A National Trust trip around Northern Ireland

Well, if I count the visit to Plas Newydd on the southern shore of Anglesey, on the way to Holyhead to catch the ferry over to Ireland, Steph and I visited twelve National Trust properties in eight days.

We have wanted to visit Northern Ireland for many years, but until now never really had the opportunity, or we felt that the security situation didn’t make for a comfortable visit. All that has changed. Now retired, we have time on our hands. ‘The Troubles‘ are a thing of the past (fortunately), and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has transformed the opportunities for that part of the United Kingdom.

Being members of the National Trust, and knowing that there were some splendid houses to see over in Northern Ireland, as well as some Trust-owned landscapes such as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast, this was just the incentive we needed to decide, once and for all, to cross over to the island of Ireland again. We have visited south of the border several times. I first went to Co. Clare in 1968, and Steph and I had holidays there traveling around in 1992 and 1996.

Planning the trip – finding somewhere to stay
For a number of recent holidays, I have used booking.com to search for hotels when I was planning our road trips across the USA. So I used this company this time round when looking for an overnight stay in Holyhead, convenient for the ferry to Ireland early the next morning.

In Northern Ireland we were looking for somewhere central from where it would be a relatively easy drive each day to any part because the National Trust properties we wanted to visit were scattered all over (as shown in the map above). After reading various online reviews (are they always reliable?), and looking for value for money, we chose The Drummeny Guest House in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone (Mid-Ulster council district), on the west shore of Lough Neagh.

Me and Tina Quinn on the morning of our departure from The Drumenny Guest House

What a find! Our hosts, Tina and Damien Quinn, were the best. What a friendly welcome, and hospitality like you would never believe. The reviews on booking.com were all very positive. Were they accurate? Absolutely! In fact, our experience was even better than previous reviewers had described. Such a breakfast (full Irish), and lots of other extras that Tina provided. In fact, staying with Tina and Damien it felt as though we were staying with family, and a week at The Drumenny was better than we ever anticipated. So, if you ever contemplate a Northern Ireland holiday, there’s only one place to head for: The Drumenny Guest House in Ardboe. You won’t be disappointed.

Less than a mile away there’s a good restaurant, The Tilley Lamp, that serves good, simple food, and lots of it. Very convenient.

Day 1: 8 Sep — home to Holyhead, via Plas Newydd (168 miles; map)
Our Northern Ireland trip started just after 09:15, and because of major road works (and almost certain traffic congestion) we decided to travel northwest from Bromsgrove via Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, before joining the A5 south of Shrewsbury. We then continued on the A5 through Snowdonia, and over the Menai Strait to Plas Newydd House and Gardens, just a few miles west of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Home to the Marquesses of Anglesey (descendants of the 1st, who as the Earl of Uxbridge, served alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and had his leg blown off by a cannonball), Plas Newydd stands on the shore of the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales.

Day 2: 9 Sep — Dublin to Ardboe, calling at Derrymore House near Newry, and Ardress House (120 miles), Co. Armagh
Our Stena Line Superfast X ferry arrived to Dublin Port on time, just after noon, and we quickly headed north on the M1, crossing into Northern Ireland just south of Newry in Co. Armagh.

Derrymore House lies a few miles west of the A1, and is open for just five afternoons a year. That was a piece of luck that we happened to pass by on one of those days. It’s a late 18th century thatched cottage. The ‘Treaty Room’ is the only room open to the public, and the 1800 Act of Union uniting the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland is supposed to have been drafted there.

Further north, and the route to Ardboe, we also visited Ardress House, built in the 17th century, and embellished in the 18th. It has a traditional farmyard.

We arrived to our guesthouse around 18:00, and enjoyed a meal out that evening at The Tilley Lamp. The best pork chops I’ve ever tasted.

Day 3: 10 Sep — Ardboe Cross, Co. Tyrone, Springhill House, Co. Londonderry and The Argory, Co. Armagh (53 miles)
Sunday morning. We decided to briefly explore the Lough Neagh shore near Arboe, and see one of Ireland’s national monuments, the Ardboe Cross.

Springhill House is a typical 17th ‘Plantation‘ house, showing the history of ten generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family.


The Argory is just 20 miles south of Springhill, and was built in the 1820s and was the home of the MacGeough Bond family, and has remained unchanged since 1900. It has magnificent interiors, particularly the cantilevered staircase.

Day 4: 11 Sep — Florence Court and Crom Castle, Co. Fermanagh (169 miles)
Florence Court is the furthest west of all of the National Trust’s properties, a few miles southwest of Enniskillen in Co. Fermangh. It was the home of the Earls of Enniskillen, and was built in the 18th century. There are beautiful views of the nearby mountains from the front of the house. Inside, where photography is not permitted, the walls and ceilings have some of the finest stucco plaster work I have seen. In 1955 there was a disastrous fire and it’s credit to the National Trust how well they accomplished the refurbishment. Remarkably many of the precious items in the house were saved.

On our route back to Ardboe, we diverted to make a quick visit to the ruins of Crom Castle, on the banks of Upper Lough Erne. There was time for a walk to the ruins from the Visitor Centre before it closed for the day, and approaching showers drenched us. There were some lovely views over the lough to Creighton Tower.

We also saw how convoluted the border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sorting that out during the Brexit negotiations will be a challenge, nightmare even, and so unnecessary. It is an invisible border, and hopefully obstacles will not be put in place by this incompetent Conservative government that will undermine the economic and social progress that Northern Ireland has made in recent years. This story on the BBC website (20 September) has a video of the very road we took back to Ardboe between the counties of Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Monaghan (Republic).

Day 5: 12 Sep — Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast, Co. Antrim (162 miles)
The Giant’s Causeway has long been on my Bucket List of attractions to visit. And we weren’t disappointed. We had carefully monitored the weather forecasts and chose what we hoped would be the best day of the week. In general it was. The drive north from Ardboe took just under 2 hours. We passed through the small town of Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry, burial site of Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney. I wish we had stopped.

Although it was not yet 10:30 when we reached the Visitors’ Centre at the Giant’s Causeway, it was already very busy, and just got busier over the three hours we stayed there. There were visitors from all over the world – particularly from China.

It’s a walk of more than a mile down the cliff to the actual Causeway, so we took a leisurely stroll there. But we did take advanatge of the free bus ride (as National Trust members) to go back up the cliff road.

We then headed east along the north Antrim coast, and stopped for a picnic at the Rope Bridge car park where a torrential downpour spoiled the view and prompted us to move on rather than have a wander around. Then we headed down the east coast on a road that hugs the bottom of cliffs along the seashore, before reaching Larne and then heading west around the top of Lough Neagh and home to The Drumenny.

Day 6: 13 Sep — Mount Stewart, Co. Down (127 miles)
On the northeast shore of Strangford Lough, just south of Newtownards, the Mount Stewart estate was purchased in the mid-18th century, and became the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry when the current house was built at the beginning of the 19th century. It has a beautiful formal garden, mostly the work of Lady Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess.

Day 7: 14 Sep — Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Donegal (Republic of Ireland), and the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Londonderry and Co. Tyrone (200 miles)
On Day 7, we headed west once again to visit Castle Coole, situated just outside Enniskillen. We were not able to visit there when we had travelled west on Day 4, as the property had been closed for a special BBC Proms in the Park event.

Castle Coole was built by the 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1797. It’s mostly the design of famous English architect James Wyatt, who also designed much of the interior and even the furniture. Photography is not permitted inside, and I’m unable to show you some of the splendours of this house, particularly the Saloon, which must rank as one of the finest examples of its kind among any of the stately homes in this country. The current Earl Belmore resides in a cottage on the estate.

Leaving Castle Coole, we headed west into the Republic, turning north at Donegal and crossing back into Northern Ireland at Strabane. We decided to cross the Sperrin Mountains, and had the weather been better (much of the journey north of Donegal was in torrential rain), I could have taken some nice photos. But we did have one surprise. Having taken one wrong turn too many when road signs petered out, we stumbled across a Bronze Age site of stone circles and cairns, at Beaghmore. It had stopped raining, everywhere was sparkling in the evening sun, and we enjoyed a half hour walk around the site.

Given the sunshine and showers, conditions just right for the appearance of rainbows. We saw ten throughout the day, some double.

Day 8: 15 Sep — Rowallane Garden and Castle Ward, Co. Down (136 miles)
Just south of Saintfield alongside the A7, Rowallane Garden is a haven of tranquility, about 50 acres, created in the mid-19th century by the Revd. John Moore and his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore. It’s also the headquarters of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

Then we headed the further 16 miles southeast to Castle Ward on the tip of Strangford Lough. It’s an extraordinary building: Neo-Classical Gothic! The two architectural styles are reflected on the front and rear of the building, and mirrored inside, because, it is said, the 1st Viscount Bangor and his wife could not agree.

The Ward family, originally from Cheshire, settled here in the late 16th century, and there is an old castle on the estate – used in the hit HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

Steph (L) and Clare at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens

Day 9: 16 Sep — Arboe, Co. Tyrone to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow (224 miles)
We travelled south into the Republic, taking a winding route through Co. Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Kildare and Wicklow to spend the night with old IRRI friends Paul and Clare O’Nolan. Paul had been the IT Manager at IRRI; Clare was my scuba dive buddy (video) for several years. On the evening of our arrival, Clare took us on a tour of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens close to where they live on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

Day 10: 17 Sep — Rathdrum to Dublin, Holyhead to home (235 miles)
We left the O’Nolans just before noon, and headed north around the M50 to Dublin Port for our 15:10 Stena Superfast X ferry to Holyhead. We disembarked at exactly 19:00, and the drive home to Bromsgrove took four hours. Fortunately the roads were quite quiet and we made reasonably good progress until we were less than 20 miles from home when we were slowed down by major roadworks on the M5 motorway.

Ten days away, 1594 miles covered, twelve National Trust properties visited, seven enormous Irish breakfasts enjoyed. Northern Ireland was everything we hoped for: beautiful landscapes and friendly people. We had delayed our visit there for too long. And the National Trust was our excuse, if one was needed, to make the effort to visit.

All in all, ten days well spent! In due course, I will post detailed accounts of our visits to all the National Trust properties, and link them here.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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
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.

Ten days, eleven states (3): Ambling through the Appalachians

Our journey through the Appalachian Mountains (the main focus of our 2017 road trip in the USA) took almost four days traveling through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

The Appalachians comprise a large system of mountains and valleys, covering a vast area of the eastern USA, and extending into Canada. We explored just the southern end.

Day 4 began in Greenwood, SC where we had stopped the night after traveling north from Savannah, GA the previous day. Leaving our hotel not long after 8 am, we headed west crossing quite soon back into Georgia and working our way northwest through the Chattahoochee National Forest towards Blairsville, GA.

The winding 35 mile climb on GA60 into the Chattahoochee (map) began at Stonepile Gap. With towering trees either side of the road there were few places to stop or see out over the landscape. One of these however was Chestatee Overlook, where we had a first real view of the rolling—and heavily forested—Appalachians.

We expected to arrive in Blairsville after 5 pm, but we were there by 3:30. Rather than heading straight to our hotel, we decided to make a 50 mile circuit to the north and east of Blairsville, and quite by chance came across the entrance to Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia, at 4784 feet.

There is a steep drive up to the car park, and a shuttle bus takes you up the final (and very steep) final mile to the observation platform. We arrived around 4:30, just in time to catch the final shuttle of the day, but allowing only about 15 minutes at the summit before the last shuttle would depart for the car park. Given the steepness of the descent (14%), and concerns that my right leg might suffer, we opted for the return shuttle. The visit was somewhat marred by several bikers (who were old enough to know better) using the climb to the car park (a couple of miles at least on a winding road) to ‘race’ their very noisy chopper motorbikes. Quite unnecessary really.

However, it was a glorious afternoon, and the 360° panorama afforded views into North Carolina and Tennessee to the north, and probably Virginia to the east. Just imagine what it must look like in September and October ablaze in all its Fall colours.

The following day, Sunday, our destination was Johnson City, TN taking in the Cherohala Skyway (map), a 50 mile scenic route stating at Tellico Plains, TN and ending at Robbinsville, NC.

The day started fine and sunny, and we weren’t disappointed in the Cherohala. Then we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, crossing south to north (map) towards Gatlinburg, TN on US441. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the park (one of the busiest in the whole of the country), the weather had deteriorated and it was raining heavily. The Smoky Mountains really were smoky. On the off-chance that we would be above the clouds, we took the seven mile diversion to Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the highest point in the Smokies, at 6643 feet.

There was not a lot to see, to say the least. But dropping down towards Gatlinburg, the clouds did lift and we saw something of the Smokies after all.

From Johnson City, we headed next day rather circuitously to Charleston, WV via the Cumberland Gap, and the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Not long after we headed out, we ran into one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced. It was raining so hard I could hardly see in front of the car. We did wonder whether our visit to Cumberland Gap would be a wash out. But the closer we got, the weather started to improve, and the sun was even shining as we arrived at the national park. From the Pinnacle Overlook it was hit and miss, now you see it, now you don’t as the clouds closed in, then cleared. But we did have some wonderful views, nevertheless.

The Cumberland Gap has been a major route through the Appalachians for Native Americans and the Europeans who settled there, and wanted to head west.

Cumberland Gap was a strategic route for both Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War, and exchanged sides from time to time. There are still earthworks high up on the Pinnacle.

The following morning we set off early from Charleston, west into Kentucky. It was going to be a long day, and a rather complex route on minor roads through the Daniel Boone National Forest. This was gently rolling country, but nevertheless magnificent in terms of the trees lining the highways.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we hit the main highways again, heading further west to Cave City, KY for the night, and the next highlight of the trip: Mammoth Cave National Park.