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.


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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Florida in Autumn 2019: Papayas, Gators and Snow

In 2019 our normal 6-8 weeks in Florida in autumn became only 2 weeks because of various matters at home and the election. As we have found before, some things needed attention in the house, not least of which was to find out how to deflate several large inflatable pool toys which guests had left in the garage and on the pool deck.

It was great to see some Florida sunsets again.

Sunset: Florida Breeze Villa

Go here for more pictures.

We did manage to get out and about a bit and saw plenty of Florida wildlife.

White ibis

Using up some Avios points we flew from Manchester to London and then to Miami on BA, who have definitely gone downhill since we last travelled on them. Armed with our new B1/B2 visas we had no trouble entering the US this time.

Miami International Airport is right in the middle of the city. All the car rental companies are now in an off-airport compound with a huge multi-storey garage. To get to it, you don’t have to go outside and hump all your baggage on and off a bus. You just have a journey of about 5 minutes on the Miami Mover, a driverless train which delivers you straight to all the car rental desks.

At Hertz Martin was informed that he has gold elite status – although we haven’t rented a car from them for years. The agent sent us straight out into the garage, telling us to choose our car and drive out. The guard on the exit printed out the rental agreement for us. What a contrast from some countries where it takes ages for the agent to fill out and print out the rental agreement

After a night in Miami we drove up to Florida Breeze Villa and for once arrived in daylight.

Papayas and other trees

I could barely believe my eyes when I went outside. Readers of this blog will know that papayas are by far my favourite fruit and getting one to grow in Florida has become an obsession.

Last March we bought a papaya which was about 1 foot tall and planted it next to our lemon tree.

Papaya tree in March 2019, Florida Breeze Villa

By the middle of November it had grown to over 10 feet tall and had over 20 papayas on it. In fact there was another tree right next to it which looked like it had grown from the same plant.

Papaya tree in November 2019, Florida Breeze Villa

These are not the kind of papaya you can buy in a supermarket in the UK, but maradols which grow up to about 1 foot long. Mission accomplished so far, but sadly none of these fruit were ripe enough to eat when we left in early December but I live in hope for our next visit.


These weren’t the only healthy papaya trees. I had also planted some seeds from a fruit and there were 3 more trees, 2 of which were up to the roof of the pool screen.

The papaya had dwarfed our lemon tree next to it, but this still had plenty of lemons on it. These are meyer lemons which are not true lemons. They are round, not lemon shaped, but have all the other characteristics of regular lemons and are very juicy.

Lemon tree at Florida Breeze Villa

I live in hope, too, for some olives on my olive tree. It, too, had grown a lot but I believe it can be years before they fruit. But I don’t really like olives anyway. I got the tree for the pretty leaves.

Inflatable Christmas

The Americans really go to town on the “holidays” as they call the Christmas period. Inflatable snowmen and assorted reindeer and the like occupy people’s front lawns and many houses are festooned with lights. I took some pictures of the inflatables for sale in Lowes, the huge diy store near our house.

Fancy this in your front garden at Christmas?

Fortunately for us, the singing ones across the road from us collapsed every day and were rarely able to perform their tunes.


We have also been infected by the Black Friday sales in the US where there are much better bargains than in the UK. We have given up going to Orlando on Black Friday as the car parks at all the malls soon get full, but there are some nice shops in Lakeland which is halfway to Tampa from Florida Breeze Villa.

Last year I treated myself to a Fitbit Versa there. This time it was more mundane, with some things for the house and a few clothes. I really wonder how Kohls can make any money when they give you a voucher for $30 when you spend $100 on several items whose original price clocks up to over $300. So we got another $30 worth of free clothes 2 days after Black Friday at a Kohls nearer home. That’s done for clothes shopping for another year.

Highlands Hammock State Park

Our one trip out was to Highlands Hammock State Park, which is in Sebring about one hour’s drive south of Florida Breeze Villa. It was one of the first places we went to after we first bought our Florida home over 18 years ago. The only thing which had changed since then was that the park was surprisingly quiet, although this was the Sunday after Black Friday when perhaps people were still indulging in the national pastime of shopping.

A hammock is the Florida term for a stand of trees growing on land which is very slightly elevated from the surrounding area. One of the major features of the landscape in Florida is how much the vegetation changes with only a few feet change in the elevation. The reflections can be magnificent in swampy areas.

Reflections, Highlands Hammock State Park

Highlands Hammock was also one of the first state parks in Florida. The roads and facilities in it were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was set by up President Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s to create employment after the 1920s depression. The park has an excellent visitor centre highlighting the time when it was built and what life was like for the workers. There was also a volunteer on hand to give us a very helpful (and rather lengthy) talk about it.

Next was the tram tour. What the Americans call a tram is really a kind of trolley pulled by a pickup truck.

You can drive on some roads in the park, but the tram takes you on some tracks which are normally closed to visitors. There were plenty of birds once we left the main park road. The most common ones in Florida tend to be ibises, and anhingas which open their wings to dry off every time they land.

Anhinga, Highlands Hammock State Park

We travelled for some time alongside a creek and saw plenty of little turtles.

Turtles on a log

Then we came across a huge alligator just across the creek about 10 feet from us. The guide spotted more alligators further on but this guy was a giant. He just eyed us rather disdainfully and carried on dozing.

Close up of the big guy

Further along there were at least 10 large black birds eating something on the track. I was convinced they were vultures but the guide referred to them as buzzards. Back home I looked in the Florida bird book and found that what the Americans call buzzards are actually turkey vultures. Perhaps they just don’t like the connotation of the word “vulture”.

The guide also told us bears had been seen in the park – the Florida ones are smaller than the ones further north in the US. They had even captured a Florida panther on camera one night. We live in hope of seeing these, preferably when we are in the car.

After the tram trip, we did four of the park’s “hikes”, in all of just over one hour. These are mostly on boardwalks about 18-24 inches above the ground to avoid the swamps (and the alligators) On a ground level hike we stopped by a huge and very old oak tree.

Big Oak, Highlands Hammock State Park

Snow in Celebration

Celebration is a small town built by Disney in the mid-1990s near the Disney theme parks. All the houses are built on elegant palm-tree lined avenues in the old colonial wooden style with rocking chairs on the porches. Everything in Celebration fits this theme. It’s very pleasant but does have a rather artificial feel.

Every day in the run up to Christmas it snows in Celebration on the hour between 6pm and 9pm, lasting about 10 minutes. After a belated birthday dinner for me (nice-tasting but probably hormone-treated steak), we went to watch the last snow of the day come out of the top of the lamp posts in the main street.

Christmas snow in Celebration

It was actually quite cold and people were muffled up, in contrast to the time we went many years ago when little kids in shorts and t-shirts were leaping about in it.

So it was back to the cold and rain and election horrors in the UK on United Airlines via Newark to Manchester with another frequent flyer ticket.

If you ever go to United’s Terminal C at Newark, don’t expect just to get a bit of cash out of your pocket to pay for a cup of coffee. There are hundreds of little tablet screens all over, where you can order food and drink which is brought to you, with a hefty sales tax and 18% tip added. If you can bear to walk just a few yards to one of the food concessions and order coffee at the counter you get a receipt with a QR code on it and have to take the receipt to a card only pay point before collecting your coffee. The 18% is still added.

But Newark has been much upgraded since it was our local airport when we lived in New Jersey. All three US airports we came through, Miami, Orlando and Newark definitely put UK airports to shame.

You can find more about Florida Breeze Villa here.

Picture gallery: Florida in Autumn 2019: Papayas, Gators and Snow

Click to enlarge

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My Thoughts on the 2019 UK Election

1. The election was won by the Tories because people in the “Labour heartlands”, those areas most affected by austerity, voted for the party which caused the austerity in the first place.

2. Almost 2 million more people voted for pro-remain and second referendum parties than voted for pro-leave Tories, DUP and Brexit Party combined.

3. Elections are won on simple slogans which avoid any clarity on the underlying issues. Get Brexit Done and the 2016 referendum slogan Take Back Control are misleading. They imply a single event, when the reality is a lengthy process of change.

4. Trump’s first reaction to the election result was that he is looking forward to a very lucrative trade deal between the US and the UK. No prizes for guessing which side it will be lucrative for. Watch out for the NHS

5. The Internet is a wild west of fake news. Social media has played a huge role in influencing the election outcome. Facebook and the comment forums of the anti-EU tabloids are full of fake news and misleading statements.

Somebody quoted this from the Yorkshire Post:

“The people of this country must never again be asked to navigate a maelstrom of misinformation in order to decide who will govern them.”

I agree completely.

6. People in the UK have never been told by any official sources about the benefits of EU membership. When people know so little about the EU, what are they to believe? Do they know for example, that under EU law they can claim hundreds of euros as compensation for delayed flights, or that they are eligible to apply for regeneration funds for their area?

This has allowed the right-wing tabloids to publish endless misleading and often plain wrong information about the EU. Boris did the same when he was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels in the early 1990s.

The billionaire offshore owners of these newspapers are well aware of the EU’s policies against offshore tax avoidance.

7. The so-called “fair and impartial” BBC has become the mouthpiece of Tory Leave. Every day the BBC sent out reporters to interview voters. I have followed the election quite closely and have never seen a single set of interviews in a remain-supporting area.

8. Boris Johnson’s history of not being truthful continued. He said that with his withdrawal agreement there would be no checks on the new border down the Irish Sea, while his Brexit Secretary and every trade lawyer say there will be.

He evaded the press throughout the election campaign. He has a reputation for not reading his briefs and has made racist statements in the past. I still wonder what people see in him.

9. Proportional representation voting systems are much fairer

In the UK first past the post system the Greens got 1 MP with 2.7% of the vote, the LibDems got 11 MPs with 11.6% of the overall vote, Labour got 202 MPs with 32.1% and the Tories got 365 MPs with 43.6%.

Also, in this system most people’s votes don’t count as so many seats are heavily skewed to Labour or Conservative.

The UK has no written constitution. Recent events have shown what happens when conventions which are not legally binding can be ignored.

10. Although we will be technically out of the EU by 31 January 2020, Brexit will not have gone away by then. David Cameron called the EU Referendum to settle disagreements about the EU within the Tory party. These will almost certainly continue as will other opposition to Boris’s plans.

All forecasts show that the further the UK diverges from EU regulations, the greater will be the downturn in the economy.

Boris has said he wants to stay close to EU regulations in his proposed new trade deal with the EU. Mrs May said so too, and put this in her withdrawal agreement. Boris removed it in his revisions to Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement. You have to ask why.

He is now faced with a difficult a choice, whether to stay close to EU regulations, which will keep his new voters happier because it is more likely to create jobs, or to diverge and deregulate which is what the right-wing ERG MPs (and Trump) want. It was the ERG who scuppered Mrs May’s deal, ultimately leading to the election. This group is big enough to make life difficult for Boris in Parliament just as they did for Mrs May.

11. Corbynism and Momentum do not have enough support to win an election. Key figures around Corbyn are pro-Brexit and I sense he has been pushed around by this group.

Plenty of people will analyse the last few years in British politics. I think they will conclude that Corbyn has considerable responsibility for the UK’s departure from the EU and the consequences.

But Corbyn has been vilified by the right-wing press for years, far more than seems fair to me.

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Greece’s Peloponnese in September 2019

This was a long-planned trip to go to our favourite country Greece with our Amercan friend Nancy. We felt that the Peloponnese, which is the southern part of the mainland, was the best area to visit in a week. The scenery is typical Greece and there are plenty of archaeological sites and churches.

Go here for a picture gallery.

I have loved this country ever since I first went there with two school friends in 1967. You can find out why here.

The Peloponnese has three peninsulas (prongs) jutting out to the south. It’s well worth visiting all of them.

The West Prong: Methoni and Pylos

We met up with Nancy at Stansted and flew from there to Kalamata in the south where we picked up our rental car. After driving to Pylos in the dark we had our first meal outside. Most of the people eating there were Greek which meant that the food was good.

It was only about 10 kilometres to Methoni, our first stop. Settlement in Methoni dates back to ancient times but it is best known for a Venetian castle built on a promontory.

Methoni Castle

Our hotel looked across the bay to the castle which covers a large area. We did it justice and Martin just about found the place where he slept outside in 1965.

Then it was back to Pylos for some lunch. It’s a lovely Greek small town with plenty of restaurants by the water.

The remains of what is called Nestor’s Palace have been excavated a few kilometers north of Pylos. This site dates back to Mycenaean times and artefacts discovered there have been dated to c.1300 BC. Named as Pylos it appears in the Trojan War and in Homer’s Odyssey. The whole site is covered by a large roof and you go round on elevated walkways. There is a good explanation of how the ancient bath there was used.

Mycenaean bathroom, Nestor’s Palace, near Pylos

The Middle Prong: the Mani

We stayed three nights just north of Areopoli which is where the Mani really begins. This is rather a wild and barren area and the Maniots have had a reputation for fighting each other.

View from our hotel, Limeni near Areopoli

All the houses are made of stone and plenty of the original stone tower houses remain, although few of the older ones seemed to be occupied. Recent road improvements have opened the Mani up to tourism, but it was still rather quiet.

On our way to the southern tip we stopped at Vathi which is the archetypical Mani village. Sadly a good many of the houses were falling into ruin, but the spectacular view from the road south of the village remains the same.

Vathi, in the Mani

It was very hot. Two of the three of us attempted to walk to the southern tip of Cape Tenaron which is the second most southern point in mainland Europe. One came back fairly quickly and other did not go right to the end as we had done years ago. The other one (guess who?) had a nice cup of coffee and admired the view from the cafe above the car park where we also had lunch.

Barren land near Cape Tenaron

On the way back we attempted to find the tiny church which Martin and I visited years before. From the outside it looked like a pile of stones, but inside were amazing frescoes on all the walls. Sadly this time the path to it was so overgrown that we had to give up. Sadly too, the nearby village was almost deserted. We found plenty of other churches but all were locked.

Church in the Mani

One village welcomed us with writing on the road, the Greek for “welcome”.

Welcome – a village south of Areopoli

Next morning we drove up to Dekoulou monastery which the guide book recommended, but it was locked. Apparently the person who has the key lives in the house attached to it but nobody was at home.

We moved on to the Dirou Caves. You visit on a boat which holds up to 7 people. The boatman propels the boat like a punt by pushing on the wall at the side with a kind of paddle. In some places the roof was so low that we had to duck. You have to walk the last 300m to the exit and then another 500m in blazing sun back to the car park.

Dirou Caves, nearly at the end

Lunch places are few and far between on the east side of the Mani. We stopped at tiny Kotronas where the lunch choice was between a burger bar and a tiny Greek restaurant. We chose the Greek one where the menu was somewhat limited, the food was fine and the decor and ambience went straight back to my 1967 trip.

The main road through the new part of Areopoli is fairly dull but on the way back to our hotel we looked round the old part. It’s pedestrianised with plenty of churches. We did get manage to get inside one to admire more frescoes (no photos allowed) and we did get tea which actually came in a teapot.

Church in Areopoli

At dinner in a smarter restaurant down by the water in Limeni we spotted a turtle in the water very close in. It was about 2 feet long and was enjoying a meal of scraps thrown into the water by a man filleting fish.

You can just see the turtle, Limeni

The turtle missed some of his meal when a rather large tender from a yacht arrived. Five very well dressed people plus what must have been a bodyguard got off and walked straight through our restaurant and out to another one. We wondered if they were Russians.

The East Prong: Monemvasia

Leaving the Mani, we first stopped at Gytheion which was the port of ancient Sparta and still retains a nice Greek atmosphere. Across a short causeway from Gytheio is a tiny island Cranae where legend has it that Paris of Troy spent his first night with Helen wife of Menelaus King of Sparta, after he stole, or eloped with her. This event started the Trojan War, the subject of Homer’s Iliad and other works in Greek literature.

Church on Cranae, Gytheion

Nearer Monemvasia we had to stop suddenly for a tortoise as he made his slow way across the road.

Living dangerously – he made it

Our destination on this day was Monemvasia, a Gibraltar-like rock connected to the mainland via a causeway.


We ate lunch at Gefyra at the mainland end of the causeway where I finally managed to have some stuffed tomatoes and peppers one of my favourite Greek foods.

Stuffed tomatoes and peppers, my favourite

Monemvasia was an important Byzantine fortress. It has retained its old character with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and steps with plenty of churches. You cannot drive any further than the gate to the town and so Martin dropped Nancy and myself at there and parked the car some way down the hill up to the gate. While we waited for him to walk back some porters were unloading laundry into wheelbarrows to transport it to various hotels. We managed to find our way to our hotel, almost certainly not by the shortest route.

The main street in Monemvasia

It didn’t take too long to look around the old town. Once again most of the churches were closed, but there were some nice exteriors some with animal carvings.

We had a very good dinner at Matoula, the oldest restaurant in Monemvasia.

Buildings are squashed together almost on top of each other in Monemvasia but there was still room to eat breakfast outside.

Breakfast in Monemvasia

Mystras and Going North

Next morning we set off in good time to drive north heading first for Mystras just outside Sparta. On the way we passed the foot of Mount Taygetos, the highest mountain in the Peloponnese, and marvelled that Martin and I had climbed it about 40 years ago.

Taygetos – did we really once climb this?

Mystras is another Byzantine settlement and it covers a huge area on a steep hillside. You have to walk up or down steep cobbled paths to see it. We decided to go to the top car park which is as far as you can drive up. Martin and Nancy walked up a lot further to the ruined castle on the very top. I was glad I decided against it, but just amused myself watching the faces of the people who had walked up from the bottom car park and then saw how far it still was up to the castle.

Mystras has a plenty of churches, many from the 14th century and now partly in ruins. This meant that we got to see many more frescoes as we made our way down over the uneven cobbles – thank goodness there was no rain which would make them very slippery.

Frescoes at Mystras

If you go there, don’t underestimate how much time you need, as there is no cafe and no other facilities at all. We had to walk down the road further to get a very late lunch at the Xenia Hotel. The waiter there woke up the hotel’s taxi driver to take us back to our car.

Deciding to take the old road north was a good choice as we saw plenty of typical Greek mountainous scenery without having to deal with Greek motorway driving. Surprisingly for us we didn’t see any goats.

The scenery is a bit more industrial around Argos but we were soon at at Palaia Epidaurus on the Saronic Gulf. There we stayed at a typical Greek hotel, basic and clean with a lovely view out to sea and restaurant tables by the water.

From our hotel room, Palaia Epidaurus

Epidaurus and Mycenae

The next day we visited two big tourist attractions along with many bus loads of people. It’s a day trip from Athens and there were far more people than when I went there in 1967.

First we went to the theatre of Epidaurus which is the best preserved ancient theatre in Greece. It dates from the 4th century BC.

Theatre at Epidaurus

The acoustics are amazing – and plenty of tourists were testing this out. Greek plays are performed there in July and August. I would love to see this some time.

Epidaurus is a lot more than the theatre. It was a sanctuary of Asclepius where, from the 6th century BC, the sick went to be healed. The remains cover a large area, which is easily explored with good information boards in English and Greek.

Stadium at Epidaurus

Mycenae was a major centre of civilization from about 1500BC to 1200BC. The Myceneans built their walls from huge blocks of sandy-coloured stone. The name Cyclopean walls was given to them by the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias and it has stuck.

The site of Mycenae is on a hill and is fairly compact with information boards and a concrete trail around it – no slippery cobbles here. There was the obligatory photo at the famous Lion Gate.

Lion Gate, Mycenae

The only big herd of goats we saw anywhere on our trip was about 100m away.

Goats near Mycenae

Again we ended up with a late lunch down in the town of Mykines – there is no cafe at the site, only drinks and crisps.

Back at the site we couldn’t miss huge the Tomb of Agamemnon also known as the Treasury of Atreus. It is a large example of what are known as beehive tombs because of their shape.

Tomb of Agamemnon

It also has huge Cyclopean walls leading up to the entrance.

Cyclopean walls at the Tomb of Agamemnon

Rain had been forecast and the clouds were gathering as we walked around Nafplio, the largest town in the area.

Storm clouds over Nafplion Castle

Fortunately the sun umbrellas where we got some tea were not porous and we managed to keep dry when the heavens opened with thunder as well. It was a wet drive back to our hotel and we had to eat dinner inside.

Next morning the rain had stopped but it was still cold. We had breakfast in a large plastic cage, technically outside, but out of the wind.

Corinth and Athens

We took the coast road to Corinth, stopping briefly at Agnoundos Monastery with yet more well-preserved frescoes (no photos allowed). We also stopped at the Corinth canal along with plenty of other people.

Corinth Canal

We had to go into the town of Corinth to find an ATM. Acrocorinth, another fortress on the top of a hill, looked tempting. We drove up as far as you can. Two of us walked up some of the way to the top, but the path was more uneven cobbles and we were running out of time.

View from Acrocorinth

The motorway to Athens was much improved since the last time we had been there and thanks to our new Tomtom we delivered Nancy to her hotel in a narrow street by the Acropolis going via the two main squares in Athens.

Martin and I drove down the coast a bit from Athens, but found it rather disappointing. The real Greece had gone, replaced by burger bars, western music as well as too many private beaches. We did get a meal in one of them which was not really Greek food then it was back to Athens airport to drop off the car before the flight home.


We flew from Stansted to Kalamata on Ryanair. They are survivable if your expectations are low. While Nancy stayed on for another tour round the islands, we came back on Wizzair who had a flight with good timings for us. This was also passable. As usual, we booked our accommodation with booking.com. A one-way car rental was easy to organize with Sixt. Wifi was good everywhere and mobile signals were better than in the UK.

We have an assortment of maps from previous visits – there are some really good detailed ones of Greece now. We do like to see the big picture on a paper map before using a satnav (GPS), but our new Tomtom was amazing in detail and completely accurate.

For guidebooks, we used the Sunflower book Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese, and a very recently published and excellent Bradt guide: Greece: The Peloponnese. Our copy of Greenhalgh and Eliopoulos, Deep into Mani had gone awol, but we easily got another one from abebooks. If you are serious about exploring the Mani, this book is highly recommended.

Why I love Greece

Early morning at Palaia Epidaurus

Just a few reasons:

  • the food: Greek salad, souvlaki, fish grilled with herbs, slow-cooked lamb, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, aubergine salad, the bread, baklava
  • eating outside, especially by the water
  • sunsets (and sunrises) over the water
  • there’s so much history
  • the little cats – they are everywhere
  • tiny villages up in the mountains
  • churches everywhere, but don’t expect many of them to be open
  • hiking, although we didn’t do any this time
  • the people, always cheerful and helpful
  • it’s always clean
  • bright blue sea – I never under stood why Homer called it the “wine-dark sea”
  • hearing goatbells tinkling in the mountains

Picture gallery: Greece’s Peloponnese in September 2019

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The Bad Side of Social Media: Brainwashing

An encounter with a leave-supporting protester outside Parliament this week led me, as an information scientist, to look again at the role of social media and the Internet in the Brexit debate.

I asked this person, who I call X here, what I thought was a simple question. The conversation went like this

Me: “Why do you want to leave the EU?”

X: “We voted out”

Me: “Why?”

X: “We voted out”

Me: “Why did you vote out?”

X: “It’s the Lisbon Treaty”

Me: “What’s the issue with the Lisbon Treaty?”

There were some rather vague responses to this which seemed to me to have come directly from a post which circulated widely earlier this year on leave supporting social media. Comments on this post by Steve Peers, Professor of EU Law at Essex University, have identified several items of seriously misleading information in the post. Peers cited the actual treaty legislation in his response. Nothing can be nearer the truth than that.

X continued…

X: “They are the Fourth Reich”

X repeated this several times and so I asked X what the evidence was for this.

X: “A youtube video”

A person standing next to X whom I call Y, then informed me that the published EU referendum result was a fraud and that the real number of people who voted remain was 6 million. I asked Y what the evidence was. Y had read it on the Internet.

I have read plenty of misleading and incorrect information about the UK’s membership of the EU online but this contact with real people who believe these things gave me a big jolt. Just how many voters have been influenced by misinformation peddled by those who have ulterior motives?

I felt both sad and angry. Sad that people can be so easily influenced by such misleading information. Angry that this had led them to support an extreme right-wing view which is at odds with the tolerant and fair society which the UK used to be, and which, in my view, is being driven by wealthy hedge fund owners trying to escape the EU’s clampdown on offshore tax avoidance and by wealthy business owners who want to get rid of the EU’s regulations which protection workers’ rights and the environment.

I have been in computing long enough to have witnessed the beginning of the Internet and have participated in meetings which have discussed the likely impact of a free for all information platform. Overall the Internet has been a force for the good, but early on there was concern that it would be used to disseminate misinformation and influence people in this way. This is clearly now happening in a big way.

The onus is placed firmly on the user to evaluate what they see and read, but there do seem to be serious concerns about people’s ability to do this. I think the problem is compounded because the Internet encourages people to gravitate to sites which support their views. This reinforces their views rather than encouraging them to examine alternative approaches.

The seeds of this have been around for a long time, but they were exploited mercilessly by Dominic Cummings, the architect of the leave campaign. Cummings now appears to be running the country as Johnson’s senior adviser and using similar tools again to influence voters as the Brexit debacle continues.

The two messages Cummings concentrated on in 2016 were (1) that we send £350 million per week to the EU, implying that this money could be spent on the NHS, and (2) that Turkey would be joining the EU.

A little research shows that the annual contribution from the UK to the EU is £9-10 billion per year – the amount varies slightly each year because of the way this figure is calculated. The actual weekly contribution is therefore around half of £350 million.

The implication that this money could be spent on the NHS is misleading because (1) it implies that the UK would save the EU contribution to spend on other things; it does not allow for the fact that the UK gets back about 5 times what it contributes to the EU in benefits and cost savings and (2) it was not known how much Brexit would cost – it turns out that this is billions already.

There is an excellent wikipedia article on Turkey’s application to join the EU. It is clear from this that Turkey, especially with its current government, has a long way to go to meet membership requirements. More than likely this was Cummings’ second message because Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country and he was inflaming concerns about immigration which people may remember was the focus of much of the debate in 2016.

This morning (29 September) I have seen that there are thousands of comments on an article on the Mail Online using the emotive words which have been so roundly condemned this week. I’m waiting for a response other than a down arrow to my simple question asking why the so-called Benn bill is a “surrender”.

Where to go now? I do think that our education system has plenty to answer for. It is perhaps no coincidence that the demographics of leave voters show a majority of older people and of people who have not had so much education as they could have had. Many of them may have come into computing later in their lives once they acquired a smart phone.

It is understandable that they feel disaffected but it makes me angry that the Internet and social media, aided by the press, have focussed this disaffection on the UK’s membership of the EU rather than the policies and failings of successive UK governments. People who are studying the rise of populism can legitimately ask why state education funding has been cut so much.

I won’t dwell on specific Internet tools but I have worked with many computer programs over the last 50 years and am no fan of Facebook. It is designed for a rapid response to any post in the form of the like button which just promotes and builds up support for that post. It does not encourage much reasoned discussion on any topic. I think Facebook has a lot to answer for in the current political debate in the UK and elsewhere.


Just I was about to post this I found two replies to my post on the Mail Online asking about the use of “surrender” for the Benn bill. Both replies attempted to argue that it is surrender because it removes the negotiating position of No Deal. But No Deal cannot be a sensible negotiating position. It will harm the UK far more than it will harm the EU because they are so much bigger and can spread the harm across 27 countries. It seems like saying “if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the head”.

This is yet more of Dominic Cummings’ brainwashing. As also is “Get Brexit Done by 31 October”. If we leave without a deal, which is what the plan appears to be as there has been little sign of any new serious proposals from the UK, there will be years of wrangling over trade deals when the UK is in a much weaker position. If we leave with a deal there will still be wrangling over details and what to do about the trade deals with about 70 other countries with which the EU has a deal.

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Cyprus in Spring 2019: Nicosia, North Cyprus and the South

This is the second of two blog posts on our visit to Cyprus in May-June 2019. The first post is here.

Go here for a picture gallery.

In Nicosia, which is now more usually called Lefkosia, we stayed 2 nights at the Asty Hotel. This hotel is outside the old city but has parking, an excellent breakfast and coffee and tea available all day. For some reason we were put in an “executive themed room” with red striped furnishings. It should have been almost twice the price of a standard room which we had booked and paid for.

The choice of eating places in a Nicosia suburb on a Sunday evening is not great and so we followed the advice of the guide book to the Syrian Arab Friendship Club a short drive away. There we had a very good meal, marred only by a group of noisy Russians nearby who were smoking a hookah pipe.

Mercs, BMWs, Audis and Range Rovers were everywhere in Nicosia and we began to suspect that most of them belonged to Russians.

North Cyprus – Nicosia and Kyrenia

The hotel told us not to drive at all to the old city saying that parking and the traffic were awful. Instead they took us there in the hotel shuttle. There was not much sign of a lot of traffic or any parking problems outside the old city.

We walked down the pedestrianised Ledras Street, presented our passports at two border posts and were soon in Turkish North Cyprus.

We had originally thought about going to North Cyprus for a couple of days in the car, but your car insurance is not valid there. Various rumours online said that you could buy more insurance there for 15 euros but this would only be third party and so we soon decided just to do a day trip.

We walked through a street of shops and bazaars selling mostly tourist things and clothes and went first to see the Selimiye Mosque which dates back to the 13th century and with its tall minaret is a major landmark in all of Nicosia.

Selimiye Mosque, North Nicosia

Next was the Buyuk Han a 16th century Ottoman caravanserai. This was nicely done up with cafes in the courtyard.

Buyuk Han caravanserai, North Nicosia

As we walked further beyond the border green zone there were more modern buildings and wider streets. We visited the Armenian Church, thought to have been established in the 13th century and now renovated.

Armenian church, North Nicosia

This church was close to the green zone and we saw a big metal barrier and barbed wire at the end of a nearby street, quite a contrast to the houses in that area which have been done up.

By then it was almost lunch time and we realised that we had seen the sights of North Nicosia. After some tea we found the dolmus (service taxi) station and were soon on our way to Kyrenia on the north coast once the minibus had filled up. It’s a fast road and we were there within 40 minutes in spite of there being plenty of traffic as we left Nicosia and in Kyrenia.

Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish) is a much nicer place. There’s a row of restaurants around the harbour where we had some excellent fish and a nice chat with the owner who had been to the UK several times and spoke excellent English.

Kyrenia harbour and castle

We also visited the castle which has an excellent view of the harbour. This is much bigger than it looks with a large open area in the middle. Some of the rooms contained life-size models of people dressed in armour.

Inside Kyrenia Castle

One highlight is the Shipwreck Museum which contains the remains of a wooden ship which sank off Kyrenia about 280BC. Its cargo included a huge quantity of almonds which have been dated to around that time.

Ancient almonds

I declined the walk round the ramparts but Martin did most of it and got some good photos of the harbour.

We finished our visit to Kyrenia with more tea – in a real Turkish tea glass this time.

Real Turkish tea from a glass – at Kyrenia

Getting a a dolmus back to Nicosia was no problem and we soon walked back to the Republic. There are plenty of good restaurants there and we had another great meal at Piatsa Gourounaki. As instructed we phoned the hotel which sent the shuttle to take us back there.

Next day we easily found a space in the car park near where the hotel shuttle had dropped us and spent much of the morning looking round the republican part of Nicosia. We did go back to the north briefly as I had seen a picture I liked in a shop near the border. When we got there we found that almost every shop was closed for the end of Ramadan holiday. So I didn’t get my picture but was very glad that we had done the north the day before.

The old city in Nicosia is now quite modernised with pedestrianised streets and plenty of coffee shops and trendy clothes shops. The Leventis Municipal Museum is one of the major attractions and turned out to contain useful displays on the history of the city. After the museum, we wandered round a bit more and had lunch near the border crossing (and an excellent ice cream for me while Martin took a long walk to the Famagusta Gate) and then went back to the car to drive south on the motorway.

The South

The Stavrovouni Monastery is in a stunning position at the top of the only hill for miles around and reachable only via a series of hairpin bends on a narrow road. The views from there are amazing.

Stavrovouni Monastery

I had plenty of time to admire the views as women are not allowed in the monastery. I did go into the small church by the car park.

Church at Stavrovouni – the only part I could go into

Martin went into the monastery but did not stay long.

Our last night was spent at Teacher’s House, a traditional building in the village of Maroni near the south coast. We drove down to Zygi on the coast and had another fish by a pebble beach watching the sunset.

Sunset at our last dinner at Zygi

Breakfast at Teacher’s House was the only really traditional one we had with scrambled eggs mixed with green vegetables.

We were due to fly out late that evening and so essentially had another day. We started at the neolithic site of Choirakoitia not far north of Maroni. This is the oldest permanent human settlement found in Cyprus going back to 7000 BC. Steep steps (with just a few trees for shade) take you to the top of the site where there are also some good views.

Choirakoitia, the oldest settlement on Cyprus

There’s an easier way down on a track at the back of the site which also goes past some reconstructions of round huts which represent how the people lived.

Reconstructed houses at Choirakoitia

Nearer to Larnaca we stopped in the village of Kiti to see the 11th century Panagia Angeloktisti church which was open and contains a 6th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary. We also found a large supermarket nearby to get some picnic food for lunch which we ate overlooking the Alyki salt lake near Larnaca.

Hala Sultan Tekkesi is a late 18th century mosque on the edge of the lake and is one of very few mosques we saw in the Republic. It stands on a sacred place in Islam where an aunt of the prophet Mohammed fell off her mule and died.

Hala Sultan Tekkesi mosque

Navigating through Larnaca was easy as we drove further east to Agia Napa. We did stop there to buy an ice cream, but Agia Napa consists mostly of a very long street 2-3 blocks inland and full of souvenir shops, bars, burger places and quad bike rentals. If there is a way to drive along by the sea, we did not find it. A short stop there was enough for us. If I was going to stay in Cyprus for a week in the sun I would definitely choose the Paphos area over Agia Napa.

The very south-east tip of Cyprus is a national park called Cape Greco. The scenery is mostly scrub and there are some hiking trails. You can drive along parts of the park but an assortment of masts has ensured that the road to the very end is blocked off. There’s a really nice modern white church at one stopping place complete with paintings inside.

Church near Cape Greco

Our last meal was at another guide book recommendation, Voreas in the village of Oroklini just off the motorway near Larnaca. It took a while to find this restaurant, because, as we found in other places in Cyprus, the signs to it petered out some way away from it. I ordered souvlaki and it was delivered to our table with the skewers hanging off a metal rack which seemed to have been designed for this specific purpose.

My last dinner – souvlaki as delivered to our table

The flight home from Larnaca to Leeds was uneventful except that it was an hour late. We arrived home in daylight at 4.30am.

Impressions of Cyprus and Practicalities

This was our first visit. We kind of expected something like Greece, and found it to be quite like Greece with a veneer of Britishness. They drive on the left, drink a lot of tea, refer to the ground floor as number 0 and have British-style bacon and even sometimes baked beans for breakfast.

Reconstructed houses at Choirakoitia

Familiar shaped postbox, Nicosia

Apart from breakfast the food was mostly Greek with some Turkish influence. It always came in huge quantities. Except for the restaurant owner in Platres all the people were very pleasant and friendly. As in Greece there are plenty of cats, usually hanging round outdoor restaurants, but unlike in Greece, we saw only one goat.

It was hot, reaching 35C some days. Another time I would think about going in late April or early May when the wild flowers might also be better. But bougainvilleas were in full bloom and we saw oleanders in flower everywhere, even growing wild.

We flew on Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, which is the most convenient airport for us, and rented a car from Elephant car rental in Paphos. The car rental agent met us at the airport at 11pm and was very helpful. There was no extra charge to drop the car in Larnaca. The roads are generally good with fewer potholes than any near our home. Traffic is fairly light and there is only the occasional mad driver usually on the dual carriageway motorway. Parking was free every where even in Paphos and Nicosia.

Always using booking.com we only booked accommodation in Paphos and Polis before we arrived and arranged the rest once we were there. It was all very clean and very cheap at 50-60 euros a night for a double including breakfast. Wifi worked fine everywhere including in plenty of restaurants as well as hotels.

For guide books we used Lonely Planet Cyprus, which also includes North Cyprus, and the Sunflower book Landscapes of Cyprus which has car tours and walks.

As when we were travelling in Spain and Portugal last summer, I did get a sense that the UK is falling behind with its failure to provide adequate Internet and mobile services and its failure to upgrade its airports. Both Paphos and Larnaca airports were infinitely better than Leeds/Bradford with ample space, free wifi and plenty of choice for shopping and eating. Larnaca also has jetways and so you don’t have to walk out to the plane in the rain.

My first blog post on this trip is here.

Picture gallery: Cyprus in Spring 2019: Nicosia, North Cyprus and the South

Click to enlarge

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