Yosemite and the man

leroy

Leroy Radanovich

I visit Yosemite with the best possible guide. Leroy Radanovich has been a park regular longer than I’ve been alive. His first visit was in the 1930s as a young boy. As a teenager he took his first job in 1948, clearing up after visitors, then later spent time behind the wheel of a tow-truck, hauling tourist vehicles out of trouble.

In ensuing years, there have been few park tasks Leroy hasn’t tackled and hardly anywhere within Yosemite National Park he hasn’t been, whatever the season. He has stirring tales of downhill skiing at Badger Pass, of epic cross-country ski expeditions and lengthy hikes to all corners in spring, summer and autumn.

Leroy’s knowledge of the area is priceless. He owns a motherlode of historic photographs, a legacy of his work as both local historian and commercial photographer. The photos document early exploration, local mining history and the development of the park itself. Many of the large prints that gaze down from the walls of Yosemite’s grand Ahwahnee Hotel are from his collection.

One of America’s favourite national parks, Yosemite is particularly famous for the towering rock formations and wonderful waterfalls within the Yosemite Valley, four hour’s drive east of San Francisco. The valley attracts 4 million visitors a year so in the height of the tourist season, May to September, you can imagine how crowded it gets. At these times a shuttle bus runs a continuous loop through the valley.

Fortunately Yosemite is open year-round and each season offers unique attractions, which makes it easy to visit when it’s not as busy. The valley is spectacular, yet represents a fraction of Yosemite’s 3,100 square kilometres. So make sure you spend some time in the vast wilderness that comprises 95% of the park.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

Leroy takes me north of the valley along the winding road to Crane Flat, then east along the Tioga Pass Road. It traverses the park’s northern wilderness where places have splendid names like White Wolf and Porcupine Flat. At Olmsted Point we stop to gaze south at the stupendous views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. Hikers emerge from the rocky landscape and slowly make their way east as Leroy speaks longingly about the many years he’s spent walking this magnificent country.

Tenaya Lake is idyllic. Bald rock mountains, forested slopes under a clear blue sky are perfectly reflected in the mirror surface of the water. I praise the gods of photography. Tuolumne Meadows is covered by snow for much of the year but the early melt has already transformed the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada into an immense expanse of shimmering green.

Tenaya Lake

Tenaya Lake

The high country area is popular for camping and picnics, although visitors are essentially kept off the grass to protect the fragile ecosystem. The Tuolumne Meadows Lodge campground is being set up for summer with simple metal frames erected on platforms and covered in white canvas. Brown bears are already prowling the woods, so all food is stashed in “bear proof” lockers.

The road continues its climb past Mt Dana and Mt Gibbs to reach Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance. At this altitude lakes are still covered in ice. Above 3000 metres the oxygen in the air is thinner and it shows. A touring motorcyclist drops his huge BMW at the gate, not once but twice, then needs help to pick it up.

This prompts Leroy to reveal that we are now at the highest elevation he’s been since he had a heart attack a few years ago! I’m certainly surprised by this news but it doesn’t worry me. I reckon that doughty, warm-hearted adventurers like Leroy are destined to be forever embedded in the Yosemite landscape.

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A sparkle in the south

ridgeviewIn England’s green and pleasant countryside, in the counties of Sussex and Kent, there’s a certain fizz about quaint villages with names that would suit a Shakespearan text. In Ditchling Common, West Chiltington and Small Hythe locally-made sparkling wine can add a distinct twinkle to a southern itinerary.

Widespread acclaim and a swag of awards at  wine shows have confirmed that top English sparkling wines are as good as French Champagne. Some of these English wines have actually won French wine medals! Injecting extra zest to age-old cross-Channel rivalry has been the claim that the traditional method of making Champagne was actually invented by 17th Century English scientist Christopher Merret and not the famous monk Dom Perignon. Do I hear French wine lovers choking on their bubbly?

Far more sobering is the reality that global warming has helped boost the sparkling potential of England’s south. In Kent I’m told the average temperature of the region has risen three degrees in the last 10 years. “Global warming means we can now successfully ripen the three French Champagne grape varieties,” says Digby Welch of Chapel Down at Small Hythe near Tenterden. It’s the biggest producer of English wines.

Hever Castle 2

Hever Castle

Delightful Hever Castle – once the home of Anne Boleyn – and Leeds Castle (which has its own vineyard) are two impressive attractions that can easily be stiched into a visit to southern wine villages . So can Glyndeborne and its gardens. And the new South Downs National Park includes the western Weald, Lewes, and the village of Ditchling.

Down narrow Fragbarrow Lane on the outskirts of Ditchling is Ridgeview Estate, the first English winery to win French honours. Its Fitzrovia 2004 won Best International Sparkling Rosé at the 2007 Le Mondial du Rosé. Winemaker Simon Roberts said Ridgeview has always aimed at emulating the great French Champagne houses. “When we opened to the public in 2000 we put up a sign saying ‘Champagne in all but name’. This so irked the French we had to take it down.” The estate’s rural charm is best appreciated, glass in hand, from the cellar door overlooking the vines with a view of the South Downs.

Nyetimber

Nyetimber

Nyetimber Estate at West Chiltington in Sussex is glorious old manor house. The original house is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1061 which records Nyetimber Manor being given by William the Conqueror to Earl Godwin. Illustrious owners since have included King Henry VIII,  Thomas Cromwell and Anne of Cleves, the king’s fourth wife.

Nyetimber is not open to the public. There was talk of making one of the barns a cellar door but that’s still pipe smoke. The best I can offer is this list of places you can buy a bottle.

A terrific pit stop is The English Wine Centre in the old Cuckmere Barns beside the A27 exit to the attractive village of Alfriston in East Sussex. It has a range of sparkling and still wines, fruit wines and ciders from producers from as far north as Leeds.

Turning the tide

blast beachThe name, Blast Beach, says heaps about the sad history of British coal mining. This sweep of brown sand and shale lies in a region of North East England that’s been deeply scarred by both industry and bitter politics. But things have changed in recent years.

Blast Beach was once a dumping ground for colliery waste. It looked so damned grim and bleak that director Ridley Scott chose it to depict another world in his film Aliens. But this once blighted beach today has new significance. It’s the starting point of the Durham Heritage Coastal Footpath, a 14-kilometre route between Seaham and Crimdon, south of the city of Newcastle.

The walk passes through Easington colliery village, believed to have been the model for fictional Everington, the setting for Billy Elliot’s uplifting story of triumph during the miner’s strike of 1984-5. That’s a far more pleasant tale than the plot of the 1971 film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, which used the bleak north east landscape of that era to chilling effect. Waste was still being dumped into the North Sea as late as 1993.

Today all the north east collieries are closed. An ongoing Turning of the Tide project has removed ugly industrial structures and colliery waste and parallel habitat restoration programs are slowly transforming hideous pit waste heaps into natural grassland. Meanwhile, relentless wave action is also helping excoriate evidence of the region’s grim past.

insect flower“The aim of the project is to place local history in perspective and entice visitors to explore the coast, much of which is now designated as National Nature Reserve,” says Durham Heritage Coast officer Niall Benson. Ironically, the tipping of mine waste onto the beach helped protect the rare Magnesian limestone cliffs from erosion. Among the long grasses now billowing on the cliffs above Blast Beach I watch a tiny black insect with brilliant red-spotted wings alight on a purple flower.

Magnesian limestone grasslands are unique to the North East. They support many species of insects and plants that are now uncommon elsewhere in England. Slowly the North East is transforming itself into a land of hope, perhaps even glory.