October 22, 2013
October 21, 2013
In his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says the former mining community of New Cumnock has been named Scotland's "Most Dismal Town" for 2013.
New Cumnock's first mines opened in the 1700s, and the town had five in operation up until 1950 – employing 1,500 people, or almost as many as it's now-total population of just 1,800.
But all had closed by 1969, and although some open-cut still takes place it employs only a handful compared with the pit mines.
Scottish architectural magazine Urban Realm which awards the annual Carbuncle for Scotland's most dreary communities and architecture, said it had named New Cumnock it's 2013 recipient because of the "haemorrhaging of High Street shops and a general absence of maintenance on derelict properties... raising a very real risk of irreversible decline if action isn't taken now."
And it noted that even the opening of a new school had been overshadowed by the threatened closure of the Town Hall, and sell-off of a local church.
Local historian, Geoff Crolley who accepted the Carbuncle Award on behalf of his community, said that towns like New Cumnock had given so much to businesses, but these had walked away as wind-farms had replaced coal mining for electricity generation.
Urban Realm said its Carbuncle judges had "warmed to the plight of the townsfolk of New Cumnock whose energy is as strong as ever… more than an escape valve for pent-up frustrations, they should see the Award as a springboard to tangible improvements."
(Picture: Urban Realm magazine)
October 19, 2013
Outside, in the UK’s July heatwave, it was a breathless steamy 29. “Close” in the old language. Inside, it was a refreshing misty cool 13. After cycling up from the charming Roman city of Bath in Somerset, the pathway at hilltop Bear Flat slips us into the first of two former train tunnels on our quest for a late afternoon pint of best local bitter in the Hope and Anchor pub in the village of Midford.
Twenty metres inside the Devonshire tunnel we welcome the chilled air. It is 407m long, lit every 25m with low-glow globes on both sides, producing enough light to identify path edge white lines and traffic ahead – fellow leisure cyclists, fast-pedalling lycra-ites, joggers, walkers and potentially dangerous ambling families. The sealed path was damp with condensation.
We switch on our cycle lights, not so much to show the way but to alert approaching traffic of our tentative presence.
After just two minutes, the outside hot air and bright sunlight hits us as we re-emerge to a high-up view of stunningly-lush English countryside, complete with a picturesque wooded lake immediately below where two anglers were lazing in the sun.
It was so slightly uphill and cool in the tunnel we didn’t need to pull over for a breather. We stop though to absorb the postcard aspect.
Onwards through beech trees that form overhead a sun-filtering tunnel of their own. That cover clears and we are in the midst of fields of yellow-white grain crops on the right and the deep green walls of the Avon River valley to our left. On the brow to our right is 1770s folly Midford Castle, once owned by Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, but the story goes Cage never actually lived there.
We’re hot again so welcome the second tunnel. This is the 1.7km Combe Down tunnel which adds theatre to the cycling sensation. Midway, where thin mist hovers, we’re treated to motion-sensing instrumental music, composed specially for the route by British recording artist Mira Calix. The blue illuminated speakers are positioned in the regular alcoves constructed in the olden days to shelter rail gangers from passing trains.
This is a weird cycling experience ... deep underground, fine fog, moody music from coloured speakers, near darkness, out-of-nowhere flash-by cyclists, very cold air!
At times, we are alone in our visible section of tunnel so the atmosphere becomes enchantingly spooky.
We appreciate the ambience, so dawdle our way towards the natural light somewhere ahead.
This is now the longest cycle tunnel in Europe and belongs to the Two Tunnels Greenway recreational shared-use city-to-countryside pathway which was opened in April this year.
It runs under Combe Down, the high ground immediately south of Bath and was created as a short cut link to the Bath canal path to form a 20km circuit. It also joins UK’s national cycle network. The pathway’s $3million restoration was funded via the enviro charity group Sustrans.
After sidling past the defunct Midford platform, the destination pub provides the essential electrolyte replacement therapy for us athletes. This pub has been re-invigorated as a direct result of the pathway’s launch. Big seller on a substantial menu is the salmon fish cakes we are told by Georgia, the bar manager. We pose with our pints for the been-there-done-that photo under the big framed trout. Given its prominent archway display, this piece of scaly silver was caught locally, we assumed, but it seems it was hooked in Norway.
The tunnels were such a buzz we decide to return via the same route. Our options were to continue on for another taster at the Fox and Badger in Wellow, or take the downhill track to Tucking Mill and Monkton Combe to reach the canal tow path and so complete the circuit back to Bath. The scenery along the canal is peppered with brightly colourful tethered or cruising canal boats (a few are in state of neglect) so would have been an appropriate contrast to the muted tones in the tunnels.
Not that we were physically extended by the pathway’s slight incline to reach our pub destination, but the free-wheeling downhill coasting back to Bath was a real breeze, in more ways than one.
The tunnels provided us with reviving refrigeration, but come England’s winter and its plunging temperatures, their constant temperature might just be a comparative hothouse.
Bicycles can be hired in Bath from around $10 for the first hour and $2 per extra hour.
October 17, 2013
(With kind permission of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company)
The original Irrawaddy flotilla was a naval task force of paddle steamers and flats (barges) sent from India to transport British and Indian troops upriver in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852. Unlike the First War, when the British were caught out by the monsoon, this war was a highly organized affair. Preparations in India were extensive and included the transfer of steam paddle ships of the Bengal Marine for troop transportation on the Irrawaddy. These were officered by British and crewed by lascars. Taking advantage of divisions at the court of Ava, the flotilla advanced rapidly up the river capturing Prome and then the prized Myede forests just above Thayet Myo. The British had never intended to hack off so large a chunk of territory, the original plan was to capture and hold Martaban, Rangoon, and Bassein – the important southern ports. However, the Province of Pegu, rendered defenseless by a government in turmoil, with its extensive forests and rich resources was to great a spoil. Interestingly, the commander of the naval operations (who died of illness on the river) was the brother of author Jane Austen, Rear-Admiral Austen. Meanwhile, at the capital of Amarapura, the King Pagan Min was deposed by Mindon who promptly negotiated a treaty with the British.
By the late 1860’s it proved necessary to replace the old government steamers and new vessels were built on the Clyde, dismantled and shipped out for reconstruction in Rangoon. It took some years and much trial and error though before the company perfected a design suited to the difficult conditions of the Irrawaddy with its perilous shallows. By 1872 the fleet comprised eight new steamers and twelve flats. Services operated between Rangoon and Prome in British Burma, in Royal Burma up to Mandalay, and by 1869 Bhamo. The company realized the importance of the China trade and saw the importance of a river link to South West China through Burma. Though King Mindon was said to have moved capital to Mandalay from Ava in 1855 out of irritation at the sound of passing steamers’ whistles, and despite efforts to establish a flotilla of his own, the company prospered in Royal Burma thanks to the close relationship between the company agent, Dr. Clement Williams, and the King.
In 1885 the flotilla was used in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War to transport an entire army into Royal Burma to occupy Mandalay with scarcely a shot fired. For the following sixty years, until the Japanese invasion of 1942, the story of Burma, with her rise to great wealth and economic supremacy among the Asian nations, is intertwined with the operations and activities of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Scots guile was quick to realize that Burma was a land of rivers and even with the completion of roads and railways the river remained the key to the riches of Burma.
By the 1920’s the fleet consisted of 622 units (267 powered), from the magnificent Siam class of 326 feet long (the same length as the height of the Shwedagon Pagoda) and licensed to carry 4,oo passengers, to pilot craft and tug boats. In a normal year the company carried eight million passengers (without loss of life) and 1.25 million tons of cargo. Irrawaddy vessels tended to have side paddles and would tow two flats, each lashed to either side. On the Chindwin, which was pioneered during Thibaw’s reign by company steam launch in 1875, a radical new design was created by Denny’s to cope with the shallow conditions. To balance the displacement, the paddle was situated in the stern and the boiler in the bow. This steam wheeler type would draw only 2.5 feet of water and, as the Chindwin valley was wooded, regular fueling stations were set up so the vessels did not need burden itself. The larger company ships had Scots masters and engineers and lascar crews recruited mainly from the Chittagon area, the lesser ones were entirely Chittagonian. The company had 200 expats based in Burma and a local staff of 11,000. Head Office was in Glasgow but in these pleasant phoneless and faxless days regional “Assistants” were autonomous. There was one telegram a month from Rangoon to Glasgow and that consisted of one line only – the total takings!
|A replica steamer of the 21st Century Pandaw Cruises|
“- great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of Jade, lacquerware from Pagan, silk, tamarind, elephants, sometimes woven mats, maize, jaggery, bullocks, marble Buddhas, oilcake, tobacco, timber. Upward bound will be various imports from Europe, motor cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches, aluminum ware, sewing machines, piece goods, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky. Every class of goods that enters or leaves Burma finds its way onto an Irrawaddy boat.”
In 1934 the Irrawaddy Flotilla& Airways was set up offering scheduled services and charters – including an unusual service for devout Buddhists whereby an aircraft would encircle the Magwe Pagoda seven times. The passing of company steamers was part of river life and when the company changed steamer design and removed a funnel there was an outcry among the Burmese villagers. A 2nd dummy funnel had to be added in the interest of public relations.
The Irrawaddy is an untamable river – there are neither locks nor weirs to control the level as on the Mississippi or Nile – and in the monsoon the water level has an average rise of 50 feet (in the first Defile 200 feet). Nor are there charts, for the sands shift with such rapidity that they would be out of date before the ink is dry. Instead, the company operated its fleet safely end efficiently through the experience of her masters and pilots and a clever and inexpensive system of Bamboo marker buoys. Buoy Boats in charge of beats constantly checked and marked the channels with buoys and the bearings with marker posts on the riverbanks. If a captain went aground he had to stay with his vessel, in the case of the Momein in 1919 for a whole year. In 1877 the Kha Byoo was caught in a whirlpool in the second defile between Katha and Bhamo. She spent three days spinning in a circle before getting free and the captain’s hair had turned white.
The captains lived on the bridge and many of the river features were named after incidents they experienced at their hands, thus there was “Becketts’s Bluff” or “MacFarlane’s Folly”. Scott O’Connor best captures their proud commands:
“Some of the steamers that come this way are of the largest size; mailers on their way from Mandalay; cargo boats with flats in tow, laden with produce of the land; and when they come round the bend into full view of Maubin, the great stream shrinks and looks strangely small, as it if were overcome by a monster from another world. Three hundred feet they are in length, these steamers with flats in tow, half as wide, and they forge imperiously ahead as if all space belonged to them, and swing round and roar out of their anchor chains, while the lascars leap, and the skipper’s white face gleans in the heavy shadows by the wheel – the face of a man in command.
And when you see this wonderful spectacle for the first time, you step on board this great boat expecting to fin an imperious man with eyes alight with power, and the consciousness of power, and the knowledge that he is playing a great part. But you are disappointed, for you find a plain man, very simple in his habits and ways with weariness written about the corners of his red eyes. Ah! They know their work, these men…. And I say nothing of the Clyde men who rule the throbbing engines…’ Silken East, 1904
The story of the Irrawaddy Flotilla is a story of Scottish-Burmese partnership. As the yards on the Clyde where these great ships were built stand silent, so too do the yards of the Rangoon River where they were once reassembled. In the first part of the last century two dissimilar nations established a rapport and shared a prodigious wealth that neither country had known before or since. The demise of the flotilla was perhaps the saddest day of British merchant marine history; when else have six hundred vessels been lost in one fell swoop? That swoop was neither natural disaster nor enemy action, but at the hands of the companies own officers. In 1942, before the oncoming of the Imperial Japanese Army, following the evacuation of Rangoon and escape to the upper river, they gunned holes in the great ships’ hulls rather than let them fall into enemy hands. It was called an “Act of Denial”.
October 07, 2013
WITCH-DOCTORS and sorcerers have long cast their magic and spells over the islands of the South Pacific, but none with more devastating affect than Metua More in the Cook Islands in 1913, and her grandson More Rua 77 years on in 1990…
Because many firmly believe their spells have been responsible for business venture after business venture failing, companies collapsing, the Cook Islands government literally brought to its knees financially, and what was to have been a 200-room luxury Sheraton resort laying incomplete and trashed for the past 20 years.
And hauntingly, the long tentacles of the Mafia and associated con-men, spivs and other charlatans reaching all the way from Italy to bleed dry the Sheraton project, something that should have been a simple, straight-forward business venture.
The genesis of such an extraordinary saga in black magic was the lease of a block of land by a Cook Islander, More Uriatua to New Zealander, William John Wigmore for a copra plantation in 1891, and which half-way through in 1911, More wanted torn-up and his land back.
In an argument that ensued, More was shot dead. Wigmore claimed the shooting was unintentional but was convicted of manslaughter, given six months gaol and ordered on release to leave the Cook Islands or face deportation.
He left, but two years later successfully applied to return to "his" plantation. It was then that Metua More, the daughter of the dead land-owner, invoked a spell on Wigmore's plantation, beseeching that no business activity on the land succeed until that land was returned to its rightful island owners.
Bizarrely the curse appeared to have immediate affect: William Wigmore's until-then highly-profitable plantation suddenly ran into problem after problem, before ultimately folding. Wigmore walked away, and when the property was re-leased to other business operators, every one of their new ventures also failed – despite being run by some of the most astute entrepreneurs from New Zealand.
These included between the 1950s and 1980s an attempt at a commercial citrus orchard that ended in abject failure, a short-lived pineapple plantation that also went belly-up, and a nursery for growing tropical herbs and spices that met a similar fate after incurring astronomical losses.
But worst of all was the late-1980s Sheraton Rarotonga Resort venture on the old plantation land, and into which some $60m-plus had been invested – over $50m of this guaranteed by the Cook Islands government, and which has now blown out with interest and other charges to more than $120m being owed without a single guest having slept a night in the resort.
The Sheraton project was born in 1987 when a flamboyant Italian travelling salesman visiting the Cook Islands lauded to the government the value of the little nation having its very-own 5-star resort hotel. When the government agreed, an Italian Government-owned bank and a major insurance company readily put up the money for the job, an Italian construction company appeared on the site, and work commenced.
But at the project's official launch, Metua More's grandson, More Rua turned up dressed as a high priest in warlike regalia, and intoning the resurrection of his grandmother's curse.
He ended by slamming his spear into a rock onto which a plaque had just been unveiled by the-then Prime Minister, marking the beginning of the Sheraton project. When the rock split to ground level, islanders saw it as signifying the project's failure.
And within months millions of dollars of resort money unaccountably disappeared from bank accounts, new contractors with Mafia-connections appeared on the resort site demanding – and receiving – payment for work never, or only partly done, and the principal building company walked away broke.
Then in 1993 with 80% of the resort completed, work ceased altogether; squatters moved into the abandoned property, doors and windows, light fittings and kitchen equipment were stripped by thieves, and cattle, horses and goats wandered in to graze on what should today be tennis courts and swimming pools.
All attempts to date to revive the project have failed – the principal problem being that no-one quite knows who owns what's already been built. And until that is resolved, and the curses of Metua More and More Rua are lifted, the Cook Islands' grand Sheraton Rarotonga Resort simply continues to gather dust, and faster-still, bank interest…
 GOATS and other animals now graze on what should be tennis courts and pools.
 WILLIAM Wigmore's plantation was once lush like this – after the curse of Metua
More it, and subsequent other ventures on its grounds, all failed. (FreeCopy.com)
 PICTURESQUE from the air, Rarotonga still has its haunting memories. (Cook
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a wildlife park in England is employing "Animal Print Bouncers" to make guests cover-up after noticing its animals becoming baffled by guests wearing animal-print coats and pants, or carrying snakeskin print handbags.
The Chessington World of Adventures south-west of London is using the "Fashion Police" in a new 10ha attraction called Zufari in which guests take off-road rides into an area replicating the Serengeti Plains and complete with a host of wildlife.
A spokeswoman said visitors wearing animal print clothing had been noticed to be causing some animals to become "antagonistic, excited, afraid or confused," and the park was acting to protect visitors and exhibits alike.
To stop the tigers and lions salivating at the thought of potential meals on wheels, or smaller animals scurrying away in fear, visitors who arrive in animal-print clothing are asked to cover-up with grey boiler suits provided by the "Animal Print Bouncers," or be evicted from the Park.
 Animal look-alikes getting English wildlife park inmates "antagonistic, excited or afraid." (Image: Chessington World of Adventures)