Oysters? No way

We enjoyed a lovely 4-night stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It was partly to celebrate Alison’s 70th birthday, but also to get away from the Middle-of-England for a few days. Is that the same as Middle England? I’m not sure, but Oxford is about the furthest away from the sea that you can get in these islands, and Alison was really wanting to see the Sea again.

The weather was kind of what you expect from the seaside in January. Windy, misty, damp, cold. The wind farm out at sea, which we caught a glimpse of on the day we arrived, was invisible after that until the morning we left to return home – when the weather, it goes without saying, was the best it had been all week. Much of the time you couldn’t see the top of British Airways i360, which was closed for annual maintenance. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the roof of the seafront hotels. At least the city was not overrun with holidaymakers, so it was always possible to find somewhere to eat. We enjoyed some good meals. But not oysters and champagne, which I wasn’t tempted to try, and which I truly believe nothing on earth could ever induce me to try. Even though your 70s are supposed to be a time for trying new things. I draw the line here.

If you were to fancy trying them, I suppose you would go to Riddle & Finns.

Riddle & Finns. Champagne and Oysters on Brighton seafront

This is their seafront place: it looks appealing enough, doesn’t it? But I googled how to eat oysters, and confirmed what I had suspected and feared: that you eat them raw, and alive, and swallow them down whole out of the shell. If you knew the difficulties I have swallowing stuff (e.g. paracetamol, a particularly troublesome thing to be swallowed), and knew that according to my family I even have to chew yoghurt before I can get it down, you would realise that this is a perfect recipe to have me gagging and throwing up the whole of my stomach contents on the well-kept floor of Riddle & Finns.

So forgive me if you should get a glimpse of my bucket list and be dismayed that ‘Enjoy a breakfast of oysters and champagne’ is strangely missing.

New Zealand: 4. Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, so named by the imaginative Captain James Cook because it was a bay with lots of islands in it. Well, give the man some slack: he was being expected to think up names for lots of places that no Englishman had boldly gone before.

It’s up towards the north end of North Island, a beautiful part of the country with a subtropical climate. We drove up from Auckland on the third day of our New Zealand tour, stopping along the way at Parry Kauri Park, Whangarei, and the Waitangi Treaty House.

Before the coming of human beings, most of New Zealand was covered with dense forests including the gigantic, slow-growing kauri trees. Maoris began to fell these to carve out their great wakas or canoes; but it was the European settlers who destroyed most of the forest cover, to clear the land for farming, use the timber for building, and eventually to export much of it to Europe. Too late they realised this was unsustainable (or perhaps they didn’t care), and now the few remaining forests of kauri are strictly protected. This is a long term project, as it takes centuries for the trees to grow to maturity. Most will live for at least 600 years, while the oldest known specimens may be 1000 or even 2000 years old.

Alison hugs kauri

The Waitangi Treaty House is said to be ‘the place where New Zealand history begins’. Here on 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the British Crown, and the local Maori chiefs of North Island. I must have still been jet-lagged, because the enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentary given by the Maori guide who showed us round, passed all understanding. There was Too Much Information, without enough context or previous knowledge or time to look around the exhibition in the house itself. Truly, we were on the tourist group conveyor belt, I guess.

My limited knowledge of the history makes me think the British in New Zealand did try to respect, and live in some measure of harmony with, the Maoris who were already there (themselves relatively recent arrivals). And although there were tensions, wars, injustices, there were never the genocidal episodes which are such a terrible chapter in the history of the Americas. But perhaps I’m wrong about this. I really would have liked to hear other versions of the story to support or challenge the somewhat upbeat version we were hearing.

The Waitangi Treaty House

Maori ways and spirituality, their respect for Nature and the environment, seem to have many parallels with the Celtic spirituality of our own islands. I would really have liked to hear what a Maori Christian would have to say about this, as well as a critic of the Western missionary work of converting the Maoris.

On the day after we arrived in Paihia (which I think I understood was supposed to mean something like “Good place, this”) we enjoyed a boat cruise on the bay. Our all-female skipper and crew carefully told us that it was a bit bumpy out on the bay, today. One or two people chose to stay on land; some others who chose to go, were seasick and made use of the ‘Just in Case’ bags; but most survived well enough. Because there was some movement of the waters, the dolphins were out to play. Do they do all that stuff for the sheer joy of it? Or are they coming up to watch all those human beings whooping with excitement about seeing them? Or do they get a buzz from showing off to us? Who knows?

The highlight and destination of the Bay of Islands cruise is the Hole in the Rock, on Motukokako Island. Perhaps it’s part of the show that the skipper will tell you, “It’s a bit rough today, I’m not sure I’ll be able to steer us through,” then steer close up and retreat… But she did get us through, supposedly with just a metre clearance on each side, and here’s the video clip to prove it.

After the cruise we went ashore at Russell, once known as ‘the Hellhole of the Pacific’ because of the wild lifestyle of the whalers and sealers who lived there. It was also one of the first places to which missionaries came, and the site of the oldest Anglican church in New Zealand, Christ Church, Russell.

You eat fish at the Bay of Islands; and we did at the carefully named Only Seafood restaurant. They serve what I call a pavlova:

Visiting Lichfield

On the spur of the moment, booking just the day before, we decided to visit Lichfield for a couple of nights. We may have driven through it or round it once before, but I don’t remember ever stopping or doing a proper visit. So, as a pilot for the project: Visiting Cathedral Cities We Don’t Know, we went to Lichfield. It’s only 90 miles from home, and apart from the usual unpleasantness of driving on the M42 round Birmingham, it only took a little over an hour and a half.

We stayed in the Cathedral Hotel in Beacon Street: a bit cheap and cheerful, and our room on the top floor looked out on the street and was a bit noisy, but the breakfast was good, with all the components of a Full English freshly cooked, the bacon especially nicely done. So it was good value for money.

The Cathedral is spectacular, built of red sandstone and the only three-spired medieval cathedral in the UK. It was built on the site of the tomb and first church of St Chad, the apostle and first bishop of the kingdom of Mercia. In the Civil War it suffered severe damage when Royalist troops fortified it against the attacking Parliamentary forces. I don’t know of many cathedrals which have been battlefields as well as holy places…

George Fox the Quaker was famously prompted by God to stand barefoot in the market place in front of St Michael’s Church and cry out, “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” One version of the story tells that the bemused townspeople, far from being offended, were filled with compassion, “George, where hast thou left thy shoes?” Asked to give an account of the reasons for his protest (other than, God told me to do it) he said it was because of a great massacre of Christians in the city in the time of the Emperor Domitian. Certainly there had been much more recent bloody martyrdoms. Two plaques in Market Street record:

The following martyrs were burnt at the stake in this market place during the reign of Queen Mary: Thomas Hayward Sept. 1655 John Goreway Sept. 1655 Joyce Lewis of Mancetter 18th Dec. 1557


Edward Wightman of Burton-on-Trent was burnt at the stake in this market place for heresy 11th April 1612 being the last person in England so to die.

Lichfield was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, and the museum in the house in Market Street, where he was born, is definitely not to be missed. Boswell’s Life is one of the big books on my To Be Read list that I may get around to OOTD… Quite a lot of places in Lichfield decorate their walls with pithy Johnson quotes. I particularly liked “You can never be wise unless you love reading.”

The other museum you should, absolutely should, visit, is the Erasmus Darwin House. Here you can learn about the polymath doctor, scientist, inventor, poet, who was the grandfather and forerunner of Charles Darwin, anticipating the development of the theory of evolution by a good 50 years, and a member of the Lunar Society of scientists and thinkers who drove forward many of the new discoveries of the Industrial Revolution. They were regarded by Church and State as dangerous freethinkers, and especially at the time of the French Revolution, several of them came under attack from violent mobs because of their views. Stirred up, I suppose, by the 18th century equivalents of the Daily Mail and Express. All to the shame of Church, State and popular opinion. It’s fascinating that Erasmus Darwin’s poems, which are probably unreadable nowadays, and included such titles as The Botanic Garden, setting out in rhyming couplets the results of his research. Coleridge was greatly impressed and acclaimed Darwin as one of the greatest poets of his age. Other Romantic poets including Blake, Goethe and Wordsworth were influenced by him, and his theories of galvanism were part of the inspiration that led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

St Chad’s church is also worth a visit. It’s thought to be the site of Chad’s first oratory in the city, and when you enter the present church building (always open during the day) there is a real ‘good feeling’. It’s a place that is loved and cared for, and provides a good worship space for its congregation. They have produced a helpful little prayer guide for some of the places around the church that suggest scenes from the saint’s life.

Places to eat

We specially loved The Olive Tree, an award-winning independent restaurant, which was reasonably priced, pleasantly small and intimate, and serving excellent food. Good for lunches or teas was Chapters, the Cathedral cafe in the Close. Lots of these Cathedral refectory kind of places are very good value, offering fresh home-cooked dishes for very reasonable prices, in pleasant and peaceful settings. Chapters was specially nice because it wasn’t ridiculously crowded the times we were there.

Lichfield is definitely worth a visit.