Friday, 16 September 2016

An idiots guide to the Middle East

Am I alone in finding the situation in the Middle East very, very confusing? There are legions of Middle East experts advising us on how to act in this area but most of them can't seem to agree on anything other than it is very, very messy. It is clear that we need and want the oil that comes from this area. And let's be honest, other than the oil and not having planes fly into our buildings or our citizen’s blown up or their appendages chopped off, most of us really don’t care about the Middle East. We just see it as a hell-hole of conflict. But we can't admit that because we really, really need the oil. One thing is certain, however, and that is whatever actions we have taken in the Middle East in the past have done little to improve the lives of the people who live there. In fact our intervention over the years has resulted in political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations and the growth of ISIS/ISIL or what have you.

I'm not an expert and, for what it's worth (well, it kept me amused for a while) the following is a summary of my understanding of the current situation in the Middle East. Call it an 'Partially Informed Idiot's Guide to the Middle East' if you like.

* ISIS is a group of fundamentalist fanatics that want to convert everyone in the world to their fanatical religious beliefs. They are brutal and ruthless.  Al Qaida is another group pretty much the same as ISIS except they don’t like each other. The Taliban are like ISIS and Al Qaida and they will work with anyone that helps them defeat the Afghanistan government.
* There is a revolution in Syria. The rebels want to defeat the government and ISIS, ISIS wants to defeat the rebels and the government. The Syrian government hates ISIS and the rebels

* Iran hates ISIS and Iraq and Syrian rebels

* Russia likes Syria and hates ISIS and the Syrian rebels.

* Russia likes Iran and sells them weapons

* Libya hates ISIS and is a mess in general
* Iraq hates Iran, except they both hate ISIS and are fighting together against ISIS

* The UK does not like Iran and Iran isn't too keen on the UK. But they hate the US

* Saudi Arabia hates Yemen and Iran.

* Egypt is a mess internally and hates Israel

* Israel just wants to be left alone
* Pakistan and India hate each other

* Sunni Muslims hate Shia Muslims and Shia Muslims hate Sunni Muslims

* Afghanistan is fighting ISIS and the Taliban and Al Qaida

* The USA and UK are fighting ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaida and are siding with the Syrian rebels but working with Russia in fighting ISIS who we sometimes call IS, ISIL, the so-called Islamic State or Daesh
* All of the Middle East loves Palestine, except they don’t seem to do anything to help them besides using them to hurt Israel

* Israel likes the US but everyone else hates the US

* Everyone hates Israel except the US, and sometimes the US wobbles on this a bit

* Turkey hates the Kurds and ISIS

* The Kurds hate ISIS and some of Turkey

* The West likes Turkey, but Turkey doesn’t always like the West and the West likes the Kurds but won’t help them because we don’t want to antagonise Turkey.

* Jordan hates ISIS and we like Jordan. They were British once (as were most of the territories under question, come to think of it. Help! It's all our fault)

* There are a bunch of other little countries that have oil and are nice to the West so we help them keep their oil from bigger countries.

* Then some of the countries have tribes that seem to act separately from their country and lots of these tribes don’t like each other.

I am sure I've got a lot of this wrong, but the self-evident point is that it is very, very complicated. Whatever we do is going to irritate a whole bunch of countries, tribes and people. As I said at the beginning of this post, whatever we have done in the past has only made things worse.

So extreme measures are called for. My position (slightly tongue-in-cheek) would be to put whatever it takes into making us so energy independent that we don’t need to give a toss about what happens in the Middle East. Then we should just step back and do nothing. Let everyone sort it out on their own. It might take a few centuries, but let's just butt out. Has anyone got a better idea? Pretty please.
I probably shouldn’t be Prime Minister, should I?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Read all about it - in 1902.

The last few weeks I have been too preoccupied with various family matters to post anything to my blog and maybe things will settle down from here on. Be that as it may, it was in relation to one of these events that I had occasion to look at the archives of a newspaper from Morpeth in Northumberland. After I'd found what I was looking for, just as a distraction I picked an issue at random from the index and that is how I came across The Morpeth Herald, dated 30th August 1902. Fascinating material to browse through if you are interested in social history and an antidote to the doom and gloom that seems to be the daily fare in my copy of the Guardian.

The Morpeth Herald which, as well as serving the towns of Morpeth, Blyth and Bedlington, seems to be the "local organ" for every town and village north of the Tyne. It is the end of August 1902 and the news is dominated by the coronation of King Edward VII which took place earlier in the month after being postponed from earlier in the year due to the King being ill. Edison had just invented the battery, Renault had just won the first Paris to Vienna motor car race and the United States Government bought the Panama Canal. But closer to its northern home, other items dominated the news reported in this issue of the Herald. Here are a few that caught my eye:.

The second annual general meeting of the Broomhill Collieries Ltd was held at the offices of the company, 10 Dean Street, Newcastle, on Friday. Sir Christopher Furness M.P. (chairman) presided, and those present included Mr Davison Dalziel and Mr Montague Maclean (members of the Board)...... The Chairman (reported a worrying trend, telling the meeting that ......) he might tell them that the output of their coal last year was 616,819 tons. It was quite true that was between 30,000 and 40,000 tons less than the previous year, but that reduction was caused by two circumstances. First, they had too many holidays during the past year, and as one engaged with large commercial and industrial concerns, employing thousands of workmen, and knowing the disturbing influence of these stoppages, he trusted that they might not continue to encourage, as had been the case during the past two or three years, the frequency of holidays. It added to their cost, and placed them at a disadvantage as a nation with the countries with whom they had to compete.

How lucky we are to have the likes of Baron Furness and Baron Dalziel, not to mention the Hon Montague Maclean, to remind us that providing workers with too many holidays can be bad for trade - and bad for profits. How unlucky it is that those eighty-four miners who were killed whilst trying to earn a living digging coal from Broomhill Colliery over the seventy or so years of its existence were not on holiday on that dreadful day when they descended into the earth never to see the light of day again.

Although false teeth had been available in Britain since the end of the eighteenth century, being made out of gold and porcelain they were an expensive luxury available only to the rich. By the latter part of the nineteenth century artificial teeth made from porcelain and Vulcanite were becoming widely available at a price that made them an option for a far broader spectrum of society. At a time when dental hygiene was poor and dental treatment expensive, the idea of having all of your natural teeth removed and replaced with a full artificial set for a guinea or two was attractive. This trend continued for the first half of the 20th century and a survey conducted in 1968 revealed that 80% of those aged over 65 had no natural teeth at all. This doesn't surprise me as it was still not an uncommon thing to happen in my childhood village when I was growing up. 

A large gathering of the friends of Mr. Marlow of Barrington, met at Mr. G. A. Scott's, Choppington Inn, Scotland Gate, on Saturday evening to wish him god-speed and good luck on the occasion of his leaving for South Africa. Mr. Jas. Cox, under manager, Choppington Colliery, occupied the chair and said they were all sorry to part with their friend, Mr Marlow, but as the step he was about to take was made for the best he could assure him he took with him the heartiest and sincerest wishes of his numerous friends for his future success and well being. The war was now happily over, and England had obtained another very rich colony which she would undoubtedly develop and make it possible for the industrious settler to become highly prosperous. They all knew Mr. Marlow to be an industrious, steady, sober young man fitted to make his way in a new country, and although they parted with their friend with regret they confidently looked for early news of his success. (Applause). Mr. Geo. Atkinson gave the health of Mr. Marlow and spoke in eulogistic terms of him. The following programme was gone through;— Song,"Home, Sweet Home" Mr. T. Phillips; hornpipe. Mr. James Thomas Atkinson; song, “Goodbye, Sweetheart" Mr. James Thomson; song, "Sweet Silver Light Bonny Moon" Mr. James Cox; song, "Kiss Me Mother in my Dreams" Mr. Jas. Jordan; song, " “Sentenced to Death" Mr. C. Teasdale; song, "Annie Dear" Mr. W. Marlow; violin solo, "Robin Gray" Mr. S. Tait; song, "Far Away" Mr. Edward Carr; song, "Under Her Apron" Mr. R. Donald; song, "The Blackbird" Mr. G. F. Barnfather; song, "Queen of the Earth" Mr. J. Marlow; song, "Break the News to Mother" Mr. R. Robson. Messrs. M. Lackie and S. Tait accompanied on the violins. A vote of thanks to the Chairman and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" brought a pleasant evening to a close.

Can you imagine the scene? It's Mr Marlow's leaving party and friends and family are gathered together at the Choppington Inn to give him a good send-off before he leaves to start a new life in South Africa. The South African war is over and the new colony is now seen as a land of opportunity where a young man can make his fortune. But South Africa was a long way away and in those days emigration was for life. Picture his old mother, sat in a corner listening to the eulogies about her son. Drinks are drunk, tunes are played and songs are sung. And then Mr R Robson starts to sing that well known ballad, "Break The News To Mother". Her tears must have flowed as freely as the beer that was on offer.
"Just break the news to mother, 
she knows how dear I love her
And tell her not to wait for me 
For, I'm not coming home;
Just say there is no other 
can take the place of mother
Then kiss her dear, 
sweet lips for me, 
and break the news to her." 

The coronation of King Edward VII coincided with the birth of popular photography. By the early years of the twentieth century, cameras and photography were leaving the confines of the specialist in his or her studio and becoming a practical possibility for the enthusiastic amateur. In today's prices, the cost of the cameras advertised by Marshall's varies between £48 and £280. Darkroom equipment was not as easily available and therefore photographic suppliers would often make darkrooms available for customers to use. Is this another sign of my age? I can remember Evans the Chemist in Bedwas doing just this.

Two women jumped from a train as it was passing through Pelaw Station, near Newcastle on Tuesday, and fell full length on the platform. When they picked themselves up they explained to the astonished railway officials that as the train had not stopped where they lived they decided to jump out at the next station, which happened to be Pelaw. Neither of the two women appeared to be hurt, and they seemed quite pleased that they managed to escape being carried further from their homes.

I wouldn't fancy the chances of someone trying this trick today. If they weren't killed by the jump from a high speed train, they would no doubt be arrested by the transport police. Perhaps the women would have been better off with a horse and cart, if they only hadn't sold the horse to John Gibson in the first place.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Walkham Valley from Merrivale

Most people passing through Merrivale nowadays probably have no idea of the complexity of the landscape that surrounds them. There are signs of at least 4000 years of human occupation and the walk we took this week touched on artifacts from both ends of the timescale.
For those who like to know, the walk started and ended at the lay-by at 555348 75017. Just cross the road, hop over the stile and you are on your way. It was just on the 6 mile mark and was a mixture of open moor, sheep tracks, not too much mud, some rock hopping across a river, some leat-bank following and a short stretch of road walking at the end.
Looking up along our route along the east side of the Walkham and back down the west side. Spot the footpath? There wasn't one, which leads to a 'head for that point in a straight-ish line' approach to navigation. Not a problem when you can see where you are going but one not to be recommended when the mist comes down. Then the GPS comes into its own.
We contoured around Great Mis Tor, the sides of which have a generous sprinkling of scree and boulders. But all of this jumble hides the fact that it is a landscape of human occupation since the Bronze Age or even Neolithic times (there is some evidence of a Neolithic fort on the summit of the tor).
Dotted here and there are circular enclosures and hut circles. Sometimes, like this one, obscured by the bracken..
...And sometimes far more visible where the bracken doesn't grow. This collection comprises around 12 hut circles within a large stone enclosure.
Members of our group dropping down to the River Walkham looking for a safe place to cross and a good spot for lunch. As with all Dartmoor rivers, the Walkham served two purposes: water for domestic and agricultural uses and water for power.
A good example of using the Walkham for power is this leat, now overgrown but still discernible as a line to the left, which provided power to the long defunct Wheal Fortune. Nominative determinism was common in the naming of Dartmoor's mine: give them an optimistic name and they will produce the goods. Unfortunately many of them didn't. As well as drawing water into leats for waterwheels elsewhere, the raw power of the Walkham was also used to wash out metal bearing silt, which was further processed in blowing houses on the river banks.
Also coming off the Walkham is the Grimstone and Sortridge Leat. This leat is thought to be at least 500 years old (some say 700). Water from the leat supplied Grimstone Manor, Grimstone Farm, Monkswell House, Sortridge Manor and Sortridge Farm; it also turned waterwheels at Sortridge Consols and Moortown farm. It runs for about 5 miles and water is still drawn off for domestic use along its course. I find that fact very satisfying.
Highland cattle are becoming a relatively common sight on the moor. They seem to fit in with the barren landscape as if they were born to it.
These objects alongside the leat and quite close to the Merrivale Quarry are sett maker's banks. Here stone workers knelt or crouched at these low benches, fashioning granite setts (cobble stones) that were used in making the streets of Plymouth, Tavistock and other places. This was an industry that flourished for about fifteen years from the 1870's, although some people put them a little earlier, from 1850-1860.
The 'anvil' stone is sloping backwards so the stone chippings flew away from the worker towards the rocks behind. You can see a pile of chippings still in place. Apparently one man could produce about 60 setts a day. I'm assuming that there was some sort of production line going, with other men fetching and despatching the raw materials. Not a nice place to work but they did have wattle fence shelters to protect them from the elements.
And here is an old back lane in Devonport by the Royal Albert dockyard gate showing some setts in situ. Somebody once told me that Plymouth still has the most cobbled streets in the UK. Is it true? I don't know but there are certainly lots of them still visible.
At the latter stages of the walk, looking back across the valley to our starting point and King's Tor to the right. Those with keen eyes might be able to make out what looks like a line of stones just off centre to the right. These are the remains of a railway project which would have taken stone from the quarry to join up with the main railway line. An impressive undertaking but it didn't get much further than what we see now before the money ran out.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

A big bang in Plymouth

"Are you going to the Fireworks Competition in Plymouth?", she asked. "Take lots of photographs, please". Job done.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Sunday Afternoon Stroll: 14th August 2016

A sunny afternoon and we took advantage of the weather and took a stroll along the banks of the River Lynher. Sometimes described as the forgotten part of Cornwall, it has long associations with the military because of its proximity to the Royal Naval dockyard at Devonport. A very pleasant 3 mile there and back linear walk, with a halfway break at the Carew Arms in Anthony.
Our start and end point was Wacker Quay on the Lynher. It is thought that Wacker is derived from Wicker and refers to its one-time willow industry.
The view from Wacker Quay up the creek just off the Lynher. Way back the quay was used for general transport purposes and had its own lime kiln. This use was changed when the military moved in and it became a supply line for two neighbouring forts built as part of the Palmerstone fortifications of Plymouth Sound and its surrounds. From here a railway line  headed downstream for half a mile or so to feed an inclined plane up to the forts. For lovers of ephemera, it's worth mentioning that the original locomotives, lines and engine sheds were destined for Khartoum in the Sudan but the demise of General Gordon etc put an end to this. The last notable activity that took place at Wacker Quay was during preparations for the D-Day landings when elements of the US Army embarked here.
A view down and across the Lynher showing the scenery we had for the greater part of the walk. The tide was coming in and the fish were jumping. The creeks off the Lynher need to be dredged regularly to keep the channels clear and the expense of doing this contributed to the run-down of Wacker Quay.
A nice collection of headstones in the graveyard of St James the Great, the parish church in Anthony. Unfortunately it was closed - on a Sunday!
The church dates from the 12th Century but, as we couldn't get in, there's not a lot more to say about it. But it did have a fine tower with a rather unusual clock face. Look carefully and see if you can spot what's odd about it.
And the answer is .. it's only got one hand. Not because one's dropped off, it was made that way. I presume that the approximate time was good enough for the locals back in 1810 when the clock was installed. Time was obviously not so critical back then. Such clocks are comparatively rare in the UK: many were made but few have survived.
Looking north east, the two bridges at Saltash are visible in the distance.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

A walk from Meldon Reservoir to the highest point on Dartmoor.

Whilst people in Brazil jumped, ran, swam, rowed and threw things, we went for a walk with our U3A Thursday group. No gold medals for us but a sandwich taken on a sheep-dropping bedecked tussock was an adequate reward for our efforts. We walked in the north moors of Dartmoor, beginning and ending at the car park close to the Meldon Reservoir, a couple of miles south of Okehampton. Our route took us straight up (and I do mean straight up) to Yes Tor, across the saddle to High Willhayes, the highest point on Dartmoor, and then back to our starting point via Black Tor and the western end of the Reservoir. The terrain was an interesting mix of footpaths, sheep tracks, an old military road and a fair amount of cross-country bog and tussock navigation, parts of which we would never have attempted if there had been more rain recently. As it was, there were lots of 'soakers' and muddy wet trousers in evidence. No turn on the podium as the National Anthem blared out at the end but some did manage to use the throne in the nearby public loos. An Olympian effort all round.
The map reference for our start and end point in the Meldon Reservoir car park was 56133 91791.
Looking down towards the old railway viaduct near Meldon Quarry. Steep valley fed by many streams? Could be a good spot for a reservoir?

Somebody else had that idea in the late 60s and, lo and behold, Meldon Reservoir came on stream in 1972. A very controversial decision as it impinged on the hitherto sacrosanct lands of the Dartmoor national Park. Nowadays I'm sure that visitors to the area wonder what all the fuss was about.

Two butterflies for the price of one! A little bit of sunshine and some flowers on the bramble and out they come. The larger one is a Silver Washed Fritillary and the one at the top is a female Meadow Brown.
The Silver Washed Fritillary. A little ragged in parts so it's been around a while. You can get a much better idea of why it's called 'Silver Washed' from its undersides. I spent ages trying to get a shot of it with its wings closed but it just wouldn't cooperate and there was a limit to how much time I was going to spend waiting.
Nothing out of the ordinary, just Common Bird's-Foot-Trefoil. But still a very attractive flower.
When I saw these diverging paths, I immediately thought of the lines from Robert Frost's poem 'The road not taken'. I won't pretend that I could remember it all but I could come up with:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In a way, it's what I've always done throughout my life, been attracted to the path less travelled.
An oak tree with an interesting bole down by the river. This woodland is a remnant of what used to cover large parts of the moor a long time ago.
Slogging our way up the side of Yes Tor. It actually looks steeper than it was in practice but still good exercise.
Looking back up to Black Tor, the third 'peak' we visited on our walk. In fact, a good day for 'tor bagging' - Yes Tor, High Willhayes and Black Tor.
It's a good year for Rowan (Mountain Ash). Apparently the berries make a good jelly.
Looking up a coombe. There is a path picking its way up the stream to the ridge but we took the one which came in from the right.
My mushroom guide tells me that this is Panaeolus semiovatus or the Egghead Mottlegill mushroom. Non-psychoactive and non-poisonous. Apparently it is edible but hardly a mouthful for gourmets.
Local eccentrics on the top of High Willhayes. OK, so you reached the cairn but there's no need to show off.
The trig point on Yes Tor. At one time, Yes Tor was thought to be higher than High Willhayes, the 'peak' in the distance, hence the placement of the trig point. A remeasuring exercise reversed the order: High Willhayes comes in at 2034 feet and Yes Tor at 1999 feet.
Breathes there the man with soul so dead ,
who never to himself hath said .
This is my own, my native land.

(Sir Walter Scott).