Thursday, 31 July 2008


Quite some time ago I made a couple of entries on the blog about building toys.

One was about Meccano which is just about still going (but not particularly as I remember it) and the other described Bayko which was the building toy before Lego came on the scene.

There was a third toy I have fond memories of but for the life of me I couldn't remember its name or find any photos of it on the Internet. It had yellow rods that you could connect by using red plastic wheels - it was great for building cubes, cars, aeroplanes etc.

But it's strange how things work out in this world and I got a message from a work colleague, Dave Webster, who works at Sunderland after he had seen my photographs at Flickr and after having a look through his own photos I came across this one which I've cropped drastically above but which shows him as a young lad at school with that self same toy which I now know was called Bildit and on seeing the photo I immediately recognised the tube it came in.

Many thanks for filling that gap in my memories Dave!

Storm on the Motorway

Tuesday saw me coming back from Newcastle after attending a workshop given by one of the other JISC Advisory Services to the staff from my own advisory service, JISC infoNet.

The journey was fairly uneventful and easy - down the A1 to Scotch Corner, along the A66 to Brough then onto the cross country small roads through Kirkby Stephen and then onto the B roads to Sedbergh and from there to join the M6 heading south from Kendal.

The sky had changed from blue to grey and now almost to black as I pulled into the services at Killington Lake for a spot of tea. I sat at a table with an older couple at the other side of a low and very narrow partition. We could almost have been sitting at the same table really.

"My word, look at that rainbow!" he said suddenly. I had my back to the window and felt it impolite to just turn round in case they thought I was listening to them (no choice actually!)

Anyway when I did turn round it was a rewarding sight. I have never seen such vivid colours in a rainbow and this against a very dark sky. There was just the one patch of sunlight on the far side of the lake that gives the services their name.

And wouldn't you know it - I had no camera with me. Sorry. To be honest, I had a half unfinished plate of food in front of me anyway so you may have lost out in the priority stakes even if I had have had a camera!

I know... I'm tough on my readers. Sometimes I have to be!

Last Hours on the Island Star

11 July 2008.

The Island Star leaves Barcelona and we go for a final meal in the Steakhouse restaurant. We asked for a window table and sat near to the salad buffet, idly watching the occasional ship and the endless movement of the waves whilst we ate and talked about what we had seen and done on the holiday.

There wasn't any great sense of it coming to an end because we are already booked to return to the Island Star later this year, this time taking my mother along. That could be an experience in itself. I might ask the captain if he has a plank he can stick out from the side, or should I take my own?

We went to the Ocean Theatre and watched the show, then wandered for a while, taking in the ship for one last time. The Pub, the Bounty Bar, the casino, the shops and "Harbour Walk", the decks and the Beachcomber Restaurant for a late night coffee.

The following morning sees us back at Palma in Majorca.

Fran does the usual squinting from the decks to see if she can spot our suitcases which have been taken off the ship and lined up with about a thousand others waiting for us to collect them and take them to our coach for the trip to the airport. The ship has fooled her this year - they are inside one of the buildings on the portside.

The trip to the airport is uneventful and the flight is on time. Manchester is grey, cold and wet. Not much new there perhaps, but enough to make us shiver!

We arrive back at home and make a fuss of the cats who waver between being glad to see us and a desire to ignore us as punishment for leaving them behind. Gill and Eddie have been taking good care of them though.

And that's the end of the holiday. For now. Can't wait for the next...

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Ford Zephyr MkIII

I've been uploading more photos to Flickr from the Fleetwood Tram Sunday event and reached this one of a superbly kept Ford Zephy 6 MkIII estate car.

Being working cars, estate cars tend not to remain in such good condition so I'd guess this is a fairly rare example.

It brought back some wonderful memories for me though because back in 1971, aged only 17, I bought a Ford Zephyr of my own.

This was a saloon model - a Zephyr 4. The number represented the number of cylinders - the Zephyr 6 had a six-cylinder engine whereas the Zephyr 4 had a 4-cylinder 1700cc engine.

Delving way back to those days, here's a photo of my Zephyr from a colour slide taken at Hollingworth Lake near Rochdale. It was in Lancashire then, it is now part of Greater Manchester, though I still think of it as Lancashire.

The main external difference between the Zephyr 4 and Zephyr 6 was that the front grill was divided for the Zephyr 6. On the Zephyr 4 it was a single wide grill. The top of the range Zodiac had twin headlights and the rear window struts were much narrower so it had better rear vision.

The Zephyr had a bench front seat that could easily fit three people and had a gear lever coming from the steering column with a handbrake lever coming from under the dashboard. It had style, it had class, it had rust. Eventually the rust around the suspension points under the bonnet got so bad that when closing the bonnet the hinges didn't so much close as they bent the metal they were attached to and sunk downwards. This meant that the front end of the bonnet would close ok but the rear end would finish up halfway up the windscreen. This was the reason I eventually had to get rid of it. It remained for many many years my favourite car of all time and still ranks up there. But perhaps two cars surpassed it in my affections. One is mentioned here and the other? Maybe that will have to wait for another day!

Monday, 28 July 2008

La Sagrada Familia

Friday 11 July 2008. The Island Star reaches Barcelona, the last port of call of the week before returning to Palma. We've been to Barcelona a couple of times before, the last time just getting off the ship and walking up Las Ramblas. We had wanted but failed to find Gaudi's cathedral La Sagrada Familia and so had decided that today would be all about finding and seeing the cathedral.

When we looked on a street map it was much further away from the port than we had originally thought. We would need some transport. Having got off the ship though, we saw the familiar red double decked bus of a city tour and got onto that. We knew we would have to transfer from the blue line to the red line. That was the first problem...

"Blimey! Look at the queue!" We dashed across to join the queue which almost immediately suddenly became at least three times longer. However a steady stream of buses kept taking away sizeable chunks of the queue until we were able to get on one ourselves. We then realised that our day was rapidly being eaten away. It took us an hour and a half to get to the cathedral. Worse, the routes were one-way. The cathedral was only a quarter of the way around the red line which meant it could take hours to get back to the transfer point and then the blue line was also only a quarter (if that) into its journey by the time it carried on from the transfer point.

We decided we would have to get a taxi back to the port and do away with the rest of the bus tour. An expensive bus ride to the cathedral then! Anyway, the cathedral itself is well worth seeing. I've heard from people who love it and people who hate it and who think a ridiculous amount of time and money is being spent on building it.

The building work was started in 1882 and is not due to be completed until 2026. The famous towers shown here are there to frame a larger tower of Jesus Christ, still to be built. The carvings of the facades, of which there will eventually be three, are fantastic in their complexity and imagination.

Part of the appeal for me is that every time we see it, we can identify new bits. This time carpenters were busy building a wooden frame for something - a screen, a balcony, maybe even the top of a tower? We found a taxi without any difficulty. He must have oiled all the hinges every night, I've never known a car door shut so easily. Consequently Fran slammed it much to the driver's disgust and he gave a long protest in Spanish that was totally beyond us. When we got out I gave it a gentle push and it slammed again so we walked away to the sound of his anguished protests... Sheesh! Leave the oilcan alone and let it grow a bit of resistance!

That night we celebrated the end of the cruise with a meal in the steak house, attended well by Ronnie and Vivian.

Saturday 12 July 2008. Overnight the ship has sailed from Barcelona back to our starting point in Palma, Majorca. Our bags are already sitting out on the dockside waiting for us as we wake, have a quick shower and breakfast and get off the ship for the last time this trip. We had a blast. Hope you enjoyed coming with us!

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Toulon and a Mediterranean Sunset

Thursday 10 July 2008. The excursion to St Tropez and Port Grimaud has come to a close and the coach returns us to Toulon, where the Island Star is moored.

Toulon has been a port since the 1490s. Perhaps it's strangest episode came in 1543 when the Ottoman Admiral Barbarossa was invited to winter his fleet there by King Francis I. The residents of Toulon were forced to leave so that the Ottoman personnel could live in their homes. I bet that went down well...

To the east we watched as a bank of thick fog approached. Despite getting steadily closer, for some reason it came to a halt just behind the blocks of flats or apartments.

Sail-away time came and we slid out from the dock and made our way towards the main channel to the exit from the port.

Toulon remains the home port of the French Mediterranean Fleet and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Following the French Revolution, Toulon rebelled against the Revolutionaries and invited the British Fleet to harbour there in 1790. A siege of Toulon followed in 1793 during which the French forces including a certain Colonel Bonaparte forced the withdrawal of the British. As part of their withdrawal the British succeeded in destroying the French Fleet, blowing up the town's arsenals to prevent their falling into enemy hands and evacuated some 14,877 Toulon residents. The remainder were left to flee, suffering the indiscriminate firing of the victorious army who deemed them traitors. A further estimated 700-800 Royalists were shot or bayonetted afterwards.

The Island Star approaches the exit channel from the port, having to sail through the bank of thick fog to do so.

The evening's activities onboard included a special party for previous cruisers.

It did not include any spectacular wins on the machines in the casino...

Somehow the week had almost gone and tomorrow would be our last day in a port of call so we made the most of the serenity of being at sea. The sunset that night was particularly spectacular and we spent some time out on the deck, watching until the sun disappeared. We've found on previous trips that sunset or twilight is a good time for spotting dolphins. We kept watch for any tell-tale spouts of spray but nothing. Then we spotted more shadows than usual and had just voiced our wonders when a grey head suddenly popped up vertically from the waves to briefly check us over before it was gone again. And that... was that!

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page

Caroline Munro in Blackpool

Bond Girl and fantasy film actress Caroline Munro was in Blackpool yesterday for a signing at the Who shop on Victoria Street.

The event was arranged by Graham Groome and Caroline brought her good friend Jayne Crimmin along with their families for a good weekend in Blackpool.

We went along and at lunchtime whisked her and Jayne to Quilligan's which we consider to be the best cafe in Blackpool. Fran and I had already had breakfast in there with David and Jeannie but we were all ready for a spot of lunch. We introduced Jayne to the delights of proper northern chips and she was definitely impressed!

Then it was back to the Who shop where Caroline met up with more fans who came to see her and chat and have their photo taken with her.

There's a number of photos of the event at my Flickr account

I've been with Caroline at more signings than I can remember now and she always takes as much time as her fans want to take and makes sure they go away with great memories of meeting her. One little boy soon took to her and was starting to tell her who he did and didn't like at school before his Mum told him that perhaps he shouldn't tell!

The Who shop on Victoria Street is a treasure trove for anyone who like comics, cult TV or movies, science fiction or fantasy. There are toys, figures (some of them life-size!) and a wonderfully enthusiastic staff. "You have to be a fan yourself to manage a shop like this!" the manager said and his own and his staff's enthusiasm certainly makes the place a friendly and wonderful place to visit.

We spent the rest of the afternoon with Caroline, Jayne and Graham and then took our leave, having had a great day!

Friday, 25 July 2008

Port Grimaud

Thursday 10 July 2008. Following our look around St Tropez, the coach took us to Port Grimaud.

This is a fairly modern town, having been created in 1966 by Fran├žois Spoerry, who wanted to recreate something of Venice.

He created a town that has waterways instead of roads, where every house has a mooring point for the owner's yacht. Consequently the residents are fairly well off. Joan Collins is an example.

We only had an hour here, so we didn't call round to see Joanie. What you actually find here isn't all that much like Venice but is quite pleasing never-the-less.

Cars and vans are kept out unless making deliveries. There are huge coach and car parks just outside the main entrance and the lack of traffic on roads and the numerous waterways means that you can wander at will over numerous hump-backed bridges over the canals, looking at the brightly painted houses with their boats and yachts.

Port Grimaud is a bit like every marina. The boats (and in this case the houses) are owned mainly by people who don't live here.

They just come every now and then and so the boats stay tied up and unmoving, the property of people with too much money to value their ownership.

We had a walk and I bought a few postcards - it looked the sort of place I could have sat and sketched but with only an hour overall, we settled for a can of coke and a stroll instead.

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page

Thursday, 24 July 2008

St Tropez

Thursday 10 July 2008. Ah... St Tropez! The name conjures up glamour, luxury, the rich and famous. Will it live up to the image?

We have moved on now to the French Riviera. The Island Star docked in Toulon where we got off the ship and boarded a coach for the 90-minute ride to St Tropez. One passenger felt aggrieved at this... "90 minutes without a toilet stop?!?" He was a bit eccentric anyway - we had noticed him a couple of times on the boat wearing the most bizarre clothes you've ever seen.

I swear he was dressed as Robinson Crusoe one night...and there are no fancy dress nights on the Island Star... Can we carry on? Well yes, we're going to anyway as the French guide has merely stared at him and said "That is correct..." We were on the front seat and my French is just about good enough to understand the driver saying "I think he should have gone before we left...!" I did learn some new swear words as a motorbike cut us up!

And so we reached St Tropez. Again we dispensed with the walking tour and set off to walk from where the coach dropped us along the coast and into St Tropez itself.

We admired all the boats - there were indeed some luxury millionaire-only type yachts. We walked to the far end of the harbour wall and then decided to get a bite of lunch as this was our only full-day tour of the week. We found a nice pizzeria and ordered a couple of pizzas.

The loo was an experience for Fran as there were two toilets opposite each other. One had no light and no window. The other had no lock. She waited for the one with no lock and sat jamming her foot against the door. When she came out, a bloke was sitting on the loo opposite and had left the door wide open so he could see...

A few artists had set up stalls along the harbour. This one specialised in boats floating in a red sea and sky - quite effective actually - monochrome naked females with robotic joints and the odd realistically coloured landscape.

We had a look around the shops to have a laugh at the prices. All the big name high-end fashion shops were there. A half-recognised famous face (which looked much younger than her arms...) came out of one, glanced at me and hurried on.

We looked at several collections of price tags with too many zeroes and finally bought a fridge magnet.

We saw quite a few of these cars. I'm afraid I mistook them for mini mokes as made in the 1960s and used in TVs cult hit The Prisoner. Perhaps someone had bought a job lot and transported them here after the sixties were over? But since then, someone has commented on the photo at Flickr (now unavailable) that they are modern cars, based on a Citroen 2CV chassis. So they lose a number of glamour points for that then! Tres chic though! We made our way back onto the coach and then waited for ten minutes past the time for a couple to roll up. They claimed to have got lost but they were not exactly hurrying back...

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page

Livorno's Old Fortress

Wednesday 9 July 2008. Now here is an impressively old fortress built - somewhat startlingly - of red bricks. Old Fortress is actually its name too. The new one was built at the end of the 16th century, whilst this one has been standing since the beginning of that century.

It does look a little held together by pins and braces, but that's as much down to Second World War bombing as to the ravages of time.

You may remember that at the end of my previous post we were dropped off on a stone pier sticking out of the massively solid wall, water to every side except for a closed and formidable iron gate leading into the fortress. Luckily, when pulled, it swung open... Not that this led to an inviting hallway. Oh no... We were now in the catacombs under the fortress. They were in the act of installing a lighting system and my photo is much, much, lighter than it seemed at the time.

We couldn't see to the far end of the tunnel and whilst they were probably built to store food and goods rather than prisoners, you couldn't help but wonder...!

Happily we came out, squinting and shading our eyes into the bright sunshine. Our guide whisked us briskly past a small but inviting bar set up in a courtyard and into the main part of the castle itself.

I love history and old buildings and things but guides have a habit of traipsing out a long string of dates and architects you will never have heard about and never will again so I'm afraid we ignored her and wandered about a bit, looking at photos showing the castle from before the bombing. There was indeed a lot more of it then!

The round tower was still standing and accessed through a door made for dwarfs only from a small room that was still roofed and gloomy. "There's a climb of around 40 steps," warned the guide. Miss Franny hates spiral staircases and went out to find the little bar, where I could catch up with her later to find her surrounded by bottles and glasses, standing on the table and roaring out at the top of her voice "First I was afraid, I was petrified..." whilst egged on by a crowd of similarly drunken women. (I may have made that up...)

Anyway, I ducked (that's me with my lofty frame of 5 feet 4 inches and a smidgeon!) under the dwarf's doorway and started up the very dark stairway to the top of the tower. It felt slightly more than 40 steps and in fact I counted them going down. 72 in fact... The Italians are a modest race...

There was a great view from up at the top. In all directions...

Here is the Island Star moored next to the deserted Royal Princess and in the foreground bits of the fortress.

The top of the tower was not much wider than the diameter of the spiral staircase itself. Wandering around the perimeter took probably fewer steps than it had to climb the staircase and so I headed downwards, hardly able to see in the gloom after the sunshine and starting to appreciate Fran's dislike of spiral staircases! Oh, disappointment - she was sitting quietly with a can of coke, but quite chuffed that she had managed to make the bartender understand her. (Isn't "Coca Cola" the same in any language?) Anyway I congratulated her and then I went to get a drink for myself too. Hang on... he speaks English!!!

Everyone was piling back onto the boat to return to the ship but it was literally less than 100 yards across a bridge so we just set off to walk. It was only later we found that due to the industrial nature of the port, passengers and workers were not allowed to just walk through the port. But anyway we survived the perilous bridge and I took this one from the Promenade Deck of the Island Star.

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Canals of Livorno

Wednesday 9th of July. We watched the excursions go off to Florence and Pisa and then those of us who were left, walked a few yards from the Island Star and got onto a boat of much more modest proportions.

This was to take us on a tour of the canals - Livorno was built by the Medicis and based around sea trading, so the canals were a way of bringing goods right into the city.

The canals form a pentagon with each corner having a defensive structure and a massive fortress constructed at the entrance from the harbour. We shall see more of that in the next entry.

The canals were very quiet. We weren't jostling for position or continually going past boats coming in the other direction as you would be on the canals of Venice. (Livorno was based on the Venetian canal idea and the old quarter, built in the 1600s, was known as Nuova Venezia or New Venice).

There were certainly lots of small boats, moored alongside small businesses and looking more working than pleasure craft. The sun was beating down, making the trip a pleasant and non-taxing trip. The buildings were in the main just typical city buildings hardly deserving of the title palace which is how the guide described them. If they were palaces then every apartment building in Paris is a palace. One of the problems with city canals though is that the city tends to be built over them rather than on the same level so the view from a small boat is restricted to say the least. It was a pleasant hour, but not an exciting hour if you see what I mean!

Finally we moored alongside a small pier jutting out from the massive base of the huge fortress at the entrance to the harbour. Either the boat or a formidable iron gate through the vast brick wall of the fortress were the only means of escape from the small stone jetty - and the gate looked very, very, closed!

Return to Mediterranean Spirit Cruise Index Page