Category Archives: Travel

#51 Cycling and painting

My son and daughter were with me this weekend gone. We were supposed to be surfing down at Saunton Sands. The sparky woman at Walking on waves said the sea was as flat as a pancake, that she’d happily rearrange. Anytime in the future. No problem.

I put tagine in the slow cooker, made a picnic, packed water-colour materials and bikes in the car and drove over to Monkton Combe, by the Dundas Aqueduct.

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Even though they’d fought, and farted at each other while I’d sorted the parking ticket, my two were suitably impressed and calmed as we cycled beside the canal across the aqueduct. There’s a ledge beneath the balustrade that we all wanted to clamber over onto, but didn’t.

The air was soft, a light breeze scented with the sweetness of rotting leaves, the sun gradually breaking through dull clouds. Wood smoke hung in the air next to various narrow boats. The steeply banked woods on the opposite side were mostly sycamore, their outward facing leaves blushed carnelian. A drunk stumbled onto the path from the hedge. He clutched a can of Tennants’ Super-T and looked confused as we breezed past. The river ran parallel to us in the valley below, but in the other direction, south west to Bath.

My son led the way at first, his legs somehow pumping twice as fast as mine, front wheel twitching as he scanned for minor off-shoots from the main path to scramble over. My daughter followed, cautious eyes taking in all the details, cataloging, defining. We passed under a beautiful road bridge, Winsley hill road from Limpley Stoke towards Bradford on Avon.

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Just beyond, an elegant conservatory filled with geraniums looks down upon the canal path. The kids passed by oblivious. There were various hired narrow boats abroad on the water, some filled with lively chatter, some more morose. We branched off by the lane to Turleigh, down to the river, to picnic. Here, for half an hour, my children turned on each other again over their sandwiches, cookies and Doritos. While they traded tired insults, a dragonfly hovered nearby, a kingfisher shot upstream and several trains trundled along the elevated branch line at Freshford.

We ploughed back across a deeply grassed field and rejoined the canal path. Soon enough, we crossed our second aqueduct at Avoncliff. We descended the embankment and rode through the tunnel and up the path to The Cross Guns pub. I realised the last time I’d been here was 25 years ago. I’d signed up with the school cross-country team and, as a perverse end-of-term treat, our coach arranged that we would do a night-run along the path ending here. A single lemonade all round. Huzzah.

I don’t think it’s much changed. A traditional-style pub, all horse brasses and stone walls, fires roaring. There’s a large benched garden terraced down to the river. Nice enough on a hot day, maybe, but there was a shadowy, forlorn feel to the place today. The river is met by a minor brook here. The water is shallow and reedy, perfect for the ducks that my son fed most of his ice-cream to.

We cycled back up onto the aqueduct, returning the way we’d been, now actively searching for a subject to paint. My daughter chose the first boat we came upon, named Topsy. I unpacked our materials: a small A5 Winsor & Newton pad, three portable water colour kits, pencils, brushes, a rubber and sharpener.

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I filled our jars with water and we began.

My son focussed on mixing the right brown for the water, which he then flooded his page with. He painted a solid black boat which soon sank beneath more brown. Eventually, twenty minutes later, just before giving up, he painted another black boat with blue windows.

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I proceeded in the more traditional way of sketching first.

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The roof is partly fictional as I was sat down, and couldn’t really see it. I then spent about an hour adding colour and ended up with this.

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Not accurate, not awful.

My daughter took her time and steadily added layers of colour. Even though she was sat beside me, she painted a side-on view.

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I love her trees.

All together:

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The sun glowered at the far end of the tunnel of overhanging branches, the temperature had started to drop. We headed back. I pinched the drying paintings between my fingers, two in one hand, one in the other, steering the bike on the balls of my palms. Mistakenly, I pointed out a rabbit in a field that we’d already passed. My son turned to look, and plunged into brambles and nettles. Some tears. A cuddle.

A heron stood motionless a few feet from the path, not threatened by us. The drunk from earlier had made barely any progress in the three hours or so since we passed before. Again, a question seemed about to form in his eyes, then dissolved. We glided back over the first aqueduct, slowly enough to discern the mottled white and black neck of another static heron. The path fell away from Brassknocker Basin marina, down towards the car, its fan heater and home.

#50 We made boats

This began a long while back. Somehow, we both discovered that we had long wanted to make a boat.

We found a plan online: http://make-cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/make/20/M15_%20sailboat%20MAKE.finalrev.pdf

Bought small planks of Western Red Cedar from Bristol City Timber – fantastic service from a predominantly commercial seller. Bought green sail-cloth from St Nicholas covered market, as well as eyelets.

IMG_0715Measure and cut the cloth. J taught me how to use the sewing machine.

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Put eyelets in. Ordered brass pieces online, cut the keel from them.

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Cut lengths of dowel for the mast and booms.

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The hulls were shaped from the original blocks with a bastard rasp, then graded sandpapers. Then yacht varnished.

Keels glued in.

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Named.

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Rigged and ready.

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What I didn’t know was the amount of uplift needed to keep mine afloat. As I shaped the hull, I had got over zealous and tried to create a racer, all sheer angle and slice. When we launched at the boating lake at Portishead, she listed over onto her side, lifeless.

I will make another. We have the materials, and the mast and rigging can be transferred. The trick is, with disappointment, is to feel the weight of it fully, before casting it off and looking ahead. It did really matter, and because of that, we will make it better.

#49 Lacock Abbey – Fortress of orthodoxy

View of Lacock Abbey from the south on a sunny summer day.

I went to Lacock yesterday with the kids, my partner and her kids.

I ended the day writing this to the National Trust complaints board:

Dear Madam/Sir,


I am writing in response to surprisingly hostile and aggressive behaviour from a member of staff at Lacock Abbey this afternoon. The incident was witnessed by my two young children, my partner and her son, as well as other visitors.


Having enjoyed the grounds, my family and I entered the abbey via the exit. This was an honest mistake, easily made, but what followed was utterly unacceptable. 


The steward in the room – Denise – strode across the room and demanded we leave. I was taken aback at the bluntness of her tone, and asked why it wasn’t acceptable to continue around the property from this point. We were told it was ‘prohibited’. I asked why, and was met with a hand being pushed into my side as Denise immediately lost her temper. 

Would she have done this if I had perhaps been one of the more genteel visitors?

I asked your employee to stop shoving me and to get out of my personal space. She backed off, with an ironic apology aimed at visitors around us.


 
I remain stunned at the fact that I have been shoved and insulted by someone who managed to summon moral indignance at being asked if it were possible to walk around the property in a different direction. 


I asked Denise if she would find it acceptable if someone invaded her personal space.
Her response? 


‘”I’m British. I live here, so I’m already in my personal space.”‘

I find this to be a particularly revealing and unpleasant conflation of hostile nationalism and interpersonal respect. 
As she has shown herself to be a singularly officious and self-righteous individual, I have no doubt that this employee will already have mounted a vehement and aggrieved defence. However, even though I have a shaved head and was wearing a pair of trainers, I have the right to be unmolested, and be treated with the same degree of courtesy as any other of your members. I happen to be British, but deplore the thought that someone from another country might be treated to this type of petty conservatism. 

That someone entrusted with dealing with the public can summon such disproportionate fury at the notion of walking the abbey in a different direction is laughable. That this person would then immediately resort to shoving, hostility and implied racism is deeply offensive, and calls into question Lacock Abbey’s judgement in employing such a person. 

I would like an apology, and assurance that this type of assault is prevented from recurring. If I do not hear from the NT, I will pursue this matter further.

#47 Cakes of Portugal No.4 Quejada amendoa

Monday, 27th July – Local kiosk cafe, Volta Duche, Sintra 

Cake no.4: quejada amendoa

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Two quejadas. The amendoa (almond), beneath.

Quejadas are the speciality cake of Sintra. Sinatra is a special place itself, a town spilling up into dramatic hills, littered with fantastical castles built with fairy tale wealth and fancy. Compared with the neo-romantic splendours of the town, the cakes are relatively humble. They are made with lots of milk, giving them a slightly cheesecake texture.

My quejada amendoa had a syrupy surface, speckled with the remnants of crushed almond kernels. The interior texture and taste is much like a bakewell tart, though less cakey. It is enclosed within a narrow, firm pastry that assists my many measured bites approach, though I’m sure it would support a more frenzied attack.

This quejada amendoa was a fine accompaniment to a great expresso.

(This cafe doesn’t feature on the internet, and I omitted to record its name, so remains nameless. It is a modest cafe on the sweeping approach road to the old town, set up a flight of stairs near the public toilets. It has a number of tables, all with yellow Lipton ice tea parasols. I recommend it very much for its modest prices, as much as the friendly and genuine family who run it. Our waiter (the son) is called Harley Davidson, and chatted with us for a while about his portrait drawing and artistic hopes. I wish him well. His tag is below.)

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#46 Cakes of Portugal No.3 Bolo de chocolate

Monday 27th, July – Landeau, Rua das Flores, Lisbon

Cake no.3: bolo de chocolate

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The bolo de chocolate translates simply as chocolate cake, and is not a cake undersold. Extracts from reviews suggest that this is ‘the best chocolate cake in the world’.

There are two branches of Landeau in Lisbon. Both are beautifully designed, industrial retro-chic locations. We were at the Chiado cafe which is the least pretentious of the two, like a cross between a wine vault and 1950s schoolroom. There is a monastic calm in this cool interior that insulates from the city beyond, which my children managed to quickly dispel by tussling over who could ride the 1970s trike in the corner. There was no-one else here and the waitress was entirely happy with them careering around the cafe in circles. It was fine.

The menu here is simple – a bolo de chocolate, accompanied with either tea/coffee/hot chocolate/port. A slice of the best chocolate cake in the world costs €3.50.

The cake is constructed in three layers. The base layer is a delicate sponge cake, the mid layer, a light mousse, and the upper layer, a dense, rich dark chocolate ganache (or similar) dusted with cocoa powder. It is very nice. Despite being founded on such a light base, the cake coheres well. Each layer compliments the other well (they are each chocolatey, after all). It is deliciously rich without being cloying, and the aftertaste is intense with a lingering coffee taste (that isn’t just the accompanying coffee).

After one mouthful, the kids disdained it. I had forgotten they treat all dark chocolate the same way, and we were happy to dispatch their leavings. Neither my friend or I are gourmands, we enjoy food, but lay no claim to sophisticated palates. It is hard to say whether this is the best chocolate cake in the world, it certainly isn’t the worst, or even the most average. But, when confronted with a cake of such weighty acclaim, the likelihood of anticlimax is high. The lasting impression was of having eaten a really nice chocolate mousse. This makes sense, as the chief component of the cake is the mid layer mousse which is, really, very nice.

I can also report that the coffee at Landeau is great.

#44 Cakes of Portugal No.1 Alsaciana

Saturday, 25th July ~ Casa des historias, Cascais

Cake no.1: alsaciana

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Texture is what first intrigues. It feels compact, yet barely stable, like a suet pudding solidified. Or yellow play dough.

A caramelised, creme brûlée top, sticky rather than brittle.

Taste like a mild lemon curd, custardy, sweet and tart. Went extremely well with a great expresso.

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#42 airplane (draft)

Contained, concealed, a heart revealed,

A clear refining light unveiled

Beyond your eyes.

 

Fingers clasped around my phone,

I’m not alone. The runway falls,

We’re coming home.

 

Across the aisle, a stranger sees,

Perhaps perceives the fields of trees,

Racing seas, swarms of bees we conjure.

#41 seaside

Strange to be by sea on sand

Sunned, yet chilled by wind while tanned,

Watching son and daughter manned by others.


Surf school seemed the slackest sort,

Though by these slackers children taught

To stride the breakers’ cold onslaught and triumph.


Moored up, but still the rise and fall,

Anchor deep, yet still that pull

Elsewhere, a pulsing constant call, my other.


Cells divide, hearts contract, blood rushes through.

Time passes, thoughts turn, waves renew.

Surfing stops, I switch bifocal view.

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#39 windmill

Suspended on a wooden floor in the upper chamber of a sailless windmill, wind swaddled the tower in a sinewy vortex. 

We’re on the first high point inland from Praia Guincho, one of Europe’s wildest surf beaches. The wind is awe inspiring. 

Our walls are at least two feet thick, the tower shaped like a squat pepper grinder. No sense of danger. Outside, though, the palms and pines are strafed and raked, their fronds and needles shriek. 

  

#34 Embracing the craic, the folk in the yoke

Shoulder muscles straining with low-speed clutch work, I disgorged the motorbike out of the ferry’s maw down slippy metal gantries.

Stadium-sized sodium lights highlighted steady drizzle- Rosslare docks at dawn- our first sight of Ireland.

The ferry had left Wales at 2:15am, and the passage across had been like a giant sleepover. Adults drugged by driving and children snug in onesies sprawled across sofas, armchairs and on the carpet, snoring, snoozing, or getting up to stagger sidelong into walls towards the toilets, gently rocked by the Irish sea.

We breakfasted at Wexford, opposite the statue of John Barry. The town had a quaint, forgotten air, looking out on a choppy little bay with a single fishing boat. Several spiegeltents decorated the front beside the empty railway line.

Heading northward, we crossed the bridge at Enniscorthy. The River Slaney followed alongside us, brilliant and fast flowing. We stopped at Carlow, our tired eyes arrested by the bricked-up windows of many of the stone cottages lining the approach road.

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The high street was more depressing. It was a greyish morning, but the uniform grimness of cheap bars, betting shops, 1Euro shops and Polski Skleps seemed relentless and mean.

Three restorative cups of tea drunk, we headed out and north again, stopping briefly to stretch out under a wind-bowed hawthorn among psilocybe semilanceata on a hill by Ballintlea. The Wicklow Mountains, blue-tinted like a stage backdrop, reared up in the distance, far beyond the agricultural plateau formed of County Laois, County Kildare and County Wicklow.

We continued through dull Portloaise and the cynical architecture of Tullamore (admittedly skirting the town centres) until we finally reached our log cabin near Rathconrath. We had travelled 657km in 20 hours. Tea, and oatcakes with peanut butter sent us plummeting into unconsciousness within minutes of arrival. When we woke, hours later, the sky was already dimming. We roller-coastered along the swooping R392 into Mullingar for supplies, promising ourselves our first real Irish Guinness at the unassuming looking petrol station/grocers/bar we passed.

Top-box loaded with wine, cheese, potato farls and bread, we side-stood the motorbike and went into Gunnings at about 6:30 pm. The door opened into a plain little shop. There were several customers with their groceries, and each nursed a pint of Guinness on the shop counter. Facing us, was an ecclesiastical-looking wooden screen with a frosted glass door. We walked through, and found the bar.

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It’s hard to properly describe Gunnings’ rugged simplicity and worn charm. Every surface bears some evidence of age and long usage. Each element seems to have achieved balance with its neighbour- the stone floor, the wooden parquet ceiling.

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The battle-scarred dartboard,

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and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.

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The first, nourishing Guinness,

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The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.

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All things felt right and, despite being still fully leather-clad, we felt we were now actually somewhere else. There were only three other people in the bar, the young barmaid, and two men in earnest discussion on bespoke log-hewn bar stools.

John and Anthony

One and a half Guinnesses in, I went over and asked the nearest man about Irish roads. To the newcomer, it’s not obvious what the broken yellow line on the fast N-roads denotes (it’s a hard-shoulder). The question was reciprocated; I explained where we’d come from, where we were staying. He knew our host. I called J over and we introduced ourselves properly. John introduced Anthony, and explained that they’d been at a wake most of the day. Somehow, within minutes, John had invited us along on a drive to another bar. We had meant to head home, cook dinner and rest up (we were due at a dance festival in the early hours the next night, we had been travelling for 20 hours), that was the sensible thing to do, the responsible choice.

Obviously, we said yes.

John had soon threaded us deep into a knotted network of lanes that we had no chance of remembering. It was somehow like becoming children; aided by fatigue, excited by chance, we absolved ourselves of responsibility. I rediscovered a treasured, long forgotten word my old landlord from Tipperary had taught me: yoke. It means thingamajig.

I videoed a fragment of the journey, talking about Gunnings:

We arrived at The Beech Tree at Streamstown, and found a warm welcome. The landlady lent us plates to make our own sandwiches on, and John and Anthony let us be awhile. Another Guinness in, and we felt ready to mix and were introduced around the bar.

Beech tree Guinnesses

We had another Guinness and a half (known as a lady – worth having as it comes in that corset-shaped glass), said our farewells and headed back out.

John suggested we went back to Gunnings. Why not?

But now, it was different and charged with life. The modest space was filled with people, movement and music, talking, clamour, folk airs on aeolian pipes, melodeons, a whistle, a guitar, singing. We had flowed automatically into the bar and now, immersed deep in the throng, we took in the array of glad, open faces. John introduced us to many, most of whom were farmers, or former farmers of beef cattle. We were given snuff, more Guinness, I was given a lesson on the melodeon, discussed the styles of music played (the waltz, the horn-pipe, the jigs, the reels)…

More Guinness, more music and more talk until, 7 Guinnesses and a lady down, we finally had to rest. Martin, cheerfully sober, sustained by the snuff he’d shared, drove us to our cabin and bid us a goodnight. It was, it had been, and it won’t be forgotten.

Generous, honest, warm, hospitable people, all gathered together, embracing us easily into their midst.

How can it be that something so clearly natural felt utterly unfamiliar?