Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

October 2007


GeneralTuesday, October 30th, 2007, (11:32 pm)

I’d never eaten Ostrich before so at the small South African restaurant I visited tonight I asked the waitress what Ostrich tasted like. She paused for a moment to ponder the best way to describe the dish, then in an accent not dissimilar to that of an intoxicated Slovakian after a bar brawl, she informed me that it tasted “something like leather.”

I should have perhaps heeded such a warning, but I felt that maybe our waitresses unflattering description was due to her obvious struggles with the English language. So undeterred I went ahead and ordered. “You know what,” I said decisively, “I’ll have the Ostrich.”

So what does Ostrich meat really taste like? It tastes like an old leather chair that’s been maturing in some musty old trailer somewhere, that’s what Ostrich meat tastes like.

I don’t think I’ve really eaten that many strange things. I’ve had wood pigeon before, served at one of my favorite Welsh hideaways. In Abu Dhabi I believe I ate snake, though it might have just been an eel, I simply couldn’t tell from the waiters animated gestures. And in India I might have eaten strange or unpleasant things, but when the menu you’re looking at is entirely made up of squiggles and wiggles you tend to just point at something and nod politely when the waiter comes to take your order in his native language.

So, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?

GeneralSaturday, October 27th, 2007, (9:47 pm)

I took a trip down digital memory lane this week and installed some software on my Mac that would enable me to play an old racing game from 1985 called Revs. I hadn’t played this this game for something like 17 years, but just hearing those old familiar sounds transported me right back to my friend Olly’s room, with his life-size pin up of Samantha Fox on the back of his door, and his impressive collection of ‘Now‘ albums!

In the days when Genesis wasn’t just a book in the Bible and a Foreigner was asking what love is, Olly and I became masters at Revs. None of our friends could get anywhere near our lap times due to fact we devoted a quite unhealthy number of hours to the game. If I had read any of my school text books with the same diligence that I studied the Revs manual, I might well have earned better (if less amusing) end of term reports.

The game featured just one track, Silvertone, with a later edition offering 4 more. The graphics were simple, but what the computer lacked in visuals we filled in with our vivid imaginations. It was Olly’s BBC model B computer so he enjoyed an edge on me for a while. I recall how mad he used to get when he crashed for whatever reason. He would often hit the TV monitor in frustration, it was all very teenage.

It’s fair to say that in the 17 years since I played the game I’ve lost some of my spark. In the video below you’ll see me drive straight into the back of another car at the start of the race, then tangle twice with Gary Clipper in accidents that could easily have been avoided had I applied just a modicum of caution. It truly is an awful display of race-craft and a shoddy showing of computer-gaming ability.

Somehow though, regardless of how limited the game is in modern terms, it’s still as much fun for me to play today as it was back in the mid 1980’s. I doubt it’ll hold my interest for even a fraction of the time it once did, but it’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

I played Revs for about two years until I began playing with pretty girls instead. They turned out to be no less exciting, though the lack of a decent manual has at times proved to be a little problematic.

BBC model B computer
Revs / Revs 5 Track
Sam Fox
Now that’s what I call music
Watch old Grand Prix races from 1985
U2 play LiveAid 1985

GeneralThursday, October 25th, 2007, (10:20 pm)

Earlier this year I posted a number of pictures from my trip to Waveland/Bay St Louis, Mississippi. Among them was a particularly striking scene of a tent pitched in the wreckage of a deserted home smashed by hurricane Katrina in 2005. As you might imagine there is something of a story behind the person who pitched that tent. I recently learned a small part of that story and I wanted to post about it so as to give that picture the background it deserves.

I never met the person who pitched the blue dome tent in the shell of a house on Paradise Street in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. “Home sweet home” read a painted sign nailed to the wooden frame of the house that had been ravaged by hurricane Katrina back in 2005. It seemed like a strange place to pitch a tent, but since Katrina had swept through this area causing destruction almost beyond comprehension, for those who lived here the meaning of home had been well and truly redefined.

The tent was home (sweet home) to Munson Voda, a man with a unique name and an adventurous spirit. Like many, Voda had travelled to the area to help relatives clean-up and rebuild their lives in the wake of the storm. But unlike the average volunteer Voda had made the 1,100 mile journey from his home in Wisconsin by kayak along the Mississippi River, a truly remarkable feat of commitment and endurance.

In the early hours of Saturday, October 20th, while walking home from a restaurant, Voda was apparently struck by a vehicle on Paradise Street just 100 yards from his makeshift home. He died as a result of the injuries he sustained.

The unlit road is surrounded by pine forest and according to acting Bay St. Louis Police Chief, Tom Burleson, the person that hit Voda may not have even seen him and could well have thought they had struck an animal. As yet nobody has come forward with any information about the incident which Police are calling an accident.

I wanted to post this because Munson Voda sounds like he would have been an interesting guy. Anyone who would kayak from Wisconsin to south Mississippi to help others surely has a few stories to tell, and while Munson himself can’t tell us his stories now, I didn’t want something of the tale of that blue tent, and the man who pitched it, to go untold.

Rest in Peace Munson.

[Thank you to Susan for seeing this in her local paper and bringing it to my attention]

The Return to Waveland
A town called Waveland
Mission to the town that vanished

Photography and TravelSaturday, October 20th, 2007, (3:18 pm)

A chill in the air announced the arrival of autumn as my 2500 mile journey around the UK drew to a close. I’d had a lot of fun playing the tour guide for my visiting American friends, and being a tourist myself. I took more pictures than I could possibly share, but I’ve picked a handful that I think give a fair sample of England, my country, my home.

Just two days after Susan had flown back to America I was joined by my friend Missy from Oregon. We packed a near two week time period with trips to various cities, towns and villages taking in, amongst other places, The Lake District, Liverpool, Oxford, and London.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could step into history and experience it for real. I was never really engaged by my history classes at school. I think that’s because it wasn’t really personal or related to any kind of life I could relate to. Facts and figures are interesting, but as I walk down historic roads or along pathways that have witnessed the passing of ages, I imagine the lives of the people who once made their way along these same routes all those years before. I imagine the lives of people to whom the history books have made no reference.

Liverpool is a great city for trips through your imagination. The port city was built on the wealth of the shipping industry and all the torrid tales that accompany that. The Titanic was registered in Liverpool by the White Star Line. That company has since vanished amongst mergers and corporate acquisitions but the companies former headquarters still stands, unrecognized and unoccupied, on a busy road near the docks that once made it wealthy.

In the shadow of the cities vast protestant cathedral is St James’s Cemetery where 57,774 people are buried. One of the most interesting things I found there though wasn’t the headstones but graffiti, very old graffiti!

St James’s Cemetery was once a stone quarry dating back to at least the 16th century. The oldest graffiti carvings were most likely done by quarry workers who etched their initials into the sandstone, the earliest example of which we found was dated 1727!

London was the final long distant location on the tour. It’s simply impossible to see or experience London in just a couple of days, but I think Missy got a pretty good taste. I keep promising myself a few days alone in London to wander around and photograph the hectic and seemingly chaotic whirlwind that defines it and makes London one of the greatest cities in the world.

And so, after nearly three weeks and two and a half thousand miles (that’s 4.25278571 x — 10-10 light years!), my tour around the UK comes to an end. We saw so much, but missed even more. It may be just a small island, but it’s not called Great Britain for nothing.

Visit Britain

Photography and TravelSunday, October 14th, 2007, (11:51 pm)

Scotland is a quite magnificent country. Invitingly wild and almost mystically charming it reaches north as if making a bid for freedom from the the rest of the United Kingdom. When you’re in the highlands and the glens miles away from the clock watching heartbeat of city life, you can’t help but become caught up in the romance of this rugged yet captivating land.

Visiting all the way from Waveland, Mississippi, Susan had said she wanted to go to Scotland and do the Malt Whisky Trail. Unlike Susan I am no fan of the traditional Scottish drink, but as a backdrop to a trek through the highlands of Scotland visiting various whisky distilleries didn’t seem like a bad idea, and besides, having come so far how could I decline my visitors one request?

With no timetable, appointments or reservations, Susan and I simply got in my car and drove north. By late afternoon we had made excellent time and decided to stop at Stirling Castle which overlooks the historic battlefields of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. There, under a statue of one of Scotland’s greatest kings and finest warriors, Robert the Bruce, we could see across to the nearby Wallace Monument from which William Wallace (Braveheart) was said to have watched the gathering of the army of England’s King Edward I, just before the Battle of Stirling Bridge. (Click the picture of the monument below to see a larger version.)

The Wallace Monument commemorates the 13th century Scottish hero William Wallace.

As the day drew on and the shadows began to stretch we continued north at a leisurely pace eventually stopping in the Highland Perthshire town of Pitlochry. There we checked into a local bed & breakfast before heading out for dinner.

Susan decided to be brave and sample haggis, a traditional Scottish dish that consists of a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt mixed with stock. That alone is enough to put me off the dish but what makes haggis special is that all those ingredients are boiled in a sheeps stomach for approximately an hour. Having eaten haggis in Scotland last year I didn’t feel the urge to try it again, though I did take a small bite and will admit this haggis was much better.

The proprietor of the B&B had told us of a small distillery not far from the town so the next morning, after a hearty breakfast (at which Susan had a bowl of whisky porridge), we headed to our first distillery.

The Edradour is Scotland’s smallest distillery by a long way. The Single Malt Scotch Whisky is hand crafted by just three men who use methods and equipment that have remained largely unchanged since the day the distillery opened some 150 years ago. Matured in Oloroso sherry casks from which much of the flavor comes, The Edradour declares itself to be “a rare pleasure for a fortunate few.” Producing just 12 casks of whisky a week, such a claim is not without merit.

Steeped in tangible history and tradition this was the perfect distillery to begin our malt whisky trail. I’m no expert but it wouldn’t take a connoisseur to see that there process by which Edradour is made comes as much from passion as it does from experience and expertise. Speaking in her soft Scottish brogue our tour guide walked us around the picturesque distillery showing us the processes and introducing us to the men who produce the whisky.

Back on the road heading north we came upon Blair Castle, a regal white château style stately home which is the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl. In the grounds we took a short walk through Diana’s Grove, a small wooded area originally laid out in 1737 by the 2nd Duke of Atholl. The grove is full of trees that one might not expect to see in the area, Larch, Norwegian Acer, Douglas Fir, Giant Sequoia and Coastal Redwood to name but a few.

Scotland

The advantage of not having a timetable was that we were able to unhurriedly yarn our way from place to place. If a road looked interesting, if a location looked appealing, we would simply go there, and while time wasn’t of great importance we had to be mindful of it’s slippery nature on these lush and colorful hills.

With every passing mile the landscape seemed to change like the twist and turns of an encapsulating story that was unfolding before our very eyes on hillsides and graggy mountains where the past and present meet like spies. In her travel journal Susan wrote; “Whatever picture you have in your mind about Scotland; magnify it times 10 and it might measure up.” She’s not wrong. (Click on the picture above to see a larger version.)

The road into Dufftown. Set in the famous Glen Fiddich, or valley of the deer, it's home to some of the world's best-known malt whiskies including Glenfiddich, Glendullan, Kininvie, Mortlach, Balvenie and Dufftown-Glenlivet.

The next stop was Dufftown, a small town set in Glen Fiddich which proclaims itself on the town sign to be the “Whisky Capital of the World.” Here we managed to catch the last tour of the day around the Glenfiddich distillery which produces more Single Malt Scotch Whisky in a single week that The Edradour produce in an entire year. (Click on the picture above to see a larger version.)

Although the feel of The Glenfiddich distillery was far more “industrial” it still maintained its sense of history. Indeed the company continues to be directed and managed by descendants of William Grant who built the distillery by hand back in 1886.

That evening, after dinner in a small French restaurant, we began what became somewhat of a quest for somewhere to stay. We looked at and politely declined a couple of B&B’s in the town before driving to the larger town of Elgin where we also struggled to find anywhere with rooms available.

In the end, after some help from a hotel clerk, who Susan claims was charmed by her southern drawl, we arrived at our accommodation for the night which turned out to be a Castle, or more correctly, a victorian folly! To my delight the hotel had a snooker table, so with our bottles of Glenfiddich close to hand, and the night porter lurking like the games umpire, I taught Susan how to play this very British game.

The following morning we set off for the one distillery Susan couldn’t leave Scotland without seeing; The Macallan. By now, having myself become rapt in the wonder of this Whisky Trail, I was almost as excited as Susan was to be at The Macallan distillery, home of what is widely regarded as the finest Single Malt Scotch Whisky, and most certainly Susan’s favorite. Unfortunately there were no tours that day, but we were able to walk around the impressive hilltop grounds that overlook the River Spey in the Easter Elchies Estate.

Of course, we sampled the whisky’s at the tasting bar despite the fact it was barely past 10 in the morning, and for the first time after ‘nosing’ a few whisky’s on this trip, I swear I could actually smell the oak this time. However, the actual flavor of whisky no matter how fine, has yet to win me over.

Knowing that I prefer the sweeter tasting liqueurs made by the distilleries, Susan very generously bought me a bottle of sumptuous maple syrup smelling Amber, the first liqueur developed by Macallan and currently only available in test markets in the United States. But while it was by no means cheap it didn’t cost the £5,399.99 ($10,967.91) that some people are prepared to pay for a bottle of 35 Year old Macallan from 1938! Regardless of this though, I shall most likely save opening my bottle of Amber for a special occasion.

And so began our slow meandering journey southwest in the general direction of England but still a very long way from the border and further still from home. With the roof down we weaved our way through the glens and occasional rain showers on narrow roads that might have seemed more like pathways to Susan. Buses would pass without showing the merest hint of slowing, causing Susan to look away and put her trust in the fact that we’re used to this kind of driving in Britain.

Again we stopped numerous times and of course I would take pictures. But notwithstanding some pleasing results the truth is that no photograph could completely capture the awesome nature of this beautiful scenery that has inspired so many people though the years. Looking across a hills and valleys carpeted in natures perfect cover we often stood in silence knowing that no words worth uttering could serve these moments justice.

Cille Choirill church sits on a hilltop in the Braes of Lochaber overlooking Glen Spean. Dedicated to St Cairell, a sixth century Irish bishop, the earliest church recorded on this holy spot is said to have been built by a 15th century Cameron chief. However, the site was probably hallowed ground long before this date. For centuries Cille Choirill has been the ancestral burial place of the MacDonells of Keppoch, many of whose monuments still survive. The famous warrior-bard Iain Lom MacDonald who died in 1709 is said to lie here.

In the Braes of Lochaber on the road to Fort William and the nevis mountain range we spotted a hilltop graveyard and church. At the end of a narrow track and with spectacular views over Glen Spean was the tiny church of Cille Choirill which has a history dating back to the 15th century. Many of the graves were unreadable and to my surprise the earliest grave we could read only dated back to 1826 despite the fact that the site has been a burial ground since 600AD! (Click on the picture of the church above to see a larger version.)

One unassuming headstone read “In memory of Donald McNeill who was accidentally drowned.” This rather to-the-point description of how the graves occupant met their end was not uncommon on the headstones, however this particular grave went on to read; “Inserted by his Mother, Sister & Brother.” It rather made us wonder whether perhaps his unfortunate demise might have been avoided had his Mother and siblings not “inserted him.”

The dramatic Castle Stalker is a four story medieval tower-house or keep set on a tidal islet on Loch Laich, an inlet off Loch Linnhe. Its history dates back to around 1320 when it was a small fort built by Clan MacDougall who were then Lords of Lorn. Around 1388 the Stewart's took over the Lordship of Lorn, and it is believed that they built the castle in its present form around the 1440s.

After a night spent in the rather forgettable Fort William we continued south making stops at a number of castles. The first of the day was Castle Stalker, one I had seen before on a trip here a year ago. I knew this castle to be especially striking as it’s set on a tidal islet and surrounded by the waters of Loch Laich. When one pictures a classic Scottish castle in their mind this is probably the very scene they imagine.

Parking the car in a position that hid the castle from view I told Susan to not look up until we walked a very short distance to a point where the castle looked most striking. Susan played along and looked up when I told her to. She actually gasped when she saw it, a reaction not unlike the one I had when I first saw the castle last year. (Click on the picture above to see a larger version.)

As we went into the evening of our last day in Scotland there was time enough to make one final site-seeing stop. We had already had a full day and along the way had explored the ruins of Dunstaffnage Castle and Kilchurn Castle, but we wanted to pry every last moment of magic out of this trip. And so Inveraray Castle became our final stop.

A gothic palace on the banks of Loch Fyne where it meets Loch Shira, the castle is the seat of the Chief the southern branch of the Clan Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, and today though partially open to the public, it remains the family home of the Duke. It was a beautiful evening as we left the castle with the top down on the MG. We were still a long way from England and almost 300 miles from home, but we didn’t care, this was top-down driving weather and we were going to enjoy it.

We said goodbye to Scotland after dinner on the darkened banks of Loch Lomond. It had been an amazing few days packed with so much that it made our trip to Wales only a few days before seem like a distant memory. All too soon we were back in England and early the next morning Susan was boarding her flight to New Orleans and home. She told me that she thought this vacation might well have been the best ever, and to someone who loves being a host and tour guide this was exactly what I wanted to achieve.

One thing’s for sure though, of all the pictures and souvenirs you take from Scotland, the one you’ll treasure most is the part of Scotland that you take away with you in your heart. But don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself.

Undiscovered Scotland
The Wallace Monument
The Edradour (Whisky)
Diana’s Grove at Blair Castle
Glenfiddich : Every year counts
How Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made (Bowmore Distillers) Part 1
A US TV feature about Scotch
Single Malt TV (A web TV channel about whisky!)
Scotch blog
The Macallan
Castle Stalker
Inveraray Castle
[Video] Edradour tour guide

Photography and TravelMonday, October 8th, 2007, (8:46 pm)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been playing host to American friends Susan and Missy respectively. In those three weeks I driven two and a half thousand miles in my two seater MG taking in sites from the west coast of Wales to the highlands of Scotland, and from Liverpool to London. By way of recording those adventures I’d like to share some of what we saw with you starting with a little bit of England before moving onto the rolling hills of Wales.

It took me a while to ask Susan the obligatory airport question when she arrived in the UK on a crisp late summer morning in September. “How was your flight?” Everyone asks that, it’s a ice-breaker, an opener, a defacto question to which the answer is largely irrelevant. Susan had arrived in the UK for her first time and was excited to be here, if the flight had been bad then in a short while that wouldn’t matter anyway.

As much as I can be critical of this over-crowded country of mine, I love to play the tour guide. I’m no expert in the history or tales that this land could tell, but just having a chance to experience it through the fresh gaze of a visitor is always a pleasure.

After Susan took a nap we meandered around the garden village of Port Sunlight catching up and enjoying scenes that could easily have been from picture postcard of England. Victorian houses overlooking carefully tended gardens and standing as close together as books on a shelf.

The next day, after visiting the nearby city of Liverpool, we headed to Wales and the hideaway of my friend Romy who had been kind enough to let me use her secluded stone cottage while she was away on business.

At the end of a winding track that takes you over a rickety wooden bridge, through a frighteningly narrow tunnel, three gates, and a grass track, Romy’s cottage is a very well hidden gem in the heart of mid Wales.

We arrived at night, the surrounding hills are silent and we’re enveloped in absolute darkness a long way from the amber glow of street lights. It wasn’t particularly cold but nonetheless I started a fire in the wood burning stove and made a cup of tea as surely any Englishman would. We stepped outside and looked up at the night sky that was awash with millions of stars as the milky way hung like cloud above us. I could have stood there for hours.

Wales

The next morning we ate breakfast outside enjoying the breathtaking scenery and the warmth of the late summer sun. The gentle sound of running water from the nearby brook blended into the background as birds sang. At times Susan was quite simply spellbound. She said she would have been perfectly content to stay there for the rest of her vacation. The irresistible charm Romy’s cottage had clearly swept her off her feet, as well it might. However, the plan for the day was to press on and see more. (Click on the picture above to see a bigger version.)

We packed the car and left the cottage heading west on roads that would eventually take us to the Isle of Angelsey. Along the way we stopped at a pub for lunch. Sitting outside we both enjoyed a hearty beef, ale, and mushroom pie cooked and served by staff whose first language was Cymraeg, that’s Welsh to you and I. (Click on the picture below to see a bigger version.)

Wales

With no real timetable we headed off the main roads and onto what I called ‘wiggle roads’ whereupon we often paused to take in the magnificent countryside. Another stop was the picturesque market town of Dolgellau, then with the top down on the MG we took to the open road heading through the arresting landscape of Snowdonia National Park. It’s on days like this when I most enjoy having a convertible. (Click on the picture below to see a bigger version.)

Wales

Reaching the coast we stopped just as we approached the seaside town of Criccieth. I pulled off the road into a small parking lot where I knew there would be an impressive view of Criccieth Castle that was built for Llywelyn the Great in the 1230’s. The castle overlooks the surrounding coastline and is an imposing monument to a time it almost seems impossible to imagine today.

As the sun began to set we came to the town of Caernarfon with it’s spectacular castle that looks out to sea and over the the Isle of Angelsey, our next stop. We crossed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits, that’s the Afon Menai in Welsh meaning the “River Menai” which is a narrow stretch of shallow tidal water about 14 miles long that separates Angelsey from mainland Wales. By now it was dark but that didn’t stop us visiting a rather eery looking Beaumaris Castle after which we decided to put tradition to one side and visit an Indian restaurant for dinner.

After dinner we began the journey back home crossing the Menai Bridge and taking the road back to England. Despite the darkness we still made brief stops to marvel at the majestic Conway Castle, and ruins of Flint Castle that stands on the banks of the River Dee just yards away from homes that seem almost oblivious to the history they rub shoulders with.

After seeing so many castles and old stone buildings I decided that the grand finale for the day should be the experience of crossing the Flintshire Bridge, a concrete Torsion bridge built in 1997.

Though it might not sound like much, the experience of crossing this awesome bridge with the roof down while looking straight up at the torsion bars gives the impression of being pulled up into the bridge. Most people who cross this bridge probably never think to look up when it seems more obvious to look around in an effort to catch a glimpse of a more traditional bridge view. But I like to think of this experience as a gift to my passenger, as if sharing a secret known only to a few. Of course, like much of Wales, it loses something of its magic in its explaining, but should you have the opportunity to experience this first hand you’ll understand what I mean.

Next stop Scotland.

Port Sunlight Village (England)
Liverpool
Liverpool architectural tour
Wales
Snowdonia National Park
Isle of Angelsey
Castle explorer – Find a castle
Learn Welsh
[Video] Coast : Hollyhead Angelsey to Liverpool England

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