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…

Île Maurice

Even older than me

You have to travel a long way from the UK for guaranteed sunshine in February. Long haul for the sake of the weather doesn’t really sit well with me but it’s surprising how easily long months of winter gloom can change ones mind.

Imagine flying a seemingly endless distance to the coast of Mozambique in south east Africa. Then continue for another 1000 miles out to sea with only the land mass of Madagascar briefly interrupting your view before touching down on the island of Mauritius.

You might expect such a remote destination to be short on narrative yet Mauritius has plenty of character and much to call its own.

Back of beyond
Back of beyond

The Dutch were the first to set up base on the desolate island in the 17th century, treating it as a military outpost and naming it after their nobility. After they abandoned the island the French grabbed it for their own before the British came along and took Mauritius by force. Throw in the slaves shipped in from Africa and the Indian immigrants who came to work following the abolition of slavery in 1835 and you have a lot of human diversity on an island that was uninhabited only 200 years earlier.


Roll on 2017. Here is what I experienced during my stay…

Agriculture

Sugarcane being crushed for its nectar
Sugarcane being crushed for its nectar

Today you can (and should) visit a Rum distillery. Sugarcane is not native to the islands but was brought in by the colonisers in order to produce Rum which was a principle factor in keeping sailors happy and navies running. Now sugarcane seems to grow on every exposed patch of land.

Rum distillery
Rum distillery

For a long time the distilleries were producing low grade Rum for naval distribution alone but now (some) Mauritian Rum is held in high esteem.

Not just for the sailors
Not just for the sailors

Needless to say I tried every single variety on my factory visit in order to honour this important industry.

Another agricultural mainstay, tea, thrives in the southern region with its stable growing conditions. The British were predictably in charge at this point.

Tea leaves. Lots of them
Tea leaves. Lots of them

A trip to the Bois Cheri tea factory is well worth it. Even before I arrived the sight of hunched labourers hand-picking leaves in the plantations was quite an eye opener. This must be such a physically demanding job.

The factory tour, following production from leaf to sealed box, provides an assault to the senses. You have the sea of green leaves as they are hauled around the building.

Yes, this woman really is is sweeping loose leaves from the floor and returning them to the conveyor…
Yes, this woman really is is sweeping loose leaves from the floor and returning them to the conveyor…

There’s the not unpleasant smell of unprocessed tea leaves which no doubt loses it’s appeal after a few work shifts. You have the heat of the ovens used for – I’m not sure what, because the sheer racket of the manufacturing machinery drowned out the voice of the tour guide.

The machine that puts the stringed labels onto the tea bags
The machine that puts the stringed labels onto the tea bags

You couldn’t describe the facilities here as state of the art. Much of machinery appeared to date from the 50’s and there is still a high reliance on manual labour.

Down at the plantation
Down at the plantation

The tour ends at a café balcony where you can try a dozen varieties of tea while admiring grand lakeside views of the plantation.

Tourism

When you consider the physical barriers to visiting Mauritius and the fact that island does very well out of agriculture and services it’s no surprise that the booming tourism industry is selectively geared toward those seeking a high end luxury experience.

Room with a view
Room with a view

If you want go somewhere tropical for relaxation Mauritius provides a fine choice of destinations and hotels. Aside from the climate which seems to ticks along at around 30 degrees all year long (watch out for the odd cyclone) the beaches are fabulous, and as for the sea…

Swimming with the fishes
Swimming with the fishes

The snorkelling might not rival that of the “neighbouring” Maldives but a coral reef that encircles the island creates a 300m apron of warm shallow water – perfect for watersports. I safely enjoyed snorkelling and kayaking, with the only danger coming at the hands of a pedalo that would only turn right. A GPS trace of my route would have looked like a drunk bumble bee.

Traditional Mauritian Cornish ice cream van
Traditional Mauritian Cornish ice cream van

That said you wouldn’t want to try and swim across the reef. The rest of your life would look something like: Get sliced to pieces on coral; Be mauled to death by sharks; Sink to the bottom of a very deep sea trench.

This looks like a lot of fun!
This looks like a lot of fun!

Fortunately there are Catamarans and sea planes for those wanting to venture further from shore.

Of course tourism these days isn’t just about sitting on a beach. People visit for a variety of reasons and nature tourism is a growth area.

You only have to look out at the palm fronds to catch the wildlife bug. I fell in love with the vivid red Madagascan Fody – as charismatic as they were colourful.

Feisty fellow
Feisty fellow

This chap followed a set routine of flight each day between three trees, proudly protecting his territory from any unwanted visitors. The Robin of the island.

Another favourite was the Red Whiskered Bulbul with its punky head feathers and tuneful call. Less often seen but commonly heard was the Common Myna – famed for its mimicry.

The most famous bird of Mauritius, indeed the most ubiquitous icon of Mauritius is omnipresent, despite the fact that it became extinct 350 years ago.

What we think the Dodo looked like…
What we think the Dodo looked like…

Everybody knows the legend of the Dodo, the flightless bird that was driven to extinction by its first and last predator – man. It’s everywhere. On book covers, T-shirts, postcards and even on bank notes.

Dodo – gone but not forgotten
Dodo – gone but not forgotten

Another species hunted to the verge of extinction has made a notable and welcome return to these shores. The giant turtle may once have appealed to the hungry settler but now they are drawing in the tourists. Meeting these remarkable creatures was unquestionably the highlight of my time in Mauritius.

Even older than me
Even older than me

I was even able to feed them during my trip to the Crocodile park – a curious zoo/eatery where one can view the crocodiles and then eat them at the restaurant. I’m pleased to say giant turtle is no longer on the menu.

As a footnote I was interested to learn that Charles Darwin spent 10 days in Mauritius as he developed his theories of evolution. Such a remote island would surely have provided valuable insights into his studies. When I realised that one of the hotel staff was called Darwin I asked if he was named after Charles Darwin. He said he wasn’t sure – his grandmother had chosen the name. I think we can be sure…


Life

Ten days on a remote island as a tourist probably doesn’t provide the soundest base for understanding a nation but as ever I just try to interpret what I see and hear.

Mauritius has been deemed to be the richest country in Africa. Since I didn’t see any extreme trappings of wealth on my travels around the island I think it’s safe to say that the money is not distributed evenly. All the same I didn’t witness homelessness, begging or overt poverty, which you increasingly observe in Britain.

The Mauritians I talked to were hard working and in many cases held down more than one job depending on the season.

After school games – Mauritians are obsessed by English football
After school games – Mauritians are obsessed by English football

Schooling is free here and literacy rates have increased above 90%. Children learn English and French (the official languages) while many also speak Creole – a variation of French originally spoken by African slaves brought over to the islands by colonists.

There is a University on the island, while some rich families send pay for their children to attend University in Europe. It’s little surprise that most young adults speak at least one more language than me!

Make do and mend – no need to replace these bus seat covers yet
Make do and mend – no need to replace these bus seat covers yet

A bus trip to the nearby town of Goodlands was educational. The buses may be ancient but they provide value and entertainment. Every passenger seems to know every other passenger with boarders patting the shoulders of seated friends as they walk the aisle. Smartly dressed ladies converge to share the latest news. All smiles!

Mauritians take pride in their properties. Even the most humble homes I saw had colourful and well maintained gardens.

Dholl Puri – a national speciality
Dholl Puri – a national speciality

The market I visited was a considerably hotter version of markets everywhere, with fabric stalls, fast food and fresh fruit. There seemed to be a slower pace here with no pressure to get things done quickly (the heat?) and as an outsider it was an unpressured and friendly experience.

On another sweltering day the bus was taking an eternity to arrive so we got a ride in a “share taxi”.

Sharing a ride
Sharing a ride

These popular taxis will take multiple occupants to the same destination for a fixed fee so you end up paying a low amount with whoever else jumps into the cab. I loved the social aspect of ride sharing and it was heartening to see the devotion this driver had for his clapped out vehicle – his means of income.

Interior trim lovingly repaired!
Interior trim lovingly repaired!

Unusually for me I haven’t droned on about food yet. Tropical fruit is part of the Mauritian diet. Pineapples and coconuts were in plentiful supply but we missed out on apricots and avocados – it wasn’t the season. Fish is another obvious staple.

Underneath the Banyan tree
Underneath the Banyan tree

I read that at many coastal villages there is a man who meets fisherman as they return to shore and negotiates a price for the catch, which is then sold on to the public and restaurateurs. This man is known as a Banyan because he waits under a banyan tree for shade!

A good catch
A good catch

It’s not clear how much of this is anecdotal but I did witness a fisherman selling a sizeable marlin onto a man, who I nosily followed to a car park where the haul was put on ice ready for a delivery.

The scales may be electric and the Banyan man waits in the shade of a bar rather than a tree but the tradition seems to live on.

Identity

You could look at the history of Mauritius and conclude that this was a nation of division. Successive colonisers have plundered the islands resources, subjugated Africans as slaves and made fortunes off the backs of low paid immigrants. Even today you can question the financial equality of islanders, the richest of whom may call Mauritius home purely for tax reasons.

The Mauritius I witnessed felt like a much more inclusive nation, confident in its values and looking to the future. People work hard but they are supported by the state and by their communities. There is education and opportunity for young people.

Les Quatre Bands
Independence Day

The last day of my visit happened to be the 49th Independence Day of Mauritius. I was taken with how this day was being embraced by islanders who wanted to celebrate their nation.

Les Quatre Bands
Les Quatre Bands

At a flag raising ceremony at my hotel the staff sang the national anthem and guests were told how the national flag colours represented the struggle for freedom (Red), the Indian Ocean (blue), the light of independence (Yellow) and the agriculture of Mauritius (Green).

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you

The descendents of today’s inhabitants came from Africa, India and Europe to live on this remote African outcrop in the Indian ocean. Islanders know their history and acknowledge a tangled and tumultuous past but unite behind a new shared identity of Mauritius. I’m lucky to have witnessed the birthday of a nation. And to have eaten a slice of its cake.


Too much information? The good news is that if you want to come just to sit on the beach drinking cocktails it’s great for that too.

The dark and light of Castleton

Looking down at Barber Booth

As an occasional day walker my trips into the Peak District don’t tend to extend beyond Bakewell due to constraints of time. While there are countless wonderful day walks to be had in the White Peak I have recently been pining for the striking landscapes of the Dark Peak further north where the edges become rougher and everything is turned up a notch.

My original plan was to start from Eyam, traverse Froggatt Edge, pass by the Chatsworth estate down to Bakewell before heading down the dales of Lathkill, Wolfcote and Dove, ending at Ilam on the third day. A lack of accommodation in Bakewell (of all places) put paid to that idea. Another plan involved the rugged delights of Snake Pass and Ladybower but the options for stopping over were even worse.

Decisions decisions...
Decisions decisions…

Eventually I threw away the notion of a linear walk and booked YHA accommodation in Castleton and Edale from where circular day walks could give the fix I was after. Now why was that so hard?



Youth Hostels have changed. Gone are the days where you have to contribute to communal cooking and washing up. The facilities have improved and there is a wider appeal, which is a good or bad thing depending on your outlook.

Lord of the manor
Lord of the manor

Castleton YHA has a baronial feel about it. With the first chills of winter on the way I’m grateful for the open fires that dot grand stone fire places of this old country manor. I’m less grateful for the screaming groups of school kids who are running amok in what must feel like a scaled down version of Hogwarts.

No sign of Harry Potter
No sign of Harry Potter

If I was them I would be just as excited.


Saturday morning is purpose made for walking. Breakfast is coffee and a bite on the green watching folk come and go beneath the Celtic cross, before frittering half an hour chatting with the encyclopaedic proprietor of an outdoor shop on the subject of boot makers of the Dolomites.

This is too relaxing
This is too relaxing

Finally I drag myself out of the shadow of Peverel Castle up a village road which almost immediately hints at the scenery that will define this walk. Rustic cottages frame the sort of scene you might expect to find to in the Yorkshire Dales or Lake District

Peak views
Peak views

The topography of today’s route is guaranteed to provide some dramatic sights – weather permitting. Before long the tarmac runs out and those views begin to reveal themselves.

Looking good!
Looking good!

If half of the visitors to Castleton are here to walk, cycle or hang glide then the other half have come to see the caves the town is famous for. I pass Peak Cavern and then Speedwell Cavern at the head of Winnats Pass.

I was prepared for every climatic condition except sunshine
I was prepared for every climatic condition except sunshine

The path ascends steeply to Treak Cliff Cavern where new seams of Blue John have recently been uncovered decades after the last major find. The landscape is really starting to open up and the sun finally makes an appearance as I ascend to the mouth of Blue John Cavern, which seems to be attracting cave enthusiasts by the bus load.

Looking down at Barber Booth
Looking down at Barber Booth

The foot of Mam Tor provides richly rewarding views north over the valley to Barber Booth. I wait awhile to absorb the rather unexpected scale and colour of this scene, plus the unexpected warmth of the winter sun. Then it’s a long gradual climb uphill for myself and the 100 other day walkers.

One of several trig points in the area
One of several trig points in the area

This section of path is attractively paved. It is hard to imagine the effort required to build and maintain a path like this, let alone one at a higher altitude beyond the range of any vehicle.

I'm guessing its this way…
I’m guessing its this way…

…which is probably why the paved path doesn’t last for long…

Easy walking, paved or unpaved
Easy walking, paved or unpaved

The ridge path towards Hollins Cross is a dream to walk, serving up outstanding views for minimal effort. The cross in question was removed a little over a hundred years ago and apparently, in even earlier times, the route was used to transport coffins from Edale over to Hope.

I overhear a group making call to the emergency services about an injured party member. Various parties are engaged with Duke of Edinburgh awards activities so perhaps this is an exercise? Fifteen minutes later the thumping rotors of an air ambulance suggest otherwise.

Black Tor
Back Tor

If I had ever followed up on my passing interest in Geology I might be able to explain the forces of nature that formed Back Tor. It certainly provides a great photo opportunity and a Japanese group are taking full advantage. Castleton has an international appeal I hadn’t expected with Americans, Russians and Italians amongst the other groups up here today.

Taking it all in
Taking it all in

I have really enjoyed this walk. This straightforward Peak District route has served a up rich variety of sights and points of interest. It has also been great to see such a diverse spectrum of people out on the hills.

Navigation has been a no-brainer and the weather has been kind. My march back down into Castleton is well timed as a heavy dark cloud threatens to put a dampener on things.

Making mud pies
Making mud pies

Not that weather is going to stop many people from getting out and enjoying themselves. After all, if you are going to make the effort of visiting the Dark Peak you aren’t going to be put off by the elements.

Tonight I’m going to enjoy the hostelries of Castleton. Tomorrow I’m going to take in the altogether more rugged landscape of Kinder. And the weather rarely does any favours there…