28 June, 2007


the very noticeable Sexodrome on Place de Clichy in Pigalle, Paris. in English, the -drome suffix usually connotes the location of a particular sporting activity (cycling takes place at a velodrome, horse racing at a hippodrome), so i guess that makes this the gym for French folks.

i guess this post should come last out of the French ones (there will be a few), but i really wanted to get to this slightly scandalicious picture. it was taken with Jill's characteristic skill in the Pigalle red-light district, near to Montmartre. the Sexodrome is about the most obvious of the area's risque establishments, and is roughly across the street from the incredibly obvious Moulin Rouge. meaning "red mill", the Moulin Rouge is a late 19th century cabaret made famous in the United States (and doubtless elsewhere) by the recent movie of the same name, and it does indeed feature a larger-than-life version of its namesake structure:

the famous Moulin Rouge ("red mill") cabaret in the Pigalle area of Paris, near Montmartre. below, one of the soulful art nouveau signs for the Paris Métro (subway) system, this one at Pigalle station.

we didn't actually go to the "Féerie” show, mainly because it would have cost €89, which is about $126, and that without the dinner. still, it's a cool exterior and it was good enough to say we'd seen it. after doing so we made our way up into very nearby Montmartre. the patron saint of France, Denis, was decapitated on Montmartre in AD 250, thus giving the hill its name: "mountain of the martyr". in more recent history the area has been a magnet for artistic and creative types, with big names like Picasso, van Gogh and Matisse either living or working there. probably the artist most associated with the place is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the short-statured "soul of Montmartre" who produced numerous paintings of and posters for the Moulin Rouge. the most prominent landmark on Paris's highest hill is the Byzantine-inspired Sacré-Cœur Basilica, whose front steps play host to as many hippie revelers as its nave does worshipers. with or without those drunken view-seekers, Sacré-Cœur is an amazing sight, perhaps especially at night, when it is bathed in bright floodlight:

foreign visitors and local revelers flock to the bright Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, or Basilica of the Sacred Heart, that sits atop Montmartre in north-central Paris like moths to a night light. below, the inside is worthy of as much attention as the outside, boasting as it does one of the world's largest mosaics, this one named Christ in Majesty.

it's no surprise that the Basilica's steps attract so many people with such tremendous city views to be had, but the views inside the building can be equally impressive. Sacré-Cœur means "sacred heart" and accordingly the apse features a giant mosaic of Jesus with said heart, entitled Christ in Majesty. historically this is one of France's more important churches, having its roots firmly implanted in the soil of post-revolutionary politics, and its designation as a basilica may reflect some of that significance. a basilica is, in the Catholic sense, a designation conferred upon a large and important church that has been afforded special ceremonial rites by the Pope. today there are almost 1,500 of them around the world, most in Europe: Italy is home to over 500. with the possible exception of St Peter's in Rome, however, Sacré-Cœur may be the most well known around the world. it is surely one of the most spectacular.

the Eiffel Tower, here set a-twinkle as it is for about five minutes, apparently every (dark) hour on the hour. there are also a pair of continually revolving searchlights atop the tower, added for the new millennium just like the twinkling lights.

for real spectacle one need not look much farther than Paris's--indeed France's--most celebrated icon, the Eiffel Tower. visible, as it is, from all over the city, we saw it from all angles and a wide range of distances during our five days in town, not to mention in different lights. though there'll be more to say about the structure itself, mentioning La Tour's nighttime appearance is a necessity. bathed in a sodium-yellow glow from the hundreds of lamps affixed to its trusses, the tower stands out as a slightly eerie but awesome beacon in the dark sky, especially the closer one gets to it. to be smitten with it seems like such a cliché, and we went expecting to be somewhat disappointed by a landmark that would turn out to have been dramatically over-hyped, but the Eiffel Tower really is incredible, exuding a very compelling attraction that, much like magnetism, gets stronger the closer you are. maybe that's why it's made of metal. after returning to the ground from up in the observation decks, from where we'd seen the sun go down, we got a very powerful example of the tower's ability to amaze: the hourly display of powerful twinkling lights, pictured above, came on right at 10 and immediately a very audible collective gasp-cum-squeal went up from the probably hundreds of people milling around the tower's large footprint. this reactionary cry seemed more impressive than the light show itself, which may help explain the Eiffel phenomenon: each of those in whom the tower's magic was thus instilled will likely carry their personal testimonial of its wonder back to those far corners of the earth whence they came. they'll tell their friends, "you should see it in person, it really is as good as it's supposed to be--maybe even better." so friends of thejayfather, you should see the Eiffel Tower and Paris in person. they really are as good as they're supposed to be and maybe even better, especially in the evening time.

24 June, 2007


thebagpipes indeed. to be honest, i don't really enjoy their sound, but when you've taken it upon yourself to go to Scotland, you've got to be prepared to hear them at least once. fortunately for me, it was only once, and early on in the trip. i had been to Edinburgh a couple of times before this flying visit, but Jill would have felt cheated of the "whole experience" of Britain if we hadn't made it north of Hadrian's Wall, and probably would have felt more so if we hadn't heard a piper while there.

the lone bagpiper in all his noisy glory; and below, Jill gets to sate her desire for the authentic Scottish experience.

this guy was set up playing just down the street from the impressive Edinburgh Castle, which plays host to the very famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a festival involving quite spectacular displays from several military display bands that is held almost throughout the month of August. to give an idea of how big a deal this is, the parking lot was already well on its way to readiness for the shows when we were there in mid April, and furthermore, the tattoo is thought to be among the reasons Edinburgh has become the second most visited city in the UK after London. i saw the show, along with the castle, as a youngster, but this time we didn't even bother with the castle because the tickets were a scandalous £11 (about $22) each.

the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, which is about as close as we got, due to the shockingly high price of admission; and below, some shots of St Giles' Cathedral, or the High Kirk of Scotland, clockwise from top left: the outside, showing the distinctive hollow-crown tower; the memorial to James Graham, the Marquess of Montrose; the light from the high windows bathes the cathedral interior; and the stunningly intricate ceiling of the Thistle Chapel.

after avoiding that attempted fleecing, we began to make our way down the most famous of Edinburgh streets, the Royal Mile. this is the thoroughfare between the castle and Holyrood Abbey , and is actually a Scottish mile in length, this being equivalent to 1.1 Imperial miles. though many claim the street is actually named High Street, it does in fact have six different names at various points along its length. in any case, one of the most striking of the several landmarks along the Mile is St Giles' Cathedral, or the High Kirk (church) of Scotland, which has served its nation's capital for over 900 years and is dedicated to the patron Saint of cripples and lepers. with its crowned tower and intimate chapels it is another major tourist attraction, as well as being a fully operational parish church, and more besides: the Thistle Chapel, completed in the early 20th century, houses The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (Scotland's highest chivalric order) and is fitted all over with ornately carved wood fixtures and throne-like chairs for the monarch and the 16 knights of the order. an impressive room in an impressive building.

the Scott Monument, erected in the Princes Street Gardens in 1844 to Sir Walter Scott, poet and author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, among others.

Edinburgh is home to many impressive buildings; indeed, the Wikipedia article on the city declares that "because of its rugged setting and vast collection of Medieval and Georgian architecture including numerous stone tenements, it is one of the most dramatic cities in Europe." dramatic it may be, but it is almost certainly also drab, as the above picture, of the Scott Monument indicates. for some reason, most of the buildings in Edinburgh's vast collection are similarly caked in dark grime, which gives a slightly gloomy feel despite the architecture's noteworthiness. though there's still filth, a slightly lighter feel can be found up on Calton Hill, which is the home of both Scotland's devolved government and a host of quite whimsical monuments. they all have their dedications, but why they're so concentrated in this one spot i don't know.

i am standing in front of what David Hume, possibly Britain's greatest philosopher, got when he asked for a "simple Roman tomb" for his remains, which rather enormous structure stands unabashedly atop a hill in Calton Cemetary. below, a few of the monuments and other decorations on Calton Hill, including the National Monument to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, seen in self and shadow in the two bottom pictures.

one thing Edinburgh has going for it, if not cleanliness, is a pretty extensive list of names and nicknames, among which is the potentially misleading "Auld Reekie". i've been to smelly cities, and i didn't think this was one of them, and indeed Auld Reekie means "Old Smoky", not "Old Stinky". in days of yore the only fuels available in town were wood and coal, so chimneys would belch out thick columns of smoke, so hence the name. hence also, i assume, much of the grit and grime that still covers the city's structures. still, some people are making the best of it, trading on this nickname to pitch their businesses, like the one we patronized that focused not so much on the grimy as the ghoulish. as a bit of a fright fan, Jill wanted to go on one of the several "haunted underground" tours that are offered, and we ended up choosing the one run by Auld Reekie's. in the late 18th century, the long 19-arch South Bridge was built to link old town to new, with 18 of the arches being enclosed to provide space for commercial enterprises. unfortunately, the vaults thus created were never properly sealed and quickly began to leak, which led to their abandonment by legitimate businesses. illicit activities took over what quickly became Edinburgh's slum, and the dispossessed of the city moved into their new free housing in huge numbers. because conditions down there were so awful, the police would never enter and so rapists and murderers would escape there and then continue their vices with no fear of reprisal. it is believed that Burke and Hare, infamous serial killers who sold corpses to medical schools in the late 1820s, hunted for victims in the South Bridge Vaults.

the sign promoting the underground vault tour we went on, run by an outfit calling themselves Auld Reekie's. below, one of the rooms under the South Street Bridge said to be haunted by the angry spirits of previous inhabitants who had suffered death in various unpleasant ways.

little wonder then that spiritualists and paranormalists, as well as entrepreneurs catering to the amateur ghostbuster have seized upon and exploited the vaults since their rediscovery in 1988. there are numerous spirits said still to frequent the vaults (though some are known to be of the liquor type stored by neighboring pubs) and the area has played host to a number of TV specials and all kinds of studies. the picture above is of one of the supposedly haunted (albeit less than some other) rooms in the complex, but we were assured that ghosts such as the South Bridge Poltergeist were often captured on film, most often appearing as an orb of light. well, though i did get the chills, we saw no orbs, nor did we feel anything like a cold hand on the back of our necks that others had reported feeling. but one of the studies conducted in the vaults did find that generally speaking, the people who experienced what may be termed paranormal phenomena were the people who expected that they would. in other words, what you believe dictates what you get, so while maybe i don't believe in angry spirits hanging out under Edinburgh, i did have a good time, which is certainly something i believe in, even in the land of bagpipes.

23 June, 2007


Chester is not far from England's border with Wales, which border is only about as clearly delineated as US state boundaries generally are. after spending some time in Chester and Tarvin we decided to head into Wales to show Jill and Todd all the sheep, and the land of Tom Jones' nativity. Jill had really been wanting to see a castle too, and while Chester has one, it isn't one of the most impressive or classic looking. i remembered that the town of Conwy (pronounced Conway), about halfway out along the North Welsh coast, had a castle that i had always thought looked pretty striking, so we went there.

some views of Conwy Castle, including a picture of a model showing how the castle may have looked during its heyday, in the front center. click on the image to enlarge it.

indeed, Conwy Castle dates from the late 13th century, and stands largely intact guarding the mouth of the River Conwy. there are great views from the high turrets, and the castle is large enough that spending an hour there made us have to hurry to see it all, but we had other things to do, other places to go in North Wales. my maternal grandmother, whose maiden name, Thomas, was given to be my middle name, is Welsh, and my mother's dad, a Roberts, is Welsh at least in ancestry. when he still lived in Britain he kept a sailboat at the small village of Abersoch, way out west in North Wales, and so Kim and i decided to take Jill and Todd on a sort of pilgrimage out there.

Abersoch, clockwise from top left: Kim and i outside the Abersoch Post Office, with home pride stickers all over the windows; the early afternoon shadows that me, Jill, Kim and Todd cast on the beach; a view of that beach at low tide, with tractors pulling boats into and out of the surf; and a message in the sand for all the Welsh to see.

Abersoch welcomes, or at least tolerates, hordes of tourists every summer who must stretch the village's capacity to its breaking point as they descend in droves to lounge on the large beach. though it was quite hot while we were there, the tourist season hadn't yet started in earnest, so there were only weekend travelers to peruse the sleepy shops and paddle their feet in the water. despite the painful cold of the Irish Sea, plenty of folks were out splashing around or tooling about in boats that had been towed out to meet the waves by large tractors. one thing we noticed about Abersoch that probably accounts for much of its draw was the almost exclusive sandiness of the beach. many other beaches we had seen in Britain were seriously pebble-ridden, if not entirely made of small stones. the next beach we went to, at Llanbedrog, was much this way, though to us no less a draw because of it.

Jill and me on the rocky Llanbedrog beach, with some of the famous holiday cottages of the village. my mum would stay in cottages not far from here during her childhood vacations; below, some of the changing huts lined up on the sandier part of the beach, newly reinstalled in more varied colors than those of bygone days.

strangely perhaps, Llanbedrog's beach seemed busier than Abersoch's, but since we only went there to see where my mother used to take her childhood holidays, we weren't that bothered by the relative crowds. there seemed to be even lees to do in this village than the last one, so we began to make our way back to England in our trusty rental car. but one thing was still missing from my Welsh experience. it wasn't that i was feeling bad for not having reached the place with the longest name in the world (about which more later), but that i hadn't seen any of the vast slate mountains i remembered being everywhere as a boy. North Wales is home to Snowdonia National Park, which is itself home to Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales (the highest in Britain is Ben Nevis in Scotland). several of the mountains around this region are composed of slate, which is mined to this day, primarily for roofing material, though in much reduced quantities than were being obtained prior to WWII. these days the area derives some revenue form tourists riding down into the belly of the old mines to have a look at where their souvenir trivets came from. i wasn't so interested in that as i was in seeing the huge stacks of loose shale that ranged up mountainsides just next to the roadways, so i took the others on a detour through the Welsh countryside looking for the quarries of my memory. what may have seemed like a wild goose chase to start with turned up success surprisingly quickly, as we found some pretty good examples near the famous festival town of Ffestiniog (phew).

Todd stands in front of one of my slate mountains. this stuff is literally found just stacked up and sliding down the hillsides--Todd isn't more than a few feet from the edge of the roadway; below, i'm posing with our handy little rental car right at the Welsh border. we rented this one in Chester and took it all the way across North Wales and then all the way up to Edinburgh and back, but that's for next time.

so about Ffestiniog. not the town, but the name. if you've seen much written down in the Welsh language, you'll have noticed that it seems to have a near monopoly on consonants, which can make things hard to pronounce, to say the least. the place i mentioned earlier, the one with the longest name, is 58 letters long, of which only 13 are vowels. it's of such a ratio that Welsh would have to get together with a Polynesian language like Samoan and have offspring to result in a hybrid with a consonant-vowel proportionality that we could handle. the name of that village, which incidentally is home to not much more than a wool shop and a proudly-signed train station, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which i challenge you to say on your own. i learned how from a Welsh homeroom teacher i had, but i couldn't even begin to try to break it down in this post. you may want to do a little research into it, at least so you can impress your friends. i will tell you that llan means saint, and the double l sounds like a very breathy "thl". i hope that helps you get started.

me and Jill by the Church's sign in Welsh. this one balances the English one on the other side of the building, which is the impressive new Chester chapel, actually built several miles from Chester in Ewloe, Wales, naturally; below, some of the bilingual signage that is prevalent in Wales, this in the Conwy Castle car park (parking lot).

so "f"s sound like "v"s, unless they're doubled up, "w"s sound like "u"s and double "d"s sound like "th"s. some letters aren't there at all, but are more than made up for by a bunch of digraphs that take the total "letter" count of the Welsh alphabet to 28. its all a bit confusing, but it does sound pretty cool when you're listening to the Smurfs dubbed over in it on your tiny black-and-white childhood TV. and besides, you'd better get used to it if you intend to be a true world traveler: Welsh competes to be the most widely spoken of the Celtic languages, and not only do around a fifth of the Welsh population speak it, but a sizeable chunk of the good folks in the Chubut province of Argentina, of all places. so just chew on that while you're trying to say "Cymru am byth"*.

* meaning "Wales forever".

14 June, 2007


no, this is not a post about an M Night Shayamalan film, but about the small housing clusters often found in non-US countries. about one in particular, actually, the one in which i spent the first 14 years of my life, which is about six miles East of the great city of Chester, England. the name of this magical little place, Tarvin, which is home to between three and four thousand people, is thought to be derived from the Welsh word terfyn, which is itself derived from the Latin terminus, and means boundary. indeed, ruins of Roman structures have been found in Tarvin, including a rather intact set of bridges, making this a very old village, and showing that it was indeed at the edge, or boundary, of the major Roman settlement at Deva (Chester).

Jill and me at the entrance to Park Close, the street where Kim and i grew up, or at least aged somewhat from newborns. below, some of the wide open spaces surrounding Tarvin. the cows were very friendly and constitute a large part of Cheshire County's economically important agricultural sector.

most of the historical significance on our trips there, however, came from memorial rather than archaeological artifacts, and we found plenty to stimulate our reminiscences. this was the part of our trip that i had most looked forward to, and it didn't disappoint. as we trekked around our old haunts, however, Kim and i became convinced that somebody had managed to pull a real-life "Honey I shrunk the Village" on us. everything--everything--was so much smaller than we had remembered it: our old house, our street, the distances between places all seemed to have shrunk with the many years that had passed since we were last there in 1993. we made good use of that oddity though, exploring much of the village on foot in a very short time. we got to see my old primary school and junior school, the old Scout hut that is sadly no longer in use, and the glitzy destinations along the High Street, which includes all of perhaps eight shops, a Methodist church and a pub.

schools 'n things in and near Tarvin, clockwise from top left: my primary school, which would be like kindergarten and first grade in America; the apparently disused old Scout hut, which sits at the North end of Tarvins large playing fields; the junior school Kim and i went to, which serves what would be second through fifth grades in the States; and Jill saving me from the horrors of my old high school in the nearby village of Tarporley, which takes in the equivalent of grades six and up. this place looked a lot rougher than i remember it. below, views on and near Tarvin's High Street, clockwise from top left: St Andrew's Anglican Church, standing since at least the early 14th century; King Louis' fish and chip shop, a Tarvin staple of fine English cuisine. the chips were just the same as we remembered them; the Tarvin News store, or Post Office, better known to us by its former name, Anley's, or as the place to spend your pocket money on sweets (candy); and the rather forlorn-looking George and Dragon pub, closed due to a fire that local talk says may have been attempted insurance fraud...

so Tarvin is old, going back about two millenia, and small, which it looks set to stay, thanks to a clever set of greenbelt laws that should really be deployed in the US. as such the village is able to maintain a great deal of its charm and character, but it loses none of its importance in the surrounding area. St Andrew's Anglican church, which dates from at least the early 1300s, is thought to be disproportionately large for Tarvin's size, reflecting perhaps the village's Roman-born status among surrounding communities. this church is well maintained and worth a visit, with headstones in the graveyard from the 1700s and musket ball-derived pockmarks in the outer walls still visible from the mid-17th century Civil War. inside are many stained-glass windows and old relics, including a carved figure known as the Tarvin Imp, who is said to ward off evil spirits. i best remember the interior of the church from the proud time i played the lead in the school Christmas play there as a second-grader. the Anglican church is more properly known as the Church of England, so for all the Americans horrified that school events would take place in a church, the hallowed separation of church and state works a little differently over here.

the best parts of this trip to Tarvin, at least for Kim and i, were also indoors, but somewhere a bit more modern: our former next-door neighbors' house. Brian and Lorna Stott moved into number 3 when i was about four, bringing with them their son Chris who was a few months older than me and who turned out to be a fast and close friend. i vividly remember our shy and awkward first meeting by the lamppost between our houses, with our mothers urging us to share some Chewits candies. Jill and Kim's husband Todd indulged many hours of chatting and reminiscing as Brian and Lorna and their younger son, Robin, for whom Kim used to babysit, played wonderful hosts to the four of us.

thevillage people, of Tarvin, that is. some of our neighbors in Park Close, from left to right: Pam Kelly from number 5, Pat Parkin at number 2, Robin, Brian and Lorna Stott from number 3, and thejayfather and Kim, formerly of number 4. below, Chris and i pose by his front yard early one Halloween. he is dressed as a Red Devil, the mascot of the great Manchester United Football (soccer) Club, and i as some kind of punk it seems. no lame jokes in the comments box about that please.

unfortunately we were unable to see Chris on either of our visits to the Stotts, but i imagine his ears were burning pretty well both times. Brian and Lorna pulled out old photos and videos and we relived many good times. Brian had been the coach of many of the football (soccer) teams that Chris and i had played on, and Lorna had served with my mum as a founder and early leader of the Beaver Lodge (a pre-Cub Scouts boys group) when we were young lads. it struck me how closely our lives had been intertwined, and i'm glad that we are still able to maintain a friendship. certainly on our next trip to Britain, Jill and i will be making our way up to thevillage of Tarvin to see our old neighbors again. until then, my profoundest thanks to them, and a promise that it won't take another 14 years for that visit.

me on the legendary Battle Wagon bicycle that my dad restored for me, circum-pedalling the old house at 4 Park Close.

12 June, 2007


as good as it was to get back on British soil in London and visit family in Cornwall, there was extra excitement surrounding our trip to Chester in the Northwest. my sister Kim and i took our spouses up there to show them the city that only we of the seven members of our family were born in*. i was very pleased to find that time seemed to have been kind to Chester: it seems to be fairly affluent and well maintained, and generally thriving really. it's really a cool city, with almost 2,000 years of history behind it, starting with the Romans in AD 79. they established the city as a fort and called it Deva after the goddess of the local River Dee, and they built a wall all the way around their settlement. this wall, though subsequently rebuilt in medieval and Victorian times, is still standing and is the most complete city wall in the UK.

clockwise from top left: one of the signs marking the way along the walls surrounding the old city of Chester; a view of those walls near the cathedral; inside the famous "Rows", elevated walkways providing access to yet more shops; and what the Rows look like from the street.

one of the prominent historical periods represented by Chester's buildings is the Tudor, typified by the black and white wood and clay used in its construction. the wood is black because it is painted with tar to give it weather protection, and the clay (or often dung) is pasted over a latticework of sticks between the wood beams and then whitewashed for rain resistance. most of these buildings date from the 16th and early 17th centuries, and as such often appear to be very "wobbly" or crooked, as there was no way for large timbers to be cut exactly straight then. in the center of Chester, near the "Cross" (from whence the town crier still yells out proclamations at noon) are many of these buildings, several built with an outdoor walkway around the second story known as the "Rows", which arrangement is thought to be unique. many of the other structures in town and the surrounding areas are built with the indigenous sandstone, which is quite soft and so clearly shows the wear of its age. one of the largest structures rendered primarily in sandstone is the Chester Cathedral, of which the early-8th century Saint Werburgh is the patroness.

some views of Chester, including, clockwise from top left: the famous "pillarbox" style mailbox; some telephone boxes outside old Tudor buildings; the Queen's Park Bridge that spans the River Dee; more Tudor buildings along the important Eastgate Street; the River Dee itself, taken from the Queen's Park Bridge; and a view of Chester Cathedral from the back. below, the city's most famous landmark, the Eastgate Clock, which was built in 1897 to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, is still ticking.

i was able to appreciate Chester much more on this trip than i ever had as a child. it has a castle (also built of sandstone), a horse racing track, one of the best zoos in the country and plenty of green space in and around it. it's rich in history and is the principal town of Cheshire, a county whose relative wealth derives from widespread agriculture and a healthy tourism sector, among other things. it's also got a awesome leisure center called Northgate Arena, which has pretty much the best swimming pool imaginable for young folks. Kim and i remembered having and attending many birthday parties there, and were dismayed to find that it would cost us over £3 ($6) just to get to go and have a quick look at it for old time's sake. oh well, we had to make do with the available entertainment:

good old fashioned fun on the streets of Chester--but leapfrogging the traffic bollards used to seem so much harder, below.

we rented a car in Chester, and though the city center is almost impossible to access by motorized vehicle, i was surprised at how easily i was able to navigate (and actually to drive on the left side of the road; though we'd been riding a motorcycle on the left in Japan, it was a lot harder to keep a car within lanes). somehow i was able to feel my way around much of the city by memory, even though i'd never driven there before. one of the locations i was able to find was our old church building, the very one in which i was baptized over 20 years ago and which i went to at least once a week for 14 years. the Blacon neighborhood it's in wasn't the nicest back then, but it's looking decidedly rough these days. the building was sold some years ago and is currently being used as a mosque, according to what we were told.

the old Chester chapel, or new Chester mosque, perhaps, which looks a lot grimmer even than it was. below, better times at that chapel: my dad and me on the day of my baptism, Thursday, March 5th, 1987.

there is a new chapel for the Chester ward, though it's way out in Ewloe in North Wales and is about twice the distance from our old house as this building is. we did make our way out there for church, and were warmly welcomed by many old friends, just as we were in our old neighborhood on our trips there. details of these visits, as always, will follow, so stay tuned to thejayfather.

*Jill and i recently learned that not only is Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond actor, one of Chester's most famous sons, but that he was born in the same hospital as me, and on the same day, 11 years earlier. talk about cosmic.

11 June, 2007


after a few days in London, we were ready for a break from the hustle and bustle and the claustrophobia of the city, so we set out for the serenity of theSouthwest, finding it and more in Cornwall. the county of Cornwall occupies the farther reaches of the peninsula that protrudes, arm-like, from the British mainland. it is certainly one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, with miles and miles of rugged coastline meeting both the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel.

a sample of the Cornish coastline, this at Bedruthan Steps near the national surf capital Newquay, on the Atlantic side.

calling Cornwall one of the most beautiful parts of Britain is intended as a complement, but we have to be careful with such things, as we learned in the last post. though Britain is clearly in Europe, no self respecting Briton would ever suffer the effrontery of being called European. so it is with the Cornish; i well know that my Cornish father will not stipulate to being English (or British, really), though i've never heard any independence declarations. not that there aren't plenty of folks who wouldn't love to issue one; there is a small movement lobbying for greater Cornish autonomy, and almost half of the county's residents list Cornish as their nationality. though it hasn't officially been afforded national status, Cornwall is considered one of the six modern Celtic Nations, along with (a united, or island of) Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Brittany in France. like these others, Cornwall has its own Celtic language and a whole bunch of national pride to go with it. still, England was a good enough place for my brothers and sisters and me to be allowed to be born in, so for my purposes and those of this post, Cornwall will be considered English and thus, by extension, British. sorry Dad.

one of the many defunct-but-standing chimneys that litter the countryside and were used in the Cornish tin mining industry; this famous one is known as the Sentinel and stands atop the headland of England's (oops) only cape, Cape Cornwall.

as a boy i spent many summer holidays in Cornwall visiting my dad's parents and some of the only useful (owing to water temperatures in the South) beaches in all of the British Isles. our hosts on this trip were my dad's cousin Valerie and her husband Chris, who treated us like royalty and indulged all of my memory-driven desires despite our whirlwind schedule. after dinner the night we got there they asked us what we wanted to do over the next couple of days, and my reply was simple: we needed to eat clotted cream, hog's pudding and saffron cake. for some reason i have very strong food associations with Cornwall, and these things, along with Cornish pasties should definitely be sought out on any trip there. we did go and see a few things, too, including some places of significance to our family.

important places and people in Cornwall, clockwise from top left: Treverbyn Church, where my grandparents were married and where my great-grandfather is buried; a very important street in my youth. turning in here would often signify the end of a six hour car ride from home to my grandparents' house; that house, with a new paint job. no matter what time we would finally arrive, my grandpa would always be waiting on his stool on the porch for us; and me with my grandmother's younger brother Ron and his wife Rose, who are Valerie's parents.

my grandparents aren't around anymore, but their old house is still standing, though the neighborhood seems to me to have declined somewhat. this is where we would usually stay when visiting, and a host of fuzzy memories surround 61 Lostwood Road in St Austell. we also visited Val's parents, Ron and Rose, and one of her sisters, Dorothy and her husband Mike and daughter Donna in nearby towns. all the while i found myself talking about my memories and then being corrected as to their specifics, so i knew it had really been too long since i was there. but Val and Chris are experts and fielded all of our questions, stupid and less-so, with patience and indulgence.

and they were untiring in hauling us halfway around the county to see the many sights on offer in Cornwall. one of its most famous--even among Britain's most famous--is Land's End, which is the Westernmost point in England. there you can see the Atlantic Ocean and the Longships lighthouse out in it, and these days you can even buy yourself some Dr Who merchandise from one of the many shops that fill the recent development there. the last time i went there was virtually nothing but a sign that indicated the distance to a few other places of interest. you could take these plastic letters and spell out your hometown on it and take all the pictures you wanted with it; now it's about £11 ($22) for a single 5x7 inch photo that gets mailed to you three weeks later. we paid the fee but like sneaky Yanks had Chris take some more shots with our camera while we were in the enclosure.

Land's End, clockwise from top left: the entrance to the new development at Land's End, which is written "Penn an Wlas" in Cornish; Jill and me taking our expensive time with the always famous and only recently exclusive sign. the top says the year and the distances to New York (3147 miles), John o'Groats (Britain's most Northeastern settlement, 874 miles), and the Isles of Scilly (28 miles) and Longships Lighthouse (1½ miles). we put up Salt Lake City, which is 5355 miles from Land's End; Jill and me at the First and Last House, which is, funnily enough, the first and last house in England, depending on where you're coming from; and Jill, me, Val and Chris on the Westernmost point in all of England. below, several views of the Minack Theater, which is built on a cliffside between Land's End and Penzance.

a few miles to the East of Land's End, on the way to Penzance (yes, like the pirates), Val and Chris took us to a remarkable place that somehow i had never even heard of before, let alone seen: the Minack Theater. back in the '30s a woman who owned a house up on a high cliff overlooking the sea made her back yard available to a local theater troupe for their annual production. she made rough terraced seating and created a stage and kept refining it over the course of decades as its popularity as a venue grew. it is literally on the edge of a cliff and this lady would pour seats with concrete and haul up her building materials from the beach below the cliff, even once expropriating materials from a ship that had wrecked there. it's an incredible location for a theater, and plays are still performed there quite regularly, although plenty of folks just like us will pay just to go in and look around.

further on along the coast, we stopped just outside one of many rather inconspicuous fields, and were urged to climb the fence to get into it. having done so we quickly espied the 19 merry maidens that collectively form a complete neolithic stone circle. legend has it that these low stones were once young ladies who allowed their dancing to carry on into the Sabbath, and so were turned to stone as punishment. apparently there are at least five other stone circles in Cornwall, probably tucked away in some nondescript field just like this one.

the very interesting merry maidens stone circle, consisting of 19 stones. there are two more set some distance from this group that, according to the legend, are the petrified remains of the maidens' pipers, who tried to run home upon hearing the church bells strike midnight; below, St Michael's Mount, a tidal island just off the coast near Penzance.

following our rocky encounter we continued East to the fishing village of Mousehole, which is, naturally enough, pronounced mao-zul. Cornwall is very much a part of Britain when it comes to having names that sound nothing like they're spelled. in addition to Mousehole, it has Fowey, pronounced foy, while elsewhere in the country we have Cholmondeley, which is obviously said chumley. in any case, a little further on is Penzance, which is said just like it reads, and which did not seem to be harboring any pirates while we were passing through. just after passing through we came upon a little place called Marazion, which is home to the best views of St Michael's Mount, a small tidal island just off the coast that houses an abbey and a castle. it has historical ties with Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, France, and is generally a pretty cool sight. as home of Lord St Levan, i don't know that the island is accessible to the average tourist, and even though our group was certainly not average, we didn't try to go so i never found out.

Caerhays beach in late spring. note the windbreaks and the rocks, just what a British day at the beach is all about. still, it's in a protected cove and can make for quite a pleasant afternoon; below, the harbor and picturesque village of Mevagissey, one of my all-time favorites.

i was surprised to find that the place most strongly associated with my memories, other than Lostwood Road, was Caerhays Beach. like most of the others around it is pretty pebbly and i was never much of a beach fan anyway, preferring to stay in the parking lot and play soccer or catch with my dad. but i well remembered coming to this beach several times, including one where i neglected my assigned duty of watching my younger sister, Kim, so that my older sister, Carrie had to run all the way down to the low-tide waterline to get her, which gave Carrie an asthma attack severe enough to send her to hospital for a couple of days. needless to say, i wasn't very popular with the family for the rest of that vacation. on this vacation, i had been looking everywhere for a small plastic toy boat like the ones i had always bought as a child, but even the trusty little shop at Caerhays had moved on to bigger and better things.

the last place i had chance to look before leaving was in Mevagissey, one of my absolute favorite places from all those Cornish holidays. it's a few miles South of St Austell, and is a small fishing village built in a little valley so the houses rise up on all sides of the harbor. fishing has given way now to tourism, the many cutesy trinket shops lining tiny winding streets making this transition somewhat understandable, but even now Mevagissey is hard to beat for pure picturesqueness or nostalgic feeling. it's a postcard come to life.

even with only a couple of days there, Cornwall burst rapidly back to life for me as we were chauffeured all over by Val and Chris. i don't think they've been planning any ventures in the tourism business, but even without them as guides there's still plenty to see and explore in Cornwall, if you can manage to drag yourself away from London. we'll certainly be back, remembering that we were and remain very grateful to our wonderful hosts.

09 June, 2007


before we get too much further with the posts about thejayfather's homeland, it's worth taking a look at what that homeland actually consists of. the makeup and breakdown of the United Kingdom is a source of great confusion here in America, but let's give it a look and see what we can't find. a clue to this strange identity problem lies in the name itself, but the official one, the end of which is usually left off or forgotten: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. so the UK is composed of these two entities, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the latter of which should be clearly visible on the map below:

the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

this generates a couple of questions: first, does that mean that Ireland is not part of the UK?; and second, where is Great Britain? and the answers are: yes, that does mean Ireland is not part of the UK. the Republic of Ireland, or Eire (say air-uh) in local parlance, is its own sovereign nation with no relation to the UK. second, Great Britain (GB) is everything rendered in that peachy, flesh color on the map, so it, like its super-entity the UK, is also made up of smaller parts. these are the countries clearly marked on the map as England, Scotland and Wales.

figuring out what the four basic entities share and don't share is where it gets complicated. basically Scotland and Northern Ireland have some useful powers devolved to them, such as independent legal systems, and Wales has some powers of self government. but England is ruled directly by the government of the United Kingdom, and Wales shares its legal system with England. Wikipedia has a fairly helpful article on the differences between these nations, but it's all a bit obscure, even to British folks, and that's before you even get to the flags.

the Union Jack, flag of the United Kingdom.

this one's familiar looking, and is best known as the Union Jack. many of the former colonies of the British Empire still retain this image in the canton (upper left quadrant) of their national flags, like Australia, New Zealand and Fiji do. but just like the Kingdom itself, the Jack is made up of several constituents, including a couple of the following:

flags of the constituent nations of the UK, clockwise from top left: St George's Cross, the flag of England; St Andrew's Cross, the flag of Scotland; the Ulster Banner of Northern Ireland; and the Red Dragon of Wales. all flags have been cropped square to fit.

obviously the first two made the final cut, but what of the others? not there at all, probably because the Ulster Banner is clearly derivative of St George's cross, and because Wales entered the UK as a principality of England. so merging the crosses of St George and St Andrew gives you the basic design of the Union Jack, but for the finishing touch you have to take the rarely-seen (in Britain) Cross of St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, which is a red saltire (an "x" type cross, like St Andrew's) on a white field.

so it's all been made a bit technical and mysterious for the unsuspecting, which sounds like just the kind of thing Britain would do. British folks tend to have a general understanding of how this works and seem to be relatively careful in their use of the terminology, but Americans are wont to interchange the national terms with reckless abandon. this can be very distressing, especially in the face of such professed fascination with things of the Kingdom. Scots people are British but certainly not English, and folks from Northern Ireland are not even technically (if historically) British, but Irish. it's hard to tell which group takes greater umbrage at these common misattributions, but a healthy dose of offense is almost invariably given in such cases. this primer should be enough to help you avoid such faux pas, so arm yourselves with this knowledge, unwitting and victimized Americans, you'll need it and more for the next post...

08 June, 2007


well, dear Reader, we've been together more than two years now, and i'm thinking it's about time to take you home with me. that's right, we're going to begin a journey that was over 14 years in the making for me, and start right in the Sceptered Isle's principal city: London. arguably the most important in the modern world's history, it is vast, it is vibrant, and it appears to be thriving. it is also dirty, dangerous and dilapidated in parts, but nobody's perfect, right? actually, i don't love London--i like it, but i don't love it. i suppose most Britons feel this way because foreigners tend to base their impressions of the entire country on this one part of it (hey, it's not like i've ever done that), when we would generally agree that it's not the best part. it's like thinking all of America is like New York, which has cool stuff and lots to see and do, but is cramped and crowded and not exactly picturesque.

some London views, on a Buckingham Palace background, clockwise from top left: boaters on the Serpentine, a long lake in Hyde Park; the world's biggest ferris wheel, London Eye, which stands along the banks of the Thames; a red telephone box across the street from Marble Arch, which was originally one of the gateways to Buckingham Palace; the main entrance to Westminster Cathedral, which sits across the street from the Houses of Parliament; Tower Bridge, which not coincidentally spans the Thames right next to the Tower of London; and a sign from the famous London Underground network of subway trains.

nevertheless, there are pictures to be taken, and plenty of them, as those above demonstrate. and there's plenty more. our first full day in town was spent seeing the major sights, including the very new London Eye ferris wheel and the very old Houses of Parliament and Westminster Cathedral that sit just across the river from it. there are layers upon layers of history here, as in much of Europe, piled so thick it can be hard to tell where one ends and another begins. but i guess that's what makes it all so charming, and what gets the stories of all that history so screwed up. for example, consider the picture below:

Jill and i in front of Big Ben? maybe...

everyone knows what this is, right? Big Ben of course. of course not, actually; Big Ben is not visible from the outside of its tower, the one you see here. Big Ben is in fact the bell that is hanging inside the clock tower at the Houses of Parliament, and is officially known as the Great Bell. so you learn something every day. but not every day is as special as that first full day in London, which saw us celebrating the anniversary of Jill's birth. after our jet-lagged trekking around to such inspiring sights as Platform 9¾ (from the Harry Potter stories) at King's Cross Station, we went back to my sister Kim and her husband Todd's place for a specially prepared birthday dinner and cake.

Jill and i visit JK Rowling's world as we attempt to gain access to platform 9¾ at King's Cross. watch out Harry Potter; below, Jill and the mini jellies-decorated cake that Kim built for her birthday. yum yum, gimme some!

indeed, we ate very well as guests in Todd's kitchen, what with his Jamie Oliver cookbook and all. besides the cake, Kim did pretty well too, exploiting the food aspects of her fascination with Easter. the day after Jill's birthday was Easter Sunday and Kim was intent on dying eggs for the celebration, which is funny because i don't remember ever doing that as children. in fact, as we discovered, it would have been very hard to, because not only are the dyes not readily available, but neither are white eggs. nevertheless, we had to make do, and giving it the old college try worked out pretty well--even Kim's high hopes for the endeavor seemed almost to be met.

Easter Sunday egg dying scenes at Kim and Todd's spacious Central London pad.

but all parties come to an end, and the next day we were back out hiking around a very warm London. and all this very early: Jill and Kim had been wanting to see the musical Wicked on the West End, and Kim had a way to get cheap front row seats, just for lining up at about three o'clock in the morning. okay, it was more like nine, but we were probably still jet-lagged and it was definitely not nine o'clock in Japan. so, like troopers, Todd and i dutifully followed and made the line at the Victoria theater, but before the box office opened at ten Jill and i took off to get a look at Buckingham Palace while Kim and Todd held our spots. i told you they were good hosts. BP is pretty much just a really big, well, palace, and it has some fancy gates and statues around it, but the real draw is the changing of the guard, which is only done every other day. of course, that was not the day we were there, but it was so much the better really, because hardly anybody else showed up either, making a decent picture a lot easier to get.

Jill and i outside Buckingham Palace, above; and below, scenes from inside the infamous Tower of London, on the bank of the Thames.

after securing our excellent tickets for the show, we went over to the Tower of London which, in accordance with standard British nomenclature, is actually a large complex including several towers, built over numerous centuries. happily, despite it absolutely crawling with tourists, we were also able to get some good shots here, which you see above. the tower is warded by the famous "Beefeater" guards, who wear the distinctive red and gold tunics only on special occasions, and don navy blue and red robes on regular days. these guards have charge over the safety of the Crown Jewels, among other things, which are kept and displayed at the tower, and each Beefeater is required to have served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces for at least 22 years. they also reside in (rather smallish seeming) quarters on the tower property, some of which you can see in the uppermost of the polaroids above. due to the volume of tourists, we didn't bother with what would have been a very crowded and possibly barely-audible Beefeater-guided tour, but spent several hours tearing through the many buildings by ourselves. the tower has quite a reputation for torture, which many of the exhibits protest is at least partly undeserved. it seems to have functioned mainly as a gentleman's prison and many people were released and a few even escaped. nevertheless, they have some great exhibits on weapons and torture methods of the various eras, including a room full of long-time prisoners' desperate messages carved into the walls.

pretty great stuff, as was the Tower Bridge just next door to the tower itself, which Jill and i walked across on our way to explore the South bank of the Thames. the only useful thing we found there was a Pret a Manger, a sandwich chain more popularly called Pret. after eating a camembert baguette we slowly made our way back to Kim and Todd's for the show, stopping at the world-famous Harrods department store in swanky Knightsbridge and wandering through Hyde Park to Marble Arch before hitting the Tube.

Jill and me (for some reason wearing her birthday sweatshirt) in front of the Apollo Victoria theater after an excellent performance of the musical Wicked. you should see it, but look at what sitting in the front row did to our necks...

there's plenty to do in London, and plenty of worthwhile stuff we missed doing this time around, which means we'll have to go back sometime, hopefully before another 14 years goes by. the show was really good, as were all the sights we saw while in town, and we definitely recommend theBritishcapital for a visit. just don't forget to see some of the rest of the country when you go there. my (completely unbiased) views on the best parts are coming right up.