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Pretty much all we keep hearing these days is that we need a vaccine for COVID-19 but what exactly are vaccines and how do they work?

What is a vaccine?

Quick biology lesson: when we are born, we get an acquired immunity to various diseases through drinking our mother’s milk.  For the most part, this acquired immunity will only last about six months.  Acquired immunity just means an immunity that is conferred on us, rather than made by our own immune system.

A vaccine is something that confers and acquired immunity which may last anything from six months to several years.  A weakened or inactivated form of the pathogen is used in the vaccine to make the immune system react.

As adults, we get a natural immunity by being exposed to various pathogens that our body fights off.  Our bodies produces antibodies that fight disease, and in many cases, once we have the antibodies, they will provide us with an immunity against said disease.  As we know from the doubts about immunity to COVID-19, we don’t always get an immunity.  In any case, it normally takes our bodies about five days to make enough antibodies to really fight an infection, which may be too long in some cases.


There are accounts of smallpox inoculation as far back as the 1500s in China and India.  Other reports say that is started much earlier, in around 200 BCE.  It is thought that the procedure was carried out by variolation – some of the toxin is taken from a recently infected person and rubbed against the skin until there became an open wound.  Variola is the generic name of the virus that causes smallpox, hence variolation.

Over the centuries, many physicians searched for a cure for the often-deadly smallpox, without success. And, as has so often been the case, Western and Eastern medicine did not really converge.  

However, in 1721 in Boston, USA, during a smallpox outbreak, 248 people were variolated.  Six of these people died, so it wasn’t perfect, but the mortality rate for those who had been variolated was lower than for those who hadn’t.  Later the same year, Lady Mary Montagu brought variolation to England.  

In 1770, the English physician Edward Jenner started to investigate the folk law that infection with cow pox would confer protection against smallpox.  (Although it wasn’t known then, the viruses that cause these diseases are from the same family.)

In 1796, Jenner successfully used a vaccine made from cox pox to inoculate against smallpox.  By 1853, a law was passed that made it mandatory for children to be vaccinated against smallpox by the time they were three months old.

Fast forward to 1899 and the British army vaccinated almost 15,000 soldiers against typhoid in the Second Boer War.  

By the late 1940s, vaccines for smallpox, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough had become established.  Despite vaccines for more diseases being discovered since then, there are surprising number of people who don’t take advantage of them – for example, it took until 2002 for polio to be eradicated in Europe.

How do they work?

Basically, vaccines make our immune systems think that we have been exposed to a full-on version of a disease.  

It is very common, after a vaccine is administered, to feel some soreness or redness in the area, and perhaps a low-grade fever.   

Vaccination, Inoculation or Immunisation?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are all slightly different.  

Inoculation is where something that will grow is inserted inside the body, not only to protect it against a specific disease but also to help it protect against that same disease in the future.

Vaccination is where a weakened version of the bacterium or virus is put into the body so that the immune system produces antibodies against that weakened version. When the body later meets that same disease, it will readily fight it because it has encountered that weakened version before.

Immunisation is the process whereby the body can respond quickly to a pathogen.  We can have either active or passive immunity.  Active immunity happens when we have been exposed to a pathogen.  Passive immunity happens, for example, when a baby gets immunity from its mother’s milk, or we are given an injection of antivenom after a snake bite.

So there you have it, a very basic guide to vaccines, what they do and how they do it.  Personally, there is no doubt in my mind, once a vaccine has been tested and found safe, I would have them every time.

© Susan Shirley 2020



We keep hearing talk of the Coronavirus or Covid-19 but what exactly are viruses and why are they so problematic?


In the simplest of terms, viruses are what scientists call prokaryotes – single-celled organisms that don’t have a nucleus.  (A nucleus is the ‘brain’ of a cell, it controls the activities that take place within that cell.). There is much debate within the scientific community whether viruses should be treated as living organisms because they are dormant when they do not have a host in which to live.  Some viruses can remain dormant for thousands of years, if the conditions are right.  When I say they remain dormant, I mean that they cannot reproduce or feed or carry out any other metabolic process without a host.  

Genetic material

Viruses contain either DNA or RNA as their genetic material.  In humans and other mammals, the genetic material is a double helix of DNA.  In fact, the vast majority of organisms contain DNA as their genetic material.  Diseases such as Smallpox and Chickenpox are spread by DNA viruses.

Other viruses, such as the Coronaviruses and Rabies, are RNA viruses.  Conditions such as AIDS, transmitted by the viruses HIV-1 and HIV-2 which are also RNA viruses, but they are retroviruses, which means that the viral RNA incorporates itself into the host’s DNA (which was one of the reasons that this was so hard to treat in the early days of the disease, although thankfully, it is now very controllable).  


In biology, the simple definition of a parasite is an organism that gains benefit at the expense of its host.  It logically follows that parasites want their host to survive for as long as possible.  Viruses are no different although we could all be forgiven for thinking that is not the case when we are in the depths of a pandemic, but in reality, it is rare for a virus to kill off a whole population.  Covid-19 is no different, it is not killing everyone.  In some people, the effects are very mild.  

There are lots of other pathogens (disease causing organisms) out there: bacteria, fungi, to name but two.  We live in a sort of harmony with most of them and we will continue to do so.

© Susan Shirley 2020


Most children will have heard of Peter Rabbit, and maybe read the stories.  A film, starring Renee Zellweger was made about her in 1982, but like most films, there was a lot of artistic licence, it was perhaps not the best representation of her.  So, who was Beatrix Potter?  This is the short version.

Her full name was Helen Beatrix Potter and she was born in South Kensington in 1866.  She died in 1943.  She had a younger brother, Walter Bertram.  Beatrix was educated at home by governesses.  She and her brother kept numerous small animals to which she was devoted.  

The family spent their holidays in Perthshire until she was aged 15.  When the property there subsequently became unavailable, they spent their holidays in the Lake District where she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, a local vicar, who went onto become the founding secretary of the National Trust.  Rawnsley inspired Beatrix to her great interest in the countryside.  

Beatrix was interested in natural science and became increasingly interested in mycology – the study of fungi as she grew older.  As well as drawing them, she became interested in how they reproduced.  Although she proposed a theory of germination and submitted a paper to the Linnaean Society, she could not introduce it herself because she was female.  In fact, she withdrew the paper anyway because she believed some of her samples had been contaminated.  The paper has been rediscovered.  Her paintings of fungi are still used to help in identification.  

In September 1893, Beatrix told the story of four little rabbits to one of the sons of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore.  The rabbits were called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.  After some editorial changes, and unable to find a publisher, she self-published in December 1901, but only for her family and friends.  Eventually, on 2 October 1902, the book – The Tale of Peter Rabbit – was published by a traditional publisher and became a huge success.  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Gloucester followed the following year.  She subsequently published two or three books every year – and if you think she was slow, remember that she didn’t have a computer – totalling 23 books in total.  

Beatrix became unofficially engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, in 1905.  Unofficially because her parents did not approve.  Sadly, Warne died only a month later.  Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.  The tenant farmer agreed to continue to farm the land for her while she learned the trade.  

She met, and was proposed to by a local solicitor, William Heelis, whom she subsequently married on 15 October 1913 at St Mary Abbots in Kensington (that’s the one on Kensington Church Street).  

Beatrix continued to write and farm, expanding her love of sheep farming – she raised Herdwick sheep, a long-haired breed native to the region.  She became one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the area and won many prizes at local shows.  She was also a great supporter of the National Trust and in 1930, she and her husband went into partnership with the Trust until such time as the Trust bought a number of properties from her.  

She continued to write, mostly just for pleasure.  She died in 1943 and left most of her property to the National Trust.  When her husband died less than two years later, he left the remainder of their property to the Trust.

© Susan Shirley 2020


It seems that Europe is the epicentre of the COVID-19 virus.  Spain is in a lockdown and UK airlines have stopped flying to a number of international destinations.  The UK government has moved the UK from the Contain phase into Delay, hoping to prevent too many cases putting a strain on the NHS during its usual busy period.

People are right to be concerned but COVID-19 is not the first ever pandemic, there have been many in recorded history.  We first started to see epidemics about 10,000 years ago when the human lifestyle made contagion more likely.  Think tuberculosis, the ‘flu’ (in its many variants), Malaria, smallpox…. 

In simple terms, an epidemic (a disease that spreads rapidly throughout a population) becomes a pandemic when it becomes international, although there are experts who don’t wholly agree with this definition.  If we stick with the definition that I am using, Ebola virus, however dreadful, doesn’t fall into the pandemic category.  While looking at the major pandemics throughout history, remember that the medical advances we have today were not present, but a common theme persists… good sanitation and hygiene.

The Athens Pandemic/Peloponnesian War, 430 BC

Quick history lesson: Athens and Sparta were the most powerful city states in Ancient Greece.  They were at war with each other between 431 and 405 BC.  During this [Peloponnesian] war, a disease occurred that is believed to have started in Libya and spread across to what is now southern Greece.  At the time it hit, Athens was under siege by the Spartans.  As you might imagine, a city under siege would be suffering in more ways than one, and two-thirds of the population died.  

The symptoms of the disease were fever, red skin and lesions, a bloody throat and tongue and a severe thirst.  It is thus suspected to be typhoid fever, which is usually spread by contaminated food and water, which is entirely possible in the prevailing conditions.  This was the earliest recorded pandemic.

The Antonine Plague, 165 AD

No-one really knows how this started, or, indeed, exactly what it was, although it is believed to be either smallpox or measles.  The disease is believed to have persisted for about 15 years and to have killed over 5 million people, including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  

The symptoms included fever, sore throat, diarrhoea and pus-filled sores if the individual survived long enough.  It was spread why Roman troops returning from war.  Hitting the Italian shores, they travelled across the country to their homes, explaining why the UK government is so keen on self-isolation with COVID-19.

The Cyprian Plague, 250 AD

This infection is believed to have started in Carthage (the capital city of what is now Tunisia).  It is named after the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, who was the first known victim.  Its symptoms included diarrhoea, vomiting, throat ulcers, fever, and [this is nasty] gangrene in the feet and hands.  No-one is really sure what this disease was although some historians think it was smallpox, others Ebola.  

Unfortunately, those who lived in Carthage tried to escape the illness by going out into the country, but all they succeeded in doing was spreading the disease further afield.  The disease recurred intermittently over the following three centuries by which time it had spread to Britain, and we have no idea how many people were affected.

The Justinian Plague, 541 AD

This was perhaps the earliest appearance of bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, in the Byzantine Empire.  It is believed to have killed over half the population of Europe, about 50 million people.  The symptoms of bubonic plague (which is spread by fleas carried by rats) are swollen lymph nodes, fever AND chills, fatigue.  

This outbreak had a major impact on the economies of the countries affected, and quite probably changed the course of history.  Farmers were unable to deal with their crops, consequently, there were shortages and prices increased, although that was not the worst of it.  There were no bakers to make bread, and so on, so trade stopped and people starved. 

The Black Death, 1346 to 1353

This second occurrence of the bubonic plague is believed to have started in Asia, moving north-west via nomadic people, until it hit Sicily in 1347.  It spread throughout Europe rapidly, so rapidly, in fact that it was impossible to clear up all the dead bodies and many were left to rot on the ground where they dropped.  At the time, England and France were in full flow of the Hundred Years War, and agreed to call a temporary truce because of the outbreak.  It caused the breakdown of many societies as they were known at the time, including being instrumental in the collapse of the feudal system in England. 

The Columbian Exchange, 1492

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue,” so we were taught at school.  Columbus was searching for India but instead he found the West Indies, the Caribbean.   The Caribbeans had never encountered diseases such as measles and smallpox before and had immunity.  And, of course, the bubonic plague which was also carried by the rats on board ship, completing the Hat Trick.  Thus Columbus and his crew wiped out around 90% of the population of the islands they visited.  Captain Cook caused similar problems when he visited the South Sea Islands centuries later, largely caused by the common cold.  

The Great Plague, 1665

Perhaps I should say, ‘the return of the plague.’  It killed off about 20% of the population and was only stopped but the Great Fire of London in 1666.  We can still see evidence of the Great Plague in the City of London, where the church yards are much higher than the entrances to the churches, because there are so many bodies buried there.  At the time, the cause of the disease was still unknown, and thought to have been spread by cats and dogs rather than rats, thus they were slaughtered in their masses.  It’s also worth remembering that London was incredibly unhygienic at the time, with sewage running in the streets and being thrown into the Thames.  

Cholera Pandemics, 1817 – 1919

The first of seven cholera pandemics started in 1817 and continued for about 150 years or so.  A million people died in the first one.  Cholera is caused by bacteria, spread through contaminated water and food.  It infects the small intestine causing diarrhoea, and, in extreme cases, death.  There is some debate about where this pandemic originated, some scholars say Russia, others say India.  Regardless, it lasted for six years when a severe winter is believed to have killed it off.

A second cholera pandemic began in 1829, reaching the UK in late 1831.  Local health boards were established here and areas quarantined, but fear spread throughout the public, and there was a widespread distrust of doctors.  Press reports led people to think that more people died in hospitals than in their own homes, leading to fears that the medics were intentional killing off people so they could use the bodies for anatomical research.  Remember this was only a few years after the murders committed by the notorious Burke and Hare, and shortly after, a Liverpool based surgeon called William Gill was found guilty of grave-robbing.  Subsequently so-called cholera riots took place in Liverpool.  

Between 1852 and 1860, killing 1 million people.  1854 was the worst year for the cholera epidemic in London, which was when a British Physician John Snow tracked the cases throughout London’s Soho and traced the source to a public well pump.  (You can see where the pump was located to this day.)  When Snow convinced the authorities to remove the pump the number of cases dropped immediately.  

In the same year, an Italian microbiologist, Fillipo Pacini, identified the bacterium responsible and by 1885 a vaccine had been developed, however, outbreaks continued, largely because the sources hadn’t been eliminated.  However, by this time, the UK and USA were largely unaffected because they had improved water supplies and sanitation.  

Cholera still breaks out from time to time: in 1991, it appeared in Peru where it wiped out 3000 people in the first year, then more recently in Zimbabwe in 2008/9.  In 2017, there was an outbreak in Somalia and the Yemen, which affected 500,000.  According the WHO it was the largest cholera epidemic in the modern world.

The Third Plague Pandemic, 1855

This time it started in China and moved to India and Hong Kong.  It was most severe in India and was only considered to have stopped being active in 1960 when the number of cases dropped to below a couple of hundred.  

Russian Flu, 1889

Again, there is some dispute as to where exactly this originated, with some reports saying somewhere in Siberia, others saying concurrently in Turkestan, Canada and Greenland (which seems unlikely).  In any event, although the pandemic lasted less than two years, it killed around a million people.  

Spanish Flu, 1918

Although it’s known as Spanish flu, it is believed to have originated in China, and spread rapidly when Chinese labourers were taken by rail across Canada on their way to Europe.  The outbreak hit Europe by the spring.  It is estimated that there were 25 million deaths in the first 25 weeks alone, and a total of somewhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide.  

What was most interesting about this flu outbreak is that normally the flu is worse in the very young, the very old and those with weakened immune systems.  This flu was different, it hit healthy adults, killing more Americans than American soldiers died in the First World War.  

Spanish flu died out in the summer of 1919, presumably because most of the remaining population had developed an immunity.

Asian Flu, 1956 – 1958

This flu started in Hong Kong, spread throughout China and then into the United States.  It travelled from there to Europe and the UK, where 14,000 people died in the space of six months.  A second wave of the flu started in 1958 causing an estimated 1.1 million people to die across the globe.  A vaccine was subsequently developed.

Flu, 1968

Also known as Hong Kong flu, where it was first reported, it took only 17 days before cases were reported in Singapore and Vietnam.  Within three months, it had spread across Asia into Australia, America and Europe.  One million people died worldwide, making this outbreak one of the lowest mortality rates at 0.5%.  

HIV/AIDS, 1981, peaking 2005-2012

This was first identified in the Congo in 1976, it’s a retrovirus that disrupts the immune system.  Death is caused because the body can no longer fight off diseases that would usually be dealt with by the immune system.  It is passed by bodily fluids.  It has killed 36 million people worldwide.  In the Western world, at least, it is now treatable and the treatments can stop transmission to others.  

And so, pandemics vary in their duration, morbidly and virulence.  We will have to wait to see how COVID-19 plays out, and whether a vaccine can be found soon enough.

© Susan Shirley 2020


I decided I’d blog about Coronavirus because I’m fed up with all the misinformation and nonsense that’s been going on about it (no, I’m not minimising it, read on) and was gobsmacked to see the first nine searches that came up were not from medical sites.  I’ve written about it elsewhere this week and only use medical and scientific sites for my information, and then I double check.  Rant over.  Let’s go.

What is Coronavirus

It’s not one virus, it’s a group of viruses that are all related in some way.  They include MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and the probably more well-known SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).  This particular virus has the catchy name of COVID-19.

What caused it?

The truth is, at the time of writing, no-one knows the exact source of the outbreak.  What is known, however, is that it is transmitted by what are charmingly known as ‘large respiratory droplets’ and direct or indirect contact with such secretions.  And now for the nice bit: some coronaviruses have been found in faecal material.  I’m not saying that is how COVID-19 is being or has been transmitted, but it comes as no great surprise to me to learn this, since human beings seem to be pretty lax about washing their hands after going to the loo.  I’ll come back to that later.

Basic symptoms

The symptoms, according to Public Health England, are fever, cough and chest tightness, and maybe difficulty breathing.  

Other outbreaks

There was a SARS pandemic back in 2002, with 8098 reported cases and 774 deaths, which means that the mortality rate was about one in ten.  Compare that with the Spanish ‘flu’ pandemic of 1918 where between 20 million and 50 million people died.  More US soldiers died during this pandemic than were killed in battle during World War I.

There was another ‘flu’ pandemic in 1957/8 which killed around 2 million people and a further one in 1968/9 which killed around 1 million people.  

At the moment, the Coronavirus seems to be more like SARS than Spanish ‘flu’ in terms of mortality rates.  As with most of these things, it seems to be worse for the elderly, the very young and those with compromised immune systems, so there is no need to panic.


It wasn’t a vaccine that stopped the SARS outbreak back in 2002, it was basic hygiene measures that stopped the virus spreading.  I venture to suggest that it will be the same thing that stops Coronavirus too.

Those basic measures are, as advised by NHS England:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or your sleeve, but not your hands, when you cough or sneeze.  (I know we were all told to cover our mouths with our hands when we were kids and it’s a reflex action now, but actually, all we are doing is getting the virus on our hands which we then use to touch something or someone, thus transmitting the virus.)
  • Put your used tissue straight in the bin.  I accept that this is easier said than done if you are on something like the London Underground.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (please, especially after going to the loo).  Use hand sanitiser is soap and water are not available.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.

Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands are not clean.

I keep hand sanitiser in my handbag and use it every time I touch money, and, if I can’t wash my hands, before eating. I also use it when I get back to where I was sitting or when I am outside if I use loos in public places – sorry, but I do not trust other people to wash their hands properly.  And if they don’t, they touch handles, etc… You get my drift.

Now for the bad news

Scientists aren’t sure how long Coronaviruses can survive on surfaces.  (Quick biology lesson: viruses are amazing creatures, depending on the type, they can go through dormant phases where they don’t live in or on a host.  Think pharaohs and pyramids.  I am most definitely not saying that Coronaviruses can do this, I don’t know.  What I am saying is, it is better to err on the side of caution.  Back to COVID-19.)

If this virus is anything like SARS or MERS, it will be able to live on surfaces like metal or plastic for nine days.  All the more reason for good hand hygiene.  

The good news

It seems that normal household disinfectants and high temperatures kill the virus.

How to wash your hands properly

I’ve attached a link to the NHS website which has a video and pictures to show you how to wash your hands properly, and I strongly suggest you look at it, but the précised version is:

  1. Spend about 20 seconds washing your hands – about the time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.  That is “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Coronavirus, Happy birthday to you,” not just Happy Birthday.
  2. Wet your hands with water.
  3. Apply enough soap to cover your hands.
  4. Rub the palms of your hands together.
  5. Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand.  Clean in between your fingers too.  Do the same thing with the other hand.
  6. Rub your hands together and clean in between your fingers.
  7. Rub the back of your fingers against your palms.  
  8. Rub the thumb of one hand using the other hand and then repeat.
  9. Rub the tips of your fingers of one hand onto the palm of the other hand, then repeat the other way round.
  10. Rinse your hands with water.
  11. Dry with a disposable towel.
  12. Use a disposable towel to turn off the tap.
  13. Job done.

You should wash your hands:

  • after using the toilet or changing a nappy 
  • before and after handling raw foods like meat and vegetables
  • before eating or handling food
  • after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing
  • before and after treating a cut or wound
  • after touching animals, including pets, their food and after cleaning their cages

© Susan Shirley 2020


I’ve recently returned from a holiday in St Lucia.  It was my first time in the Caribbean, and I am so pleased that I went.  It is a beautiful island, and the people are lovely.

I stayed just outside of Castries, the capital, about an hour and a half’s drive from the main airport (there is another airport at Castries, but it’s smaller and has a shorter runway so is used by Liat rather than the bigger airlines).

The island is very green – lots of trees and a rainforest in the middle of the island – and on the drive from the airport, I noticed that there were a number of houses on stilts, which I assumed were to help protect them from mudslides.  I guessed that they must get a lot of rain and, in fact, it did rain for a short time most days during my stay, although apparently that is unusual.  The locals put it down to climate change, and they are probably right.  It didn’t rain for long though; and didn’t spoil the stay.  In fact, for me, it was a bit of a blessing.  I struggle if it’s too hot.

Location, location, location

St Lucia is in the Eastern Caribbean, and the currencies are the US Dollar and the Eastern Caribbean Dollar. The main airport is Hewanorra, which was the name given to the island by the native Caribs (natives of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean).  St Lucia is northwest of Barbados and south of French-speaking Martinique, which can be seen from the eastern part of the island.  St Lucia is 238 square miles in area, 27 miles long and 14 miles wide.  

They say on the island, ‘Seven times French, seven times English.’  Its first European settlers were French, in 1660, then England took over in 1663, and so it went on until 1814 when Britain took final control.  I have to say, I’m not sure we should be too proud of what we’ve done.  The island is a bit of a mixture – it’s English speaking, although many Lucians speak French, but much of the other infrastructure takes its lead from the US – employment law, for example.  Creole, the other language that they are taught in school, contains a lot of French, and if you are in the tourist trade, which is very important to Lucians, why wouldn’t you learn the most important languages?

Lucians refer to the island as being female – one of the reasons is that it is known as ‘the Helen of the West Indies’ after Helen of Troy.  One of the other reasons is the Pitons, the volcanic mountains (which are, incidentally, World Heritage sites) which, some say, look like a part of the female anatomy.  I can’t remember the third reason.

Bel Jou

We stayed at the Bel Jou, which is on the outskirts of Castries.  The hotel provides a free shuttle bus to and from Castries, and the nearby Vijay beach.  They don’t recommend that you walk into Castries, although you could.  Having seen the roads, I can see why – there are lots of hairpin bends, and pavements are mostly non-existent outside of the city.  Without wishing to be rude, some of the drivers could do with taking lessons again.

Everyone at the hotel was lovely, very friendly.  We were greeted by being taken into a sitting room, and offered a fruit drink while we registered.  There is a veranda restaurant where we had breakfast, and which was also open for lunch and dinner – all buffet style.  There was always a good selection of food, an egg station (which also served other specialities such as pancakes, depending on which day it was).  One of the chefs, Gideon, sang to us while cooking, which was a wonderful start to the day.  It was an art form watching the chefs cooking omelettes on a hot plate – not the way that Delia taught me, but beautifully cooked, nonetheless.  The veranda restaurant held the entertainment most evenings – sometimes live music, sometimes disco.  

Taken from the Veranda restaurant

There was also an A la Carte restaurant for the evening, which was an absolute delight and where they served an amuse bouche between starter and main course.  

At lunch time, there was a poolside bar where they’d prepare freshly cooked fish and chips, a selection of salads and other things.  

All of the restaurants catered for any special dietary requirements such as gluten free, vegetarian, etc, and if you asked for anything special, they’d arrange it.

Thursday was Caribbean barbecue night, so all the food was served outside the upper pool.  There was a steel band – a very good steel band, I find it fascinating how they make such wonderful sounds, and fire eaters.  (Yes, my health and safety head did come out, and I did have to check on a few things.  The perks of my job I guess.)

Most days we went either to the beach or the city.  It took us about an hour and a half to walk the length of the beach and back, which was just as well with the amount of food we were eating.  

Island tour

While I was there, I took a tour around the island – the volcano, the botanical gardens and the rainforest.  It was amazing.  I opted for a jeep tour – it was actually a bit truck with seats – which started with views of Castries as we drove up the hillside, then past the Governor’s house.  

We headed down to Soufriere, which was the French capital, for breakfast.  We stopped off in a little bar and the chef prepared scrambled eggs, fried plantain, bacon and some wraps.  From here, we drove a bit more, into the rainforest.  All the while, our guide, Randy, was telling us about the history or geography or just about the life there.

Next we headed to the volcano and the sulphur springs.  There was an option of going into a mud bath or just walking around the edges to see the volcano.  From there, we went to the botanical gardens, which were beautiful.  All the time, Randy was telling us huge amounts of information, I am amazed at how much he knew.  I’ve attached the link to the company I did the tour with, for info.

From the botanical garden

I had the best time in St Lucia and would like to say I will be going back soon.  The truth is, there are lots of other places I want to visit too.  I do, however, really want to go back and hope I’ll manage it soon.

© Susan Shirley 2020

The lovely Princess, she was great fun, and a really lovely person.


I was fortunate enough to attend the first UK screening of Tom Hooper’s Cats.  It has a big cast:  Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift.  They are the ones I recognised.  It also has some fantastic dancers including Steven McRae, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, who played Skimbleshanks.  He was absolutely amazing, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen tap dancing like that.

I should probably declare right now that I didn’t particularly enjoy the stage version of Cats (although I love the music) but I was attracted to the film because of the cast. 

Despite a lot of the reviews that have been published now it’s been seen by the critics, I thought it was a good production, the dancing made it for me.  I love ballet and real cats do have something of a ballet dance in their movements.  It was a good choice.  

It goes without saying that Jennifer Hudson has an amazing voice.  The newcomer, Francesca Hayward was also very good.  There were some great special effects, particularly when Mr Mistoffelees was performing his magic.  

Idris Elba didn’t have to do too much dancing, which was a good thing, because the professional dancers really showed him up.  (Or maybe he just can’t dance.). Strange to see him with green eyes too.  Or perhaps it was more strange that so many of the cats had brown eyes since that’s not common in real cats.

What fascinated me most was the ears and the tails.  The cast were all dressed in cat costumes, and the ears and tails moved, in the same way that cats’ ears and tails move.  It was incredible.  No, I didn’t ever believe that they were real cats, but I was impressed at the way the professional dancers moved around when they weren’t dancing.  Very feline.  I found out later that they’d recorded real cats and used CGI to superimpose them on the humans.  Now it makes sense.  

© Susan Shirley 2019


Shillinsgstone is a village in North Dorset, not far from my brother’s home.  He and li’l sis’ are still exploring the area, so when I visited recently, it featured a trip to Shillingstone Railway.

The S&DR was an amalgamation of two railway companies joining.  No trains ran between Blandford Forum and Templcombe, which was remedied by the new railway company.  Shillingstone was one of the stations on the new line.  And it was one of the many victims of the cuts by Dr Beeching, thus it closed in 1966.

Shillingstone is no longer a working station.  It was originally opened in 1863, pretty much in the height of the railways in this country, operated by The Somerset and Dorset Railway (S&DR).  Much the same as now, there were lots of different railway companies across the country at that time. 

Dr Beeching

As a child who grew up with a railway line at the back or our garden and who used to run up to the bridge to watch the trains going through, I was too young to understand about the ‘Beeching cuts’ that I heard my parents talking about.  

Beeching was, for a short time, chairman of British Railways.  (By this time, all those independent railway companies had been acquired by the government and nationalised in 1947, after a couple of earlier temporary nationalisations.)  

In the early 1960s, he wrote a report – The Reshaping of British Railways – commonly known as the Beeching Report.  To be fair, Beeching was under a lot of pressure to make the railways more efficient, which was the rationale behind his report.  Cutting a long story short, the report resulted in the removal of over 4,000 miles of track from our railways.  A further 2,000 were removed by the end of the 1960s.  It seems crazy knowing the effect it would have on people living in remote areas. And now we have our current concerns about climate change…

Facts about Shillingstone Station

  • It is the last remaining station that was built to a Dorset Central Railway design (DCR was one of the companies that amalgamated to become S&DR).  
  • Edward VII, while he was still the Prince of Wales, visited the station in October 1899.
  • The poet Rupert Brooke joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the outbreak of WWI.  He and his unit marched to Shillingstone Station where they boarded the train that eventually took them off to Gallipoli and to meet his death.
  • As you will see from my photograph, the view from the station is fabulous.

What the future holds

The station is now owned by North Dorset Railway, who is restoring the station to the way it was back in the 1950s and 1960s.  They have already renovated some of the buildings to include a café, a museum and a shop.  

At the time of our visit, they were laying tracks and they are undertaking other restoration work, so hopefully we will soon see a service running.  A range of events are regularly run at the station.  For more information, check out the website:

It seems a shame that, even with so many small companies restoring railways like this, including my favourite Bluebell Railway, that it is unlikely that they will ever become the national network that they once were.  Still, who knows what might happen….

© Susan Shirley 2019


I’ve been a cat owner for around 20 years, and although I have learned a lot about these wonderful creatures, every day, I learn something new.

My cats are now all over 10 years old (somewhere between 56 and 76 in human years).  If they were humans, they would probably be full of aches and pains, but not my girls.  They still act like youngsters.  I admire them for that.  

We (they) have twice yearly check ups with the vet. I’m happy with that because if there is something wrong, I want to know early, to be able to deal with it early.  I couldn’t stop my parents from suffering in their late life.  I can do something for my girls.  

Oceana and Telesto had check ups at the end of September.  

“How long has that tooth been like that?” said the vet, looking at Oceana’s damaged canine.

This young woman clearly doesn’t realise that, while they may permit a vet to open their mouths, most cats would really rather not just bite, but amputate, the hand that feeds them rather than allow any intrusion into their mouths.  I am very fond of my fingers, and have absolutely no intention of having them removed by an angry cat.  I digress.

I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights, but as soon as I got a grip of myself, I realised the tooth wasn’t like that when we had the last check up, so it was within the last six months.  The thing about cats is that most of them have a very high pain tolerance.  One of my previous vets told me a story of a cat who had been walking around on a broken leg.  Imagine a human doing that?  My little Oceana had shown no sign of being in any pain.  

“Er, I think it’s quite recent,” said I to the vet.

“She will need surgery to remove it.  And there is one at the back that looks as though it needs to come out too.  We need to do blood tests, of course, to see whether she can withstand the anaesthetic.”

“Right. Yes.  Of course.  Do whatever is necessary.”

My hesitation stemmed from fear.  Oceana is one of the older ones, now 15, so around 76 in human years.  

They took the blood for the test and promised to ring me on the following Monday.  The blood tests came back absolutely fine.  I doubt many humans of that age could say the same thing, which speaks volumes about what we put into our bodies.   

Then it was Telesto’s turn for a check up.  She too had dental problems and needs surgery.  Her blood tests were also perfect, and for both of them, I had the full range done, not just the basics.  If there is a problem, I want to know asap.   It transpires that poor little Telesto may lose all her teeth, but I won’t know until later today, she has had her surgery.

When cats have teeth removed, they have to go under general anaesthetic.  It makes sense, can you imagine trying to remove a tooth if they weren’t ‘out.’  My vet uses local as well, to reduce the amount of general, which brings another set of risks, although he assured me that the many risks he told me about were fewer than the risk of leaving the girls as they were.  Something about bone growing into the teeth, which sounded very unpleasant. 

Oceana recovered fairly quickly and is doing well.  Telesto has her surgery today.  I took Oceana for her second check just over a week ago.  Laurence, the regular vet, was very happy.  I’m not going to lie, she was very grumpy for a couple of days after her surgery.  I was not on her Christmas card list for a while, although she loves me again now.

“Cats don’t let you open their mouths if they are in pain,” Laurence said.  

They don’t let me open their mouths at all, I thought.  But I guess vets have far more power, although the one that saw Telesto today had a bit of a problem with her.  

No doubt she will come home and be grumpy, and then, when she realises I did it all for her own good, she will love me again too.

© Susan Shirley 2019


Edinburgh is a beautiful city with lots of buildings made from local sandstone.  Edinburgh is actually built on a number (seven) of small hills (you’ll notice that as you walk around) and an extinct volcano – which is very noticeable up at Arthur’s Seat (which just happens to be one of the earliest places inhabited in the area.  Always a sensible move, building a settlement on a hill top).

I didn’t realise until this trip that the Romans did make it across the border, up to Lothian, which is not a million miles from what is now Edinburgh.  The area was already settled and I’m not sure what the Scots made of their visitors.  I can’t find any evidence that the Romans conquered them.  However, in 638 the King of Northumbria besieged the area and it came under his rule.  Not quite the start of a beautiful friendship.

Fast forward to 1603 when James VI of Scotland was asked to take the throne of England as James I.  The two countries did not unite at this point in time, it was what was known as the Union of the Crowns.  It wasn’t until the Acts of Union were passed in both the Scottish and English legislature in the 18th century that the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed, on 1 May 1707. 

From being described as one of Europe’s most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns in the first half of the 18th century, Edinburgh morphed into the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment in the second half, when it was nicknamed the Athens of the North. 

Various industries grew in Edinburgh: brewing, distilling, and later, rubber works and engineering.  Like all towns and cities, Edinburgh went through changes of fortune and areas changed.  By the 1990s, there was a financial district, the second largest in the UK, and a business park known as Edinburgh Park. 


Edinburgh is on the south side of the Firth of Forth.  There are great views from Arthur’s Seat, one of the extinct volcanos.  It’s a lovely city to walk around, with the Castle way on the top of that hill – actually a part of extinct volcano, the Old Town, Calton Hill and the Royal Mile.  There are over 4,500 listed buildings in Edinburgh, which is pretty impressive. 

Holyrood Palace

Dinner was at Howies, Waterloo Place, which is at the bottom of Calton Hill.  If you visit, try the Cullen Skink, a Scottish soup made from haddock, potatoes and onions.  It’s delicious.  Well, all the food is delicious, but I’m particularly enamoured of the Cullen Skink.  (I’ve found a recipe and will try making it.)

We stayed at Point A Hotel, a newly opened hotel, close to where we were working, in the Haymarket area.  Very modern and high tec, beautifully clean.  I congratulated myself on working out how to use the TV in my room without any mishaps (I have some history with TVs, and not in a good way).  I’m sure it was because I staying that they had an event on that involved free drinks….  And we got back from dinner in time to join in. 

I suppose all that remains is to say we flew with Flybe on a Dash 8, which made my brother very jealous.

I’m going to go back to Edinburgh for something other than work soon.  Watch this space.

© Susan Shirley 2019