Autumn and Prague 2014
After a wet and cold August, usually the driest and warmest month, September is proving to be unseasonably warm and dry. We are having an "Indian Summer".
We have these unseasonable spells of weather around the world and different countries have different names but the origin of the UK and American use of "Indian" seems to be lost in antiquity. Whatever the reason it is good for ripening my green tomatoes after such a cold August!
We visited the Wenlock Priory for the first time recently and discovered a tranquil and beautiful place. The first Anglo-Saxon Monastery was built here in about 680 by King Merewalh of Mercia. His daughter Milburge became the Abbess and was later canonised. In Norman times it became a place of pilgrimage after the remains of St. Milburge were discovered and a new Abbey was built, the considerable remains of which can be seen today that survived the dissolution. The intricate carvings on the walls of the chapter house are beautiful.
Our visitor numbers were up in September and we welcomed Don and Maureen from Australia just after the beer festival. We took them down to Ludlow food festival where we encountered a French Onion Seller, bicycle and all! I asked him how many Frenchmen were left in the trade and he claimed he was the last one so I took his photograph and bought a bunch of garlic. I can remember my mother buying from them every year and Sue and I remember seeing a silent film in Australia that Michael Bentine made about a French Onion Seller who came off the ferry and roamed around England causing havoc wherever he went with traffic chaos and even plane crashes! We have searched the web and can not find any reference to the film so we might both have been dreaming!
Another place we visited was Chester where we had not been for years. This is a beautiful old city with a history back to Roman times and full of half timbered buildings with a high level covered walkway like the Pantiles in Tonbridge Wells. It also has an almost intact city wall that you can walk right around to view the sights from a high level.
We had found a nice little inexpensive French restaurant called La P'tite France in Bridge St which turned out to be a real find. Just real tasty old fashioned French cooking that could not be faulted and somewhere we will certainly visit again. It deserves the number one ranking on Trip Advisor out of 387 Chester restaurants.
Then we went off to Prague for a few days to meet up with Terri and Byron the Kiwi's from Auckland. They we on a very early flight from Hong Kong and their thoughtful travel agent had booked them in the hotel for two nights. Checking their tickets late on the second night they realised their flight left just after 12 midnight and not 12 noon so they missed it and arrived a day late in Prague.
We were staying at the Hotel Hastal in the Jewish Town which turned out to be a good choice and the room you see on the front of their web site is the room we stayed in.
The hotel is decorated in the Art-Nouveau style and has an interesting history. Josef Maceka arrived in Prague barefoot and penniless but after an army career in the cavalry he married well and in 1914 they bought two houses in Hastal square which they turned into an hotel. He survived WW1 as a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army and his daughter and then his granddaughter managed the hotel until 1938. She married Miroslav Rytìr who joined the resistance against Hitler and eventually he went to the UK where he joined the RAF but returned in 1940 to work as a spook for the allies.
After the war the communists took over and in 1948 he continued his spying activities working for MI6. He was caught and arrested spending several years in prison and the hotel was confiscated by the government in 1958. It was not until 1991 after the so called Velvet Revolution that the hotel was returned to the family and it is now the last family owned hotel in Prague.
I remember well the Russian tanks in Prague in 1968 as they inflicted the only damage to this lovely city which survived two world wars without damage. I was living in Edinburgh then and a Russian orchestra was playing at the Usher Hall so I joined a demonstration outside shouting abuse at the orchestra members as they arrived and then the people arriving for the concert. I suppose we hoped that our displeasure of Russian actions in Prague would filter back to those responsible but in view of the latest Russian actions in the Ukraine it seems that the same mindset still exists there.
Prague seems to be a prosperous city now. It is the sixth most visited in Europe and we had lots to see in three full days. We walked from our hotel to the Old Town Square in a few minutes in bright sunshine and 24 degrees, weather which stayed with us until we left. The highlight of the square is the astronomical clock which dates from 1410 and thousands of tourists gather on the hour to watch the clockwork show of the procession of the 12 apostles. Church spires and onion domes are everywhere as are ornate carvings, statues and frescoes on the facades of many buildings.
A short walk through narrow cobbled streets and we found ourselves on the 14th century Charles Bridge, thronged with tourists, souvenir sellers and jazz bands. St John of Nepomuk was thrown from the bridge in 1393 and a brass plaque commemorates the event. If you touch it and make a wish it will come true so we did! The view across the River Vltava the Lesser Town, Castle and St Vitus Cathedral up on the hill is spectacular.
Standing in the passport queue at the airport the previous evening a friendly young Czech lady had asked if this was our first visit and told us about many of the attractions of the city. She came running over to us after we had cleared immigration to tell us we had to visit a restaurant in the square where your drinks arrived on little trains so we located it before walking to meet our friends Terri and Byron at their hotel.
We did not expect them to do anything else that day after their flight from Hong Kong but in 10 minutes we were sitting outside a bar in the Old Town Square drinking prodigious amounts of Czech beer which was very good and very cheap!
We eventually walked up to that train restaurant which is called Vytopna at the top of Wenceslas Square. They serve just acceptable but inexpensive Czech cuisine and the drinks do arrive at your table by miniature train but the service was otherwise pretty awful. The Czech currency is the Koruna (CZK) and there was just over CZK 30 to the pound sterling during our visit. A main course here was between £6 and £10 with draught beer about £1 for 0.5 litre!
The next day saw us organise ourselves with a day ticket for the public transport, a mere £3 for a 24 hour ticket so you can hop on and off the trams which were frequent and efficient. We caught the tram down to the New Town and found the Church of St Cyril and Methodius.
In 1941/2 several teams of Czech parachutists were dropped to organise resistance and to try and assassinate SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich who was the Nazi in command and known as the Butcher of Prague due to his savage repression of the populous. Heydrich was Himmler's right hand man and jointly responsible for formulating and putting into practice the events known as the holocaust. They eventually succeeded in mortally injuring Heydrich in 1942 with a bomb thrown at his car after a Sten gun jammed and then escaped but were eventually found sheltering in the church crypt where a battle ensued and many German soldiers were killed. Eventually the paras ammunition was exhausted and those who had not already been killed in the battle committed suicide. A museum in the crypt of the church commemorates the soldiers who died.
Nazi retribution was swift and all those families who assisted the paras were executed along with the population of whole villages where they lived, the villages demolished even to the extent of removing the dead from the graves. These Nazis acted in a similar way to the way the so called ISIL are now acting in Iraq and Syria so sub-human behavour is alive and well!
Before the war the majority of Prague citizens were of German descent but those who survived the war were repatriated. A communist government eventually took charge but was really a puppet of the Russians. In 1968 Alexander Dubcek tried to liberalise the government but his Russian masters brought in tanks to Prague known as the Prague Spring and the student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in protest. It wasn't until Mikhail Gorbachev came along that in 1989 the Czechs finally rid themselves of Russian influence in the so called Velvet Revolution and in 1993 the Czechs split with the Slovacs and the Czech Republic was formed with Václav Havel as its first president. They joined the EU in 2004.
Just down the road is an interesting modern building called the Dancing House which is nicknamed "Fred and Ginger". It is an office building but has a fine French restaurant on the roof called Celeste where you can get a really good lunch for about £15
After that sobering visit to the Church we caught the 22 tram to the terminus as the Kiwi's were beginning to feel the effects of jet lag and needed a rest. The 22 tram follows a scenic route through the city and climbs up out of the river valley to Pohorelec where we again began walking but it is all downhill from here. At the top of the hill is the Strahov Monastry which has a wonderful richly decorated library and a wonderful brewery where we sampled their excellent wheat beer.
Byron had business to transact so we returned to our hotels for a siesta and met up in Old Town Square at 6pm that evening where we found the Golden Tiger pub nearby, made famous when Václav Havel took Bill Clinton there and he played his Saxophone.
I asked for two large and two small beers and was told "we only sell big beers"! I was then ordered to sit down at a table occupied by some Czechs from Canada. I turned my chair to talk to my companions but the beer waiter ordered me to turn it back as changing chair positions was not allowed. The Canadian Czechs told me that it hasn't changed in 50 years and they come back every year. We breathed in so much tobacco smoke it took hours off our lives!
This trip was partly a birthday treat for Sue and she selected a present of a Prague Blue Crystal cat on our way to a nice restaurant for our evening meal.
The Loreta is a church and cloister which has been a place of pilgrimage since 1626. It is one of many Loreta churches inspired by a medieval legend when the Virgin Mary's house in Nazareth was "miraculously" transported to Loreta in Italy and a replica of the house is at the centre of the cloister.
There is a chapel in one corner to Our Lady of Sorrows, Saint Sarosta. Legend has it that in the 14th century her father tried to force her to marry the King of Sicily but she had vowed to remain a virgin. She prayed to God for help who took pity on her and gave her a beard to put off the Kings advances but her pagan father then had her crucified!
On down the hill to the Castle complex. It is hardly what we would describe as a castle but rather a collection of palaces and other buildings around the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral. There were hoards of tourists around the place but we found a nice seat in the shade and marvelled at the view of this 14th century Gothic masterpiece.
This was where the Bohemian Kings, Holy Roman Emperors and presidents of the Czech Republic had their offices and palaces.
We also discovered the Lennon Wall which was covered in graffitti after the death of Beatle John Lennon. During the communist era it became a place where you wrote your grievances of the government. A little way from the wall is a bridge with the iron rails covered in padlocks. I am informed that these are love locks which couples who are in love leave with their names on and throw the key in the river as a symbol that they will be locked together forever! Apparently a bridge in Paris collapsed under the weight of padlocks recently!
We were also intrigued by a couple of girls being nibbled by a lot of fish in a shop window!
Back in the Old Town Square we both ate a really good pizza before our taxi collected us for the airport. It began to rain during the journey but we missed violent thunderstorms in England which delayed our flight home.
Meanwhile, during our absence, 55% of Scots decided they liked the English, Welsh and Irish enough to stay in the UK after being bribed by those incompetents we call politicians in the days up to the referendum. Now Cameron says he has worked out another policy on the back of a fag packet and he is going to make changes to stop Scottish MP's voting on matters that have been devolved to Scotland but the other lot oppose it as they would find it difficult to govern England without the help of their Scottish MP's. The rest of us now want the West Lothian Question settled before the Scots get their devo-max and as a minimum, Scottish MP's should not vote on purely English legislation where similar powers have been devolved to Scotland.
The Scottish referendum might have introduced many into the democratic process who had never voted before but it has also caused deep divisions within Scotland and with their fellow citizens in the rest of the UK. The UK government should now legislate like the Canadians did with Quebec separatists where a majority vote for secession triggered talks between the federal and provincial governments but not necessarily automatic separation. The UK parliament should also be consulted before any future referendum and there should be no more policies made on the hoof!
A vote of 50%+1 is not enough of a majority for such an important decision which affects all UK residents. In Canada the last vote was close but the most recent polls indicate amongst the Québécois only 34% still wanted separation. The same has happened in Norway when it was a close vote in 1994 not to join the EU but now as many as 70-80% now oppose membership. So opinions change over time and it is much more difficult to change constitutions.
Yet more visitors arrived the following day. The Cliffords of South Petherton were shown around beautiful Bridgnorth and took us out to dinner to further celebrate Sues birthday at the Hundred House in Norton. Unfortunately I had developed a bad cold and could not fully appreciate the food we were served but everyone else thought it was excellent and one of our waiters was from the Czech Republic so we told him how much we had enjoyed Prague.
Lots of birthday presents and cards were opened the next day and I managed to update this web site. We paid another visit to Harmonie in Belgium the week after for a Yacht Club working weekend and caught up with fellow Bargees including Mary and Tony on Anja who arrived after an epic North Sea crossing from the Humber and will spend the winter in Eeklo. Tony is not a good sailor and was duly unwell for much of the crossing. It is good news for the rest of us barge owning Brits as Tony will keep an eye on our barges over the winter months.
Sue brightened up the wheelhouse with some new gingham curtains and as you will see from the above photograph, I was kept busy outside cleaning off the fly and spider shite! We had two visits from potential buyers and our broker bought an Australian along who was looking for a smaller boat than Harmonie but told me that I was to blame for getting him interested in barging through this web site. Praise indeed!
The Nieuwendorpe Yacht Club unusually gave us Brits a different job to painting gates this time and we had to spread wood chips over the car parking areas next to our barges.
Here you can see Peter Harris and me in action on a previous visit painting the gate. We have painted it so many times now that we call it the English Gate and when Peter shuffles of this mortal coil it will be known as the Peter Harris Memorial Gate!
After we had finished spreading wood chips we failed to pass their quality control inspection so more work was required before they were satisfied.
The usual tent was erected and we all sat around a big table with the other club members at lunchtime and some excellent soup made by the club president Robert's wife plus sandwiches made by some of the ladies. There was much eating and drinking between barges and visits to local hostelries and we were away for a week in total, travelling over this time by MyFerry for only £38 return. We plan another visit in late December.
Shortly after our return we had a visit from Les and Sally Harper. The girls and me went off walking in the Clent Hills while Les did his usual crawl round the Bridgnorth pubs and marvelled that the White Lion was still offering a pie and a pint for £4.50! Us walkers did even better, stopping at the Navigation Inn on the Staffs and Worcester canal where a hot beef or pork sandwich was a mere £3!
After the rash of visitors last month our guest list was empty when out of the blue stepped the Rawles from South Petherton. They had never been to Shropshire before so they booked into a pub here and called us. We prevailed on them to check out and stay with us for the next two nights which they did and took us out to dinner instead!
We gave them a Cooks tour of the county including a tramp through the heather on the Long Mynd before the weather closed in and we retreated to Church Stretton for afternoon teas and cakes in Berry's. The home made cakes were memorable especially with a dod of clotted cream!
Of course we had to spend some time in Salts shop and never leave without buying something. Back in Bridgnorth the blokes descended to the Railwaymans Arms for pre prandial pints prior to wandering along to the Old Castle for Dinner.
On the first fine day for a week we went down to Kinver edge seeking autumn colours but there were none as you can see from the above photograph. We had a good walk in bright sunshine before driving on to Wolverly at the Western end of the Edge in Worcestershire. The centre of the village is attractive with sandstone cliffs where troglodytes used to live. It is situated about two miles north of Kiddlyminster on the River Stour and the Staffs and Worcester canal.
Sue wanted to see "Mr Turner", a new Mike Leigh film about the later life of the famous artist J.M.W Turner and played by Timothy Spall. The film had received critical acclaim and won a prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for cinematography with Spall winning the best actor award.
We drove into Birmingham to Cineworld in Broad Street and joined hundreds of fellow OAP's at the afternoon showing, a good deal at under £10 for the two of us including 3 hours free parking.
I found the film overly long but my main criticism was the selection of a Cornish village as the location for Margate where Turner often painted and met his second mistress. It is nothing like Margate.
Turners later paintings were regarded as the forerunners of what we now know as abstract art. Arguably his most famous work, "The Fighting Téméraire", was cleverly depicted in the film as Turner rows down the Thames with fellow artists. He sees the old sailing warship HMS Téméraire being towed by a paddle steam tug to her final berth at Rotherhithe to be broken up and you see what he saw through the wonders of the modern cinema. That painting was once voted as the nations favourite.
We had intended to walk down to Birmingham Museum to see the new exhibition of the Staffordshire Hoard after the screening but the film was so long that we had no time left so it will have to wait for another occasion.
Another outing to Birmingham was to see the new film entitled "The Imitation Game" which tells the story of Alan Turing, the Mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code during WW2. It is said that the allies ability to intercept all the German communications and de-codify them, contributed to ending the war two years earlier and saved thousands of lives.
The film was undoubtedly one of the best I have ever seen and if ever an actor deserved an Oscar then it is Benedict Cumberbatch who played Turing brilliantly and with great sensitivity. Turing was treated abominably by the establishment both for his attempts to try and crack the Enigma code and his sexuality. The film tells the story of his life from his days at Sherborne School to his death at only 41 years of age.
Keira Knightley (Turings fellow mathematician and fiancee) probably deserves another Oscar as a supporting actress as does Alex Lawther who played the young Turing at Sherborne. Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander was also convincing as one of the code breaking team and Director, Morten Tyldum, deserves praise.
Turing was a professor of mathematics at Manchester University and his work on early computers was little known outside academia, again probably because of his differences with the establishment of the day. Cumberbatch manages to portray Turings difficulty in working with others of lesser intellect and his frustration with those who impeded his progress. The scenes at the end of the film brought tears to my eyes and had Sue weeping openly.
After the film we walked down to the Museum to see the Staffordshire Hoard. On the way we went into the Birmingham War Memorial where they have a book of remembrance in which there is an uncle of mine. He wanted to become a fighter pilot but his work in a reserved occupation prevented this so he volunteered for Bomber Command as an air gunner. He was then accepted into the RAF due to the huge losses then being experienced. Uncle Wilf flew on Wellingtons before moving on to Stirlings. He was lost over Stuttgart in April 1943, part of the Allied losses in the attacks on Stuttgart, estimated at 300 aircraft and 2,400 aircrew.
The layout of Birmingham Museum is complex but you follow signs to the new gallery which does it's best to tell the story of this recent find of Anglo Saxon gold and silver artifacts in a field near Lichfield, valued at £3.3 million and containing 5kg of gold. You need the magnifying glasses that are provided to fully appreciate the delicate work of these 7th century goldsmiths and there was much to learn about the life of the people that lived in the area at that time.
We took our time wandering around the art galleries which are extensive and well displayed before emerging into Chamberlain Square and the Frankfurt Christmas market. This is the largest German Christmas market outside Germany and extends from the square right down New Street to the Bull Ring. There are dozens of bars selling the usual German beer and Glühwein and some of these are installed in quite impressive wooden constructions like the Christmas Pyramid pictured on the left.
There are stalls selling food of all kinds like Bratwurst or steak rolls and of course the inevitable Frankfurter so you can easily spend a pleasant evening, eating and drinking your way around. This was a Tuesday night and there were plenty of people indulging. Some tempting chocolate stalls were much in evidence along with the traditional German stollen. They also have a prancing horses Carousel and you can sing along with a singing moose called "Chris Moose" of course!
The local traders are not forgotten and from Chamberlain Square right up to the War memorial there is a craft market followed by a big wheel and an ice rink in front of the new library beside Symphony Hall.
South Petherton in Somerset is where we spent 16 years of our life and as a result, have many friends there. A bunch of them who were born in 1949 had a big party to which we were invited. They hired the Blake hall for the night and with over 100 guest celebrated their joint birthdays.
The afternoon was spent in the Brewers Arms to watch the England v Australia game (see report below) preceded by a minutes clapping for cricketer Phillip Hughs, the Australian Test cricketer who died after a freak accident being hit by a ball and the whole pub joined in. In a forward dominated game, England managed to scrape an ugly win.
On the Saturday evening of the birthday celebrations, Chris Hockey was 65 on that actual day so we all sang the usual song accompanied by the band, Rockin Sixties, the youngest member being 67 and the resident singer 70. Mike the Milk said he and his wife were dancing to them 30 years ago and needless to say they knew all the hits that we did and the Blake Hall rocked until after midnight.
The next morning we were there again for the "Big Breakfast", and annual event to raise funds for the local Scouts who served up a monster fry-up in the English tradition!
It is time for a new page as we approach Christmas 2013, the leaves are all off the trees and the winter solstice is at hand. We have stocked up on the festive wine from Tesco where we bought Amarone at ten quid a bottle and Giesen Malborough Sauvignon Blanc for a fiver.
I caught some bug and dialled 111 for advice. The advice was to see a GP within 24 hours. First available GP appointment was in 20 days so saw a nurse who prescribed a course of antibiotics which had no effect. Sue has now developed a lesser strain (the "man" versions are always worse) so we had to postpone a trip to Worthing.
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