There’s more to Spain than Beaches

If you just want to see the pictures go here.

We’ve been to Spain several times including twice driving across the middle from the Pyrenees to Portugal. Although there is plenty of plain for the occasional rain to mainly fall on, much of inland Spain has spectacular scenery with jagged mountains, deep gorges, badlands like those in South Dakota and small conical volcanic hills. The Spanish look after their natural parks very well. Hiking trails are generally well-signed (at the start) and there is plenty of visitor information. The temperature high up in the mountains is very pleasant in summer and it doesn’t rain much, just enough to enable alpine plants to flower even in February.

Also in February fields of pink or white almond blossom flourish in the valleys and high plateaus between the mountains. Further down on the odd areas of cultivable land are huge orange groves which are laden with fruit at this time. It’s sunny and about 20C every day. It was definitely time for a visit to Spain.

Almond blossom on high plateau

So we booked a week at the Holiday Property Bond site at Alfaix in Almeria in early February 2022. It’s a lovely site about 12 km inland from Mojacar and facing the Sierra Cabrera mountains. The HPB properties are always well-equipped with a full kitchen for those who want to cook. This time we had a studio which was plenty big enough for two. You definitely need a car there.

Gebas and the Sierra Espuña

In winter the nearest airport for Alfaix is Alicante, some 210 km away by the A7 motorway. It seemed a shame to go for only a week and so I checked out the flight times for Jet2 from Leeds, avoiding a 7am flight, and looked at the map. I found the Sierra Espuña Natural Park not far off the A7 between Murcia and Lorca. Booking.com turned up the Hotel La Mariposa (the “Butterfly”) in the village of Gebas on the east side of the park.

Sierra Espuña

La Mariposa was a simple clean hotel run by a Brit Tom and his Peruvian wife who also do adventure tours in the area. We stayed there three nights and were very well looked after. The nights were quite chilly but our room was well-heated. We had an excellent dinner of imaginative salads and huge portions of fish there for two nights, after looking at the menu via a QR code.

The restaurant at La Mariposa was closed on the third night and Tom sent us 12 km to Abadia a kind of pub restaurant in the nearest town Alhama de Murcia. This was definitely a local place as we had to wait over a drink until 7.30 for the kitchen to open. There we had to use another QR code to get the menu and ate an excellent and cheap meal of salads followed by pork or chicken in sauce with saute potatoes, plus sparkling water. Everyone in Alhama was wearing a mask, even outside in the street.

For our first full day Tom suggested driving to El Berro a village higher up in the mountains. He said it was possible to walk down to Gebas and there would be time for somebody (i.e. Martin) to walk back up to collect the car. After picking up picnic food in El Berro we set off down a pleasant track past some orange trees and through scrub and bushes – it was very dry indeed. We ate our picnic surrounded by rosemary bushes in flower. We came to a field of almond trees which were all in bloom and took what appeared to be the obvious route on the left. After a while the path deteriorated. We reached a house where the owner who did not speak English pointed out a route and kept mentioning a tunnel (tunel in Spanish).

After about twenty minutes from the house we found ourselves in the rambla (dried up river bed) whereas the map showed the path higher up on the opposite side of the river from the house. We realised we had gone wrong and by then it was 3 pm. We went back to the house and I sat on their steps admiring all the oranges on their tree while Martin walked back up to El Berro for the car which he could only drive part of the way down the steep track to the house.

Orange tree near Gebas

Back at La Mariposa we got talking to an Irish couple staying there – they had gone wrong on this walk in exactly the same place. We should have gone round the right hand side of the almond trees where there was a stone irrigation channel.

For day two Tom suggested going to see the remains of the pozos de nieve high up in the sierra at 1300m. Literally meaning “snow pits” these are conical structures covering deep pits which were filled with snow by the locals from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Pozo de nieve (snow pit)

The snow compacted down into ice which they took down to their villages for preserving food. Transporting the ice must have been quite a challenge in this rocky and often steep wooded terrain.

A couple of the pozos have been reconstructed and Martin went down a metal staircase into one of them.

Inside a pozo de nieve

Later that day Martin walked up from Gebas towards El Berro and found the route we should have taken including the tunnel.

Tunnel on the walk from El Berro to Gebas

We went over the mountains again on our way to Alfaix, stopping at the park visitor centre which had excellent displays and was staffed by two very helpful rangers. Martin went on a short walk and saw a fox (the only wild animal we saw on the trip) and found a cafe which was open. We headed straight there and had some excellent tapas for lunch.

Mojacar and Garrucha

Our first full day at Alfaix was rather quiet. It was just nice to eat lunch on our terrace. In the afternoon we drove down to Mojacar which is definitely a rather upmarket tourist area and then along the sea front to Garrucha which is more of a local area. There we watched gypsum being loaded into a large ship by five vehicles which initially looked rather like cranes which dropped their tops to transfer the gypsum from a conveyor belt into the cargo area of the ship. It did not seem to be a very efficient way of loading the ship but this method would prevent the gypsum from being blown about everywhere.

Loading gypsum at Garrucha

For days we saw many gypsum trucks on their way to and fro between their source near Sorbas and the ship.

Cabo de Gata

This is one of our favourite places within an easy day trip from Alfaix. It’s another Natural Park with plenty of strange volcanic rock formations and a headland jutting out into the Mediterranean. You get there from Alfaix by first going southwest on the A7 motorway then driving through a sea of plastic greenhouses. You then cross some small hills by the coast to get to the three sandy beaches in the park past the village of San Jose. Our favourite is Playa Monsul reached by a 7km gravel road. It being a Saturday we wondered if the beach would be busy but there were very few other people there, all locals.

Playa Monsul

It was bright sunshine but with a slightly chilly wind in the more exposed areas. We found a sheltered place to eat our picnic on the beach watching a dog chasing a ball thrown by a girl wearing a bikini. I was still wearing my jacket. We did the short walk to Half Moon Beach which was almost deserted.

There’s a track up to the top of the headland but you can only drive up to it from the other side which is quite a long way round. Instead we took a different route back over the mountains north to Carboneras, a town which does its best to look presentable even though it is dominated by a huge cement works with a tall chimney visible from miles away.

I was curious about the name Cabo de Gata. Cabo is a cape or promontory and gata is the Spanish for a female cat. With the help of google I found that it was originally known as Cabo de Agatas, taking its name from agate which was mined there.

Sierra Cabrera

The HPB site at Alfaix faces the Sierra Cabrera a range of jagged mountains directly between Alfaix and the sea. In our previous visits we had driven up there passing through the pleasant village of Cortijo Grande. The map showed a tarmac road down the other side to the village of Sopalmo and we decided to try to find this route down. The narrow twisty route up took us above the trees with stupendous views.

At the top we found that the road down to the sea was gravel and was not suitable for a rental car. There was another route and better road down to the Alfaix side through the rather curious village of Cortijo Cabrera. This consists of a number of very large houses built in Spanish style very high up on the hillside. It seemed fairly deserted but a few cars were parked there. I wondered if this village had become a white elephant. A quick google search turned up a 5 bedroom, 4 bathroom villa with a large pool and several living rooms and terraces for sale for 475,000 euros.

Lubrin and over the Sierra de Los Filabres

The next day we drove up to Lubrin on the eastern edge of the Sierra de los Filabres. This village is dominated by a large 19th century church which was closed.

View of Lubrin

View of Lubrin

It is a typical Spanish village with houses in little alleyways, plenty of which had geraniums in pots all along the walls.

Geraniums on walls in Lubrin

In contrast to the many deserted small villages we passed, real people, not just tourists or second home owners, appeared to be living in Lubrin. We avoided the tower on a hill above the village which has a rather dicey looking handrail on the path up to it. Apparently there is evidence that Neanderthal man settled in the region some 100,000 years ago.

After Lubrin we drove round the mountains for some way. There was a plateau higher up with plenty of almond trees which were the best we saw.

The best almond tree we found

We achieved our aim which was to drive to the village of Albanchez and then over the Puerto de la Virgen pass which is at 1074m (300m lower than the pozos) then down to the village of Uleila del Campo. Once we were over the pass the route down was easier as it just followed the side of a mountain. We were then on flat agricultural land close to the area where the spaghetti westerns were filmed. It didn’t take long to get back to Alfaix.

Walks

HPB provides a walk pack for all their properties. Before we left home we downloaded the entire pack for Alfaix. It was time to try one of them. We attempted to do a circular walk around the base of a conical hill on the top of which sits the Ermita de la Virgen de la Cabeza. This is a short drive from Alfaix and just south of Antas. The car park was in a large “area recreativa” complete with picnic tables, swings and plenty of shade. It was completely empty.

We set off down the track from there but found the gate closed where we were supposed to turn off past a farmhouse. Not to be thwarted we continue down the main track and took a detour round the edges of a field of spinach and then navigated our way through a number of plastic greenhouses. This led to a track through orange groves which were laden with fruit.

We were back on the route and walked back to the car first along a quiet main road, then a side road up to the area recreativa, all past more orange groves. When we got home we found we had used an earlier version of the walk pack. The later one no longer includes this walk.

Our second walk was more successful. We parked beside a large tower at Playa de Macenas and walked along a track by the sea to the Torre del Piruculo, a round tower perched on a rock by the sea. You can go up some steps on the rock and then climb a metal ladder to go inside the tower. I declined but Martin went up to the top of the tower where there were fine views.

Torre del Piriculo near Mojacar

This was our hottest day. We walked further along the track looking up at a big house perched on top of another conical hill right by the sea. Some plants with tiny pink and yellow flowers were growing by the side of the track. Thanks to my brother-in-law these were identified as campion (the pink one) and medicago marina. I decided to walk back but Martin went further, took a side path up away from the sea to an “observatorio” and then a track and path down to Macenas.

View from the Torre del Piriculo

The Macenas Tower was built as a watchtower in the 18th century. There is plenty of parking space near it but little shade and nowhere to sit down unless you own one of the many camper vans parked there.

Macenas Tower

To satisfy our curiosity we drove south on the main road to Carboneras and looked for the other end of the Sierra Cabrera route in Sopalmo but could not see any evidence of it. The main road then goes over the mountains and descends to another beach Playa del Algarobbico which is dominated by a huge unfinished hotel. There is no other habitation there and the hotel did not look any different from when we went there in 2012. Building work had apparently been started in 2003.

How to spoil a beach: building site unchanged since 2012

A lady was singing opera arias on the beach. I have a dim recollection that she was there in 2012.

Practicalities: Travel and Entry to Spain

The flight to Alicante on Jet2 from Leeds takes only 2 hours 15 minutes. Leeds is a very convenient airport for us but, to be frank, it is an embarrassment. Jet2 now have a checkin area of their own which was very efficient but it took the best part of an hour to get to security which is very cramped and has nowhere near enough scanners. There are no jetways for tourism flights and so you have to walk out to the plane at what is the highest airport in England (at 208m elevation) in wind and rain. There are plans for a new terminal but these have been held up by various planning disputes, but even then the plans do not show any jetways.

When we arrived in Alicante (at a jetway), we found a clean, light and airy new airport with plenty of space and food options. Our passports were stamped with a large stamp. We got another similar one when we left Spain. Holders of British passports are now only allowed to spend 90 days in any 180 day period within the EU and Schengen countries, which means an end to long road trips and quite possibly shortening the life of my burgundy passport which is now over half full.

We easily dealt with all the Covid paperwork by uploading our documents to an app on Jet2 which also held our boarding passes. The Spanish authorities checked the pass and scanned its QR code again when we arrived. For our return to the UK we only had to fill in the online passenger locator form as we came back after all the entry restrictions had been removed.

Practicalities: Getting About

We rented a small car from Sixt. The agent told us that we would need an international driving permit to drive in Spain after the end of February, but according to gov.uk and the Spanish embassy website, this only applies to permanent residents, not tourists. Our car was a Corsa, ideal for driving round mountain roads on tarmac. The main roads are good with light traffic except when we got near Alicante on our way home. Finding somewhere to park was never a problem and we did not have to pay to park anywhere.

The road signs are mostly good except perhaps if you want to drive over the Sierra Cabrera. Before we left home we downloaded a map of Spain into our satnav which was very accurate. We bought a detailed hiking map of Sierra Espuña at La Mariposa and took with us some detailed maps of the Alfaix and Mojacar areas bought for our earlier stays there.

Practicalities: Food

The food was very good indeed. We ate very well in the restaurant at La Mariposa in Gebas and had another good meal on our last night in a restaurant by the sea at Mojacar where we were the only customers. The Spanish do eat rather late (lunch is between 1 and 3pm), but for hungry Brits things have improved since our first road trip in Spain in 1973 when we could not find any restaurant serving food before 9pm.

Buying our own food at a Mercadona supermarket was a real treat. The have a big fish counter where the fish are very fresh indeed and larger than the ones in the fish counters in UK supermarkets. We cooked sea bream on two evenings, just adding olive oil, garlic and thyme, and lemons from the trees on the HPB site. The fresh vegetables, salads and fruit were much better than ours, but I suppose they don’t have to travel so far. The choice of ham and deli meat is amazing and we’re also fond of Spanish cheese. There was no problem in making up a picnic lunch. Also, homesick Brits will now find Lidl and Aldi in Spain where they look very similar to their British stores.

Covid and Masks

Almost everyone, except some tourists, was wearing a mask outdoors as well as indoors, unless they were seated at a table. I didn’t see a single person without a mask in our several visits to different Mercadona stores. All the staff at the HPB site were masked and mask-wearing was strictly enforced in the Alicante airport. Most people on the plane wore their masks correctly over their noses and mouths, but not the person sitting next to me on the way back who was also coughing a little. He only put his mask over his nose for about 10 minutes when he was asked to do so. Fortunately I didn’t catch anything from him.

We’ll Surely Go Again

All in all we had a very good holiday. The weather was mostly sunny, but a little chilly high up in the mountains and at night. Everything worked fine except for our attempt to drive over the Sierra Cabrera, going wrong on the El Berro to Gebas walk and the small glitch in our first Alfaix walk when at least we didn’t have to detour a long way. The scenery inland is magnificent and well-worth seeing. The HPB site at Alfaix is beautifully laid out and is in a good location for our interests. There’s definitely a lot more to Spain than beaches. We’ll surely go again.

Picture Gallery for There’s More to Spain than Beaches

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Return to Florida Part 2

This is the second of two posts on our visit to Florida in November – December 2021 written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers what we did while we were there and our return to the UK. The first post on travel to and life at Florida Breeze Villa is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

The National Pastime: Shopping

Shopping is truly the national pastime in the USA. Black Friday started online on the Monday before. I don’t understand how any big stores stay in business in the US. As an example, I needed to get some new towels for the house. They came to $111. When I checked out I was informed that I had saved $197. I then got an e-mail from the store with a coupon for $30 off my next purchase.

On Black Friday itself we went to Lakeside Village in Lakeland about 40 minutes from Southern Dunes. This is by no means a village in the British sense but a shopping centre which, unusually for the US, has real streets and shops opening on to the streets. Our trip was really just to look at the huge range of items on sale in the two department stores but Martin bought two pairs of good quality slippers reduced from $30 to $9. There is a nice Greek restaurant Louis Pappas nearby. In contrast to the locals we walked there and ate an excellent meal outside.

I needed some new hiking boots and so another day we went to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Orlando. This is an enormous outdoor shop where you can buy anything connected with outdoor pastimes. A huge display faces you as you enter complete with stuffed bears and a Florida panther.

Inside Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World

I easily found boots to replace the ones I bought there several years ago. We had a quick look round the rest of the store avoiding the large section on guns.

Orlando Premium Outlets is a discount shopping mall across the road from Bass. We paid a quick visit there where I bought some good quality socks from Columbia. They were placed in a strong plastic bag which was far too big for them.

I don’t really need this large plastic bag

Thanksgiving and Christmas – The Holidays

Thanksgiving is officially the start of what is called the “Holidays” in the US. We bought a new Norfolk Island pine which was about 18 inches high and decorated it with just a few baubles and some lights. Plenty of people go to town with decorations on the outside of their houses. Some have tasteful lights but huge inflatable Santas and snowmen are the norm. There was even a 10ft high inflatable Mickey Mouse dressed for Christmas round the corner from us.

No comment!

Most of these inflatables keep collapsing and we watched with interest to see whether they had been inflated again as we drove or walked past. At least the singing inflatables across the road from us were not there any more.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We usually try to do Thanksgiving in a small way. I bought the smallest frozen turkey breast we could find. It weighed 8 lbs. It tasted good. There were no fresh ones and so I didn’t look too hard at what else was in it. Food labelling is actually rather good in the USA although the “serving sizes” are always huge. We had cornbread stuffing, beans and roast sweet potatoes (without any marshmallows with them!). I made some cranberry sauce and planned to try this again for Christmas in the UK if I could find fresh cranberries (I couldn’t).

We don’t eat many sweet things, but dessert at Thanksgiving is always a pie. Walmart do some very good ones and we do like their pecan pie which was only in a large size this year. It claimed to have 8 servings at 520 calories per slice. It lasted us 6 days and had still not reached its best by date.

We ate all of this meal outside after dark, accompanied by some Californian wine. We had total of 15 helpings off the turkey including some for lunch with salad. I threw away the rest which was probably another 4 helpings. It cost just under $18.

Visit to a State Park

The Florida State Parks are little known gems. Some have narrated boat trips where you are almost guaranteed to see alligators. The birds are amazing and you can see manatees in some parks on cold bright days in winter. All the parks have well-documented hiking trails where the vegetation changes with every 5m or so difference in elevation. You rarely meet anybody outside the immediate visitor facilities.

We always try to visit one or two parks when we are in Florida. This time we only managed one little trip, to the rather grandly named Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park which is just a few miles south of Southern Dunes. I don’t know who Allen David Broussard was, neither does Wikipedia. There is barely a creek there and almost certainly no catfish, but it’s very peaceful and you can walk on sandy trails up and down hills (only little ones) without meeting anyone.

We went there several years ago and did all of the long (5.5 mile) hike which goes up to a viewpoint looking over Lake Wales Ridge. Since then it has become an official state park and a larger notice board has appeared including a bear warning notice.

Bear Warning at Catfish Creek Preserve State Park

Bears in Central Florida?? When you drive south from Southern Dunes on route US27 there is a bear warning sign just as you reach Highlands, the next county. There is a similar sign at the southern end of Highlands on route 27. We always thought it was something of a joke if bears only live in this county in Central Florida. Just before we came back to the UK I looked at the Florida State Parks web page for Highlands Hammock State Park and saw a yellow warning for a “nuisance bear” at the top of the page. It had been trying to help itself to whatever food it could find in the campground. We ate a picnic there two years ago.

Although it is about 40 miles from the coast, there are fragments of shells on the ground in the car park at Catfish Creek. This part of Florida, right in the middle of the peninsula, was once an island.

Shells 40 miles inland at Catfish Creek

A little bright green lizard was sunning itself on the picnic table.

It was 28C this time and we only did a short walk. You are walking mostly on wide trails with soft sand underfoot and so it’s hard going.

Trail at Catfish Creek

The alligator warning sign was still there but the creek and pond had dried up and the alligators must have moved on.

We were unable to identify these little plants.

Anyone know what these plants are?

On the way back we stopped briefly at Lake Marion where there were wonderful cloud reflections in the water.

Cloud reflections on Lake Marion

Papaya at Last

With the aid of a stepladder and a rake Martin picked one of our own papayas early in our stay. We cut it open the day before we left to find it was unripe with the seeds still white. But we couldn’t not eat some papaya this time and so we cheated and bought a small one from Walmart. We ate it all in two days, with one helping accompanied by luxury vanilla ice cream from Publix.

Papaya

Papaya at last

Coping with Covid

Ron DeSantis the Republican governor of Florida believes he is the heir to Trump and wants to be the next President of the United States. In mid-November he signed bills which restrict or ban local governments within Florida from mandating vaccines for employees and ban school districts from mandating masks. Businesses and hospitals which flout this law can now be fined.

However about half the people in any shop we went into were wearing masks and the number of mask wearers increased when Omicron appeared on the horizon. Some stores have turned the air conditioning cooler to keep the air circulating. We even needed sweaters in Walmart.

Omicron and Departure Tests

We were due to leave in the evening of Thursday 9 December. At its usual announcement time of 6.30pm on a Saturday the UK government put out a statement saying that travellers arriving in the UK after 4am on the following Tuesday must have a certified negative Covid test with 48 hours of departure. Later they changed this to 2 days.

We had 4 days to organise this including Sunday. There was nothing more online. Martin phoned British Airways and waited an hour to speak to a lady with an Indian accent who knew less about it than we did. Posts began to appear on various Internet forums by Monday and we did get an e-mail from BA telling us we needed to get this test.

There was no Covid testing site at Tampa airport at that time and after more online research we booked tests for the Wednesday morning at Orlando airport. This required a round trip of 76 miles but they charged what appeared to be a more reasonable price ($69 each) with a wait of less than an hour for the result. We could have got this done at the drug store chains Walgreens or CVS but they were charging $139 each for non-residents with no guarantee on how long you have to wait for the result.

The airport site was run by Advent Health, which is one of the large healthcare providers in Florida, and turned out to be in a shop at one end of the huge terminal. Plenty of people without appointments were milling around with their luggage as they were due to fly on Wednesday night. We did not have to wait long for the test but were concerned that we were not asked for any ID.

Waiting for the result was chaotic as we were among the now larger crowd milling around outside the shop. One of the staff kept coming out with a bunch of certificates and calling out names. There was no check on ID then either. Anybody could have taken our certificates. At least we had the right documents and uploaded them to complete Verifly as soon as we got back to the house.

The flight home was fine, except for a long wait to check in at Tampa. At that time BA only had five flights a week there and consequently very few staff. There was no separate line for people with Verifly and some people appeared to be being turned away. We had three seats for the two of us and slept quite a bit on the plane, after a meal of stodgy pasta and tomato sauce for which the flight attendant was very apologetic. It seemed that this was the only main course loaded by the caterers. We arrived at Gatwick at 7.20 and headed off for breakfast as soon as we could.

Arrival PCR Test

We also needed to do an arrival PCR test which we had booked with Eurofin which is a Which? recommended provider. This was reasonably priced. The address they gave us was an Asda store just south of Croydon. We expected to find the testing site within the store but after having to ask twice, we found it was an 8ft square portacabin at the far side of the car park with just two guys working there.

They checked our passports and the test was done promptly. You are allowed to travel home while waiting for the result including staying overnight. We were told to expect the result the next morning and so after a sandwich lunch by the Devils Dyke went to the hotel we had booked in Angmering. The results (fortunately negative) arrived at 3.30 am and we were on our way home on the Saturday.

As we watched the rapid spread of Omicron we realised how lucky we had been on this trip. We had three wonderful weeks in Florida and didn’t catch Covid in spite of mixing with far more people than we had done since Covid emerged. I have no idea when we will get there again, but it will definitely be something to look forward to.

See Return to Florida Part 1 for Life in Southern Dunes

Picture Gallery for Return to Florida Part 2

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Return to Florida Part 1

This is the first of two blog posts on our stay in Florida in November-December 2021, written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers travel to Florida Breeze Villa and life there. The second post is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

We are saddened that so many people have lost loved ones and have had their lives disrupted by Covid. We are fortunate to have not so far contracted the virus but we were unable to visit our Florida house for 21 months until November 2021.

Florida Breeze Villa

We have owned our house in Florida since September 2001. It is on a beautiful golf course development called Southern Dunes which is on US route 27 about 7 miles south of its junction with Interstate 4. It is a typical American house with open plan living area, 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a large double garage and a pool.

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

We bought the house before it was built and are so glad we chose a premium plot facing south over the golf course and not one of the many other houses where the pool area looks straight out on to the back of another house or a 6-ft wall.

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

It’s a very peaceful location where guests can just relax by the pool or go to the Orlando theme parks or visit some if the beautiful Florida State Parks where you can see alligators and plenty of birds, or just indulge in the national pastime of shopping if only to marvel at the variety of goods on sale.

Deciding to Return to Florida

Covid was just on the horizon when we left the house in Florida on 17 February 2020, not knowing that we would have to wait so long to return. Time passed and vaccinations began to make the Covid situation much better. In September 2021 there were rumours that President Biden would open up the USA to fully vaccinated travellers in November by rescinding Trump’s 20 March 2020 ban on foreigners from entering the US except for specific exceptional circumstances which definitely didn’t include us.

So we took the plunge on 21 September, the last day of a British Airways sale, and bought some round trip tickets from Gatwick to Tampa for 18 November returning on 9 December. There would be no change fee but we accepted that we would have to pay the difference if we changed the dates for travel.

We were really looking forward to eating our meals outside by the pool.

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Covid Test Before Arriving in the USA

The US government was for once much better organised than the UK (although that isn’t very difficult if you follow the current chaos management in Downing St) and gave plenty of notice for paperwork requirements. Instead of true paperwork we used an app called Verifly where you can upload all your documents, including passenger locator form, vaccination confirmation and entry requirements. We had to do a lateral flow test within 3 days of travel supervised by a Zoom call from the provider. Martin found a recommended online provider testingforall which cost £29 each. The whole process was very easy and the kit came very quickly after we ordered it. We just needed to upload a photo of the negative result placed on a unique identification card which came with the kit. The certificate came by e-mail within 20 minutes.

The Flight and Car Rental

The flight itself was OK except for the smallest helpings of food I have ever had on British Airways. A big thanks to our elderly friend Audrey who had given us some of her flapjacks, which are renowned throughout Nidderdale, for the flight. The crew were very strict about mask wearing. The flight was completely full, but after three hours the person in the window seat next to us was taken away by a flight attendant “to see the cabin services director about an earlier conversation” and never came back. We could spread out and had a good view as the plane circled over Tampa Bay before landing.

Our flight was the only foreign one at Tampa and the airport was very quiet. We found our way via 2 driverless trains to the car rental compound. Hertz had mostly been charging £100 for a one-day rental but Martin had found a deal online for less than half that. In fact there were plenty of available cars in the huge Hertz area of the garage. They let you choose your own car within the size you have booked. A very pleasant man on the exit gate checked our licence and rental agreement.

Getting to our Florida Home

Then we found that the traffic at Tampa had got worse than when we were last there in February 2020. We were right in the rush hour and more than once were stopped dead on a 5-lane highway. It got better once we were past Lakeland. The next evidence we saw of the huge growth in Florida was road works making a new and much larger exit to the backroads route we take to the house from Interstate 4.

After a quick visit to Walmart to get some breakfast essentials we were finally at our Florida home. The house had been very well looked after and all was very clean, thanks to Mandy and Tom our property managers.

Eating Breakfast and Watching the Sunrise

With the 5-hour time difference of course we were up early the next day and were eating breakfast by the pool in the dark and watching the sun rise which is one of my favourite occupations in Florida.

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Even in the middle of winter it’s daylight from 6.50 am until 5.50 pm in central Florida. There was a bit of rain on our first three days but it was sunny most days with just the occasional cloud. The average temperature in mid-November is about 25C. One morning it became misty after dawn and steam was coming off the pool.

The Garden

The garden did need some attention. A creeper weed was covering our lemon tree and the small hedge next to it. My Norfolk Island pine Christmas tree was about 8 inches tall when I bought it about 12 years ago. We repotted it and repotted it until we couldn’t find a pot big enough and so planted it outside the pool screen. It was now about 14 ft tall and had 3 trunks, one of which Martin cut down.

Norfolk Island pine - from 8 inches 12 years ago

Norfolk Island pine – from 8 inches 12 years ago

This created a big pile of branches but there is no charge to have your garden waste taken away in Southern Dunes. You just pile it by the kerb on what is called yard waste collection day, but it being the USA there are rules and regulations on how to do this: “Limbs are to be neatly stacked at the curb and can be no longer than 5 feet in length”.

My olive tree had also grown a lot and needed tidying up. As Martin tackled it he was spooked when he got hold of what he thought was a branch which slithered away up the tree. Our Florida wildlife book identified it as a racer snake which is not venomous. It was about 3ft long.

And – there were papayas on two trees. Readers of this blog will know that we have become a little obsessed with growing maradol papayas which can be up to a foot long with a diameter of about 5 inches. One of our trees grew from a seed we planted in 2018 and was now about 18ft tall. The fruits are absolutely delicious, but would any be ripe before we left? And how on earth would we get them down?

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Climate change seems to be coming to Florida. November is the end of the rainy season and everything is usually very green, but parts of the golf course were brown in spite of being watered regularly by huge sprinklers – they do make sure that everyone knows this is recycled water. We saw more succulents on sale at the garden centre and more front gardens in the houses near us have been taken over succulents and other dry-weather plants. Every house on Southern Dunes has sprinklers installed on a timer and we want to continue with our tropical plants such as ginger and trinette (a kind of schleffera).

Ginger plants and trinettes

Ginger plants and trinettes

There were just a few flowers on one of our hibiscus plants.

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Food Shopping

For the first time since the pandemic began we found ourselves having to go food shopping in person. In this area there are no grocery deliveries like we have in England. There is a Walmart store on route 27 only 12 minutes walk from the house, although almost nobody except a few Brits ever walks there. This store is a classic case of Walmart denuding the centre of the nearest town Haines City where there are plenty of empty shops, and it’s fair to say that Walmart does not have the best of reputations, but you can buy almost anything you want there at very good prices.

There is a huge food section where we always look for our favourite orange juice Florida’s Natural which is distributed all over North America from their processing plant at Lake Wales 15 miles south on route 27. In the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat at Walmart and in other stores. Walmart stocks plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and a good range of non-perishable foods. Brits should beware of the bread which often has 3g of sugar per slice.

We avoid the the “international” section which does have a few items for home-sick Brits. Martin seems to be having a second life operating the self-service checkouts. If you go to a checkout with an associate (the term “assistant” is never used in the USA), they will bag your items, using far too many free plastic bags.

A few years ago an Aldi store opened about a mile away on route 27. This is not so well-stocked as the British ones but they now have a range of European cheeses and deli meat, excellent fresh salmon and a delicious key lime Greek yoghurt – we often end up buying all their stock of this.

Another grocery store nearby is Florida-based Publix which is more upmarket than Walmart and has a wider range of foods, including sparkling water which we drink a lot of. Publix has a second person at each checkout, just to pack your shopping.

There were hardly any empty shelves in any of these stores.

Do-it-yourself and Garden Stores

If you think B&Q is large, just imagine a store at least 5 times that size with every widget you can think of for sale at prices much cheaper than in the UK. This is the chain Lowes which has a store about 4 miles north on route 27. They also have a big garden centre where you can buy anything from a tiny cactus to a 10ft palm tree, again at much cheaper prices than in the UK. We have bought plenty of plants there: hibiscus, azaleas, an olive tree, a papaya tree and bedding plants which are in flower in November.

Papaya and olive trees

Papaya and olive trees

Walking in Southern Dunes

Southern Dunes is a large development but it’s well laid out and appears more spacious because of the golf course which winds between the houses. There are plenty of possibilities for walks. The weather was really warm in the last week and there were some spectacular sunsets, especially with reflections in Lake Joe just inside Southern Dunes.

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

We encountered the resident sandhill cranes on our walks around Southern Dunes. These two were engrossed in eating acorns from the holm oaks and didn’t mind us getting close for some photos.

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

On another time there was a noisy standoff between two pairs.

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Years ago we saw a fuzzy ginger-brown chick whose head was less than half-way up its parents’ legs, but we have never seen one since.

Car

We bought a Subaru Forester in Orlando in June 2005. It’s happy to sit in the garage doing nothing when we are not in Florida but it has also served us very well. We set off to Newfoundland in it two days after we got it, driving out along the Trans Labrador Highway into Quebec. We’ve done a 14,000 mile round trip from Florida Breeze Villa to Alaska and Inuvik in the Canadian North-West Territories in it.

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

We’ve also driven to Los Angeles and then up the Pacific coast to the Washington state line, returning via Yellowstone National Park, and to the Pacific on another trip to northern Mexico. Our Subaru also serves as a useful second owners’ closet housing more of our personal belongings when we are not at the house.

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Fortunately Martin remembered to disconnect the battery when we left in February 2020. He got the car started and I managed to drive it the 15 miles to Winter Haven airport to collect him after dropping off the car we had rented at Tampa airport. It did not sound well. We managed a couple of visits to local shops before an appointment at 10.45am at Sports Subaru Orlando, some 30 miles away.

We have been there before and always had good service from knowledgeable people. They said it would take about 3 hours to check the car over and replace all the fluids. So we settled down in the comfortable well-spaced armchairs in the spotlessly clean waiting area. There was hardly anybody else there. I read a whole book and finally found out how to select my favourite drink at the complicated coffee machine. There were plenty of individually wrapped biscuits as well. The huge TV was showing a Netflix movie with the sound turned down. The wifi was excellent.

After 3 hours the service manager came in and asked us if we had seen the video. What video? They had made a video while checking out the car and e-mailed it to us. There is no equivalent of the MOT in Florida, but the tyres, battery and wiper blades needed replacing. By then it was 2pm on the day before Thanksgiving which is the major holiday in the USA. They said they needed to get the tyres from somewhere else but could probably do them on that day.

We were quite hungry and they sent us across the road (Orange Blossom Trail which is a major road in Orlando) to an unassuming building called Junior Colombian Burger where we had an excellent lunch on plastic tables. Back at Subaru we settled down to watch a movie. The car was fixed by 4.45pm. The credit card took a big hit but can you imagine any garage in the UK doing all this additional work on Christmas Eve afternoon?

Pacific Ocean, Mexico Sep2006

Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Sep 2006

Read more in Part 2 about our stay in Florida: shopping, Thanksgiving and Christmas, a visit to a state park and getting home.

Picture Gallery for Return to Florida Part 1

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A Short Trip to Galloway September 2021

At last, a holiday even though it was very short. We had been thinking of going to Galloway for some time and finally towards the end of August took the plunge to try to book something for early September. This turned out not to be easy as so many places were full, but we did find a cottage in Creetown for three nights and a bed and breakfast in Kippford for two nights.

Go here for a picture gallery

Threave Gardens

The journey north from Nidd Cottage was not particularly pleasant as the A66 was very busy and slow, but once we got on to the M6 it didn’t take long to get to our first stop, Threave Gardens just outside Castle Douglas. These gardens are the grounds of Threave House, a very typical Scottish baronial mansion designed in 1871.

Threave House
Threave House

As part of the National Trust for Scotland, Threave’s wonderful garden has been created by students of the Trust’s School of Heritage Gardening. It covers a huge area.

We had time to do the walled garden plus part of the extensive grounds. I particularly liked this plant with green stripey leaves.

A favourite in Threave Gardens
A favourite in Threave Gardens

This site is not to be confused with Threave Castle, a couple of miles away which was still closed because of Covid.

Logan Botanic Garden

Our first full day dawned fine and sunny and stayed like this all day. It was definitely a time for the Mull of Galloway and some sights on the Rhins of Galloway peninsula on the way there.

Logan Botanic Garden is part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and rightly claims to be “Scotland’s most exotic Garden”. It dates back to 1869 and has plants from all over the world. At the entrance we were greeted by a Galloway bull.

The Entrance to Logan Botanic Garden
The Entrance to Logan Botanic Garden

There are areas devoted to plants from Australia and New Zealand such as tree ferns and eucalyptus complete with a picture of a koala, also South America where I really liked Fascicularia bicolor, a hardy bromeliad from Chile.

Fascicularia bicolor, Logan Botanic Garden
Fascicularia bicolor, Logan Botanic Garden

Other highlights were the peeling bark on the filo pastry tree from the Andes and the gunnera tunnel, where I had to bend double to get through.

Gunnera tunnel, Logan Botanic Garden
Gunnera tunnel, Logan Botanic Garden

There we also saw the Loganosaurus Rex.

Loganosaurus Rex, Logan Botanic Garden
Loganosaurus Rex, Logan Botanic Garden

For more information you can search the RBGE Catalogue of Living Collections plants online.

Ardwell Bay

It was time for lunch but the Botanic Garden was very busy. The guidebook recommended Ardwell Bay on the west coast. You have to drive on a gravel road (not too different from the track to Nidd Cottage) to get there but it’s well worth the effort to see a beautiful sandy beach which was almost deserted. It was the ideal place for a picnic. After a short walk on the cliffs to the side of the beach we walked the length of the beach and back.

Ardwell Bay
Ardwell Bay

Mull of Galloway

Of course we had to drive to the southern tip of the Rhins peninsula. The Mull of Galloway is the southernmost point in Scotland. There’s a nice short circular walk around the lighthouse and the brave can go down some cliffside steps to the foghorn. It was a bit hazy in the sunshine, but the views were still excellent.

View from the Mull of Galloway
View from the Mull of Galloway

The lighthouse and the RSPB exhibit were closed but the cafe was open and did not baulk at serving us tea five minutes before closing time as often happens in England (and annoys us intensely after experiencing the willingness to serve you a meal at closing time in the USA).

The obligatory signpost indicated the distance to Senegal where the Mull of Galloway gannets spend the winter.

Signpost at the Mull of Galloway
Signpost at the Mull of Galloway

Torhouse Stone Circle and Sorbie Tower

The next day was also fine and sunny. This time we headed for the peninsula known as the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn at its southern tip. Our first stop was the Torhouse Stone Circle a Bronze Age monument of nineteen boulders fenced off in the corner of a field of cows. We weren’t the only people there but the other sightseers seemed more interested in the cows.

Torhouse Stone Circle
Torhouse Stone Circle

Sorbie Tower, now in ruins, was the ancient seat of the Clan Hannay. An enterprising member of this clan is attempting to raise funds renovate it and turn it into a venue for events. It’s quite a dramatic building but he has a long way to go to achieve his aim.

Sorbie Tower

Whithorn

It is said that Christianity was first brought to Scotland in the 4th century AD when St Ninian established a religious community in Whithorn, but the earliest reference to this is in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History completed in about 731AD. We visited Whithorn Priory, now in ruins, and a small museum where an enthusiastic volunteer guide explained the origins and significance of various stone celtic crosses at great length. The town itself is pleasant with a wide main street. It was very quiet with just a few tourists in the early afternoon.

Whithorn Priory
Whithorn Priory

Isle of Whithorn

There were more signs of life with plenty of tourists at the Isle of Whithorn which is not an island but a village on the coast about four miles south of Whithorn. Here we visited St Ninian’s Chapel, a small 13thc building now in ruins and set right by the sea.

St Ninian’s Chapel, Isle of Whithorn

St Ninian’s Cave, a good walk away, also sounds interesting but we will have to wait for next time as it was closed for conservation works. Instead we had a nice walk along the opposite side of the river from the Isle of Whithorn before detouring via PortPatrick on the west coast and rushing back to our cottage to watch Emma Raducanu’s quarter-final at the US Open Tennis.

Wigtown

The rain forecast for the next day turned out to be mostly drizzle, but we had already reserved some of this day for Wigtown which describes itself as “Scotland’s Book Town”. It is indeed a mini version of Hay-on-Wye. We spent most time in the largest bookshop where an apparently very docile black and white cat picked a fight with every passing dog.

On the one shelf of Yorkshire books we found one of the only two hundred original copies of Joseph Lucas’ Historical Genealogy of the family of Bayne of Nidderdale published in 1896. This family lived at Thwaite House, a mile away from Nidd Cottage, in the 1600s. There is a facsimile of some of this volume online, but it is incomplete. We decided to treat ourselves to an early Christmas present and bought the book.

Creetown Gem Museum

Creetown Gem Rock Museum is definitely worth a visit. Crowded into a good many display cases is a huge collection of mineral and gem rock samples all carefully labelled. There is also a “Crystal Cave” where some rocks take on a remarkable range of colours in fluorescent light. The museum is operated by a local couple and there’s also a sizeable cafe and shop.

Cairnsmore and the Big Water of Fleet Viaduct

We drove up over a narrow road into the Cairnsmore of Fleet National Nature Reserve. It was raining but Martin walked up on to the Big Water of Fleet railway viaduct which, after Dr Beeching took his axe in 1965, became a tourist attraction. This 20-arch structure once took rail passengers to Stranraer and the ferry to Ireland.

Big Water of Fleet Viaduct

Kippford and Rockcliffe

After visiting the small nature museum we drove down to Kirkcudbright where the weather was better, and then towards Dalbeattie stopping at Dundrennan Abbey which was closed but clearly visible through the gate.

Our room in Kippford looked out over the water, or rather mud flats as the tide was out. The light at dusk was amazing.

Dusk at Kippford
Dusk at Kippford

On our full day there we decided to walk to the next village Rockcliffe. On the edge of Kippford we passed some large houses up on rocky cliffs. Some of them had large wooden sculptures of animals on the cliff side.

Just past the end of Kippford at low tide you can walk across a causeway and sandy mud flats to Rough Island. Martin couldn’t resist and I decided to follow. It took about twelve minutes to get there. We came back quickly as the tide appeared to be coming in.

Arriving in Rough Island
Arriving in Rough Island

We had planned to find lunch in a pub at Rockcliffe but the only food in sight was an ice cream van serving cones with no covid precautions. When you order an ice cream cone in the USA the server picks it up in a paper napkin and so never handles the cone at all. Why can’t some British ice cream sellers do the same instead of handling food and money with the same hands?

Help was at hand for the hungry. Nearby, round the corner from the sea front was a small cafe in the garden of a nice house where a pleasant lady wearing a mask was doing a great trade in coffee and cake.

After lunch Martin walked further south along the coast while I watched the tide come in very rapidly until the water was lapping just a few yards from the road. People sitting there were entertained when a man came out of a house behind us pulling an inflatable dinghy on a trolley. He went back to bring an outboard motor on another trolley, spent a long time assembling his boat to find that the motor was dodgy. Eventually he got it going, attempted one circuit of the bay and had to resort to using oars.

We took the upper Jubilee route back to Kippford taking a detour to climb a mound and admire the view including Rough Island now surrounded by water.

Rough Island at high tide
Rough Island at high tide

A short drive from Kippford took us to Sandyhills where there is a good beach where we ate a very late picnic lunch. There is a large caravan park there and notices about free parking for only thirty minutes. After that you have to pay £4.50. This was the only unfriendly place we encountered.

Orchardton Tower and Dundrennan Abbey

On our last day we retraced our steps towards Kirkcudbright taking short detours to Orchardton Tower, a circular tower from the mid-1400s, and Balcary Bay where there is a nice walk. This time Dundrennan Abbey was open. The architecture is quite dramatic.

Dundrennan Abbe
Dundrennan Abbey

The abbey was built by the Cistercians in the late 12th century and had links to Rievaulx in Yorkshire. Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night in Scotland there.

Kirkcudbright

At Kirkcudbright we found that the main tourist attraction MacLellan’s Castle was closed for renovations. So we grabbed a sandwich from the Co-op and ate it by the river.

We did manage to get into Broughton House which is operated by the National Trust for Scotland. The house belonged to E A Hornel a well-known artist and plenty of his paintings were on display. The predominant colour was pink and many featured females in flamboyant dresses. Hornel travelled widely including spending time in Japan which influenced the design of the lovely gardens at the back of the house.

Broughton House, Kirkcudbright
Broughton House, Kirkcudbright

Getting home

We stopped at Sainsburys in Carlisle and Penrith and seemed to be almost the only people wearing masks and so we didn’t stay long. After the stop and start on the A66 going up to Scotland we took a different route home cutting across from Tebay to near Kirkby Stephen and then to Garsdale Head and down Wharfedale. It was much better.

Practicalities

We stayed the first three nights in The Granite House, a delightful and well-equipped small cottage in Harbour Street, Creetown four miles south of Newton Stewart. Harbour Street no longer leads to a harbour but is still attractive with granite houses.

For our last two nights we settled on the Mariner Hotel in Kippford, a small village on the estuary of the River Urr. The room was fine with good wifi and had an excellent view over the water (and low tide). The bathroom was rather basic and but very clean. The hotel manager apologised for the service telling us they were short of staff as was every other hotel in the area. We had dinner there on the first night from a menu cut short by the staffing problems. Breakfast was excellent. On the second night we got a rather good Chinese takeaway from the Rose Garden (in the Ship Inn) in Dalbeattie.

We got much of our information on what to see and where to go from the excellent Bradt Slow Travel Guide Dumfries and Galloway, 2020.

Impressions of Scotland

It was five years since we had been to Scotland. We were as much impressed this time as before. The weather was mostly very kind to us and the people were very friendly and helpful. We didn’t have to pay for parking anywhere, even in the towns, and there was no litter. Mask-wearing is required in any indoor environment such as hotels, restaurants, museums etc and people stuck to this rule. National Trust and English Heritage members get free entry to sites run by the National Trust for Scotland and Historical Environment Scotland respectively. Some sites were closed because of covid.

We only saw a few beaches of which Ardwell was by far the best. The tide does go out a very long way in the Solway Firth leaving mostly mud flats. The landscape in Galloway is mostly rolling hills and farmland. There were far more farm animals than you normally see in England, mostly black and white cows and some sheep. We only saw only two small herds of belted Galloway cows – there are far more of them in the fields below our house in Upper Nidderdale.

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Our Dales Way Walk

During our first summer in Nidderdale (2012) we walked the Nidderdale Way, all 53 miles of it. Starting was easy as it goes past our house. It’s a nice walk with not a lot of steep uphill and we completed it in seven days. This was quite an achievement for me although nothing compared with Martin’s Land’s End to John O’Groats 1306-mile 82-day walk in 2004.

Spurred on by this I began to look at the Dales Way which goes from Ilkley in Wharfedale to Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District. Opinions vary about the total distance but 78 miles seems to be the received wisdom.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Beside the River Wharfe

So we started on 4 June 2013 walking from Ilkley to somewhere near the Strid in Bolton Abbey Woods then up to the road for the bus.

River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey

Wharfe at Bolton Abbey

Next day we parked at Grassington, took the bus back to where we stopped the day before and walked alongside the Wharfe to Grassington via a large chocolate cake tea in Burnsall. Five days later we parked at Grassington again and started the next leg which climbs up to the aptly named Coniston Pie where we ate our picnic. The route then drops down into Kettlewell and follows the river up to Buckden where there is a bus back to Grassington.

Buttercups near Kettlewell

Buttercups near Kettlewell

This part of Wharfedale was not new territory for us as we had driven up it and walked some of it before, but it was really good to see the scenery from ground level at walking pace. It’s quintessential dales scenery with smallish fields and dry stone walls. There are plenty of sheep in this part of the world and the stiles between the fields have all been replaced by small gates which have a spring so that people can’t leave them open. These three days were easy and enjoyable walking, a gentle introduction for what was to come.

Meeting the Pennine Way and on to Ribblehead

We didn’t get going again until 13 September 2014. We parked at Skipton and took the bus to Buckden. Further up from there the Wharfe narrows through Hubberholme, Yockenthwaite, Deepdale and Beckermonds. Although still by the River Wharfe we were technically now in Langstrothdale. The road gets steeper as you climb to Outershaw at the beginning of a spectacular drive north over “the tops” to Hawes in Wensleydale. But we weren’t going to Wensleydale and we were at the point of no return to get back on a road for some time, let alone finding public transport. We turned north-west at Outershaw and climbed up over the moor.

The way to Cam Head

The Way to Cam Head

Eventually after three miles you reach the watershed at Cam Head. It’s bleak up there at 520m and the only landmark is where the Dales Way meets the Pennine Way. At another isolated house Gearstones we left the Dales Way and walked another 1.8 miles to Ribblehead (of the viaduct fame) to catch the train back to Skipton where we had a meal at one of our favourite Indian restaurants. This was a long day of 14 miles.

Track towards Ribblehead

Track towards Ribblehead

After recovering from the 14-mile day, eight days later we drove to Dent Station which is the highest on a mainline railway in England and left the car there. It is 4.8 miles by road and 400m higher than the village of Dent. We took a 9-minute train ride to Ribblehead and walked back to the Dales Way and then down to Dent village. At one place you go under a very high railway viaduct and it’s a bit eerie looking up at it.

Dent viaduct

Dent viaduct

A volunteer-run Sunday only bus took us back to the car. We drove back home down Wensleydale, stopping for a meal in Hawes.

Dent and Around Sedbergh

On 27 September 2014 we left the car at Sedbergh and a bus ride took us back to Dent from where the Dales Way begins to wander a bit. We skirted Sedbergh passing the school and crossed plenty of fields to reach the bus stop at Lincoln’s Inn Bridge on the A684. Fortunately the storm clouds which loomed just after lunch by-passed us.

Storm coming near Sedbergh, but it missed us

Storm coming near Sedbergh, but it missed us

We couldn’t leave Sedbergh without a stop in one of the bookshops there. It’s not quite Hay-on-Wye although Sedbergh describes itself as England’s Book Town. There were now 21.8 miles left to go.

North of Kendal

Things slowed down after that. In summer 2015 we went on a long road trip through Austria and Italy to Greece and Bulgaria which didn’t leave much time for walking. Much of summer 2016 was spent in planning our round the world trip to Malaysia, Australia, Samoa and Hawaii, but a week before we were due to leave in August 2016 we took a bus from Kendal back to Lincoln’s Inn Bridge. From there we were in unknown territory but alongside the River Lune.

Bridge over the Lune

Bridge over the Lune

After we left the river the scenery was to my mind a bit less attractive with the main landmarks being the M6 and the West Coast mainline railway, both of which now have good bridges. If you want to skip a day in doing the walk I suggest this one. We had planned to get to Burneside but this was perhaps the beginning of my hip problems as I just felt I couldn’t go any further when we reached the A685 south of Grayrigg. We called a taxi to get us back to the car.

Reaching Burneside After a 3-Year Gap

Almost all of 2017 was taken up with hip operations and recovery from them. The nearest we got to this part of the world in 2018 was a round-trip steam train excursion from Skipton to Carlisle on the Settle and Carlisle Railway. Finally in 2019 we drove to where we got the taxi in the middle of nowhere three years before and walked to Burneside from where we took a bus to Kendal, had some tea and took a rare bus which dropped us back by the car. There were nine miles to go but 2020 was out because of Covid and needing to stay the night for the last bit.

Burneside to Bowness

So we took the plunge in June 2021 and after a detailed examination of various weather forecasts, booked B&B at the Lyth Valley Country House west of Kendal for the night of 14 June. We had planned to drive to Staveley, the only village between Burneside and Bowness, and take the train to Burneside to start walking but traffic holdups meant we would miss the train we wanted to catch so we parked in Burneside instead.

Burneside is a pleasant Lakeland village but it’s dominated by various large buildings occupied by paper manufacturers James Cropper. Our walk started on a narrow path round 2.5 sides of this complex but soon we were alongside the River Kent and enjoyed a pleasant 3-mile walk with no hills. As we ate our picnic we saw a fish jump in the river. All was tranquil and we met just a few people. Mostly there were gates between the fields but there were two ladder stiles one of which had a nice handrail for those of us with small hands. We arrived in Staveley in good time for the 5-minute train ride back to Burneside on a clean and very punctual and empty Northern Rail train.

I had never visited the area south-east of Windermere town before. Our room at Lyth Valley was very spacious and clean and overlooked the valley which is wide, not like the dales. The scenery is mostly undulating with low round hills and a few sheep. We really needed our satnav to get us around through the narrow lanes which reminded me rather of Devon.

There was no dinner in the hotel and so after a nap we drove into Kendal, first to Sainsburys to pick up a picnic for the next day, then to get enormous helpings of fish and chips from Fish Express which we ate near a viewpoint on the way back to the hotel.

Yes the fish was longer than my boot

Yes the fish was longer than my boot

My fitbit recorded 14771 steps for the day, although I should note that it cheats a bit when we are driving on a bumpy road.

Apart from one night at the Holiday Inn Express in Bicester when we left our house in Oxford for the last time in November last year this was the first time we had spent a night away from our own house since the pandemic started. There were four other couples staying in the hotel, all young people. We kept our distance and were pleased that breakfast was served on a deck outside overlooking the valley. Overall it was a pleasant place to stay if you don’t mind dodgy wi-fi.

Then it was time to get psyched up for the real walking, six miles to Bowness with a lot of uphill first. We parked in Staveley and kept going uphill for almost an hour at first, after a brief conversation with a local who was tending to a nice grey horse. Sometimes we were on a narrow road, sometimes on a track. At the top the scenery spread out into grass with rocky outcrops and a few sheep. We ate our lunch sitting on a rock admiring the view of the mountains on the west side of Lake Windermere.

Lunch stop on last day

Lunch stop on the last day

It looked rather like Greece complete with sheep sitting under a tree. A few people overtook us including two guys who were doing the whole walk at once. They were on their last of seven days from Ilkley. Just after lunch we encountered the only cows of the two days and walked warily by the calves as their mothers looked on.

Once on the top there was more up and down but it was mostly quite gentle. Martin took a short side trip up School Knott from where you can see Windermere town and lake while I sat on a log. Going down to Bowness was easy. It’s a gentle walk with plenty of trees around. You come to the official end of the walk a bit above the village. There’s a stone seat and a small plaque saying it’s 81 miles to Ilkley. We were just getting ready to take some photos when a group of six young ladies arrived and sat down in front of us. They were not dressed for a long walk, but did eventually leave when we hinted that we really wanted to take some photos.

End of the Dales Way

End of the Dales Way

Bowness and Ambleside to Home

It was less than ten minutes down to the lake at Bowness but what a contrast from the tranquility on the walk. Bowness was seething with unmasked people wandering around aimlessly or queuing for a lake cruise or just eating ice cream or drinking. We quickly took our photos standing among the Canada geese on the lake edge then looked for some tea.

The Belsfield Hotel is an imposing building a short way up on the hillside overlooking the lake. When I was a student I spent eight weeks in summer 1967 working there cleaning corridors and bathrooms. I had never been back. It’s now a Laura Ashley Hotel and has been done up for the luxury market. A menu by a little gate up to the hotel included a cream tea. We decided to celebrate finishing our walk by indulging.

View from the Belsfield Hotel

View from the Belsfield

A table had just become empty and so we sat outside feeling a bit incongruous in our hiking gear. The tea was excellent with two large scones each and in the north of England they don’t care whether you put the cream or the jam on first.

The hordes had mostly vanished by the time we had finished our tea. We had a bit of time spare and so took the open top bus along the lakeside to Ambleside where we walked up to its most famous landmark, the house on the bridge. I remember it being a small souvenir shop but it was now closed, I suppose for safety reasons.

. House on the Bridge, Ambleside

House on the Bridge, Ambleside

We took another bus back to Staveley, changed our footwear and headed again to Sainsburys to pick up a microwave meal for dinner and to get petrol.

There is a choice of routes to Kendal from Nidd Cottage. We decided to come home along Wensleydale rather than take the A65 via Skipton. The road was deserted and there were very few people sitting outside. Might it be because of a football match? We didn’t care as we made it to Nidd Cottage in 1 hour 53 minutes and were eating dinner within 20 minutes of getting home. My fitbit recorded 25813 steps for the day.

Practicalities

It’s almost impossible to get lost on the Dales Way. There are very frequent signs with the walk logo. An essential book for doing this walk is Dales Way The Complete Guide by Colin Speakman. The route is described in great detail with 24 maps each filling a page and covering between 2.5 and 3.5 miles of the walk. Landmarks are shown on the maps as are field boundaries, gates and the very few stiles. There are also detailed descriptions of each section and short pieces about items of local interest.

We also used the Harvey Long Distance Route Dales Way map which divides the walk into six sections with extras showing link routes from Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate. This map shows all the contours and so you know how many hills you are letting yourself in for.

The Wikipedia article on the Dales Way, recently updated by Martin, is another useful source of information with links to many of the villages on the route.

We proved that you can do it using public transport to get back to your car. All the timetables are online and every bus and train we needed turned up on time and had plenty of room. We met and chatted to several other walkers, mostly couples. Plenty of dogs, even small ones, were walking as well, but dog owners do need to be careful as there are a lot of sheep in this part of the world.

Click to enlarge

There are more posts on our travels here.

Note: The format of this post is a bit different from my earlier ones as WordPress no longer includes some of the functions I used.

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A Very Peculiar Year: 2020

From the outset we knew that 2020 was going to be a peculiar year for us. In November 2019 we decided that we wanted to stay in Nidderdale and that we should sell our house in Oxford. We moved into Ardmore on Christmas Eve 1981 but it was becoming clear now that the house was too big for us and that the neighbourhood was changing. Leaving there for good would be a wrench but we knew we had to face up to it some time.

But the year for us started in the same way as plenty of previous ones, with a stay in Florida Breeze Villa our house in Florida.

Florida Breeze Villa

We had been there for two weeks in November 2019, but needed more time to sort out some issues there and actually have some holiday. We now have some great new property managers who fixed all the things which needed fixing and installed a wifi-enabled lock on the front door and a wifi-enabled heating controller. We now know who is coming and going at the house and whether the internal temperature has got too hot or too cold, all from our armchairs in Yorkshire.

We stayed for a month. You can read about this trip in more detail here. We ate plenty of our own papayas and saw the manatees at Blue Spring State Park – they are best viewed on a cold (i.e. about 55-60F) day.

Papaya and pool, Florida Breeze Villa
Papaya and pool, Florida Breeze Villa

We took a short trip north visiting Ravine Gardens State Park when the azaleas were in full flower, then to Amelia Island just south of the Georgia State line and (briefly) St Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the USA.

The highlight (or rather fright-light) of the trip was to see an eastern diamondback rattlesnake for the first time. According to wikipedia the eastern diamondback rattlesnake has the reputation of being the most dangerous venomous snake in North America. This was on a brief visit to Honeymoon Island, one of our favourite places, just before we came back to England.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Listening to the BBC on our laptop on Florida, we heard of an unknown disease which had spread out of China where it originated. Not much was known, but was it anything to worry about? The first mild concern we had was to see the two Americans sitting in front of us on the BA flight from Tampa to Gatwick on 17 February disinfecting all around their seats and wearing masks.

We had, mistakenly we now realise, put Ardmore on the market when the tenants left at the end of January while we were still in Florida. We drove there straight from Gatwick to find that the house on first sight appeared clean and tidy. But, there was dirty foul-smelling water in the bottom of the washing machine which flooded on to the floor. There was an awful mess under the extension leaf on the dining table. Too many door knobs and handles were loose or broken and some scribbles had not been removed from the walls. There were a small number of viewings while we concentrated on putting all this right (and getting a new washing machine), but a meeting with the agent on 13 March confirmed our view that we should take the house off the market and get everything fixed.

There was also the matter of our planned trip to Sri Lanka. This was the second attempt – the first one was cancelled after the Easter 2019 bombs in Colombo. We were supposed to be leaving on 15 March, but the virus had already arrived there courtesy of an Italian tour group. Very many thanks to Experience Travel who at two days’ notice
very quickly rescheduled it all for January 2021 and to Emirates who let us keep an open ticket from Birmingham to Colombo via Dubai. If you are wondering why we decided to go from Birmingham it was because we didn’t know whether we would be in Oxford or Yorkshire just before the trip.

Things were now happening very quickly with the virus. We packed up the car and drove back to Nidd Cottage on 18 March, not knowing how long we would be here for. We had already made two short trips back here from Oxford since coming back from Florida, just to deal with the post which our wonderful neighbours had been taking in for us.

In the end we stayed in Yorkshire until 11 June. It was a strange time but enjoyable in many ways when we weren’t following the awful news. Nidd Cottage is isolated, 300m from the nearest house and on a track which comes to a deadend just past us. The only people who come past are walkers on the Nidderdale Way. The house is set in the hillside, down from the track a bit. We have almost an acre and I didn’t leave our property for 3 months as there is plenty of room to exercise on our land.

New neighbour at Nidd Cottage

Martin spent the lockdown exploring the hillside and moor behind us whenever it wasn’t raining too much. He’s walked to the top of Great Whernside which you can see from our house and over to Colsterdale and Coverdale. In fact the weather was fine for a lot of the time and starting in April we have had more meals outside on our terrace overlooking the dale than in any previous year here. Not bad at 290m elevation in Yorkshire.

View from Nidd Cottage

Thank goodness for Sainsburys. We have been having deliveries from them for about six years and were in the first tranche of people to be identified as vulnerable and allocated a priority slot. They came every week during the lockdown and very few things on our orders were unavailable. Amazon supplied any other odds and ends we needed.

I made some progress on my family history project. I did quite a bit of work on the Nidderdale Museum’s plans to go digital, and I tended to some sweet peas, beans and garden peas and a vast number of red currants which seem to grow like triffids here.

We ventured back to Oxford on 11 June and have made nine more trips back and forth to there since. The round trip is about 440 miles depending on the route. Our favoured route is to the A1 either via Masham or via Harrogate if we need petrol, then on the A1 to just north of Newark, on the A46 to Leicester then the M1 to Northampton and A43 to Oxford. The first part from Nidd Cottage is on twisty roads and so the driving time is about 4 hours and 15 minutes. We kept away from the motorway service stations, preferring to arm ourselves with a flask of coffee and to eat a picnic in the car.

Once we had got the house into a reasonable state and had unpacked all our books and pictures which had been in store, we engaged Knight Frank to sell the house.
The head of their Oxford office came up on a lovely day and sat outside chatting with us for a while. It transpired that his wife is from Knaresborough and he has walked around Middlesmoor and Lofthouse near us.

Knight Frank took some new photos and only a week after their first advert in early August on another sunny day a couple came to look round, walked into the living room, looked out of the picture window on to the garden and said “Wow”. Two hours later the agent phoned with a cash offer from them of the asking price with no chain. Two days later on a rainy day they brought their two children to look and said it was better the second time. We had struck lucky. They live only about a mile away and we liked them a lot.

View of Ardmore garden towards Boars Hill

The pressure was now on to finish clearing out almost 39 years of stuff. We had tenants when we lived in the USA in the 1990s and several more lots while we have been at Nidd Cottage. We had about 100 boxes of books and papers in store and, as we discovered when Martin went up there, various items in the loft including remnants of fabric from my dressmaking activities in the 1980s – some of this has now found another use for masks.

Tenants had left various items in the garage including even a parcel shelf for a VW Caravelle. Oxfam has a huge warehouse in Oxford and we were able to take a lot of books there before it got full. Oxford Freegle is also very popular and we gave away plenty of items on that. With one exception people turned up to collect them when they said they were going to. Martin sold his old bicycle on Gumtree – the buyer turned up in a taxi and rode it away.

Bicycle no longer for sale

In between all of this we managed a few trips out from Oxford to visit some of the old haunts. There are some nice walks from Ardmore up to Boars Hill and Cumnor, but it’s much more crowded than when we lived there before, probably because about 100 new houses have been built only a few minutes walk from the house.

One very hot day we went down to the New Forest, our first time there since the 1980s, and did a nice walk in the shade before inspecting the 500 year old Knightwood Oak.

New Forest pony by the Knightwood Oak

Another day we did a circular walk from Adlestrop in the Cotswolds and another time we followed the popular circular walk in the Chilterns round Fingest and Turville, where the Vicar of Dibley was filmed.

Turville

We also visited Hailes Abbey in the Cotswolds and hiked from there up to the top of the escarpment and down again.

Summer lasted a long time and our holly bush had berries on it by mid-September.

Holly bush at Ardmore

We also managed to see some of Martin’s family at a sadder occasion. His last remaining aunt died at the end of August aged 98. We were able to go to her funeral in Bristol. We were very glad we had been able to see her in her retirement home in a year ago.

We celebrated our Golden Wedding in October, not of course by a party which we had planned to do, but with a large cake and a nice meal cooked by ourselves at home.

Our Golden Wedding cake

The house sale was progressing well until it was discovered that the front boundary, which is a hedge, is not exactly where it is shown on the Land Registry documents. It took a month to sort this out before we were asked to make a statutory declaration to say that it had always been like that during our ownership. We were surprised to find that these documents were not as accurate as you would like. In contrast, the plot for our Florida house is measured down to the last inch. But then the USA is a litigious country and likes to have everything nailed down exactly.

Completion was scheduled for 27 November and moving out was fast approaching. Late afternoon a week before we rented a van in Oxford from Enterprise which is conveniently only walking distance from Ardmore. We packed it literally to the roof with boxes and garden implements as well as 2 bookcases and a filing cabinet by 11am next morning. We, or rather Martin, drove it to Nidd Cottage where we emptied it all into the garage by 10.30 am the next day in time to drive back to Enterprise by 5pm.

Moving out went well, not as traumatic as it might have been. Three pleasant guys packed all our possessions, including well over 1000 books, and loaded it into four huge crates to be stored in Abingdon.

Moving out

We spent our last night in Oxfordshire in a hotel in Bicester and finally left Ardmore for the last time at 5.30pm on 26 November with the car packed to the roof again.

In reflection, although we have been following the news carefully, selling and moving out of Ardmore has kept us busy for most of the year. We have not therefore been too much upset about not being able to go travelling. We are very fortunate at Nidd Cottage to be well away from other people. Zoom has kept us in weekly contact with Martin’s brother and sisters. But we are saddened that during the pandemic so many people are not faring as well as pensioners like us with our own property. Many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. It will take years for the economy to get back on its feet.

Just as I am writing this I learn that Oxford is moving into Tier 4 from Tier 2. The news seems to get worse and worse. “Doesn’t it make you angry?” is a frequent refrain in our house. This is not really the place to vent more anger, but as an information professional I have been following the way that the Internet, and Facebook in particular are being used to influence people by disseminating disinformation and misinformation. Plenty of us who were around in computing in the late 1990s predicted that this might happen. It seems to have got worse this year.

Meanwhile we are ready for Christmas at home in Nidd Cottage. We have our tree, bought from the local vendor in New York – no, not the one in the US, but a small village just down the dale from Pateley Bridge where you walk round a muddy field
to choose your tree, then get the guy with a chainsaw to chop it down. We have decorated it mostly with small souvenirs from our travels and some wooden ornaments from a kit I painted when we lived in New Jersey.

Christmas tree at Nidd Cottage 2020

Sainsburys did the necessary this week, missing only a couple of things we didn’t really need. We ventured down to Pateley Bridge to pick up our turkey from Weatherheads one of the local butchers. They have been going strong since 1876 and I believe they are now on the fifth generation of Weatherheads running the shop..

As for next year, we can only hope that the vaccines work. The Oxford one in particular will be much cheaper and easier to deal with. The sooner it is approved, the better for all.

As for that trip to Sri Lanka, it’s now been rescheduled for September 2021. We might just be fourth time lucky.

Have a safe, healthy and happy 2021.

24 December 2020

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Should You Believe What You Read on Social Media?

I post I wrote on Facebook last week got 151 likes, far more than I have ever had before. These were from people I had never heard of. There were also 25 replies, mostly quite thoughtful.

In my post I said that there is something seriously wrong with the UK education system when people can be conned so easily by so many obvious lies in 2016 and at the 2019 election. I also said that this was made far worse by social media. It seems that there are millions of people who have never learned and never been taught how to evaluate information on the Internet. This should be basic stuff at any level of education.

Anyone can post anything they like on Facebook and other social media outlets. The onus is totally on the reader to decide whether the post is true or not. This is made worse by the Like function on Facebook. When you “Like” something you are fed more posts making the same point as the original one. This reinforces your view of the original post as you are drawn more and more into a net of similar opinions. You have to force yourself to seek out alternative views. Many people obviously don’t do so.

The replies to my post almost all agreed with what I said, and lamented the situation. One person wrote that in Finland media literacy is taught in schools and there are media literary campaigns aimed at adults of all ages. Finland has one of the most highly educated populations in the world.

Another person wrote that her 13-year old daughter had an English topic of Fake News at the start of the lockdown. She was pleased that the schools, at least in Wales, are teaching about misinformation.

In the UK, huge numbers of people, especially those who did not use computers are work, have not had any training in using computers and the Internet.

Having spent some time looking at the comment forums of the tabloid press I am even more saddened and angry that 11+ years of schooling in the UK seems to turn out so many people who make elementary spelling errors and cannot write in sentences. There are some people who say that this is a deliberate policy to prevent there being too many people who can criticise the government. In my more cynical moments I tend to agree with this, but it does not bode well for the future of our country.

Education budgets have been cut and cut in the UK since the Conservatives took over government after 2010 election. So have local government budgets. Youth clubs, libraries and other local government initiatives which can help the underprivileged and poorly educated have lost funding. Many don’t exist any more. There are far fewer opportunities for people to study beyond leaving school without having to pay huge fees.

A well-educated population creates a forward-looking country with a healthy economy. The UK seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Most routes for adults to learn how to use the Internet have been closed down, but now that so many people have smartphones, it is inevitable that they turn to the internet for information. This has been cunningly exploited by the current UK government which has enabled so many lies to be disseminated online.

This is particularly true on Facebook which collects detailed information on its users in order to sell adverts targeted at individuals who have certain characteristics. Telling Facebook the date of your birthday creates a good feeling when all your friends wish you Happy Birthday, but it also tells advertisers how old you are. Clicking on a post which supports the Prime Minister tells Facebook to send you more and more adverts pushing you to vote for him.

Whatever you think of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings – and I am no fan of his – he is a master of three-word slogans which have clearly influenced people. These slogans give the impression that they are one-off events when in fact they are slow processes which could take years. The EU Referendum was won by the slogan Take Back Control, but they never said who was taking back control and of what. The 2019 election slogan “Get Brexit Done” appealed to people who were fed up of hearing about Brexit. Now we hear today of the beginnings of the huge and costly process of getting Brexit done.

Sir Ed Davey tweeted last week, “Why would we need to ‘get ready for brexit’ if you had already got brexit done” in response to a newspaper article about Michael Gove and the new Get Ready for Brexit campaign. This is such an obvious comment, but the government is relying on people having short memories – and the rapid flow of bite-sized information streaming past them.

I spent my working life as an information professional and have watched the development of the Internet since it started. It was clear that it was going to turn the information world upside down. I sat in plenty of meetings discussing just that.

It is a pity that too few people saw that the Internet would not always be a force for good. Too many are using it now to promote misinformation and disinformation in the knowledge that readers of these posts are not well-equipped to question and evaluate them. Just like the person I met outside Parliament last September.

What do about this? I can’t see much happening under this current government which, in my view, is set on destroying the UK as it makes everybody poorer. Its behaviour during the coronavirus has been a story of muddle and mismanagement. Will it try to cover up the impending mismanagement of doing Brexit by putting out misleading 3-word slogans on Facebook in the hope that people believe them? I hope not, but I fear it might happen unless more people speak out.

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Every Day it Gets Worse

Every day you think it can’t get any worse – and it does. We now know that Dominic Cummings, the UK’s de facto prime minister, officially called the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, deliberately flouted the lockdown and drove 260 miles from London to Durham with his wife and child. It seems that he made this round trip 3 times, once when his wife had coronavirus. This was at the height of the virus epidemic in London.

Social media is full of comments from people who couldn’t visit sick parents in hospital or attend funerals. It is also full of comments from people who were in the same situation as Cummings (or likely worse as they don’t earn £95,000 per year) and had to manage at home in isolation.

How many thousands more would have died if everyone else had done this too?

Johnson’s press conference yesterday reached a new low. This was quite an achievement given the waffle and evasion we have heard every day from other ministers – there was another car-crash interview with Gavin Williamson on Radio 4 his morning.

Johnson would have a lot more credibility if he had stated that Cummings made a serious mistake. The excuse that he was taking his son to stay with family in Durham doesn’t make sense. Surely he could have got help in London. It has been reported that his sister-in-law lives in London and that his chief aide lives very close to him. How could they not have dropped some shopping outside the Cummings house?

Bishops are condemning Johnson and Cummings on twitter. MPs are reporting receiving thousands of e-mails from angry and upset constituents, plenty of whom voted Conservative. Civil servants in Whitehall, the people who keep the country going, say that this is the worst government they have ever known. The Civil Service tweet

“Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

went viral last night with tens of thousands of re-tweets.

Some of the academic behavioural scientists, who have been advising the government on how to get people to go against their natural instincts in order to save lives and protect the NHS, have publicly stated that their advice has been trashed.

Plenty of people are speculating as to why Johnson will not get rid of Cummings, guessing that Cummings knows too much about Johnson and his private life and will spill the beans if he is fired. Also, Johnson must surely know that he lacks the skills to function as PM without Cummings pulling the strings.

Cummings is not known for telling the truth. He is the architect of the Vote Leave lies about Turkey joining the EU and the UK sending £350m per week to the EU. His election slogan “Get Brexit Done” was a nonsense, as there was bound to be years of wrangling over trade deals when the UK would be in a very weak position. Even arch-Brexiteers Steve Baker and Peter Bone have come out with criticism of him.

Meanwhile the Murdoch press continues to support Johnson and to pressure him to get the country back to work and kids back to school.

Other countries have shown that relaxing the lockdown is only feasible if contact tracing really works, but the much-heralded contact tracing app has now vanished from the news. Instead thousands of human contact tracers are being recruited by an outsourcing company which is no doubt charging the government plenty for its services. I hear rumours that muddle and confusion are surrounding this as well with calls not being returned and little training provided.

Under the radar, bits of the Brexit trade deal move along. Parliament recently voted not to support British farming, apparently preferring to import low quality food from the US. If this continues I cannot see how there will not be shortages of food and medicines next year – and prices rises as well.

Parliament also voted to make it very difficult for people to come to the UK to work in vital low-paid jobs such as those in care homes where there are acute staff shortages. It was only after a public outcry that the government finally removed the NHS surcharge (soon to be £624 per year per person) for some immigrants, but it remains in place for many.

This morning a snap YouGov poll showed 52% saying that Cummings should go. The government acted on a majority of 52% in 2016. It should do so now.

36,000 people have died. Government incompetence must take the blame for this. Ministers repeatedly say that they are following the science. If so, why have large chunks of the papers published by the scientific advisers been blacked out for publication? Scientists advise but it is politicians who make the final decision.

This government has a majority of 80 in Parliament. It is less than 6 months since the election. I absolutely dread to think what might happen in the next 4 years. Please can somebody end this nightmare and help us to return to sanity.

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Confusion and Incompetence Again

I watched the Prime Minister’s address last night. My reactions were a combination of confusion, horror and then anger at the sheer incompetence of it.

The first tweet I looked at afterwards had only two words: “herd immunity”. That was my thought too.

The next thing I read was that the address was recorded on Saturday. A meeting of the cabinet was arranged for Sunday afternoon ostensibly to discuss it, but almost all members were presented with a fait accompli. They did not know what Johnson was going to say. The address was ready and the supporting documents apparently printed – although nobody who needs to know what is in them had seen them by Monday morning.

Some obvious questions:

1. What does “Stay alert” mean? People in general have obeyed the “Stay at Home” slogan because they understood it and because it is enforceable with penalties which were imposed on offenders. How can you enforce “Stay Alert”?

2. People who cannot work at home are being encouraged to go back to work, but how can they be sure that their workplace is safe? Employers want to be told what to do and need time to prepare. It has also been noted that this policy favours people who can work at home who are more likely to be in better paid jobs.

3. People were told to avoid public transport, but to use their cars or cycle to get to work. Won’t this create traffic jams and make cycling far more dangerous? As I write this, I hear Sadiq Khan saying that 29 London bus drivers have died of Covid.

4. The idea of sending Reception and Year 1 pupils back to school first has been described by teachers’ leaders as “reckless”. How can children of this age be kept 2m apart?

5. The UK is one of the few countries which did not start to quarantine arriving people weeks ago. There are plenty of anecdotes from arriving passengers who have seen restrictions at other airports. We hear that this won’t start in the UK for another 3 weeks. Why is it taking so long?

Testing has been the key in those countries which have had lower death rates and are releasing the lockdown. There was no mention of testing in the address, presumably because Johnson didn’t want to draw attention to how abysmal it has been. The government has met its objective of 100,000 tests per day only once, by massaging the figures to include the number of tests which had been mailed out, but not used. Germany has been doing at least 250,000 tests per day.

Somebody on the Radio 4 Today Programme this morning was claiming great success with the trials of the much-heralded contact tracing app in the Isle of Wight. But then he said that 30% of the population had downloaded it and it doesn’t work on Huawei, and some old iPhone and Android phones. Weren’t we told that it needs to be used by about at least 60% of the population in order for it to work? And what is the problem with the existing Apple/Google app which is already being used in so many other countries? Not-invented-here is as good an answer as any to this question.

If you want to change policies, the first thing you need to do is to get people who are affected by them on board. What consultation has there been with employers and workers? The TUC leader had not been made aware of any its content before the PM gave his address. And what about the involvement of the other political parties? Keir Starmer did his best to stay calm when he gave his initial reactions but he had plenty of obvious questions. Ed Davey had more constructive criticism on the Westminster Hour later on.

The second thing you need to do is to show complete clarity in what is to happen. We definitely don’t have this. The main reaction to the PM’s address has been confusion. What a contrast with the clarity shown by Nicola Sturgeon who has conducted the press conferences in Scotland every day.

Having different approaches in different areas of the country doesn’t make sense overall. Plenty of people have to move around for work. And what will happen if those who aren’t working just take days off going to areas of the country where there is less infection?

Hidden in the mixed messaging there seems to be a return to the idea of letting as many people as possible catch the virus to generate some level of immunity in the population. The NHS has coped so far, but there is some scientific evidence that having had the virus does not make you immune.

Yet herd immunity appears to be firmly back on the agenda. This is the policy promoted by Dominic Cummings, the unelected psychopath who seems to be running the country. Remember that Cummings has written about eugenics and that he is the architect of the mendacious slogans put out by Vote Leave in 2016. Has Turkey joined the EU yet?

The morning after his address Boris has run away again. When Prime Ministers make an important announcement to the country, it is customary for them to appear on the Radio 4 Today Programme the next day to defend and amplify what they have said. Instead we had more waffle from Dominic Raab.

Brexit remains on the agenda. The government has been overwhelmed with dealing with the virus. How on earth can it cope with the Brexit negotiations, the greatest economic reorganisation in the UK for decades, at the same time? The government is pressing on with its agenda of leave with No Deal on 1 January 2021. The only reason for this must be so that it can blame the Brexit-related economic downturn on Covid-19. Instead of the economy recovering from the effects of the virus, billions will be spent every year on Michael Gove’s 50,000 new customs officers. Does anyone honestly think that they will all be trained and in place within 7.5 months?

People working in the NHS and related occupations have made heroic sacrifices to tackle this virus. Some have lost their lives. They deserve every possible means of thanks, but there must be a reason why the UK, the world’s 6th largest economy, has the highest number of Covid-19 related deaths in Europe. History will show a story of incompetence and mixed messaging from the government.

Dealing with the virus is essentially a management issue. Where is the management here?

Covid-19 is not going to go away until we get a vaccine. One big ray of daylight is the competence shown by the Oxford group who are developing a vaccine. They have moved ahead as fast as possible in their research, and – what is also very important – they have planned ahead and forged an alliance with a major drug manufacturer. Together they are now working on setting up a system which will be ready to manufacture large amounts of the vaccine as soon as they can show it works.

In the meantime the government continues to play catch-up with muddled thinking and mixed messages.

I have come to the conclusion that the only two criteria used to select members of the current cabinet is that they have signed up to a No Deal Brexit and that they can talk for a long time without ever saying anything of substance.

I have never ever understood why people voted for Boris Johnson. We need decisive leadership, not a bumbling showman.

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Papayas, Azaleas, Manatees and a Rattlesnake February 2020

A month in Florida in winter 2020 is always very welcome. As in November we had to spend some time sorting things out in the house, but have now found some wonderful new property managers who have fixed a host of odds and ends which needed attention.

Go here for a picture gallery.

At Home – Papaya for Dessert and the Garden

A major highlight of the trip was finally to eat some of our own papayas.

Papaya and pool, Florida Breeze Villa

Readers of this blog will know that we have been trying to grow some papaya trees for years. It looked hopeful last November when there were plenty of fruits but none ripe enough to eat – you have to wait until they go a bit yellow. They are so big that one fruit makes dessert for two of us for three days.

I counted about 40 fruits on our trees, some of which had grown from seeds. I can’t understand how such a spindly trunk can hold such heavy fruits.

Papayas, Florida Breeze Villa

There’s plenty more about our papayas in my November 2019 blog.

Our garden was in good shape with hibiscus and azalea flowers, and plenty of variegated tropical plants.

Ginger plant, Florida Breeze Villa

The 10 inch Christmas tree we planted out about 12 years ago is now almost as tall as the house. My olive tree is about 12 foot tall and the avocado I grew from a stone had to be cut down as it had grown so tall. No sign of any olives or avocados yet.

The (non-)Storm

Although it was cold for a few days at the beginning of the trip, the weather got a lot warmer towards the end our our stay. One night in early February a big storm was forecast. We stayed up until 1am watching two weather guys on local TV getting very excited about possible tornadoes.

Their radar showed a clear advancing line of the storm with ripples which might become tornadoes. It arrived at our town Haines City exactly at the time predicted.

Storm approaching Haines City

The storm turned out to be a damp squib (or squall) with heavy rain and wind for about 10 minutes and a few rumbles of thunder. As we found when we lived in New Jersey the temperature can drop about 30 degrees Fahrenheit in three or fours hours after a weather front has passed through. Sure enough it was bright and sunny the next day – and cold.

Manatees at Blue Spring State Park

Every winter when it is cold hundreds of manatees congregate in Blue Spring State Park just north of Orlando. Before setting off to go there you can telephone the park to ask how many are there. Unusually for the USA the phone is answered by a real person with exact numbers, not a recorded message.

Manatees, Blue Spring State Park

David Attenborough swam among the manatees on one of his TV programmes. Ordinary mortals don’t have this privilege. Instead there’s a boardwalk along the side of the river with plenty of viewing places. We couldn’t miss a third visit, the last being about 10 years ago. It became a bit drizzly but there were enough manatees to get some good photos.

Manatee, Blue Spring

We also saw plenty of fish include some some black ones about 2.5 feet long, and one turkey vulture (aka buzzard in American).

Turkey vulture, Blue Spring

Development continues all over in Central Florida. We took a new route avoiding the I4 through downtown Orlando and saw new housing estates (they call them sub-divisions) springing up everywhere, plus shopping malls, hospitals and the like. There doesn’t seem to be any urban planning at all.

But we did pass a huge area of solar panels, which I think were the first we have ever seen in the sunshine state.

Ocala National Forest and Ravine Gardens State Park

Finally, in the last week of our stay we took two days off driving north up to Amelia Island. Our first stop was in Ocala National Forest not far north of Orlando. It’s a huge area with plenty of hiking trails and is reported to have plenty of bears – the Florida ones are smaller than those in northern states.

We stopped at a wooden hut visitor center and had a long chat with the volunteer manning it. He knew all the best trails, but in 8 years he had only seen one bear and no Florida panthers although one had been captured on a night camera.

Our next stop was at Ravine Gardens State Park near Palatka. A ravine is a very rare thing in flat Florida but the two in this park are deep chasms in the limestone. Hundreds of azaleas grow wild in them.

Azaleas, Ravine Gardens

We hiked some of the trail which was tougher than many in the US. There was still some damage left from Hurricane Michael in 2018 and it was rather hot.

On the trail, Ravine Gardens

Almost all the azaleas were the same deep pink colour. Many were taller than me.

There were lovely reflections but no alligators in the bottom.

Reflections, but no alligators, Ravine Gardens

Amelia Island

Amelia Island is at the far north-east of Florida, almost in Georgia. It’s fairly trendy now and there is a good choice of restaurants. We had some nice fish at the Salt Life Food Shack and a nice room with breakfast at the Seaside Amelia Inn, a bit north of the main town.

The east coast of Florida has miles and miles of sandy beach and so a walk on it was essential. One guy fishing said he had been there since 6.30am and he had caught a lot.

Fishing, Amelia Island

The tide was just going out and some people were using small sieves on the end of sticks to try to find fossilised shark teeth among the gravel left at high tide. A lady gave us some – they are black and about an inch long.

Shark teeth, from Amelia Island

The northern part of the island is taken up by Fort Clinch State Park which is in a strategic position overlooking the entrance to St Marys River and Cumberland Island in Georgia. This site was first fortified in 1736 by the Spanish and featured in the American Revolutionary War in 1777 and in the Civil War in the 1860s.

Entrance to Fort Clinch

The fort was restored in the 1930s and some of the buildings contain soldiers’ 3-tier bunk beds and stores.

Storeroom, Fort Clinch

Others have huge cannon balls. There was even a list of prisoners. You can walk past plenty of cannons on what must have been the original defence wall.

Fort Clinch overlooking St Marys River

The drive through the park goes through an attractive avenue of trees covered in Spanish moss, so emblematic of the south.

The main town on Amelia Island is Fernandina Beach which has plenty of trendy gift shops and was rather crowded. We had a huge fast food lunch then set off to drive down route A1A which goes as close to the sea as possible mostly on the barrier islands.

St Augustine

East of Jacksonville we were watched by some sleepy pelicans as we drove on to an elderly ferry across the St Johns River.

On the St Johns River ferry

We turned off A1A into St Augustine. According to Wikipedia, St Augustine was “Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers” and is “the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the contiguous United States”. We went there once before about 12 years ago and I remember it being very quiet then perhaps because it was Super Bowl Sunday. This time it was very crowded and we had trouble finding somewhere to park.

The Catholic basilica first built in the 1790s is quite small but rather attractive inside.

Inside the basilica, St Augustine

The basilica borders the main plaza but behind it the maze of small streets has become just a tourist trap. I think there were 10 ice cream shops in one of them and there were plenty of bars as well. We kept having to get out of the way of tourist trolleys which were crammed full of people.

So we bought nothing except the most expensive ice cream I have ever had in Florida and drove a bit further down A1A past several beach parks and turned inland where a line of tall apartment blocks started.

As we had seen earlier in our stay, there is a huge construction project in downtown Orlando where they are building a four-level flyover for Interstate 4 which runs between Tampa and Daytona Beach. To avoid this in the rush hour we stopped at Altamonte Mall, had some dinner and exercised our credit card in Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Honeymoon Island – and a Rattlesnake

On our last day we went to Honeymoon Island State Park, one of our favourite places in Florida. It’s off the west coast by the town of Dunedin. There’s a causeway across to it and so you don’t need a boat to get there.

It was President’s Day and rather busy but we got away from the crowds who were mostly at the beaches, parked at the end of the road, ate our picnic and headed off to the trail. The Osprey Trail is a lovely walk which goes past a variety of trees many of which have osprey nests in them. There’s a long version of the trail which we have done but you can do shorter versions using the various cut-off points.

Osprey Trail, Honeymoon Island

Just at the beginning of the trail three guys were standing around with cameras looking at something on the ground. The something turned out to be an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the first we have ever seen in Florida. It was curled up a bit and its tail was up and rattling. It must have been about 5 feet long. We got near enough for a good photo and left quickly.

The rattlesnake, Honeymoon Island

But that wasn’t all. We saw our first ever gopher tortoise plodding along and then a horned owl which appeared to be squatting on the edge of an osprey nest. We could just see the head of one young owl popping out.

Horned owl and young, Honeymoon Island

Florida in Winter

February is a good time to visit Florida. The days are getting longer and the rare cold winter days are past. The temperature was in the 80s the last week we were there and it was sunny most of the time. Plenty of flowers are out and hibiscus and bougainvilleas are riots of colour, if they haven’t been pruned into box shapes as many are.

Hibiscus, Florida Breeze Villa

Plenty of snowbirds come down from the north for long stays – Ontario licence plates are the most frequent. We could let our villa many times over in the three months after December but we bought it for ourselves. Why not enjoy it then?

Vacation rentals have become easier to deal with now that we have a wifi-enabled lock on the front door which allows us to set a different keypad code for every guest, also a wifi-controlled thermostat for the a/c and heating which should save some of the huge electricity bill – the Americans really know how to charge for utilities.

Our timing was great as we flew home before coronavirus became an issue. But the real reason why we arranged to come back to the UK in mid-February was a trip booked to Sri Lanka starting on 15 March. Full marks and many thanks to Experience Travel Group for re-arranging it to next January and to Emirates for rebooking our flights at almost no extra charge, all in the two days before we were supposed to leave.

Our Florida villa

Picture gallery: Papayas, Azaleas, Manatees and a Rattlesnake February 2020

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