Corfu Day 8 – On the Waterfront

After the rigours of the island tour yesterday, we kept it a bit low key today. Our main target was the Byzantine Museum. This is clearly marked on the map with a big ‘museum’ symbol, but regular readers will not be surprised to hear that the location nonetheless remained uncertain.

It appeared to be in the maze of streets set back from the sea front, east of the Old Port, so as we got into the approximate area, we dived down a likely street and tried to head in the right general direction. As always, this involved coming to apparent dead ends, finding an alley roughly at right angles and hoping to find another alley roughly at right angles the other way to get us back on track.

Eventually, after an interesting meander past people’s front doors, avoiding their washing strung from posts, we emerged into a comparatively open area with a lot of steps on the right leading down to the main road along the sea front, and the Byzantine Museum entrance on the left. On the main road was a large brown sign saying “Byzantine Museum”…

Bell tower of the Byzantine Museum

Bell tower of the Byzantine Museum

Entry cost a stupendous €2 each and we walked around a corridor called the exonarthex looking at religious paintings dating from the 15th century onwards. I was struck by the three pictures of St George slaying the dragon, in all of which the dragon is noticeably smaller than St George’s horse. I’d always imagined the dragon as much larger (though not up to filmic Smaug proportions) and it makes St George’s feat in slaying it seem that much less heroic.

The exonarthex ran round three sides of the building, with a nave in the middle. This was a church, actually a basilica, that really was a museum – what more could I ask for? (See Day 5.) There was lots more bling in the nave. Stairs at the back of the exonarthex led up to a gallery, which we had learned from Angela yesterday was originally for the women, who were not allowed into the nave. Diana reckoned it would be a good place for young women to check out the young men below.

We then had a long and leisurely lunch at Faliraki. This a small, low-lying area on the water’s edge outside the old city walls. It is so low lying that as a large cruise liner and a high speed hydrofoil went by in the bay, the lady on the next table warned us to pick our bags off the floor. The waves from the wash crashed over the outer walkway and into the sea wall a foot higher, not quite wetting our feet. But you could see how it might.

The exit from Faliraki through the city walls

The exit from Faliraki through the city walls

It was very peaceful, watching the water, the boats, the occasional swimmers, and we ticked off another Greek food speciality – mezze and ouzo.

Corfu Day 7 – Day Tripper

The pick up time for our one day coach trip round the island was 10.30. The pick up place was the Aktaion cafe.

But then it wasn’t the Aktaion. We got a fax (they still have faxes!) saying it was along from the Aktaion at the statue of Kapodistrias. We knew where the statue was, but “along from” could mean anything. Several roads come together at the statue. We picked a spot; four other people picked a different spot. We conferred and decided to cover both and make sure the coach waited so we all got on. Numerous coaches came and went, and eventually one arrived and tooted its horn. We hurriedly crossed the road – yes, the others were right.

Our guide for the day introduced herself as Angela and we got on the coach. The only two seats together were near the back, across the aisle from each other. I took the one next to the biggest guy on the bus, because I am a gentleman. Also, I couldn’t sit straight on any seat on the coach, bar two or three, due to length of leg, so sitting sideways was all the same to me, big guy or not.

Kevin not looking at Mouse Island

Kevin not looking at Mouse Island

The coach headed for the windmill (see Day 6’s posting), then inland a bit to the south of the peninsula, passing “Mon Repos”, birthplace of Prince Phillip, and coming to halt ten minutes later at a view point overlooking the airport and Mouse Island. This seemed a bit soon for a halt, but I hadn’t realised two things: (i) Mouse Island is a noted beauty spot; (ii) some people had already been travelling for three hours. The coach had started picking up at Sidari in the far north east and continued picking up all round the coast. We six in Corfu Town were the last.

The coach came back up the peninsula, then turned south for Achillion Palace, full of statues and pictures of Achilles. We had been thinking about going there anyway, on the City Bus. This visit gave us all we needed, so there would be no need for a return trip. The road past the palace is one way, being narrow and full of coaches taking tourists in. We thought it was narrow at the time. We hadn’t seen “narrow” yet…



The coach took us west across the middle of the island. The south is too far for northern residents to travel on a one day coach trip, and anyway consists entirely of resorts full of young people, who even when drunk are not that entertaining. At least, that’s what we were told.

Angela pointed out the village of Pelekas, apparently beloved of Kaiser Wilhelm II prior to the unpleasantness of 1914-18, but we wouldn’t be going there because the roads were too narrow. We nodded understandingly. But we still hadn’t seen “narrow” yet.

We followed the main road north and into the small town of Paleokastritsa. This was our lunch stop, with an option of a short boat trip to some caves. We opted for a walk across the beach and a slow lunch in a taverna set a bit back, which no one else found. We spotted an inlet which looked similarly isolated and took the road round to where we guessed it would be. Steps led down onto a small beach called Amrelaki, deserted except for one guy. A sign offered motor boats for hire, and the business was doing spectacularly well that day, as no motorboats could be seen.

At this point I spotted that the guy had taken off his clothes for a swim, and appeared to have forgotten his swimming trunks. We decided discretion was called for and left.

The coach had taken the boat trippers to another beach for their boat, and the pick up point for the rest of us was now the pavement opposite some shops, with a nice shady wall to sit on. Our next stop was only a mile away, on top of a hill, the Monastery Theotokus. There was a traffic light in the village controlling who went up or down what turned out to be a narrow road. We still hadn’t really seen “narrow”, though. The monastery had an Orthodox Church, of course, with icons and church bling. It also had an olive mill. This is like an olive press, but bigger, with two vertical millstones about a metre in diameter in a stone bowl even bigger (if it wasn’t bigger, the millstones wouldn’t fit, would they?).

Looking down on Paleokastritsa

Looking down on Paleokastritsa

From the monastery we drove for about half an hour round hairpin bends and Angela announced that we now had a good view down on Paleokastritsa. We drove for another half hour round more hairpin bends and Angela announced that again we had a good view down on Paleokastritsa. Were we ever going to get away from Paleokastritsa? Then Angela announced a final rest stop at Lakones. Make sure you have a good wee was the subtext of what she said.

But first we had to get through Lakones. As the road narrowed, we stopped at a traffic light. When it turned green, the coach edged forward. In Lakones we got on intimate terms with the walls of buildings on both sides of the coach. If the road had been straight, it would have been hard enough, but there were bends, and parked cars, and occasionally cars parked on bends. But George the driver got us through – what a star. I suspect he had a Tardis simulator, or some other relativistic device to shrink the bus without us noticing. I will never again complain about the traffic lights in Camelford. “Narrow street? That’s not narrow, let me tell you about narrow,” I shall say in the Bridge on Wool…

It occurred to me to wonder, after we got through Lakones, how small the roads to Pelekas must be, if George couldn’t get us there. Donkey tracks, do you think?

From now on it was dropping people off, from Sidari, round to Roda and Kassiopi, down to Kalami, where we had a brief halt to photograph the nearest point of the Albanian coast and what was purported to be one of the villas rented by Gerald Durrell’s family. Then Ipsos and Dassia, and then there were just the Corfu Town six left and it was dark outside. The coach came in along the New Port and turned into town on roads I recognised, before letting us off at Kapodistrias.

At the end of it, having seen some of the notable sites and the resorts and hotels to the North, we were glad to be based in Corfu Town.

Corfu Day 6 – To the Lighthouse

The holiday rep came to see us just after breakfast. We wanted to discuss and book a couple of interesting looking excursions and it seemed easiest for her to drop in. We ended up with a coach tour of the island tomorrow, on the basis that if we see something especially interesting we can arrange to go back another day, and a cruise to Parga and Paxos on Sunday.

Continuing our explorations, we decided to go away from the Old Town, heading round the bay to a windmill. We passed a number of tavernas, not always sure whether they were open but empty, or closed for the season. As we reached the windmill, there was a handy taverna where coffee and beer were available. I’ve been trying the local Corfu Beer (that’s the name of the brewery, not just a description). There are four varieties that I’ve discovered so far: Pilsner, IPA, Red and Dark. The handy taverna served Dark, so of course I had to try it, to add to the Pilsner and Red that most bars seem to have. This leaves just the IPA, though I might have had that early in our stay, when I wasn’t paying attention.

A sea wall runs from the windmill into the bay and is a place where you can go swimming for free. Other stretches of beach seem to be owned by hotels and bars, but here locals, mainly elderly, peel off to swimsuits and potter about in the water. If you like pot bellies and speedos, this the place for you. At the end of the sea wall is a thin tower or thick post, depending on how you look at it, with a light on top. On our way back, half way round the bay, I realised that I should have taken photos of the windmill and lighthouse. So this is what they look like from a distance.


And to prove I can do close ups, here’s a lizard on a wall.image




Today’s local culinary speciality was gyros – shredded lamb served with thinly sliced raw onion, tomatoes, flat bread, tzatziki and chips. (Ignore what it says in Wikipedia about gyros being a sandwich.) After yesterday’s excess, we passed on the dessert.

Corfu Day 5 – Turning Japanese

Today we found St Spiridon’s cathedral – hardly surprising since we had chosen to walk down St Spiridon Street on the assumption that the cathedral would be somewhere along it. We almost missed it, since it was part way along the street with other buildings adjoining it on each side. None of the wide open spaces I’m used to in England.

People were going in and out, so we went in, and then came out. A choir was singing at one end. A queue of people were lined up to do I don’t know what. It all seemed very active. I prefer my cathedrals quiet and museum-like.

So we went to the Museum of Asiatic Art where for €6 you can walk around for hours looking at art from many Asian countries. The biggest part is Chinese, mainly plates and bowls in bronze, pottery, stoneware, porcelain and enamels. The timeline, starting at 30,000BC, is well explained in both Greek and English. Then you go on to India, where most of the art is carved figures, representing gods, warriors and sex, often all at once, followed by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand and several other countries, finishing up with Japan. In fact, when we came to the spiral staircase where Japan continued upstairs through six more rooms, we called it a day.

There was a temporary exhibition of Japanese drawings of courtesans and Kabuki actors, which included – as a sign sternly warned at the entrance – some explicit ones. There were just two, in fact. There was no such warning about the equally explicit Indian wood carvings in the permanent exhibition.

After yesterday’s sofrito, we tried souvlaki for dinner – essentially meat cubes cooked on skewers and served without the skewers but with sauté potatoes. We also had dessert, a big mistake. The desserts were huge, but tasted really good, so we had to eat them…

Corfu Day 4 – History

Today (Sunday) we went to the Archeological Museum of Corfu, a daring journey right to the edge of our map. It was closed. It’s been closed for ages, with no indication of when it might reopen. Should have used a well known search engine, not relied on a clearly out of date guide book.

So we turned around and headed back towards the Old Town, determined to get our history fix by visiting the Old Fort. On the way, we heard a cacophony of car horns, so we stopped to see why, expecting boy racers angry with each other. Instead, the lead car, a black Mercedes, was decorated in white ribbons, and leading the hooting. The next half dozen cars were making just as much noise. A wedding procession, we surmised, the hooting indicating much joy at the marriage and also, possibly, “We are all together, please don’t cut in.” (Except that someone did, in a black pickup truck, the scum.)

Entry to the fort costs just €4 and for that you get to wander around fallen down walls, pop in to various chapels and churches with displays of art both Byzantine and modern, and climb to the top of the Land Tower. This is built on the highest hill, nearest to the land. The other hill, more out to sea, is called with classic logic the Sea Tower, but the ways to it are fenced off. From the top you get a good view of Corfu town and a clear sight of the airport. We also reckoned we could pick out the Bella Venezia and even our room window.

Kevin on the bridge to the Old Fort

Kevin on the bridge to the Old Fort

Coming down, we discovered that some of the cobbles in the steps were made of marble and worn to shiny smoothness by many feet. Thank goodness for Shell’s “Hold the handrail” rule, ingrained over years of HSE training, because it stopped me going flat on my back.

The fort has its own cafeteria, so we had lunch there, until the wind blew the last few crisps off my plate and onto the floor, where they were seized by pigeons with very feathery legs.

After siesta In the hotel room, we went for a walk to the port area. Round the corner from the hotel we found a horde of chattering children with their mums and dads, all waiting to get into a cinema. Waiting, mind you, not queuing. In Britain there’d have been a line of people along the pavement, but this is not Britain. A scrum, spilling out into the road, is what it was, and into the road we had to go to get by. But that was okay, the road was only the major route around the Old Town.

On our artist’s impression of a map of Corfu, there seemed to be a road round the New Fortress that I wanted to take. We overshot it, since it looked so unprepossessing, and had to backtrack. If it had started out unprepossessing, it got worse, narrowing as it rose alongside the walls of the fortress. But a girl on a motorcycle came the other way, which reassured me (if not Diana) that we weren’t on a road to nowhere. Suddenly, we were in a very narrow alley and heading back downhill, sometimes on steps, but we couldn’t get (more) lost since there were no side alleys. We emerged onto wider roads by the port, which after all that was very dull.

Plunging back into some more tiny roads in a different part of Old Town, we came to a large, bright pink building at the top of some steps. Painstakingly working out the Greek letters spelling “Metropolitan”, we deduced it was the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. We decided not to go up the steps because it didn’t seem right to get mixed up in the wedding party there.

So we went up some other steps and round the cathedral and along some dimly lit streets and ended up at a taverna where we ate a classic Corfu sofrito – very tender beef cooked in a garlic sauce and served with chips.

Back at the hotel, Diana insisted upon margaritas before bedtime. “Make sure there’s salt,” she said. “It’s not the same without salt.” Or perhaps it didn’t quite happen that way and maybe someone else suggested margaritas. Who can tell?

Corfu Day 3 – Plumbing

The Bella Venezia Hotel occupies an old building surrounded by modern ones. It apparently survived bombing and destruction in 1943, alone among its neighbours including the original hotel, and became the hotel in 1985.

It fronts onto N. Zambeli street and has a courtyard garden around two sides, where breakfast is served in the morning and drinks at more or less any time after that. Our room is on the second (and top) floor in one corner. We have a view one way onto an apartment block with rusting balcony rails that stands higher than the hotel and the other way over the rooftops to the west. The windows are high in the room, such that Diana can only see upwards, unless she stands on something.

It has interesting plumbing. A sign over the toilet rolls says “Please use bin for waste paper.” English custom and practice, not to mention middle class sensibilities, lead one to interpret that as meaning don’t put any other things such as tissues down the toilet. However, if that was meant, why not put the sign where you’d see it if you were about to do that, rather over the toilet rolls where you wouldn’t? This is where our careful preparatory reading paid off. An early episode in Gerald Durrell’s “My family and other animals” (set in Corfu) has Margot using toilet paper from a convenient box by the side, to the alarm of the family, and her own mortification as she discovers this is the “used” box…

We still couldn’t quite believe it, but Diana checked, woman to woman, with the hotel receptionist, who confirmed our misgivings. What I tell you three times is true.

After breakfast we headed for Guilford street (not quite the Surrey city), which we’d crossed yesterday and thought looked interesting. We aimed for the start of the street, but went too far and had to loop back, but no matter – we’re not on a tight schedule, as I may have remarked already. Guilford was another narrow, paved street (so we were on car alert of course) containing lots of small shops and lots more restaurants, including a bakery and pie shop recommended by our guide book, which we noted for later.

Guilford opens into a square with even more restaurants, plus the Catholic cathedral and the Municipal Art Gallery. The cathedral was quite small as cathedrals go, but of course the prevailing religion is Greek Orthodox (my spellchecker nearly gave me “Orthodontist” there – a beguiling concept for a religion) so this isn’t really surprising. The art gallery had a show of recent local Corfiot artists and a couple of the pictures stood out. One, entitled “Red”, was especially hard to interpret. Was it a horde of Crusader knights storming ashore in a sea of blood, St George pennants flying? If so, who was the dark skinned young person in a white t-shirt trying to hold up a red and white striped police tape against them?

We found the local bus station in San Rocco Square, and the ticket machines that showed an all-day ticket costs only €5. We headed off to find the long distance bus station, taking a back-street route alongside the New Venetian Fortress because it looked more interesting. As we were hesitating, looking down twenty feet on a road not marked as distinct on our map, an elderly man appeared up some steps carrying three bags of fruit and veg. He asked if we needed help, telling us how to get to the New Port and to the Old Town. Before long we found out he was an artist and had five children, one of whom was a sculptor. He hauled out his Samsung tablet to show us photos of his work, his daughter and her work, which was actually very impressive. He was pleased we were British, because so was his wife. We talked a little about Ellie and Tris. After about thirty minutes he went on his way and we continued to the end of the road, from which we could see down into the coach station, but not actually get to it. The end of the road is meant literally, as the only way to continue was down some narrow unofficial steps made of old bricks, breeze blocks, stone and concrete.

The old gent had been shopping in the market, so we did a u-turn on the lower road to find it, giving up on the port for the time being. Some of the stalls were closed already, but there were enough open to see what was going on. We could have bought fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and I don’t know what. Our idea was to walk through the market and then find a restaurant, but we never made it. Once again we were trapped by an enthusiastic waiter.

Diana and the waiter

Diana and the waiter

“Would you like small snack?” he asked. Small snack was exactly what we wanted, and a beer and an orange juice, which they freshly squeezed on the spot. The small snack arrived – bread, tomato salad, mixed plate of prawns, tzatziki and potato salad. Excellent, just what we were after, and we tucked in. Then he produced a plate of hot whitebait and calamari. “That will be enough,” we said hurriedly. It was actually very good. He offered coffee on the house, so we had that as well.

My desire to get to the hotel without looking at the map failed, but we found Guilford again and took a small alley, which led us to the Anglican church. Our old gent had mentioned this when we said we were staying at the Bella Venezia. “Only 50 metres away. My wife went there.” The gate was open, but the door locked.

After a siesta of sorts, we went down to the hotel garden and on impulse, since it was past five o’clock and sort of approaching sundown, decided to have cocktails. I had a phase of making them at home a few years ago, and do a mean martini (mainly because I’m too cheap to keep olives in the house), but this is the first time we’ve had cocktails when out together. Sad, isn’t it?

Yes, we’re going to … Corfu

Day 1 – Exeter

The flight to Corfu was very carefully planned to go from Exeter. In fact, we chose Corfu precisely because the flight went from Exeter. And then we found that this oh so convenient flight took off at 7am, with check in at 5.

So we drove to Exeter the day before and stayed in the airport hotel, which was clearly used to early starters since breakfast was available from 4am.

Day 2 – To Corfu

We woke up on time. Flight was fine. Arrived Corfu airport at around midday, local time. Tour rep on hand as soon as we passed through Customs to give us a welcome pack and take us to our pre-booked taxi, which went straight to the hotel, where we checked in without problem. They gave us a welcoming fruit punch in the garden while they took our bags up to our room. There was no wrecks and nobody drownded, in fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

After unpacking and lounging around for a while, we ventured out on foot into the town in search of a late lunch. We were armed with a free map with the street names in English, which made it easy to read, but hard to translate into the street signs which are naturally written in the Greek alphabet.

We found a restaurant on the edge of the Esplanade – or rather, it found us. While pausing to look at a menu, an enthusiastic waiter bustled up to explain how wonderful the menu was. Would we like to sit down here, or across the road? So we went across the road and our lunch turned out to be enormous. If brunch is a morning meal this was more a “dinch”. Diana had a tuna salad which contained chunks of a delicious big tomato. I had an excellent “Greek Pizza”, about a metre across, made Greek by the feta cheese coating it. The waiter remained busy, talking to every potential customer from one end of his outdoor patch to the other, his motto clearly being “They shall not pass”, and crossing the road often, balancing trays of food one way and used crockery the other.

Late in the afternoon we resumed our walk about town. The Old Fort was just across the road from the restaurant, so we meandered over to it. Like many attractions, it is open 8am to 8pm, but we just marked its location for a later visit. We have a fortnight, no need to rush. We then decided to walk round the old town, sticking close to the sea and then cutting inland at the New Venetian Fortress. (“New” is a comparative term here, as in New College, Oxford.)

New Venetian Fort

New Venetian Fort

The road we wanted was Velissariou, a wide, major road according to the map. The tiny alley that seemed barely big enough to squeeze through, but in the right place, didn’t seem promising, but I surprised myself by managing to read the Greek street name. What looks like a B is a V, then there’s a lambda and a couple of sigmas, and you can deduce the rest. It turns out that a science education is great preparation – all those Greek letters used for symbols and constants.

Velissariou turned out to be wide enough to let cars through. This was disconcerting, since the road was paved with very attractive flagstones, for all the world an archetypal pedestrian area. For the rest of the world, maybe. Not for the Corfiots. We were continually dodging cars in a road less than half the width of Molesworth Street*.




The next street we needed started by going up 20 or 30 steps. Diana was doubtful, but it came out where I expected, at the end of the road of our hotel. We finished the day with a toasted sandwich and a beer/coffee in the hotel garden.

What have we learned? That the map of Corfu Town is an artist’s impression, and that it is possible to read Greek.

* If you don’t know Molesworth Street, you’d better come to visit us, and find out.

A long day’s journey into night

What am I doing, I thought. It’s 6 am. I haven’t got up this early since my Shell days and the morning flights to Rotterdam. Which is somewhat apt since my reason for getting up at such an ungodly hour was a day trip to London for a lunch celebrating my friend Kevin’s 35 years service with Shell.

I got the invitation and discovered that the 6:57 at Bodmin Parkway would get me up to London in plenty of time to cross the city to Canary Wharf for lunch at The Gun. Especially when Kevin rearranged the start time to 1 pm.

I packed my breakfast sandwich, an umbrella and a large paperback (Wolf Hall) and drove to Bodmin Parkway station, leaving behind a sleeping Diana (who actually had her own exciting day planned with the first evening of a harp course). I was surprised to see on the train a veritable forest of seat reservation tickets, among them my own. That’s a lot of people at that time in the morning, though admittedly most of the reservations were from Plymouth, where they could get an extra hour in bed.

The train rattled along on time till somewhere around Slough, where it came to a halt and we were told that one or more goods or passenger trains had broken down just ahead of us. We crawled from signal to signal, eventually picking up speed as we passed the site of the incidents, only to have our hopes crushed as we stopped again just outside Paddington, waiting for a clear platform. We arrived 35 minutes late.

The London Underground, however, surpassed itself. Straight onto a train at Paddington, and another at Baker Street (‘Morning, Sherlock.’) and I was at Canary Wharf inside half an hour. I called Kevin to say I was there and he assembled the rest of the party. It turned out to be the rest of the party minus two, who had made their own way to The Gun and were already working their way down the wine list. I already knew four of the people – Kevin (of course), Maral, Catherine and Angus – but the others were good company as well: Kalli, Stef, Nico, Rochelle and host David.

The walk from 40 Bank Street to The Gun took about ten minutes. There was some consternation at a sign saying “bridge closed” since alternative routes were (a) much further and (b) not known. This was new territory, moving out of the new office block area into old residential streets. However, other people were apparently ignoring the  sign so we pressed on, and found that it was attached to a gate, which when swung shut would stop people going the other way to the pontoon bridge we had just crossed.

_MG_7639_mediumFood and wines at The Gun were very good, though there was some doubt about the quantity of Scottish salmon in the Scottish salmon fish cakes. I made a point of avoiding the Cornish mackerel; I’d sooner have that in Cornwall, where it hasn’t had so far to travel. There weren’t speeches so much as a general discussion about what a good chap Kevin was and always had been, despite his being responsible for the election of Margaret Thatcher by joining Shell in 1979. (I may have misremembered the causality here.)

Sadly, I had to depart shortly before 4 o’clock to ensure catching the train with my reserved seat. I wasn’t the first to leave. Maral had not fully understood the implications of an invitation to a 35 year celebration lunch which stated a start time but not a finish, and had arranged a meeting. The others remained. I have no idea for how long, and I make no insinuation here, but it was after 9 o’clock that Kevin sent out a ‘thanks for coming’ email…

The train home, too, was delayed, not by any mechanical defects this time, but deep in in rural Somerset by cows on the line. I got home at around ten.

It might seem a bit extravagant to spend a whole day and a return train fare just for lunch, but Kevin is a good friend I worked with for over a dozen years in a couple of different departments. If not for him, then who? Thanks for inviting me.

Oriel Forty

It’s all Becque’s fault.

I had it all carefully planned, taking advantage of a happy coincidence of dates: Friday 5th September, the Orieladelphians 40th dinner in Oriel, and Thursday 4th September a community energy conference in Oxford Town Hall. One return trip, three nights B&B in Oriel, sorted.

The community energy conference was PoweringUP, organised jointly by OxFutures, an Oxford based community energy group and DECC, the Department of Energy & Climate Change. It even had an address by the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Edward Davey MP. (That’s enough copying from the agenda – Ed.)

When I spotted that the event was on only the day before the Orieladelphians, it seemed obvious that I should volunteer to go as WREN’s representative, so I booked places at the conference and the awards ceremony following it. (See April 17th blog for more about WREN, or go to the website here – but do come back again.) I also bought my rail ticket, opting for a standard return with flexible trains. That’s flexible trains as in you can choose which one to go on at the time. Most trains are flexible enough to go round bends. This was indeed fortunate, as mere days later I received a doom-laded missive from Stephen, this year’s Orieladelphian president. Young master Becque had booked a holiday in August, carefully avoiding the dinner. Then he changed the date of the holiday, or allowed it to be changed, so that it carefully did not avoid the dinner.

The first reaction – “You’d better book a plane ticket home quickly, before it gets even more expensive” – was replaced by a can-do change to the date. Oriel could do it a week later, could we? It happened that we all could, so we did.

So I came up for the conference and had an enjoyable Thursday talking community energy with representatives of other groups, local authorities and commercial enterprises working in the field. It was the first time I had been in Oxford Town Hall, and hadn’t realised just how big it it is and how splendidly Victorian the main hall. There were some interesting people, so I handed out business cards and got a few back and we ended up in the bar of the St Aldates Tavern sometime around 8 o’clock, where I am sure the talk became even more interesting, if I could only remember it.

My travel plans the following week firmed up when we booked an appointment with a solicitor in Taunton to discuss a legal matter (as you might imagine) and were joined there by number one daughter Ellie, who lives in Oxford, as older readers might remember. So I went home with her on Thursday, had dinner in Atomic Pizza surrounded by old comic book covers (“got that one, and that one, and that one…” to the point of exasperation) and wandered into Oxford centre on the bus next morning.

I arrived at Oriel at about 10 o’clock, expecting to be told that it was too early to check in, and was not disappointed. They would allow me, though, to leave my suitcase in the Lodge. While I was locking it, a woman came in to say that the rooms were all done and ready. “It seems you can check in,” said the porter, so I did. The room overlooked the building site that third quad has become in the latter stages of the refurbishment of the Rhodes Building. The main activity seemed to be digging trenches, though I use the term ‘activity’ advisedly.

On Ellie’s recommendation, I went to the Story Museum on Pembroke Street, which had an exhibition of photographs of authors dressed as a character from their favourite children’s book. The photographs were placed in a setting from the book. So we had Terry Pratchett as (Just) William Brown in the Outlaws’ meeting shed, Michael Rosen as Till Eulenspiegel in a trick location, Benjamin Zephaniah as Anansi the Spider hanging from the ceiling, Frances Hardinge as the Scarlett Pimpernel hidden in a cupboard and so on. You could only see the Borrowers down a microscope and the scene from Narnia was entered through a wardrobe, of course with hanging fur coats. It cost a slightly eye-watering £7.50 to get in, but was a lot of fun. An attendant said that they had had more groups of adults than children.

After lunch at the Bear (an enormously thick sandwich plus salad) (plus a pint) I pottered around a bit, ending up in Blackwell’s, where I found some books for Diana, including Stanza Stones by Simon Armitage (See Culture, 17th September 2013) which contains not only the poems but the story behind them. And lots of photos of Yorkshire.

At seven o’clock, Orieladelphians gathered in the second quad, outside the Senior Common Room. Guests this time comprised Hazel, wife of the former Provost Ernest who sadly died earlier this year, and Syd, a former SCR butler who butled for us at dinners many years ago. Syd (and we) had been concerned that he wouldn’t make it due to ill health, but he was standing there with two sticks, accompanied by his daughter Marina.

The Menu - mostly accurate

The Menu – mostly accurate

The dinner table was laid for our absent friends as well as the nine still-existent chaps. Stephen had done a deal to get SCR wines rather than the Conference ones initially offered, and wisely allowed head butler Asefay to choose them to match the courses. The dinner was excellent, and we will pass over the matter of the Half-Baked Alaska with hardly a mention.

We adjourned to the small SCR for further port and brandy, all except Thomas who adjourned to the small SCR for non-alcoholic beverages. The change of date meant that he had to travel home that night, rather than stay over. He was not downcast, however. As he explained, the change had meant that he could spend the previous Saturday sailing in glorious weather.

After Thomas left, the rest of us got stuck into the port and brandy some more, before leaving for bed at some time after 2.30. Though in fact Ranulph and Ashley stayed up even longer talking. We assembled, most of us, for breakfast in hall (though not Ashley, nor Stephen), and after checking out, moved on to Brown’s cafe in the covered market, for further coffee and tea and in some instances, food.

A few days later, I got an email from Ashley: “Very probably linked to the [inability to get up for breakfast] is the realisation that the residual functioning neurone charged with the task of remembering the provisional date for next year’s dinner has perished. Steve and I think Friday 11 September 2015 … was agreed.” Actually, he was right, because I had managed to get it into my phone calendar and could look it up. Whether my neurones would have been up to the task otherwise, I am less sure.

Charlestown Boogie

Shell Pensioners Association Devon and Cornwall Branch – 2014 Spring Lunch

This was my first SPA event. Although I became an SPA member in 2010, I hadn’t been to a regional association lunch before. It hadn’t seemed worth joining the West Surrey branch, where I was living when I retired, since our plans were to move to Cornwall almost immediately. “Almost immediately” turned out to be three years … [coughs in embarrassment].

Anyway, having finally moved, I joined the Devon and Cornwall branch and accepted the invitation for my wife Diana and I to attend the Spring Lunch. Thus it was that on a rainy Tuesday morning, 20th May, we set out for the Pier House Hotel in Charlestown, near St Austell on the south coast of Cornwall.

We parked some way short of the Pier House, in the bumpiest cobbled car park I have ever seen, or felt, and walked down to it alongside the harbour which nowadays is home to two or three tall ships; disappointingly on this particular day they were all out at sea, earning a living, no doubt.

In the hotel lounge were a number of smartly dressed, mostly grey-haired men and women, which to be honest was the sort of group I was expecting to see, but first we headed for the bar. There I spotted a man with pectens on his tie. “You must be here for the Shell lunch,” I said, and he confessed that he was and that his name was Peter. So that was our introduction. Being first timers, we hadn’t expected to see anyone we knew, and we didn’t (though with Shell, it is never to wise to discount the possibility).

In the lounge we talked with a number of friendly and welcoming people, though it wasn’t possible to meet everyone. We found out that we had to place our name cards on a table in the dining room. Being newbies, we were almost the last, but found two places together on a table of eight. Whilst doing this, we met Chair David Watters and Treasurer Ian Paterson.

The lunch was extremely good. David had been a bit worried, since the branch had not used this hotel before, but the Pier House did not let him – or us – down. Melon or chicken liver pâté were followed by main courses of pork, chicken, salmon or vegetarian lasagne, with too many vegetables and delightfully crisp roast potatoes. Well, they brought out all this delicious food; it would have been rude not to eat it. Desserts of apple pie and Cornish clotted cream or lemon and lime cheesecake were forced down.

The raffle seemed to have been fixed when the first person to draw out a ticket picked her own and the second prize went to the Treasurer, but coincidences do happen and the remaining prizes were more widely spread. The AGM was over in the blink of an eye, with no one attempting a coup to oust David and Ian.

Devon & Cornwall branch is not the biggest in area, but only Scotland and Yorkshire are longer from end to end. It also lacks rapid transport – very few rail lines and motorways. Some people had travelled for over two hours through torrential rain from east Devon, and had booked rooms to stay over for a couple of days. At least the weather cheered up for them on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday.

After lunch and goodbyes, Diana and I spent an hour or two walking round the harbour and through the town, calling in on art and craft shops. We hadn’t been to Charlestown before and were delighted with the opportunity to extend our knowledge of the Cornish coastline. We are firmly minded to attend the next event, even if it means “crossing the border” into Devon.