The Canoeist

I find it hard to believe what is happening in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, in the UK – all investigative journalists worth their salt should be heading there straightaway. 

Seaton Carew is the home of the mysterious “Canoeist” John Darwin, who ‘disappeared’ in the North Sea in March 2002, only to apparently come back from the dead in early December 2007, when he presented himself at a police station in central London. Besides the ease with which he obtained a false passport and travelled apparently unrecognized to Panama and Gibraltar, the strangest element to this story in my opinion is the number of people who didn’t think he was dead. Darwin’s 90-year old father told the Evening Standard newspaper that there might be more to his disappearance than was first thought: “When his canoe was found but he wasn’t, it didn’t seem right.”

Some of his former co-workers were also sure that John Darwin was alive. One former colleague was convinced that he recognized Darwin in the street, although the ‘missing’ man was trying to disguise himself in a fairly comical way, by wearing a hat, limping, and walking with a cane. All he needed was a parrot and a piratical accent and he could have been a character from a local pantomime. Despite the doubts, Darwin’s erstwhile colleague did nothing to find out if his suspicions were correct.

According to the newspapers, Darwin stayed in his own home with his own wife, even sleeping in their own bed. When anyone called to the house, Darwin merely went next door to another property he owned, via a wardrobe, which sounds like something out of Narnia. Their sons were apparently kept in the dark about the insurance scam that will likely lead to a spell in prison for Mr and Mrs Darwin.        

The house next door angle intrigues me. Who else is living there? Should American special forces stop searching the darkest recesses of Central Asia and instead head to Seaton Carew, where people haven’t said anything to anyone about a certain 6ft 5 inch tall male called Osama bin Jones, who walks to the shops wearing a hoodie and who has regular kidney dialysis at the local hospital. Should the Metropolitan Police be interested in the noble gentleman with the cut-glass accent, known as Lord Jones, who sits in the local pub and sneers at the regulars, calling them lower-class scum? A few years ago, an old woman called Amelia Jones died in a local nursing home – she was thought to be insane, as she babbled incessantly in an American accent about crashing in an airplane near the town in the late 1930’s. She claimed to have flown all the way from the Pacific, but no one ever believed her.   

Finally, reports of a plesiosaur in the local swimming-baths have never been properly investigated. Whenever Loch Ness was being scoured by the latest Nessie-seekers, locals would often see strange shapes in the swimming pool after closing time. Given recent events in Seaton Carew, this doesn’t sound that far-fetched any longer.  

The Festivals of Vancouver

Sight Number 17 – The Festivals of Vancouver Festivals abound in Vancouver and they begin on the first day of the year. There are Polar Bear swims at various places in the Lower Mainland such as Deep Cove in North Vancouver and at Davis Bay on the Sunshine Coast, but the largest gathering of swimmers is at English Bay where thousands of Vancouverites and visitors plunge into the cool ocean. Grandmothers, hula girls, and drunken Vikings all take a dip. The Bald Eagle festival in Brackendale near Squamish happens during January and the annual count of these magnificent birds takes place during the festival. The Chinese New Year is celebrated at either the end of January or the beginning of February. The main parade takes place behind the International Village on a Sunday and is a photographer’s delight. Not only are there lion dancers, but also traditional costumes, banners, dragons, and lucky fish. With a nod to the multi-culturalism of Vancouver, the parade also includes First Nations people in traditional costumes and exotic Brazilian dancers who must get quite cold in their outfits. In February, the Vancouver Storytelling Festival, with the emphasis on children, occurs at various venues In April Vaisakhi parades are held on different weekends in Surrey and in South Vancouver. In May, in Surrey, one of the largest rodeos in North America, the Cloverdale Rodeo, is held at the fairgrounds on the weekend nearest to Victoria Day. Vanier Park in Kitsilano hosts the Vancouver International Children’s Festival starting on the last Monday. There are activity tents, storytelling workshops, and plenty of craft-making opportunities. This festival draws entertainers from all over the world and has something to offer children of all ages. In June things become hectic. The Dragon Boat Festival takes place over a long weekend on the waters of False Creek. The Shakespearean festival “Bard on the Beach” begins in Vanier Park running until September. With the dramatic North Shore Mountains as a backdrop, the two large tents set the stage for the season’s four productions. The International Jazz Festival starts in late June for 10 days of excellent music. Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and Diana Krall have been some of the headline acts in the last few years. There are free open-air concerts in Gastown and at over 30 other locations in Vancouver.  In July, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival takes place over three days in Jericho Beach Park with local and international singers, musicians, and storytellers. The Celebration of Light international fireworks competition is held on two consecutive Saturdays and Wednesdays at the end of July and beginning of August over English Bay. This is the most popular festival in Vancouver with hundreds of thousands of attendees. People start claiming their places up to 8 hours in advance, so if you want a good view, get there early. In the last few weeks of July and the first week of August Vancouver’s Pride Festival takes place with the highlight being the exceptionally popular Pride Parade on the last Sunday. In August, out in the Fraser Valley, the Abbotsford Air Show fills the skies with skydivers, wingwalkers, and aerial acrobatics. In Vancouver a lesser-known festival is the Indian Chariot parade. These large vehicles, pulled by followers of Lord Krishna, weave their way along Beach Avenue and finish at Second Beach in Stanley Park. The chariots are spectacularly colourful and enthusiasts dance along in front of them in a genuine show of happiness. Granville Island hosts the Wooden Boat festival during late August.  

A Vancouver institution is the fair at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds at the end of August and beginning of September. Known locally as the PNE, the major attractions are the amusement park rides. Other highlights include the athletic Superdogs, the various ethnic fast foods that are sold, and my personal favourite, the racing ducks and piglets. The Vancouver International Film Festival happens over 16 days in late September and the first half of October. Documentaries are particularly well represented. In November, the Burnaby Village Museum is transformed into a Christmas scene with carollers, costumed townsfolk, and craft making. In December, the Four Seasons Hotel hosts the Christmas Tree Festival, the VanDusen Gardens are illuminated during their Festival of Lights, and Stanley Park’s miniature train journeys through a spectacular display of Christmas decorations.       

If you like this information, please consider buying my online guide to Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria, and The Sunshine Coast which is available at

Stone Age Roulette

A stone ball 30 feet in diameter may provide archaeologists with a vital clue as to the real reason for the construction of Silbury Hill and the Avebury Stone Circles in Wiltshire, UK.


The ball was found two months ago in a farmer’s field at the base of Silbury Hill and was believed to have been placed in a ceremonial pit. The ball is a boulder, probably an erratic from glacial times, that has been roughly hewn by masons to ensure that it moved in a straight line. The rock is similar to that found in the Prescelly Mountains in Wales. It’s thought that the ball could have been rolled by a dozen men and its journey to Wiltshire would have helped the smoothing process.  


Three years ago, two skeletons were found at the base of Silbury Hill. What astonished their discoverers was that nearly every bone in each of the skeletons had been crushed. They were facing towards the hill and appeared to have had their arms stretched out in front of them, in what was believed at the time to be a kind of submissive gesture of prostration towards the sun god.


However, the discovery of the ball has changed scientists’ opinions. They now think the skeletons were crushed by the ball in some kind of ritual that has been lost to the ages. 


Silbury Hill is Europe’s largest artificial mound and no-one knows why it was built. But the ball has given some people ideas. They think that the hill was built to give the ball as much impetus as possible so that it could knock down human bowling pins standing on the hill’s lower slopes. These targets would likely have been members of conquered tribes, early tourists, or poor farmers who didn’t grow enough crops for the local king’s liking.


Other less fanciful ideas suggest that the ball may have been used as a kind of divination, or boulderomancy as it has been termed. The ball would have determined who should farm an acreage of land, in times when there was a shortage of suitable fields due to population growth. This divination would have reduced the population too.   


The gaming idea could well have been extended from human bowling to a stone age mixture of roulette and pinball. Scientists examining Silbury Hill believe there were plans to double its height so that the ball could have rolled all the way to the stone circles at Avebury. They also think that the ceremonial way of standing stones was actually built so that the ball wouldn’t deviate from its path towards the stone circles. The idea was that gamblers would place bets on which rock in the circle the ball would nestle against.


It’s thought that the rulers of the times had tired of continually battling each other for small pieces of land and had collectively decided that gambling was a far better way of deciding territorial disputes. Indeed, these stone age hippies could well have been the first peace activists in history though the human bowling pins may have had a different view of this.


What would have caused the games to stop? Well it’s entirely possible that the ruler who came up with the gambling idea may have died or indeed become a victim of the ball, which would explain why the graves at the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow are so narrow. The ruler may have known that he was dying and so he decided to be killed by the ball in an early form of euthanasia, which might explain why the ball has been given a ceremonial burial.     

New Sports for the Winter Olympics

Travelling on the skytrain today I came across a folder that had a VANOC label on it. Apparently, some new sports are going to be included in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler. These new sports will ensure that Canada “owns the podium” in 2010.  


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Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses

Bulldozed three or four times by the Soviet authorities the Hill of Crosses in Northern Lithuania always came back. Today, over 50,000 crosses of all sizes are found at this site which occupies perhaps 1,800 square metres of land, spread over two hillocks, 12km north of the city of Siauliai, Lithuania’s 4th largest city. The crosses are mainly placed here by devout Catholics who regard the Hill of Crosses as a place of pilgrimage largely because in 1993, Pope John Paul II held a mass at the site.

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Brum’s not humdrum

I hadn’t visited Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK, in nearly 25 years. I had gone there to see the outside of the new Selfridges shop, which had looked so amazing in pictures.

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Al Gore in Vancouver

Al Gore gave his talk “An Inconvenient Truth” in Vancouver on Saturday, September 29th. It was an awful, wet evening outside – the rain lashed down and the wind howled along the concrete canyons of the downtown. Inside the Westin Bayshore hotel were the great and the good of Lower Mainland society. And me.

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