Down beside where the waters flow

Olivia Newton John certainly brought the song Banks of the Ohio to a wide audience, but it actually originated in the 19th century. It’s one of a great number of murder ballads in the canon of traditional American music. And it may be surprising to learn that Olivia’s isn’t the first version that pops up on a Google search for videos of the song. That honour belongs to a duet between Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.  Merlefest is named for Doc’s son Merle who died in an accident on the family farm in 1985.

Friday was our second day at Merlefest and we drove along from our hotel to park in a designated lot and pick up a shuttle bus again. The heavens opened as we approached Wilkesboro and, after we parked, we spent a further ten minutes sitting in the car hoping for the rain to relent. We had brought our instruments with us today with the intention of perhaps joining a jam at some point, but between the awful weather and sheer cowardice we decided to leave them in the car. Eventually the rain let up slightly and we headed to the festival proper.

We had each downloaded the Merlefest app, which was a real help in trying to decide which act on which of the thirteen different stages we wanted to see. Our first stop was to go and see Wayne Henderson, who would be on stage with one of the Wednesday night jammers from Independence, VA. He was appearing on the Traditional stage at 12:30 so we made our way along there in good time, but were still lucky to get seats. Appearing alongside Wayne were a couple of young guitarists whom he has mentored and who play his guitars. One of them is a quite astonishingly talented fourteen-year-old by the name of Presley Barker. He played a tune called Nashville Pickin’ which he played as an eleven-year-old to win an adult guitar competition. It’s enough to make you either give up or try harder. I’m not sure which, yet.

We wandered from stage to stage, catching various acts along the way and enjoying them all. One of the most fun things we saw was Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, a Canadian outfit who played some great tunes and Gordie danced like a demented leprechaun.

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We headed back at a reasonable time to avoid the end of festival rush for the shuttle buses, and I’m glad we did. Someone told us later that they had waited two hours for a shuttle at the very end of the day.

Saturday started much brighter and we had determined that we would get to the festival early and join one of the jams before they got too crowded. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and headed over to Wilkesboro. We arrived at the Bluegrass Picking Tent just as the first musicians were unpacking so we steeled our nerve, tuned up and sat in. It went surprisingly well. We both, of course, declined any opportunity to take a break (in bluegrass, a solo is called a break) but we were reasonably happy playing backup. I even trotted out my party piece and sang Gotta Travel On which, I’m delighted to say, attracted a crowd. And not in the way a road accident attracts a crowd – people joined in on the chorus. Everyone loves a singalong.

IMG_3479 As it got busier, we made way for more accomplished musicians. The festival has a special cloakroom facility where you can check your instruments for free, so we dropped them off and headed to the festival proper.

Our first stop was the main stage where there was a set by Merlefest veterans – musicians who had attended every one of the thirty-one Merlefests to date. Of particular interest for us was that Sam Bush was playing mandolin and Jerry Douglas was on dobro – both masters of their craft. Straight after this, we moved to the Creekside stage for what I found to be an irresistible session: Mando Mania. This featured a half dozen of the best mandolin players on the planet jamming along to tunes they selected themselves. They also introduced us to their own personal mandolins, two of which were Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5s. This will mean absolutely nothing to most people but, to provide real-world context, across all six players there was roughly a half-million dollars worth of mandolin on that stage. They were great to listen to, and they even played a tune that I can play, which delighted me. A bluesy little Bill Monroe tune called Bluegrass Stomp.

After these guys, we stayed at the Creekside Stage to watch Molly Tuttle.  Molly was the first woman ever to win the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award. I happen to know she had a very good teacher as her father, Jack Tuttle, was my mandolin tutor at Sore Fingers last year and he was brilliant. After Molly, we headed over to the Walker Centre stage to watch Ana Egge and The Sentimentals.

We have had a great couple of days watching music at Merlefest and we still have Sunday to go. Looking forward to that!


Can’t you see the sunshine

Thursday morning dawned and we packed up for our trip to Merlefest, whose home is on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Today’s title is lifted from the James Taylor song Carolina In My Mind, even though we’re going to Carolina in real life. The trip was scheduled to take just over an hour, so we took the scenic route along the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway. We decided that, even though we knew it would be closed, we’d take a slight detour backwards to get a look at the Blue Ridge Music Center. It wasn’t simply closed – the access road was blocked off. We took a photo of the sign and carried on our way.

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There were some wonderful viewpoints along the parkway which, as you would expect, follows the ridge. We were headed initially for a cafe in North Wilkesboro. A resident of the town had contacted the Merlefest organisers because he and his wife were planning a vacation trip to the UK. He asked them to pass on his details to any British visitors to the festival, which they duly did and I reached out to him and arranged to meet. Ishbel and I were only too happy to pass on whatever tips might help him in his trip planning. He was a lovely guy, and it turned out his mother used to be the administrator of Merlefest, so he reciprocated with a couple of tips for us.

After our chat, we drove over to the festival to pick up our tickets, then headed to our hotel which was in Yadkinville, 30 miles from the festival entrance but the closest place I could find when I booked accommodation in October. We dropped off our luggage then drove back to Wilkesboro for our first taste of Merlefest. We parked in one of the designated lots and took the free shuttle bus to the festival gates.


The local scout troops are conscripted to provide these shuttles, so we enjoyed our first ever trip on an American school bus. Not much leg room is the verdict on these.

We caught a few acts around the different stages on the first day, but our favourite for today was a performer with whom we were previously unfamiliar. Junior Brown was introduced as a “true American original” and lived up to the billing. He plays a hybrid instrument he calls a guit-steel, a combination guitar and lap-steel, and he has some great songs. I loved the song Party Lights, which included lines like

There’s another kinda party lights that I can’t stand to see
When there’s a man in that patrol car and he don’t wanna party with me.

and the song My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,

We’ll have to say hello maybe some other time instead,
Cause you’re wanted by the police, and my wife thinks you’re dead

I’m really looking forward to what the rest of the weekend has to offer.



I’m riding on that New River Train

New River Train is a classic Bluegrass song that I’m familiar with from hearing and playing it  in jams but I never really knew where the New River was located. It turns out it runs right past Galax. And the train track that used to run alongside it is now closed down and has been turned into a footpath.


We decided we should take a walk along at least part of it. We drove to a car park near the town of Ivanhoe and walked from there because we wanted to see the old railroad trestle bridge that crosses the river near that point. We met a few people on the path who were also out enjoying the beautiful Wednesday afternoon and had a few conversations about why we were visiting and whether we were enjoying ourselves.

Virginians are very keen to ensure that visitors are made to feel welcome and convey a real sense of pride in the natural and cultural attractions it has to offer. It’s lovely to be able to tell them how much we’re enjoying our visit and see their eyes light up.

We eventually reached, and crossed, the trestle bridge.


We achieved our goal and headed back to the car. We had yet another musical appointment in store for tonight.

About 10 miles along the road from Galax lies the town of Independence, Virginia. This town hosts a jam every Wednesday night in the town’s old courthouse. It’s described as an “old time mountain music jam” and we thought it would be fun to attend. However, we both decided on this occasion to leave our instruments behind and just be spectators. We went along to Independence early (obeying the speed limit all the way) and grabbed an early dinner at a place called Roots before heading over to the old courthouse building.


There was a circle of musicians there already just tuning up when we arrived and we took a couple of seats and got chatting a little to the jam participants. Once again, they were delighted to welcome us as far-flung visitors and were generous with their time and advice on what to do in Virginia, and at Merlefest where we were travelling to the next day.

It turned out that the fiddler who was sitting in front of us would be performing at the festival on Friday, alongside Wayne Henderson. Wayne is a world-renowned guitar maker. One of his guitars is the subject of a book called Clapton’s Guitar which follows the build of the guitar commissioned from him by Eric Clapton. This fiddler was a lady named Helen White, famed in these parts for having started a project called Junior Appalachian Musicians, or JAM. Music isn’t a hobby over here. It’s an integral part of the social structure of the community, and organisations like JAM are helping to pass on that perspective to future generations.

Well, we sat for a while listening to some great playing from the people in the courthouse.


Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away and draw to a close our last full day in Virginia. Tomorrow was yet another pack up and move on day as we press on further south and finally get to Merlefest.

“You ain’t from around here.”

On Monday, we continued our journey down the Crooked Road. The next town we had picked out to visit was Galax, VA. This was home to two of the nine major sites on the route: the Rex Theater and the Blue Ridge Music Center. There was also the chance of a jam at the town’s Stringbean Cafe, which was reputed to host regular Tuesday night jams but which Google had labelled as “Permanently Closed”.

We had booked a motel in Galax which was priced at $40 per night. This is an area that doesn’t get a lot of tourist traffic. The motel wasn’t luxurious, but it was perfectly adequate for our needs. It was only 41 miles from Floyd to Galax, so we took a Crooked Road detour, taking a brief look at Stuart and Hillsville on the way. It seems that either a lot of businesses close on Mondays in Virginia, or they celebrate Easter Monday in the US more now than they did 25 years ago when we lived here. Either way, there wasn’t a lot to do on the journey so we arrived in Galax around lunchtime.

We checked into our ridiculously cheap motel and headed out for a look at the town. We took a look at the Stringbean Cafe which was closed, but the closure didn’t look permanent. We carried on along the road and stopped in a music shop called Barr’s Fiddle Shop. Ishbel wanted some spare dobro strings and we asked the gentleman behind the counter what he had available. He told her that he actually puts together custom sets for the local dobro players because the find the high D string too light on the standard sets – a complaint Ishbel also had, so she bought a couple of sets from him. I still hadn’t had my mandolin setup that I was thinking of getting done in New York but where the wait would have been too long. I asked him how quickly I could get a mandolin setup. “It depends, but I could probably do it in a half hour.” I said I’d be back in the next day with the mandolin.

Our accent was a conversation starter here and we explained that we were following the Crooked Road and looking for jams along the way. We asked about the Stringbean Cafe, and it turns out that the jams in there are a summer thing and usually start in May. He recommended a Monday night jam in Sparta, North Carolina, which wasn’t far away. We decided we would check out the travel time and may go along to that one.

We strolled around town a little more and encountered the Rex Theater.


There were no shows on while we were there, so we wouldn’t get a chance to see the inside. Time was rolling on so we had an early dinner in The Galax Smokehouse, which offered real pit barbecue. And it was wonderful.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and checked out the detail on the jam in Sparta. It sounded good, so we loaded the instruments up and headed out. I was driving, and we were slightly behind schedule but it looked a relatively easy drive. As I pulled out on to the highway, I hadn’t gone very far when a police car’s flashing lights loomed ominously into my rear view mirror. I pulled over, put the car in Park, and kept my hands firmly on the wheel, which is what I think I remember being the recommended course of action. The cop pulled in behind me and I had to wait a couple of minutes while he, presumably, checked out the Maryland plates on our rented vehicle. I waited until he was level with me and, with no sudden movements, lowered the window.

“Hey there, folks. How y’all doin?” was his opening gambit.

“Very well thanks, officer. How are you?” I replied, hearing him sigh deeply when he heard the accent. And then, he actually said it:

“You ain’t from around here, are ya?”

“No, officer.”

“Do you come through here much?”

“This is our first time ever.”

“Well, keep your eyes open for the posted signs. You were doin’ 58 in a 45. Have a good day, y’all.”

And that was that. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and paid religious attention to the speed limits thereafter.

We made it to Sparta and found the place where the jam was hosted. Ishbel decided to leave the dobro in the car, but I steeled my nerve and walked in carrying the mandolin. The jam was already well underway and there was a tight circle of musicians playing some high quality bluegrass to an audience of about 30 local aficionados. I decided to skulk in the back and make no attempt to squeeze into the circle. There’s a limit to how steely my nerve can be in a jam, and this was it.

We listened to the jam for  an hour and a half and picked up the names of a few songs with which we were unfamiliar. We left shortly before it broke up completely and headed back to Galax.

The following day, we once again had the excitement of trying to find a laundry. Google helped us out here, as there was one a little way out along the main road, not far from a Wal-Mart. We’re going to be on the road for a while so we decided to visit Wal-Mart and buy a couple of essentials: an electric kettle, and a cool bag for transporting milk. And tea bags. We have priorities. I dropped Ishbel at the laundry and took my mandolin back along to Barr’s Fiddle Shop.

The gentleman in the shop agreed to do the mandolin setup there and then, and I was able to watch him at work as he got on with it. Part way through the process, another gentleman came in and we had a pleasant three-way chat about music and what I was doing in the South. The gentleman then left, but returned shortly after to give me two CDs. It turns out his name was Johnny Williams, a respected bluegrass performer on his own and with his wife, Jeanette. He plays in a band called Blue 58 with his wife and the gentleman currently giving my mandolin a really good going over, Stevie Barr. In fact, if you look back at the photo above of the Rex Theater, you will see their names adorning the theatre’s marquee.

Stevie took all the strings off, gave the mandolin a thorough (and much needed) clean, restrung it, and reseated the bridge. He then fixed the action where I liked it and checked the intonation, so that the octave was perfect down the fretboard. I bought a spare set of strings from him as well and asked what I owed him. He charged me for two sets of strings.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“We don’t charge for changing strings,” he replied.

He had done a lot more than just change strings, and I was delighted with the improved sound from the mandolin, and the end to the annoying fret buzz that had led me to get the setup done in the first place.

Southern hospitality is real, and it’s great.

My car’s out front and it’s all mine

Saturday morning, we finished the packing and sauntered downstairs to the Avis office in the lobby of the Radisson to complete the formalities and pick up the vehicle that was to get us most of the way across the American continent. The reason we were doing this in Baltimore was that I had shopped around various East Coast Avis branches and found that this office was coming in $2,000 cheaper than New York, Boston or Washington, and $1,500 cheaper than Philly. I had booked a mid-size saloon as I figured we could just put the bags in the boot and leave the instruments in the back seat. My confirmation had stated I would get a Chevy Cruze or similar. At the desk, the clerk seemed very blase that I was taking one of his cars for nearly three months and dropping it 2500 miles away. I was fine with that. He then offered me a free upgrade, to a Mitsubishi Outlander. We drive an Outlander at home. It’s big and it’s comfortable and we jumped at the upgrade. It will cost us more in fuel to make the journey, but we will see a lot more of the country from the higher vantage point in the SUV.

The car was brought round to the front of the hotel and we loaded up and hit the road. Logistical details of the road trip will be added to the link that will be at the top of the main page from now on.

Our first stop on the road was to be Floyd, Virginia, 320 miles from Baltimore. We were looking to drive some of the Crooked Road,


Virginia’s musical heritage trail which celebrates American folk music in the shape of the Old Time and Bluegrass musical traditions. We wanted to visit the Floyd Country Store, one of the nine key destinations on the road, and if possible, participate in a jam there.

Our route south took us around Washington DC, where we were surprised to see what looked like a tribute to Battersea Power Station.


It turns out that this is the Mormons’ tallest temple, costing $15million in 1968. They could probably have bought Battersea for that price back then.

We carried on motoring south and eventually rolled into Floyd in the early evening. We went out to get dinner and found that the Country Store was hosting a John Denver tribute night and the bar next door, the Dogtown Roadhouse, was hosting “The Darkside Experience” – a tribute to the Dark Side of the Moon album. By Pink Floyd. See what they did there? Anyway, both were sold out demonstrating a diversity of musical taste in the local populace, and leaving us with no choice other than to eat at the other restaurant in town. Mexican food for us, then.

The following morning, we had breakfast in our hotel. The Hotel Floyd is a lovely place, right in the middle of town and a two minute walk from the Country Store, perfect for us.


Today for almost the first time since hitting the road, we felt we were missing something by not being at home. Today was the first day of the Sore Fingers Summer School, which I have attended the past four years and Ishbel the last two. This is Europe’s premier Bluegrass and Old Time learning experience and attracts students form around the world to learn new skills on their instruments from virtuoso players and eminent educators. It also features some of the most fun jams you will ever experience, particularly as the evening wears on in the bar. If we’re missing Sore Fingers, we decided, we need to make the most of our trip through this music’s heartlands.

We both spent some time practising, as we hadn’t played at all for the past couple of days, then we walked up to the Country Store to check out the Old Time jam. There’s a definite order to the jams: Old Time is 1:30 – 3:30 and Bluegrass is 4:00 – 5:30. Our hearts sank a little when we realised just how high was the standard of musicianship.

There was even a banjo player who indulged in a little puppetry on the side! Nevertheless, we were representing our Sore Fingers friends. Towards the end of the Old Time jam, we slunk back to the hotel to collect our instruments. We steeled our nerve and sallied forth to attempt to jam with the Bluegrass crowd. Amazingly, it went OK. I think they were quite forgiving of a couple of Scottish people who were clearly doing their best but I don’t think I’ve ever met an unsupportive Bluegrass musician and this group were no exception to that.

We had a great time, and we’ve started collecting the names of songs that we were unfamiliar with and, who knows, maybe one day we’ll learn them and play them. As a bonus, we walked past a classic American car on the way back to the hotel afterwards.

IMG_3351 Floyd was a delightful start to our road trip and we were pleased to have made the stop here. We’re looking forward to more musical adventures as we cruise down the road.


There’s a band that can make me shout*

Thursday was to be our last full day in New York City before we turned back towards the south. We had to get across to Soho to pick up Ishbel’s dobro after its repair, and we were going to take a look at some shopping, having singularly failed to add to our luggage at Macy’s. We walked up towards Houston St (the northern boundary of SoHo, which takes its name from being South of Houston) and passed a mural of some tragic members of the 27 club – rockstars who died at that young age.


Painted by Eduardo Kobra, it features likenesses of Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse.

We crossed Houston at Bowery and Ishbel took this photo of the Bowery Mural.


We then headed West to Broadway and took a look at some shoes. Ishbel bought a casual pair, but I didn’t see anything I fancied. We wandered further down Broadway and Ishbel managed to buy a skirt suitable for a Bluegrass festival: mid-length, plain blue cotton. She bought this in a shop called Madewell, which was full of pretty young things, so I was surprised to see a vintage poster for a Joy Division gig in Altricham on the wall.  I spotted a Timberland store and insisted on going in. What did I see but my trusty blue boat shoes sitting on a shelf. I have a pair that I have been wearing almost constantly through this trip and which are now pretty much worn out. A direct replacement was perfect for me. Here’s a before and after on this footwear:


After the shopping, we picked up the dobro and headed back to the flat to practise and relax a little. We freshened up and headed out for dinner at the Minetta Tavern, a lovely little restaurant that I had been introduced to years previously by Ann, one of the friends with whom we’d dined on Wednesday.

Dinner was delicious. Their Black Label burger is expensive, but worth every penny. After dinner, I made a half-hearted attempt to find a karaoke bar – last night in New York offers freedom to go nuts – but gave up and we just headed back to the apartment.

Friday morning, we went through our, by now, polished packing routine and called an Uber to get to Penn Station. It seemed like surge pricing was in effect at 9:30 on Friday morning, but I went ahead with them for the convenience of him showing up outside our door. We started getting the luggage downstairs, and I was delighted to see the app tell me to look out for a Chevy Suburban, an enormous SUV which would have no problem accommodating our bags. To be fair to Uber, even fairly small cars such as we’d had in South America always managed to fit us in, so I didn’t have any real concerns. I was surprised, therefore, when the driver made a real fuss about the fact that we had two suitcases, two instruments, and a handbag each. “One bag, one passenger for UberX” was his mantra. I realised that his real issue was that his vehicle qualified for Uber Black rates if it was booked as such and he thought we should have booked that. I asked if he was refusing the fare, and he relented and took us to Penn Station. The name on his T&LC license was Fa Ni.

We were travelling to Baltimore on the Silver Star, Amtrak’s long distance service from New York to Miami. We decided to take advantage of the baggage check service and handed over the two suitcases to Amtrak to be transported in the baggage car, while we took care of the instruments ourselves. The journey was uneventful as we reached Baltimore safely and disembarked at that city’s Penn Station. We made our way up to baggage reclaim and asked how long it would be till the bags came up from our train – Number 91. The baggage handler is just on his way up, we were assured. We took a seat nearby and, shortly thereafter, spotted a gentleman towing an empty baggage cart in a relaxed fashion. After an increasingly agitated conversation with the fellow manning the desk with whom I had just spoken, I noticed him making a hurried return downstairs.

I cautiously returned to the baggage desk. They didn’t come off the train, I was told. They would need to contact Washington, the next stop, and have them take our bags off and return them to Baltimore. As he was saying this, his phone rang. He answered it and was informed that the train hadn’t left and the agitated baggage handler had been through all the bags and ours weren’t there. The next step was to call New York Penn Station to get to the bottom of this. He duly dialled the appropriate number and had barely introduced himself when he started saying “Uh-huh'” repeatedly. Without any need to provide the details of my luggae tag, and with scarcely any input from him, he was told that our bags would be on the Number 19 train, due in three hours later. Whether someone had transposed the train numbers, or just messed up completely, who knows. At least someone knew where our bags where. It would be a pity to come this far round the world on planes just to lose all of our bags on a 170 mile train ride.

We went to check in at our hotel. We had booked to stay at the Radisson because it had a good rate, but also because it was the Radisson’s Avis office that had given us such a good deal on our rental car. The train was due in at 17:05 and we had booked tickets to go to the baseball that evening, so we were carefully managing our schedule. I almost always go to Yankee Stadium when I visit New York, but Ishbel isn’t enough of a baseball fan to want to go to two games in the same week, and I’ve always wanted to visit Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Camden Yards opened in 1992 and was the first of the modern major-league ballparks to revert to the traditional, single-use style stadium which is now the de facto standard for new build MLB stadia.

We decided we would eat at the ballpark, and went out to get a coffee and visit a dyng institution: a bookshop.


This Barnes & Noble has a Starbucks in it and we fought our way there through the pouring rain. This did not seem promising weather for baseball. We had some much needed tea and bought what we came for: a road atlas of the US. We decided we couldn’t rely entirely on cell coverage in some of the places we were heading to, so some old-fashioned hard copy back-up was required.

We dropped off our map at the hotel and used Baltimore’s highly efficient light rail system to get back to Penn Station. We arrived at precisely the same time as our bags and we took the cab back to the hotel. Everything was coming together.  I just need to download the QR code for the baseball tickets to my phone and head to Camden Yards.

Little did we know that, by this time, Baltimore had a tornado warning in effect. Not just inclement weather – a bloody tornado! In these circumstances, I had to accept that my first visit to Camden Yards would have to wait a little longer. At least I got a refund for the tickets. Thanks to the howling gale outside, we dined quietly in the hotel and called it a night. Tomorrow the road trip begins in earnest when we pick up the car!


*I cannot mention the city of Baltimore without it bringing to mind an obscure little number, The Baltimores, by one of my great musical heroes, Jonathan Richman. The title of this post is a line from that song.


So no one told you life was gonna be this way

I’ve spent the vast majority of my working life employed by American banks, and we lived in the US for a couple of years over 20 years ago. We’ve been lucky enough to make some lifelong friends along the way, and New York is a good place to catch up with some of them.

I reached out to Joe, a former boss, to see if he was available for beer or coffee and he immediately provided the expected answer: beer. He had a lunch meeting in the city, so we arranged to meet him in a bar afterwards. This gave us the chance to do some shopping to replace some of the worn-out clothes we now have in our possession.

A native New Yorker probably wouldn’t have Macy’s as a first choice shopping option but over the years they have provided me with a great deal of clothing at prices far lower than I would pay in the UK. We acquired a Metrocard and leapt on to the B train at Grand St to 34th St/Herald Square, exiting the station at the front doors of what used to be the world’s largest department store, now overtaken by a Chinese competitor. We spent a happy hour or so browsing the various departments to fulfil our requirements. As Ishbel said afterwards, that’s probably the first time we have ever left Macy’s empty handed.

Despite the shopping disappointment, we headed back down to hipster central on the Lower East Side to keep our date with Joe. I had identified a bar called Marshall Stack as the perfect option, since it was reputed to have craft beers and a great jukebox. Sadly, it hadn’t opened by the time we were due to meet do I hastily researched an alternative and came up with Lucky Jack’s.  Fortunately, it served some great beers and played an excellent soundtrack of 70s and 80s mostly British bands. It was great getting the chance to catch up and Joe kindly gave us a couple of gifts from Chatham NJ, the town where we had lived all those years ago. The beers were quite strong, so the rest of Tuesday was fairly quiet and relaxed.

On the subway on Tuesday, we had been attracted by a poster for the NY Transit Museum, publicising a photo exhibit on the “subway reef“. Many of New York’s decommissioned subway cars have been dumped in the ocean, creating an artificial reef. Now that we’re divers, we decided we wanted to see this, so we planned our journey out to the museum in Brooklyn for Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, we stopped by Rudy’s to check on Ishbel’s dobro and were told that the repair was all good, but a little lacquer had chipped off at the point of the repair. They had put a couple of drops in to fix that and we could collect it as soon as it was dry. Since we were in Soho anyway, we made like Duke Ellington and took the A train over to Jay St in Brooklyn, from where we walked to the Transit Museum. The museum was fascinating and covered the construction of the various subway lines, the different companies who ran them, their integration, and the challenges of mapping the system. They also had a collection of subway cars through the ages tat you could walk through. Well worth a visit.

Sadly, however, no exhibit on the Subway Reef. It pays to read the small print on posters. The photos were on show in the Museum Annex. No problem, we thought. “Where’s the annex?” we asked.

“Grand Central Station,” came the somewhat surprising reply. We weren’t going to be seeing that today. We decided to take a walk down to the East River (which isn’t a river), and see the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn side, for a change.


We couldn’t get a coffee by the waterfront because of the huge number of tourists here. This area, now known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) has been gentrified out of all recognition since we lived in the New Jersey suburbs. In those days, no tourist who valued their security would wander around here. Times change.

We headed back to Jay St and caught an F train to Delancey so we could freshen up before tonight’s date with old friends. When we lived here, I worked for a company called Bankers Trust and made some amazing friends with whom I have kept in touch over the years and we always try to meet up when I’m in NY or they are in the UK. We had arranged to meet a few of them for dinner this evening. We once again walked over to Soho and met them at an excellent Italian restaurant called Adoro Lei. The food here was excellent and the company delightful.

The wonderful thing about great friends is that you may not see them for a few years but as soon as you meet again, you pick up right where you left off. That’s what it’s like with these guys. Knowing people like that is a great and lifelong joy.

After dinner and extended reminiscences, we headed back to our apartment. New York always seems familiar because the entire city seems like a film set. We’ve seen it so often on our tv and movie screens that it fees like home. Tonight, we found that it was home. Our route to our apartment was blocked by a film crew shooting a scene for a TV show called Pose. At first, I only noticed that there seemed to be a lot of 70s cars parked in the street.


But the strange pink lighting should have been a giveaway.

We didn’t hang around and found a route past the shoot to get to our apartment and a much needed sleep.


Start spreadin’ the news

Another couple of days have passed by without a post and I have finally resolved my computer connectivity problems. I now know what a Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU) is, and that a MacBook has it automatically configured to 1500. By changing it to 1453 (apparently an old Cisco configuration – who knew?) all my internet connection problems are over, for now. Every day is a school day. On with the narrative…

Sunday morning ended our brief stay in Boston. After less than twenty-four hours, we called an Uber to take us to Boston’s South Station where we would catch an Amtrak train to New York City.

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The Acela Express train has all Business Class seats, which were perfectly comfortable for our three-hour trip to NY. The journey was uneventful and we alighted at Penn Station and located the lift to get us and our bags up to street level. Our diving experience came in handy here, as we controlled our breathing to try to cope with the stench in the lift. We disgorged into 8th Avenue and hailed a cab to take us to our AirBnB.

I had managed to find accommodation in the Lower East Side, on Orchard St just north of Canal, which the host had characterised as New York loft living. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. By NY standards, the place was huge, with some quirky features as it struggled to fit in cooking facilities and a bathroom but it was more than adequate for our needs.

By the time we had settled in to the apartment, we decided to have a quiet evening. I had identified a bluegrass jam that we would attend the next night, so we owed ourselves some down time. We grabbed some takeaway pizza from Scarr’s, just a couple of doors down Orchard, and watched the first episode of Game of Thrones. We also dropped off some washing at the laundry, also just a couple of doors away from us. It looks like we have everything we need round here.

On Monday, we had an issue that needed to be assessed and possibly addressed. We had noticed in Mexico that Ishbel’s dobro had developed a crack at the headstock. Due to my diligent (and definitely not obsessive) research on the relative merits of music shops in New York I identified Rudy’s Music as the place where we should visit to get an opinion on what needed done. My mandolin was also in need of a setup, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone and stroll over to Soho with the instruments. We arrived just as the shop was opening so hung back a little to let the staff get organised. We did hear one other customer leaving his guitar for a setup  and being told that it would be two weeks before it would be ready because of the volume of work in the shop. Oh, dear.

Ishbel was next in line, and handed over the dobro with an explanation on what was the issue. We also explained that we were leaving the city on Friday so if they couldn’t do anything, we would just have to wait to get it assessed. They agreed to take a look at it, at which point the repair expert happened by and there was a thorough examination of the crack. The big question was whether it would open up enough for him to be able to get some glue into it. It was possible that we would have to wait for the problem to get worse before it could be fixed. By this time, I had already decided I wouldn’t even ask about a mandolin setup. Ishbel and the repair expert went downstairs to get the dobro on the bench under a good light and figure out next steps. I took the opportunity to play one of the mandolins in the shop. Why not?

Ishbel came back with some good news. He was able to open the crack up enough that he should be able to get some glue into it, and he was comfortable getting it done in time for us to pick it up before we left NY. It appears the problem is probably due to what they call whiplash, resulting from baggage handlers throwing the cases around. The case is strong enough to withstand impact but what they recommend is that, from now on, we should check the dobro at the gate rather than the check-in desk; de-tune a half step to reduce tension on the neck; and stuff newspaper into the space under the headstock when checking the case. We left the dobro with these guys to do their magic and went out with the intention of enjoying a leisurely stroll through Soho. What we had was a quick dash through a rainstorm to the nearest cafe, where we sipped a coffee in the hope that the rain would desist.

It didn’t look like it would stop, so when it looked a little lighter, we headed back towards the apartment. We stopped off in Little Italy, at Piemonte Ravioli, and bought some fresh pasta and home-made sauce for dinner. It was amazing.

After dinner, we made our way up to Paddy Reilly’s Bar in Midtown to enjoy their regular Monday Bluegrass Jam. We weren’t taking instruments with us as we were fairly certain we would be out of our depth in a genuine, big city bluegrass jam in the USA. Meh. In all honesty, I think all the players at our home jam in Worthing would have comfortably held their own in this company. We probably need to be a little less intimidated in future.


Feeling cold for the first time in a while

Friday, 12th April was to be our last full day in Mexico. Ishbel was awake early and headed down to the beach with her camera.

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She caught a nice morning light, while I snoozed a little longer. We had determined that today would be a chillout day until we headed out in the evening with our hosts, Donald and Azza, for dinner in Playa del Carmen.

We took the opportunity to practice on our recently neglected instruments and start gathering our possessions for another round of packing and travelling. We’re planning in replacing some of our more well-used garments when we get to the US, so we wanted to assess what clothes still have travelling life left in them and what’s on its last legs.

Dinner in Playa del Carmen was at a Mexican restaurant (of course) called La Cueva del Chango. I once again enjoyed a nice helping of guacamole. I’m starting to think it may have addictive properties. After dinner, we had a walk along the main tourist drag of the town, 5th Avenue, which served to make me glad we had spent our time in the less frenetic surroundings of Paamul. We were pleased to head back there for a nightcap and a last game of euchre.

Donald had arranged with some friends that we would go round to their place on Saturday morning and put out some food for the birds and animals that regularly visit them so Ishbel could get some photos. DSC_0527

The agouti is a lovely little chap: a native rodent about the size of a very large cat, and several of them showed up to take advantage of the free meal on offer. We were also inundated by a flock of Yucatan Jays who are the most amazing shade of blue.


After a while watching the wildlife, it was time to head back, load up the car, and set off on another leg of the trip. The drive to Cancun airport was straightforward enough and we dropped off the car at the rental return lot before being shuttled to the terminal and checking in at the American Airlines desk. Disappointingly, they don’t have a lounge at Cancun so we just bought ourselves a coffee and went to wait at the gate.

The flight was straightforward and we arrived in Boston on time at 5:45pm. Having planned the flights and the stops back in October, there were always going to be little things that may have been missed in the logistics phase. The little thing I had missed for Boston was the fact that we were arriving on the weekend of the Boston Marathon. This meant that accommodation prices were outrageously expensive. I had eventually managed to source an AirBnB in South Boston, which has been gentrified considerably since its portrayal in Good Will Hunting. However, we had decided to stay just one night in Boston and move to New York on the Sunday, so we had to make the most of our brief stay.

We took an Uber from the airport and dropped off all our bags at the apartment. I then ordered another Uber to take us to the Prudential Center as a starting point for a whistle-stop tour of Boston. I’ve been here a few times previously on business but this was Ishbel’s first visit. I had planned a walking route along Newbury St. and across Boston Common… IMG_3165

…to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Night had fallen by now, so the sightseeing was limited but we did what we could. We also noticed a decided chill in the air. Although it’s now baseball season in the US, the weather wasn’t reflective of the traditional summer game. Early spring still carries a bite here.


We capped off our one night in Boston with a couple of beers in The Black Rose, a renowned Irish bar where you are guaranteed live music.  After our sojourn in there, we took another Uber back to Southie and called it a night.




Diving Excitement

On Wednesday morning, the weather had very much improved in line with the forecast. The rainstorms of Tuesday had blown through and it was now sunny and calm. We had relied on the forecast to book our dive for this morning. Paamul is home to a lovely dive shop called Scuba-Mex Dive Center run by a Texan gentleman called John. If  you find yourself down this way, the diving is competitively priced and the dive sites are only a short boat ride out from shore. Add to  that the fact that the water is around 28°C and you’ve got the perfect dive option.

We set out at 9am. With the water so warm, Ishbel and I decided to eschew wetsuits and dive in swimming costumes and rash vests. This dive was absolutely spectacular. If you’re unfamiliar with Tarpon, these are fish that grow to over 2m in length and over 100kg in weight. There’s no real size context in the video below, but at the start of the dive we were swimming towards what looked like an enormous wall of fish flesh. These tarpon seemed to be towards the upper end of what they achieve size-wise.

This was an amazing sight, and quite rare to see so we were very fortunate to have experienced it so early in our diving lives. Also, a quick thanks to Ian Henderson, Donald’s son, for the original music to accompany the movie.

Despite the excitement, I managed my air consumption much better than on any previous dive and achieved a dive time of 58 minutes. Ishbel had a 63 minute dive, so we were both pleased with that. We got back into the boat and headed back towards Paamul.


We relaxed for a while after the dive then headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner, which was delicious. My consumption of avocado in various forms (although mostly guacamole) has gone through the roof here in Mexico.

On returning to the house, we were taught the rudiments of a card game called Euchre, well-known in the US for over 100 years but rarely played in the UK.  It’s played with a short deck and there are some idiosyncracies that take a while to get used to, but we enjoyed it.

On Thursday, Ishbel and I had booked tickets to visit Xcaret, a theme park just along the road from Paamul. I say theme park, but it’s not the kind of place that would usually spring to mind when you hear that phrase. We had decided that we would visit the aviary and the butterfly pavilion to let Ishbel get some photos, then we would swim the underground river, which is 540m long but largely sheltered from the scorching sun.

The aviary proved to be successful for getting the bird shots Ishbel was after, but I was delighted that she didn’t have the camera handy for one particular event. The Crested Guan is a turkey sized bird. I don’t know whether it didn’t like my hat, or just didn’t like me, but when it jumped up and attacked my head, I beat a hasty retreat out of the enclosure.

Luckily, we didn’t encounter any aggressive butterflies, so our visit there was incident-free.

By this time, we were definitely both feeling the heat as the sun rose higher in the sky. It was time to hit the river. We changed into our costumes and headed over to the entrance. Floatation vests are compulsory for those who want to use the river so we strapped ourselves into those and stepped into the pleasantly cool river. The average temperature was posted as being 22°C, so quite a lot cooler than the sea we dove in the day before. There were quite a few people at the entrance and the first tunnel was crowded with various groups but a lot of people decided not to go through with it and we saw a few exiting at the steps strategically placed just 100m along the river’s course.


The water flows through steep-sided canyons and along underground channels, so it stayed cool all the way, which meant my bald head avoided the sunburn it may otherwise have suffered. It was nice and refreshing, but it’s still a half kilometre of swimming so a decent bit of exercise, too.

After the swim, we strolled slowly back towards the exit. We had decided that we would pop back to the house to get out of our costumes, even though they were drying off nicely in the warmth of the sun, then come back to the park for dinner and the evening show spectacular, celebrating Mexico.

We had a nice dinner in Xcaret, and were adopted as stand-in grandparents by a cute little Mexican girl who was about two years old and overwhelmingly excited about seeing the horse show that preceded the main spectacular. Her parents were very amused by her constant interaction with the two non-Spanish speaking people at the next table.

We left the restaurant to snag good seats for the show. It was really well done with a range of performances: dancing, singing, horsemanship, and some great Mexican bands.

DSC_0469 I had been a little uncertain about what I was signing up for at Xcaret but we both had a thoroughly enjoyable day here.