Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Homeward bound with a bad pianist...

Whereas last night the mood on this ferry was noticeably expectant and gamey, with the mostly British passengers boldly striking up conversations with new acquaintances, and a kind of restrained excitement - queuing to reserve a place for dinner, asking for extra pillows, going to the bars, men recounting tales of their own derring-do in buying an old boat, or explaining the moves in some particularly favoured football game - it's all changed this morning. How late did they stay up? It's much more subdued. After all, last night we were setting out on a voyage across the treacherous Bay of Biscay with who knows what ahead? But today we are homeward bound, three hours only to go before we dock in Portsmouth. Andrew, on a recce first thing this morning, reported overhearing men saying things like 'Good morning young man! Still in the land of the living?'
There is a ship's pianist, who has quite a good touch and achieves some very pretty romantic runs, but perhaps from years of repetition has the habit of blurring one tune into the next, sometimes halfway through a melody or for no reason at all, so that listeners might catch the hint of something they know but before it can be identified, he's swept them off into something quite different, and we get Chopin mixed with Lloyd Webber with Beatles with songs from the first World War, all stitched together with achingly wrong chords and trills. It's so bad it's almost good. We sat near the piano during dinner last night, before we had heard him. Now, he's back again as the morning light streams into the lounges, and the boat is somewhere south of the Isle of Wight.
There is another hazard on these boats - how churlish of me to mention it in this pretty and luxurious and well-run vessel.... That is, germs. In fact the loos are all clean and neat and modern, as they have been throughout our whole holiday (a lesson we should learn in England). I am sure most people are diligently washing their hands when they need to, but I regard each railing, each bannister, each door-handle with suspicion. I learned all about this on another ship where there were disinfectant dispensers in every dining area and bar....
On a ship, you are certainly closer to your own deep fears about sudden catastrophe. During the night, though I slept pretty well, I was also worrying about what would happen if by chance our ship should strike another, on the very quarter where our tiny cabin lies.... Water would gush into the long narrow corridors, we would have no chance of escape, we would inevitably drown.
Andrew found a newspaper article about a maritime disaster at Santander which had him shaking and weeping with laughter this morning.... In 1893, a cargo boat had an illicit quantity of gunpowder aboard, and when the engines caught fire and attracted the attention of officials and firefighters, the local population also came to see the fun, and filled a tugboat to get a better view..... The store of petroleum also caught alight and in the end the whole thing exploded with such ferocity that hundreds - possibly thousands - died in the ensuing inferno. A trainload of holidaymakers arrived just as all this happened and they too, along with the train itself, were blown to smithereens. The newspaper report is worth reading - the crowd was reduced to atoms, survivors were said to have lost their minds.....
Santander had another terrible disaster in 1941, when a south wind encouraged the spread of a fire through the timber-built district of the old city and great swathes of it were lost.
But Santander is now far behind us. We still have bright warm sunshine, almost Spanish in intensity, out on the decks.
But inside this boat, people are snoozing, walking along very sedately, preparing for their return to normal life at home. I almost snoozed myself, half an hour ago. I fear if I actually went back down to our cabin and tried to catch a few winks I'd instantly wake up again... So I sit here, describing this scene for you, with that damned pianist twittering about in the background, half true, half dreadful.

Monday, 23 September 2013


It's an odd thing reaching 65, especially when you're away from home. When I was little, 65 = VERY OLD, probably someone needing dark glasses and a walking stick. I remember old women whose legs bowed inwards from the edges of their skirts - victims of ricketts, a disease which is scarcely mentioned these days.
But here I am, an 'old lady' by my own reckoning and feeling pretty chipper. At this moment we are whizzing over the Bay of Biscay at 23+ knots, I am wearing leggings and a snazzy top, drinking white Cotes du Rhone... could do downward dog if anyone asked me, and hereI am blogging away for my adoring international public on a small plastic computer which (although occasionally irritating) is pretty goddam fantastic when you come to think about it.
All the while we've been away, I've been making surreptitious drawings in a smallish noteboook in my bag - we get so few idle moments, these have almost all been sketches showing how we stopped to get a coffee or whatever along the way. Makes it seem we did nothing but stop and drink cafe con leche or cafe cortada.... In fact, I think we scarcely had a quiet moment. I realise my beloved has an instinct to be up and on to the next thing. I have to really work at it get him to stop and just BE.
In fact, I did get a couple of chances to draw him - my drawings are getting better. I see I am more confident in making mistakes or just grabbing what's in front of me. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael Foreman who takes Life Classes in Faversham. He is a great teacher. He kept saying to go on, that 'mistakes' don't matter, that there may be no ssuch thing as a mistake.  I have only managed to drag myself to a few of his classes - why?
I learned so much, so fast.
Now I look at these funny inky drawings of cups of coffee, and each one has its own vibrancy and sense of the moment. I don't CARE if they are correct or not, and in fact I can tell you they ARE correct, whatever the line looks like to you...
Going travelling has such a profound effect on me. I want to write NOVELS, paint pictures, all the way along. Life back home is rich and rewarding and I am proud of all the achievements, of course.. but I want so much more.
Maybe you understand this.
Tell me.

Last day

They make the most of their deco architecture in Spain, Even in a little town like Ferrol they send you on a guided walk with info boards along the way, giving the dates and the details of the architects etc. Here in Santander the bank and the post office all have good info about the buildings. It adds to the sense of community pride. We could do more of this in Faversham, I think.
Our lunch stop yesterday was at Luarca - a popular spot with tourists, pilgrims and locals alike, reminding me slightly of le Treport on the coast where Picardy becomes Normandy. There is a similar deep cleft in the high moorish rocks, only here it is like a canyon, leading down to a series of harbours offering protection against the ferocious storms and huge waves which bash into the Bay of Biscay from across the Atlantic.
We may have been the only English on the quays, looking for lunch, as we seemed to be surrounded by Spanish families - everyone from ancient grandpa to tiny baby - all cheerfully sharing the meal. We have seen very few obese people - a really noticeable difference from things back home, but the women are womanly in shape once they have had children, and the young girls are very slender. These are not a very tall people, either, and there are lots of people with various handicaps - bent legs, and tottering gaits. On the other hand, wheelchair life would be pretty well impossible due to all the steps and cobbles.   Some modernised buildings or hotels have ramps etc but it must be very daunting just to try to get along many of the streets.
This morning, our last in Spain on this trip, is wonderfully warm and sunny. We went out for breakfast - sat in a bar for coffee and fresh orange juice, had a slice of freshly made tortilla and a knobbly sandwich roll with oyster mushroom and finely sliced mountain ham, followed by two more tiny coffees. The bill was about £8.
We peeped into the cathdral crypt - it seems there are two full 13thc churches one above the other - we will go back to the main church in a moment - to see its three naves. Already, at 9.30, there were lots of people inside - praying, saying confession in an extremely well-lit confession-box, and taking part in enthusiastically-presented tours showing the Roman foundations under thick glass.
For some reason I have just remembered I wanted to record a marvellous word I saw on a viaduct in Galicia - they always tell you the length of these amazing structures, though it would be interesting to know the heights too. But in this case, the measurement was of the lonxitude.
We will go and find the ferry at 2.30 but for now, we'll head off out back into this nice city.... The middle of Spain is so vast and so empty, everyone crams into the towns, so even when there doesnt' seem to be much to do, they're all living here in massive apartment blocks. Life has a slowish pace. The corpuscles of society are the long-distance lorries which we see all over Europe. The pavements in the urban areas are lined with cafes, hairdressers, beauty parlours, shoe shops, childrens' clothes shops, and greengrocers. Here we also have the port, the gardens, the beach, the palace, etc etc.   Lots to see.

Sunday, 22 September 2013


 We've checked into the Hotel Bahia in Santander - v plush for us. We've checked out the foot-passenger access for the ferry tomorrow, and put the excellent car back into the hire-pound.
Today's journey across the whole of the north of Spain was lyrically beautiful - the Picos de Europe mountains are stunning. Earlier, as we climbed out of Galicia through the forested hilltops, we passed a horse-fair combined with a Sunday market, in the middle of nowhere   in the forests... it could have been a scene from the Middle Ages.
It was a real wrench to leave Galicia - we had such a rich time. The warm weather helped, but in fact the whole landscape is so compelling with broad estuaries, forested hillsides, amazing bridges and viaducts on the motorways and side-roads, prosperous little farms tucked into every available space in the hills, and a lavish, glorious cuisine using every single kind of shellfish, sea-fish, fruit and vegetable - not forgetting the local pork and beef.... nom nom.
Yesterday we spent the largest part of the day on the beach - talking, laughing, eating and drinking. We went out on a pedalo (sp?. I very nearly swam - about half-immersed but the water was pretty chilly compared to the hot air. We had also been back to the marvellous little market - and walked a little way up the Pontedeume Camino - ...   I had not realised how many of these Caminoes there are - from all directions, all heading for Santiago. I was a bit put off, at the beginning of our stay, because all our footpath walks (camino or not) were definitely affected by the loo-paper adornments which decorated the paths... and we had met the Canadian lady who complained about the same thing, but we subsequently met two guys from Whitstable and Stratford on Avon who htad had a wonderful time - doingthe so-called English Camino which starts at Ferrol.
The day before we all went up to the NW corner of Galicia to view the highest cliffs in S Europe - and our first stop was not disappointing, at 500 m.   We could see the whole landscape laid out, galloping down to the Atlantic, and loved the whole set-up, with the huge carpark covered in white marble chips, and excellent guidance boards showing the geology and and maps.  Unfortunately, the next stop, at the highest point - 600m - was so shrouded in Dartmoorian mist and fog, that the most we could see was a line of fenceposts and wire, stretching out all of 10m away from us....  
Our stop at the nearby village of St Andrew - a huddle of stone houses and a rather atmospheric church with a bald empty nave and ecstatically gilded chancel - was amusing. We did not buy any of the tat on offer, but admired a couple of tiny derelict cottages dying to be done up and let out, and bought some mountain honey.
At this moment, wrapped in a large bathtowel in the hotel, I can think of nothing better than to crawl into bed.  Tomorrow we'll check with the carhire people that all the paperwork is in order, and perhaps buy some bits and bobs, and then make our way to the ship.
We leave behind our friends in Pontedeume, who - lucky buggers - are free to go and eat churros and hot chocolate whenever they want, and buy a little portion of percebes or paella on a whim.  The ingredients are so good. That is what makes the difference.

Thursday, 19 September 2013


It’s Thursday…. For the first time for several days I have the chance to sit and compose my thoughts. We are staying with John and Hilary Finnis at their rented house in Pontedeume – a place which looks inaccessibly small on the map but which of course springs into meaningful life when you’ve been here for a while.

The estuary is one of many which bite into the massif of granite and other hard rocks all along this coast… a little to the north are the highest cliffs of southern Europe, which we hope to see if the weather looks a bit more promising. When we arrived it was a satisfying 28 degrees, but has now sunk into autumnal mists and mellow whatnot at about 19 or 20.   The rivers which have carved their way out of the mountains – more or less parallel – each come down through broad, V-shaped valleys clothed with forests which are being relentlessly invaded by eucalyptus. These trees, still being planted in smallish plots on the hillsides, present large bright blueish leaves at first but then as the trees spire upwards the leaves change shape into their usual dull grey/green lances, the bark falls off into strips, and the cohorts of plants spread out into the wild spaces. Officially the authorities are trying to remove them, but the farmers plant them because they grow so fast and present a useful cashcrop opportunity. We have also seen marvellous pampas grass plants growing wild, along the motorway verges for example, where they are proportionate and pleasing.

The rivers seem flat, sluggish, almost, and tidal quite far inland because presumably  the sea level has risen or the land has sunk. The result is that each settlement looks down onto or has grown out of the navigable reaches, and climbs up the hills behind itself, but only small boats bob around at most of the quays, leaving the big fishing boats to the ports and harbours nearer to the ocean.  Getting from one village to another means getting over the considerable headlands, with winding roads through the trees. Pontedeume – the bridge on the River Eume – is thus an ancient place but still fairly small as there is not much room for it to expand – and it has all the robust charm and integrity of a small market town, overlooking its marshy river, and with old fishing warehouses now converted into hostels for the pilgrims.

The Saturday market was fun – with octopus being stewed in large copper baths, Africans selling handbags from blankets spread out on the pavement, and all sorts of fish, fruits, vegetables, carvings, knives etc etc on sale, with a determined but joyous tone to the whole affair.  We bought figs, photographed the fish, and I managed to convince the fag-smoking florist to let me take his photo after we spent a few moments in wonderful childish pantomime with him hiding behind some large fronds so as to prevent me doing his portrait.

I am taking masses of pictures – far too many of course, but it’s more or less free as a hobby and I keep on wanting to capture the moment….possible research for future writing, or reference, or illustrations for this blog when I figure out how to load the pix up under massive time constraints.

We went to Santiago de Compostella – combining our rubbernecking visit with a taxi service to take John’s daughter Katy to an interview at one of the language schools in the city. She has decided to move here from England, and teaching English is the obvious first way for her to earn her keep. Santiago is an old, old hustler – been attracting tourists/pilgrims since the 11th century or earlier. The main story is that the apostle James sailed to these parts in a stone boat, and once his tomb was discovered a few hundred years later, the king of the day set up a shrine for him, and the rest followed. The town is (presumably deliberately) pretty much black and white, so it has a kind of quiet, pensive feel to it. There are arcades of staunch stone pillars of every shape and design along many of the streets, and there are just masses and masses of churches and monasteries all over the place. The cathedral is flanked by two big squares at the back and front, and the main one at the front is not tainted by anything as wicked as a café, although you can sit and admire the bell-tower at the back and have a coffee at the same time. There is also a gift-shop in the square at the back, very good indeed, manned by Mr Bean. 

The steep lanes give you loads of choice as to which kind of tapas you want , and depending on your pocket you can buy any kind of souvenir or memento from a humble scallopshell through to a huge silver (plata = sterlin’ silver) replica of various church ornament. Of these, by far the most interesting is a colossal incense-burner. The real thing hangs in the crossing of the cathedral, and weighs one and a half hundredweight. During Holy Years (?) every day, and otherwise on Holy Days, a squadron of monks turns out and grab hold of the rope which tethers this thing safely up in the air.  They have a method of swinging it like a huge pendulum across and above the heads of the congregation.  Judging by the photographs, smoke issues out of it as from a damp bonfire. The purpose must have been to overcome the smell of the crowd, I should think, as much as anything liturgical.  One guidebook says they’ve been doing this  - swinging the censer – since 300 years before the discovery of the science and physics of pendula. Now, the height at which this thing swings is not very far above the heads of the worshippers, and it travels an immense distance back and forth – some say along the nave, some say it goes north-south across the transepts…. I have not seen it done, so I do not know.  Anyway, there have been at least two occasions when it has crashed into the head of a pilgrim – taking the poor sod out in a puff of smoke, you might say… but a very holy death and very terrible.  When you see how narrow the nave and transept are, and how the organ pipes squirt out high above from both sides making the trajectory of the botafumeiro a matter of very fine precision considering it’s suspended on a rope about 150 feet long, the whole thing is pretty miraculous. I wish I had seen it going.

We have trundled about – to Mugardos and to Malpica – both very interesting little ports – and eaten in numerous small bars and restos… The timescales are so odd to an English person – nothing starts much before about 10 or 11, the morning goes on till 2, lunch starts about 3 or 4, all shops shut from 2 – 5, and the main evening meal starts about 8 or 9.  Our hosts are enthusiasts for the lifestyle and we are doing our best to fit in. 

We have been taken to the choicest bars for drinks – including the local style of hot chocolate – which comes so thick that you can reputedly stand your spoon up in it.  Very nice, and I’m sure it would go down well at home… It’s made in a fairly ordinary-looking domestic-sized stirring kettle job, working a bit like an ice-cream maker, with glass sides and a tap at the bottom to draw off the thick liquor. This thing is never turned off, keeping the chocolate at the right temperature and consistency. Yum.

For my birthday on Tuesday, John arranged for one of the local bands to come and serenade us in a café down the road. Nine men in their 40s, 50s and 60s turned up, some with guitars or mandolos (?), and gave us an hour of wonderful harmonised singing, mostly songs from Mexico or South America… romantic, haunting, atmospheric and beautifully controlled.  We were all sitting on a terrace facing the beach-park, with the darkness around us, and no-one much about. A couple came to sit nearby to listen. The barman closed the doors – he wanted to watch the football on telly and make a phone call. The wine-glasses gleamed on the table. A large brown Labrador bitch came to play and was chased away. The men sang and sang. It was magic.  The rain started to splosh down around the edges of the awning, and everyone scuffled their chairs more towards the middle. Then it was time to go home… we had kisses goodbye, and thank-yous, and see-you-next-year hugs. So now I am 65. A good way to celebrate.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


We are established in the house rented by our friends here in Pontedeume in Galicia. They don't want any publicity for the place, which is understandable because it's pretty idyllic and with very few Brits.  Actually access to wifi is only down the road, and we are drenched in hospitality - so I have not been writing much. Iwill catch up with it all shortly.
This bulletin is just to report that all is well. The landscape is gorgeous - complex mountainous ranges and coastal inlets, with native forest sadly invaded by eucalyptus. The towns & villages have a  degree of self-sustenance so the worst of the recession has not bitten too deeply so far. The food is utterly stupendous... We stagger from feast to feast.
At this moment, waiting for my birthday celebrations to begin, we are drinking the local white Albarino wine with tapas. Lunch will start at 3. Dinner will start at 9pm with singing by the locsl group - who we heard last in Faversham parish church. I should say we went up into the hills this morning in search of a waterfall on the river Belelle. Andrew saw it but I chickened out to protect the thongs of sandals. But the views in the forest were soft and seemingly timeless.
I'm writing this on my iPhone, so will stop now to return to 3D life and sociability.

Saturday, 14 September 2013


Paris has changed quite a lot since my last visit x years ago. For one thing, there’s no dog poo – hoorah! The traffic is calmer, mostly routed now in one-way systems, and this arrangement has miraculously calmed the drivers down, so it all moves along very smoothly and efficiently. There are masses and masses of cyclists, lots of them on Boris bikes but they tack around like sailing dinghies with the flows of traffic and across the interchanges, and along the pavements and it all seems so easy and proper. Why can’t we have this in London and our other cities? OK – Paris has more space – in some of the quartiers – but wherever you are, in narrow cobbled lanes or along beside the Seine or in the avenues, the space and movement  has all been designed – arranged, so that people are free to bowl along. Some are on skate-boards, some are on push-along scooters. There is also a great variety of motorised biking – big, car-like motorbikes, three-wheelers, tuk-tuks, things I would call Vespas but that’s not the word.

We’ve seen lots of babes in arms – young mothers or dads toting their miniscule infants inside wraps or shawls, or in smart buggies.

There’s so much to describe. Yesterday was our last in Paris, walking about, taking up the suggestions of our various friends back home who kindly prompted us about interesting things to do, so we went (for instance) to Shakespeare and Co, which is a fantastic second-hand and new bookshop on the Left Bank, more or less facing Notre Dame. Incidentally, we saw the huge queues for N-D and for Sainte Chapelle and decided to visit them another day. Instead we got our fix of ancient Paris church stuff by going into St Severin (no queues at all). This is a pretty amazing place, with not one but five naves.

Lunch was 100% terrific in a tourist trap in rue de la Huchette.

Because of our travel troubles earlier in the week we were determined to be in good time at Austerlitz – got there early with all our luggage – were first in the queue to get on the train, showed the man our tickets and he said ‘Sorry, there are no first class cabins on the train, we are full!’  I explained the ticket-lady had swapped our de luxe booking from strike-ridden Tuesday to Thursday and said it would all be ok – but he was adamant.  I cannot describe what I felt like.  After two days delay in Paris – with not enough clothes, the wrong shoes, and staying in that grotty hotel – looking forward to our long-planned ‘Orient Express’ style journey across France, to be told we had only an Economy cabin, no wash room, no dinner, …  and being so tired, and with this being a special birthday present from me to Andrew booked back in June…. AAAAGGHGHGHGHGHGHGGH!!!!!!!  I actually cried.  We sat in our cramped little cabin, didn’t know what to do.    The train filled up. We saw other people filing into the grand cabins.  The man ignored us.  It was horrible.  The train left the station, on time.


After about twenty minutes, another man came and rather grim-faced said to follow him.  In fact, they had found a first-class cabin for us… WC, shower, gourmet dinner, the works…   I nearly kissed him.  My shower, in that tiny cubicle, was the best shower  have ever had. I washed my hair, changed into my specially-bought silk dinner dress, and rested.   The evening was really wonderful from then on, once that Slough of Despond had been traversed.  We had a drink in the bar, went into the beautiful dining car, revelled in our meal, watched the countryside fade into darkness with the odd flash of sunshine (What’s that?!??) and even a rainbow. Having taken our meal at the first sitting (8pm) we had to move off to leave them to re-set for the 10pm service.  We went back to our dinky cabin and found the beds all made up… very comfortable.   Settled into sleep…….


This was like being a pebble in a stone-polishing machine, or a particle in the Large Hadron Collider, or a grain of corn in the stomach of cow….. OMG! Rattle, shake, bang, shriek, stop, start, screech, lurch, sway, rattle, clatter… I swear there was no movement, no sound, which this terrible train ignored in its attempt to recreate the history of the world in its own mad ballet.  I doubt either of us caught more than half a wink all night. Really, it was like a street rebellion, a determined effort by the train and its driver to show what the blasted thing could do in a son-et-mouvement animation….  And we had some sort of irate Frenchman in the cubicle next door, shouting at someone – surely not his poor wife? – ‘Non! Non! Non!!!!!’ and other expletives….   Andrew put paid to him by bashing on the wall between our spaces, four loud knocks. The man instantly shut up. And the train ground to a total halt.  My huband is a powerfully influential man, you see.

We got up at 5am, dressed in a Laurel-and-Hardy manner in the very confined space, ate a ‘de luxe’ breakfast of one soggy slice of white toast, one cold croissant, one lukewarm coffee and a small glass of packet orange juice. Hmmmn.

Then we lurched out onto the platform at Burgos, into the cold, cold, dark morning. It was 5.45 and we had six and a half hours to wait for our connection to A Coruna to meet our friends. We dozed on hard chairs. The man in the ‘Customer Service’ office finally arrived and said  ‘No, he did not speak any English, No, there is no Left Luggage office at the Station, No he did not have a map, No, he could not tell us how to get to the Bus Station where there IS  a Left Luggage Office, but it is a half-hour walk to get there, and No, in general.’   Thanks.

Not surprisingly, we decided to hire a car and drive to Galicia. While we waited for the excellent car-hire office to open, we chatted with a lively Canadian woman who’d come over to accompany her cousin walk part of the Compostella pilgrimage route. She said – all along the way, there is nowhere really for people to do their business, so the whole route is lined with human doings, dog doings, horse doings and the rest.   Put us right off.

I cannot speak highly enough of the young woman running the car-hire office. She was kind, quick, efficient and gave us a discount for being over 55. We set off to the West in our white charger….. through the most extraordinary, beautiful, empty, mountainous landscape, on a perfect smooth motorway. We had lunch in the sunny square at Astorga where Gaudi  built a weird churchy thing next to the medieval cathedral.  You can’t go into the cathedral without paying to go into the museum. You can, however, see the postcard images of what’s in the cathedral – confirming my old opinions – that the Spanish churches are full of images of pain, suffering, torture, agony, and the like.  (Portuguese churches, on the other hand, are full of images of beautiful young people, love and adoration).

We drove 500k today, towards sunshine, light, heat, and peace. We left behind us an extraordinary pot-pourri called ‘trying to get to Galicia by public transport’.   Here at Pontedeume, the sea floods into the bay. The air is rich with the smell of pines and eucalyptus. Our friends are cooking supper, pouring wine.  The temperature is 28 degrees. We are content.
Today - Saturday - the weather has changed to a soft misty grey. We slept in. We went to the local weekly market which was full of local foods - I'll describe all this later for you, as it was marvellous. We walked four or five miles along a coastal path to the little fishing village of Redes - had hake for lunch, drove back, slept some more. We are acquiring Spanish hours. Now we're in a café - under a huge awning, drinking hot chocolate while the rain swishes down.... It's warm enough to be in teeshirts. We're laughing a lot. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


Calling on friends for help, I texted a few people to ask for their suggestions as to what we might do here in Paris where we have been stranded for just a couple of days, waiting for our luxy train-ride to Spain, and the suggestions flowed in: Pere la Chaise cemetery, jazz at la Villette, a canal-boat ride from the Bastille, a medieval banquet, various brilliant restaurants, etc. Having this information to hand cheered me up enormously. I would not have come to Paris without preparing, and felt awkward and silly not having an idea in my head about what to do.... Paris is - what? all the marvellous things, but also very passive-agressive, with all that chic, speed, history and expense.
Years ago, we stayed in a rather wonderful hotel at Chatelet - right in the centre. It was called the Hotel Britannique and was owned and run by the formidable Miss Baxter, who was utterly and completely French despite her proud name. Her father and grandfather had had the hotel before her. It had been occupied by the Germans during the war partly because of its excellent location and numerous handsome rooms, not too grand but still with elegance and gravitas. At the end of the war, when they were leaving - in a hurry - they used the fireplace in the dining room to burn their papers and the great stone lintel arched above the hearth cracked in the heat as a result. The first time I stayed there, each room was complete, square... Later, she had had small cabinets de toilette fitted into each chambre, keeping up with the times.
Now I see it is all very swish, part of some international chain. Miss Baxter is presumably long gone, but her stiff pride and charm remains vivid in my mind.
I have also come to have a bit - just bit - more respect for this hotel where we are staying now. It is called  Modern's. Now that I am less stressed, the brown paint work looks just slighly less like a Long Kesh style of decor. I can see it is really a kind of scumbling - small brown swirls liberallly swashed over old cream paint. It looks totally disgusting. There is a similar attempt at an effect on the walls of the pretty, elliptical staircase, whose treads seem to be hand cut - you can see the adze marks on the wood. Where the plaster walls have been bashed by people's suitcases, they have patched up with polyfilla,which is very white, making the brown design look even more vile. There is a strange roaring noise which comes from the drains.
After breakfast etc we headed out but rapidly returned to put on more clothes... We had a coffee and croissant in a nearly cafe to compensate for the thin fare at the hotel... decided what to do the day, walked up to the Bastille, round the Place, hunted for the canal boat trip, decided to postpone that ...
Off to the great cemetery of Pere la Chaise - wonderful of course - no doubt you know it well - with its solid granite paving, thousands of tiny mausoleums, statues, grieving women, columns, angels, inscriptions, mouldering doorways, cramped stone-work, granite slabs, rusting iron altars, a veritable telephone-directory's worth of names... Here throughout the nineteenth century, the middle classes of Paris buried their dead in more or less ostentation, culminating in a truly colossal stone conical phallus commemorating one Jean Beaujour, outshining many a duchess or millionaire with its tapering perspective and grand rustication, so that from below it looks as if it reaches right up into heaven itself.
The great thing is, there is no religious discrimination, so we have atheists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, foreigners, all the famous artists and musicians, engineers, aristocrats, children, strangers... all commemorated one way or another.
We saw funerals lining up at the crematorium, with attendant TV crews and the mourners mostly in chic black.
 We saw men disinfecting ancient graves (against what? maggots?), and others with pressure hoses keeping the stone memorials squeaky bright and clean. Tout propre. We wondered how the staff keep tramps out - there are so many snug little places to hunker down and sleep....
 We saw the graves of de Musset, Tata, a (not the) George Harrison, Rossini and of course Oscar Wilde - whose stylish sphynx is encased in glass to keep adoring fans away, but there are a few red lipstick marks up above it.
Excellent lunch at a very ordinary little resto at Gambetta and then a trip on the metro to les Tuileries to the Orangerie, and oh my! all our troubles were soothed away by Monet's colossal water-lilies, painted during the horrors of the first world war, as an antidote, maybe. And the wonders of the Guillaume collections downstairs - Renoir, Cezanne, Rousseau, Laurentin, Derain, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Utrillo..... a litany of names which all arise from a single-minded determination to collect - and then all the passion and squalor of the story of Domenica who inherited all this lot plus millions and millions and millions of francs (look her up). I could imagine at least 3 operas or ballets written about these people. The one who sticks in my mind, though, is Chaim Soutine, whose entry in Wikipedia is a masterpiece of mealy-mouthed French intellectualism... when the works are a screaming nightmare of pain and neurosis. He leaves Vincent miles behind.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


I will get my moaning off my chest.

1. Having to use my little Asus tablet which for some reason has a cursor which flips around merrily all over the place and makes typing a nightmare. I suspect my own electrical field has a malign influence on it. Alternatively I am doing something inadvertently on the keyboard which instructs the damn thing to leap about randomly to the middle of other sentences, and any work takes three times as long.

2. Being told we had to spend the next two days in Paris might sound joyous but:
 - we're wearing clothes suitable to sunny Spain and not autumnal Paris.
 - my shoes [not sufficiently worn in before we left] look ok but are cheap, badly-made with some sort of lump in the sole of the left one, have given me blisters already in our search for a hotel.

 - if we had known we'd be coming here I'd have researched what was on, worked out a good plan - but as it is we're without information and the latest edition of Pariscope is not out till tomorrow... The tourist offices are not really much use - they can tell you about the Eiffel Tower etc but not anything more interesting.

 - there is a trapped feeling - we have only a small amount of luggage not suitable to transfer to flights - wrong size and shape for cabin bags and having planned this luxury trip on the overnight train to Madrid - literally for months - as a treat for Andrew's birthday. I was very reluctant just to switch to some other transport... We always go thriftily and economically and this wa to be a First Class experience - huh!

 - I am regretting agreeing to stay in such a cheap hotel. The bed is comfortable and the sheets clean - but there was that smell - I thought disinfectant but it could have been room freshener. And the carpet - ugh! I didn't pack my bedroom slippers because we were staying in someone's private house in Spain and I had limited space in my bag, but now I wish I had. On my luxy trip - I did NOT expect to be in such a dump.This is a temple dedicated to the dim lightbulb and dark brown paint.

But, now here's some good news.

Last night, before I crashed out, trying not to be grumpy, I texted a few pals to ask what they recommend we do while we're here.... and we have had splendid replies - visit the old mosque or the Shakespeare bookshop, go to a medieval banquet or an opera dinner with singing waiters, details of various exhibitions on at the moment, etc. Overbreakfast in a moment, we will look at the map and decide what to do.

You wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans?

Train up to Ebbsfleet - great. Wait for Eurostar - great (Nero coffee great, too).  Eurostar - pretty good - looking a bit threadbare and we had a seat with no window - but it was clean and on time.  Announcement from train manager - less great - French rail strike, and our evening train to Spain cancelled. Info office at Gare d'Austerlitzr very genial and reassuring - we can get a replacement booking, exactly the same, for tomorrow, and free bed on a stationary train parked overnight in the station.... 
But we have to queue for nearly an hour in the ticket office, and the gap-toothed manager who is not used to selling tickets shakes her head: computer says no. Effectively the train is full tomorrow night. No recompense.We just get a very French shrug.  We have spent the afternoon searching for a hotel - the place is packed out.  Even the 3 and 4 star hotels aroudn the Gare de Lyons are full.  Eventually we have found a tiny old fashioned place, little room with a shower and strong smell of disinfectant. We have a carnet of tickets for the metro and 48 hours to do whatever we want in gay Paree.
Having a lovely time.... Just have to trust there are no bedbugs.
It's a tad warmer than Kent, I think - odd bursts of hot sunshine and drenchy showers. People here seem v stressed and inward-looking. We'll have to find something cool to occupy us....

Monday, 9 September 2013

Eurostar to Paris, then the night train to Madrid

Tomorrow we go to Paris on the Eurostar, arrive around lunchtime, head for Austerlitz, then catch the night train to Madrid. Someone told us, the first-class service on this romantic train is ending this year, so we thought we'd try it out while it's still there.

Do we go by train from Faversham to Ebbsfleet or get a cab up to the international station? Train I think even though there's a longish time to wait. Maybe we can grab a delicious British Rail sandwich bap while we wait. Talking of which, I do recommend Waitrose's own-brand all-butter croissants which you can heat up at home - vair vair nice indeed. 

(Huh? I thought I was supposed to be cutting down on gluten! Bah!)

I've tried really hard to reduce the amount of stuff I pack. It's all in one small haul-along bag, and I have a bumbag too, for when we get to naughty old Spain. We're heading for to Pontedeume near a Coruna in Galicia, via this place or that, staying with some friends who have spare space in their rented holiday house. They are foodies too which is another big attraction.... in fact, John has had his own restaurant and is a wicked cook.

All day I've been panicking as usual about what to pack - mostly been wrestling with electronics and trying to get set up as we are taking only the minimum of comms gadgets. ...  Let's hope it all works.

Please do leave comments if you have any remarks to make or suggestions about what we can see and do while we're there.  I'll try to make it controversial if I can.   Too tired now, signing off.

Friday, 6 September 2013


Why have I not registered the wonders of the mountains south of Snowdonia? We drove from rain and mist in Holyhead into sunshine and glory - through the mid-Welsh paradise and into Shropshire for lunch with friends... Wasps attacked the lunch while we did. We heard the buzzards calling. We walked around their Douglas Fir woods. The tiny river at the edge of their garden is the English/Welsh border.... each year the huge boulders are re-arranged by the floods into new formations, but at this time of year all is quiet and convincingly gentle.

Driving on to family in Oxford we made great progress until our schedule was smashed to bits by the outwash of an earlier pile-up on the M5 south of Birmingham - thus it took us nearly an hour to fail to get east of the motorway at Tewkesbury - we diverted to Cheltenham to take the A40 instead, which was fine until a BAD MAN driving a lorry for a company called Gammonds got in front of us.  We had been doing a steady 60mph, but he averaged 35 mph, varying for no reason between 20 and 47mph with no place to pass, and a huge queue built up behind him......   So inconsiderate.   All he had to do was look in his mirror and see what was happening.

And, whoever caused the M5 crash, earlier in the day, could have affected the lives of a million people.... a moment's indecision, or wrong decision - the knock-on effects go on and on and on.  I do think motorways should have frequent egress points, so that thousands of people don't get stuck. Of course, it will be the crash on the Sheppey Bridge which will be recorded for yesterday - 200 hurt and 8 seriously - but this other one in the Midlands also did damage to the social fabric.  We are all expected to just put up with it. I say 'No!'

Here we are, the next day, having lovely breakfast, talking about Chinese porcelain, and getting ready for the trip home later today.

Thursday, 5 September 2013


Wednesday night:
It's weird leaving a place when you've settled yourselves in, turned that blank canvas into your own temporary 3-D artwork called 'home' for a week or so. We've been emptying cupboards, throwing things out, packing the car, giving things away….  The house has been a hive of activity and hospitality for the duration of the wedding and did us very well.  We've been making it all bland and anonymous again. Tonight, after a perfect balmy sunny day, the dusk is settling and we're done. First thing tomorrow, we'll be off to catch the ferry to Holyhead and eventually home.

We went to a bizarre private castle this morning, called Farley Castle and owned for the last couple of decades by Cyril and Margie Cullen - he being an ex-civil servant who went to Lesotho and taught people how to do hand-knitting, and then came back to this marvellous little pepperpot+Gothick genuine castle and taught his four beautiful daughters how to play the harp.  They went on to play for all sorts of illustrious audiences while simultaneously becoming a doctor of literature, a doctor of medicine, a barrister and an architect.  He meanwhile promoted his fashion-design business (based on knitting), sorted out the castle by knocking out un-needed bits, and then turning his hand to making Parianware porcelain.  The castle is small, delightful, crammed with stuff, and he is an idiosyncratic guide who struts his stuff with gusto.  Margie, meanwhile, elegantly mans the till in the shop and wraps whatever you buy… in our case, two interesting little plates and a model sheep.  Things on the shelves were pretty pricey…..

We had lunch with Chris and Caroline who looked amazing considering the onslaught they had dealt with over the last few days. We met their new puppy Doc, and took away with us the various items which the bridal couple couldn’t pack in their air baggage.  Then we tootled off through the astonishing Silvermine Mountains…. so beautiful, so unpromoted, so little-known.  Here the rounded hills are criss-crossed with sturdy hedges making parallel lines of tiny fields, and we saw so many lovely cattle of all sizes, and so many horses, donkeys and foals, we fell in love with the countryside all over again.  No wonder the beef, butter, milk, cream and cheese is so delicious round here - all grass fed, all small-scale (again like the best parts of Normandy), and all produced with pride by the farming families.  I did say, didn’t I, how many of the tractors are driven by young lads - the sons who plan to take over from their dads. Let's hope and pray they can do so, without the European/banking/corporate world smashing it all to bits. 

I've written enough for tonight.  Time for bed and we're off at 5am in the morning.

 We've just boarded the Jonathan Swift at Dublin Port... we left Dundrum in darkness, with just a minor spat on the way because Andrew wouldn't stop to let me photograph a wondrous roadsign showing a car flying over a man. I have been irritating him a lot during the last few days collecting pictures of the glories of Irish roadsigns - these will go on display sometime soon. I am cross he wouldn't let me capture that one, as it was unique as far as I am concerned.  Most of the ones I have collected are variations on the 'beware road chippings' theme, as you will see.

We hurtled along the empty motorway through the last of the night, and gradually the dawn lifted over the beautiful land, showing us the farms and fields, the mountains and woods....  Entry to the port has been smooth, via a marvellous long tunnel which completely hides any view of the city of Dublin.  A coffee, a croissant, a chat with a Polish security man, and here we are. Next port of call is our friends in Shropshire, right on the Welsh/English border which runs down the middle of the tiny river at the side of their land. The place-names round there, and the turbulent landscape, always make me think that Camelot was round there somewhere.  I imagine Gawain and Lanceleot and Guinevere and the rest of them rounding those corners, and dragons resting warily in their caves.  It is a shock - seeing the Irish place-name signs, which are always written in Irish and English of course - to realise how the English mangled them over the colonial centuries, imposing English meanings or sounds onto something more fluid, more powerful and rich than anything we could devise.  

A final thought - looking at how many castles there still are in Ireland, and knowing how many there must have been in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how they all had their spiral staircases of course - I am thinking of that butcher Cromwell, and how he recruited a left-handed regiment so his men could storm up into the Irish strongholds.  A left-handed regiment.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Winding down...

Monday: We said our goodbyes to everyone who was heading back to England - and then took Granny Rye to Cork airport for her flight home.  She's been pretty amazing, flying solo each way aged 93. 

We went into Cork - such a pretty city!  No wonder the Queen liked it so much and went walkabout.  By a fairly long coincidence, we bumped into Andrew's sister Gillie with her man James inside the English Market, and said goodbye to them all over again, and then went for a gluten-free lunch. Ha!

Our afternoon was spent driving along the tumbling lanes and byways down towards Schull and Crookhaven - and this is where I became a ghost. I spent one remarkable summer holiday there when I was a child - in 1959, in the summer I left my primary school. I have very distinct memories of that fortnight - the landscape, the buildings, the people who were living or working or staying in the village, and what happened. I could tell I might be arriving as the solitary holder of any memories of that time. After all, it was well over 50 years ago. Any of the grown-ups from that summer are more than likely dead.

We reached Schull - so much more prosperous than I remember, with lines of yachts moored up on buoys in the wide harbour and the fantastic rocky islanded scenery stretching out to the Fastnet Lighthouse and beyond providing an almost unbelievable backdrop to the revival of my memories.  Seals came to see us when we walked along the pier.  We lodged for the night at a place called Harbour Command (recommended) - a private b&b right up on the ramparts of the bay, owned by Connie and Betty Griffin, complete with castellated garage, landscaped garden, and unsurpassed views.   We ate at the Black Sheep where the starter (crab claws in a wine and cream sauce) was world class but the main meal was, well, disappointing.  

Back at our lodgings, we took note of the remarkable dead fox sprawled out on the wall facing the bedroom door…  

Outside, in the beautiful  terraced gardens, the fishpond is now replenished following the depredations of mink which emptied it a few years ago.  A small lookout tower or beacon on the headland above the house offers views worthy of Hollywood.  Breakfast was scrambled eggs with salmon. Last night they gave us a taster of their fresh-caught shrimps and told us about how important the salt is in the process.    The shrimp are caught over a day or two in cylindrical nets - maybe 30 or 40 per catch, no more.  They have to be cooked in salty water - more salty than sea water. Then a brine is made up, strong enough to float a potato, and the shrimp are left in that for 20 minutes or so.   If this procedure is not followed, you'd need to dip your shrimp into a little pool of salt, as we did.  The texture is superb, and the flesh sweet - but there is no doubt, the salt brings the brilliance to life.

After breakfast we went back down into Schull where we bought an automaton pianist complete with baby grand, and some cards, and a couple of wild salmon steaks….   And then off down the coast to Goleen, where long ago I taught myself to row, aged 11, in a little wooden dinghy in the harbour. In whose boat, and how this came about, I do not remember, but I had such pride in what I had finally achieved.

Then we set off towards Crookhaven. The long and winding road is still clad in wild fuchsia and montbretia, and there are still one or two abandoned ruined cottages, but in the main this is clearly now millionaire country. There is an Oska Outlet (I spent money).  There are smart villas built facing every view.  We stopped at the Altar Wedge - an ancient Bronze Age monument in a tiny roadside clearing, with flat slabs laid out like a box facing Mizen Head.  When the Irish church was suppressed in the 18thC by the English, the priests used this pagan structure as their place of worship.

The road between Goleen and Crookhaven is closed at the moment for rebuilding part of the sea wall, and we diverted over the back way - a switchback way - so we had the benefit of orgasmically beautiful views down towards the Mizen. We could see headlands and bays, tiny islands and rocks stretching out into the far distance, the sea alternately brilliant blue and a kind of silver-bronze. The landscape is almost Greek in its wild emptiness, with gorse, turf, wildflowers, rocks and bare hillsides.  Here the grass grows so deeply down the middle of the road that the tarmac gangs have to lay new surface in two strips, one on either side of the central greenway.  

As we got down towards Crookhaven, I felt my present self slip away, and my eyes and memory took over, and I became 11 years old again. The light was beckoning, the rocks golden, the plants on either hand were lush and rich.  The sea was still and gentle. 

If you don't know it, Crookhaven is a tiny village sitting inside an arm of rock about a mile long, which reaches out parallel to the main land, offering good harbour facilities and reliable village life to sailors and landlubbers alike. It is the most south-westerly settlement in Ireland. In the 19thC it was a thriving port, and it also had a quarry, and in the mid-20th C a profitable lobster-farming business - though those are both long gone.  Marconi set up his first trans-Atlantic signal from here.   When I stayed here as a child, we were guests of the famous Pat Murphy, staying at his invitation in his cottage (still known as Castle Murphy). The village had (still has) three pubs or whatnot for its population of about 700 - the Welcome Inn, the Crookhaven Inn, and O'Sullivans.  My brother David caught a prodigious conger eel from the end of the pier.  We went to see 'the fillum' in a barn. We went to Barley Cove (the finest beach in Ireland) most days.  And today I met a girl who remembered Pat Murphy, and who took us up the back lane to see Castle Murphy, and who served us a very good open crab sandwich for lunch.  Things haven't changed all that much - apart from the fact that it's now very much a rich man's place.  We passed a big car with a Chinese family who'd stopped to take in the stupendous views. I think, if a family of Chinese tourists had pitched up there in 1959 the county would have come to a standstill. The local papers would have sent a reporter, at the very least.

Andrew - who had refused to buy me a pretty garment at the Oska Outlet - did very sweetly buy me some rock-crystal earrings from the Escallonia Gift Shop - lucky me.

We drove back - via Skibbereen and Clonakilty, calling in to see pretty little Glandore where they filmed 'The War of the Buttons', where we spoke to a gentleman in a speedboat - the engine kept unaccountably stopping despite services - but it turned out the engineer hadn't even taken the top off the carburetor, and in fact the tank was full of dirty fuel.  He'd had to rely on his auxiliary (outboard) more than once… but if a swell came from the south west, you'd never have time to get her round to face the water, and you could be swamped.  He was going to do his own maintenance from now on.   They had a fine jigsaw style floating pontoon there, made in sections by Carberry Plastics.

Then we stopped to see the fascinating Drombeg Circle - a late Bronze Age ring of 17 stones aligned to the winter solstice, complete with human burial right next to a complex of at least two round stone huts with a water-tank which could apparently be heated with hot stones, to cook large amounts of meat, or to dye cloth…. Who knows? It was a very nice place, protected by hills behind and with a view of the sea not far away.  There was also a 20m square thicket of fuchsia filled with bees whose noise could be heard far along the lane. 

We passed south of the beautiful Galty Mountains.  The best sign we saw during our long drive announced: Water Divining, Wells Drilled. 

There were also a run of hand-made signs saying 'Best of luck to John O'Horan', 'Good luck to Devlin O'Connor', and 'Doubt ya!! John O'Horan' - all these were for a bowling competition. 

The sun was warm and unstinting, the sky empty and blue and the roads almost devoid of traffic. It was marvellous.  Back here in Tipperary, we were in the land of generous gateways - each farm and house and cottage with a splendid curving entrance, promising hospitality and stability within.   I managed to photograph a few of the wonderful roadworks signs along the way, which vary according to area, and have dramatic graphics showing what risks drivers face.  

We got back to Dundrum, cooked our wild salmon from Schull, have been wrestling with the washing machine controls.   Everyone else from the wedding party has gone home. We are the last survivors and Ireland has been putting on her best display for us - sun, light, space, greenery, mountains, rivers and history all laid out. What a stunning day it has been.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The next day....

I woke up and did a bit of reading, finishing off 'The Greeks' which has had me enraged in a cloud of feminist red mist for the last few weeks; it finishes by hinting that Pandora's 'box' was not some kind of external wooden object….  My plan had been to have a LIE-IN but at 10am I suddenly wanted a proper cooked hotel breakfast and we raced down to the restaurant to find many of the party there enjoying their 'full Irish' (eggs and bacon etc) …. 

This energetic start led us into a mad dash to collect up all the items and props that we'd set up for the night before - going into the hotel kitchen to find the antique cheese stand, and the left-over cheese and cake, and so on.  All this was to be taken to Leugh - Jo's family home.  We gathered up the hired clothes from all the grooms' men (eliciting groans about missing hats and hatboxes), and arranged convoys of cars to bring everyone to the barbecue, giving directions in a landscape where we weren't really sure of the way, there are no postcodes and in this case, the house shares its name with the road and the village but without any signs along the way to say where it is.

I had been thinking about the special qualities of a wedding between different cultures. In many weddings, I guess, the two families have a bit of a chance to get to know each other, but if the wedding is 'abroad' for one side, then there is much more of a gap of knowledge, and more speculation.  In this case, I wasn’t at all sure what the protocols would be, and in fact there were differences between what I sort-of expected and what happened, but these may have been generational rather than cultural. In 'the old days', weddings often happened late in the morning, followed by lunch and then tea - after which the oldies crept away to their beds (zzzzz) and the young went bopping. But here, as I have explained, the wedding was timed for 3.30, the meal started at 6.30 and went on for 2 or 3 hours, and then the dancing started - and everyone, everyone was expected to take part.   My problem was, by 11pm I was utterly bushed and had to go to bed. What a wimp!  And I was not alone…. But I had the clear impression that the Irish were well used to this, and as I explained yesterday, they booked their bus home from the hotel (which is in a pretty remote place) for 4am. FOUR A.M. And they were ready to go on with the party the next day at the family barbie.  I am seriously impressed.

I heard one or two people picking up a theme I touched on before - namely the war-like character of weddings: us against them.  All said in jest of course.  But we were seriously outnumbered - a very few Mussetts and some friends.  Imagine what it would have been like if this was a tribal peace-making through marriage - which must have happened ten thousand times in the history of the world.   I was asked how many sisters and brothers I have, and whether they were all here.  I was told I had taken Jo to my heart. I was asked if I had been told all about her family.  I kept thinking of Wealhtheow in Beowulf - the cup-bearing queen in King Hrothgar's Hall of Heorot: she (by her very name) is clearly a Welsh or Celtic woman, and married into a specific role - to be a 'peace-weaver' between her people and the conquering or invading Danes.   I thought Jo looked like a queen when she was married - stately and endowed with the powers of youth and beauty, and the promise of fertility such as all brides bring.  Members of her family said 'Let's hope we have another party like this, soon - a christening!'.   

We all went to her parents' house for the promised barbecue and feasted on cheeses and salads and burgers and drank the wine - and the grannies held court in their respective quarters of the garden, and Chris was a genial master of ceremonies inside the house.  There came a point when some of the car-less needed a lift back to the hotel, to start to make their way home, so we became part of that convoy, and then took advantage of the swimming pool back at Dundrum.

It's blissful when you are tired and away from home to be able to swim in a warm, clean pool - so calming and quiet, that sense of total immersion. We went back to the barbie afterwards and Andrew played the piano and everyone sang - it was unifying and splendid and as we made our final departures, that music was lifting us all up in a kind of optimistic wave, funny and harmonious.  

 In the end, about a dozen of us had another little feast of frittata and salad back at our house to round off another pretty-near perfect day.  Driving back and forth between Dundrum and Leugh, you pass through this subtle, ancient and lovely countryside and it's tempting to think of coming to live here for good. It's a Janet-and-John world here, a bit old-fashioned, where the children are polite and courtesies are the normal thing.  

I am writing this now at an amazing B&B called Harbour Command in Schull, down in SW Cork - on our way to Crookhaven where we came as children for a memorable holiday in 1959.  During the night I thought of so many things I wanted to include - the difficulties of wearing high heels when you haven't for a long time, the dreams I had this last week (that my mother's real father was in fact a man called Frances Keech, that I had pustules all over my face and realised they must be smallpox, and more of those confusing situations where you are showing someone round a building without knowing anything about it).  But here we are, with a stupendous view outside - even as far as the Fastnet Lighthouse - and another day in front of us, touring more of this spectacular coast before heading back to Dundrum.  Tomorrow we'll pay our bills, collect up the last of the wedding detritus and take it to Jo's parents' house and pick up the mass of stuff we have to take back to England.... wine, the wedding dress, presents, suitcases, etc etc.  But for today we're in cooling sunshine, with the bays and headlands out there waiting, the sea shimmering and pearly, the windfarm turbines turning lazily on the horizons, the small fields cut for hay, the hedges brilliant with montbretia and fuschia, the orange and pink fusing happily into a kind of living jewellery along the banks.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The big day

--> Saturday was one of the best days of my life. From start to finish it was wonderful.  Highlights - going go buy flowers to create table decorations and calling in to the garden centre to see the great big beautiful concrete lions and finding the price - €900 if I transport them home myself.   

Dropping my iPhone on the concrete carpark - smashed glass!  Oh no!   But it still worked, miraculously.    

Gathering grass and wildflowers and weeds for the table decorations, getting Gill and Gillie to help and then Joan as well.   Working away in the banquet hall with all the little blue yoghurt pots…. Creating 15 or so tiny flower arrangements, one for each table.
Asking Tom Sutton Roberts, the best man, if he could do anything about my phone. He took it away.

Then we made the tower of cheese - starting with the mirrored silver stand, and a great wheel of cheese at the base, then three champagne flutes charged with white grapes, then another wheel of cheese, three more flutes, and the last two cheeses on top. We draped our hops around it, and had to tie the tablecloth in as the drapes were a bit of liability for trips and catches.  

Tom brought my phone back, coated in sellotape - good enough to get home with. Fantastic.

Then lunch - smoked wild salmon and Gubeen cheese - wonderful pure natural foods of the highest quality such as you rarely find in England these days. The food in Ireland - the handmade food of the old days - is superb.  We showered, got dressed, decided what exactly to wear - Andrew contriving some cufflinks out of the plastic clips which held his shirt into its packaging. He never fails to impress with his ingenuity.  Then the magic started….  

We were all gathering at the front of Dundrum - cars and a busload from Thurles (booked to go back at 4am!) including babies and toddlers and then Granny Coffey in her wheelchair…  There was a great milling about, with hunts for this person or that, or this item or that.   Eventually a photographer arrived and took charge - and showed she was effectively running the wedding. 'Stand here! Stand there' You on the balcony, I can see your feet in this shot - go back a bit'…etc.

(I started writing this on Sunday, at Jo's parents' house - but the barbecue party gathered and I had to stop of course. I want to capture as many memories as I can…..  Now I am back at Dundrum, have had a wonderful swim, going back up to the Coffey house to collect some stuff and pick up Jo and Dave to bring them back to their free bridal night at the hotel……  so not much time.).

In the lobby they had a great scheme - a fingerprint art work where everyone puts their blob onto a drawn tree, and signs it… in green or gold. It created a surprisingly attractive communal artwork.  And there was a polaroid camera which we all had to use to get our portraits done, and stick the pix in an album. Hilarious in the hands of a mob of creative young people.

Then into the ceremony area - a lovely drawing room, with gold chairs set out in diagonal blocks - in the style of an American movie. The sun streamed in, the room filled up. We were all expectant…. The celebrant - a very English woman called Bridget - was in charge.  She announced the arrival of the bride and then we waited a bit longer. In came the bridesmaids - blonde and smiling like the sun.  Another wait, and then came Jo with her father - both of them radiant with happiness.  She looked absolutely stunning - slender and tall, with her fitted lace gown spreading out behind her - like a queen.  It was breathtaking….  Then the ceremony, which consisted of some readings and then vows and a declaration that the deed was done… People were crying all over the place - it was very very moving.  There was applause, and then lovely music which everyone joined in singing while the register was signed.  The atmosphere was fantastic, so happy!

Then we all trailed out, for what turned out to be a succession of photoshoots…

Then it was time for dinner - a lovely room - food, drinks, speeches - ah, speeches! Jo's dad Chris made a speech which had us all more or less in tears - there is something terribly poignant about the father talking about his little girl - he told us all the milestones of her life, how she had grown up, and how she had blossomed when she met up with David.  The best man sitting beside me on the so-called top table - a man who looks as if he doesn't have a nerve in his body - confided he was quaking, but  gave a flawless performance.  The time came for the tables to be cleared away for dancing - and omigod - these Irish can dance!  The Irish granny, in her wheelchair, came to dance too - being twirled around in her chair and beaming broadly. (The English granny her her wheelchair had crept off to bed by 10pm). Most of us feeble English faded away well before midnight, but the locals, headed by the bride's mother, went on till 4am.  The bus which had brought the contingent from Thurles took them away again at 2.30 - babies, toddlers, children, young, old, all up for it.

Our friends who had come from London - the godparents - who are mostly sophisticated Londoners - had all noticeably softened during the day - all were enchanted by the day.  There was a kind of rapture, induced by Chris's colossal victory over illness and pain to be there to give his girl away, and by the electric undercurrents of Irish v English being melted away by the ceremony.

Tom, one of the godfathers, said he overheard someone say 'I've never been to one of these humanitarian weddings before….' which seemed a good way of describing it. 

I could condense this all by saying: the bride was beautiful and radiated joy, the groom ecstatic, the whole party very happy and the weather shone on us all.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


The clans are gathering. Friends and family slowly amassing. There's a strange feeling about how this works because we are not on home territory, but camping out in a strange house in a strange landscape. I have a sense of the various ports and airports - their direction and distance, and I imagine each party arriving in those quarters, and starting to make their way over the green land. Some made it to our house last night, and these of course were old friends - people who have known our son since before he was born, so although we were all in a strange place, and there were all the formalities to be completed - checking in, mostly - there was an extra quality to their arrival. 'Hallo!!!!!' and hugs or handshakes, and smiles, and picking up the threads of the conversation which may have been let drop months or even years ago….  And all this is for a party. I imagine it must have been like this for the armies before the campaigns over many centuries - finding old friends, testing out who's with you and maybe who's going to let you down.  I am surprised by the turn my thoughts have taken here. No sense of war at all. Just a big crowd gathering for a wedding.

We bogged about a bit yesterday morning,  The bride-to-be, along with her mother and me, went for some pampering at the spa.  It was delightful to listen to Anita from Hungary - fluent in English but with a powerful Irish/Hungarian accent as she did my nails.  It turns out we have a common acquaintance - Father Liam! Back at the ranch we gathered a gang of 9 to go for lunch at Cashel. We headed for the Bishops Palace Hotel, which had been one of the possible venues, and there we showed Granny round the elegant entrance hall and drawing room, admired the fabulous 18thC furniture and staircase, and took her down in the lift to the Buttery Bar restaurant. There we met up with Margaret the waitress who looked after us last time, and had a splendid lunch - variously choosing chowder, black-pudding salad, hake and chips and cabbage and bacon.  We left Granny to sit quietly in the hall and went out into the garden - picking mulberries from the splendid sprawling trees which had been planted in honour of Queen Anne nearly 300 years ago, and then made our way up the path to the castle and abbey on top of the rock.  It's windy up there…  I think Mervyn Peake must have seen it because it's a kind of Ghormengast in miniature - a great tooth of limestone rearing up from the flattish lands, topped with great extravagances of towers, turrets, machiolations, conical and steeply sloping roofs, arrow-slits, sheer drops, all in grey stone, with the town sprawling around the base.  Inside, some small courtyards and massive ruins, scaffolding for repairs, and a small range of rooms furnished with solid practical oak tables and coffers in the style of the 16th or 17th century. There are chapels and corbels and barrel-vaulted roofs, and angels and wall-paintings and vanished music, and a panel showing the Queen's visit last year - when she wore a brilliant and very diplomatic green coat.

Then we hurtled round Tesco (sigh) stocking up for a supper tonight, for all these friends arriving - risotto was the plan.  We collected up all our party from the Palace and went back.  We were driving behind a convoy of three tractors loaded with huge straw bales - the first of these had its load wrapped in black plastic and was going very slowly indeed.  After a few miles, the second tractor driver decided it was too slow even for him, so he boldly overtook the first. Straw particles streamed out behind him as he scratched past the overhanging trees.  Eventually the plastic-covered load turned off and the great stream of traffic of which we were just a part surely heaved a collective sigh of relief as we assumed the speed of the 2 other tractors. But, more trouble - a bus was advancing towards us and the whole caboodle came to a halt on a narrow part of road as the front tractor and the bus had to measure their way forward. From our position 4 or 5 cars back it seemed there was plenty of room, as the drivers were walking quite comfortably between them (maybe sucking air in through their teeth), but it took a good while to reach a decision that one or other of them could move in safety.  Irish country lanes!

As guests we can use the swimming pool and other facilities - and how calming and soothing that is. No diving allowed - the pool is no more than 1.3m deep but how warm and spacious. There is a steam room, a sauna, a jacuzzi, and a stern requirement to wear a swimming cap.  This makes the men in particular look very purposeful….

Gillie and James were i/c of making the risotto - not so easy when you're in a poorly-equipped kitchen and the plan is to feed 20 - but they did a magnificent job. It was delicious, and one-by-one the groups of friends arrived.  There was texting and telephoning, and Andrew had to deliver THE DRESS and Lulu over to the bride's house at Thurles 20 miles away and bring back more stuff for today's party…. But in the end the evening went splendidly. Baby Maddox loved the singing. Young and old came to eat and drink - about 25 in the end.  'Hallo!' 'Hallo!' There were bouts of washing-up to have enough plates. The sky gradually darkened and stars could be seen…. It was all quiet by 11.30.  

Today's the day!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Nostalgia.... memories, school dinners, old photos

After the long hours of the last two days, we've had a quieter time today - late breakfast with Tasha, Lulu and Matt, getting some ironing done, looking over childhood photos of David (and Lulu) to be embarrassingly or cutely displayed at the party on Saturday.

I wanted to append a couple of thoughts…. Why it is that so much of the place looks French, for instance. One reason is the scattering of tiny little 'model' farms which are very like the ones you see all over France, with a small farmhouse set back from the road, flanked by two sturdy buildings which stretch forward on either side, creating a neat courtyard. This seems to reach back to Napoleonic or even Roman design - the same practical arrangement created and recreated wherever you go.  We see very small versions of this layout all along, many if not most abandoned or in poor repair.

Another thought. Why is that while we are experiencing being in one particular place, with its own characteristics and details, we are constantly driven to compare it with some other place? "This reminds me of - France/Northumberland/England…" We do it with people too. Doesn't he look like x? No, I thought he looks like y.

We had a brief misting of almost-rain this morning, but set off determined not to do too much driving. Tasha suggested we go to see a ruined abbey - at Athasell and by golly we found it (tourist roadsigns are excellent). The old abbey was  colossal, stupendous. Makes Tintern look cramped.  We climbed over a neat stone stile, across a liitle field and then over a gorgeous old 4-arch bridge now spanning a muddy gully but once (presumably) a real river. The bridge had no walls. Then through various portals, courtyards and ruins, with violent changes of door arch, height, wall-thickness, level and design all evident in the stonework, and all higgledy-piggledy. What a story these stones could tell. Parts of the structure rear up - 3, 4, 5 storeys tall. There are blocked up arches, new supports, vaults, even a pair of silent medieval larger-than-life statues in prayer emerging from a wall, and some modern graves in old the nave, the chancel, the centre of the cloister.  I have never heard of this place, and it is astonishing. There are no interpretation boards.  What was the business of the abbey - we couldn't see signs of (say) a water-mill. Whatever they did they must have been very rich at various times because of the great range and spread of buildings.

Then we headed to Tipperary itself. The tiny lanes are very quiet and wiggly, but at this time of year they are the natural pathways of huge tractors loaded with massive bits of gear folded in, so they look like some kind of massive insect in a stage of transformation.  These creatures are frequently driven by very young men.

To the south lies the range of the Gaity Mountains which looked fabulous - velvety-purple, swooping down in a gentle curve to the  Aherlow river - itself a branch of the River Suir whose name offers endless possibilities for bad jokes.

Tipp seemed to us a less merry place than Nenagh but very business-like and we found lunch (genuine Irish cooking) in a place which seemed ridiculously French in décor. Only when we left did we realise it was called the Shamrog Bistro. The service was initially dour, the food was hearty and nostalgic as regards the cabbage (chopped fine and cooked to a brownish pulp), but the lamb's liver was tender and delicious, the beef casserole sweet (all our beef is Irish), and the chips and creamed potatoes were sweet and memorable. Two of our number chose pudding: apple crumble with custard for one, and jelly and ice-cream for the other. Nostalgia? School dinners.

Shopping (I am ashamed to say) was back in one of Lord Tesco's accouterments). Lulu couldn't face it.  We'd be feeding a large part of clan Mussett at our house so we chose a menu of mushroom stroganoff and what not….  All accomplished v easily. 

Texts still flying back and forth about arrivals, arrangements.

Home - to unpack, walk about, meet up with new arrivals.   We changed the booking for the second s/c house to be a 3-bed one, so the Hills with their three kids could come over - Tasha showing them in after they'd called on us to say hallo.

The afternoon was warm enough, and light.  It was a blessing not to be driving around…  Andrew started making the supper, I was steam-pressing my outfit. Gradually people gathered - by seven o'clock we had the wine-boxes open and the party began.  Everyone was looking through David's childhood - the masses of pictures I brought with us from the days of prints… Here he is new-born, here in the arms of my mother, then his other granny and his aunt Gillie, then being pushed in a pram, feeding the ducks,  here in his daddy's arms looking alarmed at the sound of a steam-train at Tenterden, here half-naked having fallen into the duckpond at Worth Matravers, here crashed out on the back seat of the car, here eating ice-cream, here on a horse for the first time, here looking divinely glamorous in France, here in school uniform for his first day at the Chaucer…  Everyone is delighted with the photos. It's all so long ago. The photos bring a whole different world back to life, just for a moment or two.

Gillie and James brought Granny Rye to the hotel so Andrew and Lulu whizzed down there with her cases to install her in her room, and came back  saying she was pleased to have her toast and pate in her room and crash out. 

We sang Dubliners songs over supper, ate and drank liberally, and then split up for the evening - the young heading to another music evening in a pub/farmhouse, while some of us oldies stayed around the hotel at their Irish night. A roomful of even older people, sedately and expertly dancing to ceilidh music - they knew all the steps, needed no caller.  It was brightly lit, charming, friendly, another trip back in time. Gillie and James took to the floor, glowing with love and happiness. My brother in his white suit took photos and flashed his smile at everyone.  Eventually I left them to it and came home and went to sleep in about 4 seconds.