Erddig: ‘Where fragrance, peace and beauty reign’ (Philip Yorke II)

A week ago, Steph and I headed 100 miles northeast from home to visit Belton House in Lincolnshire. On Thursday, it was 75 miles northwest, just south of Wrexham in North Wales, to visit Erdigg Hall, a Restoration house built between 1684 and 1687, and standing in 1200 acres. It was the home to the Yorke family for 250 years, although it didn’t come into their possession until 1733. Seven generations!  Here is an interesting Erddig timeline.

Interestingly, we discovered a family connection between the Yorkes of Erddig and the Custs of Belton. Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cust, Speaker of the House of Commons, married Philip Yorke I in July 1770, three years after he inherited Erddig. Philip Yorke I was author of the The Royal Tribes of Wales, published in 1799.

Erddig (pronounced Erthigg) is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave. Over the centuries, the Yorkes hardly threw anything away; what’s on display today at Erdigg is a fraction of what the National Trust has in storage (more than 30,000 items). There are even vintage cars and old bicycles in some of the outbuildings. In that respect, Erddig must be almost unique among National Trust properties in that all its contents are ‘original’ – somewhat like Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.

The main entrance of Erddig Hall, facing west towards the Welsh hills

This is the rear of the house, facing east, overlooking the formal gardens and lake.

In 1947, disaster almost struck. Following nationalization of the coal industry, the coal mines just beyond the Erddig estate began to mine underneath the house – contrary to what had been apparently agreed over decades if not centuries with the owners of the private mine. The result was massive subsidence, up to five feet on one side of the house. Faced with significant expenditures to make the property safe and not falling into further disrepair, and with no family to pass it on to, the last Squire, Philip Yorke III bequeathed the estate, house and all contents to the National Trust in 1973.

It took four years to carry out all the work necessary to the house, and rehabilitate the gardens. In June 1977, Erddig was opened to the public. This is Erddig’s Ruby Jubilee, 40 years. And the planting designs in the formal garden reflect this, as you will note from many of the photos I have chosen to illustrate this post.

Structurally, the house is aligned north-south, and is a long ‘thin’ building, with a line of rooms along each side and a narrow corridor in between. There’s a grand staircase at the northern end, leading down to the family chapel. Stairs at the south end gave access to all floors for the servants.

A fine complex of red brick out buildings is located on the south side of the house, with a sawmill, workshops, stables and a coach house among others.

Delightful, formal gardens are laid out to the rear (east side) of the house. It’s hard to imagine what the overgrown gardens must have looked like when the National Trust took over Erddig. The fruits of 40 years labour and TLC are apparent in abundance. There are more extensive walks through the park, but we didn’t take any of these.

The National Trust has carefully laid out a route for visitors to enjoy Erddig Hall. The entrance to the house is through the ‘working’ wing of the house through the bakery, scullery and laundry, along a servants’ passage with offices for the housekeeper, butler, and estate manager.

What is also interesting is that the Yorkes ‘celebrated’ their staff, and apparently were very conscientious for their welfare. The servants’ passage is lined with photos of servants from as early as the mid-19th century.

One of the most striking rooms on the ground floor (at the south end, and east side) is the Dining Room, with its pillars and impressive paintings.

Further along are the Saloon (with its unusual metal ceiling), the Tapestry Room, Chinese Room and Chapel.

On the front of the house are the Library, the Entrance Hall (Music Room), and Drawing Room.

On the First Floor are several bedrooms: Red, White, and Blue as well as the State Bedroom with some of the Hall’s oldest artefacts; and the Nursery. There is also access to attic bedrooms on the top floor.

Erddig was so much more than we expected, and well worth the two hour plus travel time from north Worcestershire. I think we were lucky to hit the gardens at just the right time of the season. Everything was at its best and in full bloom. Credit goes to the Erddig garden staff.

Squire Philip Yorke III must have been quite a remarkable man. He died peacefully while attending a church service, in 1978. These quotes from his diary sum up the Yorke family outlook on life.






“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.” (Allan Dare Pearce)

Letters will be dropping through mailboxes all over England and Wales this week. High school students are anxiously waiting for their Advanced or A Level exam results. Fifty years ago I was in the same boat.

I’d sat my exams—GCE A Levels in Biology, Geography, English Literature, and General Studies (set by the Joint Matriculation Board)—a few weeks earlier in June, just as the Six Day War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Then it was the long wait, constantly full of nagging doubts that I would make the grade to get into university. I nearly didn’t!

I had received offers of places at King’s College and Queen Mary College, University of London, and the University of Southampton. But I’d already decided that if I met their offer (of three Cs) I would accept the place at Southampton to study for a BSc Combined Honours degree in Botany and Geography.

To fill in the time, I took a summer job working as a driver’s mate on lorries (trucks) delivering butter all over the country for Adams Butter, a local company in my home town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Anyway, about a week after I’d received my exam results, having arrived back at the Adams depot late one afternoon from a trip to Liverpool, the supervisor handed me a message that my dad had left there during the course of the day. The message was short and sweet: Southampton wants you! What a relief!

And it really was a relief, because my exam results were not quite up to snuff. Just Grade C for Biology and Geography, and Grade E for English Literature and General Studies. I hadn’t quite met the Southampton offer. However, Lady Luck must have been on my side, because I was accepted on to the course, and duly set of for Southampton in early October to join four other students on the same course.

Burning the candle at only one end
I was not a good student, but I did enjoy being at university.

I scraped through a Geology course in my first year at Southampton. One of the other Botany and Geography students (I only remember he was another Michael, and he came from Birmingham) failed that course, and since there were no re-sit exams in those days (1968), he had to withdraw. Now we were four.

Come Final Exams (or Finals) in May 1970, I was awarded a Lower Second Class degree (often denoted 2:2 or 2ii), with an overall score of 58% apparently, just shy of the Lower Second / Upper Second boundary of 60%. My classmates, John, Stuart and Jane, were awarded Upper Seconds.

Now I should add, for the benefit of my readers outside the UK, that exams are marked on a scale of 1 – 100%, right across the scale. At university, the pass mark was 40%. A First Class degree merited 70% and higher. There were no transcripts, just an overall classification (such as First, Upper Second, Lower Second, etc.) that, for reasons I’ll mention shortly, is increasingly falling out of favour. Fortunately when I was an undergraduate, Finals exams were based just on the courses taken in the third or final year of the degree course. I’m not sure when the changes were made, but in earlier years, Finals were often based on courses taken throughout the whole degree course over three years.

In February 1970, I had applied for a place on a recently established MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. Once I had my BSc under my belt I had to wait for a confirmation from Birmingham. Professor Hawkes very quickly told me that he would take me on the course despite my 2:2, but funding was a problem. No student grant available. I didn’t hear back from him until late August or early September that he had been able to find a small maintenance grant (just sufficient to keep body and soul together), and that my tuition fees would be paid by the university.

I redeemed myself at Birmingham. The course was all I expected, the subject matter fired my enthusiasm and, for the first time, I learned how to study efficiently, and take and pass exams with flying colours. The rest is history. Professor Hawkes took me on as his PhD student, and I started a great career in international agricultural research.

I remember leaving his office after I had successfully defended my thesis in October 1975. I think I must have danced a little jig down the corridor, reflecting that I had just taken (and passed) my last exam. Ever! Now that really was a milestone.

The tables turned
Less than six years later, in April 1981, I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (Botany having changed its name in the interim). As a faculty member I developed and taught various courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, setting and marking exams for each.

There is growing concern about grade inflation, and the number of top degrees that are now being awarded. In my graduation year (1970) at Southampton, there were no Firsts in Botany, and from a class of maybe 40 Geography undergraduates, there were only two. There were certainly more 2:2s awarded that 2:1 degrees.

That’s not the case today; most undergraduates obtain a top degree. Remarkable! Does that mean they are better students than we were? Perhaps. It might also reflect more generous decisions while marking exam papers, some justified no doubt, others not. Let me explain.

In the UK, undergraduate degree courses and exams are monitored by External Examiners, with the aim of ensuring standards and equability across universities and degree courses. When it came to Finals exams and course work for the Biological Sciences degree at Birmingham, we marked on a 15 point scale, with 13 and above equating to a score of 70% plus or First Class. I didn’t mark my first Finals papers until May/June 1982. Even then, External Examiners were questioning the low number of First Class degrees being awarded in Biological Sciences, and encouraged staff to use the whole marking range. Many staff were reluctant to awards marks higher than 13 (70-75%) for work that clearly merited a higher mark for a First Class answer. As final degree classification was based on the aggregate score for all examinations taken, higher scores in one would compensate for any lower ones elsewhere with, of course, a minimum number of First Class marks having been awarded. Awarding scores of 14 and 15 was, for some, a tough examination culture change.

On reflection, I did not find it that challenging to assign appropriate marks. I remember giving one second year undergraduate a score 0% for his answer to a question about breeding systems in flowering plants and their relevance to taxonomy. His answer consisted of a single paragraph about goldfish!

On another occasion I gave a score of 100% to one of my MSc students (who subsequently went on to complete a PhD under the supervision of my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and myself). 100%? Is that really possible? As I reviewed her answer to a question about the origins of agriculture, I came to the conclusion that it was as good as anyone might be expected to achieve. It was a consistent and well-reasoned discussion that I could not fault, especially since there was only one hour in which to answer.

Students are perhaps under greater pressure today than my generation was. Everyone needs—and probably expects—a top degree. But I find it hard to believe that half a class of students merit a First Class degree. I think it’s about time that we adopted a detailed transcript system (I know there was talk of this at Birmingham after I left in 1991), that provides documentary evidence of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, if any.

Schools are under pressure to ensure that students achieve the minimum expected grades in their GCSE exams. Universities want to demonstrate their academic worth, leading to better employment prospects for students with top degrees. It’s an academic rat race, and one that I’m glad to have left behind many years ago.


The perfect country house . . . a stunning English treasure

Standing in 1300 acres on the northern outskirts of Grantham in Lincolnshire, Belton House must be one of the National Trust’s jewels, though perhaps not quite on the same scale as either Waddesdon Manor or Kingston Lacy.

Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow, Belton House is an elegant Restoration mansion that retains much of its original structure externally, but which has been remodelled from time-to-time internally over the past 300 years to meet changing demands for its occupancy. English architect James Wyatt had a major influence on the redesign of parts of Belton House in the late 18th century, as he did on many country houses.

The Brownlow fortune came from sheep and wool and, like may wealthy families, the construction of a large home was a sine qua non. Belton House remained the family seat of the Brownlow and Cust families into the 1980s.

The south front – and main entrance – of Belton House

The north front overlooking a parterre garden

We visited Belton House last Friday. Since we became members in 2011, we have ‘picked all the low-hanging fruit’, more or less (visiting most if not all properties within 50 miles or so of home), so must now travel further afield as active (and enthusiastic) ‘Trusters’.

Belton House is almost exactly 100 miles from home, door-to-door. The ‘best’ route (A38-M42-M6-M69-A46-A52-A607) on Google Maps indicated a journey of about 1 hr 40 minutes. And that’s how long it took (although somewhat slower on the return journey after 2:30 pm as the Friday afternoon traffic picked up).

Belton has much to offer: the house itself, formal gardens, long walks through the park, and one of the Trust’s largest adventure playgrounds for children. No wonder the car park was quite full when we arrived before 11 am, and filled up even further by mid-afternoon.

Not being entirely sure of the weather on Friday (fortunately it remained dry although did become quite overcast for a while around noon), we decided to take in the gardens and the grounds close to the house as far as the Boathouse, Lake and Maze (17 on the map below).

The Boathouse was built in the 1820s in a Swiss chalet style. From a distance the walls appear to be made from woven panels of rushes or the like. But no, the walls are solid with a sculpted surface to resemble panels.

A short distance from the east face of the house is the Mirror Pond (16), from which the house can be seen in all its glory, and reflected in the Pond.

A small maze offers a challenge to many of Belton’s younger (and older) visitors.

To the east of the house a long avenue of trees draws you towards a rather high ha-ha, and beyond that more parkland rises to Belmont Tower a further mile out. From the house’s main entrance there is also a mile-long drive through a deer park leading up to the front door. How magnificent it must have been to arrive by horse-drawn carriage and met by footmen. The views are stunning but of course we are seeing the parkland today as the house architects envisioned them three centuries ago, with majestic mature trees spread across the landscape.

On the north side of the house there are two formal gardens: a 19th century parterre, and another with pond and fountain laid out in front of a very impressive Orangery (14).

Much of the house is open to the public. We opted not to take the below stairs tour, which lasted 50 minutes. First, given the long journey home, we wanted to maximise our viewing of the main parts of the house. Second, a tour of this type would probably have involved standing around as the tour guide described each room; since I broke my leg at the beginning of 2016, I no longer find standing still comfortable .

All rooms on Upper Ground Floor are open to the public.

Marble Hall
Not particularly large by some country house standards, the Marble Hall is elegantly proportioned, with an array of portraits on the walls, and fine ceramics around the perimeter. On the east wall is a large portrait of Sir John Cust, 3rd Bt (1718-1770) who was twice Speaker of the House of Commons. A couple of portraits have fine wood carving surrounds, reminiscent of the work of Grinling Gibbons (d. 1721) to whom some of this work has been attributed. We first saw his exquisite work during our visit to Sudbury Hall earlier this year.

Staircase Hall
What an elegant staircase, climbing in three sweeps to the first floor. It’s lined with some fine portraits, and overlooks a black and white marbled floor, a continuation from the Marble Hall.

Blue Dressing Room
Adjacent to the Blue Bedroom, this small room has some interesting treasures: a whole array of paintings, including the one shown here which portrays the Madonna and Child, attributed to Italian painter Pier Francesco Fiorentino from the 15th century. Behind the door is a cabinet made from lapis lazuli. And some intricate and very beautiful carving on the fireplace surround.

Blue Bedroom
This is the oldest bed in the house, and has a fine view over the parkland and main entrance driveway from the south.

Chapel, Gallery, and Drawing Room
In the Drawing Room hand two fine 17th century tapestries by Huguenot weaver John Vanderbank, modelled on tapestries owned by Queen Mary II at Kensington Palace.

The Saloon has views over the parterre garden on the north side, and has several interesting features, paintings, and pieces of furniture.

Tyrconnel Room
This room has undergone a number of changes over the centuries. This is an impressive portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754) wearing his robes as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. The wide floorboards show the Brownlow coat of arms.

Red Drawing Room
This room was rather dimly lit (although these poor quality photos don’t show that).

What caught my fancy in the Study were the gold busts lining the top of the west wall.

Tapestry Room
This is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the most elegant room in the whole house, and has undergone several changes of use over the centuries. It’s warm, intimate, inviting, and lined with tapestries that, at one time, were found in the attic rooms being used as carpets! The tapestries depict the life of ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes.

One can imagine enjoying a welcome gin and tonic in this room at the end of stressful day. On the piano is a photograph of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson (it looks like one’s I’ve seen from their wedding in 1937. The Duke certainly spent time at Belton. It’s not certain if Wallis did.

Breakfast Room
There are 20th century portraits of the Cust family in this room.

Hondecoeter Room
Swans seem to be a theme in this room which became a dining room in 1876. The large canvasses by 17th century painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter were installed then. A larger canvas was sold to a buyer in the USA as it did not fit in this room. The fireplace came from another family property.

On a table by the window, overlooking the parterre, is a large vessel (a soup tureen, a wine cooler?) made from more than 41 kg of solid silver. It was commissioned by Speaker Cust, referred to earlier. He died, however, before the vessel was completed.

On the First Floor, some apartments are still reserved for the Cust family if they care to visit, and therefore not open to the public. The Cretonne Bedroom was closed as well.

Yellow Bedroom
The Yellow Bedroom is immediately above the Blue Bedroom, and also benefited from structural changes that James Wyatt made, bricking up windows on the east and west walls, leaving just the windows overlooking the south landscape. You can see how these changes were made on the photograph below, on the farthest side of the house.

Chinese Bedroom
This is a quirky room, with 18th century wallpaper designed specifically for the room, but apparently not hung until about 1840. The bamboo door surrounds are painted not made from bamboo.

Queen’s Bedroom
This room was redecorated in 1840 for the visit of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, and has been known as the Queen’s Bedroom ever since. Her monogram adorns the bed’s headboard.

Ante Library and Library
The Library is approached from one side from an Ante Library, and from the main staircase on the other. It has a domed ceiling. High on the walls at either end of the Library are ‘frescoes’ painted by daughters of the Cust family. The one shown here was painted by younger daughter Lucy Cust (bn. 1784).

This was originally a bedroom but in the 1770s was remodeled by James Wyatt as a dressing room. Only some of Wyatt’s designs remain (such as the ceiling). Its presence design and use dates from 1963.

Windsor Bedroom
I suppose the claim to fame of this bedroom is that it was used by HRH The Prince of Wales while undergoing jet aircraft training at nearby RAF Cranwell in 1971. He apparently preferred to stay at Belton House than in the officers’ mess at Cranwell. Maybe this room was also used by the Duke of Windsor, presumably when he was still Prince of Wales. Or did he visit as Edward VIII?

West Staircase
Not as grand as the main staircase, this one is nevertheless quite impressive. It was originally used just by servants, but in 1810, the 1st Earl made the west entrance into the family entrance. The large painting shows the Cust family in 1741. You can see the West Entrance (opening into a courtyard) in the house photograph under the Yellow Bedroom (above).

Belton House certainly has a lot to offer with its mix of indoor and outdoor interests. The National Trust volunteers were very knowledgeable and freely shared intriguing details of the house’s history. For a day trip, four hours on the road, just under four hours at Belton, it was quite tiring. And I was quite relieved to arrive home and enjoy a late afternoon cup of tea. But as I mentioned from the outset, we will now have to travel further and further afield to visit new properties, and probably plan for several overnight stays into the bargain.

Put Belton House on your National Trust ‘bucket list’!

Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!



Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.



Ten days, eleven states (5): The longest cave system in the world

Blink, and you’d pass through Cave City, KY without realising it. Maybe I’m being a little unfair. But the town obviously caters to the myriad of tourists passing through or, like us, stopping overnight, for a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, just a few miles to the west.

One positive thing about Cave City, however. There was a very good Mexican restaurant just a couple of blocks from our hotel, serving great food and ice cold Mexican beer—most welcome after a long day’s drive.

We visited Mammoth Cave NP on the morning of Day 8 (Wednesday) of our Georgia-Minnesota road trip. Our next stop was Troy, IL, to the northeast of St Louis, and some 370 miles, a distance we normally covered in a whole day. But with our scheduled visit to Mammoth Cave NP in the morning, we knew we would have to cover that distance in much less time than usual if we were to arrive to our hotel at a reasonable hour. And we already had a scheduled stop in southern Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

When researching Mammoth Cave earlier in the year, I discovered it was a very popular destination, especially during the school summer breaks. Now, while we made our trip just before many schools were out for summer, we did expect the national park to be reasonably busy, so decided to book places on one of the first cave tours available. With my ‘weakened’ leg, I didn’t want to take one of the tours that might involve scrambling over uneven surfaces in the dimmed light. The last thing I needed was a twisted ankle – or worse.

So we opted for a 09:15 tour of the Frozen Niagara cave. Described as an ‘easy tour’, not too many steps, and tour size limited to 36.

The surface area of Mammoth Cave National Park is only 82 square miles (some 53,000 acres), but there are more than 400 miles of surveyed cave passageways. And some experts believe there could be as many as 600 miles of undiscovered passageways. The cave system at Mammoth Cave NP is the longest in the world, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Dominated by the Green River (apparently one of the most biodiverse in the USA), and predominantly a limestone karst landscape overlain by a harder sandstone, the caves offer some spectacular sights. There are huge caves open to the public. Notwithstanding time (and access) limitations, our visit to Frozen Niagara gave us (according to our ranger guide) a glimpse of what the whole cave system had to offer.

There has been a long history of exploration and commercial exploitation of the caves, and of course millennia of occupation. There has also been tragedy, with one enthusiastic caver Floyd Collins becoming stuck in a passageway in 1925, and dying before he could be freed.

There is limited and subdued lighting in Frozen Niagara. Thus photography was quite a challenge. Having a good Nikon digital SLR, I was able to make some adjustments, but the end results are not altogether satisfactory. Counter-intuitively, I found that underexposing each shot achieved a better result. I can’t explain why. Anyway, the selection below shows something of the splendour of this easy entry cave.

In the Visitor Center, there is a very nice exhibition (some interactive) showing the geological and human histories of the caves.

More information about the caves can be found here.

Short and sweet, but a worthwhile and interesting visit. Recommended!

Before noon we’d completed our tour, made the necessary ‘comfort stops’, and were ready to hit the road once again, westwards to the mighty Mississippi.

Ten days, eleven states (4): It’s all in the branding

Everyone, every company and organization needs, it seems, a brand. A logo that identifies the brand, and a pithy slogan that suggests orientation, ethos, qualities, aspirations.

Take the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for example, where I worked for almost 19 years. It has a distinctive institution logo, in a defined font and font color, and a branding logo and slogan, that succinctly describes the objectives and mission of the institute: Rice Science for a Better World. I was a member (Chair perhaps, I don’t remember) of the committee that came up with this slogan, and my former colleagues in the Communication and Publications Service (CPS) under Ohioan Gene Hettel, then developed the clever logo below.

In the automobile industry, take Ford for example: Go Further . . .

or Nestlé as an example from the confectionery and food industry.

Branding is a real industry, and there’s a lot of ‘science’ behind adopting and deploying the right brand. Even cities get involved.

US states are not immune. As we travelled around the eleven states on our journey from Georgia to Minnesota in June this year, I took photographs of all the state signs at the state lines (except Kentucky – I had to find its brand logo elsewhere). Each of the eleven (with the exception of North Carolina, Missouri, and Minnesota) had a brief slogan to describe itself, such as Virginia is for Lovers, or Wild and Wonderful (West Virginia).

The one that caught my eye, however, and is (as far as I know) quite famous world-wide, is the Kentucky brand.

What an inspiration! Encapsulating, one would think, two of the things that Kentucky is most famous for: the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses (viz. the Kentucky Derby) and the distillation of fine bourbon whisky.

But these were not, apparently, the ideas behind the brand. Kentucky Unbridled Spirit means that the state is a place where spirits are free to soar and big dreams can be fulfilled. We relish competition and cherish our champions for their willingness to push beyond conventional boundaries to reach new heights of success.

Kentucky has obviously thought in depth about branding. As it states on its website, and citing a Tufts University study, A brand’s purpose is twofold: One – it serves as a major tool to create product differentiation: and Two – it represents a promise of value. From a consumer’s viewpoint, a brand is – above all – a shortcut to a purchasing decision.

Read more about Kentucky’s branding decisions here. I still see racehorses and whisky, and that not so bad really.