Monthly Archives: November 2018


27 October 2018 was Black Cat Appreciation Day. I am a long-time lover of black cats (and dogs) and am always upset by the fact that Black cats (and dogs) are less likely to be rehomed than other colours. Why? It seems that one of the more recent reasons is that they (allegedly) don’t look so good in selfies (of course, I disagree, but then, I am totally biased). Or is that their connection with witches and bad luck persists?

They weren’t always considered unlucky

In Ancient Egypt, up to about 310AD, black cats were considered to be far from unlucky. All cats were considered to be sacred an worshipped. In fact, they were believed to be descended directly from the Gods. That is clearly a genetic trait that has passed on, at least to my cats, who expect that same level of adoration and are relentless if I don’t deliver the goods.

In medieval Europe, perhaps because of their nocturnal nature, cats were believed to be associated with witches and the supernatural. In Christian cultures, white is the colour of good and purity, black is the colour of the dark side…

At around this time in Europe, witch-hunting was big business (a story for another day but women – it was generally women – who were accused of witchcraft were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In England, they were put is a ducking stool, and plunged into a pond. If they survived, it was considered to be proven that they were witches, and they’d be burned alive, their cats with them. If they drowned, they were innocent, although too late for them.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in 1233AD, Pope Gregory IX (who had clearly been a mouse in a previous life) declared that black cats were an incarnation of the devil! The Christians (hmm, struggling with this a bit, seems a contradiction to me) gathered up all the black cats they could find and burned them alive at village festivals.

There were a number of other beliefs about black cats and witches, perhaps the most common being that they were “witches’ familiars,” and helped them in their pursuit of witchcraft. (Trust me when I tell you this is not true. Many, many times, I have pleaded with my black cats to magic me a shed load of money. I am still waiting.). They were also believed to be in touch with the underworld because they went out at night. Again not true. My girls curl up and that bed and only budge when I move.

And in some places, it is different

I was brought up to believe it’s good luck when a black cat crosses your path, which is also true in Japan and there are other places where they are believed to bring good luck:

  • In Italy, if you hear a black cat sneeze, it is supposed to bring a streak of good luck. (Gotta tell you folks that in 17 years of owning black cats, I’ve never heard one sneeze.)
  • It is considered lucky to own a black cat in Asia.
  • Black cats are supposed to be good luck at sea, according to European tradition.
  • In Scotland, a black cat appearing on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity.
  • In Japan, black cats are believed to bring good luck, especially to single women, as they are supposed to be a lure for the right man…
  • In Russia, black cats are considered lucky.

In my house, cats rule, not just the black ones, although my personal belief is that black cats have a louder purr than others (I used Titan’s purr as my ringtone for many years). If you can’t love them, don’t be cruel to them.


© Susan Shirley 2018




I moved over to hosted blogs a few years ago.  I thought it was a good move.  And it was ok, until recently, when I discovered I had white pages.  I rolled back to when it was all working, but my hosting company was less than helpful – basically, they wanted me to pay more money to them.  Not happening.  So, here I am, back on


I’ve transferred all my blog posts over (I will probably have to do this with another one, too), so everything from now on.


© Susan Shirley November 2018


As a young teenager, I lived in Sharpthorne, West Sussex, not far from the Bluebell Railway. And yet, my first visit to the railway was a few weeks ago. I went with a friend, Sheena, and had an enjoyable day out.

We took the train from Victoria to East Grinstead station The Bluebell Railway is next door. We had plenty of time before the next train, so had a cup of tea in the old railway carriage that doubles as a tea room. Pink geraniums in hanging baskets outside finished off the 1950s effect.

Tea carriage

When our train came in, it uncoupled from the carriages and reversed back to the other end of the train. We wondered if there was a turntable to rotate the engine but it appears not. It coupled up and the tender reversed along. We boarded, Sheena found the bar, bought us a mini bottle of wine each and so our journey began.

The Bluebell Railway runs from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park. It stops at Kingscote and Horsted Keynes on route, although not all trains stop at Kingscote. Apart from East Grinstead, they were all built in 1882 in the ‘Queen Anne’ style

All the stations have appeared in television shows at some time or other.

The Bluebell Railway has quite a history, with a line opening in around 1878. Worth noting, too, that most people would have had to walk to their local station. I imagine for most of them, that would have taken more than ten minutes… I remember my Mum telling me that she had a ten mile walk to and from school every day…

In 1954, the powers that be decided to close the line. Although challenged by local residents, the closure took place. It happened a few weeks earlier than scheduled, due to a rail strike. Then, as now, people power prevailed, and a bitter battle between British Railways and the users of the line began. It lasted for three years. The line re-opened in 1956, but British Railways challenged the Act that has caused it to be re-opened. The Act was repealed and the line way closed again on 17 March 1958.

Horsted Keynes Station

Almost a year later, the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was born, with the aim of re-opening the whole line. Sadly, the plans came to nothing. It wasn’t until 1974 when the society managed to buy the freehold for West Hoathly station, by then demolished, that they started to work on re-opening the line to East Grinstead. The society bought the freehold for Kingscote Station in 1985, which enabled it to press on with its plans.

In April 1994, the society successfully completed the section of track between Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, which included re-laying the section through the Sharpthorne Tunnel. This is 731 yards long (668 metres) and is, I am reliably informed, the longest stretch of track through a tunnel on any UK heritage line.

All the stations on the Bluebell Line are well-maintained and appear to be decked out in the style that they would have been back in their hey-day, as in this photograph below…. Where is Jane Marple? However, that is only part of the story. Sheffield Park station has been restored to look like a Victorian station. Horsted Keynes resembles a Southern Railway station from around the 1930s and Kingscote from the 1950s. East Grinstead itself, where I took this photograph is supposed to be restored to the 1950s and 1960s.

When the train stops at Sheffield Park, there is a museum, a gift shop several places you can buy snacks. There is also a big pub where you can buy a meal and have a drink. All very nicely done.

You can get to East Grinstead on a train out of London Victoria. A standard adult fare on the Bluebell is £19, although it is cheaper if you book online in advance. For more details, see the link below:


© Susan Shirley 2018


Having a drink recently with some colleagues, we got to talking out the ‘old money’ – LSD. Pounds, shillings and pence. Of course, my colleagues laughed when I referred to it as LSD; they were younger than I and were thinking of something else.

The UK changed from LSD to decimal currency on 15 February 1971. I was struggling to remember the origins of the old coinage. I remember ha’pennies and my Mum used to talk about farthings. And, of course, there is the brides’ rhyme for their wedding day:

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
Silver sixpence in your shoe

We had LSD in this country since the Norman Conquest, but it was Henry II who introduced the system we had up until 1971. We called it LSD because the pound (L or £) was derived from the word Libra, a Roman unit of weight. The s was a shilling, denoted /- (the slash is also known as a solidus). The d was for the pennies, from a Roman coin called the denarius.

When Henry II introduced this system, it was based on Troy weights, an old system of weighing precious metals. A penny was one pennyweight of silver, and 240 pennyweights of silver. Thus, there were 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling, 240 pence to the pound, but it didn’t stop there, as in most currencies, there were other coins, and some of them had nicknames:

Farthings (a corruption of “fourthings” – a quarter of a penny)
Ha’pennies (a corruption of “half pennies”)
Threepenny bits (three pence. I was rather fond of these 12 sided coins with a portcullis on one side)
A groat (Fourpence)
A tanner (a six penny piece)

A shilling was also known as a “bob” (has anyone heard of “bob a job week?”)
Florin (two shillings)
Half a crown (two shillings and six pence)
A crown (five shillings)
A 10 shilling note, before that a half Sovereign coin.
£1 was called a Sovereign aka a “quid.”
A Guinea (£1 1/- or £1 and 1 shilling, it was called a Guinea because it was originally a gold coin, made from gold from the Guinea coast)

Even when we changed to decimal currency, we still had nicknames, some of which had been around since LSD:

Currency Nickname Cockney Rhyming Slang
6d tanner Tartan Banner
£1 nicker
£5 fiver Lady Godiva
£10 tenner Paul McKenna or Ayrton Senna
£25 pony
£50 Half a ton
£100 Ton
£500 a monkey
£1000 a grand

Adding up in the old currency was fun – you had to add the penny’s column in 12s, the shillings column in 20s. I am sure it improved our maths. Will we revert to LSD after Brexit? I doubt it. It would be an added complication. Alas, I fear, libra and denarius, as well as shillings, are lost to us forever.

© Susan Shirley 2018


My trip to the US was a long-time ago, or so it seemed, and I wanted to go away to celebrate my next birthday.
I was chatting about it to my mate, Theresa (aka Hot Chocolate, as she is oft referred to in this blog)
“Where are you going?”
“To the Isle of Wight. I haven’t been there for a very long time.”
“Isle of Wight? Where Kim lives?”
Kim is an ex-colleague.
“Who you going with?”
“On my own.”
“Do you fancy some company?”
T and I worked together for years, and we know each other well. We know each other’s little quirks. We both like the odd glass of wine. Going away together really was a no-brainer. In fact, the only reason it hasn’t happened before is that we couldn’t do it when we worked together. I explained that I‘d already booked the hotel and that I could get the booking amended, etc. Game on.
T and I met at Waterloo Station. Under the clock that has been the start of so many relationships, covert meetings and who knows what else? Armed with a couple of cappuccini, a bottle of fizz for the train and enough clothes to keep a full battalion of soldiers going for several months, we boarded our train for Portsmouth Harbour.
I hadn’t been to Portsmouth since the mid 90’s and I knew things had changed. I also knew I didn’t remember it well. Presumably, something to do with alcoholic haze. Looking online, I hadn’t been able to get a real feel for the distance from the station to the ferry port. I thought we might have to get a cab…. Not realising that they are so close as to almost share an umbilical cord. No cab was necessary.
We were booked on the 13.15 crossing but were there early enough for the 12.15. Fortunately for us, the very nice young man let us board straight away. I suppose it would have been different if they’d been fully booked…
We arrived in Ryde about half an hour later and got the little train to Shanklin, where we were staying. All our paperwork told us that we couldn’t check into the hotel until 15.00 so we and our suitcases (my large suitcase and Theresa’s more moderate sized one) went for a mooch about the town. We found a pub called the Falcon which looked ok, and, outside, it said it served food.
Inside, the music was good, but no food, so a couple of glasses of Pinot later, we were on our way. We walked the full length of the High Street, up and down to a little pub called The Crab. We walked past it the first time around because, as the famous thatched roof was being re-thatched and it was hard to see, but soon realised our mistake and turned back.
We were glad we stopped off here, for several reasons. Firstly, it was proper pub food, nothing too fancy, but good, old-fashioned food. Secondly, we were among only about half a dozen customers when we entered, so when we ordered food, it arrived quickly. Thirdly, the barman, Dave, was an absolute sweetheart. He was also a Manc, so he and T had a lot to talk about. (I may have neglected to mention her northern heritage before.)
A bottle of wine between us, half a roast chicken with corn on the cob and proper, fat chips…. Heaven for two hungry girls. Dave gave us directions to our hotel, so off we trotted.
The hotel receptionist (who also turned out to be the manageress) was very helpful. She gave us a bus timetable and map, a local street map and some other info about things to do on the island. We settled in our room and promptly fell asleep for several hours. It’s one of the things that Theresa and I have in common, we both like to sleep. We rest when we need to. It makes spending time together much easier when you don’t have to comply with conventional behaviour.
We went for a drink in the bar but decided it was still too early to sleep after our mammoth afternoon nap, so we went for a walk down to the seafront. A midnight stroll is always pleasurable, especially when it’s windy and not too cold. It was very quiet and there was not much to see, but that’s the way I like it, it gives my imagination a chance to work overtime.
We crept back into our hotel around 1 am, like a pair of naughty schoolgirls and went to bed. Properly this time.
Breakfast the following morning was served between 07.00 and 09.00, so we went down about 08.00 and settled down for a Full English. We swapped a few things and probably ended up each having a full meal. Back to the room to get our gear and off we trotted for the buses to take us to Osborne House.
I was pleasantly surprised with the buses on the island, they were punctual and the bus drivers were very friendly. We also bought a 48-hour pass which cost us about £15; considerably more economical than buying individual tickets.
We had to get a bus to Ryde to go to Osborne House, so travel was a couple of hours. It was worth the journey. There is a lot to see.
We started our visit at the Swiss Cottage, built by Albert for his children. It sits in its own gardens, mostly vegetable, that the children used to tend themselves. Nowadays, it’s a museum with a range of collections from stuffed birds to crystals to collections from the Far East.
Osborne House
Moving on from here, we went to the beach. It was warm and peaceful here, easy to see why Queen Victoria loved it so much. Her bathing machine has been restored to its former glory. The bathing machine had a changing room and a veranda in which the Queen could change into her swimming costume in private. It would then take her into the sea (it ran on rails) where she had a dip and then return to get changed in private.
From there, we walked up to the main house. We were both absolutely stunned by the beauty of the gardens. The colours of the flower beds both complemented and contrasted at the same time. Lots of purples, greys and reds. I’m not good with the names of flowers, I think there was a Salvia in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Of course, alongside the flowers was the architecture. It is stunning, very grand, and built in the style of an Italian Renaissance Palazzo, by the same company that built the main façade at Buckingham Palace. After being a home for the Victorian Royal Family, it had a couple of other iterations, as both a Royal Naval College and an officers’ convalescent home before being taken over by English Heritage. It was a lovely visit.
The following day we went inland, to a craft village at Arreton Barns, describing itself as ‘the island’s largest centre for arts and crafts.’ It was a popular little place, with quite a lot for children to do. The pub there, the Dairyman’s Daughter, did a lot of lunches which looked to be extremely good value – had we not already had a massive breakfast, I dare say we would have participated too.
That evening, we found a fantastic restaurant, Morgans. The food was excellent, the best belly pork I’ve ever had. You can see my review of it here:
The following day, we came home. We had enough time to get the bus back to Ryde, rather than the train, thus using our bus tickets. We walked up from the bus station to the ferry port – it’s not a long walk and there wasn’t too much traffic, so it was easy enough. The pontoon is designed for two-way traffic. The pedestrian path is quite narrow, so when there are people going both ways, one of you has to walk on the road.
Time for a coffee before our ferry, then a train ride home, back to normal life. Until the next time.
© Susan Shirley 2018


It was still hot in the Big Apple. Very hot. Still 95 degrees, and that was early in the day as we were on our way to breakfast.

On the second day, we visited Tiffany the Empire State Building, interspersed with a few pit stops because of the heat. Tiffany because I had some birthday money left over and wanted to buy myself something and it’s a ‘must do’ in New York. (Actually, it’s a ‘must do’ anywhere, in my opinion. There is a look and feel in them that I love.). As we were walking along Fifth Avenue, we popped into Saks, largely because it was air-conditioned and we needed to cool down. We managed to get a bit of a make-over – we were both ‘glowing’ when we got there. Like most stores, the cosmetics section is at the front and the assistants took pity on us. Either that or we looked so bedraggled that we were lowering the tone. The lovely ladies gave us some more water before we continued on our journey.

The last time I’d been to New York I had wanted to visit the Empire State but the weather was bad and the winds were too high. Like so many tall buildings, they close the viewing platforms in weather like that, so this was to be my first time.

View from the Empire State viewing platform

The Empire State Building is an example of that beautiful Art Deco design that was prevalent in New York in the 1930s. One of the things that about New York that sets it aside from other cities. The Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world until 1970. It’s still an imposing sight.

It was built as an office block, although as its opening coincided with the Great Depression, much of it was empty for some time. The observation decks were opened to the public, for a fee, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it actually started to make a profit.

There is, understandably, a lot of security there, and you get to the viewing platform by taking a series of lifts (they don’t want random people popping into the office areas, do they?). There is a lot of information about the building inside the public area at the top of the building. If you feel so inclined, you can have your photograph taken with someone dressed up as King Kong.

Nowadays there is a bar on the ground floor, as well as the ubiquitous gift shop and a drug store. We had a couple of drinks in the bar, to fortify ourselves before stepping outside again.

The next day was our last, and we visited Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, another Art Deco skyscraper. I’d stayed further along in East 42nd on my first visit to NY, but I hadn’t been inside, so it was a treat for me too.

The Chrysler Building was the tallest building in the world for only 11 months before the Empire State took over. It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s. An interesting fact about it is that the corporation didn’t pay for it, Walter P Chrysler paid for it himself. He wanted his family to inherit it rather than the company.

There are no tours, but the ground entrance floor is open to the public and is stunning. Lots of marble and engravings and some useful facts. And it was cool.

Some interesting, little-known facts about the Chrysler Building:

1. There used to be a Speakeasy near to the top of the building. Called the Cloud Club, it was originally built for the Texaco company which occupied 14 floors. It was closed in the late 1970s to make way for more offices.

2. Walter P Chrysler had an apartment on the top floor. There was also another apartment on the 61st floor. This was where photographer Margaret Bourke-White, famous for her photographs of Skyscrapers, lived.

3. In the early days of the building, there was a water-bottling plant in the basement.

4. The observation deck on the 71st floor closed to the public in 1945.

5. There was a car showroom on the first two floors.

6. The top of the spire is filled with reinforced concrete.

7. Everyone (me included) thinks that the top of the building is made from hub caps. Not so. It’s actually a German-made sheet of metal crafted to look that way.

8. The Chrysler Building and the building at 40 Wall Street were in competition to be the world’s tallest building before the Empire State was built. Thus the spire was constructed in secret, in four separate pieces. It took about an hour and a half to put them on the top of the building.

From here, we walked a short distance up to Grand Central Station. Grand Central opened in 1871 as Grand Central Depot. It wasn’t until February 1913 that it opened to the public as Grand Central Terminal, which is still its correct title. One of its most stunning features is the astronomical ceiling in the main hall, designed in 1912.

Grand Central Terminal

Surprisingly, what should be east is west and vice versa on the ceiling. The ceiling was allowed to fall into disrepair, started to leak and within 11 years it was in a very sad state. It wasn’t until 1944 that work was undertaken to repair and restore it. In fact, a completely new mural was painted, in much less detail than the original.

That said, it is still a beautiful concourse and well worth a visit. Especially as there are coffee shops and places to eat in the surrounding areas. We didn’t have time to hang around here, we had a ‘plane to catch.

© Susan Shirley 2018


We flew up from San Francisco to arrive in New York in the middle of a freak heat wave.  The average temperature in New York in May is around 61oF (16oC), although the locals told us it had been much colder than that the week before.  It was 95oF during our stay.  We arrived at JFK at about 20.00, too late to realise how hot it was during the day.  We collected our bags, and got a cab straight to our hotel.  The system at JFK is, in my opinion, better than at Heathrow.  Slicker and quicker.  You check in with the agent, get the cab they assign you and off you trot.

We hadn’t been able to get into the hotel I’d wanted, in East 42nd, so we’d been booked into our hotel very close to Times Square, in West 40th.  The Distrikt Hotel is quite modern, the reception staff were huge fun and very helpful, and there was a birthday cupcake and birthday card in our room.  I’d recommend it.  Funny thing was that in our first trip in the lift, we met another English woman staying there on business.  We unpacked and generally sorted ourselves out, and went to the bar.

We had already booked a trip to Liberty Island for the next day, fortunately not too early in the morning.  We took the Subway to Battery Park, picked up our tickets and then joined the very long queue.  Security here was better than at the airport, the searches were very thorough, which is why there was such a long queue.

Liberty Island has a varied and interesting history.  It was renamed as such in 1956, by an act of Congress although it has had several names over the centuries.  As far back as the mid 17th century, the waters in Upper New York Bay were home to Oyster beds which became a major food source for immigrant Dutch Settlers who named it Great Oyster Island.

In 1664, the Dutch surrendered to the British, the island became British and was eventually sold to Isaac Bedloe in 1667, thus becoming Bedloe’s Island.  Having been a private island for rental and a smallpox quarantine, it later became a sanctuary for loyalist during the American Revolutionary War.

In the 19th century, it became home to Fort Wood, and was chosen to be the home for what it is now best known for, the Statue of Liberty, in the 1880s.  The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the people of America by the people of France, something to do with solidarity after the revolutions in both countries.  The sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, modelled the statue on his mother.

I’m not sure why I should have been surprised, but I was, to learn (a) that the statue is hollow and (b) that the copper is only about the thickness of a one cent coin.  As well as the Statue of Liberty, there is a museum on the island, and a number of other smaller statues.


When we’d finished, we took the subway back to Times Square and went back to the hotel.  Dinner was a local Chinese, followed by an early night, ready for the next day.


© Susan Shirley 2018


We arrived in San Francisco late, and reached our hotel at about midnight, shattered.  We later discovered that our hotel was quite a way outside of the city centre, a bus ride away.

The hotel reception area was an eclectic mix of artefacts from different countries – Thailand, China, Africa are my best guesses.  It was roomy and the reception clerks were humorous and made us feel at home straight away.  Our room was nowhere near as big as the rooms we’d become accustomed to, although it was clean and had everything we needed, including a coffee machine.  It had a fan but didn’t need the air con we’d had in Nawleans and Memphis (mind you, we hadn’t needed that so much there either). More importantly, they had “happy half hour” in reception between 5.30pm and 6pm every night, where all guests were given free drinks and live music was provided.  Very civilised.

We found out from some other guests that rooms here were $200 a night (we had no idea of room prices because it was all part of a package for us) and, having spoken to some young Irish girls who told us how expensive it was to live in SanFran (even more expensive than London) I began to warm to the area in which I was staying.

We didn’t have to rush too much on our first day, we only had to pick up our pre-paid tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

“We need to turn right out of the hotel,” I said, “Then right again down here.”

I didn’t have my customary compass with me, so how the hell I thought I knew which direction I thought I was walking is anybody’s guess.  We walked for about an hour, and, having walked past more homeless people than  I ever see in London (I later discovered that San Francisco has a huge homeless problem) we ended up in an area that looked very prosperous but had very few pedestrians.  This was not where we were supposed to be.

Eventually, we found someone to ask, who told us we were nearer to the Bay Area than the Fisherman’s Wharf area we wanted. Still, it was good exercise.  We found an Irish pub where we stopped for a very late breakfast, and where we met a couple of lovely Irish girls, the ones I mentioned above.  When they told us how much they had to pay in rent, I nearly had a heart attack!  This made London positively cheap.

The Golden Gate

We ended up getting a cab the rest of the way, to Fisherman’s Wharf, picked up our tickets and did our first tour around the city centre.  The heart of San Francisco is pretty much like any other city centre, all the usual designer stores – Ferragamo, Herrera, Tiffany, etc, although, of course, without our English only stores such as John Lewis.

Our cab driver didn’t disappoint us with regard to the hills that made the car chase in Bullitt famous.  There were occasions when I was convinced that we were going to roll backwards, and on more than one occasion during our stay, I thanked the law of gravity.  In fact, I had to remind myself of it, it seemed impossible that we wouldn’t just fall off the Earth, some of the hills were so steep.  If I’d stayed in San Francisco, I’d have lost pounds, just walking up and down.

Later, we found the tour shop in Columbus Avenue, where we exchanged our voucher for our 48-hour hop-on-hop-off tour bus passes.  It just past 15.00 by now, so we decided on the downtown tour that day, before heading back to our hotel for the free drinks reception.

We decided to eat in the hotel that night and didn’t go out again.  I think Kate and I were both surprised at how variable the TV coverage was in each of our hotels.  Of course, we had expected local news, but thus far, national news coverage had been minimal, and the selection of channels was pretty limited.  (On the day we left, we discovered that one of our favourites, NCIS, was showing at 07.00 so we watched that rather than the news.)

Day two in San Francisco meant an early start to get our boat to Alcatraz.  It’s a bit of a must-do in San Francisco although before I got there I had mixed feelings about it.  It’s just over a mile from the mainland, and our guides explained that the prisoners had been transported, shackled at the ankles, on a train.  The train carriage was taken to the island so that they didn’t have to de-train the prisoners until they arrived on the island.  They gave them warm showers on Alcatraz because they didn’t want them to get used to being in cold water lest they get the idea that they should try swimming to escape.

There was a volunteer tour guide who talked us through the first couple of stages up on the island, which had started its life as a military base, but had become a military prison almost immediately and had later become the federal penitentiary for which it is now famous.  At the cell blocks, we were given audio headsets, with our guides ex-prison guards, occasionally interspersed with comments from prisoners.

The main prison blocks, B and C, were grim, the cells being only 5’ by 9’ with a small sink (cold water only), and bed and a toilet.  In D block, segregation, the cells were a bit bigger, but inmates were confined to their cells 24 hours per day, with only one visit to the recreation yard per week.

Part of the remains of Alcatraz

However, it was when we got to solitary confinement that the conditions became really bad.  Although the cells were inside and undercover, you could feel the wind blowing in from outside.  It must have been horrendous in the winter months, even though this part of the world doesn’t have the harsh winters of other parts of the USA.  It was pretty cold on the day we visited.

Further along in this block were cells referred to as “The Hole.”  When prisoners who had behaved even more badly were put in there, they were kept in darkness – according to the audio, once acclimatised, it was possible to see a little light, but still, I imagine that would have had a rather salutary effect.

I hadn’t realised before going to Alcatraz that there had been a rather nasty escape attempt in 1946 in which one of the inmates somehow managed to get into the gun cage and get hold of all the firearms there.  A siege followed, which lasted for two days, during which time two prison guards were killed.

There were significantly more escape attempts than I’d realised, some of which were partially successful, in as much as the men got off the island, but it seems they were all recaptured.

Alcatraz done, we travelled back to San Francisco and got a trolley bus back to our hotel.  For $2.50 each, we had tickets that we could use for us to two and a half hours, plus a good sightseeing tour of the City.

San Francisco from Alcatraz

The following day, we did our mammoth bus tour around the city.  It was a shame that this was to be our last day here, we were just getting to know our way around.   We went back to the hotel to prepare for the Big Apple.

© Susan Shirley 2017


We had the morning to ourselves before our trip out to a plantation.  Neither Kate nor I had been sleeping very well – we couldn’t seem to get the temperature right in the room, and we spent half the night being too cold, the other half being too hot.  We were waking early every morning too, so we got up early, went out for breakfast (same place as the day before).  This time I tried the cheese grits with my omelette, which were far tastier than the ones I’d had at Maison Dupuy.

We dozed a bit on the way to the Oak Alley Plantation.  It was a lovely venue, although I can understand why the original owner’s wife, Celina, preferred to be in New Orleans. The plantation was owned by Jacques and Celina Roman, although Jacques was not the original owner, his brother-in-law was.  They decided to do a swap of plantations in 1837.

The plantation is named after the path (alley) leading up to the front of the house which is bordered on each side by Southern Oak Trees (nothing like our English Oaks).  It was originally named the Bon Sejour plantation, and grew sugar cane.

One of the things that struck me was the slave quarters.  I have no axe to grind about the Americans and slavery – the Brits were guilty of it too, as well as many other nations, and it’s as bad whoever does it.  It’s just that they had names of some of the slaves who had lived here, and they told the story of slaves by name as you walked around the slave quarters.  It was incredibly moving.  As in sickening. We walked around the slave quarters, reading about the lives of the slaves and seeing the conditions in which they lived.  Grim.

Life was a little easier for the house slaves and I know that, had I been a slave there, I’d have been a field slave (way too gobby to be a house slave).  Some of the house slaves were relegated to field slaves, some were promoted to house slaves.  It almost seemed that, as a slave, you were cast aside like an old sock when you got too old to do your job, or something else went wrong.

The dining room at the plantation. A slave would have had the task of moving the overhead fan.

What a hard life, they even had the women slaves digging for the levees, and other hard field work, although even working in the house would not have been easy in those days.  At least outside you’d get a bit of fresh(ish) air.

The climate in Louisiana is generally humid (seems we were very lucky during our stay, it was not even as humid as London in the height of summer) which must have been awful for anybody working in the fields.  Although it was a beautiful location, I was quite pleased to get back to New Orleans and away from the harsh realities of what life had been like for some people.

A complete change of tack, we tried a different restaurant when we got back, which was quite pleasant.  Kate had a salad for her dinner, which turned out to be a plate of lettuce with chicken.  Not quite what I had imagined although I discovered during our stay that is what passes for a salad in most of the States.  To the extent that there were adverts on the TV in New York advertising salads with other salads vegetables as though it was a real novelty.  Which it clearly was.  I had another local dish with beans and a special request for grilled – not breaded, fried – chicken.

We found a supermarket on the corner of Bourbon Street where we bought a bottle of Californian Champagne to take back to our hotel room, to assist with the packing for the next part of our trip.  (Apologies to the champagne region of France, but that is what it said on the bottle, and it was very palatable.  I suspect, although I didn’t check, that it was made from Chardonnay grapes too.)  Somehow, packing wasn’t quite so hard after that.

We had enjoyed our stay at Maison Dupuy and were now ready for the next part of our journey.


© Susan Shirley 2017


We ventured out of the restaurant for breakfast on our second day.  Although we didn’t know it at the time of booking, nor did we realise it when we first arrived, Rue Toulouse was in a very handy position – we could walk straight up to the Grayline tours leaving point and the Mississippi, past several bars and restaurants.  It was a win-win.

After our chat to Cathy the day before, Kate and I had decided on a trip to the Louisiana swamp and bayou.  It was a half day tour, which suited us as we had plans for the evening.

It was one of the best tours I have ever done.  We were bussed to the bayou, waited for our captain and boarded our luxury yacht.  Just kidding, it was a custom-built swamp boat; a flat-bottomed boat, not dissimilar to the one in the link:×420/v1/c700x420.jpg

Our skipper was very knowledgeable, although I suppose they all are, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing that job, would they?  He started the tour with the usual health and safety announcements:

“if you drop your camera, tough, we won’t be going back for it.  Keep your arms inside the boat, some of these alligators are big enough to jump up to the job of the boat and if your arm is sticking out, it’ll eat it.”

Right then.

The bayou is surrounded by cypress trees and is basically a series of slow-moving streams or wetlands, often tidal.  Our skipper told us that there had been a bit of a flood a couple of days before, so the water was colder than usual.  I found that strangely comforting when a 12 feet long alligator started swimming around.

It wasn’t just alligators that we saw, there were some beautiful plants and birds, and soft-shelled turtles and opossum – the captain threw marshmallows to them when we saw them on the river bank.

It was the alligator that made it though.  Although we saw a few baby ‘gators, this big old boy kept swimming around us.  He’d swim for a few of the marshmallows, but didn’t really want to play.  Probably too cold.  I couldn’t help but see the similarities to the human skeleton as he was swimming around though.  I almost had a film script…

That evening, we went on a river trip on board the Mississippi Steam Boat Natchez, the last remaining genuine steamboat on the river.  (Yes, there are others that appear to be, but the Natchez is the only one that is a genuine steamboat.)


The current Natchez is the ninth to bear that name, and there is a whole history to it, but that’s a story for another day.  We didn’t have dinner on board, I’m a fussy eater.  Just drinks, a bit of dancing and enjoying the ride up and down the river.  The jazz band was called The Steamboat Stompers.  I’ve done some of those Thames river boat cruises, but being on a boat on the Mighty Mississippi was different again.  It is a huge river and quite amazing to see the factories, and so on, along the river banks.

Sunset at New Orleans

We were glad to only have a short journey home after our boat trip.  We needed to be ready for the following day.

© Susan Shirley 2017