Castlefield Viaduct – Manchester’s High Line

During my recent August bank holiday search for new street art in the city centre I took the opportunity to visit Castlefield Viaduct, the very new and recently opened ‘garden in the sky’, a project developed by the National Trust and four local partner organisations to transform the Grade II listed disused railway viaduct into an urban green space.
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The history of the Castlefield area and the viaduct dates back to 79 AD when Roman soldiers led by General Agricola chose the area as the site of a timber fort which they called Mamucium, later known as Mancunium. Protected by the Rivers Irwell and Medlock it was in a strategic position and well-located to guard important roads leading towards other larger forts. Over time the fort was repaired, enlarged, and eventually rebuilt in stone and a village was established nearby but once the Romans left around 410AD both the fort and the village declined and were eventually abandoned.
In 1086 a village called ‘Mamcester’ was recorded in the Domesday book as lying less than a mile north-east of the old fort. The village grew steadily, incorporating the site of the fort now known as Castlefield (Castle-in-the-field) and by the early 13th century it had become a town, though it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the area really became a significant part of an ever-expanding city.
The industrial heritage of Manchester began around 1758 when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned James Brindley to construct one of Britain’s first canals, built to transport coal to the city from his mines at Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal proved to be a huge success, halving the price of coal and prompting a period of intensive canal-building across the country, and when the Rochdale Canal was completed in 1804 it joined the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, cutting through the site of the old Roman fort and making the area the hub of the city’s canal network.
By this time Manchester was the fastest growing city in the world thanks to the ever-increasing number of cotton mills creating jobs and bringing in trade and eventually it became clear that the canals alone couldn’t move goods fast enough. This led to the dawning of the railway age and in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, with the Castlefield area becoming the site of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway station, Manchester Liverpool Road, now part of today’s Science and Industry Museum.
Over the next several decades the area became recognised as the central hub for Manchester’s goods transportation network. Warehouses sprang up all over Castlefield to support the network and three railway viaducts were built over the canal basin, with the first one being opened in 1849. The second viaduct opened in 1877 and in the same year an elevated railway was constructed alongside it. In 1885 construction began on the Great Northern Warehouse, designed to be a three-way warehouse served by canal, road and rail, and in 1891 construction started on a fourth viaduct which would carry the railway line above the canal basin to both the warehouse and the adjacent Central Station.
This fourth Castlefield viaduct is a steel latticed girder construction 370yds long and 38ft wide and is an early example of using carbon steel for the girders, replacing the usual cast and wrought iron. Designed by engineer William George Scott it was manufactured and constructed by Heenan and Froude, the engineers behind the construction of the iconic Blackpool Tower, with M W Walmsley & Co. being the masonry contractors.
Supported on fifteen cast iron columns each 10ft 6ins in diameter the viaduct stands approximately 55ft above the canal basin, while the columns themselves are embedded in Portland cement, rest on solid rock some 20ft below ground, and are filled with masonry and cement. The total weight of steel and iron in the viaduct is over 7,000 tons and more than 6 million forged steel rivets were used in the construction. It was completed at a cost of £250,000 (about £20.5 million today) and in a small ceremony held on completion day a special copper rivet was fixed in the one remaining slot, though no-one these days knows exactly where it is.
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For 77 years the viaduct carried heavy rail traffic in and out of the Castlefield area but along with Central Station, now a large convention centre, it closed in 1969 and has been disused ever since. It became Grade II listed on February 14th 1988 and over the years essential periodic repairs and maintenance to keep it safe have been undertaken by what is now Highways England.
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Plans to convert the disused viaduct into an urban ‘sky park’ inspired by New York’s High Line were first proposed in 2012 but unfortunately fell through, however in 2021 a planning application by the National Trust received approval from Manchester City Council to transform around half the viaduct’s length into a temporary ‘garden in the sky’. Funded by private donations and support from local businesses and the People’s Postcode Lottery work began in March 2022 and the viaduct opened to the public in late July as a year-long ‘test and learn’ pilot scheme where visitors and locals can share their feedback and ideas for the structure’s long-term future.
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After the very pleasant Welcome Area at the start of the viaduct a wide central path leads through an experimental planting area where hessian sand bags filled with peat-free compost are being used to encourage plant growth through the viaduct’s ballast. Following on from there is the main part of the garden with long specially designed and constructed planters separating four small partner plots set back off the path. Several of the plant species used, such as cotton grass, have connections to the local area and herbaceous perennials provide pretty splashes of colour among the densely planted ferns and grasses.  
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At the end of the garden is the events space, a light and airy building where visitors can leave their feedback and any ideas for the future of the viaduct. In the far wall a glass door and large windows look out onto the ‘naked viaduct’, the undeveloped section left untouched to provide a sense of how nature has reclaimed the space since the site was closed in 1969. 
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The undeveloped section of the viaduct
View from the viaduct
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Visiting the viaduct is currently only by guided tour and though it’s completely free visitor numbers are limited to 100 per day with tickets having to be booked online – it was only the day after it opened that I’d tried to book but disappointingly I found it was ‘sold out’ right through August and with no dates showing in September. I’d almost put it out of my mind but during my recent search for street art in the city I decided to go to the viaduct on the chance that I might be allowed in and I was lucky – there was just one place left on the next guided tour. Not having known what to expect I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I saw and I really enjoyed my visit so (hopefully) if I can ever manage to book a ticket I’ll certainly go back another time.

Day 3 – Stuck!!

Day 3 arrived with glorious early morning sunshine and after spending the previous day on site I was looking forward to getting out and about but unfortunately the sunshine didn’t last. By the time I’d taken the dogs out and had breakfast grey clouds had rolled in from all sides and the blue sky had vanished, effectively putting paid to my plans. Okay, I could still go out but grey clouds wouldn’t show the planned location at its best so I had to have a rethink.
Eventually I decided on an alternative but actually going there was a different matter, in fact I couldn’t even get the van off my pitch – it was well and truly stuck there. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I’d got a flat battery – it was as if something had drained it overnight but that was impossible as the key hadn’t been left in the ignition and I had the site electric supply for lights and everything else so there was nothing in the van which could have been left on. So I called the RAC – and that’s when my troubles really began.
Trying to actually speak to a living human being was a nightmare – first the automated reporting system wouldn’t recognise my surname, then it wouldn’t recognise my home postcode, then it wouldn’t even recognise my reg number which it previously had recognised. I was getting more frustrated by the minute so in desperation and on the fourth attempt I rang the sales line, finally speaking to someone who took my details and said someone would come out to me. The guy who eventually arrived started the van no problem, checked everything over and said the battery was low on power so it might be advisable to get a new one or I could end up with the same problem in another day or two.
A battery of the size and power I needed wouldn’t be cheap, in fact it was darned expensive and an unforeseen amount I didn’t really want to pay but I didn’t want to risk being stuck again or having to go through the RAC’s stupid automated system a second time so I agreed to have a new one. The guy didn’t have one on his van though so he rang someone else and arranged for a re-attend the following morning to supply and fit a new one, stressing that it must be no later than 10am as I had said I had plans to go out and didn’t wanting to be waiting around on the camp site.
By the time the RAC guy had gone it was too late to really go anywhere and it was still cloudy anyway so I just drove the seven miles to Tesco in Abergele to get some supplies then stopped off at Asda for another couple of things. On the way back to the camp site I passed the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and noticed he was still wearing his Jubilee crown so of course I had to stop and take a couple of photos – regardless of what he’s wearing he makes me smile every time I see him.
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With the cloud continuing through the late afternoon and into the evening I spent the rest of the day on the camp site and went to bed that night with fingers metaphorically crossed that once the RAC had fitted a new battery on the van the following morning I would finally be able to go out somewhere, however more unwanted aggravation was to come.

Manchester flower show 2022 – 2

Continuing my quest to find more flower show displays my route took me along the last section of King Street and the first thing I came to made absolutely no sense whatsoever – there was no accompanying information board, no explanation, nothing. It was only after I got home and did a bit of googling that I figured out it was a reference to a fictional place featured in the 1990s Australian film Muriel’s Wedding but I really can’t see what connection, if any, it has with the Manchester flower show.
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Across the road was the Ju-bee-lee Garden, a series of hexagonal pavement planters set up to attract our black and yellow friends, with flowers including rhododendron, alliums, salvias and lavender, and some silver birch trees which will later be permanently planted as part of the country-wide Jubilee Green Canopy scheme.

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The Ju-bee-lee Garden

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Along a side street and round a corner was the King Street Townhouse, and though I thought the front entrance might have been decorated for the occasion there were just two window boxes which may or may not have been part of the flower show. In complete contrast, and even though it wasn’t mentioned in the flower show information leaflet, the Belvedere modern office block just along the street had a lovely display created by CitiBlooms outside the main entrance.
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From there I had quite a long walk to the next display on my list and as I zig-zagged along various roads and streets I found a display which I hadn’t expected to see, the Bruntwood Garden Office outside the premises of an office rental agency. Unfortunately I was destined to be disappointed with the next display, situated in the entrance to Refuge restaurant at the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. Far from getting the ”British Welcome” which the information leaflet promised I got nothing as the place was closed, though the large wrought iron gates did have some artificial flowers and greenery poking through the bars. So I went next door and photographed the inside of Giraffe Flowers instead.
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From there it was just a short walk to the next display which featured an iconic London Routemaster bus, and unlike the previous display this was very much in evidence. Unfortunately the display wasn’t quite as it should be as some of the planters had been trashed overnight so the young couple from I Want Plants were in the process of clearing up and rearranging things but it was still a good display.

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Blossoming Big Red Bus

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From there it was another good walk to First Street where I found the next three displays. The Punk Queen of First Street was inspired by the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and the controversial track God Save The Queen which was released during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The figure alone took around 160 hours to build and though I wasn’t too keen on the concept of the installation – I hated punk rock and thought Johnny Rotten was dreadful – the display itself was excellent and the colourful flowers round the base gave me a few good close-up shots.
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Liz Vicious, the Punk Queen of First Street

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From First Street my route took me down to Deansgate and in various places around the Great Northern Warehouse complex I found cycles decked out with different blooms and foliage, while round in Peter Street the entrance of Albert’s Schloss Bavarian bar and restaurant was surrounded by the Ukraine colours.
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A trek of just over a mile from Peter Street got me to Angel Meadow park and Live the Wild Side, the last display on my list. This was the topiary baby elephant and giraffe from last year but to celebrate both the Jubilee and ten years of the Far East Consortium in Manchester they had been revamped with ‘royal jewels’ made from real flowers and plants.
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From Angel Meadow it was only a short walk back to Victoria Station and I got there just in time for a train back home. I hadn’t found all the displays as many weren’t listed on the information leaflet and some I didn’t even bother photographing, but after six hours trekking round the city I was looking forward to spending the rest of my birthday in total relaxation.
Back home my opinions of the flower show displays have been somewhat mixed. On the whole, most of them were good and some were very informative; some were mediocre and lacking in colour with artificial flowers which looked like they had seen better days and a few, like the Arndale bee and the King Street telephone box, were just rehashes of last year’s exhibits so nothing new. In some cases it looked like the displays were just a token gesture and the Kimpton Clocktower being closed was a complete disappointment, while the Porpoise Spit thing was just totally pointless. There were, however, some really excellent colourful displays – the Changing of the Guard to name just one – and all credit must go to those involved in designing and creating them. As I write this I’m already wondering what sort of displays will feature in next year’s flower show.

Manchester flower show 2022 – 1

This year’s Manchester flower show has been taking place over the long four-day weekend, with many displays themed to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Thursday was also my birthday and as I would be alone for most of the day I decided to take myself off for a bit of photography round the city centre while the displays were fresh. An early train got me into Manchester just after 8.30am and though some of the displays were still being set up I was able to photograph a lot of them before the place started to get busy.
First on my list, and not far from the station, was The Buzz, a series of large bee-themed street planters on the pavement outside the Printworks. Decorated by Giraffe Flowers they were filled with honey bees’ favourite plants and flowers to act as foraging and pollination stations, though I hope the bees like them as personally I found them rather dull and colourless.

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The Buzz

On the ground floor of the Arndale shopping centre was The Crown, a huge crown-shaped planter supposedly filled with (quote) “a colourful mix of tropical palms and jewel-like English flowers” but the flowers I saw bore no resemblance to the brightly coloured ones featured in the internet photo. Also on the ground floor, outside the Morphe store was a display of three floral dresses made from scraps of fashion waste fabric and part of a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University fashion students, local charity shops and fashion stores, and the team behind Manchester International Fashion Festival. On the upper floor of the centre was Queen Bee, a display used last year but now upcycled with the addition of a floral crown designed by Frog Flowers.

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The Crown

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Queen Bee

Across the road the Corn Exchange atrium had its inner archways decorated with floral displays featuring pretty tea cups and saucers, a nearby Greek restaurant sported a colourful entrance and Exchange Square, where all the weekend’s entertainment would be, was looking exceptionally bright with its flower-topped cabins, yellow railings and painted picnic tables.

The Queen’s Tea Party

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Round the corner in New Cathedral Street I found The Queens Gambit, a display using black and white crates filled with black and white plants, with the design being inspired by a chess board where the queen is the most powerful piece, although the nearby wheelbarrow was anything but black and white. Further along the street last year’s psychedelic Pop Art arch was surrounded by flower-filled planters and wheelbarrows with the design partly inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s pop portraits of Her Majesty.

The Queen’s Gambit

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Also in New Cathedral Street was the Flower Power Perch utilising flowers grown in the North West, and the Commonwealth Tuk-tuk nicknamed Queenie. The customised Indian tuk-tuk is a tribute to all those nations who call our Queen their head of state and is decorated with blue and purple flowers grown in Cheshire.

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The Flower Power Perch

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The Commonwealth Tuk-tuk

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Round the corner in Market Street were the knitted trees, this year decked out alternately with British colours and those of Ukraine, then across in Exchange Street the Fatface clothing store had a small display with colours matching the outfits on the models, while the nearby HSBC bank in St. Ann’s Square had a red, white and blue display in the corner window although there was so much light reflection through the glass it was difficult to get a decent photo of it.
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In the Royal Exchange Arcade I found the Crown Jewels, a display commissioned by the Royal Exchange itself and featuring a golden throne surrounded by a combination of fresh and dried flowers. Back out on St. Ann’s Square was the Jubilee Urban Garden with three native trees and raised beds of cottage garden plants and flowers – quoted as being ”the star of the show” I personally found it to be anything but as this was another display which sadly lacked any real colour.
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The Crown Jewels

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Jubilee Urban Garden

Not far from there was Journey to Kimpton, a 3-wheeled bicycle decked out in Jubilee-coloured plants and flowers with the concept being that the bicycle was perfect for a leisurely ride through the city to the Kimpton Clock Tower Hotel, advocates of sustainable travel and tourism.

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Journey to Kimpton

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The best display in St. Ann’s Square, for me at least, was the red, white and blue themed Changing of the Guard. Inspired by Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square the installation was designed and created by Northern Quarter florists Frog Flowers and was far superior to the Urban Garden display.

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Changing of the Guard

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Apparently one of the first things the Queen did when she ascended the throne was to modernise the British telephone box with an updated version of the Tudor crown design, and at the bottom end of King Street was last year’s iconic red telephone kiosk, this time filled with red, white and blue flowers but to be honest I was less than impressed. A world away from the vibrant artificial blooms of last year these were dull, drab, and looked like they had been dragged up from the bottom of a bin.

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Jubilee Kiosk

With a woodland planter containing a native tree and a bug hotel, a wildflower planter and a pollinator planter providing food for bees and butterflies the Climate Resilient display further up King Street showed how it’s possible to be eco-friendly in the smallest of spaces.

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Climate resilient garden

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The Seedling to Bouquet display was inspired by a time-lapse photography sequence and follows the path of a tiny seedling as it grows, blooms, and finds its place in a colourful arrangement of British cut flowers. All the flowers on display were grown in the UK with many being nurtured by North West members of Flowers from the Farm, while others came from growers in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

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Seedling to Bouquet

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Further up the street two very tall young ladies with extremely long legs and dressed as butterflies were providing a silent display, continually opening and closing their wings in unison. From the back the open wings looked quite spectacular but unfortunately I couldn’t get a photo of them as every time I pointed the camera the ‘butterflies’ turned round the other way.
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At the top end of that section of King Street was Horse Play, a one-off display created by Twig Twisters in recognition of the Queen’s love of horses. Capturing a horse and rider in motion the sculpture itself was made entirely of twisted willow, and with flower-filled ‘drinking troughs’ at its base the display made a quirky celebration of horse racing and show jumping.

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Horse Play

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Those were to be my last photos taken in and around the main festival zone; the next section of King Street would take me on a quest to find some of the fringe displays but those photos will be in a following post. This post has been scheduled as I’m now away on a 10-day camping holiday in North Wales so my apologies in advance if I don’t reply straight away to any comments – that will be one of the first jobs when I get back.

Meerkat madness

Okay, hands up those of you who just knew that I would complete my meerkat collection by getting the five I didn’t have. It’s only two weeks since I wrote about the last four I got and in that two weeks Royal Mail and Hermes have been kept busy delivering various parcels to my address every few days. These are all new, never been out of their boxes and all came with their certificates and tags, so here we have – 
Sleepy Oleg
Aleksandr as Batman
Sergei as Superman
Aleksandr as Luke Skywalker
Sergei as Obi-Wan Kenobi
Batman and Superman
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker
So that’s it, I’ve completed the full set of nineteen meerkats although sticking with the Star Wars theme it would have been nice if ‘compare the meerkat’ could have done Maiya as Princess Leia, and Oleg as Yoda. There are no more however – probably a good thing really otherwise who knows where it would all end.  

Bazil Point and Sunderland village

Some lovely weekend weather just recently gave me the opportunity to head off to the village of Overton on the Lune estuary for a walk round Bazil Point, a place I hadn’t previously been to. Turning off the main road leading to Heysham port I took a minor road running alongside the river and I hadn’t gone very far when I spotted a dead cat at the side of the road. Now I hate to see road kill of any sort, especially someone’s pet, but with no houses in the vicinity there was no clue where the cat could have come from, anyway I wasn’t going to leave it there to possibly get squashed so I stopped the van and went back to deal with it, picking it up and laying it gently in the long grass under a nearby tree.
A mile or so along the road I passed half a dozen ponies grazing by the riverside then came to a small and very pleasant looking residential static caravan park and the Golden Ball Hotel, also known as Snatchems. Closed two years ago at the start of the pandemic, surrounded by steel barriers and overgrown gardens, the place looked a bit of a mess but chatting to a lady from the caravan park who was walking her dog I was told that it’s due to re-open in a couple of months time.
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A pleasant 3-mile drive round the country lanes took me to Overton where I parked not far from what would be the end of my route round Bazil Point then walked through the village to my starting point near to St. Helen’s Church. Across the street from the church and just by a garden gate was a stall with a few plants and various hand crafted items on display along with a price list and honesty box, though as the street was a bit ‘out of the way’ I did wonder if whoever lived there actually ever sold anything. Also on top of a nearby gate post was a rather strange looking dragon/goblin/hobbit thing which seemed to be either sucking its thumb or trying to decide what to do next.
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A gravel lane led from the street corner and past a handful of bungalows to a farm track across a vast field and at the far end I came to the first gate of the walk, with a narrow path leading between high hedgerows to a second gate and a bench overlooking the estuary and Glasson Dock across the far side. I don’t know who Butler was but there was certainly a good view from his bench and it was from there that I spotted a heron out on a sandbank.
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A bit further on I came to a small stone-built shed tucked into the surrounding trees; a bit of an odd place for a garden shed but maybe it was used to store kayaks or something similar. Just past the shed was the washed up remains of a huge tree stump, though looking at the calm waters of the estuary with the tide already receding it was hard to imagine the water coming up so close to the boundary wall and tree line, but it obviously does as not far away huge boulders were piled up against the land to prevent tidal erosion.

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Round the end of the point the stony/rocky ground gave way to grass and there was a good view across the mouth of a nearby creek and the marshes to Heysham power station in the distance. Eventually the path turned slightly inland and took me through the last named gate onto a raised bank with a view across the fields to the outskirts of Overton village.
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Curving round above the marshes the path brought me to a stile which, with two dogs, proved to be a difficult one to negotiate. Poppie wanted to go under it while Snowy was trying to climb up and through the middle of it, and I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the people who build these things don’t consider those with shorter legs. We got there eventually though and the path dropped back down to the edge of the marsh where, in the rough scrub just in front of me I saw a peacock butterfly which stayed still just long enough for me to snap a quick photo.
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From there the path followed the edge of the marsh for quite a distance, gradually widening out and ending in a small parking area set back near the beginning of the tidal road to Sunderland Point and village. Not far away was the larger parking area where I’d left the van and a nearby sign gave a clear pictorial warning to anyone not aware of the tide times but the water had been receding for a while and I’d already noticed a couple of cars crossing the causeway so I knew it would be safe for me to drive over to the village.
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Not far along the road I was happy to see that the next warning sign was completely free of water although some sections of the narrow causeway were very muddy, and with not many passing places I was just hoping I wouldn’t meet something coming the other way. I reached the far end with no problems though and found another warning sign which was a variation of the first one. I couldn’t remember having seen either of them before and talking to one of the locals it seems that they had been installed since my previous visit in an effort to reduce the number of people needing to be rescued after getting themselves and/or their vehicles stranded by the tide.
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Walking along First Terrace something white out in the estuary caught my eye and when I zoomed in with the camera I saw it was an egret stalking along through the shallows, presumably looking for his lunch. At the end of the terrace I turned up The Lane and followed the fragrant scent of the hawthorn hedges along the path to Sambo’s grave then retraced my steps for a walk along Second Terrace to Sunderland Hall at the end before making my way back along the beach to the van. 
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By this time I was feeling more than a little peckish and as there’s no shop in the village or in Overton I drove the three miles round the country lanes to Middleton Sands where I parked up on the edge of the salt marsh and got myself a sandwich, chocolate bar and can of Coke from the shop in the nearby caravan site. This was the coastal side of the Sunderland peninsula with the village itself just over a mile away along the marsh; out at the water’s edge and quite a distance away a family of four were playing with a dog and the sun shining from that direction made them look like silhouettes against the background of a silvery sea.
After all my walking it was nice just to sit in the van with my ‘picnic’ and chill for a while, in fact I stayed far longer than I intended but eventually it was time to head for home. Driving back round the country lanes I made another brief stop near the Golden Ball Hotel and my final two shots were of the river with a much reduced water level than when I was there earlier in the day.
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The walk round Bazil Point at Overton had shown me some scenery and views which I hadn’t previously seen and it’s a walk I may very well do again sometime. It had been nice to revisit Sunderland village too and the pleasant drive home in the late afternoon sunshine just ended the day nicely.

Well THAT resolve didn’t last long…

Back in March, when I wrote about my meerkat collection which had expanded quite suddenly, thanks mainly to several of them gifted to me by Eileen and her hubby, I said I wasn’t going to get any more although if I could find Ayana as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” at a reasonable price I might be persuaded to add just one more to the family.
Well I did find Ayana as Belle not long afterwards and she joined the meerkat family on April 2nd. That really was supposed to be the last one but last week, looking at them all lined up on top of the long wall unit in the living room, I thought that as I had Elsa from Frozen and Belle from Beauty and the Beast I really should get their ‘other halves’. A search of ebay came up trumps and Oleg as the Beast arrived on Thursday with Oleg as Olaf from Frozen arriving yesterday plus a very cute extra one, Oleg as BB-8 from Star Wars. All of them are new, obviously from good homes, and they all have their certificates

Ayana as Belle

Oleg as Beast

Oleg as BB-8

Oleg as Olaf

Elsa and Olaf

Belle and Beast

The official full collection is a total of 19 meerkats and I now have fourteen of them. Are these my final ones or will there be more? The jury’s out on that one, although I do rather like the look of Sergei as Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi…

Animal sanctuary Spring Open Day

Last Sunday was Bleakholt sanctuary’s first proper open day since the place had to close to visitors at the start of the pandemic two years ago. Fortunately the weather gods produced a glorious day and even though I got there not long after the mid day opening the car park and the lane were already full of vehicles, with a steady stream of visitors paying their £2 entry fee at the gate.
My first port of call was the big barn with all its stalls set out round the sides and in the centre and though I didn’t buy anything for myself I did get a new and very pretty tea light holder which I thought Michael might like to give to his girlfriend. Tea lights and candles aren’t really my thing but Laura loves them so I’m sure she will like the one I got.
Wandering round outside I was disappointed to see that some areas were out of bounds and a lot of the kennels had no residents but it was obvious that quite a bit of work was taking place, with one row of cat pens already having been updated. It was nice to see a few different stalls and attractions though and the cafe and hot dog stall were both doing a good trade.
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Caught in mid roll

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The picnic area

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The new kennel block

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An update on the sanctuary’s website says they took an amazing £5,448 on the day – that’s the amount they will be trying to beat on the next open day in July, so fingers crossed the weather will behave, there will be even more visitors and it will be another really good day.
**This post has been pre-written and scheduled as I’m currently away with no internet access so I’ll reply to any comments when I get back. Have a good Easter everyone!

The Duke of Lancaster – a ship frozen in time

The TSS Duke of Lancaster was built in 1955/6 by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and was the sister ship to the TSS Duke of Rothsay and TSS Duke of Argyll. Of steel construction and 376ft long it was designed not only as a passenger ferry operating on the Heysham-Belfast route but also as a cruise ship sailing around the Scottish islands and further afield to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Spain. Initially owned by British Railways it was transferred to Sealink ownership in 1963.
With the advent of car ferries in the mid 1960s the Duke of Lancaster eventually became redundant so it was decided to undertake a programme of part conversion. The main deck was rebuilt to accommodate vehicles via a door at the stern and as a result the ship no longer served its secondary role as a cruise ship. Passenger capacity was reduced from 1800 to 1200, which included cabin accommodation for 400, and with space available for 105 cars the ship returned to service on April 25th 1970 as a car ferry, once again serving the Heysham-Belfast route.
On April 5th 1975 service on the Heysham-Belfast route was withdrawn and the Duke of Lancaster was transferred briefly onto the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing before becoming the regular relief ship on the Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire route, then in November 1978 it was taken out of service completely and docked at Barrow-in-Furness.

The Duke of Lancaster in her heyday – photo from the internet

In 1979 the ship was sold to Liverpool-based company Empirewise Ltd and in August that year was towed by tug to a permanent dock at Llannerch-y-Mor on the Dee estuary in North Wales, to be used as a dry-docked leisure and retail complex. Opened to the public in 1980 as The Fun Ship, attractions included market stalls, a café, amusement arcade and a children’s play area. There were also grand plans for a hotel conversion but these came to nothing and after several long-standing legal disputes with the local council the ship closed for business in 1984. In 1985 it was used briefly as a clothing warehouse for a company with the same business address as Empirewise but after more legal disputes any further plans were abandoned.
In February 1990 the dock and the ship itself suffered severe damage during freak storms and high sea levels, setting back any new plans for the venture, but by 1994 the Fun Ship was ready to re-open to the public once more. The council however had other ideas and served the owners with an injunction forcing them to close the ship before it had even re-opened. After another 2-year legal fight against a very corrupt council, in 1996 the owners were advised by their lawyers to withdraw from the case; although reluctant to do so they agreed but had to pay the council’s costs in excess of £200.000
After lying almost unloved for so many years the Duke of Lancaster was featured in an episode of the BBC2 series ‘Coast’ in 2011 which showed that in spite of much of the ship’s exterior being covered in rust the interior was in surprisingly good condition, with most features just as they were in the 1970s and early 80s.

The original lounge/bar area – photo from the internet

Photo from the internet

The bar – photo from the internet

The cinema – photo from the internet

In early 2012 a group of arcade game enthusiasts made a deal with the ship’s owners and were able to purchase most of the retro coin-operated gaming machines left behind when the Fun Ship closed in 1984; more than 50 machines were removed from the ship, with cranes and other heavy lifting equipment being used to get them out.

Photo from the internet

Also in 2012, after being contacted by a group of European street artists, the owners allowed them to transform the ship’s exterior into an open air ‘art gallery’. The first phase of the project saw Latvian graffiti artist ‘Kiwie’ and other European artists paint murals on the ship between August and November that year and the second phase, starting at the end of March 2013, featured the work of British-based artists including Dan Kitchener and Dale Grimshaw. One of the artworks was a picture of the ship’s first captain, John ‘Jack’ Irwin but in 2017, for reasons currently unknown, both sides of the ship were painted black.
I first became aware of the Duke of Lancaster in 2016 when I saw a couple of photos of it on another blog. It looked and sounded intriguing so I decided that the next time I went down to North Wales I would forgo my usual route down the A55 and take the new-to-me A548 coast road so I could find the ship and see it for myself.
Having checked out the location on Google maps I knew there was a large car park just off the main road and not far from the ship, and through a gate in the corner I came to a footpath – part of the North Wales Coast Path – which took me along the side of a narrow creek and under a low railway bridge, though I hadn’t gone far when I came to locked steel gates and a high metal fence preventing access to the dock. The path went round to the left of the fence and ran along the top of a bank towards the shore, and though I couldn’t get as close to the ship as I wanted to be I was able to get a few photos looking over the top of the nearby hedge.
Now I have no doubt that when all the artwork was first done it looked really good but four years later, with much of the ship sides covered in rust, it all looked a bit of a mess. I was to learn later that every one of those murals contained a hidden message pertaining to the corrupt council which blocked every attempt to set up the ship as a permanent tourist attraction.

Duke of Lancaster, 2016

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To see the other side of the ship I had to go right back along the path to the main road, cross the end of the creek and go down the path on the far side. In the sunshine, and with not as much artwork on that side, it did look marginally better – with all the rust cleaned off and a decent paint job it could have looked quite smart.

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I didn’t visit the ship again until five years later in October 2021 after I learned that it had been painted black just a year after my previous visit. This time it wasn’t as easy to see from the path as the hedges were much taller than before, and though from a distance it did look like the whole of the hull had been painted black a close-up view showed me otherwise. The bow had indeed been painted and it looked good but the rest of the hull was a black of a different sort; the artworks were all gone although traces of some of them were still visible, and in places it looked like it had been on fire, although maybe it had just been stripped back prior to more painting which hasn’t yet happened.

Duke of Lancaster, 2021

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According to various internet sources (if true) it seems that during the last six months a couple of events have taken place on the quayside next to the ship in an effort to raise money towards the cost of ongoing restorations, and other fundraising events are being planned. There’s far more to this story than I could possibly write on here but there’s a more detailed account from a few years ago here – best watched with the sound off though.
It remains to be seen whether the owner, who is now 71 years old, will ever achieve his dream of the ship becoming a proper tourist attraction – if not, then the Duke of Lancaster is destined to forever remain a ship frozen in time.

Merely meerkats

It all started with Baby Oleg.
After having a ‘hands on’ meerkat experience at a Norfolk zoo about ten years ago I really fell in love with the cute little creatures so when a certain insurance comparison site brought out their meerkat adverts I was hooked, though as I never get any insurance through them the chance of ever getting one of their meerkat toys was absolutely zilch. Three years ago however, I saw a Baby Oleg in the window of a local animal charity shop; he was new, boxed, and a very good price so I couldn’t resist. I brought him home and he’s been sitting on top of the bookcase in my study ever since.
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Just prior to my most recent weekend in North Wales I was mooching round a town centre charity shop when I spotted Sergei for sale at a ridiculously low price – a bargain not to be missed, though as I was paying for him the guy behind the counter said “His mate’s up there if you want him as well” and up on the very top shelf was Aleksandr. So they both came home with me and joined Baby Oleg on top of the bookcase.

Sergei and Aleksandr

Now I don’t know how it came about but while I was recently visiting Eileen and her hubby the meerkat toys were mentioned and it turned out that they had several duplicates which they were willing to let me have if I wanted them – so I ended up with the other four from the original seven plus a couple of extras. The one I really liked though – Ayana as Elsa from “Frozen” – wasn’t a duplicate but I was more than happy with the ones I’d been given.
Following that weekend away I searched the internet for Ayana and found her, new, boxed, with her certificate and at a reasonable price, so I sent for her and a week later she joined the rest of the meerkat family, although they aren’t all on top of the bookcase.

Yakov and Vassily

Maiya and Bogdan

Agent Maiya

Safari Oleg and Ayana as Elsa

Although when I originally got Baby Oleg three years ago I had no intention of making a collection the meerkat family has recently multiplied very quickly thanks mainly to Eileen and her hubby, but this is where it must stop – although if I can find Ayana as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” at a reasonable price I might be persuaded to add just one more meerkat to the family.