The Motzi Immortal

It’s our final morning at Casa Motului. I may have indulged a little too enthusiastically in last night’s complimentary offerings of Palinca (plum brandy) and Visinata (sour cherry brandy) – spirits that sit in the 40-60% proof range. Many people make these popular Romanian spirits and I expect the proprietors generosity is enabled by considerable vats of home made produce.

I'm 94 you know
I’m 94 you know

This Sunday morning we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast when an elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered brown suit comes knocking at the door. It seems he is known by one of the owners sons who lets him in and lays out a very generous measure of visinata (!) for the chap. He approaches our table carrying a large sack over his shoulder and introduces himself by kissing M’s hand and telling us he’s 94, before producing a rustic hand made wooden jug from the sack. Would we like to buy one? It’s the kind of memento we would love to take home with us but it’s going to be too big to transport.

“But you have a car?” asks the gent. Yes, but we are flying home. “Where have you come from?”. England, we explain. He goes silent and wears an expression of incomprehension. We might as well have said that we were visitors from Mars. We give him little cash and some bananas that we aren’t going to get through and he works his way around the breakfast room, selling his entire stock before polishing off the visinata.

Market vith a view
Market vith a view

Sunday is market day in the remote neighbouring village of Ariesene and that will be our final port of call before we leave the Apuseni. We pack and drive the 2km into the village, passing our 94 year old friend who is just completing a slow walk back – a route that he could conceivably have been walking since the early 1930s. We have seen many old folk walking between villages. Hard work, pork fat and palinca have made the Motzi indestructible it seems.

Most of the market goers are elderly and some seem over dressed for the ocassion, possibly for church but also because standards must be maintained for any communal gathering. The social aspect of this Sunday market appears to be at least as important as the opportunity to buy things.

Fresh from the fields
Fresh from the fields

First impressions are of a street market you might find anywhere on your travels but on closer inspection there are some distinctive differences to the ones I’m used to.

Villagers queue outside vans that are packed high with cabbages. They are buying carrier bags full and taking them home to pickle. Sturdy men and women of pensionable age think nothing of hauling large sacks of cabbages, potatoes or onions on their shoulders.

A womans work
A womans work

One stallholder is selling live chickens for 25 lei (£5). Their young child sits quietly in a carboard box next to a cage and a lady playfully asks whether the boy is for sale.

Little chicken
Little chicken

Several clothes stalls are run by gypsies who have travelled from further afield. Everything looks second hand and nobody here is likely to have the money or time for designer gear.

More cowbell
More cowbell

Farmers and smallholders are well catered for. My favourite stall is selling leather bridle gear and the type of alpine cow bells whose dull chime you regularly hear in these parts. Nearby I see a display of wood cutting equipment. A frail lady who looks around 80 years old is lifting a heavy axe with a sturdy 4 ft handle. She scrutinises the blade and feels the balance and I wonder if she will be chopping the logs or whether this is a purchase for a younger family member. Part of the appeal of this market is imagining the lifestyles and livelihoods of the buyers and sellers.

An axe for every ocassion
An axe for every ocassion

Today we are not in the market for cabbages, axes or cowbells (in retrospect I wish I had bought a cow bell) but some hand made mountain cheese would be welcome. Given the variety of produce on sale it’s a little surprising that there is no cheese to be seen. We are given a tip-off to continue down the road past the school and ask at the third house on the left…

Beyond the crowd
Beyond the crowd

We leave the hubub of the market behind. Some free roaming cows have crossed the river to graze and block the road. Just as we think we must have gone too far we spot a(nother) little old lady standing quietly by herself outside a normal looking home. We furtively ask about the “brânză”. She tells us that we need to speak to her daughter and beckons us to follow her through the garden to the back door. The daughter appears and explains to us that she has no cheese ready at this moment but she does have milk and can make some for us if we are able to come back in the afternoon.

In a parallel universe we hang around until later because fresh cheese made by hand from milk of the mountains is going to be out of this world! Unfortunately our return to Cluj cannot wait and we are left to imagine what we are missing out on.

The cheese episode serves as a metaphor for so many travel experiences, whereby a tantalising glimpse of some other world raises more question questions than it answers. During our short visit to the Apuseni I have learned that the hard working Motzi people have an intrinsic bond with this remote rugged landscape. In these times of dizzying change they maintain their long standing relationship with the land and livestock.

Stubborn as a mule
Stubborn as a mule

We drive gingerly through the crowded market street on the start of our journey home and give way to a cart coming the other way. As it draws alongside us the horse decides to stop and will simply not be moved. There is quite a scene with traffic backing up and all eyes are focussed on this mini drama until a stallholder intervenes. He picks up and moves from the pavement a small silver toy windmill that spins in the breeze. The horse is pacified and on he trots. This muscular working horse was simply frightened by a shiny toy and this random Motzi man had the innate understanding to realise the problem and know how to handle the horse. Sometimes it’s the little things that leave a lasting impression.

I hope to return to Motzi country some day and when I do I hope to find it just as I left it. Just with freshly made cheese.

Deep into the Apuseni

How best to describe the Apuseni region of Romania? This Carpathian mountain range emerges a 90 minute drive west of the northern city of Cluj. The hills become progressively more densely packed and dark forests of evergreen blacken the horizon, broken only by a few denuded golden deciduous trees that are fast succumbing to the season.

Ascent into the Carpathians
Ascent into the Carpathians

From time to time we rise out of from some deep narrow valley into a clearing to see rustic traditional wooden houses scattered like dots up into the hills within fields enclosed by hand crafted fences. A scattering of cows munch the steep slopes, their neck bells chiming bluntly as they move. Smoke drifts down into the valleys as villagers fend off a cold grip that descends when the thin autumn sun recedes

Farming life
Farming life

Every livestock owner is the process of assembling traditional tall and narrow haystacks for winter feed.

On our journey we regularly see piles of freshly hewn timber by the side of the road. It’s common to see a toothless old lady dressed in black walking between villages. Men in traditional hats work the fields, chop timber with axes, build new homes. Older men share a bench and talk, sparingly it seems. Words, like natures resources, are not wasted in these parts.

Traditional wooden cabin constructed from local timber
Traditional wooden cabin constructed from local timber

Traditional gypsy wooden horse drawn carts roll by like open narrow boats with only rubber tyres as a concession to modernity. Come nightfall these primitive carriages crawl perilously along pitch blank rural roads with no lights or reflectors. On a recent night drive in Transylvania the rear of an unlit  cart loomed suddenly into view and I caught the fleeting snapshot of a shawled lady pointing a torch to the tarmac as two children hung onto her. The old ways and new ways don’t always mix well.

This is the region of the Motzi – a quiet spoken people, straightforward but welcoming. These hard working folk are thoroughly self reliant due to generations of life in largely unconnected communities.

The Apuseni sits in the outer fringes of Transylvania but has a distinct character. Closer to Hungary than Bucharest this is a land of folklore and tradition, tied inseperably to the environment. There are few major employers here. You sustain yourself, your family, your village from the land. Tourism is growing in importance as evidenced by the winter skip slopes in Vartop. The few visitors at this time of year are drawn to outdoor pursuits such as climbing, walking, cycling, plus the mountain air.

Closed until return of the tourist season
Closed until return of the tourist season

Although only modestly heralded on the international stage the Apuseni has world significance for cavers due to its extensive underground systems. A cave at Scarisoara contains the worlds largest underground glacier, which until relatively recent times served as a cold store for the villagers food in the summer.

My preparation for the visit didn’t turn up much information online. Romania is years behind the UK when it comes to the provision of information and services on the internet and the Apuseni is no exception. The extreme landscape means there are plenty of areas without a phone signal and when phoning to book a B&B (forget online booking!) it’s entirely possible the landlord will only check answerphone messages once every day or two when they are in range of a signal.

Taxi!
Taxi!

There are plenty of things to see and do that you only discover on arrival – just like how things used to be everywhere else. Our host at Casa Motolui – a through and through Motzi man – tells us that if we drive to the next village we will find a field where we can hire a horse and cart to take us to a waterfall. Sure enough we find 2 rough and ready carriages and their steeds, their respective owners sitting in silence with cigarettes in hand. We choose the more expensive carriage (approx £18) on the basis the alternative is a pony drawn death trap with a driver that looks like he’s on day release from prison.

Bujor

Our driver is a friendly jovial Motzi and his steed – Bujor – looks up to the task of hauling flabby city types over rough tracks. The next hour is a non-stop delight, save from the constant fear we may fall off the carriage as it rattles alarmingly over the boulder strewn path. We roll by wooden hand crafted cottages and on into the woods. Our path crosses the stream a few times but the log bridges can’t sustain us and so we simply ford the water.

Bujor stops to cool and refuel
Bujor stops to cool and refuel

We don’t mind in the least that Bujor simply stops when he is tired and needs a break. At these times we hop off and walk alongside while he catches his breath, poor thing. This is a joyful experience despite the fact that we could have walked the route just as fast. One of the countless waterfalls in this area awaits us at the end of the track. It’s all lovely.

In the afternoon we drive out of the valley up hairpin roads that start off tarmac and become progressively rougher. Cows gaze on in curiosity while farmers spare us a glance before continuing with the business of the day.

A hard working landscape
A hard working landscape

It’s all so intimate and a little like driving through the shire of The Hobbit. Our destination is the village of Scarisoara and our first appointment is in an authentic traditional wooden dwelling that serves as a shop for the villagers to sell their craft produce. The timber beams are so low that I can barely stand upright and I wonder if that’s because malnutrition used to stunt peoples growth.

Traditional house selling traditional crafts
Traditional house selling traditional crafts

There are a wide range of hand made items to be seen, including a long Bucium wooden horn that looks a bit like a didgeridoo and is an historic musical instrument of the region. There is an attractive range of pottery, the ubiquitous palinca spirit and a selection of jams and syrups made from mountain fruits that I know will be bursting with flavour, all at ludicrously cheap prices.

Tempting, but no
Tempting, but no

Our Renault (ef)Fluence hire car is soon groaning under the weight of jam and we haven’t even started what we came here for.

Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car - it really stinks
Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car – it really stinks

Scarisoara owes its popularity to the world renown cave that awaits our visit. A pleasant 10 minute stroll up hill through the golden autumn landscape doesn’t hint at what is to come. We pass a number of abandoned wooden vendor tables and boarded-up vending huts adorned with signs advertising cheese pies and affinata (blueberry spirit) and it’s clear that this place gets considerably more busy in the tourist season.

Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.
Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.

The path leads to a wooden “office” where an unlikely looking ticket salesman barely looks up from the Romanian soap on his portable TV as he takes our payment. Only as we attempt to leave does he jump up and share some statistical facts about the cave while pointing at a couple of faded dusty hand-drawn schematics on the hut wall.

High tech laser display panel of the cave system
High tech laser display panel of the cave system

Armed with a few titbits of knowledge we head down a steep metal Escheresque starcase lining a great chasm in the ground. The descent is perhaps 100m, during which the temperature drops from 18 degrees to freezing. And that’s important because this cave is famous for containing the largest underground glacier in the world.

Deep into the Apuseni

There isn’t a whole lot to see, largely because there are almost no lights down here, but it’s worth a visit if only to imagine the time when villagers used the cave as a cold store during summer. How did they get down here? Which poor soul had to make this perilous journey just to get something from the fridge? Were any villagers strangled for asking their returning partners to “just pop back down love – I forgot to mention we need some of that wild boar”.

The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara
The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara

This self-guided tour takes less time than the ascent. We have witnessed so much beauty and contrast today and yet there has been almost no sense of that raw display of nature being corrupted by tourism or commercialisation. The physical isolation of the Apuseni may go some way to explaining this but also perhaps it comes down to the mentality of the Motzi people. They have been living in their own way for a long time and they aren’t going to change any time soon. At least that’s what I hope.

North Bank Show

Mesmerising detail

In my imaginatively titled blog Show Bank Show I described my attraction to London’s celebrated South Bank, from Vauxhall to Waterloo and beyond. It occurred to me that you never hear anything about the North Bank and so, in another leap of originality, I hope to persuade you that the unfashionable side of the Thames is worth a little of anybody’s time.

On this unseasonally tropical September Friday I chose Lambeth Bridge as my starting point purely because this is the point from which I expected things to get interesting. I have always found Victoria Tower Gardens to be a peaceful haven away from the madness of Central London and today is no different. With a backdrop of Westminster’s Victoria Tower I see a handful of joggers, the odd morning sun worshiper, kids playing together, a man dressed in a white suit and white bowler hat urinating against a tree – a familiar and comforting snapshot of the England we know and love.

Sauron's tower
The tower of Sauron

I hadn’t previously taken a close look around this park so the Buxton Monument – a fabulously ornate memorial to the end of the slave trade – was new to me. The ancient ensemble of parliamentary buildings forces the walker away from the riverside at this point and over to Parliament Square, which is fine for me as there is always some show to enjoy here. Except today there are no protests or film crews as Parliament has been prorogued by the disgraced and incarcerated Boris Johnson (at the time of writing he’s still PM can you believe).

Keep off the grass. Man.
Keep off the grass. Man.

With so much recent activism outside parliament the square is cordened off in order to allow the incessantly trampled grass to recover. A casualty of democracy. The towering stone mass of Westminster is all but obscured by scaffolding as exorbitantly expensive renovations take place. This could all have been avoided if Guy Fawkes had been better at project management.

With little architecture to point the camera at a scattering of tourists are gravitating towards the various Statues that surround the square.

Churchill - larger then life
Churchill – larger then life

I resume my walk heading back towards Westminster Bridge. A conglomeration of tourist tat stalls are engulfed by visitors this morning. Crudely molded metal models of Big Ben, Queen masks, postcards of Buckingham Palace and much worse will soon be shuffled off to the darkest corners of the homes of friends and family of today’s visitors.

Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models
Westminster Bridge, thankfully built to a higher standard than the models

The lamest Darth Vader impersonator stands precariously atop a speaker pumping out Star Wars music while people take photos and chip in with a few coins. Nobody appears to take the slightest interest in the kick-ass statue of Boudicca above. Welcome to London.

Feel the force
Feel the force

Also attracting no attention is an adjacent line of cycle taxis. This is hardly a suprise when you see their rates. A couple of fares and their day has been a success.

The waiting game
The waiting game

The commotion soon fizzles out as I head east along the Victoria Embankment. Bazalgette’s mammoth 19th century construction project created a much needed sewage system upgrade and new transport links – robust victorian architecture that has stood the test of time. This fascinating Museum Of London piece describes the scale and ambition of Bazalgette’s work – a truly big job.

A couple of suits are speaking to camera outside New Scotland Yard. It’s less dramatic than it looks in TV crime thrillers. I’m disappointed that the famous rotating New Scotland Yard sign is not moving. Perhaps justice does take a day off. Here’s a YouTube video of it rotating, which shows that some people have too much time on their hands.

The next substantial building is home to the Ministry of Defence. A simple garden is decorated with statues remembering various military campaigns and characters. It would be easy to miss this space because the dramatic riverside memorial to those lost in the Battle of Britain inevitably draws your attention.

So many stories
So many stories

London and the Thames corridor particularly are dotted with numerous statues and memorials but few can be so effective in telling a story.

Mesmerising detail
Mesmerising detail

I pause to sit on one of the benches that look out across the Thames. The river is busy today with pleasure cruises, passenger ferries and disconcertingly massive waste barges being towed out to some disposal point beyond the city. The London Eye rotates imperceptibly and swarms of people enjoy the full South Bank sun. It’s much quieter here on the North Bank and there is merciful shade from trees along the embankment.

Under the gaze of the eye
Under the gaze of the eye

Beyond this point there are few uninterrupted views across the river due to piers and moored boats, which is fine because I’m heading into Whitechapel Gardens – a favourite place of mine. I stumbled upon this by accident while working in the city and today it is just as I remember it.

This lunchtime it is an oasis of calm. The colourful planting in these well maintained gardens is a delight.

And breathe...
And breathe…

Heading beneath Hungerford Bridge I emerge outside the entrance to Embankment tube station which looks unexpectedly quaint and as pretty as any tube station could reasonably aspire to be.

Is this really central London?
Is this really central London?

The station adjoins yet another green space – Victoria Embankment Gardens. More colourful borders and numerous statues (I’m a bit statued out now) attract the lunchtime office crowd and this gathering look disinclined to return to work for the afternoon. At least productivity levels are going to be zero if they do.

This is nice
This is nice

The hypnotic pitter patter of a cooling fountain completes the illusion that I am at some rural retreat a world away from central London. Only my need for refreshment forces me to leave. Seriously, where are all these people buying their lunches?

Can I just stay here?
Can I just stay here?

Somerset House is next up on the left. They operate an ice skating rink in the winter months but I have never visited. Temple tube station probably only serves office workers during the week. I had hoped to check out Temple Gardens which look lush and inviting on Google Maps but it turns out that one can only gain admittance by getting a law degree and an internship at the judiciary. I am reduced to glancing through the railings at smart law firm employees relaxing on the grass, ties loosened a touch in concession to the heat. This is where my North Bank oddessy ends. The river front east of here becomes polluted and industrial for some distance until Tower Bridge.

Royal Courts Of Justice - the least popular bar in town this afternoon
Royal Courts Of Justice – the least popular bar in town this afternoon

Instead I head uphill towards the Royal Courts Of Justice on Fleet Street where an array of wine bars already lubricates an exodus of legal types as they conduct their final “meetings” of the week.

Postscript…

It’s the next day. Against my better judgement I find myself on the sunny South Bank jostling through a tide of corpulent sharp elbowed tourists. To think I could have been lying in the cool grass of Whitechapel Gardens listening to the cricket. There’s a time for everything.

Barbican In Sight And Sound

London’s Barbican has been something of an enigma to me. I’ve walked through it in the past on the way to some other destination and formed some hasty conclusions. Over a weekend in May I got to spent some time there and it turns out that I was wrong about just about everything…

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Child of the sixties

On face value the Barbican is a large scale experiment in inner city living, consisting of chunky slabs of tower blocks raised on stilts, surrounding a large arts and entertainment venue. It occupies a prime location in the City Of London and yet, dwarfed by a vertical forest of steel and glass neighbours you could pass close by without noticing it.

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Unsubtle

First impressions of this 60’s development are that it was designed using duplo lego bricks and then brutally assembled in the kind of depressing mottled concrete that has attracted derision and wrecking balls in towns across the land. Derby’s Assembly Rooms sits firmly in this unfashionable bracket and there is little sentiment for it. Much of my student life in Sheffield was played out to a backdrop of harsh concrete flats spawned in the same era that garnered an unenviable reputation. If you have watched The Full Monty you can picture the scene.

The Barbican may share many design elements of other berated projects but – it is a resounding success. Yes, a one bedroom flat here costs 700k and plenty of high profile names call it home but money alone cannot explain why this 60’s vision of the future works on so many levels

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Intruiging…

I’m feeling a little self conscious today, not because I am taking photos in a residential area but because I have seen 2 large groups of photographers with the same idea. A little intrusive, no?

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Light and lines

Like these other photographers I can’t help being drawn to the lines and shadows cast by such a regulated structure. It’s bordering on the hypnotic and amidst all this starkness shafts of sunlight and well tended beds of greenery become amplified in effect. The centrepiece is a marvelous lake that serves as an oasis in this unlikely estate. Almost everything looks like it has been designed in Minecraft. It’s a surprise that the ducks are not rectangular.

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Satisfying shapes

If you have found the lake then you have been successful in navigating the labarynthine walkways that defy any logic. You have also found your way to the jewel in the crown – the Barbican Centre.

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Yes, it is

I first visited on a quiet Friday with few people around and was seduced by an interior that has the nerve to stick to the design principles of the exterior. Great open spaces are sparsely furnished with flat communal sofas. There are bold ramps and unnecessarily angular stairways that lead to over sized balconies and walkways. The floors are carpetted, fittings are brass and – well that’s about it for fineries and fittings.

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Simply captivating

The ceilings and lighting are some gloriously imagined 1960’s Stanley Kubrick vision of a future spaceport. I mean, just look at this!

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Space port

I love the way in which there is simultaneously a huge amount of open communal space and yet numerous little intimate enclaves in which you can sit quietly doing something smug on your iPad. The interior – like the exterior – succeeds in making you feel welcome and included, despite the daunting scale of this endeavour. There can be no more relaxing space in London.

The Barbican Centre is not without its frustrations however. Getting lost is only fun for a while. There are emaciated people in some dead-end corner right now praying for their dying cell-phone to connect so they can be located and rescued after 15 days of solice.

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What even is this?

I’m on the first floor balcony and I can almost touch the music library which is also on the first floor just yards away, except there is no walkway there. In any action film chase sequence this would be a jumpable gap. It takes me 20 minutes to find a route, involving going downstairs, walking across the large atrium, taking a lift and then walking down some steps. The helpful staff here are used to requests for directions.


It’s the weekend and I’m back to check out a free classical musical festival. My knowledge of classical music is fleeting but it’s never too late to learn. There’s a different vibe to the Barbican Centre today with many hundreds of people here to enjoy the concerts. My first encounter is at St Lukes Church – built 250 years before the Barbican and now subsumed by it. It’s very satisfying to find a 16th Century building within the grounds of a 1960’s estate, which in itself is shadowed by a 21st century skyline.

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12 Ensemble, give or take

The 12 Ensemble – only numbering 8 today – deliver an hour of unadulterated joy. They are vibrant and yet sensitive in their delivery and with my eyes closed their live performance takes me to another place. I’m so impressed that I watch their next performance (eyes open) in the Barbican Centre later on.

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Broody Miloš

This time they are fronted by guest star Miloš – an internationally acclaimed classical guitarist. He lives up to his lofty reputation with a supremely charismatic performance that has everyone on the edge of their seats. Even the fractious younger in row 1 shuts her gob for the duration, absorbed by the show.

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The stage is set

On Sunday I’ve the pick of London but how can I not return to the Barbican? At noon the events kick off in the main hall. What a beautifully presented and illuminated stage. This is clearly a fabulous venue for the arts.

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M’col – Stephen Fry

None other than Stephen Fry introduces the Britten Sinphonia Orchestra by reading a remarkably personal letter – the famed Heiligenstadt Testament (do click the link!) – penned by Beethoven to his brothers. The stage is packed with musicians whose international standing is only eclipsed by rock star conductor Thomas Adès who fronts their ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Seriously though, what do conductors actually do? They’re just air drumming aren’t they?

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A photo of music

I can’t remember the last time I saw a full sized orchestra at close quarters. It’s an experience I want to repeat soon and regularly. How do you adequately describe music through writing? Every musician here is a richly talented individual, recognised and feted in their industry. Together they produce magic, beauty and raw emotion.

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Playing second fiddle

The middle sections are grand and rich in texture, the crescendos are, almost overwhelming, and then a soloist punctuates the vast hall with a raw and gentle honesty that humbles everything before it.

To think that I only decided to check out the programme on a whim. I can’t get enough of this and so, with the clock ticking down to my train home I leg it over to a nearby venue for one final gig. Pianist Jayson Gillham has attracted his fair share of fans. I’ve never heard of him. I’m an ignoramus.

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Grand

Honestly, I don’t know what he played. It wouldn’t even matter. He delivered the most sublime, intimate interpretation of his set. I have never witnessed a musician of any genre commit themselves more fully to expressing a work of music. If that wasn’t enough his dialogue between pieces bristled with humanity. With an artist of Jayson’s pedigree delivery of even the most technically challenging piece is a given and all energy is focused on expression. I think I have a man crush.

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Jayson “fingers” Gillham

And with the end of that performance the bubble is broken and I’m back in the concrete realm of the Barbican.


I’ve been struggling with a question over the last few days: Why does a complex versed in architectural language that has failed elsewhere succeed so impressively here?

I think there are a number of reasons. Location for sure. The generous scale such a vision demands. The accentuation of light and nature against this regulated urban backdrop. And there is a sense of identity and relevance that a vibrant arts venue can bring to any setting.

The Barbican may not have the loudest voice in London but it has a lot to shout about. I’ll be back. With a map.

Re-skinning The Polytunnel

Open All Hours

It’s March and the allotment continues to slumber, with only the perennial daffodils poking their heads above the damp soil. With nothing much here to prune, water or harvest it’s the ideal time of year to work on all things structural, which is great for somebody like me who is much more proficient with a screwdriver than a trowel.

So far this year I have re-laid paths, installed guttering on the shed and started preparations for a fruit cage but this blog is about my refurbishment of the polytunnel this time around 2 years ago, which begs the question – why did our 18 month old polytunnel need refurbishing?


A polytunnel is a frame covered by a plastic film. Unfortunately my tunnel consisted of a good sturdy 32mm frame wrapped up in an exceptionally poor quality cover which disintegrated after just 1 season. If that wasn’t bad enough the allotment treasurer on a neighbouring plot followed our lead and bought the same tunnel, which deteriorated at the just same rate. So much for my recommendations.

Sieve
Sieve

The only available off-the-shelf cover would have been identical to the one that had failed so I threw myself into weeks of research involving supplier YouTube videos and amateur allotment blogs before arriving at my preferred design. This was going to entail not only a new high quality cover but the construction of a bespoke new base frame that would hold the cover in place. Perhaps most excitingly for me was the opportunity to develop a multi-facetted spreadsheet capturing all of the build requirements, components and project sequencing!

Poor abused car
Poor abused car

Over the period of a couple of weeks I became quite intimate with the local builders merchant, conducting numerous trips to collect unfeasible quantities of timber. It’s surprising how much you can fit into a Ford Focus if you don’t mind not being able to see out of the passenger side window. It might also help if you are relaxed about your car’s resale value.

No left turns
No left turns

A polytunnel performs best when it is wrapped in a tight membrane, both in terms of thermal characteristics and structural longevity. The original cover had simply been buried into a trench around the frame and the new cover was instead going to be held tightly down by a wooden base rail. I marked the beginning of construction by levelling off the soil around the perimeter of the frame to provide unhindered access to the bottom of the tunnel.

Digging, it's always digging
Digging, it’s always digging

The next step was in many ways the hardest. Despite the fact that the once impervious cover was now just a very large sieve it still felt unintuitive to take a knife to it. I sheared it off 3 inches from the soil since this represented a much simpler task than digging the sides out of the ground. No going back now.

Cuts have to be made
Cuts have to be made

Since the new film had to be tensioned and secured around the tunnel extremities this entailed not only the installation of a timber base rail but the replacement of the tubular metal door frame with wooden posts and a lintel. You can see below an original metal post on the right and a new timber post on the left.

Early doors
Early doors

The whole refit, while simple in essence, demanded a great many subtle design features that needed to be identified and catered for. I had spent many hours visualising and sketching joins and fixing types and yet more hours still evolving the sequence in which it would be best to construct the various elements.

For example, the single door post in the photo above required the existing diagonal support to be rotated through 90 degrees, using a special clip while the post itself was secured by 2 special P-Clips and over-sized bolts. Listen, if you think this is dull imagine having to live with me during the design process.

You've Been Framed
You’ve Been Framed

I cut up sections of hose pipe and wrapped these between the clips and the metal frame like over-sized washers to create tension in the fitting. Then I cut a wooden lintel to complete the frame, ensuring enough height to avoid banging my head every time I entered.

One thing that no amount or reading or virtual design could have prepared me for was the dawning realisation that my plot had a mild slope to it, which in turn meant that the tunnel frame was in fact slightly elongated to one side – something you wouldn’t observe from a casual glance. Bizarrely this required the left door post to be about 5cm shorter than the right post. It also meant I could never assume any dimensions but had to measure and cut each piece of timber independently while putting all of my faith into a spirit level.

DIY SOS
DIY SOS

With the door frames in place attention turned to the base rails. These substantial beams were plated together and u-bolted to the metal frame an inch or so above ground level.

I’ve always enjoyed working with wood but never with anything on this scale. Handling timber of these dimensions was bringing out the builder in me. I started to keep a pencil behind my ear. I found myself drinking twice as much tea. I even loosened my belt a notch to experience that extra inch of “tail breeze” when bending over.

World's Strongest Man
World’s Strongest Man

My trips to the allotment were frequent and lengthy for a period of 3 weeks while the entire build continued. I didn’t want to rush a job that was supposed to pay me back for many years to come. Each trip involved the packing and unpacking of a great many tools such as saws, drills, planes, chisels, clamps, spare batteries for my drill/screwdriver, not to mention fittings like screws and bolts. Lego used to be so much more spontaneous.

Homes Under The Hammer
Homes Under The Hammer

With the door frames and base rails in place the next step was to fit a continuous length of baton to the top of each rail section, for reasons that will hopefully make sense later. Any sharp corner was cut off to avoid potentially splitting the plastic cover when it was stretched over the frame.

Great Rail Journeys
Great Rail Journeys

I had sourced pressure treated timber suitable for outdoor use but as a precaution I dabbed wood preservation over all of my saw cuts. I bet nobody else does that. I also bet nobody else would have dragged this all out for so long.

Finally, with the growing season standing behind me impatiently tapping me on the shoulder, the time came to fit the new plastic sheeting. This was going to be the moment when all of my plans either came together or ended up in a skip.

Cash In The Attic
Cash In The Attic

Research had led me to a highly evolved polymer film designed in partnership with a university and the agriculture industry for use by professional growers. It cost 50% more than typical polytunnel film yet was a no brainer for the enhanced thermal and structural characteristics. So long as I didn’t cock up the fitting.

You simply can’t do this next bit on your own so I roped my parents in. First we dragged the cover over the frame. On a film of this quality there is an inside and an outside so I was super careful to ensure the sheet was the right side up.

Celebrity Masterchef
Celebrity Masterchef

There now followed a series of precise steps that I had to follow with surgical detail. I fitted more thin batons to the timber base rail on one side of the tunnel, tightly sandwiching the polymer film all the way along. Then I repeated the operation on the other side of the tunnel, keeping the film tight over the top of the frame. With the plastic secured on both sides we moved inside the tunnel, loosened the u-bolts that were clamping the base rail to the frame and my parents stood on the base rail to tension the plastic while I re-tightened the clamp.

Supermarket Sweep
Supermarket Sweep

At least that’s what should have happened. When your parents collectively weigh as much as a moderate Sunday lunch there’s only so much tension you can get into the plastic. Most of the tension was mine as I worried about the plastic splitting, although these fears were groundless.

With the film tensioned widthways the next task was to grip the plastic under each door frame and suspend my entire body weight while my dad rapidly hammered in more battens. Again, that’s what should have happened. Instead I dislocated my fingers hanging off the film for 5 minutes while my dad pillocked around doing – I’m not sure what. I was really grateful for his help a week later once the agony in my joints had subsided.

Tipping Point
Tipping Point

And with that final act of self harm the tunnel was reborn! Just the doors to fit. In retrospect I will never again use the word “just” in any sentence related to fitting doors. It turns out that fitting doors is not something you “just” do, at least not when you are custom making a door to fit a custom made frame.

Quincy ME
Quincy ME

One of the challenges with a larger polytunnel (and at 6m x 3m this tunnel is edging towards the fringes of largeness) is providing adequate air circulation and temperature control. Polytunnels maintain a higher internal temperature by design but in the hotter months you need to get air movement inside to avoid incinerating your plants. Leave the door open for any extended time and you invite cats, foxes, birds and butterflies (hence caterpillars) inside. My solution was to attach a permanent netting mesh to the door to prevent unwanted guests and make removable film panels to keep the heat in during the colder months.

Open All Hours
Open All Hours

Two years later and we are so pleased with the quality of our refit. The build quality has proven its worth in the face of storms and settling snow. The door panels have enabled us to regulate the environment whatever the season.

A Place In The Sun
A Place In The Sun

The professional film has resulted in an astonishing improvement in growing conditions versus the old cover. I would hope to get a minimum of 5-7 years out of the cover before it needs replacing, although it’s not uncommon for this particular covering to last for 10+ years when fitted well. I deliberately used screws for (almost) every timber join in order to massively simplify such a future operation.


Job done? Well not quite. The current gravity fed irrigation system still needs further improvement or replacement with a solar pump. Also I would love to be able to harvest rainwater but that’s complicated by the fact that I’ve nowhere to mount a gutter.

These are hopefully projects for this year. There are always more projects. You never finish everything. In an allotment infrastructure is like planting. You always want to do more or do better. It’s what keeps bringing you back.

Don’t Panic

Out of service

If you really know me then you will know that I am rather obsessed by Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. If you have read HHGTTG then you will also realise that everybody who has read HHGTTG is in fact obsessed by HHGTTG. If you haven’t read it then you should. The radio series is compulsory listening. The TV series is fun and suitably quirky. The film is mostly harmless. I think that covers all the bases.

Anyway, my reason for bringing this up is that a central plot line revolves around galactic refugee Arthur Dent’s epic struggle to get his hands on a decent cup of tea following the unfortunate destruction of planet earth by a Vogon constructor fleet. Today I am Arthur Dent. The tea is coffee.


I’m in London. It’s my first visit for a few years following a 6 month stint in which I blogged the hell out of the capital. So I have my finger on the pulse and I’m not going to settle for any lame ass tourism as I’ve loftier ideas today:

  • 10am: A photo exhibition at British Museum, another
  • 11am: Another photo exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (free before noon)
  • PM: A Scandinavian market in Rotherhithe where I’m going to luxuriate in a decadent chocolate brownie and velvety smooth coffee

Life’s simple pleasures and all that. Truth is that today is all about the coffee and cake.

It goes wrong pretty much from the start. A pre-museum tea fails to materialise. 80 percent of cafes around Holborn don’t open on a Saturday. So it’s onto the British Museum where a long queue for entry takes me a little by surprise. They are checking bags today and there’s a branch of Currys in my rucksack. I finally make it into this magnificent building but there’s no mention of the exhibition. I ask at the information desk. They know nothing about this. Huh?

The rather impressive British Museum
The rather impressive British Museum

Regardless, it’s a beautiful building so I take half an hour to absorb the place and nip up to the top floor to take in a couple of exhibitions – one on postcards which is nothing to write home about and another on Captain Cook which is a little short of discovery.

Onto the Photographers Gallery which is a favourite drop-in of mine. With my organised schedule today I’ve only half an hour to spare before my next move so I’ve come at opening time because entry is free until noon. Except that it’s not. The management decided to move free entry from 11-12 to 5-6pm. They changed their policy last night. Like you do. Fine – I pay to glance around the gallery for 30 minutes and then it’s time for a dash across town for the much hyped Scandinavian coffee that will make everything alright.

A sign of things to come
A sign of things to come

As I leave the gallery it dawns on me that today’s massive anti-Brexit rally may have a bearing on my travel plans. Oxford Street is awash with protestors who are all headed towards the march. As an enthusiastic Europhile it’s heartening to see such a turnout but the fate of our country must wait seeing as there’s coffee to think about. I descend into Oxford Street tube station to begin a complicated journey to Rotherhithe.

At Green Park events take a sharp turn for the worse as I alight for a change onto the Jubilee Line. Huge mistake. The escalators down to the platform are all dedicated to churning an endless stream of protestor up from the Victoria Line. After 15 minutes I give up waiting and head back to the Victoria line in order to continue onto Stockwell where I can change lines. Except now the congestion is so severe that trains are no longer stopping here.

Streets packed to a stand-still
Streets packed to a stand-still

It takes another 20 minutes to leave the station as an endless throng of people overwhelm the station on their way to the march. The full scale of the demonstration becomes apparent at street level. Over a million people have brought this part of London to a standstill. There’s a part of me that wants to repurpose my day, join the march and seize the moment. But I NEED that coffee and cake now. Resistance is futile.

Out of service
Out of service

Tired and decaffeinated the options for motorised travel appear to be pretty much zero. The tube is out of bounds. There are road closures in all directions and every bus is stationary with its engine turned off as every route has become overwhelmed by human traffic. There’s no point in continuing south as that’s where the action is. The only option is to jump on a rental bike and pedal anywhere north. It turns out that bike is the only way to get across town right now.

It’s getting late. I’m tired. If I was an RPG character my health would be near zero and the puniest of trolls would be circling with their cudgels ready to bring my quest to a premature end. Time for Plan B: Cycle up to King’s Cross, jump on the Northern Line a few stops down to London Bridge and pillage Borough Market for coffee and cake.


Borough Market – once trendy destination for hipster vendors and bearded instagrammers – has long been usurped by the ever-present tide of change in the London food scene. Until 3:30pm on November 15th when it once again became acceptably popular for reasons nobody fully comprehends.

Phew, no Gregg Wallace
Phew, no Gregg Wallace

This is my first visit for several years and I’m understandably cautious about returning, lest the gurning face of Gregg Wallace should cross my path. The market is still every bit as popular as it once was. Now give me the coffee and cake dammit! Obviously it’s not that simple. There is a sea of dawdling foreign tourists to swim through. Here’s the thing. I love Europe. I am European. I am a citizen of the world. Theresa May would hate me if she got around to acknowledging my existence. But today the fruits of the EU have conspired to deny me the coffee fix that I so desperately need. That’s about as anti freedom of movement as it gets with me.

But there is no freedom of movement at Borough Market today. It’s packed, and it’s not like anybody is buying much. The tourists are taking photos of artisan honeycomb with their iPhones. The instagrammers are shoving their zoom lenses up the nostrils of the stall holders. It’s like some kind of participatory art installation.

Instagram generation
Instagram generation

In the last 4 hours I have been squashed by strangers, baked in the subterranean depths of Green Park and cycled like fury across West London, all without refreshment. There’s a delicious aroma of apples from a cider stall. Maybe that will take the pain away. It’s a fresh and wondrous liquid. It’s what cider should be, not what it tends to be. But it’s not coffee.

Lovely. But not coffee.
Lovely. But not coffee.

In a hallucinatory state I shove old couples to the ground and trample across their prone bodies to make headway. I apologise. I’m still English after all. Chocolate brownie procured. Just need to get my hands on some sodding coffee now, except the stalls have either disappeared or become so niche that I wouldn’t know what to ask for. Glucose free Andalucian matcha tea? No – just a bloody coffee!

Coffee. But not coffee.
Coffee. But not coffee.

Monmouth coffee looms ahead – a friendly and reliable port in this storm. Except that there’s an escheresque queue of people waiting to be served. I’ll bet they are just here because of some review. They are probably going to order tea and water. Damn them.


I’m writing this as a broken spirit from some chain coffee shop across the road from Borough Market. My cup contains a liquid that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike coffee. The moment is gone. It departed several hours ago, yet I kept chasing it like some fool. There’s a metaphor for Brexit in there somewhere. You work it out.

Madeira – Garden of Eden

Madeirans love a festival

Why haven’t I written about Madeira before now? Probably the same reason I haven’t written any blogs for a long while – I’m now a farmer (see all the allotment posts). Better late than never, which also describes my feelings about not having visited Madeira until relatively recently.

Craggy Island
Craggy Island

This rocky island is the summit of a dormant volcano poking out from the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. If you haven’t visited this Portuguese outpost you will probably be aware of the wine and cake bearing its name. So far so good but there’s more. So much more that it passes the test of one of the (few) places on my travels that I could happily live in under different circumstances, such as a lottery win or bank heist. Let me elaborate …

Getting there

This may prove your major obstacle. The airport runway has been dramatically extended into the sea in recent years but that hasn’t solved the problem of cross winds.

Garden airport
Garden airport

My inbound flight was unable to land due to high wind speeds and after instead touching down on the neighbouring rock of Porto Santo the flight was eventually diverted to Tenerife where the passengers had to spend a night before the journey could be completed the next day. This sort of thing is happening a lot and it’s a real blight on the islands substantial tourist industry.

Climate and Topology

Once you are there you can enjoy fabulous mild to hottish temperatures all year-round – great if you want to sit on the beach. Except there aren’t any beaches of note. Recently some homes have been lost to wild fires and storms that have flooded some coastal areas washing people out to sea. Still want to come?

Mild & sunny in Funchal
Mild & sunny in Funchal

Madeira boasts a remarkable landscape and has been described as Little Switzerland, which really doesn’t do it justice. There is barely a flat surface on the island. It rises as cliffs from the sea up to heady peaks that look down into vertigo inducing valleys. You can be basking in the sun in the coastal capital Funchal at the same time somebody is trying to peer through the mist in mountains just a few miles away.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds

The North of the island could pass for the Scottish Highlands with sturdy cattle grazing the verdant rocky hillside.

The interior - lush and humid
The interior – lush and humid

Until relatively recently the many villages and small towns on the island were connected tenuously by a crude system of roads and tunnels that effectively discouraged travel.

How it used to be
How it used to be

Today you can travel around and through the landscape with great efficiency due to an astonishing number of modern EU funded tunnels and bridges that have transformed life on the island and made exploring Madeira a joy.

The new road system
The new road system

The toy town road system has only partially domesticated travel. Rock falls are a frequent occurrence and my own travel plans have been scuppered by closed mountain routes. Furthermore the very steep narrow roads of the capital Funchal will leave nervous drivers needing a glass of Madeira or two. Another pitfall awaits if you fail to appreciate the fuel demands on a car mercilessly flogged up hairpin roads for 45 minutes. When the fuel gauge on my rental hit zero I was able to coast downhill for 25 minutes to the nearest fuel station using nothing but the brake pedal.

Flora

If I had to choose one thing that makes Madeira a must-visit island it would be the truly astounding array of plant life that thrives in this environment. There are a number of popular gardens you can visit in Funchal but there’s really no need. The average roadside verge may well provide home to the sort of exotic plant life that you would pay to see at home.

A typical Madeiran flower stall
A typical Madeiran flower stall

Madeirans take great pride in their gardens and a walk of the streets will reward you with an abundance of front garden colour and more species of Orchid than you knew existed.

Stunning flora
Stunning flora

It is perhaps because of the isolated history of Madeiran communities that the people here have learned to be very self-sufficient. A high proportion of residents grow their own produce. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients for growing and the climate is great, which just leaves the need for water.

Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture
Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture

And that leads to another remarkable Madeiran tale. A vast network of water channels called levadas has been constructed over the years to bring water from the mountains down to the communities.

Levadas for irrigation and walking
Levadas for irrigation and walking

The closest parallel to UK agriculture would be the endless pattern of dry stone walling hand-built and maintained by farmers over generations. Today the levada network draw a considerable numbers of tourists who come to walk the paths alongside the Levadas. I’ve walked a couple myself and these utilitarian paths traverse parts of the dramatic interior that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Food and Drink

I don’t write about a place without mentioning food, usually in too much detail. It goes without saying that the produce grown in this garden of Eden contribute to fabulous cuisine but this is overshadowed by the seafood. Supermarket fish counters groan under the weight of species we can only dream of in the UK, although that doesn’t explain why the islands of Great Britain offer such an impoverished selection of fish to consumers.

Grilled limpets - simply exquisite
Grilled limpets – simply exquisite

Specialities here include the vicious looking Espada – a prehistoric fish caught at great depth which looks less threatening on the BBQ, and limpets grilled in butter and garlic. They are to die for!

Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores
Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores

The legendary Mercado dos Lavradores fish market in Funchal has long attracted more tourists than serious shoppers due to its enticing displays of fresh Espada. As a side note I recently read a 1970’s National Geographic featuring Madeira which included a picture of the fish market. It hasn’t changed one bit in 40 years.

Every day is a seafood day
Every day is a seafood day

Many tourists travel home with a bottle or three of Madeira wine. It’s great. Then there’s the madeira cake. It’s not great. That’s just my experience.

Life and all that

Life in the populous capital of Funchal is doubtless a little different to that in an isolated hillside village but there are some universalities. This is a low-rise island. People have gardens and grow things. There appears to be is a cohesive social infrastructure. All good things. As a tourist I particularly like the numerous quinta that are available to rent. A typical quinta is a grand colonial era villa with impressive dimensions and a thriving garden.

Grand designs
Grand designs

I would heartily recommend you seek out a quinta ahead of some sterile hotel half way up the hillside. Nothing beats drawing open curtains in the morning and walking onto the balcony to smell the intoxicating aroma of hibiscus and see the sun beaming off the sea. My quinta had the bonus of a banana tree which thoughtfully deposited breakfast onto a sun bed each morning.

Manna from heaven
Manna from heaven

I took to reading an English-speaking news blog throughout my stay and it was full of the domestic issues we might have at home albeit on a smaller scale. Traffic jams in the capital resulting in just 10 minute delays – yes please! As a tourist you can dodge all this by staying in bed a little longer or delegating responsibility to the excellent bus service. Don’t get the wrong impression – life here seems to run at a mercifully slower pace than in mainland cities.

Flower Festival
Flower Festival

Madeira hosts its fair share of festivals including the appropriately named Atlantic Festival. I arrived at the end of a Flower festival which was spectacular if not a little gratuitous on an island that is effectively home to a year-round flower festival.

Madeirans love a festival
Madeirans love a festival

Each village seems to host some festival of its own such as the lemon festival that I attended. It was just lemons.

Tourism

Even when the flights are disrupted a steady stream of huge cruise ships dock in the harbour at Funchal. There’s a port-side area of Funchal that seems to be geared up for bewildered folk who wander in from their ship, sit in the first tourist restaurant they find, buy some Madeira wine and then drop by Starbucks before returning to their vessels for the night.

Sailing into Funchal
Sailing into Funchal

Madeira – tick. I guess they generate some tourist income but that’s the equivalent of travelling to the UK and just visiting Stratford Upon Avon. You’ll leave without much authentic experience of an island drowning in authenticity and individuality.

Nothing to see here
Nothing to see here

One such icon of Madeiran individuality is the Monte toboggan run – a bizarre rapid descent of Funchal’s steep roads while seated on a wicker sofa being “driven” by sturdily shoed gondolier types. It makes little more sense when you see it first hand but it does look like fun. This all takes place on the public highway and the only thing preventing a collision with cars at junctions is a potentially intoxicated marshal wearing high vis.

Just a 15mph sofa
Just a 15mph sofa

A couple of weeks after I returned home there was a news article about one of the toboggans careering into a parked car and injuring the incumbents. You just know their insurance isn’t going to cover that.

Celebrating a proud heritage
Celebrating a proud heritage

I can’t finish without mentioning Madeira’s most famous son Christiano Ronaldo. CR7 (as he has been branded) is omnipresent within these shores. There is not only a statue (obviously) but an entire Christian Ronaldo museum. I haven’t been but I imagine a series of wax works all in various horizontal states – lying down, rolling around, waving imaginary wax red cards, etc.

Branded bear
Tourist Cr7p

I hope to have painted a picture of Madeira, although it feels like I have hardly scratched the surface. There can be nowhere else like it on the planet. This remote outpost of Europe packs so much into such a small space and has so much to call its own. If travel is about experience then there can be nowhere finer to visit than Madeira. Just so long as your plane is able to land…