Friday, 25 September 2015

Summer? What Summer?

So where did the summer go? One moment it was all ahead of us, the next it seems a lifetime away. Where did you go, what did you do? Sizzling sunshine and sandy beaches, turquoise waters and tanned tummies; warm nights and wafting about in linen. Is that long-dreamed of idyll what you found, or were you rain-soaked in Reading or Redditch?

Well, I guess I found something in between: some rain, some sunshine, some warmth, some cold. South west France was never going to be the best place to choose a holiday home to escape the meteorological lows of the High Peak. The same wayward and increasingly unpredictable Atlantic influences haunt its shores as they do the whole of the west side of the UK. What happens in south-west France usually heads to north-west England eventually, with a few degrees taken off the temperature. Sadly, though, the June/July Europe-wide heatwave never made it to Manchester - and it broke in south-west France the day we arrived. As we opened the gate and pulled in to the parched remains of a garden, our neighbours popped up the other side of the hedge to inform us that there had not been a drop of water in two sweltering months. The following morning we woke to rain. Yes, siree, I had arrived, dragging with me my heavy chains of Bad Weather Curse.

Only I could go to Dubai in February and get the worst floods for 50 years (it's a desert last time I looked); or to the Philippines on honeymoon and be plagued by tropical storms; or on safari in Kenya in torrential rain, digging our mini-van out of a mud-swilled ditch; or on a trekking and white-water rafting holiday in Nepal where we had to buy ponchos to protect us (I still have them hanging up in the cloakroom) and the river was a brown, swollen mess after days of downpours; or Majorca three times in the rain; or Thailand under leaden skies; or New Zealand in the worst summer the southern hemisphere has had in years. You get the picture? The moral of the tale being: DON'T GO ON HOLIDAY WITH ME!

Yet I can't complain. I am lucky to go away - many don't have that luxury, of which I am only too  aware. And a change is as good as a rest as that old adage sagely says. So here are some photos of the sojourn abroad, in a place that I love, come rain or shine.

Arrival in St Malo - rain and grey skies again!
Lunch stop on the journey down - sun at last!
Bay of Arcachon
Local beach under threatening skies
Aperitif time!

Sunset in Biarritz

Quiet contemplation in the waves

Handstands on deserted sands
Is that a crab?

Path through the dunes

Tom Daley eat your heart out...

More gymnastics, more threatening skies and Reggie Perrin...

Silhouettes at sunset

Birthday Girl
When did they get so grown up?

Lounging around on a lilo


Close encounters of the canine kind
Celebrating GCSE results

Sand art

The Final Sunset

Return to Blighty

Thursday, 4 June 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Thursday 4th June

Is there anything finer than a walk through an English woodland in dappled sunlight where bluebells scent the warm air and blur the vista with their soft haze?

When you add buttercup-filled meadows, heather-strewn uplands, white and red hawthorn blossom, sunshine-yellow gorse and the cool babble and rush of a shallow river, you can be forgiven for thinking you've found a little bit of heaven on earth. 

This is how it was on my walk this early summer's afternoon: the mind and senses fully engaged with the sheer serene beauty of the landscape. Lily was giddy with it all, galloping around like her life depended on it, splashing through the stream, crashing through the undergrowth, hurtling along the meadow paths like a greyhound chasing the hare. Man or dog, it was impossible not to feel simply happy to be alive. 

So English...

Spears of fresh green ferns uncurling through the bluebells

Sun and shade

Purple haze

Dappled light in the woodland

Open grasslands after the woods

Hawthorn in flower in the hedgerows

A quiet country graveyard with someone remembered...

Resting in peace

Lily still stalking, even in the river! It's a gene thing...

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Election Reflection

Tuesday, 19th May 2015 - on a train down to London

I was intrigued last week that the media seemed so mystified by the election result. There has been so much  talk around the fact that the pre-election polls never indicated a Conservative majority. Here are a few observations I would like to make (as if anyone cares, but I will make them anyway):-

1. A lot of people do not make up their minds a) whether to vote at all and b) who to vote for until election day itself. The polls, I would suggest, are thus already non-representative. There are also a whole lot of folk who lurk up hills and down dales who are not represented in the urban-centric polls and who pop up on voting day to throw the analysts predictions.

2. A lot of traditional labour voters would not have been rushing to put their heads above the parapet and admit in public that actually the coalition brought a large measure of stability and growth to a previously knackered economy. Whatever your political ideals, there is no denying the reality of the situation.

I asked, in a conversationally casual way, a number of people who I imagined to be Labour at heart what they were going to vote e.g the chimney sweep, the plumber etc, and they simply stated that work has improved under Cameron and Clegg. I didn't push them but guessed where they might put their cross when push came to shove. 

Indeed, I was particularly angry with the media for the grilling they gave Cameron about what he hadn't achieved; for dramatic effect, they were actively choosing not to focus on what had been achieved over the last five years. When you think about what the Coalition had to build on, you have to concede that it has done a bloody good job of shoring up the collapsing edifice that was Not-So-Great Britain. But we all know that good news doesn't make headlines...

3. Stability, after times of uncertainly, is what people intrinsically want. Voting Labour, in this election, would have been like throwing a six in Snakes & Ladders and finding yourself going back down the longest snake on the board - right back to square one. By definition, Labour has to take a different direction to the Conservatives or there wouldn't be much point in voting for them. Hence the tag, 'Opposition'. Swap Cameron & Clegg for Miliband but continue with the same policies: what on earth would be the point in that? All the more stupid given that the poor beleaguered Ed Miliband has been about as popular as Gordon Brown amongst the Labour hard-core. Had we been talking (in olden times) of Scargill or Livingstone at the top, Labour might had had more support, but Ed Miliband hardly represents the traditional blue collar worker, however much he liked to kid himself: smart house in London, smart suits, clean finger-nails - no, let's face it, career politicians are not really what Labour is all about. Either that or they need to be hugely more canny and charismatic than dear old Ed. (And he probably didn't do himself much good by getting to where he did by stabbing his own brother in the back, truth be told.) His heart might have been in the right place but, in my humble opinion, he was never going to pull it off. I hardly think he represented the 'everyday people' he claimed to be fighting for. I think those 'everyday people' could see that quite clearly too, so thought they may as well vote for that other posh bloke in a blue tie who had at least put food back on their plate.

4. As for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, well I can only feel sorry for them. They were the fall guys in a Conservative campaign which was ruthless latterly in its psychology to keep Labour out: an SNP/Labour coalition was what was most feared this side of Glasgow and it was clear that a lot of traditional Lib Dem voters were prepared to vote tactically to stop that happening.

Post election, I have spoken to many who, following the Scottish Referendum, were pleased to see the UK still 'United' but who now think, 'Oh sod it, if that's what you want, then bugger off.' There is something hugely 'not cricket' about the SNP holding such sway in Westminster when we all know that what they really wanted was independence. Why, now, should they have their cake and eat it? Notwithstanding the fact that UKIP votes completely outnumbered them but got just one MP.

So, yes, Cameron ultimately proved more canny than Miliband: the stability and SNP arguments proved to be the two trump cards in an election which was not as unpredictable as the media and political analysts liked to make out.

My faith in the Power of the People has been vindicated. That is what a truly free and democratic society is all about, whatever the outcome. Time now for Labour to take a long hard look at itself and the Lib Dems to brush themselves down and try to believe that they have a middle-ground heartland still. As for UKIP, I'm sure they'll continue to confuse and amuse in equal measure. Which is possibly all Nigel Farage set out to do in the first place - a sort of litmus test for British politics in the early years of the 21st Century.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Joys of Spring

'A garden really lives only in so far as it is an expression of faith, the embodiment of a hope and a song of praise'.
Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener, 1962

The wise quotation above was written a year before my birth and could just as well apply to a life as to a garden. I wrote a piece on my blog 'The Gardening Habit' a few weeks ago which touched on the difficulties of gardening last year - both general and personal. The death of my father in November and the simultaneous invasion of a herd of cows into the garden I had tended to so lovingly all year - and especially in the early autumn months - were certainly low points; not least of which was the portentous dead cow on the lawn. It seemed to symbolise everything: the death of joy, optimism, love and life. We were about to enter the dark days of winter where decay and cold set seemingly endlessly in before warmth, light, new growth and new hope reappear.

The snowdrops herald that first sign of light while emphasising the fragility of the new start. There are still days of setback to be endured where just as things seem to be improving the frost and snow and rain reappear - both metaphorically and physically. As the snowdrops fade the aconites and violas, cyclamen and crocus, primulas and daffodils quietly take over; the viburnums and skimmias soon begin to scent the air and the fingertips of ferns start to gently unfurl. The yellows of kerria and forsythia brighten up dark corners of the garden while bluebells, rhododendrons and gorse bring much needed colour to the woods and hills and dales.

From as early as February, little white lambs start to dot the green fields and sow the seeds of joy in downcast hearts. The spring in their step brings a spring to one's own and a renewed faith in the circle of life and the hope that every new cycle brings.

The last few months have not been easy but, hand in hand with nature, I am starting to feel alive again. With death there is re-birth; with re-birth there is hope; with hope there is love; and where there is love, there is life.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Election 2015

Thursday 7th May
Have you voted yet?! Here are my musings from yesterday:-

On the eve of the 2015 Election, I feel a strange urge to make some observations.

1. I am sick of it.
2. Postal voting is quite stressful.
3. I feel sorry for the Green Party but admire their courage and energy to participate in the knowledge they'll get a handful of votes and can never be serious contenders.
4. Another UKIP MP has made a horrific faux pas off camera. No change there then. Just rather bad timing.
5. Some loose horses in the race - Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP. Will they cause any catastrophic dismounts?
6. It's not as exciting as the media make out (stifles yawn).
7. Italy is living proof that politicians are not as necessary as they might think to the day to day running of a country. In fact they often make bad matters worse.
8. If you think one politician is going to come along and turn everything around, you're wrong (witness Greece).
9. The worst thing about modern day politics is its tit-for-tat nature: 'you say one thing, so I'll say the other'. OBVIOUSLY they can't agree or they'd all be in the same party. If one party is in power, then the others are in OPPOSITION. They're bound, inevitably, to take the opposite viewpoint and thus we go forever round and round in circles.
10. Running a country is like running a household. Bloody impossible to please all the people all of the time.

With that, I shall go and put a wash in.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Fear of Flying

I have always had a fear of flying. I do not go sweaty-palmed and panic-seized like some people with that syndrome. I simply find it the most unnatural thing in the human universe that we have created a machine weighing hundreds of tonnes which goes up in to the sky, fighting gravity the whole way. One mechanical or electrical failure, one case of pilot error and the results can be catastrophic.
Of course we all know it is the safest form of travel, but for me that is no comfort. When it goes wrong, there is precious little hope of survival and the potential scenario of knowing for a reasonable number of minutes that you are going to die is too awful to contemplate. I know we are all going to die and mortality must be faced at some point, whether sooner or later, but choosing to step into a machine which suspends you above everything and everybody you know and love is a throw of the dice I have never been happy with.

I always try to blank out the flight number so that I can’t imagine it as the one splashed all over the national newspapers. I glance at the engines as I walk into the plane and say a silent prayer. I look at the rivets on the metal casing of the plane. I notice the cabin crew members and try to see the pilots if possible. I look at my fellow passengers and wonder if we are going to die together today. I take comfort if the pilot or first officer speaking to us on the PA system sounds jolly and optimistic and a strong, sure personality. I worry when choosing a seat on the self-booking systems whether I should go front, back or middle for my best chances. If I am sitting next to the wing, I glance at the flaps and pray they are not going to get stuck – and am relieved when I hear the landing gear go up or down. I can’t help noticing every change in the engine note and panic a bit inwardly when we suddenly seem to start losing a bit of altitude for no apparent reason. I am terrified of turbulence. As we leave the ground I wonder if I’ll be back. When I go to the loo, I think of the 32,000 feet of nothingness below me. And even when I am on the ground, I look up at planes in the sky sometimes and can hardly believe all the souls up there, eating their lunch, having their gin and tonic, watching their film. It just never seems quite right and freaks me out if I think about it too much and what might happen…
Macabre you may say. Realistic could be another term.
When I heard the breaking news of the Germanwings flight, my blood ran cold. It was my worst nightmare come true. I know there have been many plane crashes over my lifetime and I have felt the same horror at all of them and for the people on board.  I narrowly missed death by plane myself when a child. We were due to go on a family holiday to the (then) Yugoslavian island of Split. When my mother heard we were due to fly on a Russian plane (Aeroflot –aka Aeroflop – with one of the worst histories in aviation), she refused to go. I remember the conversation quite distinctly, my parents standing in the hall of our house. My father rarely listened to my mother – especially when being ‘irrational’ – but this time he did. They changed their itinerary and we flew to the mainland instead. The plane we were due to be on crashed with few, if any survivors. It still makes my stomach flip and the blood drain out of me now, even as I write this. My grandmother, recently having lost her husband to cancer, thought we were now gone too as she caught the late night news. My primary school said prayers for us in Assembly. In those days, you see, Gatwick was a small airport and no-one imagined there had been two flights to Yugoslavia out of it in one day. But mercifully there were, and we were on the other one.
This ‘throw of the dice’ has stayed with me all these years and may well be responsible for all I feel about flying.
When I heard the news at midday about Germanwings crashing in my beloved French Alps on a routine short-haul flight from Barcelona it hit hard for two reasons: firstly, perhaps, because it was particularly close to home in a literal and metaphorical sense; secondly because I had a friend flying back from Barcelona that day. He had not been able to get on the flight he wanted to get back to the UK, so I feared he had chosen another routing just because he needed to get back as soon as possible. I immediately rang his mobile and mercifully, after ringing for a long time (a good sign), he answered. He had just heard the news himself. When I heard about the lady from Manchester with her baby who had been to her uncle’s funeral and was wanting to get back as soon as possible, hence the flight choice, it further bludgeoned home the reality of choice and fate. She was a waitress in a restaurant we have used a few times in Manchester and I can almost recall her face.
The 16 school kids on board was another recurring nightmare for me – children flying without parents. I have a horror of putting children on a plane alone. I do not think I have to spell out the reasons.  Certainly all my girls have at least once or twice flown out on school trips, but never completely alone.  I know it is a reality I have to face one day soon as they increase in age and independence. But I dread it. Indeed, Louisa is off just next week on a school trip to Italy and we fly in another direction to France. If I – and they - could stay on the ground for the rest of our lives, I would be happy. Yet this is not the way of the modern world. Air travel is a fact of everyday life.
I have been glued to the news since Tuesday. There was something about the crash which did not add up: that slow, controlled descent; the lack of a distress call. Somehow plane failure didn’t really fit the picture. It had flown in perfectly happily that morning and the Airbus 320 had a great safety record. My thoughts of course turned to terrorism and a ‘deliberate act’. Maybe one of the pilots had been knocked off while the other did the awful deed – hence the silence. I certainly didn’t imagine the ‘being locked out while going to the loo’ scenario. What a costly bladder weakness that turned out to be…
My over-active imagination even wondered whether - if indeed a terror act (and there was all sorts of alarming Twitter chatter from the extremist community) - it was an attention-averter while an even bigger atrocity was being planned elsewhere.
Then yesterday, when the news unfurled that the pilot was a quiet, gentle man with no known terror links, my thoughts turned elsewhere. I saw his Facebook photo in San Francisco (‘The Gay Capital of the World’) and saw a man who struck me as sensitive-looking and introspective, slightly vulnerable. I couldn’t help but wonder (simply as a result of his actions on Tuesday, I hasten to add) if he had relationship problems and and/or self-esteem issues which might have led to (or were caused by) unstable mental and emotional health. I nearly tweeted to that effect but feared it sounded flippant rather than serious, so decided not to out of respect for the dead and a desire not to 'jump the gun'. I looked at his Facebook page but all that was there was hateful messages from strangers, post crash, in the horrible way that social media runs unchecked these days. Was he suffering from a deep and undiagnosed clinical depression? Did that account for his '6-month break from flying'? I even looked up ‘Psychotic depression’. While the airline was declaring him ‘fit for purpose’, I was thinking that mental issues of this nature are often very hard to detect and noted from the website that 'patients with psychotic depression generally function well between episodes, both socially and professionally'. It takes a lot of knowledge of a person to notice the small changes in behaviour that occur in someone with depression - even a severely depressed one. A depressed person finds it particularly difficult to recognise and acknowledge their condition (due to the chemical imbalances going on in their body and brain). It takes a good friend or member of the family quite a long time to persuade that individual that they need help. I know because I have been there – both with myself and with other family members. I now know the signs to watch for and they are very subtle. The airline could easily have missed them.
I was then thinking how, alone in that cockpit, it could seem like there is no-one else up there with you. You are just there at the ‘wheel of the car’ so to speak. A quiet world of humming computers behind an impregnable steel door; an equally quiet world of snow and granite lay ahead. In psychotic incidents, reality is blocked out. It was as if he was alone in his glider, the wind humming softly like the computers around him...
There have been so many commentators questioning how any ‘normal’ person  could carry out such an act. But this quiet young man was not fit and well as they were all imagining and hence the unimaginable became reality. The one thing I perceived from an early age is that one simply cannot guess at what goes on inside another person’s head – even a person that you know really well. We are all ultimately alone with our daily thoughts, hard-wired differently and subject to change from experience as well as genetics and physiology.
The story of this shocking incident is still unfolding. The final chapter is still to be read, though it is becoming increasingly clear by the day. The only truly certain thing for now is that so many innocent souls have been lost in a terrifying and senseless way, by the hand of a fellow human being, and it is a disaster which, like 9/11, has ripped through the complacency of the collective consciousness.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Wet and Windy Weekend in Wales

While the rest of Europe basked in 30 degree sunshine, we managed to find Welsh rain in bucketfuls. A Year 11 daughter of a disorganised disposition had declared in no uncertain terms that WE MUST STAY AT HOME for half term in order for her TO STUDY; thus, despite my arguments that she could just as well study over there as it is a 'home from home', my plans for a blast of guaranteed hot sunshine in southwest France, following a grey and dreary summer there, were finally dashed. When similarly compromised friends from down south suggested a two day meet equidistant for us both, South Wales seemed an obvious choice. Pembrokeshire has always eluded me and I have long wished to enjoy its rugged salty charms. A boat trip to see seals on Ramsey Island was the final incentive to book up. 

And so we convened at 5.45pm at the Warpool Court Hotel in the village of St. David's, perched on the southwest tip of Wales before the vast expanse of the Atlantic opens up beyond the Irish Sea. 

The hour had changed and it was dark. We were given a short tour of the hotel and its origins as a choir school but had to wait with bated breath till morn to see the splendour of the much flaunted view.

The staff were charming, the rooms cosily old-fashioned and the food excellent. We were left by the fire in the lounge to finish our coffee and drinks while they bade us goodnight - and we retired to bed sated and content a short while later, blowing out the candles as we went.

Ripping open the curtains in the morning, full of expectation, I found it hard to distinguish between land and sea. The air was unseasonably warm but it was howling a gale with rain threatening. My eyes rested on the unheated outdoor/indoor pool in the garden below us but I was untempted. A cooked breakfast proved the greater allure. 

To work off all the culinary excellence we decided to walk the coast path which leads directly from the hotel. I did not look at the map as I knew I would be alarmed at the distance involved, especially in new walking boots and in fearsomely robust company, used as they are to yomping round the outer Hebrides for their summer holiday of choice. No beach basking for them, oh no. 

And so we struck off down the garden and towards the cliff edge, the Welsh winds stirring our follicles and troubling our ears. It was lusty weather indeed and quintessentially Welsh. Indeed I do believe that I have never seen Wales in anything other than a shroud of grey drizzle: the complete Tupperware box experience. No wonder the Celts were so gloomy and desperate to flee to sunnier climes. Aquitaine certainly seemed more appealing to me at that precise moment than this wind-whipped corner of the British Isles. 

The path was mercifully flat (I shouldn't be admitting that coming from the Peaks as I do - but it made a welcome change not to be gasping for breath at every laboured uphill footstep) and we stepped out quite briskly, making good progress. Before I knew it, in fact, we were stopping for coffee and hot chocolate at a little cafe in a creek, just hours before it was shutting down for the season. 

Suitably refreshed, we marched onward, snaking past a group of geology students from Brighton University who were required to stare for hours at the dramatic rock strata and draw sketches thereof as the wind threatened to toss them into the leaden-coloured surf below. We also spied an intrepid group, clad in wetsuits and hard hats, who were thrashing about in the waves as they licked around the rocks they were attempting to mount. There's none so queer as folk.
The coast path took many twists and turns, affording delightful glimpses of shingle beaches, nooks, caves and crannies. Just at the point off which Ramsey Island lies - St David's Head - we spotted some seals frolicking in the waves (minus the hard hats) and some blubbery white baby seals splodged on the beaches and dry rocks of the coves, waiting for the tide to come and rescue them (or their parents to stop messing around in the sea and come and give them some bloomin' fish). In the middle distance, between the mainland and Ramsey Island, we spotted the tousled water that looked like a river in spate which is known locally as The Bitches. If I remember rightly, my blogging friend Mark Charlton has often canoed these salty rapids as recounted in his blog Views From the Bike Shed and in his book 'Counting Steps'. Remembering my canoeing days down rapids on the River Wye, I imagined it was fun - if somewhat alarming, not to say dangerous. The coast path seemed a safer bet despite a few dizzying drops which I chose not to get too near, reaffirming my nascent fear of heights.
The waters beyond the headland, sheltered from the North Atlantic Swell by Ramsey Island, were serene this autumnal morning. The bracken was toasty brown, warming and enlivening the landscape, while the calm sea was almost blue below. My ankles were giving me jip and having been taking photos and hobbling a little I found myself a straggler with just the Year 11 daughter for company. She complained a lot and asked if she could go to a party on Wednesday night. I was quite annoyed.
As we headed towards St Justinians a huge crane loomed, a slight blot on the landscape. Turns out they are building a new Life Boat House. It was here from which we would be taking the rib to Ramsey the following day. I could see the boat moored in the bay and I was looking forward to it hugely.
At St Justinians there was mutiny. The push on to Whitesands Bay was a push too far. The pub and lunch called harder. So we struck off inland down the lane that leads back to St David's, past the extraordinarily unexpected and beautiful edifice that is St David's Cathedral. An Italian friend rang me as we walked. It was weird to be in this very Celtic place jabbering away in Italian - a strange juxtaposition which reminded me of the diverse places I have had the fortune to live in my life. The Year 11 daughter said how 'cool' it was that I spoke Italian and wished she could do so too. She may well one day. She has time on her side and all it takes is to go and live there.
And so we tipped into the warm and inviting interior of The Bishops pub, shortly before 2.30pm. It had been a four hour walk which is plenty long enough for me, especially with compromised feet. A log fire was burning and filling the room with smoky scent, and there were piles of board games around the place - a pointer perhaps to the fact that the weather is often inclement in these parts and in such circumstances what better place to hunker down than in the cosy confines of the local pub.
Indeed, the following day proved true to Welsh form as the rain hammered down relentlessly. Vain hopes of our boat trip to Ramsey Island were soon swept away with the south-westerlies and we took comfort in the cathedral instead. What a magnificent creation it is, nestled in the green folds of this Welsh village. On a clear day the view beyond it of the blue ocean would be a magnificent context. I bought some celtic jewellery in the shop to remind me of my Welsh roots (paternal side, my maiden name is Samuel) and bobbed into the art exhibition.
From here we decided to head to Newgale Beach further down the coast, stopping at a pub on the way for a hearty lunch, before blowing away the cobwebs on the wide windswept stretch of sand. Lily was in her element. What a wonderful weekend she had had in this wild Welsh landscape. It may not have been the sun-drenched splendours of south-west France, but it had a monochrome beauty all of its own.
If you look closely, you might just spot the bodies around the rock in the middle of the sea...
Nooks and crannies

The creek where we had our refreshments

Wild welsh ponies


The coastal path to St David's Head

Adult seals splashing around in the waves (tricky to spot but they are there, promise!) with The Bitches in the distance

Beached baby seals

Anyone got any toast...?

Earthy colours and calm waters


The wonder of St David's Cathedral

The expansive beauty of Newgale Beach...

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