food and drink, holiday, leisure, lifestyle, tourism, transport

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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Britishness, culture, entertainment, history, leisure, lifestyle, Sport, tourism

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.

 

 

British cuisine entertainment, Britishness, culture, entertainment, food, food and drink, history, leisure, lifestyle, social class

Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

Britishness, culture, Durham, entertainment, history, holiday, leisure, lifestyle, tourism, UK

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.

 

 

 

 

British folklore, Britishness, countryside, entertainment, Essex, history, leisure, lifestyle, UK

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

history, holiday, leisure, lifestyle, tourism

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.

 

 

birds of prey, British folklore, conservation, environment, history, leisure, tourism, UK, wildlife

Peregrine-spotting at Norwich Cathedral

My Beloved’s favourite birds are peregrines – and for a man who loves raptors of all descriptions as much as he does, that’s quite a statement.

 

So he was delighted when we got to see a couple of them in all their unadulterated glory the other weekend. While these lovely, majestic birds once nested predominantly on mountains and coastal cliff ledges, they can now also be found dwelling in urban edifices of all kinds – including cathedrals such as Norwich, which is where we spotted them on our little jaunt there.

 

In fact, for a few weeks now, we’ve actually been watching a pair of chicks grow, develop and get fluffier via a webcam strategically placed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, which is based in nearby Fakenham of thoroughbred horseracing fame. The chicks belong to a couple of peregrines, which incidentally mate for life, but first took up residence in 2011 on the Cathedral spire using a special platform put up by the Trust a knee-wobbling 75 metres above the ground.

 

Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral
Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral

And like similar breeding programmes elsewhere, the move seems to have been very successful. Which is just as well really seeing as last century, peregrines actually became an endangered species, with numbers falling to only 400 or so breeding pairs.

 

The population had initially started declining about 100 years ago during World War I when lots were killed off to stop them attacking carrier pigeons bringing home important intelligence from the front. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to munch on game birds such as pheasant or grouse much, preferring more medium-sized prey such pigeons and doves, peregrines were also a favourite target of gamekeepers too.

 

But the worst offenders of all were farmers using organo-chlorine pesticides, and especially the now infamous DDT, from the 1950s until it was banned in the 1980s. The problem was that the chemicals caused the shells of the birds’ eggs to thin, which meant that fewer survived through to the hatching stage. And when you have a situation where between 70% and 80% of all fledged youngsters die in their first year anyway, it’s not hard to see how disastrous such environmental pollution was to the peregrines’ wellbeing.

 

But populations have now recovered to such an extent that there are a much healthier 1,500 pairs across the UK, a scenario helped at least in part by the birds’ highly protected status. And so they should be – not only are these magnificent creatures our largest native falcon, but they are also intimately tied into our history due to their important role in the art of falconry.

 

Bird of choice

 

Although falconry is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating the activity to approximately 2000 BC, it was apparently introduced to Europe around AD400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East. By 875AD, falconry was widely practised in Saxon England, but following the Norman conquest in 1066 it was restricted to the upper classes, and peasants could find themselves hanged for keeping hawks, which does seem a bit harsh.

 

While yeomen were assigned the privilege of using short-winged birds such as goshawks and sparrowhawks to hunt for food, it was only the King and his nobles who were allowed to own long-winged falcons such as peregrines and merlins.

 

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that falconry really took off as a sport, becoming a veritable status symbol among the nobility. They trained their raptors to hunt small prey such as rabbits and other birds and, as the activity did not involve face-to-face encounters with potentially dangerous creatures such as boar and stags, women were allowed to play too.

 

Interestingly though, it was peregrines with their keen intellect that became their birds of choice. Being relatively small, they are also relatively light to hold on the fist and particularly graceful in the air. They are also the fastest bird on the planet.

Peregine diving
Peregine diving

Attacking their prey by making spectacularly accurate dives of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines opt to break its bones and knock it out of the sky rather than sully their talons in a bloody fight to the death, thus sanitising the whole macabre process.

 

What all of this means in a symbolic sense though is that falcons in general, and peregrines in particular, are all about focus. So if you believe in auguries and a peregrine comes into your sights, they are apparently reminding you to concentrate on your desires and goals, and do whatever it takes to realise them. To do so successfully, however, you’ll need to act in as methodical and strategic a fashion as any self-respecting peregrine would when out on a hunting trip.

 

But these beautiful birds also represent a visionary power that, if tuned into, can help you solve on-going dilemmas, or even discover your life’s purpose. And as such, their appearance implies a time of transition and change and the need to rise above your current situation.

 

So next time you happen to spot a peregrine, it might repay you to ponder on just what it is they’re trying to tell you. It certainly can’t do any harm anyway.