Pickering Beacon 1998 to 2013

Pickering Beacon

A quarterly magazine with over sixty issues from 1998 to 2013 including over forty contributions by

former Pickering resident Caroline Gaden, NSW, Australia

 Pickering Market Place

Pickering is an ancient market town in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It is where I was born in 1947, went to Lady Lumley’s School, and lived until 1966 when I went to university in Wales.

I then migrated to Australia in 1971 and the last time I returned to Pickering was in 1977. The internet and the Pickering Beacon have both allowed me to keep in touch with my old home town.

The birth of the Pickering Beacon took place on Wednesday 28th October 1998, an idea instigated by resident Alan Smith who moved into Pickering in 1970.

The Pickering Beacon is a community newsletter published quarterly, with sections for notices of organization meetings and unusual and interesting tales.

Pickering residents can express their opinions and keep up to date with happenings in the town and surrounding area. Through the Pickering Beacon they find out the who, what, why when and where of what is happening in the local area.

 

Email to the publishers, January 1999
Congratulations on your first issue of the Pickering Beacon. I received it via Brenda Green of the Upper Car Caravan Park who shares my interest in family history and we are both in an internet discussion group for Yorkshire.

I left Pickering in 1971 to come to Australia but when I connected to the internet, my first searches were to see what was happening in my old home town. I found a great site for the Stape Silver Band, lots of hotel sites, was disappointed to find Lady Lumley’s School is not yet on the web, but have corresponded with a senior student who is!

The Pickering Beacon contains lots of names I recognise and I enjoyed the photographs. You referred to ‘The Whistler’ from the Memorial Hall. Which one do you mean … I have a memory of two separate guardsmen, one on each side. Also next to the steps coming from the stage area there was a boy eating a bun … what happened to it? I’m glad to see the Musical Society is still flourishing …. I had a couple of pantomimes in the back row of the chorus! Legs were okay, voice was not!!

Some of your readers may remember my parents Ron and Joan Ford who are living close by, and who both enjoy hearing news of Pickering. If I can help any schools with information about Australia …. they may study it in Olympic Year … then please let me know and I’ll see what I can find.

Keep up the good work with The Beacon

 

Pickering Beacon                                Issue 3             July 1999

We are delighted to have been contacted by a former Pickering resident who now lives in Australia and has agreed to supply us with information on life there for future articles.

Our correspondent is Caroline Gaden, daughter of Ron and Joan Ford.

Caroline moved to Australia in 1971, Ron and Joan followed Caroline 10 years later when a couple of grandchildren had arrived! The family has retained their interest in this area. Caroline received a copy of the first edition of the Beacon from Brenda Green of the Upper Carr Caravan Park with whom she shares an interest in family history; they are both in an intemet discussion group for Yorkshire.

When Caroline connected to the intemet she says that her first searches were for what was happening in her old home town. She found a lot about Stape Silver Band and hotels but was ‘disappointed to find Lady Lumley’s School is not yet on the web’, although she has managed to correspond with a senior student who is. She was interested to hear that the Musical Society is still flourishing – she was in the back row of the chorus in a couple of pantomimes – ‘legs were okay, voice was not!’

Caroline and her parents would like to catch up with locals again. She is willing to help schools here with information on Australia and has already sent us some “Aussie snippets” which promise to provide material for an interesting, lively insight into life in Australia in future editions of the Beacon.


G’ Day from Down Under                              Issue 4   October 1999

Thanks for the info re the Whistler. I’m glad it’s being restored and folk are finally waking up to saving such things.

Pickering Whistler painting

One of the things I really miss about England is the old buildings, the castles, abbeys, and so on. Our oldest buildings here are 200 years old, mainly small and functional, not the size and grandeur of the English and European historical buildings. There were some lovely sandstone buildings built for government departments in the capital cities but many were lost in the 1950s and 1960s until Jack Mundey of the Builders Labourers Federation put ‘green bans’ on a lot of the sites….. an interesting political time to have builder’s labourers and very conservative history lovers on the same side against the developers who wanted progress at whatever cost. It still goes on … a few years ago there was an earthquake in Newcastle and many old buildings were demolished very quickly by developers before the historians could get organised with court orders.

We have so much space that terraced houses are rare and semi-detached are even rarer. You’ll find terraces in some of the mining towns and in the older part of Sydney, but most houses are what you would call a bungalow, single floor and detached. Many are made of weatherboard i.e. timber but newer homes tend to be brick veneer i.e. one layer of brick not two, with plasterboard inside. I think we tend to paint rather than wallpaper more in Aus too …. wall papering tends to lead to the divorce courts!!!

A couple of years ago we had a very destructive hailstorm in Armidale … hail stones the size of golf balls and bigger. We lost lots of windows, our youngest son was working on the wood lathe in the garage and the high windows came crashing down on him and he managed to seek refuge in the car. Every roof in the city was damaged and most had to be completely replaced. Some of the historical buildings with slate roofs now sport Welsh slate on the top!
Our eldest son was on leave from the Navy and had his car parked in the street. When he took it back to the Australian Defence Force Academy its name was changed from “The Gate” (because of the ‘roo bar on the front)  to “The Golf Ball”.

Cricket ….. dare I mention cricket to the Poms at the moment….. if they all put the effort in that Gough put in, they perhaps would have had more of a chance … their fielding was woeful in most cases. Teach ’em how to throw back to the keeper at bail height and for the bowlers to get back to their stumps as soon as the follow through is over…..

Sport in general and cricket in particular is BIG down under. A few years ago I was secretary of our Junior Cricket Association ….. close on 50 teams with kids from up to 2 hours drive out of town ….Kanga (the under 8s) the 9s, 10, 11s, 12s, 13s, 14s and under 16s all playing on Saturday mornings from 9am to noon, with different rules to suit each age group. The Kangas all get to bat and bowl and if they are out they stay in for their allotted time, so the result is determined by total number of runs scored divided by total number of outs. The rules gradually change until the 14s are playing a 2 day match divided into 4 quarters and the 16s play full rules cricket. All these are on synthetic pitches. The teams are club teams rather than school teams in most cases. The Armidale School is an independent day/boarding school which enters teams, but the rest of the teams are organised and run by parents.

On Saturday afternoons the Seniors play with 1st grade down to 5th grade. The lower grades have many good junior players in them and the 5th grade rules limit the number of overs bowled and runs scored by the over 17s …. it is a transition grade from junior to senior competition. First grade and several second grade games are played on turf wickets. Currently my middle son plays first grade and my husband and youngest son play third grade where they both scored centuries a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday is the day for representative cricket…. Armidale plays other towns in under 12, 13, 14 and 16s. The other towns are all at least 1.5 hours drive away and we will play home and away during the season so that ties up 8 to 10 weekends. From these matches a district team (the Northern Tablelands) is selected and so on up the ladder to State selection.  The Seniors also have inter town matches with similar district teams in various age groups e.g. under 17, under 19, under 21 and so on.

On top of that we have cricket carnivals in our long summer holidays in January, so our 12s go to Lismore, 13s to Ballina, 14s to Gloucester, all over 3 hours away. The 15s come to Armidale and we arrange all games on turf, weather permitting, which they all love. We have a carnival dinner every year and invite a good young cricketer on the edge of the big time …. a few years ago we hosted a delightful young man by the name of Adam Gilchrist …. you may have heard of him???? He’s a Lismore lad and started his career in a local junior cricket comp …. the nursery for the wearers of the Baggy Green Cap.

That’s all for now! I’ll wait for the footie season to start before I send you any football news.

 

G’ Day from Down Under                                          October 1999

CHRISTMAS DOWN UNDER

Christmas time falls in our summer so it is very much the holiday season. The school year has ended, six weeks of holidays stretch out, the Year 12s are anxiously waiting for the results of the Higher School Certificate exams and Christmas is a great excuse for a party.   Christmas promotions start to appear in retail stores from September onwards as many people here send gifts overseas and have to post early.

But this year Christmas will be different for thousands of Aussie families as we have so many peace-keepers overseas. My eldest son Philip is in the navy and will be in East Timor at this time.

This long school break means it is the time most families take their annual holidays. It was traditional for many companies or factories to close down completely from Christmas until the middle of January and many still do.

With our rich English heritage, hot roast turkey followed by the hot pud with brandy

sauce was often served for Christmas lunch. But now we are a far more diverse culture and Christmas lunch is more likely to be a superb salad with prawns and lobster or maybe something from an Asian recipe book. We have a wonderful choice of fruits here so pawpaws, mangoes, kiwi fruit, pineapples, melons, peaches and apricots are high on the summer shopping lists. A fruit platter is just as likely to be served as an ‘ice-cream’ Christmas pudding.

Boxing Day is ‘sports day’, the time many watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on TV or the cricket test in Melboume. Then for many it’s on the road to the coast for a couple of weeks at the beach. Whilst you are enjoying your Christmas carols, Pickering panto and snow, things which make this exile so homesick, think of us out here where we ‘slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat’ and head for the sun, sand and the surf.

 

Letter to the Editor

Dear Beacon

In the last issue of The Beacon I read that the young folk of Pickering wanted to have a skateboard park. We have recently opened one in Armidale (NSW, Australia) and it was due to the work put in by the teenagers themselves.

They lobbied Council; with the help of a couple of parents they organized a fund raising committee; they asked local businesses for donations and ran raffles and a disco for under 18s (no alcohol, no pass-outs and strictly supervised); they persuaded other businesses to ‘sponsor’ the project.

These youngsters put in the ‘hard yards’ and were rewarded by Council donating an area of land next to the swimming pool, the local earthmover bulldozed the mounds at cost, the local concrete maker donated the concrete at cost, a local engineer donated steel pipes at cost.

Result… a great facility much appreciated by the skateboarders whose skateboarding skills are improving daily, but they also learnt many other valuable lessons on the way!

Go for it skateboarders!

 

G’ Day from Down Under                                          January 2000

 It is Australia Day today as I write this for The Beacon, January 26th, the day which commemorates the beginning of European settlement in this vast southern land, the day when, in 1788, Governor Philip and the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. Those of you who have read Bryce Courtney’s book “The Potato Factory” will have a good idea of the awful conditions those folk left and the harsh conditions they met on arrival Down Under.

Many Aboriginal people think of Australia Day as the day the ‘invasion’ started but there are also many Kooris who celebrate the survival, against huge odds, of their magnificent heritage and culture which spans over 40,000 years.

For most of us the year of the Bicentenary, 1988, saw the start of Australia Day celebrations. Up to then it was a quiet occasion, often unnoticed, but now local councils all over the country organise days for families to meet and enjoy a fun day together. For the youngsters it is the final holiday fling before school goes back next week.

The Australian of the Year is announced, this year Sir Gustav Nossal an eminent scientist, and the Young Australian of the Year, world record swimmer Ian Thorpe, a sixteen year old with size 16 feet who spends a lot of time helping those less fortunate than himself.

Every town acknowledges citizens who have made a major contribution to the local community. On Australia Day many Citizenship ceremonies are held and these are very moving occasions for here you will find people from all corners of the world who want to join us, share our freedom and free speech and casual life style.

We are a multicultural country and a very tolerant lot, fiercely competitive in sport of course, but ready to help anyone in an emergency. We have bush fires and droughts and hailstorms and floods but everyone pulls together to help because next time it could be our own community under threat. This community spirit is most evident in ‘the bush’ which is a great place to live. We hope some of you will come and visit during this Olympic year, we’ll just put another shrimp on the barbie, open up the six pack of coldies and you’ll be welcome.

G’day!


G’day From Down Under                                          April 2000

ANZAC Day … the very name will send a shiver down the spine of all Australians and New Zealanders.

ANZAC Day … it started with the landing on 25th April 1915 of the original ANZACs on the beach at Gallipoli, Turkey, in World War 1 and it is now the day in our calendar when we remember the sacrifices of those who fought for democracy in all the conflicts throughout the world.

There are only two original ANZACs left in Australia… Alec Campbell aged 101 years and Roy Longmore who is 105 years. But far from fading away with the last of the old diggers, ANZAC Day has been embraced by the younger generations as never before.

Each year up to ten thousand young backpackers make their way to Turkey for the dawn service at what is now called ANZAC Cove. Last year our Governor General, Sir William Deane was moved to tears as he witnessed the droves of young people in attendance. It is an emotional landscape made more so by the carpet of bone fragments, ANZAC bone fragments, everywhere on the scrub covered hills and the beach.

And back in Australia and New Zealand there are dawn services held in every town and city, and marches to the local war memorials and cenotaphs where the traditional one minute of silence takes place at 11 am. Wreaths are laid and every school and all the service clubs will take part in this. Most schools have their own service even if the 25th falls during the school holidays.

The school my sons attend has a Cadet Corps, and each year there is a volunteer ceremonial guard who ‘take post’ at three services, one at school, the second at the War Memorial in the surrounding shire of Dumaresq and the third, the 11.00 a.m. service in Armidale city.

Whilst at school each of my boys has taken part in the ceremonial guards over the last 10 years…. and as teenagers they are not much different in age from many of the original ANZACs…. it brings a lump to many a throat to hear the names of all the students from school who lost their lives in the Wars… the Sandilands family alone lost three sons. And it brings a tear to many an eye to see these proud young men in uniform paying tribute to the ANZAC tradition.

When you ask them why they do it, why they get up to go to practices on cold mornings at 6.00 a.m., why they give up their spare time at lunchtime or weekends, the answer is always the same … “it’s for the servicemen and women who gave so much, you can see that they really appreciate it, you just have to see how proudly they stand to attention and give a salute as we march past.”

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will remember them.”

Lest we forget.

 

G’day From Down Under                                        June 2000

If you think there is a lot of “bull” associated with the Olympics, you could be right, and you don’t need to look very far to understand why! The main Olympic stadium is built on the site of the former State Abattoir sale yards and the TV Centre for the Games is located in the cattle sheds of the adjacent Royal Easter Showgrounds. Within a few days of the completion of this year’s three-week long Easter Show, the Champion Herefords, Angus and Friesians have moved on, the temporary cattle stalls and sawdust have been cleared away and the TV crews started to set up.

Homebush Bay, site for many of the 28 Olympic sports, is now the geographic Centre of Sydney. When Europeans first arrived here it was an extensive tidal wetlands soon known as “The Flats.” It was settled by the Blaxland family who laid out salt pans on the Parramatta River and by 1827 they were sending 8 tons of salt each week across the river to Sydney.

By 1840 it was the home of Australian racing with a new racecourse and training facilities. Eventually the land was taken over by the State Government. A brickwork’s was established, closing after World War II. One of the disused pits has become the home of a rare species of frog who is appropriately coloured the green and gold of Australia!

In 1907 the State Abattoir was established, employing up to 1600 people. The Abattoir closed in 1988 and one of the final events held there before it was demolished was the Meat Industry Awards for Excellence. It was a black tie affair, a silver service dinner held in one of the former chillers! We guests approached the evening with some trepidation, but the organisers did a wonderful job using the old meat hooks on all the rails to ‘lower’ the ceiling and standing marble columns with glorious native flower arrangements around the room. The meal was magnificent, award winning beef of course, washed down with plenty of superb Australian wine… truly a night to remember!

Enjoy the sights of Sydney as you watch Mission Impossible II, enjoy the sights of Sydney as you watch the Olympics …. I’ll give you a wave from Horsley Park where I’ll be watching the Equestrian three day events.

Caroline would like to purchase a copy of R. W. Scales book “The Way We Were” about bygone Pickering, which is out of print. If you can help, please contact the Beacon – via the Beacon boxes or our home address. Ed.


G’ Day from Down Under                  Twenty Olympic Memories   October 2000

  • The glorious opening ceremony which was sheer, unadulterated fun!
  • The innovation of the power grinders as part of a dance routine in hob nailed boots.
  • Seeing a team from East Timor, there because of the wonderful efforts of the Peace-keepers of the world.
  • Our first night relay swimmers who smashed the American ‘like guitars’.
  • The support given to ‘Eric the Eel’ who had never swum a 100 metres before his Olympic heat.
  • The too-quick approach by Ian Stark at the first water complex in the team 3DE.
  • The great rounds by the Aussie riders and the support they received from the crowd.
  • The gold and silver to my two favourite equestrian teams …. and I had both flags on my hat!
  • The train traveling grey suited businessmen (who normally hide behind their newspapers) all chatting with Games Goers.
  • The magnificent night-time view of the harbour from the Manly ferry.
  • The orange shirts of all the Dutch supporters and the Olympic Security cards which became part of the ‘Olympic-goers uniform’.
  • The myriad of languages heard wherever you went and the friendliness of people to each other no matter what their nationality.
  • The wonderful volunteers who directed (and entertained) the queues.
  • The sometimes hilarious announcements from State Rail staff who proved they really do have a sense of humour.
  • The deafening roar when Cathy Freeman won the 400m Gold Medal.
  • The roar when the British 50 km walker entered the stadium and the standing ovation he received all round the track as he struggled home to “And I will walk 500 miles”.
  • His happiness and enthusiasm when he was interviewed later on the radio.
  • The big TV screens throughout the city and the cheering of the crowds as they watched races or games as enthusiastically as if they were at the venue.
  • The groups of people clustered round TV sets in shops and cafes and the cheers when a race was won …. by anyone!
  • And finally the lump in the throat whenever I heard the Australian and British National Anthems

Thanks for the memories and have a wonderful Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year.

 

G’day from Down Under                              January 2001

 This year has been designated the International Year of the Volunteer and Australia makes great use of these wonderful people. Apart from the dedicated folk who are the backbones of so many sporting and interest groups, there are those who are prepared to put their lives at risk to help others by being in our State Emergency Services and our Bush Fire Brigades.

Currently both groups are being kept very busy as Australia is enjoying summer, but summer also means many violent storms and many bushfires. The State Emergency Services are the ones called out to help with storms and flood damage. A few years ago Armidale was hit with a terrific hailstorm and the SES provided about 400 tarpaulins for roofs that had been destroyed. The towns of Casino and Dubbo are going through this same fate as I write. Last November our area had very heavy rain and flooding and it was the SES who was out there with sandbags and boats to evacuate those caught by floods.

So the TV images of flood rescue in England are not so different from ‘Down Under’. But something you are not so familiar with is the dreaded bushfire. The November wet was in our spring, so we have had tremendous growth of vegetation and that means plenty of bush fire fuel. Last week we sweltered in Australia-wide temperatures well over 38°C. In the western parts of NSW, temperatures reached 45°C. Even in Armidale, cooler on the high Tablelands, we were at 36°C. All this heat quickly dries out the grasses and shrubs and bushfires can easily explode into action.

When we lived on a property 15 miles from town we had a well-oiled plan for summer fires. We were members of the local Bush Fire Brigade and had our own mobile tank, water pump and generator ready to go at short notice. There were several times the kids and I raced home from school as bush fires burned in the area. The boys collected all the photo albums and paintings and loaded them in the car. The bath and washing machine were filled with water and full pans were put through the ceiling manhole into the roof. If the electricity went off we had no pumps to pump water from our rainwater tank which was the only water supply to the inside of the house.

Outside preparations were just as frantic. I caught a horse and put livestock in the yards, bare earth doesn’t burn: the gutter down- pipes were blocked off with rubber balls and the gutter filled up with water pumped from the dam. The roof was drenched to cool and wet it. The lawn on the fire side was soaked, no plants were allowed to grow close to the house and the ‘house paddock’ was always eaten down and kept as bare as possible in summer.

Luckily we haven’t lost our home but several friends did, one elderly couple sat in their dam and watched their house burn down; another drove her horse float through a wall of flame and didn’t know if her house would be there when she returned. One couple saved expensive things like their computer then kicked themselves as computers can be replaced but family mementoes can’t… that’s why we used to grab photo albums before clothes, paintings before furniture.

The local members of the Rush Fire Brigades are there to help in their own areas but often go to help in neighbouring towns and cities which traditionally have plenty of trees and gardens around the suburbs.

Many Australian plant species can’t survive without a fire that then allows the seeds to germinate at the next rain. Many Australian people couldn’t do without their wonderful volunteers who make things just a little bit safer when Mother Nature goes on the rampage.

 

G’ Day from Down Under                                          July 2001

This week I have been reflecting on the passion that Aussies have for their sport. We’ve just watched Pat Rafter in that brilliant Wimbledon final. I think the whole country stayed up late to cheer him on, there was certainly plenty of sleepy folk at work the next day!

Last night we enjoyed the Wallaby’s game against the Lions. I love those visits as I can be happy whichever side wins and can tease my sons that they are half-Poms, and it was great to watch the red shirts in action again as it took me back to my visits to Cardiff Arms Park when I was at university in Wales.

I’m often asked “what’s wrong with Pommie cricket these days?” and my answer is always “there’s not enough Yorkshiremen in the team”, which always brings a nod and “Ah yes we remember Freddie Trueman!”

But why does such a small country in terms of population do so well in so many sports…. I’m sure it is because every weekend there are thousands of Aussie kids who don a sport’s uniform and play for their team from the under sevens upwards.

The games have modified rules for the youngest players, Kanga cricket, minkey hockey, mod ball, so the skills required can be developed over the years as the rules gradually become more standard. For example junior cricket has slightly different rules for each age group from the Kangas to the Under 16s, even there the game is divided into 4 quarters played over two Saturdays so each team has some time to bat and some time to bowl and the kids are involved most of the time.

Armidale offers both junior and senior competitions in cricket, soccer, hockey, rugby union, rugby league, Aussie rules, netball, baseball, softball, modball, touch football, ‘little athletics’, swimming, orienteering. We have a golf course, tennis club, squash courts, bowling greens and the equestrian centre which is shared by the Pony Club, Dressage, Show Jumping and Campdrafting clubs who each meet there once a month. And they are all run by volunteers!!

The population served would be around 40,000 people but remember that covers a radius of 60 miles all round the town….. it takes us well over an hour to drive to the next centre of Tamworth to the south. If you drew a circle of 60 miles around Pickering, what would be the collective population these days?

 

G’ Day from Down Under                                          October 2001

One of my first weekends in Australia was spent on the Darling Downs about 3 hours drive inland from Brisbane over the Great Dividing Range. The country was in drought, my first experience of the unforgiving nature of this vast land. There were sheep grazing in paddocks which, to my eye, held nothing to eat … but the animals were extracting the clover burrs and chewing them.

The place was hot, very hot and dry …oh so dry and with the heat and the dryness came the dust… willy-willies or miniature tornadoes would swirl along the ground picking up dust and leaves and twigs. But one abiding image will forever remain with me …. the budgerigars, thousand upon thousand of them screeching and swooping through the trees which lined the gravel road along which we drove. I’d only ever seen a budgie in a cage and to see this
swarm flying free in the bush was an unforgettable joy.

And now, many years on I still enjoy the beauty of the Australian parrots. On my verandah there is a daily supply of sunflower and wheat seeds and my resident parrots come to call each day, always in pairs and always in their own groups.

First come the Crimson Rosellas, bright red with blue wings and a blue tail, big, bold and brassy. The young ones are mostly green but gain their glorious colours as they mature.

Then come the Eastern Rosellas, a red head and with more yellow and black on their back. And finally the Rainbow Lorrikeets, noisy fast flying birds which are more common on the Queensland Gold Coast, they have a blue head, yellow-orange chest and the rest of the body is mainly green.

What a pity I can’t send you some photographs… the colourful parrots of Australia alone are worth the trip Down Under.

Have a Happy and Healthy Christmas and enjoy the panto, that’s something I really miss!!

 

G’ Day from Down Under                  Our Black Christmas                        January 2002

 Eucalyptus trees, leaves full of oil, explode into a wall flames several metres high; fanned by gusting wind it is fiercely hot and with a deafening roar it races up the hill to engulf your home… in just six minutes it will have passed and you’ll know if your home, and all its precious memories have survived. That was the terrifying reality faced by thousands of Australians over an eighteen-day period during the festive season, usually the time for relaxing over our long summer holidays and trips to the beach.

The bushfires started in New South Wales on Christmas Eve. Some started with lightening strikes, many sadly were deliberately lit (over 30 people have been charged with arson). The emergency continued because we had blistering heat up to 40 degrees, high winds which kept changing direction, extremely low humidity under 10% and because of our love for the bush. Sydney is a very ‘green’ city with several National Parks within the city limits, and coastal scrub and forestry surround many other areas

(The National Parks Service has come in for criticism for not having better fuel reduction burning and as a result of this emergency the NSW Bush Fire service has finally been given the legislation to do controlled burn-offs in the future, so hopefully we won’t face such a severe emergency again.)

But this time there was plenty of fuel just waiting to burn across the whole state, and burn we did. More than 100 blazes raged along a fire-front extending 3600km from the north to the south of the state.

The cost has been enormous… over 11,000 holiday-makers and residents evacuated, roads closed, 115 homes and 50 caravans totally destroyed, 500,000 acres of land burnt out, tens of thousands of native animals killed, a $140 million disaster.

And how did we survive? Thanks to the bravery of the volunteer bushfire fighters, 15,000 of them, one third women, who put their lives on the line to save the homes of their fellow Aussies….. it was a miracle no one was killed… in the weeks prior to Christmas there were two inquests, one in NSW and one in Victoria, examining the deaths of volunteer fire fighters, and in this Christmas period these people were faced with this dreadful emergency.

Stories abound… one tanker was trapped and the crew lay on the floor praying the fire would go over them… their captain stayed outside in the heat hosing down the truck and himself…. they survived. Interstate firefighters came to help… convoys of tankers drove down from Queensland and up from Victoria, crews flew in from all the other states, New Zealand and America….. and then there was ‘Elvis’ the Canadian heli-tanker capable of sucking up 9000 litres of water in 45 seconds and credited with saving the lives of 14 firefighters and hundreds of homes. Thank goodness the pilots were capable of pinpoint accuracy because 9 tonnes of water on your roof would be as devastating as a fire!

We became used to seeing the orange sky and black ash, smelling the smokey air, hearing the sirens, feeling for those who lost everything, feeling joy and relief for those who were saved. It was the courage of all the fire fighters on the front line and those who did the back burning which saved 15,000 homes from destruction. Mostly volunteers, these heroes had their Christmas lunch three weeks late. We thank and salute them all.


G’day again from a very hot, drought ridden, scorched Down Under.       September 2002

In the past few months we have had a wonderful holiday in Western Australia and moved house to a

few acres out of town. We have a magnificent view across the Great Dividing Range as we sit close to

the top of a volcanic pimple. In between the unpacking, many renovations and bush fire training we have managed to watch some of the magnificent cricket on TV. The delightful Barmy Army has          kept us all entertained with their songs and good humour. One of their songs has been about how rich they are because the exchange rate is “Three dollars to the pound”, so I thought you may be interested       in some of the prices we pay for goods and services in New South Wales.

Petrol is just under $1 per litre (£1.50 per gallon), and a new Ford Falcon family car with 4 litre engine, 5 seater would be $32000 or £11000, although we have many cars imported from Asia which         would be a bit cheaper. House prices in our town range from $150,000 for a three bedroom brick veneer house (we don’t have many double brick ones out here) to $300,000 for a top of the range        house in town. Our homes are mainly on one level, what you would call a bungalow, with semi-       detached being much rarer and tend to be for one or two bedroom units. House prices in Sydney are    much higher of course, anything close to public transport in a pleasant suburb is $500,000 starting             price, and anything with a harbour view is measured by millions not hundreds of thousands!

 University students have to pay a Higher Education Contribution fee of about $5000 per year depending on their course. Some students are eligible for a Youth Allowance, colloquially called            “Johnny” after our PM, which is worth about $400 per fortnight, most student supplement their           income with part time work, about $7 per hour at MacDonalds or delivering pizza. When they   graduate a university trained primary teacher will earn about $40,000pa. in their first year.

Armidale has a developing café scene, especially in summer, and a latte is about $3 and a decent     lunch menu will set you back about $15. Supermarket prices have 3 litres of milk for just over $3,          bunch asparagus $1.70 , Coca Cola 1 litre $1, potatoes $3 per kilogram, peaches and nectarines $5 per kg, bananas $1 per kg, carrots $2,pumpkin $1.50 per kg, 4 litres ice cream $7, eggs $2 per dozen,            butter 74 cents for 250 grams, vintage cheddar cheese $7 for 250 grams, Tetley tea 250g for $2.50,      toilet rolls 6 pack $5, Kellogg’s Nutrigrain 500gram for just over $5, hamburger mince is $7.50 per kg, beef scotch steak $8 per kg, fillet steak about $20 per kg, whole chicken to roast $8.

Our weekly bill for fruit and vegetables has gone up a huge amount in recent months as the devastating drought tightens its grip. Sadly the whole of the country is dry and this continues to contribute to the terrifying bush fires you see on your TV news. Normally there are pockets of non-drought areas throughout the country to which stock can be sent on agistment. Not this time with the whole           nation being dry. Last July we drove across the Nullabor to Perth and this vast brown land wasp arched   even then… imagine what it is like seven months later with no rain.

Of course no rain means fewer vegetables, less fruit, no crops and no grass or grain for the livestock, even the fisheries are affected. Animals are sold off, lambing and calving rates decline as numbers are reduced, stock feed bills explode, and supermarket prices rise, and they’ll stay high as it will take a long time to recover even when the rain finally arrives. If history is anything to go by we’ll go from one extreme to the other in this sunburnt county, “a land of drought and flooding rains.”

 

G’day From Down Under                                          March 2003

What has been occupying Aussie minds recently? Well apart from ‘important’ things like the cricket in the Windies, and whether Harry Kewell is moving from Leeds, over the past few weeks we have been concerned about the situation in Iraq with many anti war protests around the country.

Like Britain and the USA, we have soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in the war and have been very concerned for their safety. Once the fighting began the anti-war protests eased as many thought it was the government to whom their anger should be directed. There was a fear that demonstrations would be seen as not supporting our troops … this was a mistake the Australian public made when they vilified the returning soldiers from the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s and no one is going to make the same mistake again. There were no demonstrations on our recent ANZAC day, the time Aussies and Kiwis unite to remember those who died in wars, as it was not appropriate to politicize this special day.

School and university students are returning to study for Term 2 and our town is full of young people again. After the Easter break the sports competitions are in full swing with rugby league, rugby union, Australian Rules, soccer and hockey to be found on all the local parks and the TV screens. The thoroughbred races are a major part of the scene with the various Autumn Carnivals and it has been lovely to see the success of trainer Gai Waterhouse who has beaten the gentlemen hands down, her stables winning over six million dollars this month!!!

Armidale is particularly beautiful at this time of year as the many deciduous trees are at their glorious autumn best with rich golds, oranges, reds and burgundies dominating the landscape. We are waiting for the first frost which usually arrives with the dawn service on ANZAC day. Those of us with tomatoes and pumpkins in the garden hope they ripen quickly before the frosts hit! Recently we have had some precious rain. The area of NSW which is ‘drought declared’ has dropped from 99.9% down to 99.5%. Round here it now looks green again, but there has been so little growth of grass and it will be a hungry cold winter for the sheep and cattle.

The two week long Royal Easter Show is over for another year, the twentieth in which husband Bob has been a judge in the cattle hoof and hook competition. The local Autumn Festival saw many decorated floats taking to the streets and plenty of entertainment for the locals and visitors alike.

In the first week of May we celebrate Wool Expo with two days of seminars for sheep and wool producers, the ever popular sheep dog trials and two days of fashion parades and stalls all promoting wool. This area is famous for its superfine wool Merino sheep, with some producing wool as fine as 12 microns. The fabric produced is wonderful to wear in all seasons with some delightful eveningwear in the fashion parades.

Then June arrives, the start of our winter so as you all gear up for summer, we will be gearing up for winter chills and be snuggled round the log fire with a good book and a glass of Aussie wine. Cheers!

 

G’day From Down Under                                          July 2003

G’day from Down Under where it is still chilly winter. Recently we headed south for a three and a half thousand kilometer round trip down to the Great Ocean Road along the southern coast of Victoria.

As we drove through the western areas of NSW, the drought is still very much in evidence and we drove through several mobs of stock eating out the “long paddock”. Many of these inland roads are very wide, with just a thin strip of tar for traffic and they serve as Traveling Stock Routes. Every 10-15km there are ‘reserves’ for an overnight stop, but basically the stock walk along the road and pick up what feed they can…. hence they are known as the “long paddock”

These TSRs are managed by the Rural Land Protection Board who have to ensure that the different mobs are not going to be competing for what fodder is available and to help protect the vegetation from being totally eaten out. The ‘agistment’ cost can vary depending on the area and fodder available but may be around 60 cents per head per week for a grazing permit. Warning signs are put out for the traffic and most drivers slow down knowing the unpredictable nature of livestock.

We passed one mob of about 800 cows, mainly Hereford, who were calving down on the road as they went. This is a hard life for a new calf which has to be able to keep up with the mob within a few hours, but it also hard on the cow that has to be able to find enough grass to maintain herself and feed the calf. The drover in charge had his horses and dogs to help keep the mob together. He had a caravan for accommodation and this one also had a large tanker truck for water… such a large mob of cows can go through 5000+ gallons of water a day and water has to be taken to them as there are not enough dams (ponds) along the long paddock. This drought has seen many mobs on the road and the water trucks are so slow to fill and there have been long delays at some town water pumps.

Another drover we passed had a horse drawn caravan pulled by a couple of Percherons. His mob was a little smaller but also was cows calving down as they went and there were two more mobs of young dry cattle. How long they had been on the road was a question we didn’t ask but our guess is that ‘several months’ would have been the answer knowing how tough this drought has been. This time last year we passed a fodder merchant in Victoria who had hay and I remember ringing friends back home and telling them this was where they’d find some stock feed… a year later and we in NSW are still in need of hay and grain to get our stock through winter.

Our destination, the Great Ocean Road, runs west of Geelong for 230 km. It was built as an employment scheme for soldiers returning from World War I and has the most spectacular scenery along the rugged cliff tops. The Cape Otway lighthouse, built in 1848, sends a warning to sailors trying to negotiate the “Eye of the Needle”, a fifty mile gap between the mainland and King Island, where the waters of the Great Southern Ocean meet with those of Bass Straight. For modern ships with their radar and global positioning systems it is not a problem but for the original settlers and traders on the sailing ships with no engines, inaccurate chronometers and at the mercy of the storms roaring up from the Antarctic, the breakers on the rocks was often their first sight of land in several months. Sadly for many hundreds of people it was often their last too, as this area is aptly named “The Shipwreck Coast.”


G’day from Down Under                                                      October 2003

Today we woke to find the sky was filled with very thick pale pink fog but we soon discovered it was a dust storm, the strong westerly winds whipping up the top soil from the drought stricken inland and sending the precious cargo eastwards to the coast. It seems odd to have bits of Ayers Rock, now known as Uluru, coating the top of my car!

In this area the rain gauges remained stubbornly dry throughout September but we have now had some blessed rain and the paddocks are green again… even our cattle have stopped their mournful bellowing every morning as they waited for their breakfast of lupin seeds.

Now it has rained our thoughts return to the vegetable garden….. last year what few seeds germinated were quickly swamped by the ever spreading pumpkin patch. They were self seeded from the compost heap and just took over the garden… not that we minded as we had some glorious pumpkins to keep us going through winter. I always thought pumpkins only appeared in Pickering Pantomime’s Cinderella and was introduced to their lovely taste on my first weekend in Australia.

Roast pumpkin cooked in the oven with the meat is a great vegetable… I always cook them whole, slicing off the top and scooping out the seeds, then a large dollop of butter, a couple of onions, replace the top and back in the oven with the roast. What doesn’t get eaten with dinner is then the basis for mouthwatering pumpkin soup. Cooked pumpkin and a couple of onions, Philadelphia cheese or sour cream all blended together with a bit of stock or left-over gravy and served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of green herbs. It’s a wonderful way to keep warm on the chilly winter days and it’s always a favourite at the soup kitchens at winter sporting fixtures.

This year we’ve decided to leave the vegetable patch to the voracious pumpkins and there is a new pumpkin-free garden on the eastern side of the house where the carrots and beetroot and peas will be expected to grow … in both areas we’ve tipped copious amounts of sheep manure so we hope for a good crop!!

There is always strong competition to grow good tomatoes and the trick in Armidale is to get them planted out but try to miss the late frosts which always destroy the best laid plans. This year I’m cheating by leaving my tomatoes in a pot inside the enclosed verandah… just like being in a greenhouse. There’s been an anxious wait as there was lots of leaf growth but no flowers and the worry is that the seeds taken from a particularly tasty tomato may turn out to be an infertile hybrid. However celebrations took place last Saturday when we spotted the appearance of the first small yellow flowers!

So as you wind down your gardens as winter approaches, we are back in full gardening mode which will be even more fun this year because we’ve had some rain!!!!!


G’day from Down Under                                                       January 2004

It’s raining!

In a drought ravaged land there can be no sweeter sound than rain falling onto the roof, rain spilling into water tanks, rain replenishing dry dams.

This time last year our dam (pond) below the house was bone dry …. we had to put out precious tank water for the cattle to drink. The bulldozer was called in to make the dam deeper, the banks higher and now, one year later, the dam has been filled to overflowing and the excess water has poured down the overflow on its way to replenish someone else’s dam downstream.

There has been an extensive, crescent shaped band of cloud covering the Northern Territory and Queensland and stretching down into northern New South Wales bringing lots of noisy thunderstorms with huge, tropical, wetting raindrops.

We’ve had 278 mm of rain so far this month; that’s close to 11 inches and is the wettest January on record. Yesterday we could hear an unusual roaring and we realized it was the Gwydir River, just 3 km away as the crow flies, in flood. We drove to the bridge to watch it! And met neighbours there too, all drawn by the wonderful sound.

It didn’t matter that Tamworth, an hour’s drive down at the bottom of the ranges, had minor flooding, it didn’t matter that the thousands of riverside campers at the Country Music Festival had been evacuated from the campsite as the Peel River broke it’s banks, it didn’t matter that many of the black soil roads round Moree were impassable, it didn’t matter that livestock and water pumps needed to be moved to higher ground. No one was going to complain!

Manilla’s water supply has been replenished; they can cut back on the extreme restrictions they have had to endure for months. Copeton Dam has had its water level increased from 10% to over 20%; that is a huge amount of water, measured in several “Sydney-Harbours”.

All the towns downstream can follow the flood peak and know that in a few weeks time their turn will come! We live very close to the dividing line between the eastern and western catchments; the rain falling on the eastern side will end up in going over the huge falls down into the gorges and out to sea in the Pacific Ocean.

We live on the western catchment, so ‘our’ water will eventually join the Murray Darling river system and drain into the sea at Adelaide, a journey of several thousand kilometers….. that’s life giving water to thousands of fish, birds, all the wildlife and all the towns.

There’s a saying in Australia to “Send it on down Hughie” when we are praying for rain… all we can say now is “Thanks Hughie.”

 

G’day from Down Under                                          April 2004

Over the past few weeks we have done quite a bit of traveling, and three hours drive to the east and six hours to the north, south and west covers a great variety of landscapes. Such long trips are common in Australia as the distances between towns is much greater than in the UK, so car travel tends to be looked at in ‘time’ rather than ‘distance’…. I know it takes us 6 hours to drive to Sydney or Brisbane but I’d have to pull out a map to tell you how many kilometers it is!

Long distance travel can lead to problems and we are very aware of the campaigns to “Stop, Revive, Survive”. There are TV ads reminding us that “a micro-sleep can kill in seconds” and the signs of fatigue that we need to recognize…. and on long trips these can happen during the day as well as at night. There are ‘Driver Reviver’ centres in many places at peak holiday times. Manned by volunteers, they provide free tea or coffee to drivers and a chance to stretch your legs for a few minutes.

Whenever we leave Armidale, at some point we have to get off the Great Dividing Range and there are some spectacular views as you travel. In the early days these ranges were a real barrier to the explorers and settlers and modern roads still use some of their original routes. First we headed north for six hours to visit son Peter in Brisbane, through an area renowned for its stone fruit and grapes. On the Darling Downs there is a large cropping area for sorghum and corn, but there was not much livestock to be seen. It was green and lush with little sign of the recent drought.

But when we headed west through Dubbo the following week, to the flat, rolling inland plains, it was a different story… still in the grip of drought there were empty dams and the irrigated cotton didn’t exist because no water means no crop… again! We went through Narromine which was a World War II aerodrome for pilot training, now a centre for gliding with plenty of hot thermals above the dusty land. It was here we met the locust plague which has been blown down from Queensland and is now causing devastation for hundred of square kilometers. These grasshopper-like insects eat anything green, so any crop or grass is doomed and green paint doesn’t do so well either! They have now reached the edges of Melbourne in Victoria, so the “garden state” is going to be ravaged! At least the local radio stations are inviting listeners to call in with remedies for getting locust carcasses off your car!

Our trip to Sydney saw us enjoying the harbour views from our son Philip’s flat.…. Sydney has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world and it is alive with activity. Evening yacht races were a flurry of sails; the ferries busily transported people to work or play throughout the day and night; the Navy base was a hive of activity with visiting navy ships from other countries as RimPac exercises were due to begin. There was a large stubbed nose car transporter bring in a cargo from Asia, hustled and bustled by the tiny tug boats. And there was a huge white luxury cruise ship, too high to fit under the famous Harbour Bridge (made from good Yorkshire steel from Dorman Long and affectionately called The Coat Hanger). We took a ferry across to the Opera House to go to The Magic Flute … a magical evening and a couple of days later we enjoyed The Lion King.

And our final trip was the most important, three hours down to the coast to Coffs Harbour where our son Paul was married to long time girl friend Kirsty …. both have recently graduated from the local university as primary school teachers and they were married a week later…… what a great Easter it was for our family!!!


G’day from Down Under                                                       August 2004

Like many people who live in the Australian bush, we have a ‘roadside mail service’ and our mail box is a 5 gallon drum on our gate-post at a convenient height for postie to reach from his car. Until recently we had 3 mail deliveries each week but this was upgraded to a daily service at the start of July. Letters with the correct postage can be left for collection, a small flag letting postie know that he needs to stop.

Yesterday I walked down our driveway to leave some mail and, even though it was well past sunrise, some of the local mob of kangaroos was grazing in our front paddock. There were fourteen of them, some were joeys who still live in the pouches, but are now at the stage of coming out and racing round on their spindly legs as they learn the ways of the world. These ‘roos are quite tame as some of the locals put feed out for them. One female and her joey stayed on the driveway as I approached and she only moved to the edge when I was within a metre of her. If I had been carrying a bucket of wheat I think she would have come up for a feed!

Ten kangaroos will eat as much grass as seven sheep so there is pressure in some areas to keep roo numbers down, especially as the drought doesn’t seem to be loosening its grip, with 87% of NSW still under drought declaration. This dry spell has gone on for so long that many graziers have had to sell all but their core breeding stock and are still hand feeding to keep these special animals alive.

The drought is having a serious effect on roo numbers too, as many are now the victim of road kill. What little moisture we have will run off the tar roads and green up the grass at the edges and this of course attracts the roos. Unfortunately they have no road sense and are very likely to bounce out in front of you. This is a particular problem from dusk to dawn as they are very hard to spot in headlights, but now they are staying out longer so country driving is hazardous at all times of the day. They are big animals to hit and a collision may cause major damage to vehicles, and to the occupants should the roo come in through the windscreen. Our last ‘collision’ cost us over $2000 in panel beating, luckily at the side of the car, not the bonnet, so there was no engine damage!

Despite your instincts to swerve, the rule is not to try, as you will loose control of your car and may hit oncoming traffic or a tree with devastating consequences. This is especially so on one of our many gravel roads. These are very common in rural areas as we have a huge country with many kilometres of road and not enough tax payers to fund sealing them all. Hitting a roo is not a pleasant experience and often a joey will be orphaned. Luckily we have an organisation of Wildlife Carers who will take them and raise them before releasing them back into the bush. Old jumpers and cardigans are always in demand to become pouches for orphaned joeys!

But despite the hazards they are on the roads, most Aussies love their roos and the rest of our unique wildlife. The ABC recently conducted a Wild Watch survey and over 27000 people responded, giving an interesting snapshot into wildlife from city to country, from rainforest to snow and from west coast to east coast. You can check it out at http://www.abc.net.au/wildwatch to see some photos of our favourites and those which make us shudder. Interestingly our least favourite is not the expected white pointer shark or venomous snake, but the tiny (and incredibly annoying) mosquito!!!

 

G’day from Down Under                                          October 2004

This year is the tenth anniversary of my eldest son leaving school and, as one of the ‘Class of 94’, he returned to his old school for the 10 year reunion. All schools over here seem to have a much stronger ‘alumni’ system than I remember in England, with Old Students Associations organized to keep in touch with former students and arrange reunions for the different year groups.

It also made me realize that it is close to 40 years since I left Lady Lumley’s School! How time marches on!! As a member of the ‘Class of 65’ I’m sure there will be many changes to the school and building since my time….

I remember the official opening of the school on 15 May 1959… Jane Thompson, one of my class mates, was the youngest girl in the school and presented a bouquet to the then Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina. The Head Girl, Kathleen Ainsley, and Head Boy, Michael Bainbridge were sitting immediately in front of me and they had to give speeches so I must have been close to the front!! There was a gymnastic display but best of all we were given two extra days holiday!!

In that first year of secondary school we were still housed in the building on Middleton Road and used to walk up to the Swainsea Lane building for school lunches.

One vivid memory I have of the school is the poor design of the windows along the back The teachers in the end room of the class room block… Helen Watson and Miss Oliver… had to close the windows as soon as the bell rang. Every recess and lunchtime the prefects had to be out there quickly to also make sure they were closed so some poor student didn’t race round the corner and split open his head on the corner of the window.

There were separate staff rooms for male and female teachers and the women’s staff room was adjacent to the tuck shop, much to the disgust of Latin teacher Mary Ackroyd and Geographer Miss Maxwell … the noise those poor teachers had to endure!!! One winter’s day English teacher Dorothy Addinall spun her Morris Minor on black ice in front of the school bus. How that sent the rumours flying until it was announced at Assembly that “Miss Addinall has crashed her car, her car is hurt, she is not.”

I remember a very good looking young maths teacher, Mr Douglas, who had no discipline problems at all with the girls but he was a mean shot with a piece of chalk for day dreamers! And did Fred Dews really write his jokes in the margins of those Physical, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry notebooks we six formers all laboriously copied out?

When Sir Winston Churchill died Dennis Heath and I, as the then Head Boy and Girl, went to London with Headmaster David Baxendall (affectionately known as Plug) and another student, John Clark, to file past the catafalque. That was an extremely moving occasion and we saw a changing of the guard of the catafalque party. Later on that year we had to represent the school again at the funeral of former headmaster F Austin Hyde. Like ‘Plug’ he had been a close neighbour in Beacon Park and I have memories of them both ‘out of uniform’. Plug used to help me catch tadpoles and newts in a small pond in the school grounds when I was still a primary school student.

And these memories have stirred some questions…. Does the School Council still exist for students to put forward ideas and requests to the administrators? And does the school still cook lunches for everyone? And did the playground ever get covered with proper tar-hot-mix to get rid of those slippery sliding small stones that caused such bad gravel rash? And do the smokers still slip away to the quarry? And do the male and female staff now share a decent staff room? And do you still have a daily assembly with prayer, reading and hymn?

For students in Australia this is the time when their school year is drawing to an end and six weeks of summer holiday is stretching before them. The members of the class of 04 are contemplating their future… the exam results, further study, potential jobs and careers, a possible GAP year (the English students who come to Australia are often affectionately known as Rent-A-Poms).

At present you won’t appreciate the life lessons you learn at school as much as you will in the years to come, so keep in touch with school mates and meet in 10 and 20 years time to catch up with all those shared memories and the latest ‘hatched’, ‘matched’, and sadly, ‘dispatched’ announcements!

Enjoy your Christmas break and have a safe and healthy holiday.


G’day from Down Under                                           February 2005

This is coming to you from the Land of the Long White Cloud, the Shaky Isles, home of the mighty All Blacks, the place where T shirts at the airport read “I support the All Blacks and any team that plays Australia”.

The relationship between Aussies and Kiwis is similar to that between Yorkshire and Lancashire; fierce rivalry, lots of teasing, not a good word to be said to each other until an outsider appears and then it’s woe betide the American who decides to make a comment and united we stand!

New Zealand nearly became part of the colony of Australia, but they decided against the idea way back in about 1840. Since then we’ve stood side by side on the battlefield and the ANZAC tradition is unrivalled, but they would be our fiercest adversary on the sporting field.

New Zealand really is the land of the long white cloud and has truly beautiful scenery from the fiords and snow covered mountains and glaciers of the south to the hot springs and islands of the north. One very noticeable thing to Aussies is the emerald green of the grass and trees unlike the more muted grey green of our eucalyptus trees and brown tinges of our more drought prone pastures. There are also large hedges which act as necessary wind-breaks, and plantings of pine trees to help with soil erosion on the very steep hillsides. The ski fields are what draws many people to New Zealand but after the spectacular scenery shown in “The Lord of the Rings” visitors can do tours to see the various locations used in the films.

The Wanaka Fighter pilots museum has a display of WWII aircraft and they have an air-show every second year (next one is Easter 2006) where the old planes get to fly again. The museum has a display about the NZ women pilots who were in Britain in WWII in the Air Transport Auxiliary, the ferry pilots who were medically unfit for the RAF, or women, but were still able to take planes from the factories to the airfields or transport the wartime hierarchy. Last time I was here I took photographs of the display and my father, an ATA pilot, remembered them and could tell me about the crash that had killed one of them. This time Mum and I are sharing the memories.

My interest in this country goes back a long way. At the age of thirteen I started writing to a New Zealand pen pal, we made contact through an equestrian magazine called Riding. Susie and I finally met when we were in our mid twenties and we shared a house with some other girls in Brisbane. Since then she has returned to New Zealand but we have kept in touch with each other and visited each others homes.

Some years ago a house fire destroyed her home and she lost all her possessions including family photographs. Imagine her joy when I next saw her and was able to give her all the letters she’d sent over the years including photographs … the memories it triggered as we chuckled over what she’d written! And just last week I found a Christmas card she’d sent over 20 years ago which included two more photographs of her son- they’ll be returned to her this week! A good way to continue a friendship which started over 45 years ago before the advent of emails!


G’day from Down Under                                                       March 2005

By the time you read this it will be winter Down Under and summertime for you; the time of year when the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing The first time I went to Edinburgh for the Festival was in the mid sixties, the year the movie Dr Zhivago was released…. I remember we queued for hours to get tickets but the wait was well worthwhile as Julie Christie and Omar Sharif were magnificent.

The famed Military Tattoo is a traditional part of the festival. Usually we get the see a performance on television on New Years Eve, our salute to the Scots celebrating hogmanay. This year however we’ve seen the Tattoo for ourselves as Edinburgh was transported here in our summer.

The Telstra stadium is more used to entertaining Rugby crowds, but in February it was host to thousands of Aussies who were folk of Scottish descent, or full of memories of happy holidays north of the border.

The entry to Edinburgh Castle was re-created by over 40 people who worked on the project for 5 months. The building was so lifelike that it garnered praise from a soldier who actually lives in the real one.

The performing area was larger than the real thing and it was flat and green… but the spectacle and tradition were the same… Scottish dancers and precision drills, massed bands and marching soldiers, stirring bagpipes and swirling kilts. We loved the secret drummers from Switzerland, although to have ‘secret’ and ‘drum’ together seemed a bit of a contradiction. We were enthralled by the precision and drill of the RAF team. We enjoyed the humour of the New Zealand Army Band… to see Kiwi soldiers in uniform attempting the Highland fling, being Skippy and ‘scaring’ us with the Haka was a sight to behold.

The NSW Mounted Police performed a Musical Ride… and didn’t that take me right back to Sinnington Hunt Pony Club days at Duncombe Park with all the ex Army instructors we had… Brigadiers Wilson, Heathcote-Amory, Swetenham, Major Dymock, Captain David Bethell, Colonel Tetley, Colonel Kit Edgerton …I think it was him who rode a big chestnut horse called Red Herring, cheekily rechristened Kipper by the kids …and Dr Bronowski who, at the end of every lesson had us stop and “Make much of your horse.”

Ah yes, those were fun days…

 

G’day from Down Under                                           August 2005

Whilst you are enjoying your summer holidays, it is mid winter Down Under. We had some wonderful rain in the last few weeks, a welcome break following our driest autumn on record. It was out of season for our summer rainfall area, and the paddocks are trying their best to sprout green shoots, but it’s now mid-winter here on the northern tablelands of New South Wales and the temperature drops below freezing most nights, so we won’t see much useful growth until late September.

It’s been tough for the farmers in this area who mainly breed and grow sheep and cattle. They have sold off any surplus animals to focus their remaining efforts at ensuring their best breeders can get through the winter and produce offspring in the next month or two. In the supermarket, you would have no idea there is such a drought. Beef is still there and plentiful, even if the barbeques so characteristic of an Australian summer are under cover for a while longer. In fact the quality of the beef is better than ever, thanks to a big effort here in the last decade to improve its consistency.

When you consider our beef is mainly raised on grass on the driest continent on earth, and even the good pasture areas have big variations throughout the year and from year to year, it’s no surprise that quality varies. Prime cuts from our tropical northern grass-fed cattle are usually tough, and are traditionally exported as hamburger beef, but occasionally find their way onto retail shelves as cheap bargains. Without an official grading scheme, our consumers have often been misled and disappointed about the variable quality of their beef.

Almost a decade ago, a group of cattle producers decided to design a grading scheme that would offer a guarantee of tenderness to consumers. Their idea was to work out all the factors affecting tenderness and use them to sort the beef into categories for tenderness. This proved to be an ambitious task. Beef is produced from Hereford and Angus on green grass in the south, and from humped Asian breeds in tropical northern Australia. Cattle are ready for slaughter anywhere between 9 months and three years of age. Everyone had their favourite ideas about breeds and feeding systems to produce good beef.

A huge taste-testing program involving 40,000 Australian consumers, with additional help from a big team of meat scientists, has now defined the difference in eating quality between the primal cuts and even individual muscles. The effects of breeds, growth rates, marbling, stress, ageing and even different chilling rates at the abattoir and the best way to cook them….all now understood in great detail.

Meat Standards Australia has packaged all this into a “paddock to plate” grading system, acknowledging that a carcase must not only look right when inspected by the grader, it must be treated properly before and after slaughter to ensure maximum tenderness. Every individual cut from a graded carcase is now labeled as to how well it will eat and which cooking method to use.

Our newly graded MSA beef is out there in the butchers and supermarkets in small but growing quantities beside the usual products, but it’s causing everyone else to lift their game. Tender beef is much easier to find. And for those of you who would like to chew on a large T-bone again, Australia is still free of mad-cow disease!


G’ Day from Down Under                                                     October 2005

The ‘roos are coming!

Now normally I don’t mind the kangaroos coming into our paddocks to graze, but at the moment I have planted over sixty native bushes and trees and ‘roos are notorious munchers of new trees! They are expert at pushing under tree guards and can leap the fences with consummate ease.

We have a mob of about 20 semi-resident Eastern Greys which enjoy our grass. They are a family with a couple of big males, over six feet in height, the classic “boxing kangaroo”, plenty of females and little joeys. I enjoy watching the joeys grow up and leave the pouch for increasing lengths of time and it is fun to watch them learn to control those long legs.

One day a half grown joey was in full flight when he suddenly realized the fence was very close indeed… too close to slow down and too close to avoid. He made a valiant effort but hit the wire and landed on his nose…. There was a fair amount of fur and skin left on the fence and a rather chastened teen came home to the pouch for some comfort. But one day he’ll be a big “Boomer”

This mob are quite tame, they’ll just move away if you have a dog with you but if you’re walking on your own they allow you within a metre. As several of the neighbours feed them they may come right up to you… this is actually a problem as one big male has been known to tap a neighbour on the shoulder when he wanted his breakfast. If they get agitated the males can fight as they would another male ‘roo… they jump at each others chest with those powerful back legs and the claws can make some devastating rips.

There are ‘urban myths’ that ‘roos have been known to drown dogs and our local radio station asked for people to ring in if they had witnessed such an event… and lots of local farmers did just that… they’d seen ‘roos chased by dogs and one ‘roo would lure the dog into a dam [what you’d call a pond], the dog had to swim but the taller ‘roo was able to remain standing and would hold the dog underwater with his front paws.

One farmer went in to rescue his dog and the ‘roo kicked him and ripped open the oilskin raincoat he was wearing.

In rural areas ‘roos are sometimes considered a pest animal, depending on their numbers… for every ten ‘roos you could graze seven sheep, but we all have a soft spot for the animal on our emblem.

And at Christmas time Aussie kids have the Six White Boomers rather than reindeer for Santa’s sleigh….. far better adapted to the heat of the Aussie Christmas!

Whatever the weather, have a safe and healthy Christmas.


G’day from Down Under                   January 2006

The frog landed on my head…this time I didn’t shriek and jump as I had at first… no, we were old hands at this, Froggie and I, we knew the drill…. from door jamb to my head, my head to the laundry tub, laundry tub to floor and floor to outside. In the past couple of years several Froggies have been found in the house, the most daring being one on the splash-back of my stove hotplates. But this Froggie was a relatively recent lodger in my laundry and it was no doubt a safer night-time resting place than outside on the veranda where the nocturnal hunting snakes, now breeding, would be searching for tasty frog-shaped morsels.

The open veranda houses a variety of plants, the odd ones are permanent residents but many are in transit from shop to final location and many are seedlings carefully nurtured from germination. Young plants mean frequent watering so the area is always damp, the perfect location for the frogs and lizards, and sometimes their hunters, the venomous snakes.

Australia is home to some of the worlds most dangerous snakes and we’ve spotted four species in our garden, the very attractive shy ‘red-bellied black’, the striped ‘tiger’, the small necklace like ‘bandy-bandy’ snake and the aggressive ‘brown’ snake, all venomous. They all tend to avoid humans but will strike if surprised or threatened and will defend their territory and young. The browns are the most aggressive and will attack from quite a distance and will chase. They are very common and grow up to 2 metres long. They feed on mice, rats, birds and lizards and are extremely venomous, with human deaths still occurring despite the development of antivenenes. Dogs are often the victims but can be saved if they are a big dog and if you can get them to immediate veterinary attention [with out-of-date human antivenene for $300+ a pop and no guarantee of success.]

The best thing is to avoid snakes as much as possible, wear long sleeves and long trousers, look at the ground where you are walking, not up at the trees and make lots of noise … snakes pick up ground vibrations so you stomp like a soldier rather than glide like a ballerina. Usually a rustle in the undergrowth and a peripheral image of movement is the closest you’ll get to see the dreaded slippery, slitherin’ snakes.

“Snakes with legs”, the lizards, are far less heart stopping although recent research has shown that their bite too can be quite venomous, but not so copious. We have four different varieties in our garden. The smallest is the dark brown, smooth, pencil sized ‘penny’ lizard, which, if attacked, will suddenly leave behind its tail, a squirming, squiggling worm-like distraction. I’ve also spotted a smooth skink with brown skin and a yellow tinge to his bowline.

The largest is the ‘blue tongue’, mottled grey, rough skin, about a foot long with a bright blue tongue and fierce hiss to scare predators, but they love having their tummy tickled! My favourites are the smaller, grey, rough-skinned Jacky Dragons. They stay motionless, trying to merge into the background, then with a sudden flurry they are gone like lightening. We have a couple that tease our slow old dog when ever she is out in the garden but I’ve been able to stroke their heads. We’ve removed several lizards from the house, a ‘racecourse’ made from boxes and books usually directs them back outside. Jacky Dragons are good climbers and during our renovations we’ve often met them up in the roof… it’s very disconcerting to meet a reptilian head at eye level as you crawl along the rafters, and it’s a great relief to see the legs emerge, signifying lizard, not snake. Such an encounter is just one of the bonuses of living in the Australian Bush.


G’day from Down Under       May 2006

 We are swiftly moving through autumn as I write this. Daylight saving has ended and the clocks moved  backwards. The early frosts have killed off pumpkin vines and tomatoes in more exposed gardens. I am busily making feijoa jam as our tree has fruited for the first time since we moved here. The green tomato chutney recipe has been resurrected for yet another year.

ANZAC day, our remembrance day, was last week. For the first time Australia had no World War I veterans left and those of World War II are dwindling in numbers. But we have many Defence Force personnel who have served in Vietnam, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a multitude of Peace Keeping roles throughout the world. The ANZAC day crowds increase each year and a visit to Lone Pine at Gallipoli in Turkey is almost a rite of passage for travelling Aussies and Kiwis.

I had a special ANZAC day ceremony at home this year and planted a Wollemi Pine on the hill behind the house. My lone pine to remember the Lone Pine.

Wollemia noblis is one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants. It has outlived the dinosaurs and is the ultimate botanical survivor. Only a few specimens are left in the wild and they were discovered a few years ago in an isolated gorge accessible only to abseilers. Since being located there has been a program to preserve the tree by commercial propagation. They were released to the public on 1st April and now the future of the species is assured.

It has unusual fernlike foliage and is surprisingly soft to touch. The bark is bubbly when mature and it has a multi-stemming habit. It can be kept indoors as a pot plant or outside as a hedge or in a copse. The tree has been voted Australian Export of the year  and it could well be available for your own botanical collections so you can rival Kew Gardens. More information about this food of the dinosaurs can be found at www.wollemipine.com . Enjoy your return to those lovely long summer evenings, the perfect time to have a cool Aussie white.

 

G’day from Down Under                  August 2006

Yesterday I paid $12.98 a kg for bananas… now that is 4 to 7 times what we normally pay for this popular fruit. Why the huge increase in price? Well Cyclone Larry hit the Queensland growing area last March and was followed by Cyclone Monica in the Kimberly region of Western Australia and devastated the crop up there in April.

Larry was the worst cyclone to hit Queensland since 1931. At Category 5, with winds of 200-300 km per hour, it caused over one billion dollars of damage in the area where it hit land in the Innisfail area. Close to 80% of buildings were damaged, roofs were torn off homes and other structures, windows shattered, power lines collapsed, crops were mown down, trees were flattened, wildlife and domestic animals injured and killed. The region produces 80% of our banana crop; now 6000 people are out of work for many months until trees can be re-established and a new crop produced.

Bananas are such a convenient food, remember the jingle “Unzip a Banana” in the 1960s? A useful addition to school lunch boxes… most Aussie kids take a packed lunch to school each day… bananas are a staple of our diet and we are missing them now we have to wait for a new crop to grow. It takes 10 to 18 months from planting to harvest depending on the rainfall and temperature, the higher the temperature and the wetter the area, the shorter the growing season. Our ‘quick-growing’ areas are the ones that have been struck by the devastating cyclones.

The eastern growing area is from Coffs Harbour [in northern NSW] up into Queensland Driving along the eastern coast you pass through acres of rocky, eastern facing hillsides covered with the palm like banana plant. Cavendish and Lady Finger are the two most popular varieties. The trees grow from 2 to 4 metres high depending on variety, and develop a large swollen base, the corm. The eyes of the corm develop suckers and one is allowed to mature, flower and bear fruit. Any fruit that matures for picking between May and November, our cooler months, is covered with a blue plastic bag to encourage even ripening and protection from blemishes. The blue bags are a common sight as you travel the coastal roads. Bananas grow in hands of around 8 to 12 per hand with 10 or so hands per bunch. As soon as all the green fruit on the bunch are evenly rounded, it is cut for sale and not allowed to ripen on the tree.

Because Australia has such a large and important banana growing industry there are tight quarantine restrictions and the importation of the fresh fruit is not allowed. So we’ll just have to sit and wait for more of our favourite fruit to come back onto the market again. In the meantime we’re rediscovering the many varieties of apples and pears which this vast country produces.

 

G’day from Down Under                   October 2006

Imagine walking in a river bed that is 900 million years old, a river bed that hasn’t changed it’s course for 900 million years, a river bed that currently flows once a year if you’re lucky. Such a river is the Finke, which flows through the West Macdonnell Ranges close to Alice Springs in the Red centre of Australia. There are jagged east-west trending ridges and valleys and surprisingly the largest rivers cut across, running against the grain of the country. We have just spent a few days visiting these ancient places and enjoying the wonderful scenery.

Going back to Cambrian times, central Australia was covered by a shallow sea. Even earlier sedimentary rocks were deposited which we can now see as Uluru [Ayers Rock] and Kata Tjuta [The Olgas]. The colours of the rust red earth are breathtaking, the sunrise and sunsets throwing a rainbow of hues from the walls of these hills. The 9.5 km walk round the base of “The Rock” is steeped in Aboriginal folklore and the 7.5 km rock scramble at the Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta is an ecological treat.

You wonder how plants and animal survive, even thrive, in the harsh hot dry climate. We were there in October, the end of the tourist season as from now until April the heat becomes unbearable for those not used to it. The rivers may run once a year, for the rest of the time they are a string of water holes which shrink and dry up as the summer heat evaporates the water. Only the very deepest water holes are permanent. They are few and far between but become a haven for the fish, birds and other animals as they wait for the next life-giving rains.

We camped one night at Ellerby Big hole… no showers, one pit toilet … and shared the area with a family of dingoes. The pups were old enough to leave their burrow and come to learn some hunting skills. The National Parks Rangers are a bit worried that the female is getting bolder, less timid of people and one recent night she took a packet of biscuits from a camper’s table. Just after dusk more dingoes arrived and starting calling to each other, an eerie, spine-tingling chorus echoed round the valley.

Our favourite place from this trip was Ormiston Gorge where gargantuan earth movements have heaved and thrust layers of quartzite on top of themselves. The shimmering white Ghost Gums are in stark contrast with the brick red of the massive quartzite blocks and the Finke river cuts its way through, albeit slowly with its infrequent flow. The Ormiston Pound walk is truly magnificent, it is 7.5 km of walking up to the rim of the pound and then down through the gorge itself over quite large boulders.

We have returned home with a sense of awe at just how old this continent really is, and just how dry, yet teeming with life. If you are coming Down Under for a visit you simply can’t go home without visiting the Red Centre.

Enjoy your Christmas… and the cricket.

 

G’day from Down Under                   January 2007

Currently I am visiting Canberra, our national capital city. It is one of only a few planned cities in the modern world. On 1st January 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was established, assented by Queen Victoria. A home for the national government had to be established, a new home which had to overcome the fierce intercity rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.

The search for an appropriate site took place and after narrowing the choice down to three, the surveyor general, Charles Scrivener selected the new site appropriate for a city of up to 70,000 people. He suggested land which had been occupied by the Ngunnawal people for 40,000 years. From the mid 1820s it had been a sheep and cattle station called Canberry. It was selected on the basis of climate and water and visually appealing. The site was 111 square miles partly on the flood plain of the Molonglo River 550 metres above sea level surrounded by hills a further 300 metres high. There are plenty of attractive rolling hills and plains.

Three years later, in 1911, an international competition to design the new capital was held. From 130 entries the winners were Americans Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin. They were strongly influenced by the “City Beautiful” and “Garden City” movements Consequently Canberra is a city covered by large ‘green’ bands surrounding the areas of settlement, there are wide boulevards lined with large buildings and formal parks and water features.

The city is criss-crossed with hundreds of kilometres of walkways and cycle tracks. The feeling of the design is one of space with all the magnificent bush areas, sporting ovals, gardens and parks.

Dominating the Burley Griffin plan is a central artificial lake and a parliamentary triangle in which most of the important national buildings are placed. It is a glorious view from the War Memorial down the broad tree lined Anzac Parade across the lake to the old Parliament House, which opened in 1927, then up the hill beyond to the magnificent new Parliament House opened in 1988.

The National Library, National Gallery, Law Courts and National Museum of Australia are all on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. The surrounding residential areas have a geometric street pattern, circular and radial in shape. They might well fit in with the topography of the landscape but they cause chaos and confusion to the visiting drivers who want to turn right but find themselves circling round to the left. Navigating by the sun, stars or ‘feel’ does not work, a map is essential!

Canberra has grown from the 1920s when it housed a couple of thousand public servants and little else. The city is still dominated by the seat of government and its accompanying entourage, but there are now all the service industries, three universities, many schools and the Australian Institute of Sport. In recent years it has become home to teams in national competitions, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and netball. At long last Canberra has a sporting soul to go with its space and setting.

During this visit I have enjoyed the research facilities of the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia as I prepare for a tour of various sites on the infamous Burma -Thailand Railway in the Second World War – more on that next time.

 

G’ day from Down Under                 April 2007

Imagine standing in the middle of a huge cemetery where every grave is that of a fallen soldier, row after row of them, four thousand five hundred of them. Many are named, many are just “Known unto God”. At the end of the ground, on top of a hill is a large monument with column after column after column of names, over twenty four thousand. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, young people from Britain, Australia, Holland, India and China who were trying to protect Malaya and Singapore from invasion by the Japanese in the second World War.

We have searched out the specific memorial to a nurse who was evacuated from Singapore; the ship was bombed but with many others she managed to swim to Banka Island where they surrendered to the Japanese army. The girls were herded into the sea and shot. She was one of many names we were tracing, names mentioned in my father-in-law, Bill Gaden’s war time letters and diary. We found other graves, friends of Bill with whom he went on leave, soldiers he had trained, other lads he had met from British forces. We shed many tears, we laid several poppies.

We are in the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore, it is the 15th February 2007, exactly 65 years after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. At 12.15 pm, in this place so poignant, so heart breaking, we are jolted by the mournful blast of air raid sirens. It was eerie how we suddenly were taken back 65 years to the horror faced by all these young people, and goose bumps rose on our necks at the silent but tangible response from all those commemorated here.

We spent five days in Singapore looking at gun batteries and battle-sites, war time hospitals and burial grounds, allied command bunkers and prisoner of war camps. It is part of a three week tour from ‘Changi to Hellfire Pass’.

From Singapore we headed north to Malaysia. Like many of the Prisoners of War [POWs] we travelled by train, but unlike the POWs we had seats, we had food, water, air conditioning and toilets. Our trip was just a few hours, not five days. We had the luxury of flying part of the way.

We went further north into Thailand and visited the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, one of the burial grounds on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway. Here many of the POWs are buried in another beautifully maintained garden dedicated to the dreadful loss of young life in wartime. After the war, death records were collected and collated by the Army Graves Services. There were 10,549 graves in 144 cemeteries near the railway line. The party spent a month in late 1945 searching for POW graves; they failed to find just 52 of them. The railway story is told at the Burma Thailand Railway Centre opposite the cemetery; here is a brilliant museum teeming with information and dedicated to all those who died.

We stayed in hotels located on the site of POW camps; we travelled on the train over the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’; we visited railway sites off the tourist trail and wondered at the size of the task faced by the men as they dug out deep cuttings with hammer and chisel [three million cubic metres], how they moved tons of rock in small baskets to make embankments [four million cubic metres], how they struggled to build fourteen kilometres of bridgework, viaducts, how they did all this with minimal tools and when suffering malnutrition, disease and brutal oppression.

We visited Hellfire Pass. It has become an icon of the epic task of building the railway. We held our own Remembrance Service here; read ‘The Ode’, played Last Post and then turned east for Reveille and held one minute of silence to remember and give thanks to all who lost their lives in this hell hole.

There is a memorial plaque here for all the doctors who did so much for the prisoners, it reads When you go home, tell them of us and say we gave our tomorrow for your today.

 We learned much from the tour, we learned of brutality and the horrors of war but we also learned of friendship and courage, we learned of caring and sacrifice, we learned of improvisation and invention, we learned of mateship and love.

It was best summed up in the quote below taken from Bukit Chandu, the place where the Malayan people who fought for their homeland are remembered:

If we do not remember our heroes, we will produce no heroes.

If we do not record their sacrifices, their sacrifices will have been in vain…

The greatest strength we have as a people is our common memories of the past and our common hopes for the future.

For without these memories the next generation will not have the fighting spirit to carry on.

 

G’day from Down Under                   October 2007

I remember when:-

  • We bought bacon from Cyril Monkman’s shop in the Market Place and each rasher was carefully placed on top of each other, just overlapping, to become almost a work of art before being wrapped in paper… no plastic bags in those days.
  • Ron Scales’ greengrocer was on the opposite side of the road with his boxes of home grown produce. He lived at the top of Mill Lane and had his market garden there.
  • Lewis Barber’s butcher’s shop was close and you asked over the counter for the cut of meat you wanted, chops and roasts were cut before you and there was no cling wrap.
  • Holden’s Bakery at the bottom of the Market Place gave out mouth watering odours for those of us who waited for the school bus and the old Vaults were at the top of the Market Place with steep steps alongside to get up to Dealtry’s art supplies and framing shop and Margaret Stamper, the hairdresser.
  • The Castle Cinema and Central Cinema competed for business … I seem to recall the former was more comfortable but the latter had better films.
  • The field behind the gas works was the site of Bonfire night celebrations when those jumping bangers used to chase who ever was closest.
  • The Police Station was diagonally opposite the Forest and Vale; the road was very narrow and next to the buildings, there was no room for a footpath. I used to take my pony past there to the blacksmith shop; Wilf McNeil would be just visible across the gloom as he fired up the forge. I used to wonder how he managed to see well enough to make the horse shoes and fit them when he disappeared in a cloud of pungent smoke.
  • Dick Wood used to live in a gypsy caravan at the top of Eastgate Back, near the Malton Road… his yard housed a myriad of dogs, cats, geese and bantams who spilled onto the street in a noisy rabble whenever you rode past.
  • Train trips to York and Leeds were possible from Pickering station, initially in the delightful steam engines and later in the characterless diesels. The trains passed over the Mill Lane crossing and my pony was quite content to rest her nose on the gate and watch the snuffling, snorting monster chuff past.
  • Vivers Mill was a working mill, the mill races used to churn with water as the wheels turned. It was a time to stay on the road and not try to go through the rushing water.
  • The Memorial Hall was home to the wonderful Pickering Pantomimes with Sylvia Frank performing as the regular ‘principal boy’, Digby Frank made a very scary villain and Ron Scales was always a great ‘dame’, all part of the Christmas tradition. And, from Down Under, may I wish you all a traditionally wonderful Christmas.


G’ Day from Down Under                 January 2008

 As you are heading into spring we are winding down after our long summer break and March 1st signals the first day of autumn. Classes at school and the local university are back in full swing. The local branch of the University of the Third Age is very active and I’ve enrolled in a couple of language classes. But over the holidays I had to learn a whole new language, toddler-speak.

Two year old Lachlan is busy stringing a few words together. “PaBob gone werk” was easy to understand, so was “Roos eat grass” as he watched our semi-resident mob of females and joeys grazing in the house paddock. We had a bit more of a problem with “Cows seep” until we realised the herd in the next paddock were all lying down and contentedly chewing their cud, obviously asleep! We soon picked up that “Docky” was his name for himself.

“Docky feed birds” was a favourite past-time and Lachlan was thrilled when one of the King Parrots finally ate from the bowl he was holding. He’d had to resist the urge to speak or to move suddenly and he was rewarded by the resplendent bird gently picking at the sunflower seed.

One of my favourite times with my small grandson was when he fed the tadpoles in a small aquarium. We could look at the differences between the ones with legs and the ones without. A few very misguided frogs had laid their eggs in a large puddle along our driveway, obviously so excited that we finally had a decent puddle at all. Over a few weeks I watched the tadpoles developing and the water drying up, then more life-giving rain would arrive again and replenish the water supply. I decided to assist the frog population with a life-saving effort… I caught as many as I could and popped them into the dam. At least they had a fighting chance against the resident turtles but no chance against the black snakes I’d seen feasting. On the day the puddle totally dried up I scraped up two lots of wriggling mud and put more future-frogs into the dam. The tadpoles in the aquarium had long back legs and I was anxious that their front legs remained dormant until Lachlan had gone back home when they too could join their siblings in the dam.

Watching the tadpoles took my memories right back to my own childhood when I used to collect frogspawn from the small concrete pond in the old Lady Lumley’s Grammar School grounds. The pond was probably a left-over water supply from the Second World War when the pupils grew vegetables and herbs along the school driveway as part of their war effort. As a child I was often found up there watching the tadpoles, frogs and newts and marvelling at the dragonflies and butterflies who came to drink. Headmaster David Baxendall lived opposite and he’d often come over for a chat and to ask and answer questions. He fostered my love of wildlife and interest in biology, he was a great mentor for a future biology teacher. And in turn I have relished the chance to teach a few things to a small member of the newest generation … it’s one of the joys of being a grandparent.

 

G’day from Down Under                              March 2008

The wonderful World Wide Web has opened up many doors of communication, allowing us to research our family history so much more easily than even ten years ago. A keen genealogist, I’ve been looking at my Pickering family.

The 1881 census for Pickering <http://www.familysearch.org&gt; shows young Matthew Ford living with his family in Champley’s Yard off the Market Place, Matt was aged 5 and he had three sisters and baby brother Charles aged 3 months. Sixty six years on Matt was to become my grandfather.

By the 1901 census <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/default.htm > the family had moved to Malton with even more children, a total of thirteen. By now Matt had completed his saddler’s apprenticeship and had a family of his own.

Charles was a domestic groom at the home of The Hon Geoffrey Dawnay, brother of Viscount Downe. Younger brother Robert Stephenson Ford, named after his grandfather Robert Stephenson the clock and watchmaker of Pickering, was a druggist’s apprentice. It was not long before teenage Robert died from pleurisy and emphysema of the lung.

The First World War intervened in the family’s life. Charles went off to war with the West Yorkshire Regiment and died in 1917 in France. According to the Commonwealth War Graves web site <http://www.cwgc.org > Charles had been married to Rose and they had lived in Bradford. So who was Rose? Were there any children? Did I have any cousins out there? Was there anyone to remember his sacrifice? When I found out the name of his regiment I managed to purchase one of their hat badges on eBay and I’ve worn it every ANZAC Day, our Remembrance Day, ever since.

I have been looking for Charles’ family for many years. The Rootwseb mailing lists are a wonderful resource for people researching different surnames and different places. I kept asking “Does anyone have any knowledge of a Charles Henry Ford, born Pickering and a Rose D Unknown?” After a few years I received my first breakthrough. Rose’s maiden name had been Stubbs. I was able to find a marriage date and place. More research revealed that Charles and Rose had a daughter Ida born in 1913. What had happened to Rose and Ida after his death?

I kept lobbing the question onto the Yorksgen and Bradford genealogical mailing lists <http://lists.rootsweb.com/index/index.html&gt;. In November 2007 someone found my query via a Google search and I finally received the information I’d been looking for … an email saying “I think we are researching the same family, Ida Ford is my grandmother, she is 94 years old and living in Sydney.” So after all these years I have finally found a cousin who moved to Australia way back in 1927. Ida had sailed with her mother Rose who came to join her brother, an emigrant under one of the post-war schemes to encourage settlement ‘Down Under’.

Last month I went to Sydney to meet Ida, her daughter, grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter. Ida is a delightful lady, bright as a button and still with a strong Yorkshire accent. I gave them a copy of Gordon Clitheroe’s book Images of England-Pickering and I was able to pass on the hat badge as now I have found the family who will keep on remembering my Great-Uncle Charles.

 

G’day from Down Under                               July 2008

As I struggled along the road I was overtaken by a dozen butterflies. They must have taken pity on me because they took up formation at each of the handlebars before accelerating away with the wind. Undaunted I continued the bike ride, my first in over 40 years.

The last time I rode a bicycle had been on 20 November 1964, the day after I passed my driving test in Malton. It had been a symbolic ride down to the stables, a trip I’d done for many years before and after school each day and each weekend. I knew every inch of Potter Hill, the turn into Train Lane, viewed at ground level the morning I hit black ice, then left over the railway line and bridge across Pickering beck, along Hungate, right into Malton Road past the Forest and Vale, left into Outgang Road and on to “The Ranch” at Mickle Hills. Here the stables had to be cleaned and the ponies exercised, fed, groomed each morning and evening. Now half a lifetime and half a world away I trying ‘pedal power’ again.

Neighbour Rosemarie lent me her old bike and accompanied me for the first venture. “We have to go on flat ground” she had emphasised, so the bikes had been loaded onto a vehicle and driven over the hills. I was shown the gears, a very sophisticated set of twenty one, a great advance on the three I remembered on my old Pink Witch.

It was amazing that I didn’t wobble too much and quickly mastered the gears on the right hand side… adding those of the left hand would have to wait. We pedalled to the Swan Swamp and I loved travelling at pony-speed again rather than whizzing past in the car. There were wild flowers growing on the road edges to enjoy and colourful birds, beetles and butterflies were busy feeding.

The second ride was on my own. This meant I had to negotiate our long driveway of gravel with a steep hill and tight corner. When I arrived at our gateway I was faced with a couple of hundred metres of potholed gravel road followed by an uphill climb on tar to Bakers Road. I nearly wore out the back brake as I gingerly skidded down the gravel road and then I had to work really hard to crawl up to Bakers Road. It was horrifying how unfit I was, all that walking and I still gasped and wheezed up this quite modest slope. At least the other side was downhill and then onto the long flat. Wrong! What I’d always thought of as the long flat to O’Halloran’s Hill wasn’t flat at all, it was all uphill. I struggled along in bottom gear and admitted defeat, I pushed the bike to the end of the road, where Rosemarie and I had started out the first time.

From here it would be easy. Wrong again. Today there was a howling easterly wind. I learned three things that day; I needed to bike on wind-free days, I needed to take a water-bottle for a much needed drink and I needed to wear a fly veil because I couldn’t outpace the insects.

Day three, wind free, water bottle strapped to the bike, fly veil in place and I huffed and puffed to the Swan Swamp. My left hand was numb from gripping the handlebars so tightly. The local council men were doing the kerbside collection of recycled bottles and paper. They asked if I was okay as I gulped down the water and tried to look nonchalant as I scanned the water for the swan family.

But now six months on I have progressed to riding my own bike, Bob has bought one too and we enjoy an hour of riding every second or third day. We’re fitter and have lost the odd kilogram or two. We’ve taken the bikes on some of our trips, so we’ve pedalled in Sydney, near Canberra, on the east coast and across the dry lake bed of Lake Mungo, one of the world’s most significant  human cremation sites and Australia’s first World Heritage-listed national park. That was a truly magical experience.

Bike riding – I’m hooked.


G’day from Down Under                              October 2008 

The water we are lazing in is a comfortable 29°C. It is ‘fossil’ water, the last time it saw daylight was over 2 million years ago. We are at Coward Springs on the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia. Water from the Great Artesian Basin is bubbling to the surface to provide a haven for birds and wildlife including human travellers who have been camping in the bush with no conveniences like showers and toilets. This is a veritable oasis and a very welcome respite from the hot, dry, dusty bush camps where we have seen no other humans.

This trip we are camping in some remote areas of South Australia. We haven’t seen a tar road in ages, we just come into the small townships when we need to restock food and fuel. We are carrying 80 litres of water and jerry cans of extra fuel. There’s two weeks supply of food in the back of the vehicle and a further weeks supply of emergency rations under the bed in case we breakdown. We have a High Frequency radio to keep in contact with civilisation, checking in each evening, atmospheric conditions permitting. We’re carrying an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon [EPIRB] in case we find ourselves in real strife. Out here you try not to take chances…. only last week one man bogged his vehicle in a clay pan on a remote road, ran out of water in 40° heat and died a horrible death.

Part of the time we have been following the old Ghan Railway line built in the 1880s. It was a lifeline for the outback and encouraged European settlement in more remote areas. Along its track you find numerous stone cottages built for the engine drivers or railway workers …. they are all ruins now. There are the old water tanks along the line, to supply the steam trains but the mineral-rich water from natural springs corroded the engines. The tracks were covered by dust storms, or swept away in floods, and eventually the line was abandoned.

The springs are called Mound Springs, bubbling up from the Great Artesian Basin. The sand and mineral deposits gradually build up a distinctive mound. These hot springs have a lush green vegetation and a variety of life, some of the plants and animals are found only in these waters. It was the presence of these natural waterholes that enabled the Aboriginal people to inhabit the arid interior of this huge dry continent.

The water supply also allowed the European settlers to establish their cattle and sheep stations. We visited Strangways, a large sheep property developed in the 1860s. There were no local trees so all the buildings and large yards were constructed from stone. There were some very talented dry-stone-wall builders way back then. Have a look at the photographs Alan has put on the Beacon web site. Strangways has long been deserted, the lush conditions seen by the original settlers were for just a few ‘good’ years, the many subsequent droughts showed the harsh reality of this semi-arid desert region and settlements have long been abandoned.

We went off the gravel roads and onto farm tracks where properties can be well over fifty kilometres wide. One day we drove all day through just three properties. The only people we saw were when we called into the homesteads. The roads were corrugated tracks through the sand-dunes and clay pans, hard on the vehicle but the scenery was magnificent.

On Arckaringa Station we were in awe at vista of the glorious Painted Desert. The erosion and leaching of the rocks has exposed a breathtaking mosaic of pigments and the stones of the towering mesas are a stunning profusion of colour.

It may not be the lush green of England, but Australia’s remote inland scenery is awe-inspiring in it’s vastness, it’s harshness; in the intense blue of the sky and reds of the soil; in the glorious sunrises and sunsets. It’s a place to visit in the cool of winter, the summer heat is too intense.

So we will be home by the time you read this, preparing for a wedding, a graduation and a wonderful family Christmas. We wish you all a happy and healthy holiday time and a peaceful and prosperous 2009.

Merry Christmas and Cheers from Down Under.

 

G’day from Down Under                               February 2009

Today it is hot, very hot. The players in the Australian Open Tennis are battling temperatures of over 42° C …. that’s over 108° F on the old scale. The roof to the main court has been closed and play on the outside courts has been postponed. So Melbourne is hot but down in Adelaide it is even hotter, 45.7°C or 114°F. It has been even worse in some of the outback places we visited in our winter last August. No wonder the South Australian Police have closed some of the outback tracks to all traffic.

Up here on the Northern Tablelands, Armidale is a comfortable 30° C, a mere 86° F, with 37% humidity. We may be closer to the equator but we are also up on the ranges, so the altitude is higher at 1100 metres above sea level.

In summer our bike rides are confined to early morning, after 10.00 am it becomes too hot. Our resident kangaroos feed before the heat of the day and then take shelter under the shady wattle trees. The King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas visit very early for their breakfast feed. Today the vegetable garden is visibly wilting and I’m sitting in the direct air stream of an evaporative cooler, keeping an eye out for any telltale wisps of smoke in the distant hills. We don’t want any bushfires today.

The joys of a typical Australian summer day.

This summer has seen us cover many hundreds of kilometres to attend lovely family gatherings. Son Peter’s wedding saw us in Mackay in north Queensland, a three day drive away. His graduation took us to Brisbane, a mere six hours drive from home. We headed south to Canberra for Christmas with the grandchildren and their parents… an eleven hour drive, but worth every second of it! Australia is so large that such distances are common for families to cover so they can keep in contact. Despite all the issues with high fuel costs and global warming, flying is often the only viable option for families to see each other in this vast land.

This week we celebrated Australia Day on 26th January and now it’s back to work. Summer holidays are over, the new school year has begun, the factories are back in production. But many of the mines have sacked hundreds of workers and many other companies have said more employees will be asked to leave. We are bracing to hear the latest disasters to befall the local and global economy. The share market is way down …. a $100K investment less than a couple of years ago is now worth around $35K. Many people are in financial difficulty. We are hoping that US President Obama is able to bring some sanity to his country’s financial system and that the rest of the world is able to ease the pain of unemployment and recession for their people. It is going to be a difficult year for many countries.

 

G’day from Down Under                              July 2009

Tasmania the Apple Isle. The island of rugged coastline and wilderness forests, the island of convict ruins and Georgian warehouses. The island which for tens of thousands of years was home to the Tasmanian Aboriginals, the most southerly civilisation on Earth during the last Ice Age a mere 12,000 years ago.

We are visiting this beautiful place for a few days, flying to Hobart, destination of a rather famous Yacht Race which leaves Sydney on Boxing Day. We ventured to the wind blown, snow covered summit of nearby Mount Wellington to enjoy the magnificent views of the Derwent River and deep water harbour.

The heritage of Tasmania’s east coast is written in the place names, Schouten from the Dutch who sighted the mountains in 1642, Freycinet Peninsula and Cape Tourville after the French explorers, Swansea and Glamorgan for the homesick Welsh, some of the first farmers in this land.

The coastline pounded by Antarctic seas has features named The Devils Kitchen, Eaglehawk Neck, the Blowhole, the Tessellated Pavement, High Yellow Bluff and Deep Glen Bay. A bleak desolate seascape with the howling gales roaring up from the Great Southern Ocean.

Port Arthur on the Tasman peninsula is famous for its convict buildings. There are some magnificent examples of Georgian Sandstone architecture, cottages, hospital and prison cells with a rich history of sadder convict days. And there is poignant memorial for the victims of the dreadful massacre ten years ago when a gunman who we refuse to humanise with a name turned his weapon on so many innocent men, women and children.

On the east coast the Freycinet Peninsula is a National Park with wonderful scenery, sweeping vistas of the bush and sea. The spectacular Wine Glass Bay, reached only by foot, is a truly pristine wilderness area.

A trip to Tasmania has to include a visit to a conservation park where the ugly but fascinating marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian Devil, can be seen. The devils are fighting to survive the onslaught of crippling facial tumour disease, a disease which is proving fatal to whole populations. If a cure cannot be found very soon this animal will become extinct.

We travelled north to Deloraine, home of the magnificent Yarns in Silk, three hundred people spent ten thousand hours producing four huge murals in silk, an absolute “must-see” for anyone interested in patchwork and quilting.

We sampled just some of the 50+ varieties of honey at the honey farm at Chudleigh, and bought Cheddar and Lancashire cheese from the Ashgrove Cheese factory where life sized decorated cows grace the car-park and paddocks… a competition for local school students, this years winner was PiCowSo with Anzac Cow and Statisti-cow as runners up,

We also visited the 41° South Atlantic Salmon Farm, the only freshwater raised fish from this island which produces so much salmon and trout for the domestic and overseas market. The water from the tanks is all recycled through a wetland which purifies it before it is returned to the local river.

And lastly we visited Pearn’s Steam World, home to over 200 steam engines, tractors and other agricultural items. There were a couple of Yorkshire Fowler engines which brought back memories of the Pickering Traction Engine Rallies in the 1960s. It also led to a conversation with one of the volunteers who was also a Yorkshire lad with a brother living in Pickering. A special hello to you from your brother in Westbury.

 

G’day from Down Under                   October 2009

The Birdsville Track – the name itself causes spine-tingling anticipation of travelling on this legendary outback stock route across dry, dusty, harsh, unforgiving land. Even today with all our HF radios and satellite phones, in air conditioned comfort of vehicles carrying plenty of fuel and water, the Birdsville Track is still considered an adventure.

We were about to travel along this track of droving story and legend, something I’ve wanted to do for over thirty years. So, during July and August, Bob and I covered 13,000 km of NSW, Queensland and South Australia. We travelled as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria and as far south as Port Augusta.

And we camped along the Birdsville Track, cooking on a campfire, listening to the mournful howl of the wild dingoes, finally spotting the black emu in the Milky Way, sleeping under canvas next to waterholes which had been filled by the February floods or were topped up by the artesian bores, watching the birds and ‘roos come in to drink, being woken at dawn by the swirl of corellas. Magic!

We also saw some wonderful road signs that you are not likely to see in England.

Most of these roads are through large privately-owned properties known as stations. One advised we were not to camp or shoot on their land, this meant for the next 78 km. On the road from Bedourie to Birdsville we passed through Cluny Station, the sign telling us it was 1.327 million acres. Next door, Glengyle Station was an imposing 5,500 square kms. It took us a few minutes of mental arithmetic to work out Glengyle was slightly larger.

Roads through the properties are unfenced so there can be cattle grazing close by… you are reminded to beware of colliding with them! We heard of a couple travelling with their shiny new caravan who slowed down to go through a mob of cattle, the bull spotted his reflection in the caravan side and charged … a 700 kg Brahman bull is going to do just a bit of damage! Not surprisingly the caravan was a write-off.

On our travels we called in at Clonagh Station where Bob spent a year as a jackeroo in 1970. The property had recently changed hands and eighty thousand head of cattle had been moved as the ‘old’ were replaced by the ‘new’ livestock. We spent time watching them pregnancy testing some heifers. The yards were eighty kilometres from the homestead and one young vet tested over twelve hundred cattle in a single day.

Out here everyone carries a UHF two-way radio and each shire has a notice advising which Duplex Channel to use in an emergency. Remembering which one to use can save your life, so we jotted the number down as we changed shires. You’re also advised to warn other vehicles when you are approaching creek crossings. In Channel Country the rivers spread into many channels, not just one, when they are flowing. River crossings can be very long but only one vehicle wide. No one wants to have to reverse for a few hundred metres. And incidentally these large water courses only carry water for a short time after rain, they were dry when we passed through.

We became used to being warned about “Wheel ruts, bull dust and corrugated sections, drive with extreme care”. Bull dust is basically large potholes which have filled up with dirt which has been pulverised into very fine dust. You can’t see the pothole, only feel it when you land at the bottom. I’ve been on one trip when our coach hit bulldust and we shuddered to a halt, broken down and stuck for many hours until help arrived.

Road restrictions are well signed at the start of the official Tracks. These gravel roads can become impassable after rain or if they have not been graded for a while. When a road is closed there are severe penalties if you travel on them. Some are impassable for weeks so one of the penalties can be your own demise if no one can get to help you.

When you travel in sand dune country there are signs reminding you to keep left on crests, with a delightful picture of a tiny car heading up one side of the dune and an enormous road train coming up the other.

These monsters of the road are articulated trucks with two or more trailers behind. They measure over 50 metres in length so you need a long distance to be able to overtake. The problem in the outback is that the roads are usually gravel. If you have the luxury of tar it is usually a thin strip along the middle, the shoulders are gravel. You always let the larger vehicle stay on the tar otherwise you disappear in a shower of flying rocks and end up with a broken windscreen. When you are both on gravel, it’s wise to move as far to the left as possible and slow down. You may reduce the risk of broken glass but there’s still so much dust it can be impossible to see for a long time.

If you are lucky you may come across an isolated section which has been tarred just to give you the chance to pass these huge vehicles. Our favourite sign was one which read “Next overtaking opportunity 70 km ahead”. Now you won’t see that in England.

 

G’day from Down Under                               Jan 2010

 December and January could well be renamed Holiday months in Australia. They are times of summer days at the beach, and a gourmet feast of high class sporting events on TV if you can’t attend the real thing…. the Boxing Day start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race or the Melbourne cricket test, the New Years Eve fireworks on Sydney harbour, the Sydney test match and the Australian Open tennis.

Then there are the numerous arts festivals, campdrafts, rodeos, local shows, sporting clinics and competitions throughout New South Wales. Just an hour down the steep Moonbi hill, Tamworth runs the internationally famed Country Music Festival. Up the highway, Guyra holds its Lamb and Potato festival and every town and village gears up for a day of community involvement for our Australia Day celebrations on 26th January.

It’s a time for relaxation and recuperation for many people. For our family this Christmas was a mixture of work and play. Son Philip works with Search and Rescue coordination and he was tasked with briefing the yachties of the big race…[carry your alarm beacon at all times, if you fall overboard at night find a way to stay alive until daylight when we can get a chopper to you.]

Dr. Peter was on duty at his hospital in Queensland ready to deal with those who were already ill or became sick or injured over Christmas. Paul the teacher was able to relax as school was over for another year but with a baby due any time it was not quite so relaxing after all. [And we were all delighted to welcome baby James in early January.]

We made the long trek south to catch up with the grandchildren and enjoy their wonder at this magical Christmas time. They are still a bit young for the night time service of carols and readings but they appreciate this is a special time for families to get together.

We left home in drought, we could see the flames of a bush fire on the northern hills, [over 100 fires burning in the state], house dam dry, grass dead and brown, small trees withering without our hose watering, the big gum trees dropping limbs as they try to survive the lack of groundwater.

We arrived home after Boxing Day to find there had been a local storm and the dam was full. The next couple of days we had more storms over our little patch, a total of 300 mm or 12 inches of rain. We are at the top of Mount Butler so there’s not much room for run off up here, but water raced down the hill and those in the valley had rivers pouring through their back yards or, is some cases, their houses. But no one’s complaining, the grass is green and growing fast, many of the native trees are in flower, all the district dams are full and the bushfire danger has eased.

As poet Dorothea Mackeller wrote in ‘My Country’   ©:

            I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,

            Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.

 I wish you all a good start to the new decade. May 2010 prove to be a safe, happy and healthy year for you all.

 

G’day from Down Under                              April 2010  

Autumn again and we’ve turned the clocks back, pulled out the extra blankets and stock-piled the firewood. It’s the time for reading books and other indoor pastimes… I’ve even purchased a new jigsaw puzzle with a picture of Whitby harbour. And there is a fabulous new website for those of us interested in history, the National Library of Australia is digitizing all the newspapers from 1803 to 1954 and making them searchable … an absolute boon for family historians. The old articles remind us of the hazards of living in earlier times.

My favourite discovery so far is this delightful letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 March 1871. This family member lived on the shores of Sydney harbour, close to Balmain. Even back then ferries were available to transport people to different parts of the beautiful harbour. No doubt the commuters of today would be less than impressed by one of the hazards they had to face in 1871

TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD

SIR -Today we have had the benefit of the young Arabs on board the ship Vernon firing their big guns from Cockatoo Island at a target about 100 yards off the point of  my property on Five Dock. Most of the balls went up Iron Cove, along the surface of the water, lighting within 20 to 30 yards of the punt when she was crossing with passengers and carts. Two ladies came down in a Carriage with the intention of crossing in the punt from Balmain, but when they saw the balls jumping in the water past the route of the punt, they wisely turned back to Sydney.

I have just been over to Balmain (3pm) and saw two balls pass within a few yards of the stern of the punt. When do you think it will be in the power of the present Colonial Secretary to give orders to have this firing from Cockatoo stopped? It was only the other day that the Rosarie fired a 12-lb shell through the roof of my house, and, although Captain Challis very promptly repaired damages and made an apology, I have no intention of again submitting to any similar attack without compensation, although I have been very politely informed by Mr. Halloran that the Colonial Secretary has referred my complaint to his Excellency the Governor, and that the Governor has referred it to the Commodore on the station, but I fancy that the Vernon is not under his authority.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

Charles Abercrombie

Five Dock 3rd March 1871

 

G’day from Down Under                               July 2010

It is eight years since we bought this three bedroom brick house which is surrounded by a few acres and has a magnificent view over the Ranges to the sunny north. We are on the Northern Tablelands of NSW so our climate is cooler than much of Australia and for us keeping warm in winter is more of an issue than keeping cool in summer…. and keeping warm can be expensive.

The house was not built with sustainable living in mind but by chance the north facing aspect has been perfect for our renovations to make use of the winter sun to provide free heat.

It was winter when we moved in. It was so cold. The front verandah effectively excluded the sun from inside. There was no insulation. The only heater was a large brick open fireplace which sucked any skerrick of warmth straight up the chimney. We had nights of minus 12°C. We couldn’t breathe under the weight of all our blankets. We resorted to the method the traditional Aborigines used with freezing nights in the desert. They had their own measure of coldness with a ‘five dog night’ being much colder than a ‘three dog night’. We discovered that our one small dog was not a sufficiently large hot-water-bottle to help with the ‘four dog nights’ we experienced.

One of the first tasks was to hang insulated curtains and put batts above the ceiling to retain any warmth we generated. The inefficient brick fireplace had to go, to be replaced with a more effective wood stove. Armed with sledgehammers we set about knocking down the chimney brick by brick. We were mindful of the advice of one friend who said it was important to start from the top and work down… they had started removing their fireplace from the bottom and then disappeared under a pile of rubble.

We put slate on the concrete floor of the verandah, fully enclosed it with glass and knocked out the walls to open it up to the living room. This was a bit scary as, for a time, the roof was held up by three car jacks until the new steel support beam was installed. But then we enjoyed the welcome increase in temperature as the winter sun poured in from the northern sky. The summer sun rises behind the house and travels high over the top and does not stream into the rooms, so we remain cool…the aspect of the house is perfect for utilising the sun only when we need it.

After these quite major works we had a break before tackling the kitchen. Rather than replace it we converted a bedroom into a brand new kitchen, also on the northern side to catch the view whilst cooking…. the old kitchen became the office.

Two years ago the last major project started, to convert the double garage into a new bedroom with walk-in robe and en-suite bathroom. Confident with the skills already learned we raised the floor, added a suspended concrete slab extension and extra roof at the front and made the entire northern wall into a wall of glass. Each of the three windows is 4 square meters and each pane of glass alone weighs 105 kg. These huge north facing windows allow the winter sun to heat the room, blinds retain the warmth at night. The heat transfer pump sucks hot air from ceiling near the wood stove and takes it to the ‘new wing’. Other double hung and louvre windows and ceiling fans allow breezes to cool us during the heat of our summer.

We installed a solar hot water service and added solar panels on the shed to generate power which we can sell back to the grid. Our power bill has been dramatically lowered, we have a much more sustainable house and make the most of our magnificent view.

So at last, after eight years of planning and hard work, we have a comfortable home in tune with its glorious environment. As an added bonus all the photographs we took of the various diggers, bobcats, backhoes and concrete mixers has been made a great photo-book for the machinery-mad grandsons to enjoy!

 

G’day from Down Under                               January 2011

It is Australia Day as I write this, 26 January 2011. In just a few short days it will be my Ruby Jubilee, forty years since I left England to live in Australia.

Brisbane was my first home, a city currently mopping up after the devastating floods. The water didn’t quite reach the 1974 level when the house I lived in was up to its gutters with floodwater. But this time Brisbane was just one of a series of towns, villages and isolated homesteads engulfed. It defies belief that, in Queensland alone, an area bigger than Germany and France combined was under water. We have all become experts in the effects of La Niña, the weather pattern which has caused these massive rainfalls and floods over nearly the whole continent… even Tasmania in our southern ocean has been affected by the tropical wet from the north.

Rockhampton, home of son Peter and his wife, was an early victim. They managed to fly out on one of the last planes to leave before the runway was flooded, to travel overseas on an already-booked holiday. Their dog was left in kennels, high enough up the hill to be safe. But the waters kept rising and rising, so seventy dogs were walked further up the hill and enjoyed their own summer holiday in a series of suburban back yards! Four weeks on and the airport has only just reopened. The city is slowly returning to normality but for many there are houses to be rebuilt or refurbished; road and rail infrastructure will take more time to repair.

All the affected towns have had an army (quite literally) to help rescue stranded people. The stories that have emerged of the efforts of our army helicopter crews have been nothing short of miraculous, live power lines, rapidly rising waters, night goggles the only way to see and people plucked from a death only minutes away. All those young crew risked their lives time and time again. I salute them and all the other people who were prepared to risk their own lives to save others.

And now the big clean up is underway. Returning to formerly flooded homes is not without its own dangers. The venomous snakes have swum to higher ground, even if that higher ground is a flooded house. People are being greeted by them as they return home.

But flood victims are also being greeted by thousands upon thousands of people, all volunteers who have turned out with mops and buckets to help neighbours and strangers to empty their homes of sodden carpets, sofas, mattresses, mud covered appliances and then scrub down the walls and floors. Trucks have been out in force removing all the debris to the tips. It has been an amazing outpouring of help, physical and financial for those whose homes have been inundated.

Some delightful tales have emerged; the man with his boat who managed to guide all the exhausted horses to safety; the tug boat captain who somehow was able to steer a 100 metre length of drifting boardwalk safely between all the bridge pylons to get it down the Brisbane river; the young rowing club members who moved their own boats, then returned to ensure those of their most fierce and bitter rivals were also moved to higher ground.

Sir Michael Parkinson gave this year’s Australia Day address. He said his father thought Australians were a breakaway tribe of Yorkshire men, this observation being based on the way they play their cricket – tough, aggressive, fiercely competitive and without compromise. He also recognised that helping one another, reaching out a hand of friendship is also the Australian way. He is right. We are ‘all in it together’, there is no place here for limitations imposed by accent, class, privilege or education. The notion of community, volunteer and being a good neighbour is what helps us to survive in such desperate times as last years bush fires or this years floods.

As I reflect on my forty years Down Under, I look back at the opportunities I have been able to appreciate, see the opportunities my children enjoy at present and look forward to what my grandchildren will experience in the future. I am content that I made a good decision way back in 1971.

STOP PRESS

Yesterday Cyclone Yasi hit the north of Queensland. Category 5, it tore across the coast with winds up to 300 k.p.h., bringing storm surges of 9 metres above the normal high tide.

But people had warning. Thousands moved to evacuation centres, places the authorities deemed safer than suburban homes, many of these were shopping complexes. People arrived with mattresses, water, torches, precious toys and hope. Cairns hospital patients were flown to Brisbane.

Yasi left no property untouched. The noise was like a jet aircraft… it went on for hours. People sheltered in the strongest room in their house, often the bathroom as many have a concrete pad under the floor.

Those lucky enough to have their roofs still intact had windows smashed or fences blown out. But so many roofs have blown away, so many walls have gone and belongings scatted into the wind. Trees are without leaves, the banana and sugar cane crops are flattened.

A huge area has been totally devastated, it looks like a war zone. There will so much rebuilding to do.

So far there has been no reported loss of life, in fact three new babies were born, two at Innisfail hospital as the cyclone hit the town and one in an evacuation centre. All the mums have said there is one name they definitely won’t be giving their new babies… Yasi.

 

G’Day from Down Under                                                                April 2011

St. Helena, the island prison for one defeated French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. We were excited to see this remote place when we first saw the two former volcanoes rising from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean through the dawn mist. How must this defeated soldier have felt after many weeks at sea to get his first glance of the island? It is dark, brooding, like layers of chocolate ice-cream slurping down precipitous cliffs to the cold water, but no gentle beaches here, it is uncompromising, stark and barren. Sailing round the island, just 10½ miles by 6¾ miles in size, you come across one gash in the cliffs where landing may be possible. There is no harbour, you are at the mercy of the weather and swell. You clamber down the side of the ship where you have to scramble into a small boat rising and falling with the waves, a few minutes later, when the sailors say “Jump” you jump for land, grabbing the dangling ropes to give you some security of footing.

Why had we flown to Cape Town then spent 5 days on RMS St Helena to travel to this tiny mid-Atlantic island? We wanted to visit The Briars, home of Bob’s 3x greats-grandfather, William Balcombe, who lived here from 1805 to 1818. It was two hundred years ago to the week that Bob’s ancestor, William’s fourth child Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe, had been baptized in the Jamestown church.

When Napoleon first arrived on St Helena, there had been so little warning of his arrival that there was no suitable place for him to live. William Balcombe offered his home and Napoleon and some of his entourage moved into the “Pavilion”, located in the grounds of The Briars. Here the former Emperor started to dictate his memoirs and enjoyed a few months playing with the Balcombe children in the gardens. Napoleon enjoyed the company of children as they were so natural and he didn’t have to wonder about their ulterior motives. He played with the small boys in the garden, ordered his staff to make some toys, openly cheated at cards to tease them, conversed in French with the two older girls and became a benevolent “Uncle” to the children. We wanted to see what this place of family-legend was really like.

St Helena is a British protectorate in the South Atlantic Ocean. The only way to travel there is by sea, it’s too far from land for helicopters and there is no airport for fixed wing planes. As we’d sailed along the coast we’d seen gun batteries perched on cliff tops on every possible place, and some impossible ones too, testament to the importance of the island in the days of the East Indiamen, the tall ships, square-rigged sailing ships which opened up the world to trade. St Helena had been a haven to call in for water and food, a respite on the two-year long journeys undertaken by those intrepid sailors, a haven well worth protecting. Rusting old cannon are found at the wharf, in every fort, on every cliff top.

Arriving there is like a step back in time, you pass by the former moat, go through under the portcullis to enter Jamestown, the castle to your left, huge fort on top of the cliff on your right and a single street of Georgian houses winds its way up the steep sided valley floor. As we walked up the main street we passed the police station and courthouse on the left, the tiny prison on the right. Library, park, church, museum then some shops, no large window displays, no neon signs, no advertising. There was a guest house, Wellington House on the right, our hotel The Consulate on the left. The town is overshadowed by the steep hillsides and we look in wonder at Jacob’s Ladder, 699 steps each nearly a foot high, a 45°+ angle up the cliff, a challenge in its very being.

There are some vehicles on the island; they are small and drivers are expert in negotiating tight and I do mean really, really tight hairpin bends on cliff sides! Driving is not for the faint hearted, nor the deaf – sounding a warning horn as you approach these corners is mandatory.

The “Saints” are descended from European sailors, British soldiers, sailors and traders, the slaves from Madagascar, India, Malaya, and the indentured labourers from China. These 3000 or so inhabitants are so friendly. We were the only Australians arriving on “RMS”, the affectionate name given to their lifeline, and when any islander asked ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Australia’, their immediate response was ‘Oh you’re the Balcombe relatives, welcome home’.

We spent time in the archives and have found much more about William Balcombe, the man who later became Australia’s first Colonial Treasurer. Bob played a round of golf on the remotest course in the world; we planted Gumwood trees, endemic but close to extinction, in the newly established Millennium Forest. We saw the various places associated with Napoleon and the family. We climbed the steep old road up the hill past the heart shaped water fall to visit the Balcombe’s former home at The Briars. We found the Pavilion, the house site, stables, stone walls and trees from the original garden and enjoyed the tranquility and scenery. We listened to the waterfall, birds and frogs, we talked to the ghosts and we swear we heard children playing in the garden and a bit of conversation in French.

It was an emotional week.

 

G’day from Down Under                                                                 October 2011

Whenever three year old Hamish is cranky, he tells you to “Go to Africa!”…. so we did! We joined a group of Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders and most importantly, knowledgeable Zimbabwean guides, for a 3 week, 5000 km tour in an ‘air conditioned’ bus… it had 11 large windows which were kept open so we were cooler but windswept!

Namibia has the driest of dry coasts, with the magnificent high, richly coloured sand dunes going to the edge of the Atlantic. Sossusvlei was awesome and it is incredible to think the Bushmen were able to survive here in this harsh dry environment. We then moved inland to the oldest rock art in the world, both rock carvings and paintings and it was great to have local guides give us the history of the area.

But for most of us the highlight was to be the National Parks in Botswana. I was concerned that we had already ‘seen it all’ with David Attenborough, the Discovery channel and even going back to the days of Armand and Michaela Denis… remember them on early TV?

We were there in the dry season, the best time to see wildlife because the water holes are few and far between so the animals congregate in a more confined area. At Etosha NP we saw lions setting up a hunt on thirsty zebra. We saw a rhino chase off the hyena pack which were stalking a herd of wildebeest… they were predators on her patch and that was unacceptable. We laughed at a young giraffe, just two months old and still trying to gain control of those gangly legs. The words ‘Zebra Crossing’ took on a whole new meaning. There were mobs of wildebeest, springbok and zebra grazing together, competing for grass but relying on each other; some have a better sense of smell, sight or hearing to alert them all to predators being around.

We quickly learned to recognise the different antelope… kudu, springbok, steenbok, impala, gemsbok, hartebeest, roan; we recognised the difference between black and white rhino and we saw so many different birds. We were entertained by the elephant families who came to drink and play in the waterholes. Washing first, then covering themselves in mud was part of the ritual; the mothers kept a close eye on the little ones and pushed them out of the mud if they were floundering. Some of the youngsters were comically unimpressed when it was time to leave, their annoyance was palpable!

In the bus we were high up and could see over the scrub, so we became efficient at alerting each other to wildlife “Elephant on the right”, “Cheetah to left” Yes we managed to see a cheetah and cub just finishing off a meal. My favourites in Etosha were three huge male elephants grazing quietly, covered in mud, their eyes only just visible. We were so close we felt we could just reach out of the bus window and touch them, but they were relaxed and unconcerned, accepting of our presence and being gracious enough to allow us to be part of their world for a few minutes. Pure magic!

We moved on to Chobe NP and here we saw many hippo, incredibly dangerous animals and when you see those huge jaws you understand why. We watched rangers darting Cape buffalo from a helicopter to check for anthrax. We saw stealthy, silent crocodiles slithering quietly into the water to lie in wait for the unwary animals coming to drink. And here we saw a leopard, sitting in a tree, surveying her kingdom, and with a yawn she jumped down just in front of our bus and wandered off into the scrub. We managed some super photos and how wrong I was to think the television would spoil the experience of seeing the expanse and pace of life in the wild.

Whilst we were in South Africa and Namibia I was able to buy some lovely fabric and I have made a quilt based on a design I saw over there. It has plenty of African wildlife and is the first of four, one to be done for each grandchild. Hamish scored the first quilt and now, whenever he tells me to “Go to Africa!” I go and lie on his bed.


G’Day from Down Under    (March 2012)

We are in Northwest Australia, the Kimberley Region, over 5000km from home. The seasons here are ‘The Wet’ and ‘The Dry’. We are here in August, it’s winter down south, ‘The Dry’ up here… we’ve been watching the website advising the depth on water at the Ivanhoe and Pentecost River crossings… only now is it low enough for a 4WD vehicle to cross the Pentecost. We’ve been to Kunurra, the eastern end of the Gibb River Road and the Ord River was still sending one Sydney Harbour’s worth of water down Spillway Creek every 5 hours and the Ivanhoe Crossing is not yet open even to large trucks…. it had been a very wet ‘wet season’.

We are going to travel the iconic Gibb River Road, cattle road, not a skerrick of tar within cooee, a rough road where caravans can’t travel and only tough cars and trailers get through.

But it’s a road of stunning wilderness, beautiful gorges, plunging waterfalls and wild rivers.

We’re going from west to east and our first stop is Tunnel Creek, a 750 metre long tunnel though the Napier Range. It is dark, has the Mimbi Creek running through and in the late 1800s was home to Aboriginal leader Jandamarra who used the extensive cave as his hideout when he was outlawed by the police. On the short walk to the entrance of the cave you have to climb over boulders and then you face the large dark opening into the tunnel and the water. I was really challenged at the thought of this walk… murky water of unknown depth in the pitch dark was not my idea of fun. What we were likely to meet in the water…how deep was the hole we were just about to step into? The thought of standing on an eel or freshwater crocodile or their tails slithering past was not a comfortable idea at all and there was sufficient flow for the water to be well over a metre deep. When you reach the end of the tunnel it is lovely to see the sun and trees again but then you have to turn round and plunge back into the darkness again… hmmm! I had visions that my claustrophobia would make this an impossible walk but I didn’t panic and I look back on it as being one of the highlights of this trip… I was so very far out of my comfort zone but I made it!

Windjana Gorge was next stop. We walked to a sandbank where fresh water crocs were sunning themselves. They are not too large and with a more pointed snout that the ‘salties’, these ‘freshies’ were obviously used to humans with cameras. And that was the first of the many gorges where we clambered over rocks for ages to reach these isolated beauty spots and enjoy the stunning scenery.

One day we turned off the Gibb River Road and headed north along the Kalumburu Road so we could visit the beautiful Mitchell Falls on the Mitchell Plateau. We aimed for Drysdale Station as a stopping place for the night. The road quality certainly deteriorated and we passed a dead Winebago as we negotiated the many corrugations and washouts.

The widest and deepest river crossing was the Drysdale River. We carefully went across and about ⅔ of the way suddenly dropped with a bang over an invisible rock into a large hole. As we then edged forward there was the most appalling grinding, groaning sound from under the vehicle. What to do? The water was too deep to really see anything useful and anyway we didn’t want to be dinner for the resident saltwater crocs, so we inched slowly and very noisily onto dry land. We couldn’t see any rocks lodged underneath, but the vehicle still groaned and scraped if we moved at all… eventually as Bob edged forward I tried to narrow the location of the sound and it was the left back wheel getting caught on the metal step which is to help you climb into the car… it had been forced backwards, all the bolts were bent and it was rubbing on the tyre. A hacksaw removed the plastic at its end to free up the tyre and we moved forward quietly and with no major damage. What relief! Heart palpitations returned to normal and we were on our way again.

We decided the road further north was becoming far too rough so we booked a flight from Drysdale Station up to see the Mitchell Falls. Phil, the Drysdale mechanic came with us on the plane. He’d fixed nine vehicles the previous day, all with broken springs or shocks or both! We’re not surprised, we’ve seen lots of broken vehicles, cars and trailers, on the Gibb River Road… things just rattle to pieces unless you can time your trip to coincide with the road graders!

The Kimberly coastline is impressive from the plane, a succession of coral reefs and rugged islands. The cliffs are up to 150 metres high and there are tidal mudflats fringed by mangroves… the ideal hiding place for illegal fishermen and immigrants and well patrolled from the air by Coastal Patrol and sea by the RAN. Sandy beaches don’t exist unless it’s a very sheltered bay. The tides are huge, up to 11 metres difference from high to low tide….. and the water is full of saltwater crocodiles!

The Mitchell Plateau itself rises up to 370 metres above sea level. The river flows northwards carving gorges and waterfalls in the sandstone and Surveyors and Mitchell Falls are truly dazzling. There was lots of low cloud, even the pilot was taking photos out of the window and we could hear the various ‘scenic-flight’ pilots talking to each other and Mitchell Air Traffic Control about the cloud and if they could get through. Our pilot took us below the cloud, lower than even the choppers usually fly and we got to take photos of the Mitchell Falls from the plane much closer than normal. We did a figure of eight over the falls, wings vertical to the ground- ‘breath taking’ and ‘stunning’ don’t even begin to describe it. I have a super photo of the shadow of our plane onto the clouds below with a rainbow halo round it. I just loved it, not worried about the flying and being so low, and thought how much my Dad, a former pilot, would have enjoyed the chance to take to the wing again over such beautiful scenery.

 

G Day from Down Under July 2012

 Kimberley and North West trip, part 2

After our flight over the Mitchell Falls and the northernmost coast of Western Australia, we headed south from Drysdale, no problem with the river crossing this time! and returned to the Gibb River Road to resume our trip east. We camped on the banks of the Pentecost River, it’s tidal and very much ‘salt water crocodile’ country… you camp well away from the river bank.

One of the cattle friends we’d visited earlier had recounted the story of a researcher in her canoe who was chased by a big ‘saltie’ who tipped her out, luckily she was close enough to shore to grab a bush and haul herself up but the croc dragged her back. Fighting for her life she had managed to hang onto the tree and eventually, badly bitten, she was able to get up the steep bank and away from the reptile and she fled inland until someone came looking for her.

The view over the Pentecost River to the Cockburn Ranges is stunning, a place for the mandatory sunset series and stitch-assist series of photographs. The colours change through the reds and purples as the sun goes down. The Cockburn Ranges are spectacular with layers of sandstone and layers of pebble and conglomerate up to 250 million years old. There have been uplifts of land occurring since then to give high escarpments which can stretch for many miles and be up to 300 metres high, displaying magnificent colour changes as the sun rises or sets. In the wet season the rivers flood to amazing heights for many weeks, cutting the glorious and spectacular gorges which draw tourists to this rugged landscape.

The next morning we headed for the the mighty Pentecost River Crossing, the most famous and probably most photographed crossing on the Gibb River Road. We’d been worried about this for weeks. ‘How deep was it?’ had been a question all the way along the track. In fact when we’d sent our GPS position to son Philip last night he’d checked our location on Google Earth, realised we were at the Pentecost, and sent a text hoping we’d get across. But by this end of the season it was only 45 cm deep… when we left home it had been over a metre. It’s another crossing you can’t walk through to check for holes and boulders. The river is tidal to here and full of saltwater crocodiles. Luckily the base proved to be hard-packed, with even-sized, rounded river rocks so was a good surface.

After all the anticipation the crossing was a bit of an anti-climax. The river was flowing fast but not pouring over and was not too deep for our vehicle and we didn’t even notice a bump as we went across. There were a couple of motorcyclists at the far side… we’d run into them and had a brief chat several times at various scenic look outs .. and one had had a problem, he’d stalled and had to push his cycle part of the way across… that would have been scary!

We decided to have a look at El Questro Station where the Kidman/Jackman film” Australia” had been set. This morning on our HF radio call up we’d told operator George we were going to El Questro. “How long are you staying?” he asked Bob, I took the microphone and told him “Till I’ve spent all his money.” George laughed and said he thought it was reputed to be a bit expensive. We drove in to the township… yes township … had a look at the list of all the prices for entry and the list of all the gorge walks (Amalia, Moonshine and El Questro Gorges, Champagne Springs and Explosion Gorge, Saddleback Ridge and Pigeon Hole which were 4WD tracks)… some were river only with an expensive boat ride… most were long walks in and long drive to even get there.

 

Kimberley and North West Trip Part 3   G’Day from Down Under September 2012

To access anything in El Questro you have to purchase a Park Permit which is valid for 7 days… nothing for day trippers… with all the other costs on top of that it seems a bit too money grabbing really. I’m sure El Questro has many very beautiful things to look at and you need several days to do it but we were uncomfortable with all the commercialism. Perhaps if we were going east to west, and it was the first place to visit rather than the last on the Gibb River Road, we may have been more inclined to stay, but we had already visited many magnificent gorges along the road, we preferred solitude to crowds, so we drove out.

And so we had survived the Gibb River Road and then had a couple of days R&R in Kununurra, stocking up on food and beverages before heading south again. After several detours to visit more National Parks and more cattle friends, we eventually hit the Oodnadata Track again and headed south to Lake Eyre which has come to life as water flows in following the Big Wet.

The land here is so flat that the only way to see the lake is from the air, so we booked on a small plane, a Cessna 172 for a two hour flight over this beautiful inland sea. We were initially quite low over the water then gained height to get a wider perspective and see the Channels. We flew over the Channel country, the Cooper and Warburton, which feeds the water into the lake and it was spectacular. The Cooper still had water flowing in.

The lake is not very deep, 2-3 metres and it is so big that it is subject to tides and the wind blows the water from one place to another, what is mud flat today will be covered tomorrow. It was a surprising array of colours, the stripes of green vegetation speckled along brown dunes, some splashes of scarlet red patches, the bright green and intense yellow of flowers and lush plants. The water was swirly, shades of browns and vivid greens with an intense blue sky reflected in it, and large zig-zagged areas of brilliant white salt. Many of the breeding birds were still around, swans, duck and pelicans.

At one point, when we’d gone up to 2500 feet, we met a squadron of pelicans. It is quite disconcerting to be eye to eye with a flying pelican but fortunately they were polite enough to break formation and go over, under and around our small single prop plane as we strayed into their airspace. Another heart stopping moment as we engaged with the wildlife of this vast country’s landscape.


G’Day from Down Under                                                                            (December 2012)

In August 2002 we drove over to Fleet Base West near Fremantle, Western Australia, to meet our oldest son when he returned from a six month deployment on HMAS CANBERRA . They were part of Operation Slipper, part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism, with the task of supporting Allied troops in the Gulf region and protecting merchant vessels in the hot flat waters of the Arabian Sea.

Exactly ten years on, in August 2012 we drove to Fleet Base East in Sydney to meet our youngest son when he returned from a six month deployment on HMAS MELBOURNE. They also were part of Operation Slipper where they interrupted support to terrorist and violent extremist organisations and promoted a secure maritime environment for the benefit of legitimate mariners. One task was to provide commercial shipping with protection against attack by pirates, and a ship they escorted through the waters of the Arabian Gulf was the huge liner Queen Mary.

When Son #1 returned we were pleased that we saw some of his video clips once he was safely home; armed boardings of ships with steel plates welded over windows and doors and helicopters crash landing on, then falling off the backs of ships was not good for parental blood pressure. So we were somewhat more apprehensive when Son #3 headed northwest into the same turbulent region.

Also in the intervening ten years I had a much more vivid picture in my mind of the effects of armed conflict, having spent over six years researching, writing and publishing a military history book. I started by transcribing the letters my father-in-law Bill wrote home to his mother and sisters from Army Camp in NSW, then the camps in Malaya and Singapore from 1941 onwards. I became intrigued to find out what happened to him and his fellow soldiers and also the nurses who sailed into harm’s way with the troops. One nurse frequently mentioned in the letters caught my imagination and I remember sitting in the local library with tears streaming down my face when I finally learned her fate along with other nurses on Banka Island in 1942. I made it my goal to try and find out what happened to each of the people Bill mentioned in his eloquent and descriptive letters, letters in which he tried to minimise the horrors of the war for his family, letters which gave a different perspective from the official Routine Orders and War Diary of the Battalion.

I talked with several of the “originals” who told stories of the fierce and bloody battles they fought against the Japanese, the debilitating diseases they suffered, the brutality of the POW camps and the starvation endured as they struggled to construct the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway. These wonderful old soldiers spoke of the fighting and their incarceration with humour, family and mateship shining through the darkest times.

My original goal of a transcription of letters for the family finally evolved into a history of, and for, the men of the 2/20th Battalion Australian Imperial Forces. It became a family history, a social history and a military history rolled into one book called Pounding Along to Singapore. (If you are interested in more information it is listed on the publisher’s web site at < http://www.copyright.net.au/details.php?id=142&gt;)

So my former English teachers from Lady Lumley’s School, Mr Lyddon and Miss Addinall (who read this before she sadly passed away in October) would be pleased to know that the lass who choose “The Sciences” over “The Arts” way back in 1960 has finally ‘come good’ and emerged as a historian and author.

 

G’Day from Down Under (January 2013)

My dear old Mum Joan Ford recently passed away peacefully at home, a few weeks short of her 93rd birthday. What changes she saw in her lifetime.

Born in Pickering 1920, the era after the horrific losses in the First World War (and surprisingly the same year Qantas was founded) she was only few months old when her parents Harold and Sarah Smith paid just £195 for a house in Hood Row, now 114 Westgate.

She was just a toddler when the BBC began their radio broadcasts in 1922, there was an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease at Thornton-le-Dale and the old corn mill became the Memorial Hall. It was two years later the Memorial Hall was given its own electric light plant, the rest of the town still used gas, oil lights or candles. During the 1920s and 1930s Pickering saw many floods at the bottom of the Market Place, with some relief eventually coming when the Pickering Beck was widened south of the town.

Mum was six years old when the General Strike took place in Britain, penicillin was discovered and universal female suffrage was declared, three things which had enormous impact on the lives of people in general and women in particular. On the local scene a motor fire engine was donated to the local council and it was made use of in 1928 when the Railway engine shed caught fire. No doubt the children of Pickering were worried by this event as for many, Mum included, one of the highlights of the year was the annual Sunday School outing by train to Scarborough. Another thing she fondly recalled was the annual Hirings Fair each November. The old steam organ particularly caught her attention and she would spend hours listening to it.

In 1929 the world stock market crashed leading to Depression and the National Hunger March in 1932. This was something which would have been close to her heart as by then her beloved father had died from TB picked up in the War and life was a struggle for Sarah to bring up her two daughters. In 1930 Mr Austin Hyde had become Headmaster of Lady Lumley’s and Mum had not so fond memories of him but particularly the fearsome Miss Fox.

A sewerage scheme was proposed for the town, up to then refuse was dumped in the beck and it’s surprising that Pickering didn’t suffer an outbreak of typhoid as happened at Malton. Mum had a vivid memory of the death of one of the men digging the trenches for the sewer pipes near her grandparents house, a lad from Rosedale called Robert Godfrey. The sewerage scheme was not immediately accepted as by July 1936 there had only been 36 conversions to a Water Closet and there were still 479 earth closets in town.

1933 was the year King George V first used the radio to address his subjects, Pickering celebrated the Silver Jubilee with a bonfire on Beacon Hill and a free show at Cinema. Houses were built in Goslip Lane, with more built in 1936, the year the abdication crisis happened.

War time came round again and Mum and her husband Frank Marlow ran a haulage business leading sand and gravel to help construct aerodromes and roads. But a short 18 months after her wedding Joan was widowed. She continued to run the business throughout the war and it was a year after war’s end that she met and married my father Ron Ford, a former Air Transport Auxiliary pilot whose brother Fred ran the North Riding Garages in Eastgate.

This post- war era saw an explosion of inventions. As a small child I remember our first land line phone … we lived in Westfield, Beacon Park and our phone number was Pickering 161 and I can recall the consternation when it became Pickering 2161 and letterheads had to be replaced and I’m guessing the girls in the telephone exchange were made redundant.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth was watched on a black and white television in the living room at Westfield, it was one of the first TVs in Pickering.

The first juke box was invented, records became ’45s’. FM radio appeared in 1955 and cassettes in 1960, the VCR in 1972 along with the first mobile phones.

The late 50s saw the appearance of Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley into teenage lives. The Swinging Sixties saw the debut of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1962. By 1964 the pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline were on air, with Radio 270 transmitting from a ship berthed off Scarborough to the transistor radios owned by every teenager. In 1965 Mary Quant introduced the miniskirt, Barclays Bank introduced the ATM and in 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus was launched on an unsuspecting public.

In 1971 I moved to Australia so missed Britain joining the EU, the first oil from the North Sea, the closing of the coal mines, the building of the Concorde in 1976 and two years later the development of in vitro fertilization. In the 1980s my parents joined me Down Under and we all watched the marriage of Charles and Diana through the wonderful medium of colour TV.

The last decade or so has brought a huge advancement in global communication with the launching of the world wide web , over 100 million computers online, Wikipedia, You Tube and Twitter and there are now over 2 billion web surfers.

My column in Pickering Beacon has only been possible thanks to the wonderful invention of email and I have enjoyed sharing over forty instalments of “G’Day from Down Under” with you. It has put me in touch with many people including former school friends and also an unknown cousin in America who I can now keep in touch with via email.

Thanks to Alan and his team for the great work they have put into Beacon over the years since 1998. Enjoy your retirement!