Strange Bedfellows – Porcupine & Tortoise

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At Paya Indah Wetlands near Kuala Lumpur there is a family of porcupines who live in the same compound as a family of giant tortoises. In the heat of the midday sun they snuggle up next to each other in this shady shelter.

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With their armour-plated shells, tortoises are one of the few animal species that are immune to spiky porcupine quills.

Unlike this poor boa constrictor in Brazil which foolishly tried to take on a porcupine with painful consequences:

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St. Mary the Virgin, Great Brington

One of the best things about England is that you don’t have to go far to find places of historical interest. A good place to look is the local church. Take for example the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, close to where my family has a home in the small Northamptonshire village of Great Brington.

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This fine church has over 800 years of history with connections to two former monarchs and, if royal succession goes according to plan, one future king. An ancestor of George Washington is also buried here under a tombstone bearing a prototype of the Stars & Stripes, carved 160 years before the United States came into existence. For this reason, it is said that Great Brington is better known in America than in England.

Early History

There has been a church on this site for over 1,000 years, having been mentioned in the Domesday book. The early wooden Saxon church was probably burnt down in one of England’s endless factional wars but the church’s ancient baptismal font is thought to have survived from that early period. The stone tower was constructed around 1200 and the church has been expanded, remodelled and renovated countless times over the following centuries. Even as recently as 2015, the roof had to be replaced when thieves stole 12 tonnes of lead off the roof in the middle of the night. 

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In an amazing piece of record keeping, the church displays a full list of its priests from 1086 up until the present day, albeit with a few gaps. The last name on the list, from 2010 onwards, is the church’s first female vicar. That took long enough!

The Spencers & The Royal Connections

In the early 1500s, John Spencer, a nobleman from Warwickshire purchased the estate at Althorp, together with several hundred acres of the surrounding area, including the village and church of Great Brington. Since then, nineteen generations of the Spencer family have been buried here, either in the Spencer Chapel inside the church or in a special section of the graveyard outside. Under the patronage of this wealthy family, the church has always been well looked after.

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Probably the most famous Spencer, to the modern generation at least, was Lady Diana Spencer, ex-wife of Prince Charles and mother of Princes William and Harry. After her untimely death, she was laid to rest in the grounds of Althorp House, just 1.5km from the village, although there was a conspiracy theory that she was secretly reburied in the church when they found the ground water conditions of her lakeside burial site at Althorp to be unsuitable. Like most conspiracy theories, this is probably untrue.

Other royal rumours concern Mary, Queen of Scots who was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. It was said that her severed head was on its way to Elizabeth to prove that the deed had been done when it was intercepted at Brington by a messenger from the Queen, who had no desire to see it, so they decided to bury it under the altar of the church. A heraldic shield bearing the lion rampant of Scotland marks the spot. However others refute this legend and say that this is the grave of Anne Seagrave whose family crest included a similar lion.

Another royal connection concerns Charles I who is thought to have been allowed to attend services at the church while he was being held prisoner at nearby Holdenby House prior to his execution in 1649.

The American Connection

Lawrence Washington, great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington, First President of the United States of America was buried in the church in December 1616. His tombstone, now almost indecipherable, reads:

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Here lieth the bodi of Laurence Washington – sonne & heire of Robert Washington of Soulgrave in the countie of Northampton Esquier – who married Margaret the eldest daughter of William Butler of Tees in the countie of Sussexe esquier – who had issu by her – 8 sonns & 9 daughters – which Laurence decessed the 13 of December – A:DNI: 1616.

English spelling had obviously not been standardised in those days!

(I wrote about Sulgrave Manor, Lawrence Washington’s home, in a previous blog post.)

The tombstone bears the Washington coat of arms, from which the US flag was derived, together with the arms of the Butlers, his wife’s family. A nearby wooden bench-end is also decorated with the Washington family emblem.

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There is a portrait of George Washington on the wall of the nave with the inscription:

This portrait of George Washington replaces the original presented by the U.S. Senate to St. Mary’s Church, Great Brington July 1914 – Stolen July 1988.

Thieving is clearly a problem at this church!

Other Interesting Items

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The impressive stained glass East window was designed by William Morris and dedicated in 1912 by the 6th Earl Spencer to various members of his family. It represents the adoration of the lamb (whatever that means). The fenced off area to the left of this photo is part of the Spencer Chapel.

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There are a couple of tombstones embedded in the church floor which appear to commemorate family servants, such as this one of Mrs Hannah Cane who died in 1732 and was seemingly the nanny for Lady Morpeth.

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There is a huge and ancient-looking chest, contents unknown, capable of holding every church collection for the past 800 years.

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There is a fine foliate head carving, or Green Man, whose original purpose or meaning is lost in the mists of time, possibly even pre-dating the arrival of Christianity in Britain.

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This copy of an ancient seating plan, informs who sat where. It tells us for example that the first two pews on the North side were for John Middleton, his wife and children (Middleton? – Another royal connection?)

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Note the elaborately carved bench-ends, also known as poppy heads, in the bottom left of this photo, one of which dates from 1606.

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The graveyard outside is still in use. In English churches, our ancestors are all around us.

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There is a tomb under a gable on the external wall of the church with a weathered effigy of an unknown former cleric dressed in priestly vestments and holding a communion chalice.

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The base of a large cross stands in front of the church, thought to have been erected around 1300 as a common memorial to all those buried in the churchyard.

St. Mary the Virgin is a nice place to visit if you are in the area. But please don’t steal any souvenirs. The chest is empty by the way!

 

 

 

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Road Trip From Islamabad to UK

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I must have acquired my love for travel from my father who sadly passed away last month after a long and colourful life.

I was browsing through some of my Dad’s papers after the funeral and came across a battered exercise book which contained a log of a road trip he took in 1971 together with my Mum and sister. (I was in boarding school at the time.) The journey was from Islamabad in Pakistan, where Dad had been working, back to UK, a distance of 10,567 km according to his odometer readings. The trip lasted 34 days and took them through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia (as it was then), Italy, France and England. My sister, who was 18 at the time, shared in the driving, even though she had only been home-taught by Dad in Pakistan and had no driving license.

Their vehicle by the way was not a hardy Land Rover but a humble 1966 model Vauxhall Viva SL, a regular saloon in the days when cars (particularly British-made cars) were not as reliable as they are today.

Unfortunately the log is only a record of dates, distances and out-of-pocket expenses (so he could claim them back) and not a detailed diary but thanks to the log, my sister’s recollections and the many postcards they sent me en route I am able to reconstruct many of the details. Here are some of the highlights.

24th October 1971

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Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, is a modern planned city and was still under construction in 1971. It adjoins the ancient city of Rawalpindi, or ‘Pindi’, where this photo of the Intercontinental Hotel was taken. This hotel used to lay on an excellent curry buffet and was where I first encountered lime pickle, a delicacy which I still don’t like after five decades of curry eating.

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Dean’s Hotel was the leading hotel in Peshawar and, over the years, welcomed notable guests such as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and President Jinnah. It was situated in the green and leafy cantonment area of this North West Frontier city but it has since been demolished, along with many other historic buildings. I see from the log that my Dad stayed at Jan’s Hotel which was somewhat downmarket from Dean’s. In his postcard he noted that it was cold – ‘overcoat weather at night’.

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25th October 1971

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The next day they left Peshawar and crossed the Khyber Pass at Landi Kotal into Afghanistan, then reaching the Dakka tollgate with fine mountain views overlooking the Kabul River and on to Jalabad before arriving in the Afghan capital Kabul where they stayed at the Kabul Hotel. In those days the Kabul Hotel was a Soviet style building with a bleak dining room serving fried sheep’s testicles as a speciality. This hotel does not appear to have survived the subsequent decades of war.

27th October 1971

Manzel Bagh Kandahar

Two days later they drove to Kandahar and stayed at the Manzel Bagh Hotel, which was once a grand palace but no longer seems to be a hotel, if it is still standing. My sister noted that they couldn’t find a postcard from Kandahar.

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28th October 1971

Above: The great mosque of Herat. Today’s postcard, written by my sister said ‘Seen lots of desert and camels but not many people. On the way up Mum got kicked by a donkey because she was standing behind it and stroked it. It was quite amusing really!’ Mum didn’t think so.

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29th October 1971

Arrived Bakhtar Hotel, Meshed (Mashad) the second biggest city in Iran. The postcard above is of the Astane Ghods Museum. Mashad has an extreme climate with scorching summer temperatures but averages 20 snowy days in the winter.

30th October 1971

Arrived Bojnurd near Iran’s border with Turkmenistan. Their accommodation, Izadi Hotel, was one of the worst places they stayed on their trip. Didn’t get a postcard. The town does not seem to have improved. TripAdvisor only lists one B&B, rated as very poor!

31st October 1971

Arrived Sari Hotel, Sari, near the banks of the Caspian. Another crumby hotel. Wikipedia notes that a clock tower is the main point of interest. Travellers Tip: As a rule of thumb, avoid places where the sole attraction is a clock tower.

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1st & 2nd November 1971

Teheran Palace Hotel. The above postcard is of Fowzieh Square, named after a beautiful Egyptian princess who was, somewhat reluctantly, married off into the Shah of Iran’s family. Following the Iranian revolution, the square was renamed Imam Hossein roundabout. My Mum seemed impressed with Teheran. She wrote ‘ Signs of civilisation seen – Leyland double decker buses, real shops, in fact reminds me of London’s Oxford Street.’

3rd November 1971

Arrived Qazvin, famous for calligraphy, baklava, carpets, historical mosques and athletics. No postcard though.

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4th November 1971

Arrived Tabriz, another Persian carpet centre and quite a pretty looking town. The postcard is of the Shah Kuli Tabriz.

5th November 1971

Stayed at the Maku Inn at Maku close to the border crossing into Turkey. Amazingly it still exists and is the Number 1 B&B in Maku (out of one). No postcard.

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6th November 1971

Reached Turkey and stayed in Erzurum at the Polat Otel. Eastern Turkey was the only place where they encountered any hostility on their journey with local kids throwing stones at the car.

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7th November 1971

Arrived Ordu after a journey over some rough roads from Erzurum via Trabzon. Dad wrote ‘The Black Sea coast is pretty and quite civilised after the wilds of Eastern Turkey.’ Stayed at the Galestan Hotel. It appears to have gone out of business which is not surprising – the leg broke on Dad’s bed as soon as he got in it.

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8th November 1971

Arrived in Samsun, also on the Black Sea coast. This town was mentioned in Homer’s Illiad so it is appropriate that my parents should have visited it on their own Odyssey.

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9th – 11th November 1971

Reached Ankara, the Turkish capital and stayed at the Hotel Bulvar Palas which still exists and is rated 4 stars. Mum wrote that Ankara looked very modern but was expensive. They stayed in Ankara longer than planned after the car developed a fault. The postcard is a picture of Mount Ararat, thought by many to have been the place where Noah’s Ark ran aground after the flood.

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12th November 1971

Arrived in Istanbul and stayed at the Pera Palace which nowadays is owned by Dubai’s Jumeirah Group and is very upmarket. My sister remembers lots of ancient plumbing in the bathroom. I mentioned this hotel in an earlier blog post.

13th November – 23rd November 1971

The remainder of the journey was through Europe which I’ll skip over since this is familiar territory for most readers, but here are the remaining postcards I received.

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Kavala, Greece

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Mestre, Venice

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Venezia

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Torino, the main drag.

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La Cote d’Azur – Villefranche-Sur-Mer. Vue sur les quais, la Forteresse et la Darse.

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Avallon, France

Their last entry in the log, on arrival back in England was ‘Dartford Tunnel Toll – 12.5p’. (The toll is now £2.50, twenty times higher).

Dad’s trip was quite an adventure which would be tricky and dangerous to undertake in this day and age. Perhaps Jeremy Clarkson and his former Top Gear buddies would like to try to replicate the journey. Of course, to be authentic, they would have to do it in a 1966 Vauxhall Viva!

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Vauxhall Viva similar to Mum & Dad’s.

The exercise book contains the logs of two other road trips made by Mum and Dad in the Seventies, from UK to Tripoli, Libya and back again. The subject of a future blog post perhaps.

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Ouessant & Pasopati

I have been on two submarines in recent months. Not underwater thankfully but safely berthed on land and now serving as museums.

KRI Pasopati

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The first is the Submarine Monument in Surabaya, Indonesia. KRI Pasopati is a Whiskey-class Soviet-era submarine built in Vladivostok in 1952 and acquired by the Indonesian Navy in 1962.

It weighs 1048 tons and is 76 metres long. She was well armed with 6 torpedo tubes, 4 at the bow and 2 at the stern. I had not realised how huge these torpedo are – probably over 6 metres in length.

The submarine has seven cramped compartments housing the torpedoes, the diesel-electric engine, navigation, communication and other equipment as well as the living accommodation for a crew of around 50 men.

According to the museum’s brochure, this vessel participated in Operation Trikora,  an Indonesian military operation to gain control of Netherlands New Guinea, which later became Irian Jaya (now Papua / West Papua).

SMD Ouessant

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The other sub I visited is the Ouessant which is now the Submarine Museum in Melaka, Malaysia. The Ouessant is an Agosta-class conventional (non-nuclear) submarine built in Cherbourg in 1978 for the French Navy. She was decommissioned in 2001 and from 2005-2009 she served as a training vessel and used to train Royal Malaysian Navy personnel, while still based in France. Since she was never really integrated into the Malaysian Navy fleet she maintains her French name.

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This submarine is shorter than the Indonesian one (67 m ) and is designed for a complement of 5 officers and 36 men. She only has forward-facing torpedo tubes but can also deploy Exocet missiles.

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Boys and girls considering a career as submariners should visit museums like these before they sign up. The claustrophobic working conditions would put most people off and the courage needed to serve in a submarine during wartime means that only a special kind of person need apply.

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Baghdad, England

I was in England last month visiting family. While I was there, I learned that there is a town in the green and leafy English county of Hertfordshire which was named after Baghdad.

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Old Baghdad

It was founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century on the site of earlier Roman and Iron Age settlements. Seemingly, while on the Crusades, the Knights Templar had visited, or heard about, the famed city of Baghdad with its bustling souks. On their return to England they wanted to emulate this city’s success by establishing a market town which they named Baudac or Baldac, being the Norman French form for Baghdad. The name has since been Anglicised and the town is now known as Baldock.

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Baldock Town Hall & Museum

An alternative theory is that the Knights named the town after Baalbek, the ancient Phoenician / Roman city in modern day Lebanon, an area which the Crusaders were far more likely to have visited.

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Baalbek on a 1967 Lebanese Postage Stamp

Whatever the true origin of the name, modern-day Baldock bears little resemblance to either Baghdad or Baalbek. The Charter Fair started by the Templars in 1199 is still held annually though these days it is more of a fun fair than a bustling Middle eastern souq. The town’s heritage is remembered through the Templars Hotel & Restaurant, the Knights Templar School and the Knights Templar Sports Centre.

The town is twinned with Eisenberg in Germany and Sanvignes in France. There are no plans to twin Baldock with the Iraqi capital!

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Jalan Bellamy – Kuala Lumpur

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Jalan Bellamy, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, has been the home of Alice Smith’s Primary School campus since 1952. For the benefit of those Old Alice Smithonians who might be feeling nostalgic about their school days here is how Jalan Bellamy looks in 2017.

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It is actually one of the better preserved streets in KL, with a number of old colonial bungalows still in use and lined by massive mature trees. You can even hear roosters calling in places. Most of the bungalows are of identical design so perhaps the former colonial occupants were all officials of the same seniority.

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It is a short road (about 700 m long – it may have been truncated when the Jalan Istana highway was constructed) and it was named after H.F. Bellamy who was a civil engineer and director of the Public Works Department in the late nineteenth century. He participated in the construction of the famous Sultan Abdul Samad Building on Dataran Merdeka though he was not in charge since his boss wrote that he was lacking in talent and drive to execute such a major construction programme. A Mr. C.E .Spooner from Ceylon was brought in over Bellamy’s head to run the project. How terrible that poor Bellamy’s job appraisal report is still being banded about on the internet after all these years but at least he got a road named after him.

Jalan Tun HS Lee Fire Brigade

He also had other interests. He headed up the Selangor Volunteer Fire Brigade and he might well be in this old photo.

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Next door to Alice Smith is a Hindu temple called Sri Thirumurugan.

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Opposite the school is an old bungalow housing the KL office of the Veteran Association of Malaysian Armed Forces.

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The Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also on this street. KL is probably a nice quiet posting for Bosnian diplomats.

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Next door is the mirror image of the embassy only this time with a blue roof. It is occupied by a government sports and welfare council office with the catchy acronym MAKSWIP.

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A more modern building is the National Civics Bureau (Biro Tatenegara) of the Prime Minister’s Department and the Nationhood Academy (Akademi Kenegaraan).

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Another pair of bungalows with identical designs to MAKSWIP and the Bosnian Embassy are nearby. They are called Rumah Meranti 1 and 2 and are probably used as government offices or rest houses.

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The best house on the street is Rumah Melaka, a wonderfully preserved colonial mansion which is the official residence of the Chief Minister of Melaka when he is visiting the big city of KL.

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The street ends next to a park called Taman Dusun Bandar (urban orchard park) which opened a few years ago at some considerable expense. It’s a very nice park. It’s just a pity that I was the only person there, apart from the gardening staff.

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A much more busy place is the adjacent Medan Ikan Bakar – barbecued fish hawker stalls. Specialities here include grilled squid, cat fish and mackerel wrapped in banana leaf. According to Lonely Planet, when the nearby Royal Museum was still used as a royal residence, the King would sometimes send one of his staff to buy an order of grilled stingray from one of these stalls.

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Serunding means ‘floss’ and comes in three flavours, fish, beef or chicken. I think I’ll stick with Oral-B mint flavour.

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Malaysian Conman?

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The way Malaysian English is pronounced and understood, it is perfectly reasonable for an air-conditioning servicing business to call itself ‘Aconman’.

Some people though might hesitate before trusting someone who calls himself a conman.

An unfortunate choice of brand name or just a clever way of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace?

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