Traveller's tales

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Victorian toilets of Bute: 'jewels in the sanitarian's crown'

Visiting the Victorian Toilets situated right next to the landing point of the ferry from the mainland, puts a whole new slant on the phrase, ‘I’ll just have to pay a visit!’

You should really pay a visit to this ‘jewel in the sanitarian’s crown’ as Lucinda Lambton referred to it in her celebrated, and highly original documentary on the loos of Great Britain – whether Nature calls or not. The chances are that Nature will be given a helping hand anyway, particularly if you aren’t a very good sailor.

The helpful, informed staff inside are helpful in more unconventional ways than you would normally expect from people maintaining public conveniences – they have a lot of pride in their work – and in the place they keep in mint condition, and they are extremely knowledgeable about it.

And for a very good reason; as Lucinda said, this is a jewel – the whole interior is amazing – though the building itself, while being stout enough to stand the rigours of an island winter, is fairly unprepossessing.

Like I said, echoing the sometimes giggling Lucinda, the interior is amazing – it gleams, despite its age – the place was built in 1899 and the urinals and washbasins were installed by Twyfords of Hanley – one of the five towns – centred on Stoke on Trent and the flourishing pottery industry of the last century and the one before that.

The urinals – gleaming white – are ‘Adamants’ – a well known model, apparently, though the significance of the odd name escapes me – perhaps some more enlightened reader will throw some illumination on this.

Even the floor is splendid, with a ceramic mosaic of the crest of the Royal Burgh of Rothesay.

To me, apart from the splendour with which the Victorians relieved themselves, the thing that mostly struck me when I saw them, was their number – obviously reminiscent of a more populous tourism industry in bygone years.

In a similar way, though nothing like as spectacularly, the public conveniences on railway stations in resorts along the Lancashire coast – Morecambe in particular – spell the demise of the British tourist resort – or was it called ‘holiday resort’ back then.

The other thing that struck me in the Victorian toilets of Rothesay, on the island of Bute, was what we have lost, both as a manufacturing nation, and as a civilized race of people.

Few manufacturers from Staffordshire, or anywhere else, would put in so much work, and few corporations would be willing to foot the bill at the end of it.

Sadly, left to its own devices, so to speak, the Victorian edifice wouldn’t last two minutes these days – it would undoubtedly be vandalized – though not by the people of the island, I grant you, and nor by the gentile folk who visit this former popular resort, but by those anonymous ones we all have to ‘thank’ for desecrating all that is good and grand about our island home – be it Scottish, Welsh or English.

Robert L. Fielding

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tam O' Shanter



Robert Burns

When chapman billies leave the street, And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet; As market days are wearing late, And folk begin to tak the gate, While we sit bousing at the nappy, An' getting fou and unco happy, We think na on the lang Scots miles, The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles, That lie between us and our hame, Where sits our sulky, sullen dame, Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm. This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter, As he frae Ayr ae night did canter: (Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonie lasses). O Tam! had'st thou but been sae wise, As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice! She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum; That frae November till October, Ae market-day thou was na sober; That ilka melder wi' the Miller, Thou sat as lang as thou had siller; That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on The Smith and thee gat roarin' fou on; That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday, Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday, She prophesied that late or soon, Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon, Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk, By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk. Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet, To think how mony counsels sweet, How mony lengthen'd, sage advices, The husband frae the wife despises! But to our tale: Ae market night, Tam had got planted unco right, Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely, Wi reaming sAats, that drank divinely; And at his elbow, Souter Johnie, His ancient, trusty, drougthy crony: Tam lo'ed him like a very brither; They had been fou for weeks thegither. The night drave on wi' sangs an' clatter; And aye the ale was growing better: The Landlady and Tam grew gracious, Wi' favours secret, sweet, and precious: The Souter tauld his queerest stories; The Landlord's laugh was ready chorus: The storm without might rair and rustle, Tam did na mind the storm a whistle. Care, mad to see a man sae happy, E'en drown'd himsel amang the nappy. As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure, The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure: Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious, O'er a' the ills o' life victorious! But pleasures are like poppies spread, You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed; Or like the snow falls in the river, A moment white-then melts for ever; Or like the Borealis race, That flit ere you can point their place; Or like the Rainbow's lovely form Evanishing amid the storm. - Nae man can tether Time nor Tide, The hour approaches Tam maun ride; That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane, That dreary hour he mounts his beast in; And sic a night he taks the road in, As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in. The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last; The rattling showers rose on the blast; The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd; Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow'd: That night, a child might understand, The deil had business on his hand. Weel-mounted on his grey mare, Meg, A better never lifted leg, Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire, Despising wind, and rain, and fire; Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet, Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet, Whiles glow'rin round wi' prudent cares, Lest bogles catch him unawares; Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh, Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry. By this time he was cross the ford, Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd; And past the birks and meikle stane, Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane; And thro' the whins, and by the cairn, Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn; And near the thorn, aboon the well, Where Mungo's mither hang'd hersel'. Before him Doon pours all his floods, The doubling storm roars thro' the woods, The lightnings flash from pole to pole, Near and more near the thunders roll, When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees, Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze, Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing, And loud resounded mirth and dancing. Inspiring bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil; Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil! The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle, Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle, But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd, Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd, She ventur'd forward on the light; And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight! Warlocks and witches in a dance: Nae cotillon, brent new frae France, But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, Put life and mettle in their heels. A winnock-bunker in the east, There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast; A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large, To gie them music was his charge: He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl, Till roof and rafters a' did dirl. - Coffins stood round, like open presses, That shaw'd the Dead in their last dresses; And (by some devilish cantraip sleight) Each in its cauld hand held a light. By which heroic Tam was able To note upon the haly table, A murderer's banes, in gibbet-airns; Twa span-lang, wee, unchristened bairns; A thief, new-cutted frae a rape, Wi' his last gasp his gabudid gape; Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted: Five scimitars, wi' murder crusted; A garter which a babe had strangled: A knife, a father's throat had mangled. Whom his ain son of life bereft, The grey-hairs yet stack to the heft; Wi' mair of horrible and awfu', Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.Three lawyers tongues, turned inside oot,Wi' lies, seamed like a beggars clout,Three priests hearts, rotten, black as muck,Lay stinkin, vile in every neuk.As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious, The mirth and fun grew fast and furious; The Piper loud and louder blew, The dancers quick and quicker flew, The reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit, Till ilka carlin swat and reekit, And coost her duddies to the wark, And linkit at it in her sark! Now Tam, O Tam! had they been queans, A' plump and strapping in their teens! Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flainen, Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!- Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair, That ance were plush o' guid blue hair, I wad hae gien them off my hurdies, For ae blink o' the bonie burdies! But wither'd beldams, auld and droll, Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal, Louping an' flinging on a crummock. I wonder did na turn thy stomach. But Tam kent what was what fu' brawlie: There was ae winsome wench and waulie That night enlisted in the core, Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore; (For mony a beast to dead she shot, And perish'd mony a bonie boat, And shook baith meikle corn and bear, And kept the country-side in fear); Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn, That while a lassie she had worn, In longitude tho' sorely scanty, It was her best, and she was vauntie. Ah! little ken'd thy reverend grannie, That sark she coft for her wee Nannie, Wi twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches), Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches! But here my Muse her wing maun cour, Sic flights are far beyond her power; To sing how Nannie lap and flang, (A souple jade she was and strang), And how Tam stood, like ane bewithc'd, And thought his very een enrich'd: Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain, And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main: Till first ae caper, syne anither, Tam tint his reason a thegither, And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" And in an instant all was dark: And scarcely had he Maggie rallied. When out the hellish legion sallied. As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke, When plundering herds assail their byke; As open pussie's mortal foes, When, pop! she starts before their nose; As eager runs the market-crowd, When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud; So Maggie runs, the witches follow, Wi' mony an eldritch skreich and hollow. Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin! In hell, they'll roast thee like a herrin! In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin! Kate soon will be a woefu' woman! Now, do thy speedy-utmost, Meg, And win the key-stone o' the brig;^1 There, at them thou thy tail may toss, A running stream they dare na cross. But ere the keystane she could make, The fient a tail she had to shake! For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest, And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle; But little wist she Maggie's mettle! Ae spring brought off her master hale, But left behind her ain grey tail: The carlin claught her by the rump, And left poor Maggie scarce a stump. Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read, Ilk man and mother's son, take heed: Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd, Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind, Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear; Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What’s happening to Glasgow?

Vandals wreck facilities at a football club – a cancer hospice – vandalize fire hydrants in the city

We came to Glasgow four days ago – the first time ever for both of us – and we love it! This isn’t a diatribe, it’s a tribute – with a question for the city’s parents.

All week, we have had doors opened for us, directions explained to us, we’ve been let into lanes on the M8 as we realize at the last minute that we need to be three lanes to the right.

Filling up at a petrol station in Argyll Street this morning, another car owner came over to help us – we looked like we were having difficulties.

And that’s been the pattern here since we arrived from south of the border – actually, from Dubai, where we live and work, via Oldham, where I hail from originally.

It started at the Asda Superstore not far from Parkhead – that one! From our first stumbling steps to locate various items - washing up liquid - chocolate biscuits - tea bags - all the rest of the stuff we need to live here for four weeks while I teach English to pre-sessional students at a university in the city – everyone has surprised us with their bonhomie, help and a smile. We have quickly come to like Glaswegians.

So, what’s the problem, I hear you cry: it is this, that since we arrived we have been reading about violence and mindless vandalism.

First it was reports of a local football club having its facilities vandalized, then fire hydrants across the city wrecked, leaving precious water pouring out of the ground in fountains.

Finally, and most disturbingly, a cancer hospice has today been reported as having been vandalized – what kind of people do such things?

The answer evades me – my wife and I are both amazed that such a friendly city can produce monsters that behave like this.

Call me old fashioned, but I put it down to parental control, or rather the total lack of it, and an absence of discipline – self-discipline and the other type. But mostly, it’s that parents don’t know what their kids are up to when they’re out of the house. That excuses them, does it? – it certainly does not.

Old hat time again – when I was off out with my mates - in my teens – my parents did know what I was up to – not because they came to snoop on me, but because they knew they could trust me – they knew who I was, what I was like, and they knew what I got up to, and what I would never do.

Bringing up responsible children isn’t just about inflicting punishment on wayward kids, it’s about knowing them – taking an interest in them – trying to understand what their life is like – not to excuse them their wrongdoings, but to give them values that will endure into adulthood.

I’ve long known that in this life, you can either attune yourself to the norms and values of decency, and be respected for it and enjoy everything life has to offer, or you can go against these norms and be at variance with society and thus feel isolated from it and alienated by it, and never enjoy anything.

I was brought up properly, by parents who cared about me, and cared about other people – other people everywhere. And guess what, I live a good life – I’m not particularly rich – I have to work hard for the life I want, and I enjoy what life has to offer.

The biggest boon to my life, apart from my family and my friends, my career and my aspirations, some of which are still unfulfilled, is my ability and my wish to communicate with my fellow human being.

We have both enjoyed our short time in this friendly city, precisely because people like us fit in anywhere, with anyone.

How will someone who knows he has wrecked someone’s chances of staying alive ever fit in with anyone anywhere? And what will our society – our streets, our shops and pubs, our cinemas and clubs be like filled by people living with such self-knowledge?
Robert L. Fielding

Monday, July 10, 2006

The new in the old: Britain in the 21st Century

Travelling down to Birmingham the other day, I noticed signs on walls and in squares in towns and villages.
Near Wolverhampton, I noticed ‘Three Tuns Parade’, and along that parade, the sign over a restaurant, ‘Raj Tandoori’, while further along stores advertised DVDs, lap-top computers and the like.

In something I had written earlier, I had used the metaphorical expression, ‘cash points in alms houses’ to refer to this feature of modern Britain; the juxtaposition of the old and new. Looking at the people walking along the High Streets of England, you could easily come up with other expressions to mark incongruity – ‘skateboards and walking sticks’ indicating old and new in terms of our population, ‘Muslim and Christian’ in terms of our religious persuasions, ‘Indian and Pakistani’ in terms of our ethnic diversity.

Everything is constantly in a state of flux – the only constant in our changing world is change itself, but people don’t change, at least not as quickly as things around them do. A man walking his dog across a common will notice differences; he will notice changes in people’s clothing, with bright colours instead of the more traditional shades of rainwear, for example. He will notice breeds of dogs he doesn’t recognize, and he will notice things like extendable nylon dog leads rather than the short leather one he has always used to keep Rover from running after cats or other dogs.

In terms of the landscape of England, former industry, now defunct and gone, has left its mark, and new activity is leaving its own. England is criss-crossed with motorways, with their attendant fly-overs, bridges, sweeping exits and embankments, cuttings and roundabouts. These are invariably covered in short grass, growing wilder on embankments where it is more or less left to nature rather than to mechanized hedge and grass cutters.

Some species of bird and beast have inevitably suffered from this development, while others have flourished. Along the fringes of motorways can be seen hovering kestrels, and below, unseen to passing drivers, the prey of the ‘windhover’ – voles, mice and other small mammals.

But pollution also attends these strips of rapid movement, and pollution takes many forms. Invisible to the eye, polluted ‘air’ rises from innumerable exhaust pipes, and affects us in ways we still don’t fully understand.

Another form of pollution – more obvious than air pollution, is the pollution that can be heard – noise pollution. With the motorway encroaching more and more on our diminishing countryside, it is getting more and more difficult to find places where one cannot hear anything but the wind and the call of bird and beast.

The dawn chorus, such a delightful way of being awakened to a new day, is becoming snuffed out, to the rear, by this louder and more incessant roar of traffic hurtling north and south, east and west along our motorways.

We can live with this, well, we have to – what choice do we have? But there is a price, and, while being intangible, is nevertheless ubiquitous and ever present. If there is no place where you can enjoy peace and quiet, there is nowhere the mind can rest, nowhere you can be alone with your thoughts, nowhere you can marvel at God’s creation, its uniqueness, and its expansiveness.

Sitting reading early one Sunday morning, traditionally the quietest time in the week, I could still hear the roar of cars and lorries as they hurtled past, and although I couldn’t see them, they disturbed me. The constant roar takes away other, more subtle sounds I would have preferred to hear.

A woodpecker holding on to the bottom of a cylindrical ‘cage’ of nuts, suspended there by the gardener for that very reason – to feed the birds, and to allow him the sight, though not now the sound of their urgent pecking.

Now, the gentle gurgling of the river over the little weir, the cows in the meadow beyond, ruminating and lowing, birds singing, bees humming, and over it all, the gentle breeze stirring leaves and branches – all become submerged in the infernal, internal roar of the combustion engine, and rubber on tarmac.
Robert L. Fielding

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sunday on the hills of Saddleworth

Walking across the hills of Saddleworth yesterday, climbing Noon Sun Hill from the valley bottom at Royal George, striding over through the heather, grouse and meadow pipit flying up before me, I met several fellow walkers, also enjoying the brilliant sunshine.

I followed signposts – a yellow acorn and an arrow pointing my way up the hill. I was traversing part of the recently opened Pennine Bridleway, which runs up from near Matlock in Derbyshire, though the White Peak to meet the Dark Peak, flanking Kinder Scout and wending its way, by canal towpaths and old railway lines to Saddleworth before it heads north.

Turning back occasionally to enjoy the view of Saddleworth – more or less all of it from this height, I saw that I had reached a point just slightly higher than the other hills in Saddleworth. I could see right over Wharmton to the village of Scouthead, with High Moor at its back. I could see the sharp perpendicularity of Besom Hill brickworks above Moorside. I could see beyond, across the hills that encircle the town of Rochdale, sliced at Milnrow by the roaring, rushing M62.

Looking the other way from Alphin Pike, I was startled by how close Buckton Castle was to this, most prominent hill in my own area. Below the Roman fort, the hill was eaten away by the workings of Buckton Quarry, now no longer worked for its sandstone.

Walking along the edge now towards Chew Brook and its reservoir, the grey, flat slabs of the top of Wimberry Stones, known locally as ‘Indian’s Head’ appeared. Picking my way across bare peat, thankfully dried out a little after the few days without rain, and stepping on grey millstone grit and the sand left by its erosion, I quickly and easily reached the slabs and rested.

These grey, flat lying stones belie the sheer drops from their greening cornices and buttresses. A prized area for any climbers bold enough and skilled enough to dare attempt to scale these rock faces, Indian’s Head draws the eye from down below in a way that eludes anyone passing by the top of them.

The path on towards Chew Brook now takes a rocky turn or two before running round the edge of the precipice towards the dam bank of Chew Reservoir. It was just here that I met my first hill walkers; a couple from Alfreton in Derbyshire, out of Crowdon Youth Hostel for a hard day on the moors before motoring back to their north midland town, off the beaten track of Matlock Bath and beyond.

This walk, my new friends informed me, was to get ready for the rigours of the Coast to Coast walk which they would shortly be attempting. You do need to be fit to walk day after day for up to a week or more, and the limiting factor in one’s fitness is not the capacity of the lungs or the strength or otherwise of calf muscles, but the soles of your feet.

The constant pounding they take in any day’s walk on the hills is enough to make them sore. But, like having to get used to the discomfort caused by the saddle of a pushbike, feet have to go through pain to be able to overcome it.

Strong leather boots with thick woolen socks are a must on terrain like this – a twisted ankle could prove disastrous in such an isolated, precarious place. It is the boots as well as the pounding that have to be endured, and only continual tramping over heather and through peat bog will do the trick. Slowly but surely, the soles of the feet harden, the soreness abates and all is well.

To my own cost, I found that my own feet, being unused to such treatment as a good walk over the tops, felt more and more sore as the day wore on. Doubtless the energetic looking couple I had spoken to had feet with soles like the undersides of frying pans, and would have no trouble setting out from St. Bees Head, pointing greyly into the Irish Sea and beckoning across the dark waters to Snaefell on the Isle of Man. Doubtless they would still be in good order as they reached Ravenscar frowning imperiously over its neighbouring Robin Hood’s Bay on the windy coast of Yorkshire.

I wished them well and carried on to the immaculate stonework of the culverts and overflows of the reservoir. White water, the name for turbulence in rivers and on oceans, roared below as Chew Brook fairly flew down to hill to be finally subdued by Dovestones Reservoir far below.

Several people were sunning themselves on the dried grass bank, and passing them by quietly, I climbed quickly to get my first glimpse of the brown waters of Chew Reservoir for perhaps more than 20 years or more.

This most remote of the area’s reservoirs has as its catchment area only the ground that is higher – stretching to the edge of Crowdon Great Brook, and Laddow Rocks on one side, and Featherbed Moss on the other, a great expanse of featureless moorland leading back to Tintwhistle and the many, long reservoirs of Longdendale.

Standing brim full of water stained by the peat of the surrounding drainage, it is difficult to guess at the depth of the water. It might, for all anybody can tell, be hundreds of feet deep, or it might be less than six; it is impossible to tell by looking into its opaque depths.

Actually, in less pluvial times, when the little streams that drain the moor dry up and the water level falls, it is surprising to see that the whole of the bed of this reservoir is taken up by banks of peat; that it is filled by the material the streams flow through and erode continually.

It is obvious in drier times, less so in wet ones, that this reservoir would benefit from being dredged of its banks of eroded sandstone and peat; that it would hold much more water than it can possibly hold in its present state, and that if it did, water would not be in such short supply as it is when town councils announce hosepipe bans to the consternation of gardeners and people washing their cars everywhere.

Still, the reservoirs look full, which serves to increase the complacency of companies paid to fill our baths and washbasins, to flush our toilets and water our flower beds.

Stretching out again, diagonally, on a compass bearing, the brown waters at my back, I soon find the paths that skirt the tops of the edges of these high hills. Gritstone outcrops punctuate the skyline, and at intervals on the higher ones is heard the encouraging shouts of climbers, safely belayed, bringing up their pals below.

And then a slow and painful descent down to the dam wall of Yeoman Hey Reservoir – just the thing to make my knees just that little bit more painful than they already are.

And strangely enough – well not at all strange when you think about it – the relative coldness and indifference of the hoards of motorists sunning themselves stretching back and almost touching their car radiators, still hot from the journey out from the town that is uncomfortably hot on this lovely warm Sunday at the beginning of July.

Robert L. Fielding

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