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…

Closer To The Earth

A rude awakening for these office hands

Winter is a dormant time at the allotment. The vibrant hues of summer are long forgotten, seemingly lost forever to wet beds of mud. Even the weeds are sleeping.

I visited today in the aftermath of this week’s gale to check for damage. The newly reskinned polytunnel emerged unscathed but, as expected, the netting protecting our winter greens had to be re-anchored to stave off the attentions of pigeons that can decimate an unprotected crop in hours.

There was nothing to keep me any longer. That’s how it is at this time of year.

A damp sun
A damp sun

With this lull in proceedings it’s a good time to look back at my photos from the past year and remember that nature is going to do it all again this year, however unlikely that might feel right now…


The season starts with seeding. I have learnt that plants really want to grow. You just have to provide favourable conditions to help them along.

Small beginnings
Small beginnings

Planting means groundwork, which inevitably means digging and weeding in the cold. Frequent visits from our friendly robin genuinely make the work easier.

A symbiotic relationship
A symbiotic relationship

New shoots soon emerge, just in case we doubted they would

Return of the rhubarb
Return of the rhubarb

And as the plants wake up do does the wildlife

Pollinators hold the key to everything
Pollinators hold the key to everything

There comes a growth spurt during which everything shoots up and the brown turns into green turns into vivid colours

Sunflowers love the sun
Sunflowers love the sun

This rewarding time in the allotment demands a lot of effort in return. Beds have to be tended, plants regularly watered and pests tackled.

Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps
Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps

As the sun grows in strength the polytunnel becomes a delightful hot house of growth. It’s around this time that our seasonal “housekeeper” Jeremy takes up residence. He is tasked with keeping down the slug and caterpillar population, although I suspect he just drinks the lager.

Jeremy
Jeremy

Everything flowers. The bees are in paradise and the even the most unlikely plant puts on a show. I never knew how attractive a flowering potato could be.

Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke
Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke

Amidst the regular plot maintenance there are always construction projects to tackle. The long awaited garden shed edges closer to fruition. Perhaps by next year…

Hiding from other jobs
Hiding from other jobs

Forgotten muscles ache to remind you they are still there. Marathon weekend sessions leave their mark upon you.

A rude awakening for these office hands
A rude awakening for these office hands

But there are no regrets. You reap what you sow and harvest time brings rich rewards.

Payback
Payback

At the start of every year I convince myself that this year will be less hectic – there will be time to slow down and take everything in. Instead we find ourselves hurriedly throwing late crops into a bed as natures cycle threatens to run away from us.

The things you miss if you don’t take time out
The things you miss if you don’t take time out

Before we know it the days are beginning to shrink. Autumn brings with it a different selection of crops.

Fractal food
Fractal food

As the leaves begin to fall and the sun sits lower in the sky the allotment takes on a different feel. This a great time to get the camera out and capture the autumn light.

A change of season
A change of season

The plants you want to grow lose their impetus, yet it seems that the weeds always have one more spurt left in them.

Hanging on in there
Hanging on in there

The sun sets on a season of plenty and those colours fade away.

A final splash of colour
A final splash of colour

Autumn heads towards winter and like the morning after a party there is a lot of clearing up to do. Spent crops are cut down and composted. Cane structures are dismantled. Beds are covered for protection over winter.

Bonfires dispose of the debris
If you can’t compost it you burn it

Winter crops have been netted off and need minimal maintenance. The polytunnel may have extended the season for a modest range of salad leaves, radishes and carrots but it too eventually succumbs to the gloom and cold.

And here I am in January wading through mud with no bees, shoots or humans in sight. It might not seem like it right now but it’s all going to start again soon.

 

Reap What You Sow

When we took on the allotment we decided we were in it for the long haul. Over several seasons we have worked truly countless hours to mould the land to our will, at least if you squint your eyes. At times it has felt like a leap of faith during fallow periods in which there has been nothing to show for the effort. You become so accustomed to hard slog for future benefit that when the future arrives it’s an almost unexpected joy. Harvest time is the season of repayment.


In our first year the sensation of shovelling through the soil for potatoes was akin to panning for gold. Each spud was an exciting find tempered only by the realisation that burrowing insects and disease had damaged some of the crop.

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Where there’s muck there’s spuds

The sensation of anticipation is still there in year 3 but there is also the realisation that the spuds have to be lifted dried and stored. This is a messy ritual that takes the dining table out of action for a few weeks, but we know what to expect now. A move to disease resistant varieties has increased the yield but extended the dining room moratorium.

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An unbalanced diet

The real “growth area” on our plot is the deluge of soft fruit that arrives starting in early summer. This shouldn’t be a surprise – we did plant it after all – but when it is thriving like this you have to keep right on top of things in order to preserve the produce and encourage future growth.

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Another fruitful day

I have found that blackberries and raspberries need to be picked at least every 2 days during peak season or the fruit goes too soft. Then it’s not just the over-ripened fruit you are losing out on – the next round of fruit takes a hit as growing power is diverted from them. There can be no greater pleasure than picking the ripest fruit on a balmy evening after a day in the office.

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Wash, dry, freeze, repeat

The thing is – there’s a lot to do when you get home with your kilos of soft fruit. Of course you consume what you need but blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and redcurrants all need to be washed, dried, frozen on a tray and then transferred to a freezer bag. When you preserving a kilo of fruit like this every 2 days it feels like the kitchen is home to a production line.

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Maybe you can have too much of a good thing

Redcurrants can be picked much less regularly but when you do harvest the volumes are incredible. I extracted over 10kg of fruit in three pickings and each time it took over a week to wash, dry, freeze and bag. Gluts of produce are a way of life for allotment holders. The art of custodianship is, wherever possible, to plant for successive cropping and to have an inkling of what you will do with the produce when it arrives.

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Don’t freeze, just eat

Some produce can’t easily be preserved. You can make jam out of strawberries but unless you have a large volume in one go it’s less hassle to simply enjoy them fresh. Cavalo Nero, the in-vogue king of kale needs to be consumed fresh before it gets tough or succumbs to minute white insects. One can only devour so much kale, without strange things happening, I would imagine.

Every year some crops struggle while others go mad. This year the peas have remained pretty dormant but the peppers can’t stop producing. We have meaty varieties that put mass produced varieties to shame. What doesn’t get used in salads can be pickled. Respective gluts of cucumbers (tasty and wholesome next to their bland, watery supermarket cousins) and jalapenos are great candidates for pickling, although that also takes some time.

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So many peppers from one plant
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Chillies – great for preserving

Also this year the French beans and runner beans have been prolific, as they often are. I can wash, trim, blanch and freeze these in my sleep now, which is useful because that’s the only free time I have during this period.

As we have developed the plot and built on our experiences our main focus has moved away from simply trying to grow things. Now we aim to control what arrives when. A polytunnel opens up great possibilities here by extending the growing season. As I write this in later October a few strawberries are still coming through in this protected environment!

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Strawberries before ripening in the polytunnel

Also, with main crops established, thoughts turn to widening our repertoire. Edible nasturtiums make an attractive salad garnish and spread like weeds across the plot.

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That classic combination of Nasturtiams and Beetroot

Harvest time isn’t all about gluts of produce. These globe artichokes and rhubarb sticks are rarer treats that must be enjoyed in moderation. Globes in particular take up too much space to grow in volume.

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Barbs and chokes

Crops like these take back seat during the busy harvest period and if you aren’t careful they are past their best before you remember they are there.


Summer has passed now and the light evenings spent filling a wicker basket to the brim with goodies is over for another year. There is still plenty going on but things are less frenetic now. Our first foray into carrots has gone well and we are crossing our fingers for the sweetcorn which is almost but not quite ready to harvest. The darker months will be good for brassicas and whatever we can persuade to grow in the polytunnel.

With the onset of autumn I miss those light evenings spent picking, if not the work that follows, but there will be no regrets. Especially in darkest February when there are frozen fruits, vegetables pickles to enjoy. There are times when all of this makes sense.

The Sudden View

The Sudden View

What makes for travel adventure in this day and age? I reflect upon this over my holiday reading: “The Sudden View” – a literary classic written by Sybille Bedford in 1953. This account of an extended visit to Mexico relates the tale of 2 women travelling by steam train through the southern US states, across the border to a land they know only through reputation and tenuous recommendation. It’s a journey not just into the unknown but into a bygone age of travel.

The Sudden View
The Sudden View

Today’s world feels distinctly smaller. Travel has become more of a commodity and destinations a marketed product. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, but the truth is that a sense of adventure always comes down to personal experience. There may be few untrod paths these days but there are many untrod by us individually.


Imbued by the spirit of discovery I set out on a circular coastal walk from my quaint holiday cottage in Fowey. The sun is out and my weary knees are not complaining for a change, or maybe I’m just not listening as I head out through the fields of corn.

Correctly spaced
Correctly spaced

Having recently planted sweetcorn in our allotment I’m very pleased to observe a 40cm gap between rows as this is pretty much how I set out my own planting, albeit on a rather more modest scale

There’s a very rural feel to this walk so far. With no sea view yet I could be in Shropshire but for the faintest taste of salt in the air. Gradually there are more clues. The path gradually descends and a lone seagull hovers briefly before gliding back over the tall hedgerow. Am I imaging it or are herring bone walls a coastal thing?

Herring bone wall
Herring bone wall

It occurs to me how relaxed I have become. Walking is brilliant for emptying your head of all that everyday nonsense you carry around unwittingly. I’m in the moment and ever so slightly blissful.

In the moment
In the moment

My first human encounter givs cause for concern. A jogger running toward me stops to ask me which direction the sea is in. I had rather hoped it was in the direction she had come from…

Fifteen minutes later the verdant passage takes a sharp left and drops reassuringly towards an imagined coast. And there – out of nowhere – is a sudden view.

My sudden view
My sudden view

I can see a grand country cottage set in immaculate grounds across a placid lake. A duck paddles into view. I hadn’t expected this. When the path reaches the shoreline things begin to make more sense. The small lake sits behind the arc of Polridmouth Cove.

There are two sides to Polridmouth Cove
There are two sides to Polridmouth Cove

This scene is enchanting. The southwest coast path intersects a manicured postcard cottage view to the right and the rugged Cornish bay to the left. The effect is quite intruiging. There’s not another soul to be seen and I spend a couple of minutes absorbing the view in a world of my own.

Tranquility
Tranquility

Unlike the relentless crashing waves of the north Cornish coastline this southern sea is flat and inviting. There are countless flat stones and I feel compelled to skim some. I skim some. The beach is mine alone. I long to be a resident of the adjacent cottage, just a stone skim behind me. This is a bubble I wish to remain in.

Nothing says Joy like dogs on a beach
Nothing says Joy like dogs on a beach

The bubble bursts. Three scallywag friends race across the sands, their excitement palpable! A lady, their owner, hoves into view with a look of mild exasperation. One of her hounds is joyfully playing with a ball that belongs to a dog in the adjoining cove and now she will have to take it all the way back and apologise to the owner. Such a British scene.

Onward and upward
Onward and upward

It’s time for me to move on. Gribben Head beckons. The path heads up onto the cliff over a lush carpet of grass that appears to have been meticulously mowed. I’m reminded of a similarly idyllic climb some 15 years ago upon suspiciously perfect spongy lush grass atop the commanding chalk cliffs on the Isle Of Wight towards The Needles. That was a hot summer dream of a walk, capped off by the king of cream teas at a remote farm cottage. That cream tea…

Do look back
Do look back

Over my shoulder the coastline unfolds past Polridmouth Cove to the Fowey Estuary and the hilltop extent of Polruan, then beyond. The land of smugglers. The land of Poldark, if you are a BBC marketing executive or an employee of the Cornish tourist board.

Not a lighthouse
Not a lighthouse

The monolithic Gribben Tower has been on my radar since the descent into the cove, but only now do I realise it isn’t a lighthouse. In fact it’s an 84ft tall “daymark” intended to help sailors pinpoint Fowey harbour. An information board tells me I have visited at the wrong time of month to go up the tower. It also claims that regional author Daphne du Maurier framed many of her novels around this headland, with Rebecca specifically set at Polridmouth – a mere stroll from her latter years dwelling in Menabilly.

No seals today
No seals today

As the path continues due north it flattens up and offers clear vision over the wide bay to Charlestown – if only I could recognise it. I hope to spot a seal basking on the rocks below but today they must be out fishing. The walking is easy and broken only by the passing of a comically endless train of ramblers. I start of with Hello, and transition through Guten Tag to Grüß Gott as I realise this is a German, no – Bavarian walking party. I have encountered a lot of Germans enjoying this part of Cornwall. They get it.

Polkerris Bay
Polkerris Bay

The miniscule harbour at Polkerris Bay provides a peaceful sanctuary for the few who are visiting today. Limited access and parking mean that the beach can never become too crowded, while a pub and hip beach café mean visitors are well catered for. There’s time to pause for a coffee whose mediocrity is forgiven by the friendliness of its serving.

My route breaks from the coast at this point to return inland across farming country. A mercifully brief steep climb leads to a farmyard with outbuildings that I want to nose into but there are workers about so I pause only to admire the tractor.

The mighty Ford 3000
The mighty Ford 3000

Tractor enthusiasts (they do exist) would share my appreciation for the beauty of this beast. As a child I had a die-cast model just like this. This is either a modern clone or really just that old, though it looks in good nick. The surrounding fields hum with activity as machinery works the land. My path is cordoned off for a detour around a field of crops being harvested today, before crossing the Saints Way – a 27 mile walking route from Fowey on the south coast to Padstow on the North.

The divine path
The divine path

This strikes me as a fun 2 day trek for some future visit, to be topped off with fish and chips plus a pint of Doom Bar overlooking Padstow harbour.

Every inch of land on the path back to Fowey appears to be cultivated. Where is the fallow field? After half a mile two cottages flank my way and outside one stands a trestle table bearing surplus produce beneath a hand written sign that says Help Yourself. I liberate an oversized cucumber with lunch in mind. But the walk isn’t quite over yet and there’s time for one final sudden view.

Happy as pigs in mud
Happy as pigs in mud

I love pigs. Any creature that is happy dozing in a puddle of mud has my admiration. This small holding is home to a couple of sows and a litter of not-so-thin piglets. One of the mums sniffs her way over to see me. What can I give her? I have nothing … oh, the cucumber.

Feeding time
Feeding time

Poor mum. One of the piglets is pestering her for milk and she doesn’t seem in the mood. Eventually she gives in and is besieged by little snouts all wanting a feed. So much for the easy life.


Ten minutes later I’m sitting in my cottage garden with a cool drink. The GPS tracker records the route at around 6 miles over a leisurely 3 hour period. I pick up my book to find Sybille is getting to grips with Mexico City but all I can think about are the images and sensations of this morning’s mini-adventure. Reading can wait for a dull day at home. There are more untrod paths to discover here – starting with one that leads to lunch…