All posts by Elizabeth J Walker

About Elizabeth J Walker

Author, teacher, consultant, survival expert. Designing the way forward. I have a plan. It's in 'The Resilience Handbook - how to survive in the 21st century', which you will need. It's not just a book but an action plan with free online support materials. Start improving your resilience today!

The Men’s Shed

In my father’s day, few men in the newly created suburbia lacked a garden shed. The sharp tools and poisonous chemicals, which were still part of everyday life, allowed a ban on children entering. The shed was a haven of orderly peace.

The men justified its existence by repairing household goods and DIY projects. They could indulge hobbies; many people were still quite skilled at craft work. The consumer culture disposed of the first two functions. Dispirited, the lure of the TV replaced the last. When the neglected shed finally collapsed, decking took its place.

Television, though entertaining, is not much company. Once out of the workplace, retired men find few opportunities to socialise and their health is often affected by loneliness and boredom. Inspired to address this issue, the Men’s Shed movement began in Australia just over ten years ago

Essentially, these are community workshops where a group of people meet up to work on their own projects. Rather than an actual shed, which might not be large enough, many are housed in portacabins or empty buildings. Most members, but not all, are retired men.

Street Mens Shed outside apr18
Street Men’s Shed Open Day

The UK Men’s Shed Association was founded in 2013, to provide an umbrella group for the thirty sheds already established. Today, there are over 400 in operation, with another 100 in the planning stages.

The Sheds mainly provide workshop space and tea. They host a wide variety of crafts – wood and metal working, electronics, model-making. Other community organisations soon learned that they could ask for tools to be fixed, or equipment made. Often adapted for disabled access, the Sheds are providing a valuable resource for care services.

Street Mens shed inside apr18

The Association’s website has a map showing your nearest UK Shed, and a resource library to help you start one. Street Men’s Shed in Somerset, who hosted the remarkably well attended AGM in the pictures above, take their information stand to local events. Shed days welcome drop-in visitors, though you may need to be a member to use the facilities; there will be a small charge.

The Reskilling section of the Resilience Handbook outlines the importance of keeping craft skills alive. If you’re following the Resilience Plan, you can see how becoming involved with this group will cover everything you need to know in this section and a great deal of the Community section too. Achieving a useful level of resilience isn’t hard – it just requires the sort of gentle steady progress so unfashionable these days.

A community, town or nation which values resilience doesn’t need public campaigns to live a sustainable lifestyle. Everybody understands where their resources come from, and that payment isn’t always to do with money.

The true goal of a resilient community – and this is a long way off – is to be able to survive on its own, with no imports of goods and no exports of waste, for a year. Once you begin working out how this could be possible, it’s clear that we need to start progress to a smaller population. It’s not so hard to keep a form of internet going, even in a low-technology situation.

Perhaps we could finally depart from the city-state model, which always ends in environmental degradation and the obliteration of a once-proud culture.

…Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away”

 

 

 

 

 

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Basic Emergency Planning

Most emergencies you’re likely to encounter are simple domestic ones.  If you lock yourself out, you’ll need a locksmith. Here’s some simple precautions to take, and a few things to try first.

Sometimes things may get more serious.  Suppose you’re snowed in and can’t get to work? Take a look at this guide to your legal position – as both an employee and an employer.  Is your area at risk from flooding? What should you do?

Hebden Bridge floods

Do you know how to turn your utilities off safely? You can protect your home better if you understand these basic principles.

If your area is hit by an emergency, you will either be evacuated or isolated from one or more mains services.   There’s a whole section in the Resilience Handbook about coping with both situations, but here’s some quick tips:-

Keep a camping stove and a portable heater; if you don’t have room for the latter, some hot water bottles at least.  A large flask is also useful.  Have a store of food and water – its size depends on how much suitable space you have.

a box of emergency food supplies

In the UK, the National Health Service and the Government websites will be used for emergency announcements; you could bookmark them.  Announcements can also be made on local radio – it’s a challenge to list all the local radio stations in the UK, but Wikipedia have had a go!

If you’re evacuated, you’ll need a grab bag;  keep this ready packed and check it once every few months.  American preppers are always good for practical survival tips; here’s instructions for assembling a first aid kit.

On the subject of medicines – always take your medications and a copy of the prescription with you in an evacuation!  You may expect to be gone for only a couple of hours, but these situations have a habit of escalating; pack for at least one night away.

There are many ways you can contribute to forming a resilient society, but keeping a grab bag ready is only a small chore.  There may not be much time to escape a flood, so people who are ready to go are really helpful.  If you’ve packed some useful things to share – a deck of cards, some sweets, a spare torch – things can go much better during the long wait at the evacuation centre.

And, if there’s never an emergency….take your grab bag out on a camping adventure and see how it works for real!

 

More about Foraging

Wild garlic, or ramsoms, is growing in profusion now.  It can be used in many recipes, added to soups and stews, or washed and munched raw.wild garlic growing

Below is the young leaf of a Cuckoopint, or Arum Lily.  These often grow in the same patch as wild garlic – weed them out of your own forage area.  Pay attention to the leaf veins.  They are branched, as opposed to the garlic which has parallel veins like a grass blade.  The arrow shape becomes more pronounced as the leaves mature.

arum leaf growing

If you eat cuckoopint by accident, it will cause a burning sensation in your mouth which can last for several days.

bluebell roots and leaves

Bluebell comes out a little later, so it’s fairly easy to tell the leaves apart from wild garlic, which will be moving into the flowering stage by then.  It occupies the same woodland habitat as the garlic too.

All these leaves vanish completely in the summer, except for the cuckoopint which goes on to produce its vivid orange berry spikes.  These are also poisonous to humans.  No sign of any of these plants is visible in autumn and winter.  However, the edible bulbs of the wild garlic are still there underground.

When learning this plant series, it’s identifying these bulbs which you should concentrate on.  Without any other clues, it could be tricky; you need to avoid including cuckoopint or bluebell in your forage.

wild garlic close up bulb

arum lily bulb close up

bluebell roots

Establish specimens of each in pots and watch them grow.  Dig up some roots and study them.  Wash your hands after breaking up the cuckoopint; if you have sensitive skin, it may be worth wearing gloves.  Once you have thoroughly learned all three, you are equipped to forage for them in the woods, should you ever need wild food.

In order to protect these important plants, it is illegal to dig them up in the UK without the permission of the landowner.  Hence you should grow your own for study.

When you do, you will observe  that the tiny first-year roots of all three look much the same – an oval white bulb about the size of a match head.  Only gather the larger wild garlic bulbs which have developed the brownish root skin.

Action task 9 in the Food section of the Resilience Assessment  requires you to go on a walk to identify edible wild plants.  Look for wild garlic in local woods or under trees in parks.  Are there more plants which grow in that area, such as daffodils, which you need to be confident of identifying?

The simple questions in the Resilience Handbook encourage you to establish a layer of underpinning knowledge upon which you can build your resilient lifestyle!

April Diary 2018

The weather in the Summerlands went straight from cold and icy to cold and wet.  I planted some onions, but the peas went in the neighbour’s greenhouse to get started, and the potatoes are still chitting in the shed.  I found out that you should wait until the soil is roughly the same temperature as the potatoes before planting them.  I’m experimenting with new varieties this year, so there should be notes.

The wasabi plants thought they might die, so they flowered again; they haven’t done this since the last snow, seven years ago!  There are four pots, all cloned from the same rootstock, and they all flowered at once, even the one kept some miles away at the allotment.

wasabi flowers UK

Starting with a scrawny two-year plant from the market, over the years their leaves have become smaller, glossier and tougher.  Wasabi are awkward customers in that they like damp but cope badly with slugs; they make up for this by thriving in the cold weather.

I planted out the burdock salvaged from the resilience field.  Three plants had shared a pot over the winter, and their calorie-rich roots grew so fast that there was hardly any soil left.  I’m hoping to start a breeding colony in the woodland strip.

I’ve written about burdock in ‘Recipes for Resilience’ as it’s a good emergency food source.   The root fattens up in the first year, and is used up in the second summer to produce the large flowering stems.  This is a good time of year to harvest these roots, but only the spring leaves can be seen.

spring burdock

Compared with….

The spring leaves of poisonous foxglove

Growing both these plants in your Resilience Garden enables you to study them in detail, so you won’t dig up the wrong one – note the foxglove is kept in a pot.  Feel the leaf textures and observe the shades of green.

Practise  identifying them on a forest walk – but don’t dig up wild plants as that’s illegal in the UK unless you have the landowner’s permission and it’s not an endangered species.  Take pictures, and return later in the year to see if you were right.  It takes a couple of years’ study to really learn a plant.

The dismal, threatening weather meant the planned Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving was filmed for YouTube.  None of us were confident about travelling to Lyme Regis, given the weather forecast!  Although we didn’t get much snow here in the South, the rain was relentless and there was a lot of water on the roads.

Saturday itself was almost a nice day.  I worked on some of the infrastructure projects in the garden, feeling that these should have been finished weeks ago.  The plum tree is blossoming with the utmost caution; the bumblebees are about, but I haven’t seen any honey bees yet.

plum flowers 2018

Winter slinks out of the door, turning to snarl “I’ll be back!”, as Spring tiptoes tentatively in.

 

 

 

 

Earth Hour Chard

Earth Hour is an annual event which celebrates a global network committed to creating a sustainable world. It’s organised by the World Wildlife Fund, and began as a ‘lights out’ event in Sydney, Australia in 2007.

The idea is for people, organisations and businesses to turn off all non-essential lights, and other electrical devices, for one hour. The hour begins at 8.30pm local time, so the effect ripples around the world. City landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Shard, participate now, as well as millions of individuals.

chard earth hour list mar18

Some people organise whole events around the occasion, and one such is Earth Hour Chard where I was booked to talk about Resilience. Their first event had been a magnificent street fair, betrayed by a bitterly cold March wind. They’d hired the Guildhall this time, for a whole day’s programme of activities supported by a cafe, bar and numerous stalls.

chard art stall march 2018
Some of the colourful hand made local products on sale

I arrived early; the kids’ activities were in full swing. Everyone was busy, so after I unloaded and parked, I took a walk to the museum.

chard museum earth hour march 2018

In a county of farming communities, Chard always stood out as a factory town. The textile industry was important, particularly machine made lace for net curtains and clothing. As outlined in the Resilience Handbook, the presence of machinery in the area encouraged a support network of craftspeople. These skills were then available to inventors.

 A very comfortable 'donkey chaise' in the foreground
A very comfortable ‘donkey chaise’ in the foreground

It was in Chard, in 1848, that John Stringfellow’s Aerial Steam Carriage first showed that engine powered flight was possible. Other major advances credited to the town include the development of articulated artificial limbs and of X-ray photography. Today, it’s the home of the Henry vacuum cleaner.

chard British icons march 2018
British icons!

I strolled down Fore Street, admiring the remaining old countryside architecture, the thatched houses and diamond pane windows, arriving back in time for the judging of the colouring in competition. I hastened over to the Phoenix Hotel; the talks were being held there while the Guildhall was set up for the evening event.

chard phoenix hotel mar18

I’d decided to create a new talk, outlining how the Resilience Project came into being through a fusion of Transition’s Energy Descent Action Plan and local emergency planning, with decades of experience in living off-grid thrown in. Jason Hawkes covered ecological footprints and housing; Kate Handley talked on local food.

We packed up in time for the music; a selection of bands often seen at off-grid festivals, compèred by Tracey West, publisher extraordinaire. Simon West manned their Word Forest Organisation stall on the top floor, where the poetry slam was going on.

It was a very entertaining evening, networking and enjoying quality performances. We didn’t turn off the lights in the venue for Earth Hour – a health and safety issue – but at least the people attending had turned theirs off!

Thatched cottages in Chard Somerset

Although Chard is poorly served by public transport, it’s worth a visit. I found some charming hotels with reasonable prices, though in the event I stayed with one of the organisers. Check for parking, as this may be a local issue.

Sadly, the nearby Wildlife park at Cricket St Thomas has closed and is now on the Heritage at Risk register.

chard ration foods mar18
From the museum…I eat less meat then that already…more cheese and eggs though

Some Notes on Apples

It’s starting to look like a late Spring here in a thawed, but still shocked, Somerset.  Plants are cautiously emerging, but the buds on the trees remain resolutely closed.  As their roots are still dormant,  you’ve a little time left to plant out saplings.  This should be done before late March.

Apples are such a staple food that it’s good to have a tree in your garden.  Our estate was built on an old orchard, and a few of the original trees are left.  My neighbour has one, left to grow to its full size over several decades.

You don’t necessarily want one that large.   Techniques for growing smaller trees have been developed over the centuries since the sweet Chinese apple came over the Silk Road to Europe.  Our native crabapple was bitter, but adapted to the climate.  The sciences of grafting, pruning and cross breeding were known to ancient cultures.

Today, a vigorous rootstock is grown, then the top part of this tree replaced with a branch from a ‘fruitstock’.  The resultant apple tree takes on the shape of the root variety, yet provides fruit  from the graft type.   You can buy dwarf trees, bearing your favourite apple but staying quite small.

These aren’t cheap, and will be something of a fixture; it can be several years before you get any fruit at all.  It’s worth going to a short course with an expert to learn the basics of orchard management and how to apply these to your garden.  Knowledge of this kind is a community asset, as described in the Handbook, so I went on a refresher course.

Anthony Ward, our tutor, is the keeper of the Chalice Well orchard in Glastonbury.  We were planting some trees in a new field at Brook End Farm, situated where the Levels rise into hillier ground to the east.

You can see the knobbly bit on the trunk from the graft.  If you have a pot-bound tree like this, dig your hole square so the roots can spread out easier.

The stake is driven in after the tree is planted.  Modern ties allow more movement, as the action of the wind strengthens the roots.  The grass is kept away from the trunk with a mulch; a precaution ignored with less valuable trees.  For the first few weeks, make sure the sapling neither dries out nor sits in a puddle.  Then forget about it till it needs pruning, which is a whole other story.

This is the apple tree in the Resilience Garden.  It grew from an apple core hidden in a plant pot by my daughter.  Although it produces good red eating apples, it clearly wants to be a very large tree.  It’s an example of very bad pruning;  I tried to make a ‘goblet’ shape without taking into account the shading from the fence behind.  After that, I appreciated the courses more.

The mulch to the right of the tree is the filling from a defunct futon mattress, which I’m covering with a thick layer of leaf mould.  I have access to a large pile of this; otherwise I’d use soil exported from the raised beds.  The green shoots are wild garlic; they’ll be ready to harvest soon.

Wild Garlic Pesto

2 rounded tablespoons of crushed nuts (50 grams; 2 ounces)

2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and shaken dry (100 grams; 4 ounces)

1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese – vegans can substitute yeast flakes

4 – 6 tablespoons of olive oil (100 – 150 ml; 4 – 6 fluid ounces)

a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to taste

Blend everything together and serve with pasta!

I couldn’t resist adding that recipe, from ‘Recipes for Resilience‘…..wild garlic does make a lovely pesto and it has quite a short season.  I grow a lot of it under bushes and in the wild areas, as very reliable spring greens.  The nettles are coming up too – vitamins arriving at just the right time!

I’ve been asked to talk about resilience at the Earth Hour event in Chard, Somerset on the 24th March; I’ll be signing Resilience Handbooks too.   The daytime events are free, so drop in if you’re in the area!

 

Snow in the Shire!

Although Somerset escaped the blizzards from the East at the start of last week, we were nailed by the storm front coming up from the South for the weekend.  Thursday morning, a light but relentless snow began to drift around the lanes.  By early afternoon, there was a state of emergency declared in the county and most roads were impassable as the winds rose and the snow piled high.

The starlings huddled in their bare tree like frozen clumps of leaf, then were obscured from view entirely as dark came early.  I can’t imagine how they made it back to their reedy homes in the marshlands.  Late in the night, a freezing rain fell, which covered the fluffy snowdrifts with a layer of sharp-edged ice.  This weather was out to get you.

A layer of frozen rain on the window next morning
A layer of frozen rain on the window next morning

Our parish was quite lightly affected – we have no main roads or other major transport links to look after.  The few vehicles that braved our lane were in the service of utility maintenance.  Apart from some low gas pressure, our supplies remained intact.  Many other areas lost power or water.

The tractor cleared our lane quite early on Friday

 

The tractor cleared our lane quite early on Friday, but the main road was barely functional.  My intrepid young lodgers walked the four miles into Glastonbury town, where the situation was about the same.  The tyre tracks were in danger of freezing into black ice at any point; temperatures took a sharp dive after sunset.

snow in Glastonbury 2018

The River Brue was frozen.

frozen river march 2018

School was most definitely out!

school snow march 18

Everything seemed to just freeze in place for the day on Friday; there was a major incident declared for the county.  People dealt well with not going out, allowing service providers and those who’d been caught away from home priority in using the roads.

There wasn’t any point in making strenuous efforts to clear the snow away.   There’s nearly twelve hours of sunlight a day at this time of year.  Once the maverick weather had blown over, natural solar power would do the trick, and so it proved on Saturday.  The kids had hardly time to borrow a sledge before the snow was all gone!

It’s been seven years since our corner of the Shire had anything more than a light dusting of snow.  On Sunday, I was reminded of one of the reasons I wrote the Resilience Handbook.

empty shelves 1 mar 18

This is a typical supermarket in Mid-Somerset, two days after the emergency was over.  There’s no fresh food at all (except a tray of celeriac, which no-one knows how to cook).  Will this remind Glastonbury Town Council that allotments have their uses after all?  This snowfall occurred in March, on the edge of Spring.  It could have been a whole different story if it was in December.

 

Local emergency responders will always have to prioritise those in greatest need during an emergency, focusing their efforts where life is in danger. There will be times when individuals and communities are affected by an emergency but are not in any immediate danger and will have to look after themselves and each other for a period until any necessary external assistance can be provided.”

from the Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience (Cabinet Office March 2011) 

Back to normal next week with a bit of luck….the seed swap and the freecycle day were both cancelled, and I’ve missed the potato days now.  Luckily I can pay a visit to the organisers, at the Walled Garden in nearby East Pennard to see what exotic varieties they have left!

Town Tree Farm

The Somerset Levels are flat, and barely above sea level.  Most of the land is drained now, to form cattle pastures, but it used to be a mix of swamp, wet woodland and bog.  The value of the latter is now becoming appreciated for its role in flood control.  Towntree Farm is decades ahead of the game!

View of a normal Levels field through one of the trademark horseshoe constructions
View of a normal Levels field through one of the trademark horseshoe constructions

In the 1970s, farmer Chris Burnett began a visionary landscaping project on the family farm.  Starting small, with a pond outside the farmhouse, he used the spoil to form a lawn, then landscaped a neighbouring field in a similar fashion.

Towntree farm

The left over soil made pathways this time, and the pond soon attracted a breeding pair of swans.  Encouraged by this, Chris dug out a seven and a half acre pond, specially designed for water birds.  It’s quite shallow, which allows a good growth of reeds.

towntree lake vista feb18

He planted the new high ground with trees and plants, both wild and cultivated.  Once these became established, hundreds of migratory birds began to visit, and he has hopes of attracting a pair of cranes soon.

In 1987, ‘Capability’ Chris – as he had become known – was persuaded to open the 22 acre Nature Garden to the public.  He celebrated this by making a ‘Peace Arch’ at the entrance from the car park, which is covered with climbing roses in summer.

towntree peace bell feb18

Following the yellow arrows, the curious visitor traverses the winding paths.  It’s not just the peaceful atmosphere and nature that bring people here, though.  The trail is dotted with statues and sculptures, left to gradually merge with the wild.

towntree slab urn

As the path meanders, bordered by ditches, you can see inaccessible alcoves.  Further on, the twists and turns suddenly bring you out into that very clearing!

There are benches made of stone slabs, or of dozens of horseshoes welded together.

I don’t know what the huge dead flowers behind this chair are; I’ll have to return later in the year and see them growing.  Their leaves are the size of umbrellas!

 

The decaying greenhouse lends an apocalyptic air to the place, along with the greening statues.

I’m definitely coming back in the summer for a picnic in those shady groves!  If you’d like to visit Towntree Farm, and marvel at how much difference one man can make, there are instructions here.

 

Compared to a grass pasture of the same size, the Nature Garden clearly holds a lot more water.  This is restrained by the natural features re-created here, protecting land further downstream during times of flood. 

The Towntree Farm project has always been a hobby, laid out simply for the delight in nature.  Using permaculture and forest gardening principles, other such gardens could justify their existence with some financial return.

 

 

Return to Resilience

Things were very quiet after I returned from China.  It rained a lot in Somerset, even when it snowed over the rest of Britain.

snow in the shire
Snow in the shire!
The sky is falling!

Although we’re continuing to work on the allotments, Glastonbury Town Council has promised the government they will sell the land to developers.  I expect there will be letters to the Gazette. The Resilience Handbook Community section covers the basics of setting up a local organisation – you never know when you might be ambushed by outside forces!

Consequently, the Resilience Garden will be coming out of its fallow period, so plenty of work ahead there.  I wanted to see how it would perform for edibles if left alone for a whole season.  The leeks did well, and the self seeded broccoli has given a steady harvest of green leaves.  I did plant out some courgettes and squash in the summer; their huge leaves and sprawling vines were a great weed suppressant.

It’s the Chinese Year of the Earth Dog now  – I wonder if that’s auspicious for digging? I got the bus to Bristol, to meet up with my friend Val from Swansea, for the New Year celebrations at the Wai Yee Hong Chinese supermarket.  They lay on a stage, host a street food market, and hire the Lion Dancers.

Lions 2018

The supermarket itself is entertaining enough for a visit.  The gaudy labels sometimes condescend to have a English translation stuck over them, but there’s still enough mystery for shopping to be something of a lucky dip.  The range of exotic fruits – tinned, dried, crystallised, salted – and the unique cuts of pork….

….anyway this is getting to sound like an advert.  Be careful though – I ended up in China itself after my first New Year Lion Dance here!

Detail from Lion costume
Detail from Lion costume

My intrepid publishers at Magic Oxygen are on an expedition to Kenya.   They’ve been funding tree planting and building school classrooms in Kundeni, initially through an annual literary prize.  Now they’ve formed a charity, the Word Forest Organisation, to further these projects.

They’ll be back in time to host the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving in Lyme Regis on March 31st – I’ll be there to answer questions about resilience – then add the finishing touches to ‘Recipes for Resilience’.

towntree farm red brick gateway

 

Routine life provides a backdrop to exciting travel adventures in the way that a simple chain highlights the jewels strung on it.

However, there are mysteries to be discovered in ordinary settings and one of these, pictured above, is the legendary Town Tree Farm…..

….more next week

The Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne

Our last day began with a trip to the Temple of Heaven, a large pagoda. The bus dropped us as near as possible – parking is very difficult in Beijing – and we walked through an adult exercise park.

Adult exercise park beijing

Retired people could get cheap season tickets; it was quite a community gathering. Further in, groups of elders played cards and board games with great excitement, and a small choir practised in the park. The ‘maybe later’ marketeers added ping pong bats and feathered shuttlecocks to their repertoire here.

Temple of heavenly peace

This Temple has been used since Neolithic times, to hold sacrifices for a good harvest. Bamboo scrolls and brass compasses on sale here may hint at record keeping and feng shui functions too, but we couldn’t understand much of the information. The artwork was marvellous though.

Paintwork on temple of heavenly peace

We scrambled back on to the bus before its parking time expired and stopped off at the Chinese Medicine Academy for a foot massage. This was partly to give their students practise and partly in the hope we’d buy something. If you want to take Chinese medicines out of the country, you need a certificate from the prescribing doctor.

Reception desk at Chinese Medicine Academy

Finally we arrived at Tiananmen Square. It was smaller than Linda had expected, and less crowded than I’d thought. There were red flags, neat soldiers and police, impressive buildings all around.

Tiananmen square with forbidden city view

From there, we entered the Forbidden City at last. It’s vast; the guides warned us to keep up with the flag, as we had a lot of ground to cover, and the bus was meeting us at the far end.

Map and flag Forbidden City

The courtyards were huge. I could imagine the officials waiting in throngs for their instructions, standing in the cold dry wind. I hoped they let them go inside if it snowed!

Inside Forbidden City

Our guide lectured us on the various structures, their purpose and history. The roof decorations on the pavillions represented the Emperor riding on a rooster followed by nine dragons; this was considered to be a fortunate emblem.

roof detail Forbidden City

There were a number of large metal cauldrons throughout the city. These were for firefighting; charcoal could be lit under them so they didn’t freeze in winter. Their stone stands, and most other surfaces, banisters and doorways were all intricately carved, often with a dragon motif.

Cauldron stand Forbidden City

We crossed the second large courtyard, Harmony Square, and climbed the steps to the Palace of the Supreme Harmony, where the Dragon Throne sits. The prospect of actually setting eyes on this legendary artefact had excited me more than anything else about the trip!

dragon pathway Forbidden City 
Stairs to the Dragon Throne

Tourists weren’t allowed to enter this palace, but you could join the small crowd around the doorways to view the Throne inside, and take a picture obstructed by a pillar. Already used to the rules about not photographing the Buddha statues, I didn’t see this as an imposition. Given the effort required only a few decades ago to get this close, I felt a short glimpse was enough of a privilege!

Dragon throne

There were many Chinese tourists patiently waiting for their turn, so we didn’t linger. We had a better view of the metal ball hanging over the throne, which falls on any would-be usurper. It’s said that some Emperors shifted their seat a little to the side!

Ball over dragon throne

We turned off to the side through the next courtyard, to view the charming Western Palaces. These used to accommodate the second wives and concubines of the Emperor, including the Empress Cixi. A long alleyway linked a number of little courtyards surrounded by wooden houses, which now hosted various exhibitions.

Courtyard bird statues Forbidden City Western Palaces

Time was pressing, the light was failing. There were many more exhibits. Some, like the clocks and jewellery were extra; however the ticket office was closed by the time we got there. To really see a place this vast and historical, you’d need a full day and a guide book.

courtyard dragon forbidden city

Dusk was falling on our last day in China. As we reached the Imperial Gardens, we had to hurry. Loud music began to sound, like a scene from ‘Inception’. Barriers were coming down around us, our group had to look sharp not to be separated.

We walked quite a distance to the bus, past the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, past the ‘maybe laters’ with their fake Rolex, past street vendors selling red sticky things on sticks, to a street corner where the bus driver hastened us aboard.

As we climbed on, we were serenaded by an old couple busking with a traditional stringed instrument, almost like a farewell to China.

Imperial gardens Forbidden City
Imperial Gardens, Forbidden City

 

You certainly cover a lot of ground on an RSD trip, and face some interesting challenges! As an independent traveller, I find them invaluable for getting to know somewhere I’d struggle to make my own arrangements to visit. Linda and I had already been on their tour of Turkey, and we may yet follow through on our independent plans to spend a week visiting Troy and the hot spas in more detail, if the political situation improves there.

In China, almost everywhere we went could do with another, longer visit. Our favourites would be a week in Shanghai, another river cruise, and a whole day in the Forbidden City. A Great Wall hike sounds lovely, as long as it’s warmer, and we’d like to spend some time in the South too.

We felt a bit nervous about this adventure, and most of the time were probably well out of our depth. Our tour guide, Kevin, shepherded us around diligently though, despite the British tendency to irrational overconfidence in a totally strange country. We always feel that being polite gets you a long way, and this does appear to be true in China.

It ‘d be quite hard to make any but the simplest travel arrangements yourself. You have to give the addresses you plan to stay at on your visa application form, and may have to make bookings on the phone with someone who doesn’t understand English very well.

However, the resilient traveller loves a challenge!

Next week – Return to Resilience