Digging In

A mere 10 weeks ago I was innocently lapping up the Madeira Carnival and researching trips to northern Italy (of all places) and beyond. Now a trip to the shops requires a comparable level of planning and presents similar pangs of anticipation.

In these challenging times we all need to find some normality with a side order of escapism. For me the allotment has become my day out, exercise and mental escape from what could otherwise descend into the grey sludge of existence. Or at least Netflix box-set oblivion.

We have been plot holders now for (remarkably) 5 years, during which time it feels like we have been in a constant arm wrestle with an octopus. This makes sense when viewed in retrospect. In our first year we started late and took over a plot in a shambolic state. Every year since we have taken on some new area – either expanding our smallholding or exchanging one plot for another – and in doing so we have never been able to focus our resources in consolidating what we already have.

What we inherited 5 years ago
What we inherited 5 years ago

This year for the first time we have retained last year’s borders. In previous years we would have made a hand full of visits to the allotment in March and April to fight battle with the raging hangover of last year’s party. This year I have probably visited 10 times every week over the same period and the results are profound. We are, for the first time, ON TOP OF THINGS! (*) At least as much as one can ever be on top of parcel of land created and regulated almost wholly by forces outside our control. 

Here’s a list of some of the jobs I chalked off by early May.

Maintenance

Maintained  – Turns out that the reason my shed was leaning precariously was that the neighbouring butt containing 1000 litres of water had slid off its base. It took considerable effort to empty the butt and rebuild the base from scrap materials but now it’s done.

Cleared – An inherited shed was totally overrun with brambles. It took me an entertaining 10 minutes to dismantle it with an unsuitably small hammer. Clearing the area of brambles took longer, but it’s done.

Past its best
Past its best

Built – That shed I dismantled? I used salvaged materials to build a raised planter for strawberries. It turns out that almost all allotment activity takes place at ground level or below so an elevated planter is your back’s best friend

From shed to planter
From shed to planter

Organised – I finally got around to building a dedicated area for storing bricks. Nice and tidy!

rick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)
Brick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)

Maintained – Two stretches of path have been reset to eradicate weeds. This entailed lifting slabs, weeding and relaying the slabs over a plastic sheet to prevent future weed incursion. This was most satisfying, if at times horrifying as beneath some slabs I found teeming ant metropoles. They were not happy with my intrusion but I am now the Ant Overlord. Which is nice.

Built – I built 2 new beds, one for onions and one for rhubarb. There’s a career in bed building if I choose it.

Onion bed - there will be tears
Onion bed – there will be tears

Built – I constructed a system of fruit supports within the fruit cage. Our relocated blackberries and cherry sapling will finally have to start respecting my authority on where to grow.

Built  – One feature of my polytunnel rebuild I was never happy with was the door latches. I designed and build much sturdier ones using slats from a garden chair I found in a skip plus plastic shipping waste from a new washing machine.

Door latches – Blue Peter style
Door latches – Blue Peter style

Pruned – The fruit trees in the communal orchard have long been abused and neglected. I gave them a vigorous pruning  in order to encourage growth and prevent disease. They have since bloomed with a vengeance, giving me the retrospective delusion I knew what I was doing at the time.

It doesn't get any more exciting than this!
It doesn’t get any more exciting than this!

Maintained – I actually, REALLY, turned the compost! I never get around to turning the compost. Does anybody?

Ground prep

Prepared – I uncovered and turned a 2 substantial areas for potatoes, which have since been planted and earthed up earlier than ever

Future chips
Future chips

Prepared – The 2 raspberry beds have been weeded, fed with compost and mulched

Future Eton Mess
Future Eton Mess

Weeded – I turned and weeded a long bed for brassicas, although our hopes of success this time are tempered by the fact we have been dining on pest leftovers for the past 3 years.

Weeded – Weeds in the fruit cage have been removed where possible. They have a knack of rooting next to the fruit stems making it impossible to get them out without damaging the fruit stems. Plan B is to cover with weed control fabric, or there’s Plan C – ignore them.

All under control
All under control

Weeded – Large areas of our plot that have been infested with self-seeded forget-me-not that a former neighbour let loose without thinking. I belatedly worked out why they are called forget-me-nots. While prolific they don’t deep-root so can be cleared quite quickly.

Planting

Transplanted – A very long-suffering pear has been liberated from a pot in the back garden to our fruit tree bed. It is the Terry Waite of the Orchard – free at last and no doubt writing a memoir about its former incarceration.

Pear tree rehomed and water
Pear tree rehomed and watered

Transplanted – The cherry sapling we planted in the communal orchard has struggled to compete for light and water. I moved it to the fruit cage where it could be protected from birds and trained

Transplanted – A badly positioned gooseberry bush has been re-homed in the fruit cage. It just looks so happy now. I do hope it thanks us later in the season.

Planted – Two young rhubarb crowns finally got a new home. They haven’t shown much sign of activity in the following weeks but they are alive. A bit like bedroom bound teenagers in the summer holidays.


Most of these tasks have been completed in an hour or two, time often stolen from an early evening after work. Cumulatively they have propelled us into May with unprecedented momentum.

Allotments are rewarding in many ways but during the lockdown months I appreciate having a point of focus outdoors. There is still so much to do but by achieving numerous smaller tasks it feels like I have a semblance of control over something.

Control is of course an illusion, as anyone who had plans for 2020 will recognise. A mild frost in early May forced us to cover all sorts of plants that might otherwise have been damaged. An impromptu gale yesterday last night may have caused some damage down at the plot. The ants may have overthrown me as leader during my absence.

All you can do is plan, hope, implement, review and accept. Perhaps most importantly you try to enjoy. Ant powder helps.

Carnival

Carnival !

It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.

I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.

Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up
Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up

The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.

Jostling for position
Jostling for position

This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.

Fuelling up
Fuelling up

Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.

Elevated viewing points are in demand
Elevated viewing points are in demand

People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.

Some will go to any length
Some will go to any length

Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.

I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.

Setting the tone
Setting the tone

At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.

Funchal or Rio?
Funchal or Rio?

The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.

Centre of attention
Centre of attention

It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!

Carnival !
Carnival !

The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.

Hold on to your hat
Hold on to your hat

Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production

Putting on a show
Putting on a show

The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both

Leading Lady
Leading Lady

The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.

Stayin Alive
Stayin Alive

Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation

Music and rhythm
Music and rhythm

This is not a night for introverts.

Everyone is a star
Everyone is a star

The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.

Capturing the moment
Capturing the moment

I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.

A alegria da vida
A alegria da vida

The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.

For one night only...
For one night only…

It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.

Life is a cabaret
Life is a cabaret

I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.

All good things come to an end
All good things come to an end

For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods

Taking flight
Taking flight

Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.

For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.


Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…

The morning after
The morning after

The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days

Until next time...
Until next time…

Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?

The Motzi Immortal

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

I'm 94 you know
I’m 94 you know

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

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

Market vith a view
Market vith a view

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

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

Fresh from the fields
Fresh from the fields

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

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

A womans work
A womans work

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

Little chicken
Little chicken

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

More cowbell
More cowbell

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

An axe for every ocassion
An axe for every ocassion

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

Beyond the crowd
Beyond the crowd

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

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

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

Stubborn as a mule
Stubborn as a mule

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

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

Deep into the Apuseni

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

Ascent into the Carpathians
Ascent into the Carpathians

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

Farming life
Farming life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxi!
Taxi!

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

Bujor

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

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

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

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

A hard working landscape
A hard working landscape

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

Traditional house selling traditional crafts
Traditional house selling traditional crafts

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

Tempting, but no
Tempting, but no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep into the Apuseni

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

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

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

North Bank Show

Mesmerising detail

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

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

Sauron's tower
The tower of Sauron

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

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

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

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

Churchill - larger then life
Churchill – larger then life

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

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

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

Feel the force
Feel the force

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

The waiting game
The waiting game

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

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

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

So many stories
So many stories

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

Mesmerising detail
Mesmerising detail

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

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

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

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

And breathe...
And breathe…

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

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

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

This is nice
This is nice

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript…

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

Barbican In Sight And Sound

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

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Child of the sixties

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

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Unsubtle

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

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

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Intruiging…

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

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Light and lines

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

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Satisfying shapes

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

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Yes, it is

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

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Simply captivating

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

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Space port

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

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

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What even is this?

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


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

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12 Ensemble, give or take

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

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Broody Miloš

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

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The stage is set

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

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M’col – Stephen Fry

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

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A photo of music

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

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Playing second fiddle

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

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

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Grand

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

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Jayson “fingers” Gillham

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


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

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

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

Re-skinning The Polytunnel

Open All Hours

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

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


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

Sieve
Sieve

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

Poor abused car
Poor abused car

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

No left turns
No left turns

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

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

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

Cuts have to be made
Cuts have to be made

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

Early doors
Early doors

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

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

You've Been Framed
You’ve Been Framed

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

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

DIY SOS
DIY SOS

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

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

World's Strongest Man
World’s Strongest Man

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

Homes Under The Hammer
Homes Under The Hammer

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

Great Rail Journeys
Great Rail Journeys

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

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

Cash In The Attic
Cash In The Attic

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

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

Celebrity Masterchef
Celebrity Masterchef

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

Supermarket Sweep
Supermarket Sweep

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

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

Tipping Point
Tipping Point

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

Quincy ME
Quincy ME

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

Open All Hours
Open All Hours

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

A Place In The Sun
A Place In The Sun

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


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

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