National Black Cat Day

Today is National Black Cats Day in the UK. The event is a Cats Protection initiative which was started in 2011 to promote the gorgeousness of black cats, and raise awareness of how they often lose out to their more colourful relations in finding homes and being loved.  I think it’s marvellous that our ebony felines have a day dedicated to them, not least because three of my own five kitties are black and beautiful.

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Jasper
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Pearl

Paddy, Pearl and Jasper had their 7th birthday in August but I still think of them as my kittens. Their mother, Cleopatra,  had moved herself into my home just a few weeks before they were born, with no small amount of encouragement from my son who had taken a shine to her and had (unknown to me) been providing treats and petting whenever she turned up in our garden. Cleo had been a neighbour’s cat but the kind-hearted lady had a lot of animals and not enough space or resources, and I guess that this precocious and savvy little tabby had been at the bottom of the pecking order.

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After initially seeming offended that Cleo was spending so much time at my home, her former owner suddenly decided the cat had chosen us, so we should have her. Looking back, I think she’d twigged that some fur babies were on the way – not that I’m complaining.

Not being a seasoned cat midwife, it took a few weeks for it to become obvious to me that Cleo was pregnant – actually, about 3 weeks before the birth.  I was very apprehensive about the arrival of the kittens, caring for them and later finding them good homes. I had no intention of keeping them, as my life was busy and I felt my house was too small for so many cats.

It seemed fortunate that many family members, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends and work colleagues past and present were keen to become parents to the expected fur babies. I would not have let them go to anybody I didn’t know personally, and the question was, who would I have to disappoint? People had seen photos of the beautiful Cleo on Facebook or had met her in person and couldn’t wait to see her look-alike kittens.

August 1st is Lammas Day and, quite aptly, Cleo was delivered of a healthy harvest of 4 babies: three boys and one girl. Only one little boy was a tabby like her. The other three kittens were black. Mother and babies were doing well in the ‘nursery’ and I quickly became a cat baby bore. Very fortuitously, it was the summer holidays and I still had a few weeks off work in which to keep an eye on them.  I didn’t bestow names on my charges, as they were not going to be mine to keep.

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People were cooing and complimenting the photos, especially admiring the little male tabby. It was obvious that everybody liked him best and wanted to take him home when the time came. A few people even said they would take one of the others as well – as a companion – if they could have him. I was a bit sad about the lesser interest in the black kittens, but alarm bells hadn’t started to ring.

Just eight days after the birth, two of the babies developed Cat Flu. It came on very suddenly, overnight. Both were rushed to the vet for treatment; one survived and one did not. We lost the little tabby.

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After that, I noticed a clear wane in interest in the other three cuties from previously very eager prospective adopters.

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People still admired the photos, but almost all of those firm offers of homes became ‘maybes’:  changes in circumstances; possible trips to Australia; previously undetected allergies; clauses in tenancy agreements which forbade pets; concerns about traffic…. One person was quite honest and said that she just had a “penchant” for tabbies and another now thought she was too old to take on kittens which might outlive her, but then offered to take Cleo, their tabby mother, less than a year old herself.

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Feeding time

 

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Kittens at three weeks
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Pearl finding her feet
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Jasper trying to break through the cushion barrier which blocked the doorway
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Paddy learning about toys

By the time they were 8 or 9 weeks old, there were no suitable homes in place for my three kittens. I could have re-homed them had I been less fussy, but as the weeks passed I had started to feel very protective of them and had become very selective: I turned down a nice lady who lived on the 12th floor of a tower block (who I know would have spoilt a fur baby rotten) for fear of it escaping and falling over the balcony; I said no to someone who lived alone, worked long hours, and only wanted the very sociable and playful female kitten, even though she was quite attached to one of her brothers ( they don’t get along at all now!).

Cats Protection, who I’d contacted for advice, had even offered to collect them at 12 weeks. The lady  had explained that, very sadly, many people just weren’t interested in black cats, even kittens. It took them longer on average to find homes for ebony beauties who came into their care, as people preferred more colourful patterned cats. I read up on this and found that the same applied at all re-homing centres. In the USA, some shelters even euthanised black cats virtually as soon as they arrived, as they knew from experience that nobody would choose them.

Incredibly in the 21st century, my extensive reading informed me that occult connotations still lingered, along with superstitions associating black cats with bad luck, further adding to the ‘bad press’. Another unbelievable (but true) and probably the most feeble reason to me is that (in the age of social media), black cats are apparently not photogenic enough.

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The exceptionally photogenic Jasper and Paddy check out the cat nip plants
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Pearl and her brother, Paddy – when they used to get on!

I became deeply offended on behalf of my kittens that they were deemed less desirable because of their colour. It’s true to say that my former good opinion of some people has never quite recovered since that time when I became aware of shallowness which I would never have suspected. That being said, my disappointment has been tempered by the realisation that I wouldn’t have the cats now had others been less fickle back then.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420 I made a decision: we named all three kittens and decided they would be staying with us, forever. There are quarrels and personality clashes, as each cat is very individual, but they are all a daily source of delight and entertainment; all affectionate and loving, at least to me, if not always to each other.

I have counted my blessings so many times, thankful that offers of homes which might not have turned out well did not in the end come through.

I hope that Black Cat Day helps raise the profile of dark beauties and helps people to see them for what they are: beautiful and magical. If you or somebody you know is considering welcoming a cat into your life and want to be on trend, according to Cats Protection: ‘Black is the new black.’ One thing’s for sure – you won’t be disappointed in your choice.

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I can’t leave out Mrs Tiggy Winkle (Tig Tig, for short), my beautiful if sometimes spiky tortoiseshell

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Happy Black Cat Day!

One day in Amsterdam

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For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of a cruise. I don’t mean sailing around the Med or Caribbean, poolside, on a floating luxury hotel; that’s not really me. I’m thinking more of northern European fjords or the distant bleak but beautiful archipelagos of the British Isles. Before making any plans, I had to find out if I – life long sufferer of travel sickness – had sea legs.  There was also the matter of my slight fear of sinking hundreds of miles from dry land…

A mini-cruise to Amsterdam presented a perfect opportunity to test out my personal fitness to sail, overcome my anxieties about drowning at sea, and to visit a beautiful city on my destination wish list.

I confess that I was nervous about sailing the briny waves but I was determined to conquer my fear of finding myself in a rendezvous with Neptune on the sea bed.

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At the Port of Hull in north-east Yorkshire we boarded the good ship Pride of Rotterdam for the overnight voyage and checked into our cabin on deck 10.  It was time to explore our vessel. First stop was the sun deck where very strong winds made it difficult to hold the camera still,  but after noting the location of the lifeboats (and committing this to memory) I got a few shots of Hull, including the Humber Bridge.

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The not so sunny sun-deck where strong winds made photography very difficult
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Humber Bridge

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Following a happily eventless night, we arrived alive and well in Rotterdam. From there, a convenient coach ride brought us to our destination, Amsterdam, about 90 minutes away.

We only had a day and it was already mid morning so time was of the essence. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to see but had to be realistic as the clock was ticking. This was a day to get a flavour of the city; I could return for a longer visit another time.

Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the North due to the extensive network of canals which weave around the city.  A canal cruise seemed like a good way to take in some of the sights with the option of disembarking to visit any points of interest along the way.

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The starting point was the boat and bus tour hub across from Amsterdam Central train station. I made a mental note of the ideally situated chain hotel just metres away which would be a perfect place to stay on a future visit.

Bus and boat tours were plentiful but queues were long. We waited for 25 minutes – a big chunk of time out of our short day but were lucky enough to get the last two places.

The audio recording provided interesting  facts about the Dutch capital. In the 12th century, the dam in the River Amstel emerged from being a small fishing village into a hugely important port. The 17th century was known as the Dutch Golden Age which saw the growth of commerce and the diamond trade and expansion of empire. Amsterdam’s 17th century waterways have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.

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We passed through one of the main commercial districts, the port and spotted the largest Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands. This area reminded me of Stockholm.

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It was a warm sunny day and Amsterdam was buzzing as we wound our way around the Amstel.  As I listened to the audio guide and learned some fascinating facts about the city, I found myself relaxing into my surroundings and forgetting about the time.

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We passed through the Jewish cultural district famous for diamond and jewellery manufacturing. Some people left us there for a tour of the Gassan factory to see how diamonds are cut. I would like to explore this part of Amsterdam in the future.

Past City Hall and the magnificent Hermitage Museum, we arrived at an intersection with  the Prinsengracht Canal where we encountered a boat rage incident. Not surprisingly on such a glorious day, many people were enjoying being on the water and a women’s boat race was in full swing. Several vessels  -including ours – had become jammed at a bottle-neck bridge.

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The determined women rowers were not for backing up and were quite vocal in their refusal, oars being postured to reinforce their words. I don’t know any Dutch, but locals looking down from the bridge were highly amused at the altercation. The women had to retreat in the end, but speedily sailed away towards their prize, their nearest competitors hot in pursuit.

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A boat turned into a museum dedicated to cheese

House boats are so popular in Amsterdam that the authorities have put a stop to any new ones. Mooring charges are high and berths don’t often come available. Residents soaked up the rays outside their floating homes and along the banks where office workers and tourists alike were taking a break and enjoying the ambience.

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At the Westkerk (west church) we decided to leave the boat and have a look around this central part of the city. The Church was closed, unfortunately.

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The world famous Anne Frank House Museum is nearby. It goes without saying that a visit was out of the question on this occasion as queues can be very long and tickets should be bought in advance to avoid a lengthy wait.

We crossed over the Bloemgracht Canal. There are about 250 bridges in Amsterdam, many of them very pretty and reminiscent of Paris.

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The bustling Jordaan area has quirky shops and cool apartment buildings and is a charming mix of old and new. I was very tempted by some contemporary Delftware, but ironically I couldn’t decide between several lovely pieces and bought none of them.

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Strolling back along Raadhuisstrat we emerged in Dam Square at the centre of the city. It was packed full of people and life.

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Photo opportunities with pigeons

Sightseers milled around the royal palace; again, I was keen to explore but by this time had less than three hours before meeting the coach back to Rotterdam. Several protests and counter protests were taking place in the square but all were peaceful and calm, as is the liberal and tolerant Dutch way.

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A protest in movement about human rights in China

The Nieuwe Kerk (new church) was on my list of places to see but it was hosting an exhibition about the Buddha, which although probably fascinating, would have eaten too much into our remaining time. The rest of this gorgeous building had been closed off. Next time…

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Damrak is the main shopping street and it was thriving. All the usual multinational eateries were mixed with museums and exhibition spaces. Many of the buildings are three hundred years old.

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I was fascinated by the Amsterdam Cheese Company store  with its huge cheeses on display in the upstairs windows.

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At the end of Damrak, with Central Station in view, stand some of the loveliest houses in the whole of the city, centuries old and full of character.

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Behind these is the red light district and infamous coffee shops. Amsterdam is synonymous with licentiousness and hedonism, but what really surprised me was that it is not ‘in your face’. If visitors want to ogle ladies in windows or enjoy space cakes with their special coffees, it’s all easily available – but you have to look for it. Side streets offer hints to what lies further ahead, but that is a choice, and nobody has to walk that way, and won’t find themselves there by accident.

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I didn’t enter the labyrinth of the senses this time, but would do if time permitted, as the red light district is reputed to include some very handsome buildings.

A little more exploring and it was time to head back to Rotterdam with just an hour to spare before we set sail. Once again, relatively calm waters conveyed us back to Hull where we arrived at 08:00.

What a weekend! What a revelation Amsterdam has been! It was the briefest of visits, and I only got a glance, not a look, at a fascinating city. I will go back, but even though I do seem to have sea legs after all (albeit somewhat wobbly ones) and I can sleep through the night without watching for the sea seeping into the cabin, I’ll stick to the big metal bird next time around.

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Walking the Manchester Curry Mile

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It’s said that variety is the spice of life, and a walk along Manchester’s spiciest street is nothing if not varied.

Rusholme is a district of Manchester just outside the city centre. It is term-time home to a large student population residing in local halls of residence. It’s also a  global village of different communities, mainly from south east Asia.

A hundred years ago, Rusholme was leafy and salubrious, and notable amongst its more illustrious residents were the Pankhursts, champions of women’s suffrage. Now, many of the larger Edwardian and Victorian houses have been turned into student flats.

The area is most famous for its curry mile which attracts fans of international cuisine from all over Manchester and beyond. Actually, the curry mile descriptor  probably needs to be updated, as there are now more eateries selling Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish and Afghani  food than there are Indian curry establishments.

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It’s a bit run down, and daylight hours don’t show Rusholme at its best; it’s after dark that it comes alive and the bright lights illuminate the street scene with delicious oriental aromas enticing spice lovers through the many welcoming doors.

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World-food stores sell a vast range of unusual ingredients with  lush fruits and vegetables displayed out front.

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The start and end of the curry mile are marked by public parks. I started my walk at Platt Fields at the south end where Manchester Museum of Costume is located. I’ve visited the Museum previously but it is currently closed for cataloguing of exhibits and to deal with a moth problem.

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Platt Fields is used a lot for community events, including festivals which always involve lots of delicious food. The local communities associated with Rusholme are represented in art on the outbuildings.

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Within Platt Fields is the remains of a link to Manchester’s distant past. The Nico ditch is what is left of an ancient earthwork, the purpose of which is not known for certain,  though there are some interesting theories. The section of the Nico ditch which skirts Platt Fields is now listed as a protected ancient monument. It isn’t easy to locate, as much of the signage around the park is weather-beaten and  unclear. I have tried to highlight the ditch below.

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The ditch runs across what was the old border between Manchester and Stockport. It isn’t known when it was constructed; some time during the 600 years or so between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving, it is thought. Possibly a defensive work to keep out Viking invaders from the Danelaw; possibly, and less dramatically, a simple boundary marker, Nico ditch’s purpose is subject to speculation. There are a lot of ‘maybes’. My favourite Nico folklore narrative tells how it was built in one night by the men of Manchester, each man building a section as tall as himself, to keep out the Norsemen.

Nearby, Platt Fields wildlife feasts on nature’s offerings, concerned only with the present.

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Back on Wilmslow Road again, we find Hardy’s Well.

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Once a popular watering hole, last orders were finally called in 2016 but the pub has become iconic because of the poem of the same name – a celebration of alliteration – which is composed upon its gable wall.

Hardy’s Well is the creation of Lemn Sissay MBE, Chancellor of the University of Manchester and poet of the 2012 London olympics amongst his many accolades. Unfortunately, Lemn has neglected the addition of possessive apostrophes.

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Lemn Sissay was born in Wigan, about 17 miles away and brought up in the care system after his mother, an Ethiopian student, was initially unable to look after him. Lemn has described bitterly in print and in film his early life in care and has recently succeeded in claiming compensation from Wigan Council. As a young adult, Lemn reclaimed his Ethiopian heritage and the name given him at birth. His poetry is internationally renowned but Hardy’s Well is my favourite. Yesterday was National Poetry Day in the UK with the theme being ‘change’. I thought it very apt that Hardy’s Well graces a spot which had seen an incredible amount change over the last century.

The property developers who have bought the building have undertaken to preserve the iconic script but the vandals have already got to work making their own marks.

Negotiating  the crowds gathering to share mouthwatering masalas and tantalising tikkas, I savoured the aromas and admired window displays of Bollywood fashions as I continued along the curry mile.

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Whitworth Park is at the north end of the curry mile near to the University and the city’s main hospitals. Whitworth Gallery is alongside. It’s one of my favourite galleries: modern, unpretentious and always with a thought-provoking exhibition.

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Manchester has become famous for its bees which represent the city’s resilience and industrial heritage. Bee sculptures  can be found all over the city and here are two at the Whitworth.

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I do love a roll of wallpaper with a bold pattern, and I was not disappointed by the examples included in the exhibition, Bodies of Colour: breaking wallpaper stereotypes.

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I wondered who would want a gallows scene on their wall, or even the rather unsettling ‘Sindy’ print from the mid 1970s. The character in the pink outfit and shades would surely keep any child awake at night!

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Thread Bearing Witness, an exhibition by Alice Kettle, celebrates the lives and contributions of female refugees who have come to live in the Manchester area. Their traumas and aspirations are expressed through their contributions to the exhibition.

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I finished my walk along the curry mile with a look around the Whitworth Art Garden where haute cuisine seemed to be the order of the changing day.

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