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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.

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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.

Back 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…

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Cornwall and Surfing. I’ve never thought of one without the other.

My earliest associations go back to family holiday visits to the rocky inlet at Trebarwith Strand where each year I would look on as wetsuit clad figures would crash into the water for better or worse.

Nothing epitomises this life aquatic more than the three young Trebarwithian brothers, bronze skinned and blond curly haired, who would play out each carefree summer in red neoprene between rock and sea. I wonder where they are now.

Trebarwith spectacle

Spectacular Trebarwith

It remains a mystery as to why I never made it onto a surf board myself. Frisbee and frenetic games of badminton on the golden sands were my distraction at low tide and once the beach was reclaimed by the sea we would scramble high up onto the rocks to watch the waves smash in below in the hope that some thrill seeker would get a soaking on the edges. And then to the long departed and sorely missed House On The Strand for cake and familial ribbing. At least we still have that.

Roll on innumerable years. St Ives lies south of my teenage memories. This picture postcard harbour town is best known for its artisan credentials as underpinned by the prestigious Tate Gallery. The westerly beach at Porthmeor may only provide a subplot to the town’s story but it attracts a small but dedicated chapter of surfers who plough the waves from dawn to dusk.

Early sun over Porthmeor

Early sun over Porthmeor

A daily vigil from the expansive ocean facing window of my hilltop holiday loft apartment is educational. With binoculars on full magnification I am able to sit in on a beginners surf school at the sheltered far end of the beach. An instructor demonstrates the transition from prone through to standing in a single fluid movement, now a well rehearsed reflex. He is almost encircled by a crab-shell arrangement of students who lay restlessly on their land-stricken boards with half an impatient eye on the rolling froth that begs their entry.

First surfers of the day

First surfers of the day

This afternoon I don sandals and make a steep descent to the beach with some camera gear. There are perhaps 20 independent thrill seekers in the water at the closest extent of the cove. To my untrained eye the conditions look a little hairy.

Hanging on

Hanging on

More experienced surfers bide their time. If a wave is too premature they ride over it. Too fully formed and they dive under it. There seems to be a lot of discussion between groups friends. Some barely attempt to ride any waves – their immersion in the rolling brine of Porthmeor purely social.

Doing it right

Doing it right

On this October weekday I have to wonder how surfing fits into people’s personal schedules – work, study or family. I guess if you really want to do something you find a way.

Making it look easy

Making it look easy

For every sculpted ride there are several wipe-outs, some spectacular! I’m traversing the beach with a temperamental zoom lens and the closer I get to the action the more I can smell the adrenaline. There’s a palpable sense of energy in the waves and I completely identify with the urge to connect with it.

It’s not easy!

It’s not easy!

Drawn further towards the breaking surf on a rising tide it’s not long before my sandals become soaked. At least now I can stop trying to dodge the water, but it is colder than I realised. The autumnal sun is frizzling away and my body temperature has plummeted but I still can’t drag myself from this scene. I’m forever holding out for one last action shot.

How can you turn away from this?

How can you turn away from this?

The waters are almost empty now and I catch a few words with one of the departees as he drags his board up the beach. Despite suffering with a cold has he been unable to resist the lure of the surf. With a broad smile he tells me that conditions today are brutal. Those entering the water have done so in spite and not because of conditions. “It’s all good!”.

Until tomorrow...

Until tomorrow…

I’m told to keep an eye on one young guy who is “the one to watch”. He’s confident for sure – out some distance beyond the rest. I reposition myself behind a rock out of a gusty wind that is throwing up white caps of foam in the bay, and zoom in on the maestro at work. Twenty minutes later it is becoming decidedly dark and I am chilled to the bone yet star child has done nothing but tread water.

Lassie go home

Lassie go home

The final stragglers are packing it in for the day and I follow suit, retreating through the gloom towards the faint warming glow of the Porthmeor beach café lights. A waft of stale frying oil floats my way and I’m not holding out much hope for a high quality cappuccino. Warm and wind-free will suffice.

Inside my lack of expectation is met. It’s quiet here now, just a lonesome well-wrapped holiday-maker sipping a hot chocolate and a couple of sandy surfers, their mandatory long hair wet and tangled from the day’s encounters.

Just one more wave...

Just one more wave…

From my window I watch the hillside lights of Porthmeor dot on one by one. The seaward view has assumed a bluish hue of monochrome, broken by the distant lamps of small fishing vessels and crabbers.

One human spec bobs on the surface 40 yards from shore. He’s still out there! Waiting for that perfect wave. The dream that won’t die.

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The fight back has begun. The allotment doesn’t own all my time. It starts this weekend with my first (!) proper walk of the fast receding summer. But this will be more than a walk – I need to right a wrong…

My encounter with the Cleveland Way national trail three years ago was specifically timed to coincide with the flowering of the heather that dominates the North York Moors. Inspired by the accounts of other walkers I visited in September when the hills were supposed to be awash with colour only to find that I had missed the party by a week or two. Today’s route crosses Stanton Moor where, rumour has it, the heather is in bloom.

I'm doing gardening wrong

I’m doing gardening wrong

The sun is ablaze as I set off from Rowsley at an improbably early time. There’s nobody to been seen and I’m feeling smug, even though the folk of Stanton Woodhouse Farm are probably on their second breakfast by now.

What's the hurry?

What’s the hurry?

Twenty minutes sat on a log admiring the view over the Derwent valley is time well spent. Especially since a dirty black cloud decides to latch onto me for much of the rest of the day. Fortunately the trail heads off into woodland where the rain is heard more than it is absorbed.

Woodland retreat

Woodland retreat

A tree-engulfed ruin has an industrial feel to it but what can it be? This is a former quarrying area but without signage its former life is left to the imagination.

Going nowhere

Going nowhere

Further down the track I come across an old quarry face. Four millstones, so emblematic of the Peak District, lie abandoned nearby. I imagine they were destined to grind flour before the business closed. Or were they employed to grind sandstone hewn from the rock face? Today they seem as immovable and permanent a part of the landscape as the ground on which they sit.

Not lost for once

Not lost for once

The rain eases off obligingly as I leave the cover of the undergrowth for Stanton Moor. When I planned this route the map contours suggested panoramic views from the edge over to Darley Dale but the dense foliage has left me with just brief glimpses. Now if only I could climb to the top of this tower…

Closed today

Closed today

The Reform Tower was erected by local benefactor William Pole Thornhill to commemorate the 1832 reform act which set out to democratise electoral representation and do away with the so-called rotten boroughs. We are long overdue another such revolution…

Encouraging...

Encouraging…

The sun greets my first sight of the moor and the signs are good. There’s heather and it’s purple!

...very encouraging...

…very encouraging…

Soon it gets better and the path is lined by flowering heather. Numerous bees hover and perch around the plants as they industriously strive to produce heather infused honey that may end up on toast for some lucky soul.

Purple reign!

Purple reign!

As Stanton Moor opens up into a treeless plateau I finally get to experience the carpet of colour I missed out on in North Yorkshire. The vivid heather is everywhere! I was pleased when I managed to barely keep 4 tiny heather plants alive in my front garden for a couple of seasons but mother nature does this sort of thing so much better. Although mother nature doesn’t have to contend with my dad coming around to mow not only the lawn but 4 abused plants I had fought to nurture while working away in London…

Natures work

Natures work

It’s not just the colour but also the contrast with the verdant carpet of fern and moss speckled outcrops of rock that create such a dramatic effect, not to mention a sweet smell of heather that lingers in the light moist breeze.

My trip has been well worth it and I’m not yet at the half way stage. The ascent down into Birchover leads through a very well-kept campsite that I stayed at many years ago with friends. I seem to recall visiting during the village fete at which we won a tin of spam.

Curious creatures

Curious creatures

I don’t recognise much now and certainly not the Llamas that adapt so well to the English landscape. These are curious, charming creatures with no apparent fear of humans. They share a slightly startled look that I can only interpret as confusion. “How did we end up here?”

Tempting

Tempting

The Druid Inn alludes to a local folklore that I will expand upon when I return to Stanton Moor after lunch, if you can call a slice of cake on a bench lunch. The drizzle intensifies and I watch from beneath a tree as a growing trickle of people head into the Red Lion for proper Sunday lunch.

No entry

No entry

Why do walks always resume up hill after lunch? A steep climb out of Birchover rejoins the main road and takes me past Birchover Quarry which continues the long-standing local tradition. They know how to keep vehicles out of the site – this car sized rock must weigh 20 tonnes.

Just imagine the size of the bottle...

Just imagine the size of the bottle…

Returning to Stanton Moor the surreal Cork Stone looks as if somebody has carved it and deposited it here. In fact it is one of many weathered sandstone oddities to be found in and around the moor although not all of them have had iron climbing handles hammered into them in the 19th century. Last time I was here I climbed to the top (ahem) so there’s no need to do it again.

4,000 years of ritual

4,000 years of ritual

A short walk through light woodland leads to an opening where … things get spiritual. The Nine Ladies stone circle dates back 4000 years to the bronze age where it was believed to be the centre of rituals and ceremonies for people who lived and farmed in the area. The Druid Inn in Birchover alludes to the mystical draw of this place which still attracts druids and pagans on the solstice.

Ancient monuments like these will always capture our imagination – perhaps even inspire song. (You know you have to click this link)

When can I move in

When can I move in

A short walk north brings me to the attractive village of Stanton In The Peak. Presumably “In The Peak” was a suffix added to boost tourism at some point but it is well worth a visit regardless. A minor stately home here is off-limits and I wonder if the high walled garden promises more than would be delivered if I had a ladder to find out.

Stanton In The Peak

Stanton In The Peak

The church is very attractive and appears to be well maintained. There are some beautiful gardens, thriving allotments and a field of hens roaming at their leisure in return for free range eggs. Not to mention a pub that I can’t believe I didn’t know about.

Real ale in the peak

Real ale in the peak

The Flying Childers is that scarce and precious entity – an historic village pub serving real ale in a country village that hasn’t been converted into housing. A pint is so so tempting but on this occasion I settle for a glimpse inside, and it’s everything I was expecting.

Sunday dominoes

Sunday dominoes

My return to Rowsley has a different feel to it, crossing farmland and passing herds of sheep and cows. There are calves and I’m always a little wary passing through fields in case I’m seen as a threat. Fortunately they don’t seem to be aware of my visits to the farm shop.

Back at my car the drizzle instantly dissipates and out comes the sun. Typical, yes, but I really don’t care because I have closure on my heather disappointment of three years ago. Yet there have been so many highlights in this leisurely 8 mile walk – panoramic views, dramatic rock formations, abandoned ruins, ancient and not so ancient monuments and pretty country villages.

You can’t beat the Peak District for variety and drama. From here I could walk 50 yards to the water powered Cauldwells Mill where they still grind flour, or I could drive 10 minutes to the magnificent Chatsworth estate but instead I find myself raiding the M&S food hall in Matlock for a meal whose timing defies categorisation. Besides, the allotment needs me…

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– I know what you are thinking.

The best board game ever!

The best board game ever!

My visit to this notorious region of Romania has nothing to do with the works of Bram Stoker. His novel has spawned a micro-industry whose popularity in these parts extends no further than a smattering of tourist tat vendors. Indeed Bran Castle – the impressive “home” to count Dracula – begrudges one solitary room to the story.

Dracula's courtyard

Dracula’s courtyard

When 800 years of power have been wielded by monarchs and rulers from within these walls you don’t need to resort to fiction to tell a great story. Today the castle is a popular but worthy visitor attraction despite, not because of its literary affiliations.

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Bran is one of many castles that lend a fairytale quality to the region. Bordered by the Carpathians and swathed in forest you really feel like you are travelling through some vast film set. Which would explain why Transylvania is a popular set location for film directors.

More palace than castle

More palace than castle

The royal palace of Peles near Sinaia might just have been penned by Walt Disney. I have been fortunate to visit the bonkers castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and Peles left me with that same feeling of wonderment.

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Despite any number of remarkable old buildings Transylvania’s greatest assets are natural. We don’t have anything as mountainous in the UK as the Bucegi range. One bright but breezy day we commissioned a 4WD tour to summit the Caraiman peak (the cable car was closed due to the winds).

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Our hairpin ascent finally broke through the tree line to leave us in snow near the 7800 feet summit – almost double the altitude of Ben Nevis. In the winter months much of this area is transformed into ski resorts and I’m tempted to return and experience that elemental rawness, followed by the fireside hospitality of some welcoming lodge.

I forgot the flag again

I forgot the flag again

The valleys and foothills are every bit as dramatic and for the most part unspoilt. Perhaps the pot-hole strewn track into the Piatra Crailui national park has been instrumental in warding off developer attention. Our hire car is a suitably rugged 4WD Toyota Hilux (named “the beast”) which seems the minimum requirement for this route, until I see a Daewoo Matiz romping along the track, in a cloud of dust and detached body parts.

The Beast

The Beast

With a mere scattering of farming settlements and lodges the park offers peace and tranquillity. And this view…

<speechless>

*Speechless*

A 6 mile walk through the valley unfolds a dream-like panorama. The snow capped mountain ridge dominates a dense forest that gives way beneath the foothills to a lush green valley and glacial melt-water river.

It’s hard not to be on the constant lookout for movement in the trees. Are we being watched? Brown bears live in this area leaving me torn between the desire to see one and the desire for it not to see me. Needless to say I witness no sign of bears or of the resident lynx, wolves or adders.

Born to be wild

Born to be wild

The marvellous Libearty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zarnesti hosts 85 of these beautiful creatures, often rescued from incarceration . Romania has a bad track record on animal welfare. Many of the rescued bears spent their former lives chained up or caged outside mountain lodges in this region so it’s good to see a change in public attitude.

Stork - between delivering babies

Stork – between delivering babies

Today’s walk is not without its natural encounters. Disturbed turf where wild boar have been rooting for food. Beautiful horses roaming with a sense of freedom. Buzzards circling overhead and ungainly storks perching on one leg. Why do they do that?

Free to roam

Free to roam

Time outdoors here is restorative. The aches and pains of modern life evaporate and the week’s dietary excesses (see my previous blog on Romanian food) are forgotten, if not forgiven. My family are not so forgiving when the route I have led them on expects us to ford a fast flowing river. Like I’ve been here before…

Fording the river would have been more fun

Fording the river would have been more fun

A weathered shepherd materialises from the landscape to guide us across a concealed log bridge. Life must be very tough in the cold months when isolated communities like this are cut off in the snow. There is little in the way of automation for the many Transylvanians who spend their lives tending herds or growing crops. People here are tough – they just get on with it.

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

This landscape must be full of stories. People have witnessed a lot of change – the fall of communism, induction into the EU and creeping globalisation – but some things haven’t moved on. It’s common to see people working the land with a scythe. Horse drawn carts remain in widespread use, whether as an aide to farming or family transport.

A 1HP vehicle

A 1HP vehicle

Nowadays the shepherds are invariably fiddling with mobile phones and even the cart drivers are glued to Angry Birds, but Transylvania, like the Caraiman peak, rises dismissively above the diversions of modern life.

Countless counts

Countless counts

Even Dracula…

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How can it have taken me until 2015 to visit to mainland Portugal? And how can it have taken me 3 months to review the photos I took while there? Well I have now and here are some impressions from the Algarve…

Despite this being my first visit I experience a sense of loss – things have clearly changed under the onslaught of tourism and often for the worse. As is so often the case the indigenous attractions that first drew in the tourists have eventually been eroded or eradicated by that same rise in popularity.

Simple does it

Simple does it

The parade of fisherman’s restaurants that I’m told used to line the beach front at Albufeira have gone, replaced by hotel development. That fresh regional cooking for which the region is famed has lost ground to full English breakfasts, chips, nasty pasta or “tourist friendly” versions of specialities. You can still get your hands on an authentic Cataplana – it’s just harder.

In need of some love

In need of some love

Yet there remain some echoes of a less exploited time. Ornate period buildings with their balconies, terracotta roofs and gothic ironwork crumble and rust but may yet be rescued. Old people who have lived through it all walk from the market miles along upgraded roads lugging their shopping through the heat of the sun.

Traffic delay due to sheep

Traffic delay due to sheep

A farmer herds his sheep past our holiday apartment each morning into an arid field now surrounded by holiday rentals. I’m doing that thing again – mourning the loss of something I never knew.

Half of Cliff’s Mistletoe & Wine empire

Half of Cliff’s Mistletoe & Wine empire

There’s an undeniable British stamp upon these lands. First we came for your weather then we came for your golf. Now, the ultimate insult, we have left Cliff Richard in your custodianship. His face appears everywhere due to his association with wine. You can even book to go on a coach trip to see Cliff’s vineyard although the chances are that he’s in Barbados for tax purposes. What must people think…

Contrary to expectations it’s the journey inland that captures my imagination. A road trip takes me through villages and a landscape that time has been kinder to. The small town of Loules has a lot going for it. Pretty streets lined with cafes and shops with not a chain or national brand in sight. The covered market provides a great place to people-watch.

The latest gossip

The latest gossip

How long has the man been repairing shoes and umbrellas? From his corner pitch he sees all and probability knows all. These are valuable people in any community.

Mr Fixit

Mr Fixit

Stall holders are predominantly staffed by tactile mum-types who want to have a chat and possibly sell something if they get around to it. We buy some unripe Olives for preserving and the sweet elderly stall holders are alarmed in case we intended to eat them now. So follows a 5 minute exchange of advice culminating in the sharing of a family recipe.

Chat first, business later

Chat first, business later

Time has a different meaning here. Every turn represents a chance to bump into a neighbour and talk at length about something. If that conversation happens to be outside then there’s every chance smoking will be involved. Everybody seems to smoke. They must teach it in schools.

A little piece of heaven

A little piece of heaven

Onto the attractive town of Silves, bordered by a river and dominated by its castle. This would make a great place in which to stay longer and explore. Cobbled streets wind their way to the summit, the cool shade sporadically broken where the sun finds a way to dazzle off the whitewashed walls. A blackbird sings sweetly from a postage stamp rooftop terrace garden somewhere above me. I don’t want to burst this bubble.

Sancho 1st: Thou shalt not pass! Unless thou payest 7.50e for a ticket

Sancho 1st: Thou shalt not pass! Unless thou payest 7.50e for a ticket

The towering figure of Sancho 1st is itself dwarfed by the imposing bulk of Moorish fortifications at the summit of the citadel. Given more time I would like to explore further and delve the complicated history of the castle and its surrounds.

Cork tree post-harvest

Cork tree post-harvest

The N266 road north from Silves winds and ascends through dense forest dotted with the occasional settlement. This is cork country and partially denuded trunks by the side of the road are a symptom of a carefully managed industry that represents half of the worlds annual production. I learn that cork can only be harvested from a tree after 25 years and then at 10 year intervals if the tree is to continue to thrive, so sensitive custodianship is intrinsic to the survival of this industry.

Enough cork to bottle a vineyard

Enough cork to bottle a vineyard

After a brief visit to the altitudinous Monchique (900m above sea level) my route heads west through a more arable landscape. I see people working patches of land I am curious to know what they are growing in this climate. Whatever it is must be for personal consumption as there are no large agricultural plots within sight.

Ancient graffiti

Ancient graffiti

Next stop Aljezur – another castle topped settlement, smaller than Silves but similarly occupied by Romans, Moors, Berbers and more. Today’s occupiers are likely to be upmarket holiday makers visiting nearby beaches, riding horses, walking or attending the cookery school.
(thinks: hmmm, this area would be good for walking…)

View from the castle

View from the castle

Views from the castle are tremendous and the strategic military significance of this site is obvious. Once again on my travels I’m left with the bittersweet impression that historical treasures are being somewhat under-sold. The downside is the lack of information to inform and inspire the visitor, while the upside tends to be quieter and less disturbed remains.

It feels like the end of the world

It feels like the end of the world

And so to the End Of The World. In former times Cape St Vincent was considered such as the engorged sun set into a sea beyond which there was no more land. People still visit for the spectacular sunsets, including me. As with any show there are the hotdog stalls and tacky souvenir outlets…

One last flower, rocks, a lighthouse, sea - then what?

One last flower, rocks, a lighthouse, sea – then what?

…but that shouldn’t take away from the raw beauty of this place. A moonscape of jagged rock ends abruptly with 70m cliffs, before … nothing.

…or is there more?

…or is there more?

Sorry, that was perhaps needlessly dramatic. There is the vastness of an ocean that still today leaves me wondering if there is anything beyond.

Not much of a sunset but you get the idea

Not much of a sunset but you get the idea

I watch waves batter the cliffs as the sun recedes. Seagulls somehow casually ride the fierce gusts of wind that catch me off guard. The savage beauty of this barren outpost has been well worth the visit despite a cloud obscured sunset.

In the spirit of the most memorable travels it is the unexpected that has been most rewarding. I wouldn’t return for the beaches or go-to resorts but I have seen enough of the hinterland to wonder what else might be discovered…

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Shrovetide football has been played in Ashbourne in one form or another for at least 350 years. Late to the party as usual this is my first visit. In case you aren’t familiar with the fineries of this longstanding tradition here’s a flying overview:

  • Up’ards and Down’ards compete to goal a ball 1.5 miles from the start at Shaw Croft in Ashbourne
  • Anyone born north of the river Henmore is a Down’ard, south and you are an Up’ard
  • The game starts when a “turner upper” throws the ball into the air from Shaw Croft Plinth
  • The game is played over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

Think of it as a mass participation game of rugby fuelled by beer that lasts for 2 days. If you want to know more I can recommend the internet

Eerily quiet

Eerily quiet

As I enter the town this mid-morning the empty bunting-lined streets allude to a genteel affair, if indeed I have got the right day.

Trouble brewing

Trouble brewing

The mood changes as I begin to notice all of the woodwork being applied to shop-fronts.

Getting out of town

Getting out of town

Most businesses warn that they will be closed in the afternoon. In my experience this behaviour is the prelude to a tornado or the visit of Clint Eastwood on horseback.

We don't want no trouble round here

We don’t want no trouble round here

I wander over to the epicentre of forthcoming action at Shaw Cross in the Waitrose car park. Shoppers are shopping and only a line of sand bags beneath the raised plinth suggest anything out of the ordinary.

Calm before the storm at Shaw Croft Plinth

Calm before the storm at Shaw Croft Plinth

Due to my lack of research I’m not sure what to do for the next 3 hours until the ball is turned up so I decide to follow other people and see where they are going. To the leisure centre it turns out for the traditional pre-game lunch and speech. All comers are welcomed by Mick Pepper who is this year’s esteemed “turner upper” – ie: the one to start the game by throwing it into the crowd.

Mick (right) meeting and greeting

Mick (right) meeting and greeting

Many people arrive and they all seem to know Mick and he seems to know them all. There is no sense of competitive rivalry as Up’ards and Down’ards mingle without differentiation.

I gather that an external caterer will be feeding 500 here this lunchtime. Since I’m not one of them I do my own thing until they re-emerge fired up and ready for action some 2 hours later.

Some of the many volunteers

Some of the many volunteers

A contingent of fluorescent Shrovetide Marshals lead a procession of VIPs through the streets amidst a small crowd of competitors and photographers, me included.

Mick with this year's custom built balll

Mick with this year’s custom built balll

The crowds are waiting at the Bridge on Dig Street where, in accordance with tradition, Mick is picked up and carried through to the plinth at Shaw Croft.

For he's a jolly good fellow!

For he’s a jolly good fellow!

Gone are the shoppers and cars of this morning. In their place await thousands of people all jostling for a view of proceedings.

SO many people

SO many people

Any elevated position is a viewing point. This years event almost didn’t go ahead due to difficulties in obtaining insurance. I’m starting to see why.

Don't they know what happened to Humpty?

Don’t they know what happened to Humpty?

Few folks have the luxury of a window view.

Watching in comfort

Watching in comfort

Shrovetide football in Ashbourne has received international attention for several years, attracting film makers and foreign tourists. The BBC are here amongst others but they face the same struggle to find a good viewing position.

Destined for the screen

Destined for the screen

There’s a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and then God Save The Queen plus a speech I can’t hear. Then Mick follows in the footsteps of Brian Clough (1975) and Prince Charles (2003) by launching the ball into the throng.

On your marks, get set...

On your marks, get set…

Despite appearances as a free-for-all there are rules. Most notably murder and manslaughter are forbidden. The ball disappears into the scrum and barely surfaces for 10 minutes.

GO!

GO!

It is around this time that many onlookers decide they have ticked the Shrovetide football box and head off to wholeheartedly commit themselves to ticking the Shrovetide drinking box.

The other competition

The other competition

There must be 10 pubs in the this little town and people are spilling out of each of them this sunny afternoon. It’s sorely tempting to join them except I feel that the game itself deserves a little more attention.

Fuel for footballers

Fuel for footballers

I return to the fringes of the action and decide to set up my tripod on the banks of the river in case the action returns towards town. A gentleman named George tells me that he comes every year on behalf of his truck company to network with clients. Apparently this event is a significant draw for corporate types and the friendly informal nature of Shrovetide is ideal for developing relations. The minimal cost of attendance is shadowed by the potential profit in selling a lorry.

Wait and they will come. (They didn't)

Wait and they will come. (They didn’t)

Runners for each side loiter strategically on the periphery of the scrum ready to receive the ball should it break free and sprint off with it. Unlike other variants of football played around the world Shrovetide football recognises the position of “in the river” as that’s where the ball will inevitably spend some time.

One of the subs

One of the subs

Progress, if that’s the word, is slow with the crowd lumbering slowly around the park. There’s an impasse in the children’s playground which at least makes for some interesting spectator viewing opportunities.

The Up'Ards getting on top

The Up’ards getting on top

Then like the slipping of some tectonic plate the pack darts south back down the slope again and through Henmore Brook. The surrounding crowd rushes out of the way to avoid being trampled and there are shrieks from youngsters as they play their part in this rite of passage.

Who can say what's going on in there

Who can say what’s going on in there

It’s clear that this is going to carry on for a long time yet. The Up’ards are vaguely on top but there’s another mile to cover if they are going to goal at Sturston Mill.

Time to leave them at it

Time to leave them at it

As the seething mass inches eastward people gradually peel off the core and traipse back towards town to replenish empty plastic pint glasses. With the shadows lengthening and the cold drawing in I make my own escape.

I’m sat at home by the time Vincent Brayne adds his name to the 124 year old Roll Of Honour with a goal for the Up’ards at 7:53pm. Can the Down’ards respond? It all kicks off again tomorrow.

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