Category Archives: Travel

#31 Travelling

In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.

So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…

Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.

Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

#30 Marta

Raton. Rrrrrrrrrrrraton, Spanish for mouse.

I can’t pronounce it, my lips/tongue/mouth don’t know the way of forming the sound.

Marta laughs.

Quack, miaow, woof. Animal sounds are the same in Spanish, which is useful as- right now- they form the only shared language between Marta and me.

 

Yesterday, I was so tired. The weekend I’d been anticipating for so long was over, and now it was just me and my fatigue. J and I took a train to Whitstable to visit an old friend. We ate (plenty of oysters) and drank copious amounts. We caught up,  broke bread, laughed, lounged.

There had been a malaise that fell on me towards the end of Saturday night. Gin-fuelled, undoubtedly, gradually I slumped into a wordless sinkhole, and detached from J. It hurt her. I pulled myself more-or-less together the next morning, but I was left with the consciousness of dark silt in the depths of me, threatening to billow up with the next change in current.

 

Marta is my daughter’s Spanish exchange student. I had to retrieve her from school Monday lunchtime. She was crying as we drove away, and she phoned her mum as we headed to B&Q. When we got out, the trolley I chose was unco-operative, causing Marta to chuckle. A woman from B&Q came across to help me separate a different trolley from one with which it seemed to be coupling. More chuckles. I needed some manure and shears and, as I searched for them,  I gradually managed to draw Marta out on the subject of her garden at home in Seville- quite large, no orange trees. We got the manure – caca de caballo. Smirks.

Back home we set about making spag bol. Turns out, Marta is an excellent sous chef. She made quick work of the pepper, garlic and onion, though the latter drew yet more tears. I offered her a taste of tea. Slowly, without either of us really noticing, trust was being established; the sense that, although we couldn’t communicate about anything more significant than nouns or the films we liked, the tone in which we communicated, the way we  inhabited our shared space suggested that we both meant well.

Later, after my daughter came home, we took a turn around the town. Keynsham of an evening is something of a ghost town, certainly compared to the Spanish evening promenades (passegiata in Italian). What we did come across, helped draw Marta further out of her shell. Two boys sprinted downhill in the park, away from a bin they’d just set light to. We went down to Echo Bridge and presented Marta with the acoustic wonders. We jumped, clapped and shouted a cacophony of reverberations. She was delighted.  There was an old woman drinking cider by the river, whose dog (a white, cutesy teddybear fluff ball) followed us, ignoring its owner’s calls. Marta seized the initiative and the dog, and returned it. She wants to be a vet. As we walked up the hill towards home, my daughter found a broken egg at the base of a tree. Gaviota, seagull. Marta picked up the fragile shell and unravelled it as we walked on.

We got home and the girls watched a film while I filled my newly prepared pallets with topsoil (to be raised beds). By the time it was time for bed, we all knew each other a little better and I was feeling more recovered from the lapse of the weekend.

Marta had come to feel safer and more able to be herself once she felt that my daughter and I understood who she was. The ingredients had been:

  • mispronunciation
  • animal noises
  • slapstick comedy with supermarket trolleys
  • caca de caballero
  • cooking
  • echoes
  • a little white dog
  • a seagull egg

 

Last Saturday night’s existential angst was a momentary forgetting of who I was. A slow-burning chain reaction of:

  • gin
  • tiredness
  • disorientation (J and I rarely spend time with others for long periods)
  • mild envy/the acknowledgement that my friend (and his girlfriend, with whom we were staying) are home-owners and materially better off
  • lack of a sense of belonging (my friend’s mum and dad live close, he lives in a town he grew up in, always bumping in to long-established friends with whom he maintains a mostly easy, regular socialising existence)

 

Marta recovered herself gradually, by establishing an understanding between the three of us of who she was, while (simultaneously) discovering who we were. Not only that, but we cared about her well-being and actually wanted to know who she is.

Now and then, I feel unsure of who I am.

The things I do- the writing, playing the accordion, motorcycling, rambling- are partly about defining my self to myself (and those around me). It’s probably the same for all of us. Most of the time, the way seems clear- just keep doing the things you do, try your hardest, help others; smile. But from time to time, the energy required to just be can just suddenly wane and the ground beneath you falls away. Thankfully, this Saturday night, I was with one of my oldest friends and the woman I adore. I was given time to resurface and gather my senses. It’s not always the case. In the future, when the walls close in, I will try to remember how an eleven year old Spanish girl pieced herself together with the simplest of words, echoes, an egg and a little laughter.

#24 Falmouth

Last Tuesday week, I went mackerel fishing with my children. We went with Falmouth fishing trips from Custom House Quay in Falmouth. It was a bright, fresh day. There was one other tourist with us, a reticent, retired man from Manchester who was staying in a guest house in the town. He agreed to take our photo.

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As we pulled out of the harbour into the final run of the River Fal, we passed a huge naval vessel, the  RFA Mounts Bay

RFA Mounts Bay

It utterly dwarfed our 12 man fishing vessel. Our fisherman/guide explained that it can hold fifty tanks, or a large number of small boats which are launched at sea by partially flooding the hull. Despite being a pacifist, it’s hard not to be amazed at the scale of such a thing.

We passed St Mawes

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with its castle stacked like cake tins.

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We were soon out of the river and into the English Channel. We edged a little way west along the coast, past Pendennis Castle and were soon opposite Swanpool. Our skipper had a fish-finder and explained that the other fishing tour, which was tagging along close-by, didn’t.

Soon, we drifted a little and received a brief tutorial on how to use the rods. They were baited with tinsels.

tinsel

Mackerel are voracious sight predators and devour anything flashy that catches their eye as they speed along. There were three or four tinsels per line. The key point was that we were to shout fish on! if anything bit. Nothing did for a while and we lifted our rods quietly up and down as we’d been shown.

        Fish on!

There was a sensation of tugging at my line which I assumed was a fish. It was. I reeled the line in and hauled a glistening mackerel from the water. I landed it and our guide (whose name you may have rightly deduced I have sadly forgotten) unhooked it. Within ten minutes, I felt another pull on the line and, as the words formed in my mouth, my daughter and the man from Manchester also shouted fish on.

It is the way it goes. Nothing for a while, then a shoal passes by and bites everything it sees.

I saw my daughter land four mackerel in one go. For five minutes, we all kept pulling mackerel out almost continuously. There wasn’t time to dispatch them all straightaway, and my son leapt around the catch-container amazed, as more and more mackerel thumped about in there.

After the frenzy, our guide showed us how to dispatch a mackerel cleanly. He hooked index and middle finger just inside the fish’s gills, pushed his thumb behind the head on the spine, then pulled the head upwards and back, breaking the neck. We watched as he quickly worked through the fish. A lance-like silver sand eel flew from the jaws of one fish, much to my son’s delight. He scooped it from the deck and stroked it for a while before throwing it back into the sea.

The shoal passed and we moved south, further out to sea between several massive tankers. While our boat bobbed about on the waves, these behemoths were utterly motionless, as if fixed in concrete.

Their implacable steeliness appeared devoid of any life,

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their shadowy immensity was intimidating.

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Falmouth boasts the world’s third largest and deepest natural harbour, and is a major refuelling stop. These tankers were each waiting to be refuelled via barge.

Soon, our skipper suggested we went back to where our earlier bonanza had been. Almost as soon as we’d returned, the fish were biting again and we landed another glut of tiger-striped beauties. There were thirty in all. When the shoal sped off, we turned away from the tankers and headed back toward Falmouth.


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As we neared the quay, the fish guts were flung out for the gulls. They plunged in diving squadrons around the boat,

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then glided triumphantly as an escort of angels,

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albeit with the occasional, barely noticeable gut bloodstain.

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We thanked our captain and guide as we disembarked, then drove back to Lanner where we were staying with friends to prepare the fish for dinner and the freezer. They had already lost much of their mother-of-pearl sheen, but remained beautiful.

mackerel

 

 

#23 Redventures

I sold my motorbike- Reddi-  on Monday. Here she is, or was:Image

It had not been quite a year that I had her, but we have had some memorable times:

  • never-ending waterfalls above Talybont reservoir
  • the after-work trip to Tintern last summer, sitting amongst the beeches above the Wye painting in the fading light, jumping the wall of the abbey, roaming the silent ruins in the dark, roaring back up the sinuous road to Chepstow, and across the Severn Bridge
  • Dymock woods, via the Wye valley- working the jaw of a badger skull , ceps,  yellow stagshorn fungi

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  • finding the Somerset floods- parking by Ivy Thorn Way on Cockrod, above Street, gazing out across the ruined fields shimmering in late afternoon sun, then skipping around puddles
  • coffee and breakfast in Bradford on Avon, then to Devizes and up Roundway Hill, cat and mouse with deer, sliding down the deep, fleshy folds of the landscape on our arses, water-colour painting side by side

IMG_2073 gliding partridge, a few hares.

Last Wednesday, I dismissed my class a minute earlier and was the first out the school gates; I had a taxi waiting there. We drove to my daughter’s school, collected her and then headed into Bristol to the Colston Hall. We met my daughter’s mum, who took my daughter home with her while I caught the 4:35 Megabus to Leeds, 207 miles away. Barry met me at Leeds bus station and drove us to his place near the A1, and I bought his motorbike:

8It was a long way to go, and it had only been a one-way ticket, but I had talked with Barry for quite a while during several long  phone conversations. What particularly encouraged me was that his voice was almost exactly the same combination of Yorkshire straightforwardness and gentle kindness of a previous Head of Department. Strange to perceive so much of a personality through a voice. He gave me several cups of tea and a cheese and tomato sandwich. His house was traditionally furnished, some oil paintings of sailing ships and a grandfather clock. He offered me a spare bed for the night but, as I needed to collect my daughter and go to work in the morning, I declined. I set off from Leeds on the new bike at around midnight.

I took it slowly at first, getting accustomed to the torque-y engine, then leaned forward and flew down along the misty carriageway. I got lost. I should have found my way to the M1 and shot south towards Birmingham. I somehow stayed on the older A1 and was soon penetrating the borders of alien territories: Rutland, Sherwood Forest, Cambridgeshire. The bike is quick, so by the time the recognition that I was far off-course fully dawned on me, I was in deep.

The truck stop at Stibbington was a welcome sight, I think I pulled in around 1:15am. The man working in the empty cafe sorted me out with directions to Leicester, black coffee and a snickers. The chairs were all up, the light seemed jaundiced and faded. I was glad to share a little time, small talk and company before stepping out into the void. Apparently, he’d never had the co-ordination for bikes- liked them, but would have killed himself.

His directions sent me on the A47, a much more involving road of plunging corners, rippled straights and unexpected, sleeping villages that scrolled past like silent narratives.

When I slipped into surburban Leicester at around 2:15am, I was quite tired. I pulled in to the Shell garage at the junction of Uppingham and Coleman Road to refuel. I asked a young asian lad getting out of a Golf GTI for directions toward Birmingham. He wasn’t sure, so he asked his mate who was pissing against the wall of the garage. When he’d finished, he offered to escort me to the M42. And so it was, that these two hospitable ambassadors of Leicester lead me through the intricate,  empty city. I left them at Enderby with a salute of thanks and began the penultimate stage.

I stopped in the Waitrose/Petrol station at Hopwood Park on the M42. I had another black coffee and texted J at 3:18am. I bought deep red tulips, which I locked into the top-box and set off. I arrived in Keynsham around 4:30. I took my bike cover off Reddi and, after it’d cooled, placed it onto my new bike. I got changed and drove to J’s.

There was a candle for me in the hallway. The pre-dawn chorus was beginning. I got a glass of water from the kitchen, blew out the candle and went upstairs, my mind still racing.

The motorbike journey had taken 4 1/2 hours from the witching hour until dawn.

281 miles

4 hours journey time

Average: 70 mph

#22 Rainbow road

Every other week, on a Friday after work, I drive to Oxford to collect my son.

This evening, the entire ninety minute journey was accompanied by a rainbow.

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This was the first sight of it that I photographed.

Today, it seemed more vivid than those before. The eastward route I took along the M4 followed the edge of a weather front, so that I was plunging always into the edge of a curtain of rain, the glory of a late afternoon sun at my back. Often, from my viewpoint, it seemed as if I was encased in a prismatic sphere. The rainbow met the land, then arched upwards amongst the spray from the road to form a complete circle.

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It seemed to laser down onto cars in front at times.

I am about to finish working as a teacher. I have ambitions as a writer, but this is not the only reason I’m leaving the profession. I am no longer able to find sufficient time and energy to meet the demands of the job; in terms of the job specification, I am a failure. Unlike many jobs, there is a long notice period in education. This has meant that despite periods of stress, despondency and ineffectiveness, I have been teaching for almost five months since deciding to leave.

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In uncertain financial times, it’s clearly unwise to quit a full time permanent job.

But is it any wiser to continue in the knowledge that your job is making you unhappy?

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I wondered what a black and white rainbow would look like.

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This road, the A420, is a road I have driven at least 416 times in the last 4 years. I  know it intimately.

My children and I know exactly which fields deer graze at twilight, where rabbit kits venture onto verges in summer, which paddock we once saw a black rabbit in. We also know at which roundabout we saw a car on its roof, at what junction I shunted a car, and in which lay-by my son did his first ever standing up roadside piss.

Many separated parents do the Friday/Sunday night commutes and must have their own maps ingrained, their own preferred radio station for company, their own pit-stop of choice. There was a period when the staff in the McDonalds near Watchfield used to greet us with genuine affection. I grew to recognise fellow dads doing the run. I don’t mind the journey so much, it barely even registers. But at this point of change, in this moment of what I hope will be evolution, I am hoping to build a life out of the elements that draw me in different directions.Image

These ash trees will have flanked the road here for over a century.  This part of the 420 is directly opposite White Horse hill.

J and I once stayed up all night constructing a box kite to fly on the hill. We listened to the Four Tet discography, drank wine and learned the constrictor knot, the bowline hitch. We launched our red and blue wonder to the skies, the winds drove it straight back down onto the hill and shattered it. It was a moment of loss and both of us, for just a moment, did not know how to move on.

That same afternoon, my son raided the pile of spare chalk near the back legs of the giant horse, and made his own.

IMG_1033Simple things.

I am seeing more of the beauty of simple things than at any other time in my life. I want to be able to make a living from the things my hands and mind seem to settle to.Image

I finished a screenplay before Christmas which I am redrafting for the Slamdance film festival. It’s a modern retelling of the golem myth. Before I leave school, I have been teaching my students about screenwriting, trying to enthuse them with its immediacy and potential as a career. They have downloaded the free version of Celtx, and are already creating some credible scenes.Image

A few weeks back, I collected a dead hare from the side of this meandering stretch of the 420 and took it home. I wanted to feel the weight of it, the sensation of running a hand across its fur. I wanted just to inhabit the same space as this solitary animal. So I did.

Then I photographed it,

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and buried it in the garden.

When I passed the place where I’d found it today, I was gladdened to see two hares grazing the field close by.

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Which is to say that I feel hopeful.

Like everyone and everything, I have an unknown future. I am not afraid.

#21 Jura Part III

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The one road south to north on Jura roughly follows the line of the east coast.  Fifty minutes of driving around some interesting bends brought us to Inverlussa, twenty-five miles from the dock at Feolin. The notorious Paps of Jura were shadows within cloud as we passed them, but the range of hills behind showed as a vast, jagged wall. We arrived at Inverlussa late in the afternoon. We were renting heather cottage for a week because of its relative nearness to Orwell’s Barnhill, and the whirlpool of Corryvrechan. The key was in the door. Inside, the living room was high ceilinged, clad in white-washed tongue-and-groove planks with a simple fireplace. The bookshelves contained genuinely readable books and local literature. The kitchen was small and well-equipped. I put the kettle on and hung our damp clothes above the fireplace on a clothes rack suspended by a pulley.  We brought in our luggage and multiple bags of food and wine, almost enough for a week of good eating. I made a pot of tea. J went out to collect coal from the coal shed and engineer a makeshift barbecue. When I went to help and share wine, I found her lighting charcoal whilst suffering our first encounter with midges.

An example attack on an island further north…

My oily skin and blood-warm pate are an irresistible lure to all biting insects, let alone the insatiable midge.  I couldn’t cope and retreated inside to rub cumin into lamb. Which reminds me:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/middle-class-problems?s=mobile

Soon, we were inside with the fire, eating char-grilled lamb steaks, halloumi, fresh made flat-breads, salad and red wine. Outside the window, highland cattle and deer crossed the bridge over the Lussa river and began to mooch around in front of the house. J and Rob surveyed the map to decide what we should do the next day. We would go to Ardlussa Bay. 

To get there, we walked back along the one road and through the Ardlussa estate. There were ancient stone outbuildings still in use, an open double door revealing a beautifully organised collection of tools and an alcove containing at least a hundred empty bottles of Jura whiskey. We brought a picnic with us, Rob had his Kindle, and I carried the beach casting rod I’d bought recently in Cornwall. The owner of the tackle shop there had promised me a lesson off Pendennis Point, Falmouth, but never showed. In the forty minutes I was in his shop, he had drawn for me some guides of how to set a line. Today, it was to be float fishing.

float fishingI prepared my line-as per the diagram- after breakfast to avoid fumbling on the beach.

The sea at Ardlussa Bay is clear, you can easily follow occasional ribbons of seaweed-drifts to their roots in the shingle. After a while sitting, smoking, reading, Rob waded into the bay and swam eastward to a ridge of rocks four hundred yards away. There was a steady cross current, he made gradual progress. About twenty minutes later, he climbed out onto the rocks and was surprised when we pointed out several quite deep lacerations on his body, no doubt inflicted by the sharp shelving of the outcrop.

When we had first got to the bay, J and I ambled about, digging among the tiny pebbles, crab elements and sea-smoothed coal. I remember being acutely conscious that beach-combing should be a singular pursuit, yet J’s movements, always somehow in my periphery, beckoned me; today, I just wanted to be close to her.  I found a small black rectangular stone with an exact white X across one of its faces. I gave it to her. We sat gently for some minutes before I headed around the north edge of the bay to find a fishing spot on a spit of rock that curved around the headland. The bay was fringed with yellow iris and tufts of marram that gave way to saturated grass as I walked upwards onto a sloping chase. There was a large paper target nailed to a wooden frame, splintered with rifle fire. I ducked behind and made my way through a narrow band of firs into dense rhododendron thicket. I plunged inside, rod in hand, threading myself ever deeper into a diabolical network of stone-hard rhododendron branches. I knew the others were expecting me to emerge onto the headland, and so pushed inwards toward what I knew would soon be the edge of a cliff. The trouble was, I had no idea where it would be, such was the density of the strange, semi-tropical foliage. I felt like Laocoon, hung in a three-dimensional game of Twister.Laocoon_group_sculpture

The leathery leaves thickened above me and blocked out the sun, my foot slipped and I dropped about ten feet directly down. Somehow, the rod stayed intact, but it was clear that I was now very much snared in this unnerving place. I was in the foundations of an old croft that must have stood on the coast here a hundred years ago. One of the walls remained, but the rest was granite-rubble, utterly subsumed within the monstrous organism. I felt very alone. Rob and J could only have been a quarter of a mile away, but I was by no means sure I’d be able to extract myself. I peered out at the sea through a tunnel of forked boughs; there, a few hundred yards out from the cliff, a small herd of seals were sunning themselves on a rock. The others had to see. There was no way I was staying here. I javelin-ed the rod through a gap above me and lunged upwards. I caught hold of a snaking limb, swung myself into the canopy, and painstakingly spider-ed my way through the endless loops. I was the end of a knotted piece of string, being drawn through one bight after another. After I finally escaped and stood in fresher air, I realised I had utterly lost my sense of time. I could have been fifteen minutes or an hour in that gloom. Looking back, the experience was uncannily like a recurring dream I used to have as a child. I was in the cellars of some vast industrial space. It was always dim and claustrophobic, there were innumerable hot water pipes and ducting, giant cogs smeared with grease, a cement floor and the faint humming of unseen machinery. I can’t have had this dream for at least twenty years but, back then, it would revisit me at least once every few weeks. 

I walked back to the bay. J caught sight of me and strode to meet me. She didn’t know how glad I was to see her, how the sight of her gave me heart. We hugged. I probably pressed my face into the hollow above her clavicle. I told her about the seals and we decided to get to where we could view them by edging around the base of the cliffs. We managed this easily, I used the rod like a tightrope walker’s pole to balance along some of the sheer edges. We rounded a small inlet, then found we could peer across at the islets in the water. There they were, the herd of seals, still basking. It was clear the tide was rising and that soon they would be buoyed away. We skipped along the spit of land that narrowed into lively waves. After initially attaching my reel upside-down, I made ready for my first cast into Scottish waters.

I flicked the rod behind me, and flung it forward. The ball weight smacked miserably into the sea barely five metres from where I stood. Even worse, my line unspooled into wild coils that sprung rapidly outward, becoming instantly knotted. I was silently furious, embarrassed. I had a white and blue nautical shirt on, my best hat, decent kit- I looked the part. But now it was clear, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. J came over, wordlessly. Her fingers deftly reordered the wire and wound it back around the reel, her fine hair brushed my face as the wind blew, calming me. Her hair and the line became, for a moment, indistinguishable. I cast again. This time, the float caught in the seaweed at the base of the rocks. J knelt and extricated it. Rob arrived from his swim, we marveled at his cuts, his endurance of the cold. While they both went to watch the seals, I cast again and again. I gradually improved, learning the gearing of the reel, which position to keep the bale in. My casts eventually reached about thirty yards. I caught nothing. When the seals were evicted from their rock by the tide, we made our way back around the edge of the shore. I swam out into the middle of the bay, taking in the amphitheatre of land about us. My head bobbed on the surface the way a seal’s does. I watched J curled on a rock in the sun, Rob had a cigarette. Time stalled a little. I returned to the shore, dried myself and lay against J’s warmth, anchored.

We walked a mile or so north on the road towards Lealt. There was a small cairn on a rise at the road’s edge. J observed: That is the least impressive cairn I’ve ever seen, it’s more like an elephant turd. The air became humid, the flora about us seemed to vary, as if we passed through shifting hemispheres. There were huge ferns, then weathered beeches; deforested slopes of burnt trees, then dense woods; moments of moorland and swift burns; countless mushrooms: slippery jacks, false chanterelles, an orange boletus. There were huge dragonflies. We turned back after admiring the coastline from a crumbling vantage point. Just before we descended to Inverlussa, we watched a herd of Whiteface Woodland sheep grazing. One particular sheep with jester-like, asymmetrical horns wandered across to a neighbour and pissed liberally on its head. Rob named him Crumplehorn and headed home.

#21 Jura Part II

From Feolin, we drove around the southern edge of the island, eyes scouring the moors and coastline for the Jura-ness of this new place. Something dark and sinuous sprang across the road, none of us knew what it was. Young pheasants were scrutinized lest they be something more highland– ptarmigan, grouse, perhaps. We eased down the road into Craighouse as the sun finally began to fall. We had travelled around 513 miles.

Camping is free on the lawn beside the sea in front of the Jura Hotel. In the grainy light, we pitched our tents.

J had understood the depth of my hanger earlier, and had phoned ahead to have food prepared at the hotel before the kitchen closed. I love her in many ways, but when she makes food happen in times of need, the feeling becomes something religious.

Once our duvets were stowed in the tents, we entered the hotel amidst a wedding party. A live band began. We sat exhausted in a bay window and ate chicken and potatoes, lentil bake, ales and Jura whiskey. Slainte. Thank god.

Simple, nourishing food and strong drink had us soon heading back out into a soft night of gentle drizzle. We zipped ourselves into our tents and lay down. The sound of the wedding singer’s Mick Hucknell-esque vocals, and a strangely arhythmic drummer soon faded as we fell into heavy slumber.

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Morning came gently, its light filtered through the opaqueness of my tent. I lay cossetted beneath a billowing white duvet, skin against J’s. I drank water and unzipped the door.

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I stepped heavily on dewy grass, unsteady and unbalanced from yesterday’s journey. On the pebbled shore, I left my towel and slowly walked into the pure, cool sea of Small Isles Bay.

We breakfasted in the hotel (we were late, made do with tea and bacon butties), left the tents until later, walked out of Craighouse and onto the moor. Along the road, we passed a paradox that Rob, being a collector of odd signs, could not resist.

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We passed one of the warehouses where the Jura distillery leaves its whiskey to silently mature, the angel’s share drifting out through the timbered walls, lost on the wind. The yard was stacked with hundreds of empty  casks. We left the road and entered the dark margin of a small pine wood where many of the trees were toppled, unable to support themselves in the wet ground.. Moving forward was tricky, we leapt criss-crossing channels of peaty water, scampered low beneath the spiny branches. The dark, resin rich floor was strewn with red mushrooms, many of them Russula emetica, The Sickener.

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A sudden rainstorm met us when we ducked out from the fringe of pines. Deer spotted us at a thousand yards and moved deftly upwards. Our initiation into true bog lay between us and the small waterfall we were heading for. In bog, each footstep must be carefully considered for potential stability and tactical advantage. Once committed, a footstep should be continually monitored in order to assess the extent to which it has sunken into the bog, and/or is becoming rapidly flooded. Should this occur, the appropriate action must be immediately taken: either leap maniacally away like a Gaelic dancer under fire, or sink heroically, ignoring the creeping ooze entering your shoe. We each opted for both of these many times.

A cross-section of bog:

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The rain passed over quickly and we meandered over the moor, following the line of least saturation. We discovered bilberries to eat amongst the heather, and set to picking the hidden ripe ones that had eluded the deer. This was the view from the waterfall

SONY DSCBeautiful enough on a dull day.

I lead the way upwards on terrain that was less waterlogged and becoming springy with small, rotund accumulations of moss.  As we neared the top of Brat Bhein, a sudden heavy rainstorm blew down on us, forcing us to scatter and take cover in the leeside of the hill. It was like being behind a waterfall, but cossetted in a gentle fold of the hill within waterproofs, while fierce rain struck the hillside, inches from my face. Again, it soon passed and we gathered together by the triangulation point at 309m. We weren’t bothered to reach the summit, the glinting loch below was calling.

SONY DSCI pressed my face into J’s shoulders, and we kissed. All of us took in the view in all directions.

I bounded off, plunging down into ferns and heather, soon reaching the shore of Loch a ‘Bhaile – Mhargaidh.

The Ordnance Survey map of Jura had been on my bedroom wall for over three years. The sensation of now being in it overwhelmed me many times in the course of the week. On the scant occasions where we are exactly where we want to be, the desire to inhabit the moments entirely can feel almost desperate,

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Rob and J joined me, we sat and picnicked there, wavelets breaking at our feet, a wind of heather scent and clarity passed over us and upwards. Something animal showed in the shallows, I took off my shoes and waded in. A deer antler under the water, one of countless shed yearly by one of Jura’s more than eight thousand red deer. I would have kept it, but there was a visceral, jellyed sinew still attached to its base. I cast it away. Rob suggested we skirt the edge of the loch, rather than climb up and around. We coastered, then, laughing, slipping, occasionally dunking our feet around the eastern edge of the water. At its far end, the loch met a man-made wall with a low channel made for letting the loch’s overflow fall downhill as a stream. We skipped across, sipped a little coffee and began our journey back.

We had tea in the Jura tea room, went back to the field in front of the hotel and took down our tents. I drove out of Craighouse onto the only road on the island towards Inverlussa.

#21 Jura, Part I

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It’s been twelve days since I returned. For that whole time I have been carrying clear, watery, scented thoughts and experience, both tranquil and strained, like casks of fresh water in a boat at sea.

Nearly every day I have felt that I must try and open the sluice on what Jura is, and how it is to be transported to a place so empty of humans, so beautiful and so full of what exists when we are not dominating. How it was to go there with the one who is more beautiful than anything, who it showed me to be, and what it showed me about how fragile life is, I am, we are.

My son’s godfather, Rob, got to Bristol on the Friday evening and we drove to Jura the following morning, Saturday, 17th August. It took us around four hours to get to Glasgow. We listened to Rob’s choices of music initially. I particularly remember liking the singing of The Dirty Projectors. I swapped the driving with J, and nodded off as we passed through the drama of the Lake district, (http://www.visitcumbria.com/m6/).

I woke in Scotland, about forty five minutes south of Glasgow, gradually getting more and more excited about returning to the city I’d spend my first year of Uni at (in 1994). The architecture of Glasgow, particularly through Ibrox, Partick to the West End is comprised of tenement blocks and grand avenues, long faded. The pubs along the main road through Partick were all of a type entirely foreign to this car full of comfortable southerners: hollow, faded dives behind peeling wooden frontings; dark, drear, almost empty grog holes that promised piss-saturated urinals and a punch in the mouth. We stopped near the University. We walked up Byers Road, and I had the uncanny experience of being in a place I both knew and did not.

It felt incredible to be on Byers Road. There was an incredible fishmonger- we had an oyster each for lunch that was like a sudden dunking in the Irish Sea; my mouth, startled by the restorative, was invigorated with the raw mineral essence of the ocean.

We bought enough fine food and wine for five days and headed out towards Loch Lomand.

From this point onwards, Scotland firmly impressed upon us its magnificence, unambiguous and awe-inspiring gravitas and beauty. It had seemed a land of broad moorland, sinuous hills and a brazen city but now deep, granite-strewn valleys, mountain after mountain, rivers and lochs of impossible strangeness were steadily revealed. We followed the road for three hours, far from Glasgow, along the northern coast of Loch Tarbert. We stopped in rain at Inverary

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then drove briskly to our ferry at Kennacraig.

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We joined the small queue of cars and watched the ferry docking. Its black maw split in two from an invisible seam, its serene demeanor altered; Rob said it looked like a transformer and proceeded to voice its actions:

Start your engines. Board me.

The voyage was gentle and mesmeric. We sailed through the middle of west Loch Tarbert, watching the occasional log cabin or laird’s castle drift by. Mistaking perspective and scale, we assumed the Isle of Gigha to be both Islay and Jura in the very distance. When Islay became apparent, it was through the fore windows of the modest cafe, and it was a fine sight. We stood on deck as the ferry turned in towards dock at Port Ellen. I hadn’t eaten properly and I was overcome by a badly timed sulk: hangry. I noticed but was unmoved by the waning sun streaming across the hills and water

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the beautiful lighthouse and the white facade of the Port Ellen Maltings. As we disembarked, a woman sounded her horn accidentally with colossal, pendulous breasts. We left most of the cars behind at Port Ellen, and drove out into a landscape of bog, moor and distant mountains. Near Islay airport, there were pool-sized trenches cut into the land, plastic bags of the harvested peat stacked alongside.

We had started out from Bristol just after eight o’clock and now, as the sun was starting to set, we arrived at Port Askaig for our five minute ferry to Feolin, Jura. It was waiting for us. We chugged out into the fast running currents of the Sound of Jura, clouds were condensing upon and coldly cascading down the slopes of Beinn a’ Chaolais

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Red deer and stags grazed the water’s edge as we drove off the tiny ferry.

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#20 Didcot impressions

I disembarked onto the platform at Didcot Parkway in a buoyant mood. I swung shut two carriage doors, and skipped down the stairwell. I was on the way to pick up my boy and retrieve the hire car I’d left in Abingdon since buying a Mazda to replace the Golf someone had shunted into oblivion a few weeks back.

I bought a lighter in the station cafe, a woman with Downs Syndrome returned to collect the change she’d forgotten with gentle, shared laughter with the woman behind the counter. I was to meet my ex-wife at the swimming pool in three quarters of an hour. This gave me a precious moment to myself to wander through the town, forming impressions, finding coffee.
I headed out of the station, round the back of the car lot opposite and down the next alleyway. Sprayed on the wall in front of me was a large cock with suck this beneath, not an auspicious sign, but not exactly unexpected. I followed the path which led me to the back of the high street. I have a distant relation who owns a sweet shop here. When I saw her last, she had spoken excitedly of a new shopping development coming to town.

The new Orchard Centre squats at the lower end of the high street and already looks outmoded: a narrow ravine of shops mostly cast in shadow, retail space downstairs, dubious office/storage space above.

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The new-ish Orchard Centre, Didcot.

The shops are a dreary collection of opticians, pound-stretch lands, cheap pharmacies and sportswear outlets capped at either end by Prezzo and PC World. Not exactly the reinvigorating investment anticipated.

The anticlimax was only heightened by the slow recognition that I was walking through a happiness sink-hole. On all sides, there seemed to be a near continuous sense of despair and incomprehension. Like my own town of Keynsham, Didcot seems to have a larger than average quotient of people in care, people being ushered into shops with their carers, people with Downs, elderly folk with dementia. People who might well appreciate being somewhere other than this miserable consumer-trap. A park, perhaps. Somewhere that isn’t shops.

There were lots of children crying. I stood and watched a woman shout at her screaming child for over five minutes. I nearly stepped in. There was a fruitier casually slipping swear words into his banter,

How about some of these fucking apples? Got to get rid of the sods somehow…

Strangely disconcerting.

I am well aware that I drifted through the town with that sense of perception afforded the outsider, that it was a particularly dull Thursday. That said, I know what I saw, and it was not good.

I found an escape, eventually.

The Salinas cafe was neither nouveau nor dated, depressed or hostile. Despite being next door to Subway, it was thriving. I got a good coffee from friendly staff. For this, I was truly grateful.

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Sadly, the Salinas Cafe is mostly blocked by a bus on google maps

As soon as I left, I found my path again. Directly opposite, there was a proud row of ex-council semi-detached houses. Most of them seemed to have glorious front gardens. Google maps gives a reasonable impression

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A wide grass verge beneath elegant cherry trees was the perfect place to sit. I felt like I vanished from the passing traffic. Given the options, this was as close to an ideal place to eat the food J had made me for the journey. I savoured my lunch and floated back to the start of my journey below the bridge of Stapleton Road station in Bristol.

I remember not being able to end the embrace, despite my train’s imminent arrival. Burying my face into her hair, drawing her scent in, the sensation of her skin. Running up the incline to the platform, casting laughing glances back, throwing kisses to the wind. This was me, the morning of the 13th August last year, another moment ebbing in time that remains utterly precious.

 

#18 A stream, a painting and chicken-of-the-woods

After so much pleasure and fulfillment, a day of discovering my own company. I haven’t been out on the motorbike for almost a month and so today, despite heavy clouds and strong winds, I packed, trundled the bike from the back of my house, and went out. After passing through Clifton, Bristol to drop off a broken amp and buy a small watercolour kit and paper, I went against the current of the Avon, under the suspension bridge and left the city by the south road towards Weston-super-Mare. I followed my nose. The bike was smooth and I felt like a child again, swooping and flicking the front round pot-holes and puddles. I eventually ended up in the Mendips, south of Priddy, above Wells, on a hillside above Lower Milton. There was just room enough to park the motorbike by a stile that lead downwards. I locked the bike up and mounted the stile. Ahead of me, the hill dropped down, bordered by a line of hawthorns along the ridge, and a tunnel of hazels interspersed with tall ashes below. My eyes lifted to the horizon to see the distant Glastonbury Tor gazing back at me. blogpic

I walked down, a little awkwardly in motorcycle boots and headed for the trees at the bottom. I could see a stream flashing out from beneath the low canopy, so climbed over a fence alongside and sat against the base of one of a pair of massive ashes that stood alongside the water. This is what I saw:

2013-06-22 002I lit my smoke and opened my new watercolour kit. It is a Windsor & Newton Sketcher’s Pocket box. Inside, there was an excellent and detailed folded instruction leaflet that I read whilst I smoked, the sound of the stream and nearby sheep increasing my sense that I had found the right place.

The instructions suggested that I begin by sketching an outline. This, I did:

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I dipped the seed head of a flowering grass beside me into the stream at my side to wet the paper.

I then applied my first set of washes, left to right, as instructed:

2013-06-22 010I used moss from the tree behind me to drop water into the mixing palette:

2013-06-22 009I admit to feeling slightly smug that Nature had laid everything on for me so conveniently. When we are smiled upon, it makes sense to smile along.

I added in the next few stages of darker washes:

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2013-06-22 015The line of dark green showing the shadowed fringe beneath the canopy of the distant trees on the brow of the field beyond me.

While that deep blot of green mid-left dried, I went for a stroll.

The stream delved down into a cleft that led downhill amongst yet more hazels and ash. I had to dip and clamber through several thickets until a clear path appeared that followed the stream, only deer-prints suggesting any other visitors here. It is an enchanted place, verdant with self-seeded plants at the feet of their mother trees, ripe with the mushroom-like fragrance of ancient boughs decomposing in the cold, moist air.  I found a lurid chicken-of-the-wood mushroom to take home and cook:

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A black cat appeared from nowhere, slipped across my field of view and disappeared. For a moment, I thought I saw a deer in my periphery and my senses sharpened. They then heightened and my whole spine tingled in caution as the image resolved to this:

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A decaying chair. A sinister throne with its ghastly sitter momentarily absent. I leapt across the stream to take some other shots:

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The feeling that I got seemed to suggest that now was a good time to leave. I headed directly up the bank

2013-06-22 027and found myself in a vast field that I knew led down towards Wells:

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I walked back towards the shadow of the trees, past a rope swing, and added the finishing touches to my first ever concerted attempt at a watercolour. I used the stream to rinse out the palette,

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then added what I could to finish the painting:

2013-06-22 001I left this place, clambered up the hill and took a photo of myself because I felt happy:

2013-06-22 032I looked like Sade:

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