A lovely day for my final day in Malta. First port of call was costa’s famous basilica, famous for its survival after a bomb fell through the roof in 1942 but failed to explode. An Italian pilot was lightning his load and accidentally dropped it on the church but, as Maria quipped, since it was Italian in didn’t behave as it should have done, and failed to explode, fortunately since 300 people were attending mass inside the church. A replica of the bomb is on display – rather odd to see in a church. The Ro
man Catholic Church was built in 1833-1860 and is based on the Pantheon in Rome. Leaving the church we only were allowed 25 minutes to climb up to the balcony in the dome, visit the WW ll bunkers and/or get morning coffee.
I opted for the bunkers, just outside the basilica and saw reconstructions of the life that the people seeking safety lived. Lace making, hairdressing equipment and sewing machines were all part of life underground.
Then we were off to visit the San Anton Gardens in Attard. Because the towns in Malta are so densely populated every inch of land in the towns is taken up with building, apart from the few designated gardens which are open to the public. In fact apart from palm trees there are no trees on Malta and so there is no wood at all for building material.
The gardens surround a palace that was originally built in the early 17th century and is now the residence of Malta’s prime minister. As I wandered around there numerous walkways I came to a gate manned by a soldier and at that moment a cavalcade of vehicles drew up and the soldier saluted. I guess the prime minister was in the car! The walled gardens were opened to the public in 1882 and it was lovely to see so much color in the flowers. I hadn’t realized until then how much I’d missed seeing colorful blooms. Of course the Maltese kitties were enjoying sunning themselves in the plant pots too. Several trees with the spiky and bottle-shaped trunks that I’d seen in Sicily were present and peacocks were strutting their stuff beneath them.
Lunch was at the coastal village of Marsaxlokk which is described as a typical fishing village, but the restaurants and street vendors have moved in and nowadays it’s a tourist haven too. Still, it was very very pretty with the traditional highly colored fishing boats and there were shoals of fish chomping on pieces of bread. Fishermen had their nets strewn along the quayside and on the menu for one outdoor restaurant, alongside the fried rabbit was octopus stew. I’d been holding out for a dish of mussels until I found a good place by the ocean so here was my opportunity since we were all free to find our own lunch.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on a tour of the three cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua whose fortifications were built by the Knights of St John. Streets almost narrow enough for people on opposite balconies to shake hands were the order of the day with peeling paint and weathered stone – just my sort of place. The week after I’d got back from my trip I saw a quote from L.S. Lowry in the Manchester Art Gallery: “I seem to have a strong feeling towards decayed houses in deteriorated areas ….” Preparations were being made for the Superleague Triathlon event the next day and tents, camera men and portable toilets and barricades were being set up along our route. In the church of St Lawrence in Valletta there were several clothed skeletons reminding me of the catacombs in Palermo.
Our final dinner with the group was back in Sliema, at Piccolo Padre, a lovely ending to an interesting trip full of surprises.
The next morning I left Malta, bound for Leeds/Bradford airport along with another member of the group, and had a trouble-free trip back to Hebden Bridge where the all the colours of Autumn had come to the town in the week that I’d been gone.
As I looked out from my window this morning a flock of birds were circling and soaring around the half built tower blocks. Later I showed my video of their antics to our group but no-one could identify what species they were.
First on the agenda were two temples – Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. First we were treated to a three D movie about the history of the temples. Perched at the edge of the cliff it brought to mind the Temple of Sounion in Greece that I’d visited way back in 1976. The temples here predate Stonehenge by 1000 years, and they were built before Skara Brae in Orkney too, though I could see many similarities. Hagar Qim is the oldest free standing structure on earth and has now been shielded from the devastating effects of weathering by being covered in a giant tent – a protective canopy. It really looks like an alien space station! The lower temple was down a steep track and golf carts were available for anyone who didn’t want to walk. I took the opportunity of this so that I could have a few minutes back up at the top to wander along the cliff top by myself before the others arrives and we continued on our way.
Next was a short minibus ride to The Blue Grotto for a 20 minute boat ride into the various sea caves, marveling at the turquoise color off the water as we went. I bought a couple of calendars at the wayside gift shop on my way back to the bus.
As we made our way in yet another mini bus and a new driver Maria mentioned that until about 20 years ago women did not work outside the home in Malta. It would have been seen as a failure of the man to provide for his family. Now women work, which means they have less time to shop at local stores. She, herself, stocks up on groceries at the supermarket once a month. So locally soured products are suffering.
We were on our way to Malta Sunripe to meet an entrepreneurial farmer and his wife who are eager to share their love of farming with tourists. Alongside their 4 enormous greenhouses, each contain 9800 tomato plants they run a farm kitchen where they produce jams and wines, and also have a restaurant featuring their home grown produce. Delicious!
We were taken to see the wine cellar that the farmer and his family had carved into the bedrock themselves only a few years ago. After lunch we were shown a film about their work and then we got to tour one of the greenhouses.
8 members of the family farm the tomatoes which means they have to take it in turns to go on vacation because the plants need daily work – planting, tying, applying fertilizer, keeping bumble bees that pollinate the plants. In the summer they paint the roof of the glass house with chalk to stop the sun burning the plants. By the time the rain arrives later in the year the sun is not so hot and the chalk dissolves. Very clever!
On the way back to Sliema we saw the huge building project funded by the EU of 6 new flyovers. One had been completed. Work goes on there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maria mentioned that newly weds tend to purchase their homes. If they can’t meet the 10% down payment the government steps in and gives them an interest free loan. Wow! People generally live with their parents until they get married, and the average age of marriage is just over 30.
We were back at the hotel by 5:30 for a ‘free evening’ but I didn’t want a free evening. This was when I think a WhatsApp idea for those who wanted to partner up with someone else from the group would have been a good idea: get the ferry over to Valletta after dark, relax at an oceanfront bar, go beach combing. I didn’t want to eat in. A restaurant alone and though I thought about taking a nap I was too excited to sleep, so I headed out along the oceanfront to explore the peninsula. A map had promised Victorian Baths, but I didn’t find them. Still, it was nice to potter about on the rocks for a while. I went back to the mini market which had been closed on the first night and was surprised to find how good it was. It was the only food store I’d been into, or even seen on the trip.
I was woken intermittently during the night by rumbles of thunder in the distance and it was rather overcast when I look out of my window, carefully screening myself from the guys already hard at work on the construction site opposite.
I began the day by walking along the seafront for half and hour or so, checking out the kitties in the playground, and noticing that every second business was selling real estate.
After breakfast we headed out for our 90 minute boat trip in Malta’s Grand Harbour. Maria had told us that the only way to really appreciate the vastness of the harbour was to see it by boat, and though this sounded decidedly like a marketing ploy – Boy! Was that true. There are 5 ‘fingers’ to this natural harbour and it’s still a hub of activity with its cranes, oil rigs, high end yachts, dry docks for ship building and fishing vessels. I saw a huge crane that was shaped like a head and neck of a giraffe in the distance, and, lo and behold, when our boat drew close, the rigging of the crane had been painted in the brown and yellow spots of the giraffe. Our of our group explained to me that the oil rigs were just there for storage, they weren’t drilling.
She was from Aberdeen and working in that industry. There were lots of small boats adjusting their sails as they travelled. They were practicing for a big yacht race this coming weekend. The five star formation of the fort was easier to see from the ocean and its fortress walls seemed impenetrable. I could also see the hospital and appreciate its long length and how amazing its unsupported ceiling must have been when it was built.
Then onto Mdina where Maria pointed out various places we could have lunch from our central point outside the cathedral. As we approached the central square through the narrow streets I could hear a symphonic band playing songs from Jesus christ Superstar – one of my family’s favourite musicals. I couldn’t wait to see them close up. Four of us headed for a very pleasant lunch in the courtyard of a former palace. We asked our waiters for help with translation of the menu but its was difficult. They were Albanian and Sicilian.
I chose to be adventurous and selected the monkfish carpaccio with the best roast potatoes in the world. Despite the ‘relaxed’ rate of service I still had an hour after lunch to explore the city alone, and found myself taking lots of photos of door knockers. These were a symbol of your social status, and some were very elaborate – daily with a nautical theme.
Like Murano Mdina is noted for its glass and I took a look in a couple of the glass studios. I found some lovely pieces but didn’t fancy my chances about getting them home, or the the U.S in one piece.
When we met up again, at the British phone box (they look as though they’ve been planted by mistake – along with the British post boxes) we visited a Roman villa with intact mosaic floors and then on to the catacombs. I must admit I was a little disappointed with these at first. After visiting the amazing catacombs in Palermo last year where the skeletons and both posed and clothed, just seeing holes hacked into the bedrock where the corpses would have lain was not as mind blowing.
We arrived back at the hotel at 5:30 and met up for dinner an hour later, organized by Maria, at Gululu about 20 minutes walk along the waterfront.
Rabbit is the featured local food but I had clam and aubergine pasta, my first pasta dish of the trip. It was delicious. Our talk at dinner was mainly about places our group had visited – Cambodia, Egypt, Morocco. I think everyone had been to India at some time in their lives. This is so different from conversation in America where the topic might included visiting a second home at Lake Tahoe, or a beach holiday in Florida. Malta had 2 1/2 million tourists last year and 30% of the GDP is tourism. Malta can only provide 23% of its own food. The rest has to be imported, much of it from Sicily. Legislation states than new factories must employ native Maltesers and private schools teach English as their first language. Speaking English is a status symbol so the Maltese language is on the decline. All medical treatment is free, though you can take out health insurance to gain faster service. It only costs 20 Euros for a home visit from your family GP. There is 3% unemployment. The only natural resource on the island is stone, and the original 50 quarries are now down to 3. Most families have a ‘Sunday only’ car in addition to 2 ‘regular’ cars. Sunday cars have a different colored license plate and can only be driven on Sundays so they only pay 1/7 of the road tax and insurance. As you can see – we had a very informative conversation over dinner. I’d not seen any drunken Brits on this trip as I had expected to, or anyone drunk or homeless. The expensive areas are being bought up by Chinese and Russians and there’s a big gaming industry on the island. No property tax either.
I walked back along the seafront alone and stopped to watch a men’s waterpolo match in a swimming pool at the ocean’s edge.
A 9 a.m. departure to spend the entire day in Valletta. It was to be a hot day, entirely outdoors so I donned my new hat (bought at a street vendor’s yesterday) and my new pink dress that I’d purchased on my trip to Whitby with Anna. It was only a half hour drive to Valletta. The entire town is a UNESCO site and is laid out on a grid system with very narrow streets to provide shade.
Even though it was not yet 10 o’clock we had to queue to enter the city through the grand gate and the gardens with the wonderful look out were teaming with tourists.
Three cats were sitting contentedly on the counter of the cafe1 I soldier in uniform was preparing the cannons for their twice daily firing – for the tourists’ benefit, I hasten to add. and on our left is the new building known as the ‘cheese grater’ but which is, in fact, the new parliament building. The prime minister’s house/office s an old building with two historical cannons outside. There was no police presence and kids were climbing on the cannons to have their photos taken. A sand coloured statue of a man sitting cold by caught my attention and I asked on of our group to the my photo as I headed to sit down on his lap – just as I had with the statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin. I got the fright of my life when the statue moved and I realized it was a real man!
St John’s Cathedral was our goal. It’s amazingly ornate inside with its 8 chapels, one for each nationality of the knights of St John. Each chapel is highly decorated with mausoleums and elaborate walls of carved limestone topped with gold leaf. Each chapel tried to outdo the others in the wealth of artwork. The marble tombstones on the floor were wonderful, and they looked as if they were specially designed for Hallowe’en with their grinning portrayal of Death. We were told that’s because the knights looked forward to death, such was their religious belief. There were loads of tour groups vying for space especially in front of the two famous paintings by Carravaggio. Each person was issued a headset so that we could listen to our own our guide.
In our free time I chose to go to a concert in a less elaborate church on the square that I’d seen was to hold a flute duet recital. This meant that I had to skip lunch, but it was a lovely opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of the town, and listen to music that was composed around the time the church was built. It was a husband and wife duo and they’d both studied at the Royal college of music in London.
The reverb was magical. Above the altar was a dome, unusual in the fact that the paintings were in shades of grey only, but it definitely had a three dimensional look. We were free for the rest of the day and while Maria headed back home the rest of us headed towards the fortress at the end of the peninsula. ‘The Malta experience’ was showing a movie about Malta’s history and most of the group headed in that direction – to get away from the ‘stand and shuffle’ routine we’d had for the rest of the day. It was excellent and afterwards we were given a tour of the hospital of the Knights. I’d never connected the St John’s Ambulance service in England with the Maltese Knights of St John, who were originally a medical service provided for all the pilgrims who went to Jerusalem, but they eventually became a military unit of some severity. It was a long, two story building and features the longest unsupported ceiling in Europe(?).
Each bed had its own toilet built into the wall and air vents in the walls led directly to the garden so that the perfume from the citrus plants would scent the ward. Amazing. Presidents bush and Gorbachev met in this very room in 1989 for a press conference at the end of the cold war. Downstairs was the ward for the poor, with 4 people to each bed and toilet. The remains of frescoes can still be made out on the walls above the beds. What was once the garden is now a 1500 seat theatre.
I happened to come out of the building with Marion and we spent the rest of the day together while others from our group heads for the extensive War Museum in the fort. We wandered around the back streets where the wonderful balconies were strewn with washing, and even those apartments without balconies had some sort of contraption whereby they could hang washing outside their window. The balconies originated in the Moslem East when women were not able to leave the house alone, but the protruding balcony gave them access to whatever was going on in the street. We opted for Soul Food for an al fresco early dinner. My salmon salad was delicious but there’s no way I would have guessed that that was what it was from its appearance.
As we headed back to find the bus station I was apprehensive that we wouldn’t recognize our stop, but fortunately we bumped into two more people from our group and we arrived back at the Plaza Regency safely. The buses on the island are well utilized and ours was packed with people. Back at the hotel I went up to the rooftop bar to have a shufti at the ‘entertainment.’ It turned out to be a good singer, but her ‘stage’ was inadequate and not even lit.
The day began with a 15 minute boat ride – optional – in Dwejra Bay – where the water was so clear I could easily pick out the bright orange coral. Our trip took us into sea caves clouded with bright purple seaweed. The main attraction was, until 2017 the Azure Window, a sea arch. Well, we had Natural Bridge in Santa Cruz! The location was used for the filming of Game of Thrones – which I’ve never seen.
Then it was a short drive to the Ta Pinu Sanctuary noted for its mosaics both inside and outside the church. Situatd in open countryside near the village of Gharb there are some wonderful views from the plaza which has modern mosaics surrounding it. Though the date of the original church on the site is lost in history this new church was built 1922-1932 in the Neo-Romantic style, and it’s a much visited site since pope John Paul ll celebrated mass here.
We walked down a steep hill from Zebbug and its tower built by the Knight of Malta to the Salt Pans of Xwejni Bay. This was my favorite sight seeing stop of the day. The limestone rocks here look like frozen waves, made from golden sandstone.
Occasional sections of blood red stone is apparently caused by the oxidation of the limestone. Salt was a very important commodity. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and the crafty officers made sure they paid out on a humid day when the salt would be heavier. From the word saline comes the word salary. I never knew that! I sat down on a ‘frozen wave’ and all around me were fossilized sand dollars. My sitting spot felt a bit lumpy and I found that I’d been sitting on a fossilized sea urchin.
As our group chatted over lunch in Marlsfornabout the scarcity of good salads in England, and good greens in particular, I made the crazy comment that in the U.S rocket just never took off! We visited a man who has worked in the salt pans all his life and he has a little dug out where he takes his siestas every day.
In fact, there were several doorways into the chambers that have been carved into the solid rock. Pretty neat.
Today we moved from Gozo to Malta, to the Plaza Regency hotel, right on the waterfront in Sliema. Maria had keeping reiterating g that we would find Sliema very different from Victoria and indeed it was. The waterfront was a mass of real estate shops, clubs, bars and restaurants. The harbor was the home of hundred and top range yachts.
This is how I had pictured Malta – as a destination for Brits in package holidays supping up Watney’s red barrel and turning in to lobsters as they sunbathed on the beaches. As I opened the door into my room on the 7th floor I could see three men pouring concrete almost within arm’s length of my balcony.
I had a room at the back, facing the building works. No sea view for me. Although there was full kitchen with stove top, microwave and fridge they were of little use. No mini bar, and what’s more important to me – no milk for my tea! The Wifi was somewhat intermittent and the choice of TV stations was far m ore limited than in Gozo. The only channel I could find in English was a French 24 hour news channel.
The group had dinner together in the Neapolitan bar adjacent to the hotel. I was sorry not to be able to watch the England v Bulgaria soccer at the bar across the street but later on the news on the radio I heard about the game being held up twice because of racial slurs directed at some of the English players. At dinner I sat next to Maria and asked her about her interest in tourism and her particular interest in history and archaeology. Apparently she’d wanted to be a tour guide since being very young and had thus specialized in languages and history before going to college to study tourism. All education, including university is free here, as is all health care. Maira directed me to a minimarket up a dark street, deserted street, ignorer to procure some milk, but it had closed early. So she managed to get the hotel kitchen to sell me a carton. Brilliant.
Feeling at home! One of our group was wearing a Santa Cruz T shirt today!!! (And the next day he was wearing a Cape Cod shirt)
After breakfast at 8 I wandered across the street to the Sunday flea market on the sports complex’s car park. I was surprised how inexpensive things were. I’d have thought that the locals would have cashed in on the tourists’ need for something Maltese. There was a nice selection of bric-a-brac – even some old opera programs with the full libretto.
At 9 our group met up for a tour of the citadel built high on the limestone protrusion, giving the occupants a 360 degree view of Gozo. The stone fortifications were covered in fossils. I don’t think I’ve every seen so many.
Maria gave us an explanation of the history but it was far too much to take in. Because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, controlling maritime traffic from Europe to the Middle East and Africa Malta has been fought over and occupied by many cultures and races throughout its 7000 year history. There is evidence of Bronze Age settlements here, but the acropolis was probably Roman in origin. The whole citadel is a mass of museums and Maria had selected the prison museum. One of the jobs of the prisoners was to remove the soil that was covering the Megalithic tombs that we were to visit in the afternoon. I also had a quick mooch around a typical 4 storey house close by.
Then it was on to the bay for lunch. For transport during the entire tour we had a variety of minibuses. In some the AC worked. In others it didn’t. Often we had several different drivers each day, several different buses so you weren’t able to leave stuff on the bus. On my tour of Ireland we had one tour guide who was also the driver, and our bus had tables, power points and we were able to drink and eat on the bus. Free water was also provided. Here there was no water, and eating and drinking were no allowed. Neither was there any power points. Maria pointed out various places to eat and Sue and I chose an outdoor cafe on the waterside where I had a relatively inexpensive sea risotto. Like everyone else on the tour Sue had taken many Explore vacations.
After lunch we drove to the Megalithic tombs, which, it was once believed, were built and lived in by giants. These predate Stonehenge and are constructed from huge blocks of limestone. There are many types of limestone on Malta all of which weather differently, producing amazing textures. The site was damaged by the 1693 Sicilian earthquake. Some of the standing stones have been recovered to preserve them because of the problems with weathering.
The museum had the ‘fat lady’ figures which had been discovered here, and the tourist shops did a grand trade in replicas.
The vegetation here made me quite homesick – for California! Oleanders, pomegranate trees, date palm, figs, olives. We walked down to the beach and while I paddled a few people from our group swam for half an hour.
Back at the hotel we had an hour before we met again to go to see an event in Santa Lucia, the Symphony of Lights. This was not on our tour schedule so most of us took a taxi to see this festival of lights. Thousands of lights were lighting up a hillside above the small village and back on the village square music was being supplied by the man singing to his keyboard while a crowd gathered to watch the procession, taking the Madonna statue back to its niche in the church. As I write this up I’ve just found out what I missed! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSOOGLKPCxg The band must have started just as we left.
Catholicism is alive and well on the island. I had dinner with the two couples on the main square in Victoria and walked back through the empty streets with them around 10 p.m. Again, so different from the night-life in Sicily.
Why Malta? Well, I’ve been going to islands and Malta is an island! Why islands, then? I think in a funny sort of way they are the closest I can get to the deserts of the South West USA. It was Keith who actually verbalized that when we were in Mull last year. He said the landscape there reminded him of Santa Fe, New Mexico, perhaps not so much in its actual features and flora but in its wilderness and sense of space. For years people have been asking me why I spend so much time in the deserts, mainly in ghost towns, and it’s this feeling of someone having lived there in comparative isolation. So why Malta in particular? Pauline and I had been talking about our visits to Sicily and she said that if I had enjoyed Sicily I’d be sure to like a trip to Malta. And Malta popped up as I searched for an island to visit in October which I find quite daunting, knowing that with the change of the clocks the dark will set in so early during the day. So, Malta it was. I hadn’t done any planning. I’d barely read the description other than that the focus of the tour was on the history and archaeology of the place, and so I was expecting a replica of Sicily though on a smaller scale.
So you can imagine my reaction when I arrived at Malta airport and found all the signs in English. I looked out of the window whilst I snacked on items from an English menu and saw the cars driving on the left. For a moment I thought I’d been on the wrong flight!
My taxi to Leeds Bradford had been at 3 a.m., a time I’m not particularly familiar with, but, I reasoned, the airport will be quiet. As we drove through the silent streets, illuminated by an almost full moon, chatting about the political situation in Kashmir, I wondered if the cafe at the airport would even be open. The only there time I can remember being at an airport at such an ungodly hour was at Reykjavik, where people were tucking into their Icelandic beers at 4 a.m. My only previous flight from Leeds had been to Amsterdam and that was midmorning and there was virtually no-one around – just two conveyor belts at security. This time, however, the place was packed, though, unlike my visit to Manchester airport, everything was moving along quickly and I got through checkin and security in 40 minutes. I even had a moment to chat with the nice guy at Jet 2 checkin desk who said, ’Boarding for rows A to J will begin boarding at 5:20.’ I asked him if he knew the Simon Armitage poem, ‘Thank you for Waiting.’ He didn’t but he made a note to look it up:
As I drank my flat white and ate a yoghurt I watched the news about the conflict between Syria and Turkey, learned that tens of thousands of people were without power in Tokyo following the cyclone and that Southern California was being consumed by wildfires.
I had a window seat and got a good view of the Italian coast, could see smoke pouring from Mt Etna on Sicily, and then, as we started our descent onto Malta a patchwork of small fields divided by stone walls came into view. In fact there seemed to be so many stone walls that I thought at first I was seeing ruins of an ancient city. But more of that later.
A lady was holding an ‘Explore’ sign as I emerged from the baggage area and told me that after some other people arrived we would be taken to Gozo, a small island off the mainland, so I settled down in the cafe for an hour. I was surrounded by Brits.
6 people eventually arrived for the transfer and we were shepherded into a minivan, for an hour’s drive to the port, then across the 20 mine ferry ride to Gozo. We could see lots of jellyfish in the clear water and some passengers were dropping bread into the water to attract hungry fish.
Someone was parasailing overhead and he looked just like an airborne jellyfish. The first thing I noticed on the short drive to our hotel were the walls. Some were in immaculate condition while others were ruins of terraces. The fields these walls were enclosing were tiny. Sometimes rows of prickly pear cactus plants acted as walls. Over the week I learned a lots about walls: there are courses for dry stone wallers to learn their crafts. Walls are under a preservation order. By creating terraces they provide flat land for crops. They help to stop wind erosion. They provide somewhere for stones picked out of the ground to clear the land to grow crops to rest. A family’s land would be divided amongst the sons who in turn would divide the plots for their sons and so the fields have got smaller and smaller. Some were made from rubble, others cut to perfection. Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated by Maltese walls: https://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/walls-made-of-rubble-in-malta/
We checked in to the Downtown Hotel, Vittorija. From my room I could just see the sea around the corner of a building. First I took a bath, and found that the bath was so tiny I had a really hard job extracting myself from it! Then I set out to explore the vicinity for an hour. Close by was a park and as I wandered I came across many kitties. Since Anna and Lee have recently got a little kitty, Twiglet, I was drawn to the kitties and ended up sending her photos of the kitties I saw on my travels each day of my adventure. I wandered along the main street where all the major British stores can be found such Marks and Spencers and New Look. The opera house was advertising Othello and Aida. I suppose that people who live in Malta are called Maltesers. I made up my mind to buy a packet, but it wasn’t until I was at the airport on my way home that I found a packet to buy. I walked up to the citadel whose origins are 2500 years old. The bedrock had been hollowed out into storage bins for the grain. I didn’t spend too long up there because we have a guided tour of the place tomorrow morning. In the square a screeching noise, which I thought was machinery, turned out to be thousands of birds coming in to roost for the night.
By 6:45 I was sitting on the front deck of the hotel waiting for the group to gather and go out for a meal. My suggestion of creating a WhatsApp group as the group did in Ireland and Sicily didn’t come to anything. I thought it was very useful for meeting up with people in our free time who were interested in doing some sight seeing together. The moon was high in the night sky and almost full and it reminded me of the night in El Curtola when Rachel was convinced the moon was about to bump into the earth! In Gozo Rachel texted me to say that now an earthquake had hit Tokyo on top of the devastation from the typhoon. She has a tour group there at the moment so she’s very busy with work.
Opposite Downtown Hotel is a large sports complex. So far this country doesn’t have the same feel as Sicily. It doesn’t feel Southern European. Where is everyone? In Sicily the streets were filled with people in the evenings on their nightly Passaggiata – until 3 a.m and in the daytime elderly people would sit on chairs outside their houses, directly on the streets. Where were the crazy Vespas? I wasn’t to see a single one in Malta.
At dinner I met the other 12 people in our group: 2 couples, 2 sisters, 2 men and 5 women traveling alone. Our tour guide is Maria who has a wealth of general knowledge about her country, and a wonderfully contagious interest in archaeology. Dinner was at Il Totto, on the main Square. The local speciality is rabbit, though we didn’t see a single wild one. On the menu there was grilled rabbit, rabbit bolognese, and spaghetti rabbit! I went for the chicken salad. Dinner took two and a half hours! That felt Southern European!
I was back in my room by 10 and went straight to bed – after catching the cockroach who had taken up residence in my bathroom and dumping him unceremoniously down the loo.
I’d first visited Middleton with Rachel in the summer of 2015, having discovered that some of my ancestors had associations with that town, and several were baptised, married and buried there. We only visited the church and it was closed sir we wandered around the overgrown graveyard. The church is situated on a hill overlooking some of the industrial sprawl of Oldham. We were both intrigued by the rather strange wooden tower which tops the stone tower. Here’s the writing from my journal about our visit: Wed July 22. ‘It was 3 pm by the time we set out to do a little more ancestry hunting – this time to Middleton and Heywood, which require going around a lot of roundabouts several times! St Leonard’s in Middleton is perched alone today on a spot which used to be the centre of this silk weaving town. The adjacent cemetery was very overgrown. In the porch was a plaque saying that one of the Hopwood family donated a silver chalice. I think we have a Hopwood from this church in our ancestry.’
Middleton would have looked very different today had it not been for the famous architect Edgar Wood, an influential proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. He sent his life reshaping the town and designed more than 60 buildings in Middleton and its vicinity. St Leonard’s Parish Church, Queen Elizabeth Free Grammar School, The Olde Boar’s Head and the Edgar Wood Centre, Long Street Methodist Church all form part of the Golden Cluster.
Middleton gained its market charter in 1791. In the late 18th century Middleton was a village with 20 houses, and yet it boasted a grammar school. Like many other villages and towns in the area, the 1780s began to see a growth in population and trade. Middleton was a centre for silk manufacturing at that time, and silk weaving was still described as the chief trade in 1901, alongside a fast growing cotton trade, with its calico printing, bleaching and dying. Middleton handloom weavers were depicted by the artist Frederick W Jackson. Frederick W Jackson (1859–1918) was born at Middleton Junction, Oldham in 1859.
Then last autumn I’d visited with Ed and again the church was closed but we’d taken a walk through the town centre, gone into the library and seen some of the buildings designed by Edgar Allen. It was in the library that I’d seen a flier for Lost in Manchester Found in Vegas.
I’d exchanged a few emails with Moira from the church office who, when I had mentioned that I had Hopwoods of Middleton in my ancestry had responded – Are you related to Hopwood Dupree? I’d never heard of him so looked him, up and he’s a descendent of the Hopwoods of Hopwood Hall. He’s currently trying to restore the place.
I was taking up the opportunity to go to Middleton – train to Rochdale, train to Mills Hill, bus to Middleton because the weather forecast was predicting a rain-free day and it wasn’t until I got up and saw a sunny sky that I decided on the spur of the moment to go. But by the time the train and passed through the pennine tunnel it was sprinkling with rain and as I arrived in Middleton it was pouring down. It was market day and I sheltered for a moment under some awning but then decided to continue up the hill to the church. I’d look around the market on the way back.
Moira had told me to ring the bell of the church office and I was glad to know that there was someone inside, to not only let me in, but be on the premises while I looked around. Moira handed me a guide book, asked me to sign the guest register (which aids in funding) and then left me to it. I spent a leisurely hour and a half taking in as much as I could but I really feel I barely scratched the surface. It’s a Grade 1 listed building. I could hear the rain pounding on the roof above the exposed wood, a sound I’m not familiar with in churches. Apparently it’s because the roof is stainless steel rather than lead. Vandals were forever stealing the lead so it’s been replaced and makes a hell of a racket when it rains heavily. The guide book is entitle “ The church with over a thousand years of history.” In 1890 the Rev C B Ward said, “The people of Middleton are distinguished above all the people I have ever met, for the peculiarly fervent love that they have for their parish church.” Around 870 a Saxon church stood on this site, replaced by a Norman church around 1100. This was replaced by the Langley church in 1412. Thomas Langley 1363-1437 became prince Bishop of Durham and served terms as chancellor to King Henry iv, v, and vi. It’s documented at Durham Cathedral that the body of St Cuthbert stayed in Middleton, and with him the Lindisfarne and Stonyhurst gospels. In Cuthbert’s day Lancashire was still largely Welsh speaking (Cumbric) with a British/Celtic identity. The Norman church measured 40’ x 20’. It’s dogtooth molding above the arch was later reused in the pointed tower arch and in the arch over the pulpit. What is now the tower arch was once the principal door of the Norman church. The weathered columns are evidence that it once faced the elements outside.
Thomas Langley was born in Middleton and he built a new church at his own expense in 1412 , and around 1510 Sir Richard Assheton, lord of the manor and hero of the Battle of Flodden, 1513, extended and rebuilt parts of the church, raising the height of the roof and adding the clerestory. The wooden belfry was added in 1666.
The parish of Middleton included Great Lever, Ainsworth, ash worth, Birtle-cum-Bamford, Pilsworth, Hopwood, Thonham and Middleton. Markets and fairs were held in the square. A blue plaque now marks the site. The current pews dated from 1867 and many gravestones were removed to the churchyard. The south porch shows evidence of sword and arrow sharpening on the external moulding. The main south door is attributed to Langley and the large wooden door with its wicket and drawbar is possibly from Langley’s time. The medieval font was recurved in 1847 by church architect George Shaw and around its rim are lead infills indicating where the locks and hinges once were. The portable harmonium, probably used at choir practice was purchased in 1889 for 6 pounds. Prior to the reformation mass was celebrated for the Hopwoods in their chapel. The pew was enclosed during the Jacobean period c. 1620. It was wonderful Tudor linen fold panelling and elongated barley twist spindles. Hopwood burials took place beneath their pew. The famous Assheton memorial brasses ‘the finest in Lancashire’ are by the altar. On top of the parclose (screen) is the Assheton funerary helmet adorned with the boar’s head, the family’s crest. The helmet was stolen from the church in the 1960’s but was recognized by a London antique dealer and it was returned. In 1911 the chancel was refurbished by parishioners. The 19th century choir stalls were replaced and the floor tiled. The flooded window is 500 years old and shows Sir Richard and Lady Anne Assheton and their squire together with the named – amazing – contingent of Middleton archers and chaplain who would have accompanied Sir Richard to Flodden field – Sept 9, 1513. They look like individualized portraits. The oldest brasses , by the altar, are those of Sir Richard Assheton and Isabel Talbot, 1507. Finest in the north of England according to the Brass Memorial Society. Facsimiles of the brasses are available for brass rubbing. The medieval rood screen avoided destruction during the reformation because the carvings were entirely secular. Cardinal Langley provided endowments for two priests to ‘teach one grammar school free for the poor children of the parish.’ The school continued here until 1586 when a new school was built – the Grammar school. Memorial window to Middleton men who fought in the Boer war, designed by George F Bodley, 1827-1907. The illustrated faces are those of some of the soldiers who went to South Africa. The present shallow pitch name roof of 1907 designed by Edgar Wood. The ‘leger’ stones in front of the screen included Wrigley (Langley Hall). There are 9 bells from 1614-1891. The Nowster was rung every evening from 9.50-10.00 to warn people to get off home. This tradition began as a curfew bell at the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and continued until the outbreak of WW ll.
From the church I took a walk in the cemetery where a man with green and pink hair approached me. At first I was a little apprehensive. There was no-one else in site and he made a bee line for me crossing several flat stone graves to reach me. He was out walking his dog. He presumed I was in search of Samuel Bamford’s grave and he was eager to guide me to it. I’d been to see a movie about Sam Bamford at Manchester Museum, and i’d seen the Peterloo movie, made to coincide with the 200th anniversary of that massacre. I’d discovered that my ancestors were living in Middleton at the time of the Middleton Luddite riots in 1812 and so I presume that my ancestors who were weavers just like Sam Bamford could well have participated, or at least, were eye witnesses of the burning of Burton’s mill in Middleton. As it happened I’d just come to the end of reading Glyn Hughes’s ‘The Rape of the Rose’ and the final section describes the burning of that mill. It was reading that chapter that had led me to Middleton this particular day.
After exploring the cemetery I crossed the road and had lunch at the old Boar’s Head pub, where, quite by chance, i ended up sitting in the Sam Bamford room, decorated with photos of Sam and his family and other associated items.