Tag Archives: community

The 67 Bus

Even though the whole globe has been mapped out and uploaded, adventure can still be found in the details. The Somerset Levels are best explored by cycle or on foot, but there is one bus which crosses them. The number 67, from Wells to Burnham-on-Sea via Wedmore, takes the intrepid traveller right through this iconic countryside to enjoy a couple of hours at the seaside.

A distinctly rural minibus pulls up at Wells Bus Station, down the platform from its sleek, Bristol-bound brethren, and we are off on the ancient trackway to Wedmore. The modern B3139 follows this intricate path, connecting two projections of higher land separating broad expanses of marshland. Building space was limited on this dry ridge; the hamlets are strung along this narrow, twisting country lane, almost submerged in greenery at this time of year.

wookey cottage garden

Exuberant hedges are covered in flowers; creamy elder, clouds of pink-blushed hawthorn, spikes of lilac and chestnut, curves of honeysuckle. Gaps in the foliage reveal little orchards, families of black sheep, contented donkeys. We pass through Yarley, Bleadney and Theale, past ivy-draped stone walls, verges scattered with the white flowers of cow parsley, fields decorated with buttercups, and into Wedmore.

Here, there are elegant town houses, stone built cottages with purple flowers pouring over garden walls, and foxgloves in full bloom. Wedmore, founded by the Saxons, was a busy market town in medieval times. The Market Cross dates back to the 14th century, and there are some other building of historic interest. Wedmore is the home of the infamous Turnip Prize for modern art, and an annual Real Ale festival.

You could plan a few hours wandering around this pleasant area and return to Wells, but we are changing here for Burnham-on-Sea.

bus transfer at Wedmore
Changing buses at Wedmore; the blue one returns to Wells

Our next driver was a trainee, learning the invisible stops on the route. The passengers cheered when she edged past a horse box on a lane where ‘single track road’ would be a generous designation.

The countryside is more open as we approach the sea, crossing the old tidal marshes on our rocky ridge. Black and white dairy cows, familiar to Glastonbury Festival followers, graze in the summer pastures. Swans resting by willow-hung streams are a reminder that these fields are the domain of waterfowl in winter time.

Another set of villages is linked by this slender road, like beads on a wire. We pass quaint churches, pubs, an aquafarm and an Aikido centre. The bus begins to fill up, mainly with elderly local residents. Sit at the back if you can, as many passengers have walking frames or shopping trollies. There isn’t a bell to ring; call out if you need to get off before the terminus. The other passengers join in until the driver responds!

The gentle rural lane ended at the A38, the main coast road, lined with caravan parks. We detoured through Highbridge and arrived opposite the Old Pier Tavern in Burnham.

old pier tavern at burnham on sea

It’s a short walk – about two minutes – to the sea front. There’s a typical British seaside sort of building there, housing the Bay View Cafe, a remarkably well stocked Tourist Information centre, and public toilets.

Bay View Cafe Burnham on sea May 2018

I picked up a leaflet for the Heritage Trail in Burnham, found the main street easily, past the bucket-and-spade shop. There was a Farmers’ Market going on, and the second hand shops were worth a visit; there were coffee shops and cashpoints, icecreams, seaside rock in strange and wonderful flavours, chips and amusement arcades. Everyone was excited about the Food Festival on Saturday; unfortunately the 67 bus doesn’t run at weekends.

pier amusements Burnham on sea may18

Back at the seafront, there was a good view of the Low Lighthouse, Burnham’s iconic landmark. This was built in 1832, and is still operational; the remains of the previous lighthouse are now part of a hotel.

Round Tower and church tower Burnham on sea May 2018

The abandoned jetty speaks of a busier past. Steamships from Wales would arrive here, connecting with the railway service whose tracks used to run right out to the dock; now even the station has gone.

jetty Burnham on sea May 2018

The seawall is high and curved, there are storms in winter. The tide was out, exposing the mudflats. Rippled channels of water were almost invisible on the gleaming surface, swiftly filling up the flat expanse, bringing the sea back to the sandcastles.

Curved sea wall Burnham on sea may2018

Gulls loitered in the seaweed crusted dampness  under the pier; it was a quiet day at the beach.

burnham pier may18

A short one too; the last bus leaves Burnham at one o’clock. Still, I had a good couple of hours at the seaside and a relaxing journey through beautiful countryside – just like being on holiday!

 

This service got dumped by First Bus, since it wasn’t profitable, and has had to be patched back together by the town and parish councils along its route. It’s the only public transport for the outlying villages. Taking journeys like this is good training for using local buses in unfamiliar countries.

Some key points need to be considered wherever you are.

  • Timetables may be out of date. Check your return journey, or connections, with the driver before the bus abandons you in the middle of nowhere. Have some useful phrases printed or practised if you’re in a foreign country.
  • Buses may be early. A rural bus with no passengers waiting is bound to be ahead of schedule at some points on its route. Arrive at the stop in good time.
  • The bus may be full. A popular journey, such as the last bus back, may be crowded. Have a Plan B; an alternate way of getting back. Plot another bus route if possible, or check local taxi services before leaving.

Testing your personal resilience with small, accessible challenges is a great way to build up your self confidence.

Read the Resilience Handbook for more information, or just go straight to the free resilience assessment to see how good you are already!

 

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May Diary 2018

The challenges of growing vegetables continue; a very brief Spring has been swiftly followed by long hot days with no rain.  The seedlings, root systems stunted by the unseasonable cold, struggle to gather water from the hard soil.

A greenhouse is becoming essential to cope with this erratic weather.  If you plan to assemble your own, read the instructions carefully and proceed slowly.  Photos of the demonstration model in the garden centre could prove useful.

Greenhouse and field may18

Watering the allotment, some miles from where I live, is a daily chore.  Mature plants are doing far better than fresh sowings, but I’m still concerned about the meagre amount of food coming up.  The Resilience Garden benefits from waste household water and a handy tap.

The role of water in cultivation is highlighted by this drought.  The kitchen gardens of old came as much from the availability of used water as from the convenience of having herbs to hand.

Early summer is a time of leisure for the resilience smallholder, of watching the plants grow and enjoying the flowers.  Many events, cancelled because of the snow, reinvented themselves.  Seedy Sunday became Seedling Sunday…

Seedling Sunday RBB May18

Somerset Day was celebrated…

Somerset Day May18

…and there was a Graffiti Day at the skateboard park.

Skateboard park may18

We went to try out the archery at Mendip Snowsports Centre, and discovered Frisbee Golf!  Although not all the baskets were this deep in woodland, my frisbee always headed for the nearest nettle patch!

Frisbee Golf at Mendip snowsports centre

The centre offers bushcraft and target shooting, as well as the artificial slopes for snow-related activities.  There’s a pleasant cafe and bar; a good place to have a day brushing up your resilience skills.

Networking is an important part of community resilience, a whole section of the Resilience Plan.  People need to exchange news after the winter season, when travel can be limited.  It’s important to be aware of dangers and opportunities in the local area and beyond.

The concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ was identified before the internet was developed; we need not be dependent on technology for our world news.  Local events, with their travelling pedlars and performers, were once key information nodes, and often more fun!

The free soap nuts were a great success!
The free soap nuts were a great success at the Repair Cafe!

 

May Day in Glastonbury 2018

When Spring finally arrived in Somerset, it came with all the gardening jobs it was just too cold to tackle earlier.  May is proving another busy month!  The festival of Beltane, marking the start of summer, should be the time when you can relax, stop treading on the soil, and watch your crops grow.

This year, I had three batches of peas fail to come up – though one is starting to show now – which was a disaster, since this is a heritage variety called Telegraph which I’m seed-saving from.  The very last seeds were being soaked before planting – something I don’t normally bother with – when I took a day off to attend the May Day festivities in Glastonbury.

Morris dancing to celebrate Mayday in Glastonbury 2018

The Tuesday market was occupying the Market Cross, so the Morris dancing took place on the newly acquired patio of the Town Hall.  Speeches and bardic recitations followed until the Maypole itself was carried down the High Street by the Green Men.

approach of the maypole GB18

More speeches and announcements followed.  I was at the edge of a growing crowd and it felt like the sketch from the ‘Life of Brian’ (‘What did he say?’ ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers, I think’).  The procession wended back up the High Street, past the White Spring to Bushy Combe, as described in this post from 2015.

The White Spring is run by a committee of volunteers now, who endeavour to keep it open  as much as possible.  It’s well worth seeing if you’re in the area!

Glastonbury white spring rules 2018

The Maypole was duly erected following more ceremonies and recitations.  I would have preferred blessings on my peas to vague invocations of universal love, but few people appreciate vegetables these days.

It’s a colourful spectacle though; both celebrants and audience take some trouble to dress up for the occasion.  The practical aspects, such as untangling the ribbons as the pole goes up, offer plenty of breaks for chatting.winding of ribbons in the maypole dance Glastonbury 2018

Quite often in previous years, the ribbons ended up tangled in a big clump off to one side of the pole!  Now, enough people have got the hang of the right way to weave in and out that they can keep others on the right track – anyone at the ceremony can take a ribbon and join the dance.

This nice tight winding lasted all the way down.  During most of the dance, four strong Green Men braced the pole, as it takes a surprising amount of strain from the flimsy ribbons!  The completed pole is moved when all is done, and stored until next year when a new pole and ribbons are sourced, since the field is needed for other things.

 

The Community section of the Resilience Handbook provides advice on organising your own community events.  These are a good way to meet neighbours.  Even casual acquaintance helps, should you ever need to cope with an emergency together.  Make a point of attending local events, if only in a ‘walk-on’ role!

 

 

 

 

 

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”

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

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

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