La Rambla

For three years, 2013-16, we escaped the cold, dark, barren northern winters and flew south, like migrating birds, to the welcoming warmth of the Southern American summers.  Each year we rented the same apartment in Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  Our serviced eleventh floor apartment was just above the top of the trees that completely shaded the street below.  It was a perfect location for us, just two short blocks and three minutes from the river.

From Montevideo, the Río de la Plata does not look like a freshwater river, for it is so wide that one cannot see Argentina, about 100 kilometers away at the closest point.  Massive container ships, tankers and cruise ships, on their way upriver to Buenos Aires and beyond, look like tiny toy boats on the distant horizon.  When one of the regular earth-shaking tropical storms hits the upper reaches of the river, for days the water is brown with sediment.

Along the river runs La Rambla, a wide promenade, that stretches along the coast for more than 30 km, and is reputedly the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk.  Every day, almost without exception, we walked on La Rambla, first in one direction, then in the other.  After a short time, we started to recognize the locals, and before long we were greeting each other like neighbours.  Some times we would count how many people we had  spoken to in the course of a walk, and the number would usually end up in double figures.  We felt very much as part of the community, for Pocitos had the feel of a village.

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La Rambla at Pocitos

On La Rambla we also got to recognize the local birds, not just the species, but in some cases the individuals.  There were numerous birds along the river, some quite exotic.  There are reputedly more than 450 different bird species to be found in the relatively small country of Uruguay; the internet site, Avibase, lists 479.  Not only is Uruguay on the major migration path for many birds, but the country has plentiful water and a climate without extremes.  It was not long before I bought a book on Uruguayan birds and in the second year Lotta turned up with a new camera to photograph them.

Most days when we passed the end of the beach at Pocitos, there were several small snowy egrets with yellow feet, fishing at the edge of the water.  Often there was also a much larger great egret.

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A snowy egret

We once spotted a great egret sitting on top of a tree, near the small harbour at Punta Carretas.  When we went around and through the trees to get closer, we saw a black-crowned night heron.  It was a young one and it flapped away before Lotta could get a second shot.  Although we went back on other days, we never saw it again.

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Great Egret
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Black-crowned night heron

Where there were rocks by the river, inevitably there were cormorants with wings outstretched, drying their feathers.  Once we were very fortunate to witness a large flock of cormorants in a long semi-circle, hunting together, driving a shoal towards the shore.  We could see the fish splashing in the water, trying to escape their predators.

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Neotropic cormorant

Everywhere where there were mature palm trees, there seemed to be colonies of monk parakeets.  When they are feeding on the grass, they are well disguised, but when they are flying or gathered on a palm tree, they make their presence well known, for they make quite a racket.

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Monk parakeet

Humming birds are tiny; they hover and then move so quickly that one has to be lucky to see one, and even more fortunate to take a photograph of it.  One day we hit the jackpot, just up the hill from Playa Ramírez; a tree in full flower with many humming birds feeding on the nectar.  And for several days they had a banquet on that tree.

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A humming bird

Above the hill behind Playa Buceo, we often saw this little hawk, resting on a light pole.  If not an american kestrel, it was similar.  Even in the strongest wind it was able to hover motionless for several minutes, sometimes not far from us, then it would suddenly drop, grab its prey and fly off to nearby trees.

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The southern lapwing is Uruguay’s national bird and in the summer they are plentiful, especially on the parkland between the golf course and the river, after heavy rain.  The lapwings have a strange hesitant walk, that always reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

During our first year in Pocitos, we used to see one lapwing that was always on its own.  At first we thought that it was always standing on one leg, but when it started to hop, it was obvious that it had only one leg.  It appeared to be quite healthy, but perhaps the rest of the flock rejected it for not being quite normal.  I guess that handicapped people in our society can suffer the same rejection.

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The Southern Lapwing with only one leg

The last year that I arrived back in Pocitos, I settled my few possessions in the apartment and then went out for a short walk along La Rambla.  At the end of the beach, there is a small park and there on the edge of the park, waiting for me, was the southern lapwing with only one leg.

I felt as if I had come home.

Martigny

If I were to list my four or five favourite destinations, then I would include Martigny in the Swiss canton of Valais.  I have spent a few days there every year since 2010 and each year when leaving, I promise myself to return one more time.

Martigny is a relatively small town with a population of about 15,000, strategically placed at the junction of the routes from Italy, via the Grand-Saint-Bernhard pass, that from France, via the Route de la Forclaz and the Rhône valley, where the river turns ninety degrees northward, to eventually empty into Lac Léman.

During 1996-1998, I was employed as MD of a Swiss computer services company, with head office in Neuchâtel, and satellite offices in Zürich, Amsterdam, Paris and London.  When I had the opportunity, I spent time in the mountains, hiking, scrambling and climbing: in the Jura in the early springtime, in the pre-Alp in summer and in the Alps in late summer, before the snow-line started to descend.

With no Swiss-German linguistic ability, but confidence in French, I tended to the cantons of Jura, Vaud, Geneva, Lausanne and Sion.  And on my way to the Alps, I often passed Martigny:  on the way up the Rhöne valley to Zinal or Zermat, up to the Col de Forclaz and on to Chamonix, or through Martigny to Verbier or the Val de Bagnes.

Only once did I stop on my way through Martigny and then but for a short time.  I had seen a sign for a Roman amphitheatre.  I was not disappointed.  The site was well-preserved with a plethora of exhibits, photographs and documentation.  My appetite for Martigny was whetted.

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But it was not until 2010 that I returned to the area.  I wanted to attempt the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in the autumn, but I was not confident that my lame leg could handle 20-30 km per day, so I decided to test myself, by walking from Geneva to Martigny, via the southern side of Lac Léman.  The test was successful in that I managed the distance each day with no problem, despite the early July heat wave.  As I had two days free before meeting Lotta and my sons in Chamonix, I decided to stay in Martigny and explore the town and surrounding area.

I returned to the amphitheatre and beside it there was now a new building housing the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard.  It had been opened in 2006 and in addition to many kennels of Saint Bernard dogs, there was an excellent exhibition dedicated to the history of the Saint Bernard pass, with a theatre showing vintage films.  I spent most of an afternoon there.

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Lotta on a later visit to the Chiens du Saint-Bernard in 2013

Close by the amphitheatre and the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard is the Fondation Pierre Gianadda.  It is undoubtedly the most important cultural attraction in Martigny and was founded by Léonard Gianadda in 1978.  He was a successful local engineer and when his workers started excavation for a new building on the outskirts of Martigny, they uncovered the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury.  Gianadda abandoned his original plan and instead built a museum to encompass the ruins and dedicated it in the name of his younger brother, who was killed in a plane crash two years earlier.  Today the museum has an exhibition of locally discovered Gallo-Roman artifacts, a large vintage car museum, a sculpture park, classical concerts and three times each year, an exhibition of paintings of a well-known master.

SWITZERLAND.GET NATURAL.

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Down the other side of the narrow valley flows the river La Dranse, across which is the covered bridge, the Pont de la Bâtiaz, leading to a group of old houses huddled under the steep cliffs above.  A steep path eventually leads one to Le Chateau de la Bâtiaz, towering over Martigny.

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It was originally built in 1260 on the ruins of a Roman fort of the first century.  In the constant conflict between the Dukes of Savoy and Sion, it changed hands many times until it was finally destroyed in 1518.  It was restored in the 20th century.

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When in Martigny, one of my favourite walks is to ascend to the Chateau de la Bâtiaz and continue up the steep mountainside to the upper vineyards.  From there the path gently descends to the upper valley at Martigny-Bourg.  For much of the descent, it is as if one is in a helicopter, such is the view of the town below.

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On other days, I head up the Rhône valley through the orchards and vineyards to Charrat, across the valley to Fully and then back along the vineyards on the other side, until crossing the river back to Martigny.  And of course, it goes without saying that I have my customary stop for a cold beer en route.

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The village of Fully can be seen at the foot of the mountain, on the far side of the valley

In 2009 the Tour de France passed through Martigny.  That was the year my two elder sons cycled from Camberley in the UK to Chamonix,  to meet us and their two younger brothers.

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Meeting outside the station in Chamonix

On their return to the UK, they decided to cycle over the Col de Forclaz at 1527m and down to Martigny, in time to see the Tour de France pass, before continuing on to Geneva.  The descent from the Col de Forclaz is steep and the views are breath-taking, especially on a bicycle.

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Once down in Martigny, the two lads somehow managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the barriers.  The crowds must have thought that they were two clowns hired to entertain them, while they waited for the main act to arrive.

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Bob looking back at Andrew and wondering where to go next 

Having been in South Africa for most of this year, I have not managed to spend any time in Martigny and the Alps.

Perhaps I will make it back next year…

Four Generations

I have traced my father’s ancestors back to the late 1600s and without exception, all were born in Norfolk.  My father’s grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), was the first Norfolk Blackwood to be able to read and write.  In his youth he worked as a labourer in a mill in Hapton, but he somehow ended up owning a windmill in Harlesdon.  Prior to William Blackwood, all our Norfolk ancestors were agricultural labourers, and many died in the workhouse, as paupers.

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The windmill in Harlesdon

So, it never ceases to amaze me that, with that background, my grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood (1881-1965), was an organist at age 19, as listed in the 1901 census, and spent his life as a music teacher in Harpley.  I have no idea of what or who it was that inspired him to a musical career.

His musical interests were classical, and he subsidised his teaching income by serving as organist in local churches.  For some years he was the resident organist at Sandringham, the Royal residence.  And his church responsibilities included training the church choirs.  He ended his career in his early 80s, as organist at the church in Bushmills, near Portrush on the north coast of Ulster.  But he continued to practise every morning, afternoon and evening until the night in 1965 when he permanently fell asleep.

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My grandfather conducting a choir c1950.  My grandmother is in the front row, second from the right.

It was my grandfather who taught my father to play the piano and instilled in him the music-reading skills that stood him so well.  But my father had no real interest in classical or church music and when he was 16, in 1935, he moved to London, to take up a position as a trainee-manager with Sainsbury’s, which in that era was an upper-class grocer.  It was in the evenings that he found his true musical love – big bands, such as those of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Joe Loss etc.  He used to go to the ballrooms in North London, not to dance, but to listen to the bands, to observe, to study their technique.

It was during the early years of the war, when his regiment was stationed in and around Portrush, that my father established himself as a pianist, most nights playing a few numbers with the local bands.  After the war ended, he returned to Portrush and joined the Ernie Mann band.  But I have covered much of this history in a previous article, so I will not repeat myself.

To many, it might come as a surprise to know that for most of his professional life my father never had a piano.  He bought the sheet music, turned up at a venue and played.

He retired from his dance band in the late 1950s to concentrate on his farming business.  But music was his great love, and in the late 1960s he bought an electronic organ, an early version of modern keyboards, and soon was employed 2-3 times a week, playing in local hotels.  For friends and acquaintances, he made numerous recordings on a little tape-recorder.  Following is an example:

He died suddenly in late 1995; he would have been 77 the next day.  We found his music case packed and prepared for a performance that night.

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A clipping from a newspaper article, published not long before his death

In my turn, I had no musical training when I was young.  We had no piano at home and neither the primary nor secondary schools that I attended gave any musical tuition.  But I had enough rhythm to fill the role of drummer in a group with some teenage friends. We were pretty awful, but we had fun while it lasted, and when I left school in 1963, Bill McKeown invited me to join the little group that he was forming.  I wrote about it in the previous article that I mentioned earlier.

One of my friends, Raymond Lyttle, who played lead guitar, had real talent, and he went on to join the Delta Showband.  Sadly, he was killed in a car crash returning from an engagement, not long after I migrated to Canada in 1965.

All my four sons studied the recorder at Lyndhurst Primary School, with some success.  And for a time, John played the cornet and Philip played my old clarinet.  It was only Andrew who continued to study music at secondary school, ending up with an ‘A’ level.  For one of his exams he had to submit his own composition and thankfully I managed to make a recording of him playing it.  He called it ‘Springtime’ and every time that I listen to it, I can hear his interpretation of the four seasons…

 

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Andrew playing at a wedding in March 2013

During his school years, my youngest son, Philip, became very much involved in amateur musicals, both in school and with a local junior operatic society.  For a time, he flirted with the idea of pursuing a musical career.  I suspect that one day he will return to the stage, albeit in an amateur mode.

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Philip in a local production of Tom Sawyer

So, from humble Norfolk roots, to date four generations of the Blackwood family have studied music, have entertained, have acted.  I write these words so that future generations of my family will be aware of their historical roots, and in the hope that some of them will be inspired to carry the baton for one more lap.

For music is very much in their genes.

 

The Palladium

Portrush

circa June 1965

If you are ever in Portrush, on the north Irish coast, and you head down Causeway Street from the town centre, just before the Catholic church you will see St. Patrick’s Hall.  Now the building was not always connected with the church.  In my day, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was called The Palladium and it was a theatre, putting on variety shows during the brief holiday seasons of Easter and summer, when the resort used to be a tourist destination, before the tour companies started offering cheap holiday flights and hotels in the more reliable southern European sunshine.  For most of the year The Palladium was shuttered.

Before its transformation to a variety theatre, the Palladium was a ballroom, with a resident orchestra.  There was also Barry’s Ballroom.  With thousands of soldiers stationed in north Ulster, training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe, there must have been plenty of trade for the ballrooms and the local girls were very much in demand.  That was how my mother met my father in 1942.

I never heard my father speaking of playing at the Palladium.  He ended his military service in January of 1946 in Lübeck on the Baltic, having been involved in the fighting from the invasion of Normandy through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.   When he returned to Portrush, he got his professional opportunity as pianist with Ernie Mann’s band, then resident in Barry’s Ballroom.  When Ernie was forced to retire, due to ill- health, my father took over leadership of the band.

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My father on the left, with the Ernie Mann Band in 1949
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And at the piano with his own band during a BBC Radio broadcast in 1951

But by the early 1950’s, musical tastes were changing, with Bill Haley and His Comets and the jive displacing the formal quickstep and waltz and orchestras.  And then came Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles and the avalanche of groups with singer, lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums.  In Portrush, the Arcadia Ballroom opened in 1953 and Barry’s Ballroom closed around that time.  I don’t know what happened to the Palladium Ballroom, but I suspect that it had already ceased to operate.  My father moved his band to the Northern Counties hotel, and for many years they continued there.  He became very well-known and many times over the years, when they have heard my name, strangers have said to me, ‘you wouldn’t be Harry Blackwood’s son, would you now?’

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The Arcadia, on what looks like a bleak stormy day (photo from internet)

I only ever once went to a show at the Palladium.  I think it was in the early summer of 1965, but I am not sure.  Neither can I remember clearly who I went with.  It may have been Trevor Gaston and Martin Williamson, but again it is all a blur.  You see, we went to a performance of Edwin Heath. the well-renowned hypnotist, and I fell asleep in the first few minutes of the show, when he was introducing his act and the entrancing music was playing in the background.  I was not the only one; those of us who succumbed were led up to the stage and we were the show for the next hour or so.

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Edwin Heath, the hypnotist

I recall nothing.  Afterwards I learned that the ‘victims’ were commanded to react to many different out-of-character situations: acting as we were different animals, believing that a glass of water tasted foul or another strongly alcoholic etc., and in my case to imitate a well-known singer, singing a hit song.

Now singing in front of an audience, hypnotised or not, for me was nothing unusual; I was the drummer in Bill McKeown’s Group, appearing at various local hotels in the area and further afield in Belfast, Red Bay and the Giant’s Causeway.  We even had a six-week, Monday through Saturday, summer booking in a local hotel.  In addition to a full-time day job, it was hard work, playing from 20:00 to midnight and often much later. We were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and there was little competition in those days.  Bill was a talented pianist and saxophonist, his wife had a beautiful voice, his son was competent on the guitar.  In addition to drumming, I sang ballads.  When the client had sufficient budget, we included a bass guitar and trumpet, the latter being Tommy Tinkler, who was formerly in my father’s band and is in both photos above.

And in the Edwin Heath show, I sang the Jim Reeves hit song, ‘I love you because’, as I had many times before.

Today Portrush is but a shadow of what it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday crowds filled the hotels and boarding houses, staying for a week or more, when the beaches were crowded in the rare good weather, the amusement arcades were full and in the evening the centre of the tiny town was one big traffic jam and the pavements crowded.  These days, many of the former boarding houses have shut or have been converted into flats for the students from the nearby university.  And the steam trains that used to shuttle back and forth from Belfast, have long been retired and replaced by a tiny local commuter train, carrying students to their classes at the university in Coleraine.

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One of the steam trains leaving Portrush, just as I remember them (photo from internet)

And all the former ballrooms have disappeared; Barry’s Ballroom was demolished and the area converted to more amusement machines; the Northern Counties Hotel was burned down in an arson attack and eventually replaced by a Ramada Inn; the Arcadia was largely demolished and only a part of the original building remains.

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The former Palladium, as it is today

 

Of the four, only the Palladium still functions, albeit in its new role as a church hall.