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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Thursday, 28 August 2014

National Wallace Monument

William Wallace statue, National Wallace Monument, Stirling, bit about Britain
Beyond Scotland, ex-pat Scots and possibly a few corners of Britain as a whole, few people would have heard of William Wallace before the 1995 film, Braveheart.  The American, Mel Gibson, directs and stars in the movie, playing the downtrodden, noble, medieval Scot battling the evil English, led by Patrick McGoohan depicting a particularly villainous King Edward I.  The hero, Wallace, comes across as a kind of Mad Max meets Lethal Weapon meets Nelson Mandela painted blue wearing a kilt.  However, for all its well-known historical unreliability, Braveheart is a great film of the ‘goodies and baddies’ type, with acres of armour, scores of swords and buckets of blood (and gore).  Even English audiences can boo the baddies; in Scotland, the film probably increased membership of the Scottish Nationalists overnight – particularly those in the 0-16 age group.

Despite Mel’s best propagandist efforts, then, you may think it sad if there remained a few poor deprived souls in some remote places – Birmingham, for example – who are ignorant of Wallace and do not realise that he was a real person, and a Scottish idol.  William Wallace has an almost mystical quality to many Scots.  The reality is that Wallace bravely and briefly frustrated Edward’s plans 700 years ago to unify Britain under one crown (Edward's), but ultimately failed, was unjustly tried for treason and then met a cruel and barbaric death.  We don’t know much about his life – go to the Wallace Memorial, Smithfield, for a brief summary.  In the end, Edward’s ambitions were thwarted by his own demise 2 years after Wallace’s execution, the Scots under Robert the Bruce dealt the English a blow at the Battle of Bannockburn 7 years later and it took a Scots king, James VI, to unify the crowns about 300 years after that.

Wallace's sword, claymore, Stirling, Scotland, bit about Britain
So what’s all this about a National Wallace Monument?  Wallace, though undoubtedly a good Scotch egg, actually achieved nothing tangible for his country.  Maybe there’s a theme here; if you look up ‘Scottish heroes’ on the Internet, up comes the official Scotland website which lists, amongst others, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots and Greyfriars’ Bobby - two more failures and a wee pooch.  Derision of course misses a point - a sense of pride in the underdog who refuses to be beaten coupled with the tremendous power of myths.  Heroes and national emblems don’t necessarily rely on the inconvenience of facts in order to inspire – look at the enduring legend of King Arthur and, more recently, the English football team.  It was in similar spirit, and perhaps in the context of maintaining Scotland’s unique identity in the wake of Sir Walter Scott discovering the ‘Honours of Scotland’ (see Edinburgh Castle), that a National Wallace Monument was proposed in the 1830s.  It was decided to site the monument in Stirling – a fair compromise between auld rivals Edinburgh and Glasgow – and on the Abbey Craig, a 300’ (91 metre) high hill where once an Iron Age fort stood, and from which Wallace is said to have watched Edward’s troops arrive before the Scots’ victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.  Funds were raised by public subscription; the cost of construction was in excess of £10,000 according to Stirling Council and as much as £18,000 according to Wikipedia.  It is said that amongst the foreign contributors was Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (which just about takes the biscuit).

Battle of Stirling Bridge, Scottish Independence, bit about Britain
The National Wallace Monument was 8 years in the building and completed in time for the 572nd anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11th September 1869.  It is an amazing structure, 220’ (67 metres) high in Victorian Gothic/Scottish Baronial style.  The walls are at least 5’ (1.5 metres) - in places 16’ (5 metres) thick – and there are 246 steps, mostly in a fairly narrow spiral, to the top, a spectacular stone crown affair reminiscent of St Giles’ cathedral in Edinburgh.  The views are impressive, though the battle site of Stirling Bridge in front of the castle now appears to be built over.

Beneath the crown are three chambers.  The first is largely dedicated to Wallace and contains a 5’8” (1.7 metres) long medieval broadsword, or claymore, which is reputed to have belonged to Wallace and used by him at Stirling, as well as the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk the following year.  The sword weighs 6lbs (2.7kg).  Imagine swinging that!  Whoever used it must have been big, and immensely strong.  Attributing the sword to Wallace though, is uncertain; but it is apparently Scottish - and old.  Wallace is alleged to have made a sword belt from the skin of Hugh de Cressingham, one of the English commanders at Stirling Bridge.

National Wallace Monument, Victorian memorials, Scotland
The second chamber, ‘Hall of Heroes’, contains busts of 16 notable Scots, including Burns, Bruce, Livingstone, Walter Scott, James Watt and Adam Smith.  Alas, they have not yet got round to including Sean Connery, Alex Harvey, Lonnie Donegan, Billy Connolly, Chris Hoy – or, indeed, Alex Salmond; give them time.  Even more puzzling; Greyfriars’ Bobby has been left out.  But the room does contain some rather nice stained glass.

The third chamber houses an exhibition that tells the story of building the monument.

If you’re in the Stirling area, or passing by it, you can hardly fail to spot the National Wallace Memorial.  High on Abbey Craig to the north west of the city, it is an undeniably proud sight.  You should pop in.  Park near the reception centre beneath the Abbey Craig and either take a courtesy bus, or walk up to the monument’s entrance along a pleasant, wooded path.  Just bear in mind that the hill is 300 feet high, then you have the 220 foot monument to scale.  There is, inevitably, a gift shop which unexpectedly specialises in Scottish things.  Even more surprisingly, there is a selection of books about Sir William Wallace and the Scottish Wars of Independence.  It might even be possible to buy a DVD of Braveheart.  Have a cup of tea and slice of haggis in the coffee shop; it’s called ‘Legends’.

By the way, Mel – it’s about time someone made a movie about Hereward the Wake or Caractacus.  Or - even better - Alfred the Great.  Hey - go for all three; I’d be glad to help.  “Freedom!”

There are memorials to Wallace all over Scotland, as well as in London, Australia, Canada and the United States.

Crown top, memorials, Scotland, visit Britain

Abbey Craig, memorial, Stirling, Britain

William Wallace, stained glass, memorial, Scotland.

Visit the National Wallace Monument website.

Or buy "Braveheart" - bad history, good movie.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Roman High Street

High Street, Small Water, Haweswater, Cumbria, Roman

Don’t imagine this is where Mrs Roman shopped for a designer toga whilst Mr Roman sat sipping a little wine, idly flicking through the back pages of the papyrus.  Sometime in the 1st century AD, the Romans built a road which linked the forts at Galava (Ambleside) and Brocavum (Brougham, near Penrith), a distance of about 25 miles.  It would have been an engineering feat today, let alone almost two thousand years ago.  The route ran across bleak high ground, where there was less chance of ambush, and there wasn’t a shop until you got to your destination.  It must have been one of the loneliest highways in Provincia Britannia and it’s still pretty isolated, right on the roof and edge of the English Lake District, where the main traffic is not troops and supplies, but walkers and sheep.  Anyway, thanks to our Roman ancestors, we are stuck with a fell, or mountain, misleadingly called ‘High Street’.  Actually, there’s a possibility that the surveyors and engineers who mapped and made this road so long ago laid it on an even more ancient pathway.  In a 15th century copy of a 13th century land grant, it is identified as Brethstrett, Brethstrede, or Brethstrette – street or track of the ‘Brettas’, or Britons.  ‘High Street’ rolls off the tongue more easily, though - don’t you think?

English Lakes, glacial features, Small Water, tarn, Mardale
I was conscious of a little role-reversal when my son suggested that we ‘do a walk’.  Not my favourite one, a short hop to The Old Ruptured Duck, but a strenuous and probably lung-bursting experience up High Street, the mountain.  It was undoubtedly time my poor, bloated, body was given an airing – preferably somewhere with as few witnesses as possible – so I agreed.  Alfred Wainright, fell-walker extraordinaire, writer and lover of the Lake District, described High Street as “the most massive of the fells on the far east of Lakeland.”  It’s actually part of a long ridge running roughly north-south and, as with the proverbial snuffing out of a cat, there are a variety of ways you can approach it.  Serious hard-core walkers trek the entire length, but you need at least a day for that as well as a means of getting back: and did I mention that you need to be a serious hard-core walker too?  Our choice was a more modest circular route from Mardale, a remote valley reached by car via the fleshpots of Shap and Bampton along narrow stone-lined lanes.  A scenic drive – keep your eyes peeled for rock falls - takes you along the shores of Haweswater, now a reservoir formed of two smaller lakes, to a small car park at the end.

Walk High Street, shelter on mountain, visit Cumbria
Beneath the waters of Haweswater, at the head of the valley, lie the remains of Mardale Green.  This centuries-old community ceased to exist when the dam was created in the 1930s to provide water for Manchester, 90 miles away.  I don’t understand this, because it seems to rain every other time I visit Manchester; what on earth do they do with it all?  In any event, the people were ordered to leave their homes, the authorities blew up the buildings (including a rather nice looking pub), dismantled the medieval church, dug up the corpses from the cemetery and let the floodwaters cover old Mardale Green.  The outlines of farms and homes still appear, when the level of Haweswater drops during prolonged periods of dry weather.  In years long gone by, the residents of the now defunct village used to fetch a feast with barrels of ale on the backs of horses up to High Street, where they’d hold sports, particularly horse racing, and have a bit of a knees-up.  To this day, the top of High Street (2,717 feet, or 828 metres) is marked ‘Racecourse Hill’ on maps.

Roman road, High Street, English Lake District
You won’t want all the gory details of our walk.  The image of an aging fat bloke breathing heavily and dragging himself up a mountain isn’t a pretty one; don’t dwell on it.  I tried to keep myself going by getting into a rhythm, muttering “Sinister, dexter, sinister, dexter…”, but this only brought pitying looks from my young companion and ridiculous mental images of ‘Carry on Cleo’, which made me giggle.  They say this is the only place in England where you’re likely to see a Golden Eagle; but Golden Eagles are not attracted to things that make noises like an asthmatic yeti.  So we were left with crows – and slightly puzzled-looking sheep.

On the way up, we skipped (I use the term cautiously) across some stepping stones, skirted Small Water – a perfect, glacial, tarn - and passed some rough shelters; a reminder that you don’t mess about in these hills.  The summit is always over the next brow but, every time I venture up a place like this, I tell myself it’s worth it when you get there.  Whenever that is.  Even in poor weather, provided you’re dressed for it, there’s something special about perching on a nice comfy rock, sucking a squashed cheese and pickle sandwich and breathing air so fresh it's as though heaven just released it.  I really mean it.  If the weather’s good, you get the views too – and I must say the outlook over Hayeswater and beyond was stunning.

Hayeswater, High Street, walks in the Lakes
The top of High Street is a broad pasture.  The only real features are a drystone wall and the course of the old Roman road, which run parallel to each other.  I tried to hear the tramp of feet, the clinking of armour, jangling of harnesses, muttering of men looking forward to a pizza – and so on.  Nothing.  Nor could I hear the shouts of old Mardale folk, a little worse for too much ale, cheering on their favourite horses.  High Street’s ghosts weren’t playing and my walking mate made no secret of the fact that he thought his dad was bonkers.  Reluctantly, he allowed us to backtrack to see if we could spot any traces of the original Roman stonework; we couldn’t.

So I was forced to face the ordeal of descent.  Stupidly, I argued against going down the best (and shortest) way along Riggindale Crag and we negotiated the slope of Kidsty Pike instead.  By the time we reached the bottom, I was quite ready for a nice glass of warm milk and a lie-down.  Next time, perhaps he could take me to the swings.

Riggindale, Lake District, Haweswater

Sheep, hawthorn

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Lights Out

Lights Out, First World War centenary, Britain declared war on Germany
At 10pm BST on 4th August 2014, the villagers of Burton in Lonsdale, a small community of fewer than 600 souls in North Yorkshire, on the borders with Lancashire and Cumbria, began to gather on the village green by the old war memorial.  At 10.15, there was a short service.  Then, the people walked around the old village, a silent candle-lit procession, passing darkened houses where just one light had been left burning.  Arriving back at the memorial, one by one the lights were extinguished; by 11pm, they were all out.

Similar ceremonies took place at the same time all over the United Kingdom.  Lights were turned off at government buildings (including 10 Downing Street), royal palaces, local authorities, museums, pubs and private houses across the land.  There was a candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey, where a single lamp burned over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  For that brief period, millions shared a moment of reflection, because ‘Lights Out’ was one way the population of Britain commemorated their country’s entry to World War One, at 11pm on 4th August 1914.  David Cameron said it was “a personal gesture in remembrance of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us 100 years ago.  They must never be forgotten.”

Burton in Lonsdale, Lights Out, 4 August 2014, 2300BST

Lights Out was inspired by the story that on the last day of peace, Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, stood at the window of his office in Whitehall as dusk fell.  He watched as the lamplighter lit the lights in the street below and remarked to a friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

LightsOut, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire, 2014
Photo: Tony Gill
Even places seemingly far away from great events, like Burton in Lonsdale, would never be the same after the war as they had been before.  Historically, it was a community of miners, potters and farmers.  The population at the time of the 1911 census was 554, of which 242 were male.  In the first year of the war, Belgian refugees arrived in the village.  Like thousands of other places, Burton gradually sent its sons away to fight.  More than 50 went – which must have been virtually all the able-bodied men in the community between the ages of 18 and 41.  Most of them had probably never been further than the nearest large town before.  20 never came back; the oldest was 39, the youngest 18.  People in the village still remember some of the ones that returned; like most veterans, they rarely spoke of their experiences.

War memorial, Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

We remember the human cost of the First World War – thought to be in the region of 16.5 million dead, with countless more physically and mentally scarred for life.  We think of the horror of the trenches, cuttings in the mud that men shared with lice, rats and, sometimes, the dead.  We think of the brutality of personal combat, of guns - Owen’s “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” - and man’s ever more sophisticated ways of exterminating his neighbour, such as gas, flamethrowers, torpedoes, tanks and aerial bombs.  We think of fear, of letters home, comradeship, devastation.  We don’t always remember that the legacy of the First World War was profound beyond all of those things.  The economic cost was huge; Britain was not bankrupted, but was left irrevocably damaged.  The social and technological changes were irreversible and, ironically, we would probably consider most of these ‘good things’ – steps toward a more equal society, medical advances, and so on.  The political consequences of the war were colossal.  The world map was redrawn as four great empires, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman, fell.  Russia emerged as the first communist state, arguably swapping one autocracy for another.  The lands of former foes were either redistributed amongst the victors, or given independence.  Decisions men made a century ago haunt us still –for example in the Balkans and Middle East.  It could also be argued that the settlement after the First World War directly influenced the start of the, even more costly, Second World War.

Binyon, For the Fallen, Burton in Lonsdale

Lights Out was not simply about honouring the dead, as Mr Cameron suggested – previous generations would possibly not have understood a candle-lit procession, anyway.  It was also about contemplating the world that has been shaped by one of the most cataclysmic events in world history.  We should look forward too, remembering that old foes are now firm friends.

Finally, a short but important postscript: Burton in Lonsdale had a new church in 1870 and the first vicar was the Rev Frederick Binyon.  As the casualties mounted in September 1914, his son, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), wrote the poem, For the Fallen, the 4th stanza of which is quoted at virtually every remembrance service in the land.  Burton in Lonsdale is proud of its association with Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Burton in Lonsdale, events, Yorkshire
Photo: Tony Gill
For more about ‘LightsOut’, visit 1418NOW.

Visit the BBC’s website for their coverage of Lights Out and other events commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Poppy, First World War Centenary

Friday, 1 August 2014

Ypres, 1914-2014

Ypres, Grote Markt, Cloth Hall

Ypres, as my well-informed reader knows, is in Belgium and is now more generally and correctly known by its Flemish name, Ieper.  But why is a Belgian city being featured in A Bit About Britain?  Well, I am sure the Belgian Government and the good citizens of Ypres will forgive me for saying that, spiritually, Ypres sometimes feels like a little bit of Britain.  And, if you follow the logic of Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘The Soldier’, a good proportion of the surrounding countryside is very much a part of Britain, and other countries too: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”  In fact, at least 185,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen died in this part of West Flanders and about 120,000 of them remain there, a small fraction of the hideous human cost of the Great War of 1914-18, buried in land given in perpetuity by the Belgian people.

Ypres devastated, First World War, In Flanders Fields
When Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914, no one could possibly have foreseen what this medieval cloth town would come to represent.  The tide of the German invasion that swept almost to the gates of Paris was reversed at the battles of the Marne and the Aisne.  The invaders were pushed back and in October, at the northern end of the line, the two sides came to face with each other around Ypres.  Here, the tiny British Expeditionary Force found itself, with the Belgians entrenched to the north and, to the south and as far as the Swiss frontier, the French.  The Germans took up sensible defensive positions on the slightly higher ground surrounding the town on three sides, creating a bulge in the line, or salient.  The lines around the salient were fought over by hundreds of thousands of men for the next four years, but Ypres remained in British hands.  At the end of it all, very little was left: it is said that someone on horseback on one side of Ypres could see clear through to the other, so few buildings were left standing.  Throughout the Salient, communities that had existed for hundreds of years had disappeared; they were just names on maps.  The land was a desolate muddy lunar landscape, pockmarked with craters, a few splintered remains of trees showing where woods had once grown.  In parts, during the second phase of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917 (sometimes known as the Battle of Passchendaele), even the infamous and appalling trench system ceased to exist, a combination of concentrated shell-fire, rain and a high water table combining to create a ghastly hell of mud and water in which men lived, fought and died – often drowning in the glutinous mess.

Tyne Cot, war graves, Passchendaele, Known Unto God
After the war, the civilians – who had largely vacated Ypres by 1915 – gradually drifted back to their homes and businesses.  And it was rebuilt, more or less as it had been.  Today, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ypres is just a very pleasant, affluent, Flemish town; a good place to sample some excellent Belgian beer - as well as the ubiquitous frites and mayonnaise.  It is all of that - but you cannot escape what happened hereabouts just a short century ago.  It seems almost indecent to wonder not simply at how it has all superficially recovered, phoenix-like, from the ashes of destruction, but also to what extent the area owes its current wealth to those that died; income from war tourism must be enormous.  But before you begrudge anyone a reasonable Euro, remember that they help us not to forget – which we must never do – and that the scars of the war that changed the world forever are all around the places where people live and work today; in fact, the old war still kills people sometimes.

Langemark, German War Cemetery, Ypres
The first thing that strikes you as you get close to the Ypres Salient is the sheer number of war cemeteries.  There are more than 100 British and Commonwealth cemeteries in the area, all beautifully maintained by the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), varying in size from a few dozen burials to almost 12,000 at Tyne Cot.  The distinctive green and white signposts are everywhere.  Many of the cemeteries grew from burials at dressing stations; some are even battlefield cemeteries, though most of those disappeared during the fighting.  All, except possibly the larger ones, have a familiar well-tended country garden atmosphere; light and restful, they are places of peace.  It is hard not to stop at each grave and read the inscriptions; hard not to weep; they were just boys, from all parts of the United Kingdom, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, India (including Pakistan) and China.  40,000 are unidentified; their headstones inscribed ‘A Soldier Of The Great War, Known Unto God.’.  There are two French cemeteries with the remains of almost 9,000 men and one German, Langemark, containing the remains of almost 45,000.  The sombre, dark, atmosphere of the German cemetery contrasts greatly with the Commonwealth sites.

Canada, Vancouver Corner, memorial, gas attack 1915, Ypres.
Every now and again, you spot a concrete bunker or pill box, some accessible, some not.  At Hill 60, you get an idea of the war that was fought underground, as each side laid mines under the opposing trenches.  Then there are the memorials, from the national to the individual, large and small: they are along roadsides, on corners, walls and in churches.  Each one tells a story.  Some are breathtakingly beautiful; some are very simple.  The memorial to the 1914 Christmas truce near Ploegsteert (known to the British as ‘Plugstreet’) is a plain wooden cross.

There are, of course, museums.  One of the largest is in Ypres itself, the impressive and thought-provoking In Flanders Field museum inside the beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall.  There are smaller museums adjacent to preserved trenches, such as at Sanctuary Wood and Hooge Crater Museum.  If you’re minded to, these are the most obvious parts of the battleground to walk on; the reality, though, is that the battlefield is all around you.

The museums mainly display exhibits picked up from the battlefields.  Some items look almost new, certainly hardly used – no doubt the condition they were found in when lost or discarded.  There is, understandably, an impressive arsenal of weaponry of one sort or another – mainly small arms – helmets, shells – and so on.  But then there are all the other things, thousands and thousands of them: shrapnel balls; spent bullets; unused cartridges; grenades, rusty coils of unused barbed wire; pumps; shovels; domestic items, such as razors and combs; bits of uniform, belt buckles, badges; in short, the detritus of war.  But the sheer volume of it is breathtaking – further evidence of the intensity of the conflict in this relatively small area over those four years.

Hooge Crater, museum, preserved trenches near Ypres, iron harvest, WW1
And it still turns up.  The ‘Iron Harvest’ as it is called still reaps relics from the battles of 1914-18, often in the form of unexploded ordnance.  Just before my last visit, in 2014, two workmen were killed by an unexploded shell in Ypres.  The archaeology of the Great War also continues to reveal abandoned trenches and complex command-posts.  Sadly, the remains of soldiers continue to be found too, year after year.

The nature of the First World War produced a phenomenon that no one knew how to handle: the missing.  Most of the Commonwealth dead, some 100,000 men, have no known grave.  Whilst many of their bodies were recovered, they could not be identified and the majority were lost without trace - they just disappeared.  At 7.30pm every evening, the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate in Ypres and at 8pm the Last Post Ceremony is held.  It has taken place every night since 11th November 1929, except for the four years of German occupation during the Second World War.  It attracts crowds, young and old, and it is intensely moving – particularly as the Menin Gate is a rather special place.  It was here that troops left Ypres to march up to the front and here that the massive Memorial to the Missing was built, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.  On its walls are recorded the names of 54,000 men from the UK, Australia, Canada, undivided India and South Africa.  The numbers mean nothing unless you can picture that many people: it only really hit me the first time I saw the names engraved on the Menin Gate; each one a life with hopes and dreams, parents, perhaps a wife or lover.  A further 35,000 men from the UK and New Zealand are commemorated on the walls of Tyne Cot, on the Passchendaele battlefield.  More Kiwis are commemorated at Messines and Polygon Wood and more British and South Africans at the Ploegsteert Memorial.

Preserved trenches, Word War One, Sanctuary Wood, Ypres Salient
Remember that these figures are just for the Commonwealth.  No one knows for sure how many died, allied and German, in the Ypres Salient; but it was probably somewhere between 450,000 to 500,000 men; maybe half were never found or identified.

So that’s a bit about Ypres, known as ‘Wipers’ to the British Tommy.  It is not in Britain, but Churchill said of it - “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”

There are a lot of myths about the First World War: it was not a futile war (though it was certainly unnecessary); the generals were not all idiots or cowards; we did not lose an entire generation.  All war is brutal, but the nature of this one was particularly disgusting.  Personally, I think it should be mandatory for everyone to visit places like this, and understand how it happened.  It may not make any difference to our petty little hang-ups and insecurities, and it probably won’t stop bullies or lunatics; but surely most of us can learn from it.  Ypres is just a short hop from South East England – 35 minutes through the Channel Tunnel from Folkestone to Calais and it’s about an hour’s drive from there.

Menin Gate, Ypres, Last Post, Blomfield

As usual, I’m happy to answer any questions I can and there are heaps of websites you can visit.  You may want to checkout: