel in Old Elvet, a place of honour from which union leaders, local dignitaries and Labour bigwigs had always waved to the miners as they marched past with their banners on the way to the Racecourse.

Miners' Gala
Miners’ Gala

Each pit village had a banner stitched lovingly by the women and, in the old days, it was paraded through the streets the night before the big day with the colliery brass band in accompaniment. Next morning, bright and early, the miners and their families – which was most of the village – would march behind said banner on their way into Durham, some of them half-cut and dancing despite the hour.

 

All the shops boarded up their windows, not only because of the crowds but also because of the drunks. The pubs were open from early morning till late at night and no traffic was allowed through the City.

 

It was a big day out and when it started, it was one of the few holidays that people got. The women would bake for days to have a picnic ready for the family, and they’d all spend their time at the Racecourse, which is actually one of the University’s sports grounds.

 

By the afternoon, the men would be down by the riverside milling around the podiums listening to the political speeches, while the women stayed with the children on the bank above enjoying the funfair, candy floss and good bit crack (good conversation, for the uninitiated). It was noisy, organised and eventful chaos, but all your mates would be there and you wouldn’t miss it for the world.

 

After the speeches, four or five specially chosen bands and banners would then march up to the Cathedral, our very own UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the Miners’ Service at 3pm. But the day went on well into the night too.

 

So we’ll see what happens now that David Hopper’s gone. Because without him, it could well be the end of a quite remarkable era.

 

 

 

 

Trials and tribulations holidaying in the Emerald Isle

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re fated? That things, despite your best intentions, seem doomed to go wrong?

 

So it was when my parents and I decided to take ourselves off to Ireland, the land of my maternal forefathers, for a lovely week’s holiday. The aim was to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday (April) as well as my twin brother and my 50th birthday (August) in the month of my mam’s birthday (June), which, being in the middle of the two, meant that no one was left out. Apart from my brother, that is, who lives in Australia and so couldn’t make it. But the thought was there.

 

So the plan was to fly in to Dublin, pick up our hire car and hot tail it over to Athlone, which is roughly half way between the Emerald Isle’s capital city on the east coast and its cultural hub on the west side, Galway. And thus began one of the central themes of our holiday – that of getting lost.

 

The streets of Galway
The streets of Galway

While everything was quite stress-free as long as we stayed on the straight and narrow of the country-spanning M6 motorway, it was getting to our final destination that flummoxed us each time – satnav notwithstanding. In Athlone, after going up and down the same stretch of road several times and ending up in a farmyard anxiously eyeing an approaching dairy herd, we finally gave in and called our hosts at a local B&B who came and rescued us in their SUV.

 

To make matters worse, when driving out to dinner at the excellent Hodson Bay Hotel on the shores of the lovely Lough Ree that very evening, we somehow took a wrong turn. Twenty-two whole kilometres up the motorway later, we finally found a slip road and were able to go back the way we came. Amazingly, we made our booking a mere 30 minutes late.

 

But it was a similar story when arriving in Galway the next day. On trying to find the apart-hotel close to the town centre that we’d opted for as a respite from the usual strictures of hotel life, we ended driving round in endless circles getting increasingly desperate as the satnav took us near – and yet so far.

 

So again, we got on the phone, only to discover we’d actually been driving fruitlessly up and down and around about the road directly behind our intended destination. But that’s what happens when you’re naïve enough to assume that signage will be visible from the main thoroughfare rather than the pretty, little canal on the other side. So we had nobody to blame but ourselves. Obviously.

 

Even in Dublin though, where you wouldn’t think we could go too far wrong, we still managed to miss our end point – although in mitigation, we were given the name of the main road rather than the street leading off it, which was in fact our true destination.

 

Sensory shennanigans

 

But as if such transporting delights weren’t enough, it also seemed to be a week of things going wrong apropos our sensory organs. I started the ball rolling by leaving my steroid eye drops at home, which in the wake of my second cataract operation – despite being 20 to 30 years too young – were possibly the most important thing not to forget when packing.

 

But after ripping my luggage apart after finally arriving at our B&B in Athlone, I discovered their unexpected disappearance – or as it turned out, my absent-mindedness. And this, despite having constructed a scenario in my head where I distinctly remembered having put them in my handbag. Which meant, of course, that they must have magically transported themselves back home to my kitchen just to annoy me.

 

So the planned guided tour around the stunning, ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon had to wait for another day. Instead we spent the morning in a pharmacy in downtown Athlone traversing our way around the system so that I could be prescribed some more – with it must be said the aid of the sweetest, most helpful pharmacist that ever walked the earth. I can’t imagine people going out of their way quite so much at home, but I wasn’t half grateful.

 

Clonmacnoise monastery, near Athlone
Clonmacnoise monastery, near Athlone

Next on the list was my dad, who after quietly enjoying a respite from seemingly endless female chatter, actually discovered that the batteries in his hearing aids had run down – although it wasn’t anything that a hasty trip to the not entirely obvious destination of optician SpecSavers couldn’t sort out.

 

Not to be outdone, meanwhile, my mam managed to break off a sizeable chunk of back filling after crunching down particularly vigorously on a Murray Mint on the way to Galway. So that accounted for another morning of our precious holiday as she, in turn, availed herself of the facilities.

 

Which at least gave us a respite indoors from the driving rain that had pursued us from the moment we set foot in the place, I suppose. A particularly poignant situation as such intemperate weather had sadly followed hot on the heels of a two-week heat wave.

 

But there were lots of pluses too. The Irish people we met were as friendly and convivial as ever. The country was as beautiful and varied as I remembered it. And its history was just as poignant and affecting now as it’s always been, especially in this centennial year of the Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Ireland finally managing to win independence from England/Britain after 800 years of oppression.

So I guess the moral of this particular little tale is that, even in what seem to be the most difficult of times, things can, and very often do, turn out just fine in the end.

 

 

Is Britain really a Christian country these days?

Although the UK still describes itself as a Christian country, it appears that a majority of its citizens these days simply aren’t.

 

According to a recent analysis of data collected over three decades via the British Social Attitudes survey, a huge 48.5% of people in England and Wales said they did not ascribe to any religion – nearly double the 25% who chose not to acknowledge any religious affiliation in the 2011 census.

 

On the other hand, people who identified themselves as Christian, which includes members of the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches, made up only 43.8% of the nation, the study entitled “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales” found.

 

Wayside cross
Wayside cross

Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed the data, attributed the shift to people who had been brought up in a religion no longer choosing to classify themselves in that way.

 

“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”

 

As a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t quite know how to describe herself if asked, I could certainly proffer an opinion on that, although I wouldn’t claim to be representing the Great British Public’s views in any general sense, of course.

 

Firstly, there’s the question of relevance in an increasingly secular society. At one time, priests and vicars automatically sat at the heart of the community as respected figures. But it seems to me that, as society has changed and drastically so since the 1950s – when incidentally established religion first started to go into decline – many of them failed to move with the times and think through what useful role they might play, simply expecting to retain their former status as a right.

 

Personally, I’m a big fan of liberation theology,  which is much bigger in South America than it is here, but is all about enabling social justice, human rights and helping to alleviate poverty. In my humble opinion, getting out there and helping the vulnerable and needy has to be more of a worthwhile goal than surrounding yourself with often elderly acolytes and pontificating from a church pulpit once a week.

 

Losing faith

 

But the goals don’t even have to be that lofty really – just focusing on pastoral care  and corporal and spiritual works of mercy for people across all faiths would be enough. At the very least, it would help, in many instances, to make spiritual leaders more visible to the (wider) communities they supposed to serve.

 

A second point relates to the fact that, as a society, we seem to have lost faith in the great institutions that ruled us in the past, preferring to go our own way and make up our own minds. As we’re all well aware, very few people trust politicians to do anything these days but create their own power bases and feather their own nests.

 

Trade union membership has also plummeted to just over six million from a peak of more than 13 million in 1979. And with lots of people you talk to, unless they happen to work in the public sector, it wouldn’t even occur to them to sign up. They just can’t see the point – or remember the seemingly endless industrial disputes of the 1970s with more than a little distaste.

 

Recent junior doctors' strike
Recent junior doctors’ strike

So it’s of little surprise, particularly when so many disillusion-engendering child abuse cases in both the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to light, that people are turning their backs on yet another traditional institution of behavioural control. The question is that, if these idols with feet of clay prove themselves less than worthy and close ranks to protect their own when public exposure threatens, why would anyone buy into their moral authority?

 

But there’s also a third consideration, which is linked to the last one. And that is, perhaps the time for gurus is over. While lots of people may be losing interest in established religion per se, that’s not to say they don’t have spiritual yearnings that they fulfil in multifarious different ways. And I’m not just talking about pursuing increasingly popular alternative paths such as paganism.

 

Instead I’m referring to everything from doing voluntary work in order to help others through to throwing yourself passionately into a worthwhile cause or tapping into your own creativity and painting a beautiful picture, for example. Spirituality means different things to different people and there are myriad ways to express it.

 

But ultimately, it’s about moving beyond the mundane and working with something bigger than yourself in order to help give your life meaning. And you don’t necessarily need a church to mediate that for you.

 

Special relics

 

Anyway, going back to Bullivant’s report for a minute to prove the point, it revealed that four out of 10 people raised as Anglican, the established or state church of England, have now abandoned their faith, with almost as many Catholics doing likewise. As a result, the segment of the population describing itself as Anglican has plummeted from 44.5% in 1983 to a mere 19% in 2014, with Catholics accounting for only 8.3%.

 

Although the study did not cover either Scotland or Northern Ireland, findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey published in April revealed similar trends, with 52% of the population failing to align themselves with any religious grouping. The figure compares with 40% when the study began in 1999.

 

So with all of this in mind, I must say it did strike me as a bit odd that the re-emergence in the UK of a bit of St Thomas Becket’s elbow from its former resting place in Hungary  would get so much national press coverage.

 

OK, it was the first time that the relic had been home for 845 years after the man it was formerly attached to was murdered by four burly knights in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was archbishop. He’d fallen out with his former good mate King Henry II and ended up being hacked to death in front of the high altar as they’d thought that’s what the sovereign wanted. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” etc.

 

Place where Becket was murdered
Place where Becket was murdered

In the process though, they created a martyr whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe – a situation that in turn became the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of our first works of literature written in vernacular English rather than Norman French, at that time the language of the elites. So far, so good.

 

When Becket was reburied in 1220, however, bits from his remains in the shape of bone fragments, scraps of clothes and the like were nicked and disappeared across Europe, with his elbow shard somehow making its way to Esztergom in Hungary. And there the relic has remained ever since, reportedly becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance under communism.

 

But at the end of May, it came back home for a week and toured Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, Rochester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and other churches associated with the 12th century archbishop to great apparent excitement – despite the fact that venerating bits of saints bodies has never been a particularly British thing, as far as I’m aware, even among Catholics. Instead it seems a much more popular, if rather macabre, activity of Southern European countries such as Spain.

 

Still, each to their own – not least because even scientists, despite their secular logic, insist on keeping relics of their own gods too. A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair on display in the entrance hall of the Royal Society in London. Albert Einstein’s blackboard, with his E=MC2 formula chalked on it, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It all just depends on how you look at things really.