Sunday 11th December 2005
I must admit that my departure from Cornwall and “Mount Haven” on Sunday morning was more than a little reluctant – not least because the Plymouth hotel – even on the website – looked tired and well-used. And that how it’s turned out to be. It’s hard to believe that two hotels, at which the DBB rates are identical, could be so different. But enough of that!
On the drive to Plymouth, I diverted to Falmouth to visit Pendennis Castle. Originally built in the 16th century as a fortress for Henry VIII, it was later progressively expanded to protect Falmouth harbour and shipping channels from the French and Spanish in 16th century and from the Germans in both World Wars. According to the introductory video, a contingent of NZ troops was garrisoned there at some stage during WWII, but if there was any evidence amongst the exhibits, I couldn’t see it.
I spent about an hour and a half there but did so more to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the spectacular views, than to give the artillery arrayed around the perimeter anything more than a cursory inspection. The display of guns would be enhanced by the inclusion of the six-inch disappearing Armstrong gun at Fort Taiaroa on the Otago Peninsula. The one at Pendennis would bow its barrel in shame.
Then a leisurely drive along the coast via St Austell and Mevagissey (every bit as appealing as you had suggested, Bernice) to Torpoint, where I took the vehicular ferry rather than battle the heavier traffic north-west of the city. I arrived at the hotel much earlier than I planned, but am glad I did while there was still light!
Monday 12th December 2005
This morning, as part of my planned perambulation down to the seafront and around to the Barbican, I paused sufficiently long to view the Plymouth Hoe Bowling Club green – just a short step from the hotel – with a critical eye. It looked as if it would benefit from some selective agistment as a prerequisite to any mowing, and I think even then I would find it too “slow” for my liking.
But what a setting being, as it is, an integral part of the expansive Hoe Park overlooking the Sound.
Further round the seafront past “Fisher’s Nose” (and, no, I haven’t been able to find out why it’s called that) is the recently opened (1999) National Marine Aquarium, billed as Britain’s biggest and Europe’s deepest aquarium. It certainly is impressive, more (for me) for the display technology than the exhibits themselves and for the emphasis on education, conservation and research.
If all that adds up to Norm being somewhat underwhelmed, you’ve read me correctly.
As the primary reason for my visiting Plymouth was to try to add to my knowledge of my Devon forbears, I spent a long but essentially fruitless search at the Naval and Family History section of the Plymouth Library for some record of my great grandfather, Stephen.
I knew he worked as a shipwright in the Naval Dockyard here, but I failed to find any trace of him on the eleven reels of microfilm that I spent some three hours viewing. That’s not to say that he’s not in there somewhere, it’s just that I couldn’t find him. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, however, as the films cover the pay books of everyone employed at the various dockyards, rope yards, etc., in the whole of the UK and abroad and there is no catalogue of what’s on each reel.
And, as if to add insult to injury, the records have not been sequenced chronologically – as a result of which I was just as likely to find some records from the 1700s on Reel 10 as Reel 2. Hopefully, I’ll have better luck with the church records – but that’s for tomorrow.
Given what I’ve already said about my Plymouth hotel, I went down to my first dinner at the “Invicta Hotel” with some trepidation. It is one of those hotels which could accurately be described as being locked in the 50s or 60s – including an all-pervading aroma of stale cigarette smoke! And nothing in the tiny Dining Room did anything to change my perception. From the Table d’Hote menu, I partook of the “Traditional Prawn Cocktail” – pre-school, as opposed to school, prawns in that “marie rose” sauce which some of you may remember as being quite “posh” in its day. This was less than tastefully arranged on what I’m almost certain was shredded “iceberg” lettuce, but on a flat plate rather than one of those silver (?) coupe dishes I recall.
This was followed by Salmon which, I have to admit, was delicious – though I could have done without (and didn’t eat) the seriously overcooked mush of vegetables also of another era.
But the crowning glory was a trio of ice cream of the ice-crystalline “milk-ice” species that I haven’t seen or tasted for longer than I can remember – and hope never to again.
But there’s more – all of the above was accompanied by appropriately seasonal music featuring such favourites as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” and Dick Haymes’ “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” Now what else could you ask for?
Tuesday 13th December 2005
Another bright, clear and chilly morning but one on which I was happy just to sit in the sun by Smeaton’s Tower, once a lighthouse on the infamous Eddystone Reef.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have better things to do, but rather that the administrator at the RC Cathedral, Lindsey Carter, who was holding the photocopy of the registry entry for Stephen’s burial, works only part-time and was not expected in before 10:00 am. I spoke to her soon after that and arranged to pick it up later in the morning – which I did. Regrettably, Lindsey was unavailable when I called but I’ve subsequently e-mailed her to thank her for her help. It wasn’t until I had got to the Library that I noticed that all of the registry entry was in Latin. So the next challenge will be to find a priest who still remembers enough “Church Latin”, not only to help translate the entry itself, but also to decipher, if he can, the handwritten part which records, I hope, where Stephen was buried. All offers of help gratefully received!
Perhaps it was “cook’s night off” on my first night, because on Tuesday night whilst the vegetables remained inedible and I wasn’t game to try another dessert, the entrée of mussels and Dover sole main course were excellent!
Wednesday 14th December 2005
Wednesday was one of those frustrating days as I waited for a response from the staff of Ford Cemetery Trust – the main cemetery in Plymouth – to my e-mailed request as to whether or not they would waive the requirement for a mailed application to search their burial records. I went “walkabout” a couple of times to give myself a break from waiting for the e-mail “kettle to boil”, including another circuit of the harbour-side and braving the throngs of frantic Christmas Shoppers in the centre of the city, but all to no avail.
In the absence of a response I went out to the cemetery, anyway, on the off-chance that I might find something – anything! And it turned out I did, though not as much as I’d hoped for. There is no record there of Stephen’s burial – which doesn’t really surprise me as I still think he was buried in the churchyard but I’ll need my Latin advisor/translator/guru to confirm that.
My visit was not altogether wasted, however, as there were records to show that my great grandmother, Jane (who died at the ripe old age of 93 in 1902), a grand uncle, William James, and one of his daughters, Jane Jago were buried there – regrettably without any surviving headstone/s. As I said, not what I was looking for to give me some leads to where in Waterford Stephen might have been born, but better than “a poke in the eye with a blunt stick” as my father used to say; or was it “sharp stick”?
Then off to Bath – in the geographical rather than the personal hygiene sense. A dream run up the M5, spoilt only by circuits around Bath trying to find a parking spot near the hotel. I’m glad it wasn’t dark or rainy or, worse, both!
Friday 16th December 2005
Friday and I was back on the tourist circuit. First stop was to be Bath Abbey both because it was almost next door to the hotel and because I wanted to try and get in before the crowds.
Being the “early bird” didn’t help at all as it was closed to all visitors for the day. Any disappointment I might have felt was short-lived, however, when I noticed a billboard offering reserved seating for a Christmas Concert there on the following evening at 6:30 pm.
With more hope than optimism, I hied me to the Bath Festival Office to see if I could get a seat – and, surprise, surprise, I did. Certainly the seat is about a third of the way down the knave and certainly nowhere near the centre of the row, but it is a seat – and it’s mine!
Flushed with success, the Roman Baths was my next stop, and I could scarcely believe the transformation since last I was there in the early eighties. The site is much larger and better developed since then and, with the welcome addition of an excellent audio-guide, must join my list of “must-sees” for anyone with just the vaguest interest of matters Roman in England. I was there for some hours but at no stage did it seem like that – and I really was somewhat reluctant to leave. Absorbed as I was, I didn’t summon up enough courage, however, to accept the offer to sample “the water”. Nor did I venture into the “Pump Room” – a pleasure I’d reserved until Saturday!
Following a “breather” from such a treat, for me anyway, it was on then to the Assembly Rooms and the Museum of Costume. Any hopes that it might engage equally – even if only from so many Jane Austen associations – were shattered when at least two of the rooms, the Ball Room and the Tea Room, were being readied for Christmas functions. The screech of tables and chairs being moved and the clink of bottles and glasses did not contribute to sympathetic viewing.
Having said that, there’s not really a lot to see, though the audio-guide did its best to pad out what it had to say with quoted passages from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Even with the creation of a whole new “wing” to accommodate the costumes from a number of the film or TV adaptations of Austen novels, I found the Museum of Costume little more appealing than it was on my last visit.
Saturday 17th December 2005
I was at Bath Abbey bright and early this morning and almost had the place to myself. I’d forgotten what an attractive church it is. To what extent that’s because as a parish church it communicates a greater intimacy, or because of its beautiful vaulted ceiling – the view of which is helped by an unbroken line of sight from West to East, I really don’t know. What I do know, is that I like it.
And, as a bonus I got to attend another hour-long concert of Christmas music by what I understand is called a recorder band, in this case the 22 player strong “Jerrome Recorders”. Although comprising mostly arrangements of carols, the programme also included some Handel and Mozart. With recorders ranging from tiny descant to a giant contra-bass, they made music of which I didn’t think the instruments were capable. A most enjoyable and unexpected pleasure.
My intentions to “lunch” in the Pump Room and listen to their resident trio were stymied when I discovered that a reservation was essential – something that hadn’t even occurred to me. I guess I’ll have to add it to the list of pleasures (?) that may have to wait for a return visit.
My visit to the Victoria Art Gallery – listed on some of the tourist brochures as being “worth a look” – didn’t altogether compensate.
I’m not long back from my second concert for the day – and another treat! The programme comprised a first half of carols, many of which were 20th-century settings I had not heard before and, in the second half, Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”. The singing throughout was just beautiful and, while I found some of the carols not as accessible as I had hoped, the Britten – sung as it was in candlelight, was just wonderful.
A musical day with a very Christmas flavour – and none the worse for that!
I head back “home” to Manchester, tomorrow, to prepare for my flight to Boston on Wednesday to spend Christmas with Michael and Cynthia. I am, as you can imagine, looking forward to my time there – and to be able to share Christmas with them makes it really special. Cynthia says she has ordered a “White Christmas” for me, though I’m less sure I really want it to be so coldly traditional.