15 December 2019

Polish Pure Spirits

A Christmas Kraków…..

It's that time of year.  You know.  Advent.  Christmas.  Winter.  The polls.

So, I took my wife to Poland, to see how they do things there.

What do you know?  Fine weather, and not a poll in sight…..  Yay!

Kraków was Poland’s capital from the 11th century to the close of the 16th and with approximately three quarters of a million inhabitants it is the largest city in Southern (Lesser) Poland.  It lies on the Vistula River (the Wisła), Poland's largest river which drains into the Baltic Sea near the port of Gdańsk. With a length of 651 miles it is a waterway of great importance.  Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was born in the nearby town of Wadowice, studied at the Jagiellonian University and later became archbishop of Kraków.

So, is Kraków worth the trip?  The answer is: 'without doubt'.  It has become something of a habit, our wintry marketeering in Europe.  Last year Vienna.  The year before Prague.  And Kraków does not disappoint.  The Market Square (Rynek Główny) is a wonder; the old town characterful and relatively unscathed by the 20th century and its errors.  Inspired churches abound, from gothic to neo, and the Christmassy kitsch is also lavishly represented.  Stalls seething with pans of pork knuckles, grills with enormous sausages, hot plates griddling sheep's cheeses to serve with cranberry jam, barrels of mulled wine…..  And baubled trees, and shiny angels….  What more do you need to relieve the mind from the fatigues of politics and austerity?

Castles, churches, chapels, images of Saint Jan Pawel II (The Beatle Pope) [whose daughter I taught] are all manageable for us, but the plural invitations to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the Wieliczka Salt Mine were beyond our reach, as five hours or so of guided tour would have taxed me, let alone my little half….

We stroll; we climb church towers; we ascend to 270 metres above the River Vistula in a tethered balloon.  We visit the Wawel Royal Castle, with its Tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus, and the Cathedral, with the royal tombs, and we meet with artist Jan Hrynkowski in the brutalist Main Building of the National Museum in Kraków. I really like him….

Thursday is our Wedding Anniversary.  Thirty-five years, I think, but no one remembers it.  Not really surprising I suppose, since Amanda remembers less and less as the days go by.  And as for me, well, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan: I used to care, but things have changed…..

Friday the 13th, and I check my iPhone at 4.30 GMT.  As I suspected, the negative aura surrounding J Corbyn Esq. has had the effect Dom had bargained for, and I attempt, ineffectively, to return to slumber.  

The remarkable thing is that, on emerging from our hotel after a relaxed breakfast, the world has not collapsed.  The white islands of Britain (pace those poor souls in the antipodes) may have been blasted by a pyroclastic cloud of Borisian vomit, but Christmassy Kraków is as quiet and calm as it was last night.  

I take heart. Every cloud has a lining, even if it ain't always silver.  One of the advantages (I try to persuade myself) of leaving the EU will be that Europe will be even more alluring and exciting to visit.  And places like Kraków will increase in attraction.

Let's Krakón…..

A Christmas Kraków wouldn't be a Kraków without a joke in it, even if it is one that even Basil Brush might be ashamed of.


I took my wife to the Christmas Market in Kraków

Oh really?  And what did you get for her?

I'm afraid I got nothing for her….

And why, pray, was that?

Because she's priceless!!!  

(Boom! Boom!)

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

Bob Dylan
Things Have Changed


  • We travelled with EasyJet from Luton, times and prices very reasonable.
  • The only money is Polish złoty, and the exchange rate is between four and five to the pound.  Credit cards are accepted and ATMs are everywhere.
  • We stayed at the Hotel Elektor (Szpitalna 28, Old Town) which is quiet, warm, comfortable and very conveniently located for the Market Square.
  • We can recommend Il Calzone (Starowislna 15a) as a place to eat.  Italian but not exclusively, and with excellent Polish wine.
  • Also highly recommended is Pierozki u Wicenta (ul. Bozego Ciala 12) in the Kazimierz quarter, where traditional pierogi (stuffed dumplings, not unlike ravioli) are superb. And that is all they do!
  • In the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) in the centre of the Market Square, there is the elegant Kawiarnia Noworolski, a fine place for coffee and people watching, and also, on the second floor, is the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art, with some great pictures.

  • Several of the churches we visited are undergoing extensive renovation work, but the Basilica of St Mary, with its Veit Stoss Altar and its Bugle-Call Tower, is a must, and both the Franciscan and Dominican Churches are impressive.
  • Beer (piwo) and vodka are inexpensive.  I found Café Philo (ul. Św. Tomasza 30) to be interesting and hospitable and the TramBar (ul. Stolarska 5) was funky though more expensive, but I particularly enjoyed the quality of beer and the company of strangers in the Non Iron pub (ul. Św. Marka 27) described on one website as a small, dingy, obscure, locals bar…..  yeah, right up my street (and only a few steps from my hotel)!

Dziękuję i dobranoc

8 December 2019

Bread of Heaven

Cwm Rhondda

Guide me, O thou great redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land; 
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven,
bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Bread of Heaven is a song from Wales. The words are by William Williams, also known as Williams Pantycelyn, an 18th century Welsh poet. The hymn took its current shape, however, around 1905, when the English version of the lyric was put to a tune entitled Cwm Rhondda (after the valley of the same name) by John Hughes, another great Welshman. The song quickly became deeply beloved of the Welsh and can be heard sung ceremonially at sporting events, especially rugby matches, as a kind of unofficial national anthem.

In Wales itself, it is generally known either as Bread of Heaven or as Cwm Rhondda.  Elsewhere it is usually referred to by the first line of the lyric, Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer.

Shortly after my mother died at the end of October, I was in Wales.  I had got up early in the morning in Bristol and driven to Abergavenny, from where, after a bap and a cappuccino from a fine Italian café, I set out to climb The Sugar Loaf, one of the most prominent and popular peaks in the Black Mountains and indeed the Brecon Beacons. The hill was originally known as Mynydd (mountain) Pen-y-fâl (top of the plateau) but the name has now disappeared in favour of the current denomination.

The Sugar Loaf is one of the three mountains around the market town of Abergavenny - the other two being Blorenge to the south and The Skirrid to the north-east. Reaching the height of 596 metres above sea level at the trig point it is not the highest mountain in South Wales but it cuts a fine outline against the sky showing off the profile which gives it its name. 

It consists mainly of old red sandstone from the Devonian period (about 416 to 360 million years ago) in common with the rest of the Black Mountains. The summit is covered with a thin layer of a quartz conglomerate, which is a hard rock and which protected the hill from being eroded away in the last ice age, when the Usk valley to the south, and the Grwyne Fawr valley to the north, were formed by glaciers.

Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer,
strong deliverer;
Be thou still my strength and shield;
Be thou still my strength and shield.

I left the town behind in Chapel Lane, and followed the track up and into Deri Fach wood, where the path climbs through a close-knit stand of oaks for nearly a kilometre.  The trees then thinned and the route continued through bracken and gorse, brown and scrubby at this time of year.

As I reached the top of the heathy ridge the summit came into view, still a way off and high above me.  I could see why it has been named The Sugar Loaf - not that we have loaves of sugar any more, but I know that refined sugar used to be sold in moulded conical masses.  In Middle English the word loaf was used for sugar, but this came from the Old English term (hlāf) for portions of bread….

Anyway, the summit beckoned, and, somehow drawn by a primitive desire to approach heaven to wish my mother well at those pearly gates, I strove painfully up the steep slope.

It was late November, and though I had felt warm when toiling up through the woods far below, at the summit there was a bitter wind, and the ground was glittering with ice spicules.  

Not how I imagine heaven, but it was exhilarating.  It was not a day of crystal clarity, but The Skirrid loomed in and out of the clouds, and from the peak there were misty views of the hills and valleys around.

I was early enough to be alone for a spell, and inspired by Wales, by the majesty of the landscape, and by love for my mother, I raised my voice to cry out…..

Songs of praises,
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.

On the way down I was awed by the glory of the natural world.  Distant hills, and mossy trees, a splashing stream in the idyllic beech woods of St Mary's Vale.  

I felt restored.  There is a heaven, even if it is hard to catch hold of.  Even if it is elusively always there, before us, unseen....

Less than a week later, in St Peter's church in Berkhamsted, I was joined by family and friends, and together we sang….

Bread of heaven,
bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

And for a moment, fleetingly, I thought I believed that my redeemer liveth....  Or so, I wanted to feel, at least, my mother is in good hands....

In Memoriam

Anna Stella Gibbs (née McMullin)

February 21st 1923 - October 30th 2019

18 November 2019

As Time Goes By

It's still the same old story.....

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
Someone thinks they really found you

Bob Dylan
It's All Right, Ma (I'm only Bleeding)

Dear friends,

I am raising funds for the National Brain Appeal, more of which I will explain later.

The reason I wish to do this is personal, and twofold.  My mother, Anna, once McMullin but latterly Gibbs, died recently after a long and lovely life, but her last years and especially the last months were afflicted by an undiagnosed dementia which ultimately robbed her of speech, and understanding, and life.

When I took her to see a specialist, a while after my father, her husband of 64 years, had died in 2010, I was told that she had dementia but that it would be difficult, and ultimately of little purpose, to test her further to determine exactly what nature of dementia she had.  And so, conveniently, she was said to have Alzheimer's disease.

What difference it makes I cannot tell, but I am inclined to a different diagnosis, which is that she had Dementia with Lewy bodies, the very same that may have stolen Lear's sanity in the mists of Shakespearean tragedy.

Why do I think this?  My mother heard voices, thought people were there when they weren't (including my father).  She got up too early and then was confused that the shops/church/market stalls were not open. She was unsteady, unbalanced, and fell.  

I was called early one day, not very long after her ninetieth birthday, when her neighbours had found her bleeding from the head having fallen against a radiator in her bedroom and bursting her right eye. She had thought that someone was there.  She never lived alone in her own home again.  The operation at Moorfields, (following admission to the Accident and Emergency unit at Watford General) with anaesthesia and trauma, at the age of ninety, left her unable to reason or to look after herself.

That was over six years ago.  Her decline was steady, from smiling and talking she reduced, gradually, and, I hope to think, painlessly, to a gaunt frame in a wheeled chair, still able to chuckle and say thank you, but usually grinding her teeth and holding on, as if the world was spinning too fast.

Now she is at peace, and I am sure she is relieved.  

I am hoping, attempting, to raise funds for the national Brain Appeal.

Another reason, personally, why I wish to do this, is that my wife, Amanda, the mother of our two girls, is also affected by dementia.  This time it is a type of dementia known as Semantic Dementia.  This, as the title suggests, affects words and understanding, and now, about eight years since the symptoms became concerning, verbal communication is almost beyond us..... 

Bit by bit she declines…..

Initially Amanda was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's, and spent a year ingesting Donepezil Hydrochloride (which can cause stomach upset, cramps and sleep disturbances) as if it might make a difference. 

We don't know if it made a difference. 

There was no controlled experiment, and, as we discovered following my insistence that I didn't think this was a correct diagnosis, she didn't/doesn't have Alzheimer's.....  So the drug (at whatever cost) was useless (but at what cost?)

No, after brain scans, neurological examinations, extensive, exhausting testing, and lots of anxiety, the diagnosis was amended to Semantic Dementia, sometimes referred to as Primary Progressive Aphasia (though that, in itself, is a form of Fronto-temporal Dementia and an umbrella for more than one form of dementia.)

And these terms mean little, or nothing, to me and her, us, the family, the patients, the sufferers, the public.  They mean nothing, because there is nothing, currently, that can be done about it, and nothing, currently, that any government will do about it.  

It is a road sign.  It says One Way Street.  This way to decline and death.  

Well.  We will all die.  Yup.  And we don't exactly know when, or how.  But, for some it is unannounced, so the life flutters on until it flutters off.  As Dylan sang, 

He not busy being born, is busy dying......

But it's alright, Ma, I can make it

In Amanda's case, it has been announced, and the brain is shutting down.  


there is a reason for this subdued story telling.

I have been supporting the Alzheimer's Society for years now (and still am) but have recently found that The National Brain Appeal has a direct link with the Dementia Research Centre at University College London Hospital (UCLH) where Dr Jonathan Schott is overseeing Amanda and the progression of her disease. The specialism  here is in the rarer types of dementia, such as Dementia with Lewy bodies (as my mum probably had) and Semantic Dementia (as Amanda securely has.)

And so I want to raise money for them....

Which is where you come in.

I have produced two calendars for 2020, and I know you would love to buy one and to contribute to this worthy cause.  Both calendars are simple A4 page-to-a-month,  though they are slightly different formats and slightly different papers.  One is made up of  landscape photographs taken in the UK; the other consists of photographs taken in mainland Europe.  Either will look impressive on your wall for an entire twelve months, or would make a wonderful Christmas present, so please don't hold back.....

Each calendar cost me around £6 to produce (I am afraid I cannot compete with mass production) and there will be postage involved, so I am asking for a contribution of £10 per item, but that's a notional figure.  Any contribution (more or less, depending on what you can afford) will be acceptable (either direct to me or to my JustGiving page) in aid of: 

So, to put it simply, if you send me £10 and your name and address I will send you a calendar (indicate which one, if you have a preference)

My address is:

Richard Gibbs
75 Coleswood Road

and, since this is only a limited run (these are collectors' items), it will be on a first come first served basis.

So don't fear if you hear

A foreign sound in your ear

It's alright, Ma, I'm only sighing

Bob Dylan
It's all right, Ma (I'm only bleeding)


Richard and Amanda

The National Brain Appeal raises funds for Queen Square

We help to provide much-needed funds to support The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology – together known as Queen Square. This is one of the world’s leading centres for the diagnosis, treatment and care of patients with neurological and neuromuscular conditions. These include stroke, multiple sclerosis, brain cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia.

You can help Richard GIBBS raise money for this great cause by donating directly to their fundraising page - https://www.justgiving.com/Richard-GIBBS13?utm_source=Sharethis&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=Richard-GIBBS13&utm_campaign=pfp-email&utm_term=YMN76m3aw.

JustGiving sends your donation straight to The National Brain Appeal so that they can put your generosity to good use!

Thank you for your support! 


The National Brain Appeal
Box 123
Queen Square
020 3448 4724