All posts by tonyives

About tonyives

A Yorkshireman of a certain age who likes most genres of music and most makes of old car. Travel is a joy, not least to escape the British winter. Travel by bicycle is bliss and if I’m not lost in music then I’m lost in a daydream about a hot day, tens of miles to cover and the promise of a great campsite and a beer. I like to think I’m always learning and becoming wiser. On the latter point then evidence is in short supply.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

In my last blog (about being a tour guide this year) I write about some guest foibles and the highlights and that all tour should finish with tips!

Guest Foibles

One of my opening questions at the briefing is “what are you especially looking forward to during the week?” The men have no particular idea having scanned the itinerary months ago and probably having forgotten it by now. This can be true for the females but less so and there are always a couple of activities that excite. One was the Pilgrim’s Walk across from the mainland to Holy Island. This can only happen when the tide is out. I had one lady say that she’d gone into remission with breast cancer and this had been an ambition before and after her treatment. I was happy to help although the magic of the walk always escapes me. On both walks I’ve had two women fall over on their faces in the mud half way across. As a guide you’re horrified but they both saw it as hilarious and are probably still dining out on the story.

Nearly smiling. Two and half miles of waterlogged sand…

One guest advised that she needed to find a hairdresser to wash her hair. I half understood this. Obviously I have little fleece but having three females in my life I am always staggered by what they put on their hair let alone what they pay at the hairdressers. This was difficult to resolve as we were deep in the Dales and finding a sheep shearer might have been easier. One guest wanted details on what professional women’s football games were on in London at the weekend. Of course you can look at Google but where are the grounds, how do you best get there and how much?

The Highlights

I mentioned that a well curated tour is the most vital thing for success., followed by some decent weather. To think my ‘office’ was Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland coastline, Alnwick Castle, Malham Tarn, the Black Sheep Brewery or Fountains Abbey then you can appreciate that there was pleasure in introducing the guests, mostly southerners, to the magnificent landscapes. I never tired of that despite repeat visits. I have a sketchy knowledge of the history but that is improving and I enjoyed learning more, in fact I could have a dart at Mary, Queen of Scots, as my specialist subject on Mastermind. I did tell the other guides on our shared WhatsApp group that excitingly she stayed at one of the attractions I was taking the guests to. Quickly one wiser sage came back and said ‘Tony, she stayed every where!’ True, was in exile in England for 18 years and rolled from one stately pile to another with her entourage of over 50 people. She could fund this number as she was a widow of a former King of France on a very good stipend…enough now Tony.

There is considerable pleasure to gain command of the tour. You start hesitant but eventually you not only know where to go and what to say but you also get sufficient knowledge to deal with changes and variations without due concern. Another thing is that if the tour goes well for a couple of days the guests build up confidence in you and then if things go wrong they’re more forgiving and tolerant.

The ruins of Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales

Some guests are hilarious and or interesting. One American guest took it in her stride a night when the party took on itself to go for a pizza in Settle. The Italian owner was cook, wine waiter and maitre ‘d. He was also a wind bag who took ages to do any of these jobs. This led to delays in the food arriving. It was my night off and so the next morning they all told me about this frustrating night. Were they unhappy? My American guest described this as ‘dinner and a show’ in terms of entertainment!

The amazing Gordale Scar, in the Yorkshire Dales

Often the news headlines would be discussed at breakfast. I kept quiet as my politics were usually not theirs but there was one sad story about an aggressive dog being put down for some terrible attack. The consensus was that the owner should have been destroyed instead! Another guest produced a video on his phone of his dog. I was encouraged to have a look, not an obvious delight for Tony. To my amazement his dog was walking on a tread mill! This is how it often took its exercise. He also recounted a story where his wife popped out for an hour and a half forgetting that the dog was on the tread mill. When she returned Rover was still plodding along!

One driver who was with us for a few days was seemingly relaxed and experienced. However one incident was very tense where he met an oncoming car as he finished crossing a single lane bridge. The woman in the car was gesticulating suggesting he was wrong to not give way. This was a strange point of view given the size of the bus and the fact he was already on the bridge. Anyway, cringingly he stopped beside the grumpy driver, wound down his window and started to debate the merits of her analysis. Fortunately it was relatively brief and the guests thought it was hilarious. I can smile now but surely keep your emotions under control with drivers you’ll never see again and you’re with a bus full of customers? 

Warkworth Castle on the Northumbrian coast

There’s only a certain amount you want to learn about guests and certainly only a limited amount you want to tell them. However, conversations start and you can end up down a proverbial rabbit hole. One British resident male guest had a career in IT and ended up a US national. As ‘I peeled the onion’ of his life it had started with a period of time as an ice cream salesman in Kansas. If this wasn’t a very baffling progression then he had chosen to remain a dual national. From here a detailed expose on the tax realities of such a status were revealed. The gist being that Uncle Sam got first dibs before HMRC swept up the balance of the due levy. From here another conversation of why retain both citizenships ensued. It never came with an answer I thought was compelling but there again stuff like Brexit or Scottish Independence never hinge on the logic of monetary arithmetic do they.

As a guide then most of the other professionals you deal with whilst out and about are usually on your side and one meeting that touched me was at Hardraw Force Waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. Leading the party I turned up at the counter to pay for the guests to walk up to the waterfall. The lady behind the counter was a little terse and sought our help on using the technology to pay for the visit. I also needed a receipt and this was another challenge for her. Anyway we did the transaction and the guests went up to see the attraction whilst I stayed behind. It transpired that she was nearly blind and that using the technology was a bordering on impossible. She told me she had terminal ‘blood cancer’ and that the treatment had led to her blindness. She owned this attraction with her family but she’d had to manage the admissions for the day.

Within Alnwick Castle on a private tour

As I helped her she was so grateful and I was offered chocolate bars and coffee for free. Frankly I was so glad I’d helped let alone needed to receive any gratuity. As they say ‘be slow to judge people’.

I must mention the camaraderie of the guides. This wasn’t just when working together but before, after or during a tour you’ve always got someone to ask about lunch solutions, train pick ups, walking short cuts, rescheduling and the like. If you have the experience then you’re happy to share and you know the pressure the guide is under time wise so that everyone responds with alacrity.

Tips

I worked for two tour operators on the four tours. Each operator’s brochure mentions tipping the guide/s on the holiday. Personally whatever I might receive then it was never going to be used to pay a bill or change my life. However, it does provide a fillip and boost for feeling you’ve done a good job. Everyone likes a ‘pat on the back’. 

The amazing Vindolanda

Before I started there were folklore stories about Americans being very generous and I knew what Anna and I had tipped on our holidays. Surely it’d be a pleasant surprise when they personally sought me out to press cash into my hand before they left? No, frankly it was miserable and I mainly came away thinking that the British were simply mean. The older the guest the lower the tip (or non existent) and as you’ve read then those are the guests who you help most, ask the most questions (sometimes repetitively) , re-arrange dining arrangements for and you have to listen to most to as they regale you with endless anecdotes. The simple fact is that many are lonely and this is a social event as much as a, say, sightseeing or walking holiday.

On average I received less per guest than they spent on cheese, as gifts for family and friends, when we visited the Wensleydale Creamery. For the hours spent, and the care given, this is awful. On my last tour I received no tips. In fact that’s not quite true as one guest organised a cash transfer for me. However, I needed a bank account in the country they originated from to access the dosh. I didn’t and so it remained uncashed. On this last tour I helped and accommodated one guest whose infirmity made their attendance very risky given the unavoidably difficult terrain we visited. If they had taken me to one side, at the end, and simply given me a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for my care it would have been lovely. If there’s one ‘take away’ from guiding then I shall have little or no expectation of gratuities on the next tour!

So next year? Well, I’m up for it and I’ve ‘learned’ my territory so that it should be less time consuming pre-tour and generally less stressful. During the winter I’m taking the necessary steps to get a Private Hire licence. (This is expensive and onerous but the land agent is helping financially.) In the uncertain world of recession and global headwinds who knows how the opportunities will work out but I’m hopeful it continues.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my experiences of being a tour guide in 2022. In this blog I’ve attempted to tell you about the detail that goes on in running the tour that maybe the guest doesn’t see. Also the problems!

Guide Challenges

On my first tour I was supporting a lead guide. A nice easy introduction to this tour guide malarky? Not exactly, I was on the train between York and the start in Newcastle when later that morning I got a text. The lead guide had a puncture, he was 20 miles away from the Station and may be late. Don’t panic! Each tour has an itinerary and whilst there is some spare time it is quite tight with distances to drive. What would I do with the guests as our bus and lead guide were absent?  Anyway, the puncture, early on a Sunday morning, got fixed and by the skin of his teeth he turned up with the bus. The guests never knew about the issue. As this was all happening I was investigating taxis to transfer the guests to a pub 40 miles up the road where the bus might catch up with us.

As a guide you have an itinerary. It appears simple just to follow it when you turn up? However, it doesn’t run without a lot of intervention before and throughout the week. On Day 2 of this first tour we came under pressure as the guests worked out that the promised private guides, in the brochure, at the attractions weren’t in place. On this tour the guests, especially the females, knew exactly what they were entitled to. As a consequence one guest went ballistic and rang the tour operator to complain. Overnight the problem was sorted but the guides were left looking hopeless and that the decisions lay elsewhere. Needless to say the complainant was a generally disagreeable lady who took great delight informing the group that she had resolved the matter and that through her intervention it was all sorted. Strictly this was true but in reality she enjoyed being the battle axe that put things right and basking in the glow of her heroism. Separately I had caught her privately and apologised for this embarrassment. She knew the guides had no involvement in this omission but she didn’t have the grace to acknowledge our discomfort. (Overnight the guides without knowing her complaint had raised the matter with our management as well.) Your next thought is why did this happen in the first place? The land agent had failed to do this; maybe as a cost saving?

A view from Dunstanburgh Castle near Coaster

Our management (land agent) similarly were graceless. Whilst the next private guide at a castle was organised for us the lead guide was left to sort out a private guide at a further attraction. Where do you start when you’re driving the bus, handling guests and frankly very busy? To his credit he sorted it and that was another thing learned.

The guide tour information, prior to a tour, involve some details on the guests. However, some detail is missing including their health. Frankly as far as the tour operator is concerned then providing you’ve signed the disclaimer about your health, and have travel insurance, you can paraglide with one arm and a fear of heights as far as they’re concerned. I discovered on one dangerous section of a very wet and rainy part of Hadrian’s Wall that my 80 year old guest had a replacement hip and shoulder. I spent two and half hours as I helped her and waited with eternal patience for her to complete various sections privately calculating how long it would take the air ambulance to reach us from Newcastle.

Barter Books in Alnwick. A terrific second hand book shop (and great scones)

On two of the four tours I was sharing the same hotel as the guests. This was terrific for convenience but on two other tours I was located over 10 miles away. In one Airbnb I shared with a guide he got the proper bedroom and I got the spare box room with a child’s bunk bed solution. This wasn’t ensuite and required my going down the stairs through the lounge and then the kitchen to reach the loo. Being of a certain vintage this was necessary during the night. Clearly whoever booked the accommodation just did a crap job and I had three days (and nights) of this nonsense.

After a 12 hour day welcome back to my sleeping hutch with obstacles

However this was ‘topped’ by my turning up at a hotel specified in my joining instructions on another tour that was not only wrong but in the wrong town! I had checked in early and had just enough time to get to the correct hotel with the guests none the wiser. My last land agent problem is that those who book things in detail have no idea of the geography or distances. We took a train at a time decided by the land agent from Settle to Garsdale. I was suspicious this was the wrong train time but as a bus was hired to meet us at the other end I went with it. The bus collected and dropped us off as requested and we walked into Hawes. Sadly there was too little time for a Wensleydale Creamery tour and a sit down lunch. Knowing what I know now I’d have shortened the walk but sometimes you’re in the thick of a cock up when Plan B is impossible to deliver. (In fairness the guests were all on my side by then and I received forgiveness.)

Studley Royal views

Some things are also just sent to try you. The Queen’s Funeral fell on the Monday of a tour. This shut a number of attractions on the day. Worse was that it shut the cafes for lunch. This meant some itinerary juggling and the creation of a picnic. Where to get sandwiches? And, oh yes, one guest was on a gluten free diet! Knowing this was falling on this date I came armed to the tour with fruit, crisps, thermos flasks, a gluten free loaf and chocolate biscuits. The hotel kindly made the sandwiches and filled my thermos flasks with coffee and fresh milk. However this illustrates the tour ‘starts’ for the guide some days in advance.

All aboard

Obviously many things got easier on subsequent tours including remembering names of the guests. I had one tour with two Jennys and a Jane. I’m sure that the Jennys got called Jane and Jane Jenny. On the final night I commented that we should have been together for another week, not least, because by the end of week two I would know everyone’s name.

Walking down the rocky path from Malham Tarn I got a call from the ‘office’ asking in a reasonable way about the high hotel bills I was incurring with the guests? I didn’t understand. It turned out that two of the guests, albeit, strangers to each other, should be sharing. You’ll know that there is a premium for a single room supplement. Two guests had simply kept quiet when checking in and the hotel had given them single rooms. I should have known there were sharing guests but my information wasn’t clear and I never thought to ask/check as it’s unusual. I was all for turfing them out of their single rooms immediately but the hotel didn’t have accommodation with two single beds. In this situation the wider good of the party, its bonhomie and atmosphere comes into play and I was told to leave it be. Frankly I was enormously upset at the deception.

The castle on Holy Island, Northumberland

I mentioned that the females have a detailed knowledge of what the tour has included and what they pay for. At one castle I entered the ticket office to advise the person behind the counter that the guests would pay for themselves. ‘Ah’, she replied to me, ‘We have written down that we should invoice the land agent’. I thought that was wrong but didn’t have the operator’s brochure to hand to confirm it was wrong. Rather than have an embarrassing stand off with the guests and castle staff I waived them through. Of course checking later I was right and they should have paid and they probably all knew.

Inside Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

I only point out these two issues to highlight that an assumption that the guest is kind and honest could be over exaggerated for the naive and trusting. You’re by yourself as regards the policing of all this when you’re out there leading a tour.

In my last blog I write about the highlights and some of the things the guests might ask you and gratuities (or not).

Mary Gauthier at The Crescent, York – November 23, 2022

Mary Gauthier saunters on to the stage and puts her hand over her eyes, looks out to the couple of hundred fans packed into York’s bijou venue, The Crescent, and asks, “York, have I been here before?” the audience chuckles. She picks up her guitar and continues, “I can’t remember where I’ve been…. but it’s good to be back!” and then we’re into The Meadow from her last release Dark Enough To See The Stars, the first of 13 songs and brief readings from her book Saved By A Song. This was the ninth gig on a 10 date tour of England with one appearance in Edinburgh.

Her life story has been tumultuous starting with her adoption and leaving home as a teenager. At a young age the path took in substance misuse, halfway houses and gaining acceptance for her sexuality before study, opening a restaurant and eventually pursuing her music career. She was 36 before releasing her first album. Now a multi award winning sexagenarian her demons have been long cast off and, with the audience in the palm of her hand, she seems wise, compassionate, comfortable, a poet yet still an independent, offbeat observer of life. Dark Enough To See The Stars, covers love and contentment but she’s sensitive to the recent loss of dear friends and the dislocation and challenges of modern times; this pours out from her songs. This includes the profound anguish and mental scars faced by returning soldiers from war zones. For her 2019 Grammy nominated album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, she worked with veterans, active military and their families. They were paired with songwriters and the result was an intimate and cathartic collection of songs. She sang The War After The War and Bullet Holes in The Sky, back to back, with an explanation of the project and how privileged she was to be involved. Her abiding memory was of everyone’s desire for peace.

Gauthier plays acoustic guitar with her partner, Jaimee Harris, also on acoustic and vocals. Harris takes the guitar lead when required and her singing voice adds a little sweetness and melody to Gauthier’s gruffer tones. Throughout Gauthier provides the background to many songs and dips into her book to explain her views on the world or her history. Within Nashville there was a community of artists she came to admire and dearly love. The loss of John Prine ands Nanci Griffith were blows and touchingly she recounts her first group song writing session with artists she was in awe of. They all played a song and eventually it comes to her turn to sing one of her own compositions.  She borrows a guitar, plays and then after finishing she starts to hand this upmarket guitar back to Nanci Griffith. Griffith backs away and insists she keeps it. From here we’re into a lament for these friends with Till I See You Again;she singsMay you rest in gentle arms till I see you again.”

The performance is near seamless, sentimental, illuminating and populated with some wonderful songs. In such a small venue disappearing from the stage to regroup for the encore is silly and so as the delighted audience hoot, holler and clap she raises her finger to indicate there will be one more song, Mercy Now. From here it’s to the back of the room to sign the merchandise and greet the fans as we file out in to the chilly air.

(The very talented Jaimee Harris played for a too brief 30 minutes, with a handful of songs, mainly from her upcoming album Boomerang Town released in February. That is something to definitely look out for.)

Confessions of a Tour Guide Part 2

Following from Part 1 I’ve continued to write about other aspects and experiences of my inaugural year of being a tour guide.

Training

I was ‘selected’ and went through to training because I came across as having an outgoing personality (who could engage with guests), was demonstrably organised, physically fit, appeared trustworthy, had an attention to detail, was customer focussed and displayed some energy/enthusiasm for the tours. This is my conclusion at least! Whilst it reads well then I feel most folk have these attributes. However, you do need some agility and emotional intelligence to ‘read the room’ with a tour party and prevent or resolve challenges.

Kissing dummies for CPR training. Hope for a quick death beforehand should I ever need to get near you….

It started in February with a reconnaissance trip, with other newly hired guides, around Northumberland and very briefly in Yorkshire. We visited the walks, towns and attractions (albeit usually just to the outside of these great buildings.) The days were chilly, wet and bleak and we ended up with a curtailed programme as Storm Dudley blew in and we spent (too) little time in the Dales. The other guides were experienced, with other operators ,and I was the complete newbie. From here there was the plan for me to obtain a Private Hire licence so that I could drive the guests around in a small minibus. This was aborted after starting out to complete the process in Newcastle. You needed detailed street by street knowledge of the Toon to get qualified, I was never going to achieve that. Each council have their own specific requirements and other councils don’t necessarily stipulate this. This meant, this season, I’d be relying on other guides to drive or we’d have to use taxi minibuses.

Llama walking is on one of the tours and Anna took me along to get the experience. Okay, it was her birthday! (My boy was called Dec. Yes, I know, Ant and Dec)

Two other sets of training were mandated. First was obtaining an Outdoor First Aid Certificate. This was 16 hours of kissing dummies (or cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR) in the Peak District. It was a long two days and involved pretending to be half alive rolling in the grass whilst another course member had to establish your cause of injury as you lay ‘comatose’ (avoiding the nettles.) Anyway, I got the Certificate and if problems arise then I’m ‘off Go’ but apart from the responsibility of giving First Aid I’ve come to learn that the paperwork is horrendous if a guest has an episode or accident (on behalf of the tour operators.) I now request all guests mind their feet and take no risks just to protect me from endless form filling (rather then their health.) Some laugh at this but I’m being serious! I learned many things I never knew and in many ways I think all folk should do some First Aid training.

….and here’s a doggy on a kennel near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales

Lastly, I had to complete a five hour online course for one operator. Most of it was about adopting their ethos and procedures. I suppose the issue is that the guest has bought one of their holidays and the operator wants consistency and maintenance of the brand equity. However this was a global operator and so much seemed irrelevant. Having been on similar tours overseas many issues and processes are different and it all seemed ‘box ticking’ as it wasn’t appropriate in the UK. For example the guides were meant to check the accommodation prior to arrival. In a shack in Nepal this seems a good idea but is it relevant with the equivalent of a Premier Inn in Northumberland?

On a walk near Rothbury, Northumberland

So that was the formal training but separately I must have visited the Dales on four separate occasions to familiarise myself with the sights or experiences eg. Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Aysgarth Falls, llama walking, location of hotels etc. This is time consuming and personally expensive in terms of car miles (round trip of 120 miles) but it was vital to give that, attempted, seamless experience and to be able to field those inevitable questions.

Guide Guidelines

It was important to develop a good relationship with all the guests and have a decent daily conversation with each one. However, there are inevitably places ‘not to go’ such as politics. Innocently you can be drawn into conversations on Boris Johnson or economic policy! If all that merits a swerve then you also may need to be discreet on your own life. I’m not sure if I was stalked or I let it slip about the blog but one lady kept coming up with cryptic comments about my writing. You have to remember that you spend around 12 hours a day with these folk and keeping mum on everything isn’t easy if they’re inquisitive.

Craster kippers

Our old friend GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was high on the list of the operator. We were instructed not to share information between guests. So we always sought consent prior to any data sharing. Frankly, the guests had no concern about giving their telephone numbers not only so that we could have a link in case problems arose but also to set up a WhatsApp group. On WhatsApp, which it seemed 90% of the guests already had, we all shared, during the week, photos, restaurant options, menus and occasionally advance notice of coming weather especially if it was wet! Some women start the holiday with the usual ‘I don’t want my photo taken’, ‘bad hair day’, ‘wrong clothes for a photo shoot’, ‘I always look terrible’ etc. So, of course, I respected their wishes but after a couple of days they’re scouring WhatsApp for all the photos and asking to be included. They’ve now worked out it’s a great way of quickly passing the best images on to family and friends and they’ve relaxed to be a bit more confident in the group. Needless to say I quickly deleted all this information post tour.

Sheep dog handling demonstration just outside Hawes. A little wet but wonderful to behold.

I always was kept in mind of playing the role of Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. That is, you’re not part of the group but you are ever present literally opening doors for them as they walk serenely along, answering all sorts of questions with supposed authority, operate as the very personification of discretion, be able to communicate on their level but never let it turn into a conversation where you let slip your wealth or superior travel experiences, be prepared to resolve anything no matter whether it is large or small, attempt to be invisible and whilst you’re ultimately in charge you’re never as important as the guests. Again I know, Tony ‘Humble’ Ives does seem like a long week for me but it wasn’t. You’re working, and as we all do, you adopt different behaviours in a work place.

In my next blog I write about the challenges. There are quite a few!

Record Of The Week # 138

Billy Strings – Me/And/Dad

Terry Barber, Strings’ stepfather, fulfilled everything a biological father could when he entered young Strings’ life; not least, got him interested in bluegrass music. Ever grateful, Strings has now ‘ticked off’ his bucket list making an album with him. With a stellar back up band they’ve recorded a selection of traditional and cover songs. Strings’ nimble fingers continue to make magic on his acoustic guitar and it’s a sound that fans will recognise and like.  This follows just over a year from Renewal, an album that cemented Strings reputation as one of the most interesting americana acts around. His emergence and promotion has helped bring bluegrass, as a genre, to a new audience.

His recent albums, whilst bluegrass, do dabble with other roots sounds and he’s not averse to a little folk or other worldly sounds. This variation with its unexpected twists, for me, is the hook with Strings. Me/And/Dad is a very traditional sound. Vocal duties can be shared and Barber’s rendition of Life To Go, originally by George Jones as straight country with pedal steel and a honky tonk piano, is a triumph as his care worn, strained vocals deliver the misery of an inmate reflecting on the wasted life and the fact that he’s not coming out ever again. However, family devotion can go a little too far; his mother Debra joins the duo on Heard My Mother Weeping and her vocal is badly out of tune.

All the tracks are hand picked and have been road tested over decades; it stood to reason the selection would delight. However, the album is truly elevated by the playing of Rob McCoury (banjo), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Grammy winner Michael Cleveland on fiddle. Throughout they all have their own space to solo but come together eventually to fit together like a glove. Your mind will wander to the young Strings sitting at Barber’s knee with a large acoustic guitar under his arm learning this catalogue of bluegrass. It was an important education and aside from the show of gratitude and affection it’s somehow appropriate that Terry now gets a short time in the spotlight.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 1

A good friend, Peter, asked if I was interested in becoming a tour guide? He was recruiting for the ‘land Agent’ he was working for. Land agent? If you were to pick a holiday that included a tour guide then that guide probably won’t work for the company you bought the holiday from but for their contractor or land agent. (The guide is often assumed, by the guest, to be a tour operator employee. Nope.) Peter seemed to have had a good time, got to ride a bike for a week and earned some money. I thought what’s not to like if you had the spare time? I signed up (but I ended up on walking tours!) 

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast

So I thought I might write up a blog after a season of four separate tours in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Friends are always interested (and think they might like the idea of guiding.) There have been a lot of things to learn including the sights/attractions to swot up on, walking routes to know the stiles, streams and hazards and the location of every toilet on a day out! I never had a concern about dealing with the guests. I had been, with Anna, on similar types of holiday in Sri Lanka and South Africa, I knew the type who took these holidays and in many ways they were like me in interests, age, income and fitness. However, the statistics show, it seems that many are single and female. They are between 50 and 70 years old and 61% of my guests were. Of course all the guests were strangers to me to start with and expected a seamless experience from Sunday to Friday. Is that what happened? I thought I’d break down, in a couple of posts, the tours and my journey to competence.

On the Bolton Abbey Estate path to the ruined Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales

Before we do this then it does beg the question how many guides are my age? Err… not many I expect, the mould seems to chuck out 25 to 40 year olds who are outdoor types and actually live on the money they make. This is difficult I can tell you. This isn’t lucrative but if you want a part time, outdoor job with beautiful scenery and attractions it ticks many boxes. They typically work across many land agents and try and have a full diary during the season. I was happy to have a few weeks work: after all I had my own holidays to fit in!

Cragside House, Rothbury

You need to be fit, able to cope with five or six hours sleep per night, be highly organised, prepared ‘to go the extra mile’, sociable and able to talk with all sorts and not least able to lead and to be agreeably compliant, in the background, but often at critical points confident to be strict. I had been on this type of holiday, had several degrees from the University of Life, knew the parts of England I was working in, I was always eager to learn a new skill and very happy to be outdoors.

The Tours

Black Sheep Brewery Tour in Masham, North Yorkshire

I had three walking tours that were between five to eight miles worth of walking usually toward or around coastlines, castles, abbeys, waterfalls or in one case, happily, a brewery. The other tour was not as energetic and was focussed on the sights and had better dining and lodgings. The tours were curated between two operators and the guests had paid starting at £1,500 each for the pleasure. It was five nights each time and the size of the parties were four, twelve, eight and five, the low numbers are not lucrative for the land agent but their contractual commitment means they must proceed. (For the guide it was easier to organise a smaller group.) The accommodation was hotels and the day started at around 9am. Nothing on the itinerary started at the hotel and we had to drive to the start of a walk or sightseeing opportunity. Lunch was usually taken at a cafe, always reserved in advance and we’d be back at the hotel around 5pm. Restaurants were pre booked and the guide attended dinner although the rules were that we could have a night off. I didn’t always take mine. 

Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast near Coaster

It was tiring as you’re always thinking ahead, stopping older guests walking out in front of traffic (!), dealing with changes or closures, trying to motivate the stragglers on a walk whilst not delaying the fit walkers who wanted to push on, dealing with hospitality issues such as tables, ordering and organising the bus to drop off or pick up in busy places, sorting out various tickets to the attractions when you arrived. All the time you’re working on creating a happy holiday. On one long walk, without a cafe break, I produced cream cakes much to everyone’s delight or attempted to add something extra to a tour that they call a ‘twist’ and didn’t expect. For example, Barter Books in Alnwick is always such a solution. Frankly despite all your hard work then dry and sunny weather and a well curated tour are the major ingredients for success. After the tour finishes the operator contacts the guests separately and requests the guide is ‘marked/rated’. The land agents pore across the feedback with interest. You’re always having your performance monitored.

In my next blog I’ll highlight some of the training and guidelines to operate by….

Record of the Week # 137

Tyler Childers – Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?

(I publish reviews that I have mainly written for Country Music People. In the past it included The Americana Music Show. And then on occasion without a publisher I review albums I personally wanted to write up: I hope to get back to that. Anyway, within the following review I make mention, to the readers, that I like Progressive Rock. I suspect that if you’ve been reading my reviews you’ll know that in any case!)

Name me some memorable triple albums? I’ll give you a clue, Woodstock and the Last Waltz by The Band but after this we’re all struggling, aren’t we? In fact, personally, I’d have to dig into a dark past and a love of progressive rock but I worry that we don’t know each other well enough for me to go there. However, in a world where we stream then a triple album is a less expensive and bulky project to deliver but it’s a lot to listen to and care about. Is releasing eight tracks in three versions worth it?

The three sets of eight are split into the ‘Hallelujah’ then ‘Jubilee’ and then ‘Joyful Noise’ versions. The first is a sound akin to Childers’ first two album releases (and the albums that placed him on the pedestal.) The powerful yearning Kentucky siren of a voice takes centre stage and the songs sweep you away. He lets his band, The Food Stamps, slip their shackles and play some easy but powerful bluesy rock music as a foundation. In line with their new found freedom there are some long instrumental passages and the title track is the killer cut. The second album ‘Jubilee’ is similar and whilst strings are added throughout his vocal remains similar, and too distinctive to allow the songs to have a different identity. However the string arrangements are very old school and bring to mind Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music from 1962. They are delightful. Charles covered Hank Williams and the opening song on the three albums is another Williams song Old Country Church.

In fact Childers is very attached to the heritage of country music and the Christian values that formed him. He always speaks with sincerity and has importance as a curator of contemporary roots music. A lot of work went into the production with gospel singers providing support and occasional ‘modern’ touches with electronic sounds and some sampled spoken word. Both albums are interesting and whilst they’re not covering new ground for Childers it’s a welcome return to form after the inexplicable and scratchy Long Violent History that might have had a worthy ambition of speaking out on racism but for fans, who innocently shelled out their hard earned cash, it was a major disappointment.

If that was a poor investment then album three, ‘Joyous Noise’, is an indulgence and disposable. I like and have a lot of late 90s electronica and Childers knows the genre well judging by this. We get lots of rumbling bass dance beats with occasional interesting vocal samples but they drone on with you inevitably reaching for fast forward. His voice disappears on Disc 3 and frankly it would take a boxset of Miss Marple to try and identify and relate the versions of these songs to Discs 1 and 2.

He remains an interesting listen and there’s a lot to selectively like here. Be selective.

Record Of The Week # 136

Kendall Marvel – Come on Sunshine

It struck me, as I listened to Marvel’s third release in five years, about the lot of most of Nashville’s songwriters for hire. They ply their trade around the town, mostly in collaborations and by chance, and practise, they eventually write something exceptional. I’m sure many of the songs, or most of the songs, that these talented tunesmiths develop are excellent but probably nothing that may pay the future rent.He’s now directing his best material to his own releases with Come on Sunshine the latest to drop. This and his two preceding albums are loaded with attractive songs that are delivered with his pleasing and expressive baritone and on each album there are some gems.

Marvel writes in collaboration on all ten compositions and especially with Chris Stapleton, an old buddy. Stapleton also joins him on Don’t Tell Me How To Drink. This belligerent ditty is full of swagger and the title tells you all you need to know. In fact Marvel luxuriates in being a man of maturity and independence of thought; he’s not for following trends or doing much other than ploughing his own furrow. Songs such as Keep Doing Your Thing lay this out pretty clearly and despite his equable stance between the Left and Right it’s probably clear the way he votes.

In addition he’s also not past being sentimental and Fool Like Me is an exceptional blue eyed soul love song that immediately attracted a lot of stars in my iTunes library. Throughout the music has a hard outlaw vibe and pithy lyrics that back up the edge. Put It in the Plate has a funky southern feel with a stomping back beat and some squally guitar; the message is that despite all our missteps and temptations then celestial investment is advised to ensure a positive after life. Wading through the deeper issues that pass through his head then Come on Sunshine has the profundity of a man seeking calm and some light to make it through the night. A wonderful bit of soft rock with pedal steel that captivates.

Up until his late forties Marvel exclusively wrote for the great and the good of country music and enjoyed hits with Gary Allan, George Strait, Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton, amongst others. In 2017 he decided to focus on his own recording career and release solo albums. I look forward to every release. This is a fine collection well worth your time.

Record Of The Week # 135

Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville

McBryde’s new album is a collaboration. It really is a tour de force. The title Lindeville needs explaining and to lift her PR it was ‘Inspired by the writing methods of legendary Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde (Goodbye Earl, Burning Love, Bubba Shot the Jukebox), Ashley McBryde set out with a group of her favourite co-writers to work up a project they had no intention of ever recording or releasing.’ And this is what came from that week-long exercise in a rural cabin outside Nashville. 

Lyrically this is an album where you hang onto every word and musically it’s straight country with the songwriters finding excellent tunes whether sad, upbeat or amusing. A nod must go to John Osborne for his arrangements, sounds and the accomplished band that played throughout.

Her collaborators are several but include Brandy Clark, Aaron Ratiere and Brothers Osborne. Each track is a complete gem and occasionally interspersed with some 30 second joke adverts for the businesses in ‘Lindeville’ such as the diner, pawn shop and funeral parlour; if you were doubting this was a lot of fun then lyrics like ‘The cheapest destination / For two for one cremations / Forkem family funeral home’ may convince you, especially when sung à las Andrew Sisters! Brenda Put Your Bra On is a hilarious short story. The neighbour’s husband is messing with the babysitter and after being caught in flagrante delicto the wife’s now dismantling the siren of his desire. This rumpus has become a spectator sport and Brenda is urged to join the viewing albeit with her own support in place. It’s a near funky rock rhythm with McBryde, Caylee Hammack and Pillbox Patti replicating beautifully bitchy trailer park trash personas. Some of the lyrics are virtually unprintable, brilliant!

If this is earthy then the whole album is based on small town strugglers whether they’re the architects of their own downfall or simply victims. The Brothers Osborne’s Play Ball has the best of sentimental country lyrics: a lonely good man who has little but bad luck helping others and maintaining a positive attitude against all the odds. Clark sings If These Dogs Could Talk where she introduces the trailer park’s pooches and the infidelity, drug deals, discrimination and secrets that they discretely observe – ‘If these dogs could talk / They’d sure tell on you / We’re all lucky barkin’ is all they can do / They dig up your secrets, they know all your trash’. 

Benjy Davis takes on Gospel Night At The Strip Club; his plaintive vocals create a form of prayer vibe as he paints a picture of those in the club and their human frailties seemingly existing rather than much else. It’s lower than downbeat but the pathos and empathy for the characters he describes is profound and captivating. The collection of females who work on the album come together to sing Bonfire At Tina’s. It’s an anthemic song where McBryde leads Hammock, Clark and Pillbox Patti in a call and response about the injustices small town women suffer – ‘Got cheated on – light it up / Don’t get paid enough – light it up / Don’t get laid enough – light it up / You got a joint – light it up’. Spine tingling. After the earnest craftsmanship of these songwriters creating magic there’s an easy piece of alchemy when they take on the Everly Brother’s When Will I Be Loved with a joyous ‘get up on your feet’ arrangement.

One of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

Record Of The Week #134

Kameron Marlowe – We Were Cowboys

Kameron Marlowe, an excellent writing team and two accomplished producers have concocted a fabulous Bro-country debut with many memorable tracks. Marlowe’s terrific voice, despite his tender years at 25, is full of allure, expression and carries you along with his stories about growing up, heartbreak and small towns. His path from car parts salesman to a recording studio with Dan Huff involved some appearances on The Voice, where his vocal prowess was recognized. His talent also includes songwriting; he wrote his first single, Giving You Up, and co-wrote another nine songs on this album. (Brad Hall produced the earlier released single and EP’s swept up and added to this album.)

The title track is a cracking starter but Country Boy’s Prayer is even better; delicious couplets like ‘And I know I’ve left you hangin’ / Like that cross around my rear view’. At a stroke without explanation we know he’s a God fearing boy full of regret and probably driving a truck. Similarly Steady Heart – “When you mix my calloused ways with her sweet touch / She’s a candlelight in all my dark” is top-drawer wordsmithery. Humour can also be found, Granny’s Got A Garden (For G’maw Jan), is an affectionate portrait of his grand mother who reaches for weed  “When her back gets to hurtin’ / You might smell somethin’ burnin’ / It’s a different kinda sowin’ / More than just tomatoes she’s growing”.

The surge in quality that comes with the hiring of top songwriters and producers is immeasurable. Dan Huff’s worked with many country and rock acts and what he brings to his work is a selection of sounds. His rock band backing has genuinely interesting guitar breaks and funky rhythm patterns as opposed to the rock torpor purveyed by session men of slappy snare drums and recycled screeching guitar passages. In addition there are many acoustic moments and even some slide and fiddle, Fool Me Again starts gently and the band, when it arrives, is dialed down. Marlowe has a voice that needs complementing not accompanying. Runnin’ Out On You follows the same pattern: just drink up that voice. Sublime. Marlowe does completely rock out on the closer Long Way Down with a girly chorus and no pretence at country. 

Marlowe could be massive. It takes small but important differences to go from run-of-the-mill to stellar (and move away from the Bro-country crowd.) Marlowe has it all. 

My Letters From America – Holiday Notes

Holiday Notes

Just a quick tidy up of some of the mundane, but maybe interesting, aspects of our time in the USA.

Anna struggles with me carrying a kettle and a stove to boil water. (Once a camper always a camper.) It came in useful. We ate out a lot but the food is very similar around the States and weariness set in or we couldn’t cope with two full meals a day. Anna has some food intolerances and some restaurant menus didn’t offer anything. In the room we made sandwiches or added hot water to stuff such as porridge. It worked well. Hotel breakfasts were entertaining as we watched Americans put eggs, bacon, melon/fruits and pastries on the same plate. Is it to avoid the need to revisit the buffet again or destroyed taste buds?

Brought my own tea bags as well

The distances between towns in the USA does mean that food tends toward being processed and I think, despite the supposed love of fishing, that I hear of in Country music, I could win a quiz, with a selection on Americans, asking what a tuna, salmon, trout, shrimp etc looked like before being filleted or frozen such is the rare sighting for most who live a long way from the coast.

Even I was knocked out by the convenience of Apple Play in the rented car. We switched on the phone in the car and the system wanted to pair. After this we were able to have in-car music, satellite navigation and could pick up either the BBC or Talksport. Listening live to Leeds United vs. Barnsley in the Carabao Cup driving through Wyoming was genuinely surreal. Some times you could receive live BBC football coverage but not the cricket. Somebody somewhere understands these exclusions?

We were here in 2016 and the exchange rate was a lot more favourable. Our trip coincided with the pound being at record lows against the dollar (£1 = $1.13) We found the USA expensive. However, even compensating for the dollar then prices appear to have risen dramatically. Salaries have risen as well but with these prices you need to earn a lot! Obviously we were often travelling in tourist areas and some prices were criminal. I bought six peaches in Colorado and the vendor is probably still telling his friends how much he charged…. and they paid!! Over and above Colorado then nothing was cheap. I used to have a shopping list when I came to the States but much of what I desired was cheaper back in Blighty. Beware.

We stayed a night in Lusk, WY. If described as a ‘one horse town’ then the animal only had three legs.

It seems there is a shortage of workers all over the western world. In the USA trucks that passed us advised us of ‘hiring’. At any retailer, food or clothing, interviews could be done on the spot for new recruits and on occasion the service was slow because of ‘staff shortages’. The reason is that Covid took a large number of people out of the workforce and the shortage is evident. The UK has this plus Brexit. I imagine all the EU workers who went home no longer needed to come back to the UK because geographically closer countries like Germany, Poland etc had to fill their Covid departed.

So much of our commentary in the media is about diversity and equality. You would expect America with its wider diversity to be more self evident. Not a piece of it. We saw few African Americans on our road trip around Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. In Salt Lake City we saw a few Latinos and Indians (South Asians). If there was any ethnic group in profusion it was folk who lived or originated in the Far East, especially in the National Parks. I think most of these were tourists from out of State or country. You can see how different ethnic groups easily maintain their separation as they never mingle outside of the large cities in the USA.

The wonderful histories beautifully told

The message in Europe about reducing packaging and waste has been received. Not here really. Parking up leaving the engine running, with the windows open but the A/C on is one of my favourite crimes. In Walmart you still walk out with a lot of plastic carrier bags, in Europe having a bag to carry away your purchases is your problem. Buy sliced cheese and you get each slice separated by pieces of paper. Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts and disposable plates, bowls and cups made of polystyrene should be banned. Wake up! Don’t waste stuff we don’t really need. None of this is a good reason to process crude oil or chop down a tree.

We stopped in Spearfish, WY and Anna looked for free wi-fi and who knew the Americans had a sense of humour!

However for all my curmudgeonly xenophobic comments I love the USA. Being in these States where ‘woke’ never gets the time of day I was very comfortable, whether I am a dinosaur or not. I adore the space: wide roads, big rooms, enormous skies and landscapes that you can’t fully absorb due to their size. Surprisingly the Americans are very disciplined. If the sign says drive at 25mph, they do. If the road sign says ‘Stop’ even though there is no traffic, they stop. They don’t jump queues, they let you go first if you both meet at the same point and avoidance of aggravation is paramount. Through the centre of Cheyenne, the State capitol of Wyoming, the speed limit is 20mph. Often I was ready to cross swords but eventually I got the message and chilled (a little!)

On the Main Street in Sheridan, WY

In Britain parking is a pain. You never can. You have to drive some distance from where you want to be, pay a lot of money to do so and then, often, have to sandwich your car into a tight spot. In the States, we passed through, there were no challenges. To accumulate steps we voluntarily parked a distance from the intended destination but there was always easy parking wherever. Bliss. In parts of Yellowstone we came across poor road surfaces. That was an exception. Most roads were smooth and well maintained. Heaven help the US visitor who drives in Britain!

Oh, they love him in Wyoming!

Passing through Manchester and London Heathrow Airport the old, battered and dirty nature of the facilities is there for all to see. In any public building here if you visit the toilet/washrooms the quality of the facilities and the cleanliness is superb and puts us to shame.

Sensational street sculptures in Grand Junction, CO

Some of the Americans we met were quick to decry the depth of their history compared to Europe. True, we have castles, monarchy and it’s older but there is lots to see here. Native Americans, the War of Independence, a Civil War, the opening up of the West, Civil Rights, Vietnam and the importance on all our lives of the USA during the 20th Century. That’s before we get to the art culture of Hollywood, Elvis and Tamla Motown. Chill, there’s a lot to see and learn. I am engrossed by it all.

Lastly, as much I admire and feel attached to my Antipodean friends I am not Australian. I can think of three separate occasions, on this and other trips, when an American has ‘guessed’ my nationality and plumped for Crocodile Dundee. Stop it, it’s not funny any more.

My Letters From America – “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”

John and Peggy hailed from North Carolina (NC) and they were sat behind us at the Cody Rodeo in Wyoming. The rodeo was great fun consisting of various competitions including trying to ride young angry bulls for at least 8 seconds. For the record none of the young men who embarked on this potentially bone shattering project succeeded.

Yee-ha!

They were away for 85 days. John, a burly former engineer, at least 75 years old had planned a schedule of stops all the way up north; this wasn’t their first visit to Cody or its rodeo. They had perfected their retirement plans by spending time in their Recreational Vehicle (RV) many weeks of the year. After this jaunt it’d be hauled out again to join the ‘snowbirds’, as the migrating pensioners are called, in Florida. Anna talked to Peggy and I to John. Surprisingly for his age John was adeptly flicking screens on his mobile phone to show me spreadsheets, Google Maps and a selection of photos of his RV and luxurious home back in NC. For his years he was active and organised. I felt that the ‘down time’ in North Carolina was spent poring over maps, checking out camp sites across the country and working out new routes.

I admire the spirit of older Americans who take to the road. It seems that they probably pack their medicine cabinets with their pills, stuff the RV with every convenience to cope with failing joints and then head for the sun or, maybe, somewhere cooler. The only time I had less admiration was in 2014 as I cycled through Colorado and had large RV’s nearly graze my hip as they put these large vehicles onto cruise control at 70mph. Their eyesight or concentration was never good enough to spot a miniature obstacle such as a cyclist grinding along up a slope on the side of the road.

Not John’s but very similar

Whilst who wants to be old it’s pleasing that there are ‘Senior’ discounts at a lot of attractions and even with some parking. Like the military this is a privilege extended to these large groups. We made sure we declared our decrepitude every time money was involved. Sadly no one felt it necessary to check that we were being honest! The American winter is brutal but the summer is long and sublimely warm. I think this liberates older folk to spend more time outdoors and be adventurous.

So who looked after the house in their absence? John said his daughter was in residence with the instruction to keep the grass cut. Anna found Peggy less discrete and in fact the daughter was in residence with their three grand children after a marital separation from the son-in-law. As the daughter was a psychologist you hoped she was coping better than most.

On our 2,500 mile drive (so far) we’ve seen these bus length RV’s on the Interstates. There was little that they lacked as regard home comforts and on the wide fast US roads they were easy to pilot. I think John was financially very well off but these vehicles, second hand, can cost $200,000 depending on the year and mileage. I imagine some campers literally sell up their homes and live in these pantechnicons forever.

They’d never visited Europe and I’d be the first to agree that the USA has much to offer for variety but I worried that you do become tied to these types of holiday. Inevitably Anna had to ask what was the fuel consumption? This was a question we’d asked each other as these things rumbled by. “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”, in fairness that’s a US gallon and if converted to an imperial gallon it climbs to 7.5mpg! Petrol not diesel. And if John chose not to hitch up a small Jeep car to the tow bracket I expect he might even break into double figures.

For all that unforgivable climate damage I’d still love to look around one and maybe even drive it a mile or two. Like all Americans we struck up a conversation with they were endlessly civil, courteous and engaged. I always find the dialogue starts easily if you just wade in.

My Letters From America – “We keep ourselves clean”

Salt Lake City had been a stopover on our drive north. It’s a big diverse city, in complete contrast to the rest of Utah; here we’d stocked up at Walmart, visited Costco and stayed in a central hotel with a gazillion South Korean women (in town for a convention.) We felt we should spend a little time investigating the sights and being located in Downtown we were ideally placed. The city’s history owes everything to the Church of The Latter-day Saints. (I was slightly shocked to come to this important religious centre to find Downtown revealing a sad carpet of homeless drug addicts, many sprawled out under park trees, no doubt sleeping off their latest fix.)

Anna devised a walk and off we went. Eventually you arrive at the Salt Lake Utah Temple. This is a massive skyscraper of a building, which is currently a construction site as it’s being underpinned due to concern that it’ll topple if there’s an earthquake. Next to it is the Assembly Hall, a church, and then another large building called the Tabernacle. This was the Mormon HQ.

We knew of tours and Sister Hague and Sister Thomas appeared and introduced themselves. ‘Sister’ is the name that Mormon female missionaries use. The men are called Elders, these are the resilient but probably downhearted young men who knock on your door in the UK. Our Sisters were respectively from California and Minnesota, early 20’s and primly dressed with no flesh showing in clothes you might called conservative. Sister Thomas seemed detailed to take the lead with the party, which now included two devoted Christians from South America. She was open, friendly and worryingly enthusiastic yet I denoted some steel. After we responded to requests to tell her our names we start our brief walk around the buildings. What did we love? Anna of course got that right by advising family, I got it wrong when I suggested travel and music! All this seemed a strategy, albeit gentle, to open us up. Our relationship with Jesus was asked? I was honest. Whilst not overly convinced about wizards in the sky I did volunteer there’s a lot to be admired about the spirituality and community that those of faith create and foster.

Our young ladies had been educated in mainstream schools and Sister Thomas had been the only Mormon in her high school. They had probably experienced cynicism or negativity about their faith but had come through it. It seemed they believed every word of the Book of Mormon. This is their bible not, say, the King James. They carried the bible with them as if an answer might easily be close to hand should a difficult question arise. They talked of a life of helping, I believed them.

Assembly Hall

All life’s positive moments were down to the ‘miracles of God’. She asked what bad situation had miraculously been answered by a piece of good news? One of the South Americans, a dentist, had found during a routine appointment a growth in a patient’s mouth. This discovery led to prompt treatment and possibly saved their life. Expectant eyes turned to Anna and myself? Nope, we had no stories. Sister Thomas now threw in her miracle. She was recently assembling flat pack furniture and it was an important installation for a Ukrainian Mormon they were housing. She didn’t have the tools for the job. However, miraculously a stranger appeared with a toolbox! It’s easy to see that if you attribute every positive event to the intervention of your god you’re going to be happy. She was.

We were invited to ask questions. I asked what was the biggest misconception? Polygamy came the answer. This arose as a solution when during the faith’s migration from persecution in Missouri in the 19th Century many of the men died necessitating, apparently, this rule change for procreation purposes. This isn’t happening now. The Sisters were adamant that their lives wouldn’t be reduced to being housewives; they could pursue careers or whatever. The only other female Mormon I knew was Marie Osmond who has had a stellar career, eight children and has been married three times, albeit twice to the same man. I chose not to ask if either of them could sing. It’s not mandatory that you have to marry another Mormon, however, I think it probably helps given the strictures of the faith and lifestyle.

Sister Thomas said that she and her other missionaries kept themselves ‘clean’. I had to stop and ask her to explain. “We don’t drink, take drugs or have sex before marriage.” All that’s fine as a set of decisions but calling it ‘clean’?

Their missions last 18 months, two years for the men. There are 17 million members: it’s a large worldwide community. I envy these believers and their faith but in a world where science can explain virtually everything I can’t comprehend how they remain so convinced and committed.

My Letters From America – “I’m Always Within Five Feet Of My Gun”

Toward the top of Interstate 14 in Bighorn National Park at 3,000m the present Mrs Ives declared the need to stop for what our American friends would describe as a ‘bathroom break’. There was nothing around other than a wide open road. In fact we’d only seen mountains, cows and the very occasional car on the long climb up from Greybull. However, sweeping down another long straight The Elk View Inn came into view and amongst some rental log cabins and a lot of small All Terrain Vehicles was a wooden building claiming to be the bar and restaurant. I parked up and Anna dashed in.

We felt obliged to have a drink to repay the bar for use of its facilities and ordered a Coke and a Bud Light. Sadly, as I was driving I was the soft drink consumer. Our barman, Ramón, looked out of place in this isolated location, of Latino complexion and sporting metal rings through his bottom lip and inevitably in his ears he was no cowboy. Our interrogation started with “where are you from?” Ramón was originally from Portland, Oregon but left as he felt the place was ‘moving in the wrong direction’? He’d first ended up in Vegas working on the strip as a barman. The shifts including 8.30am to 3.30am were gruelling but he was earning good money. Covid ended all this and he had to find another job.

He’s in his very early thirties, stylish in his own pierced way, gregarious and articulate. It came as no surprise he’d ended up in management and he ran this bar. However, why Wyoming? In short he was ‘conservative’ and wanted to be in a place with space and no big towns with their own unrepresentative political centres as he described it. Given the recent anarchy in Portland you might easily understand what he was fleeing. I could empathise with this as I’ve found rural America and its people bear little or no resemblance to the ethnic diversity, pace, needs, crime, preoccupations and seemingly perpetual conflicts that swirl around major cities. Of course rural America has its maladies but they seem to me less in number and different.

He mentioned gun legislation in many States was a determinant for his move as he always wanted a firearm to hand. Now Ramón certainly didn’t seem a member of the NRA but he listed the four guns he currently owned! We were astonished. A bit like my selection of bicycles: each gun had a particular task, whether it was personal safety from other humans or shooting animals that threatened his safety on the trail. He turned to show us his girlfriend, a dark slim attractive girl finishing her lunch. She worked at the hotel as the housekeeper. He’d bought her a hand gun and went on to say he was additionally looking at a rifle to stash in his truck. Changing subject (!) I asked if Wyoming had been his first choice? No, Alaska was but he couldn’t fly with his guns there as they passed over Canada.

Frankly the desire to bear arms is vital to millions of Americans. How any politician could meaningfully dismantle the law seems impossible when they truly believe that the ownership is integral to their safety. Gun ownership seemed no solution to me as to personal safety but created a perpetual cycle of fear and an increasing desire for ownership and apparent accumulation.

Anyway we thanked Ramón and paid. I had little change for a tip but found a dollar. I apologised for the size of the gratuity. He noted, genuinely kindly, as we sidled toward that door, that tipping wasn’t a thing they did in England. On that we could agree Ramón.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022 (Last Blog)

Ulvenhout to Europoort 59 miles & 256 metres climbing

Hull to Acaster Malbis 57 miles & 265 metres climbing

Day 10

It was all about getting to the ferry in good time today and progress was complicated through urban areas.

There were few things of interest along the way but do I find all these references or monuments to WW2 fascinating given the closeness of all the members of the EU to the Germans nowadays. This tank was donated by the Polish.

They had entered Breda first of the Allies to evict the Nazis. I got chatting with another younger guy who was attempting to stop his young boys falling off the tank as they clambered on it and raised this point. He commented that the invasion of the Nazis still ‘runs deep’. The Germans, when their retreat was inevitable, were terrible to the local population.

Wacky baccy’s legal in Holland

Nearer the coast the land becomes flatter and the winds stronger. Here I met a scouser on a bike with a Dutch accent (think Steve McLaren). As I’m peering into my handle bar bag he’d kindly stopped to ask me if I needed help? No, not really I was just finishing off some sausage rolls.

The ramp

It’s an endless search for the non signposted Europoort. Europoort is simply the name for the ferry docks in a large complex of other docks and industrial units. However I get there in good time, check in and then get on board up the steep ramp. The arrangement is that on the car decks you tie your bicycle to the wall with a rope. From there it was find my cabin, have a shower and get out for a Guinness. I’d asked Anna if there were any Duty Frees she wanted but the answer was negative.

Given the recent move by P&O to unload their British workers you might expect some negativity about the operation. As it appears to be mainly Continental Europeans on the ship, who possibly know little of recent events, there is no issue. Back in my cabin I eat the sandwiches I’d bought prior to boarding and I suddenly find myself looking at the inside of my eyelids. Over and out.

Day 11

The day starts with a Full English with the hoards. Off the ship I (foolishly) decide to follow the Trans Pennine Trail 65. It was a nightmare. Hull was difficult to get through in rush hour with cycle paths shut due to construction work. The essence of Sustrans 65 is a detour through the East Yorkshire countryside very close to the Humber. I pass unexpectedly through the premises of a company called Wienerberger where I went, unsuccessfully, for a Sales Director job in 2008. They make clay roof tiles. Meanwhile this bike ride is against a persistent westerly. To add insult to injury the route even deteriorates into a grass path at one stage. Weary I eventually get to Acaster Malbis at past 1pm.

In summary, I love riding in France, it was all I hoped for – countryside, campsites, space, food and vistas. The weather behaved all the way nearly. Cycling up the Meuse is a doddle (and enjoyable.) The last couple of days were a chore and next time, from somewhere in Belgium or Holland, I’ll catch a train from a certain point to the ferry to eliminate those pointless miles. In the past the mileage was less through Belgium. You could choose Zeebrugge over Rotterdam but the former has now closed as a ferry route back to Hull.

If you’ve followed my blog then thank you. I appreciate your time and support.

As a heads up then I think it’s back to Australia next for a bike ride, I have unfinished business.