Category Archives: misc

HIDDEN PARIS: PEACHES, BARGES AND COCKTAILS

As each successive lockdown occurred I postponed the trip to Paris I had originally planned for April 2020.  Finally, I decided to add all the missed trips together and spend a month in Paris to work on my next poetry collection (centred around my relationship with the city) and to catch up with friends and all the Parisian places I had missed so much.  As I opened the door of my Airbnb in a quiet courtyard off the bustling Rue du Faubourg St Denis I breathed a sigh of relief.  The restrictions around the showing of Covid passes and wearing masks anywhere but on the Metro had all been lifted.  I was back.

I arrived in Paris at 4pm and by 8pm was in Belleville, sitting outside Culture Rapide with the Paris Lit Up gang, drinking a glass of white wine and ready to read a poem or two in this warm and crazy environment where one poet put an IKEA bag over his head and read in the voice of a teaspoon, which he held out to the audience, one poet made copious use of blood capsules and another threw home crocheted book bags into the audience before his reading.  Later in my stay I was featured poet for both Paris Lit Up and Au Chat Noir (the other vibrant open mic evening in the trendy Belleville/Oberkampf area).  It was such a highlight to be able to read a selection of my Paris poems in the city which inspired them; the audiences are always so warm and welcoming.

Open Mic — Paris Lit Up

One of the advantages of knowing Paris so well is that I never feel compelled to do the big things and am happy to wander in favourite areas and explore interesting looking streets, discovering hidden, quirky corners of Paris.  This was very much the case on my first Saturday.  I met up with the fabulous Juliette Dubois to do one of her cinematic walks in Les Puces  (the flea market) de Clignancourt.  It’s such a fascinating area and used to be just outside the city walls, in an area known as the Zone, where all the rag and bone merchants who gathered the city’s rubbish lived and displayed their wares.  They were truly marginalised people, the city pushed them to the very edge of Paris, expelling them on health grounds.  But soon there were tales of bargains and treasures to be found and the Parisians began to venture out to the Zone.  In the 1920s the first permanent stalls were set up eventually creating what became the first of the permanent flea markets, the Marché Vernaison.

Django Reinhardt Tickets, 2022 Concert Tour Dates & Details | Bandsintown

In La Chope des Puces on rue des Rosiers, near the Marché Paul Bert/Serpette you can imbibe the gypsy jazz (manouche) spirit of Django Reinhardt who was living in the area when he got his first big break with jazz band leader Jack Hylton.  Reinhardt was living with his young Romani wife in a caravan in the Zone and, shortly after his good news, knocked a candle over, setting light to the celluloid she used to make artificial flowers.  Django was badly burned and lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand.  He taught himself to play with his remaining fingers, leading to his distinctive style.

Another famous resident was Louise Weber, otherwise known as La Goulue, famed can-can dancer and muse to Toulouse Lautrec.  Her fame didn’t last, here she is, outside her run-down wagon in the Zone:

La Goulue | Moulin rouge, Henri de toulouse lautrec, Old paris

Here’s an interesting article about her rise and fall.  She died, unrecognisable, selling matches outside the Moulin Rouge where she had danced to fame and acclaim…

https://www.messynessychic.com/2018/05/07/the-fallen-queen-of-the-moulin-rouge/

And this is where, in Marché Malik, John Lennon bought Yoko Ono a pair of blue jeans the day before their marriage.  Allegedly, they didn’t fit.  I wonder what she did with them?

If you’re a film fan then you’ll have seen Marché Malik in Louis Malle’s 1960 film of Queneau’s iconic book Zazie dans le Metro.  Zazie’s only ambition during her visit to Paris is to go on the metro, but it’s on strike.  She then decides she wants some bloudjinnzes (blue jeans – this is one of Queneau’s beguiling linguistic coinages/verbal jokes – the book is peppered with them). Here’s Catherine Demongeot as Zazie, in the flea market.

Films à l'affiche | Cinémathèque suisse

When I was very, very poor on my first lengthy stay in Paris in the late seventies/early eighties, I would haunt this market.  It’s pricier now, but back then you could renew your wardrobe for a few francs.  On the way back from Les Puces I popped in to one of my favourite venues, La Recyclerie, housed in one of the old railway stations which served La Petite Ceinture, the little railway line that circled the old fortified walls of Paris, transporting merchandise and passengers to the bigger stations.  It’s now a lovely eco aware community café which serves good, organic food and has an urban farm on the platform running alongside the old, disused railway line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over on the other side of the tracks I could see people on a leafy platform and popped over the bridge and down some rackety iron steps to discover some beautiful community gardens which are open to the public at weekends. Within minutes one of the volunteers had signed me up as a member and I am now the proud owner of a card which gets me into the lovely Jardins de Ruisseau whenever I like.  I spent a lot of time there with a packed lunch and a notebook and pen, seeking inspiration under the wisteria!

 

 

 

 

 

Another discovery, perhaps my favourite, was the peach walls of Montreuil, again thanks to Juliette.  During the two years of the pandemic I did over fifty virtual walks around Paris with a variety of “walk” leaders and learnt so much.  It was during Juliette’s virtual walk in Montreuil, centring around Georges Meliès and his distinctive brand of early cinema, that I learnt about the walls. So, one Sunday, during the week Chris was visiting me, off we went on a real voyage of discovery.

The peach walls date from the 17th century and were a 300 hectare maze of narrow gardens protected by thick plastered walls against which were grown espaliered peach trees.  The walls were plastered with gypsum from the quarries nearby and the thick plaster retained the sun’s warmth and created the perfect growing environment.

 

 

 

 

 

The cultivation of the fruit was a real family affair with all generations involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These peach gardens supplied the court at Versailles as well as the nobility of France.  The Tsars of Russia and Queen Victoria and many other celebrities visited to taste these unique peaches.  When the railways came, bringing cheaper peaches from the south of France, Montreuil peaches became less popular.  By the 1980s only a handful of families were still involved in the production of peaches and, when the main market of Paris, Les Halles, moved ten miles out to Rungis, the final nail was in the coffin.  There are very few gardens left now, but they are a joy to visit and have become happy, vibrant community gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

It was uncharacteristically hot during my whole stay in Paris but whatever the time of year I try to swim in a different pool every time I visit.  This time it was the Piscine Josephine Baker. It proved to be a great choice, proper 25m lanes, not too busy, and it’s unique in that it’s a floating pool on a giant barge on the Seine! The roof only opens in the summer so I must re-visit, but swimming with views of the river and river traffic and a bridge on either side of the vista was really magical!  One of my favourite past-times is sitting by the Seine and watching the river traffic go by: the tourist boats with their French film star names, the huge, dark freight barges and the zippy authority boats.  There’s now a hotel in a barge near the Gare d’Austerlitz and on the Quai de L’Oise you can browse in a floating bookshop, L’Eau et Les Rêves, and then have a delicious lunch on deck.  Quai de L’Oise is on the Bassin de La Villette where the Canal St Martin widens into the artificial lake that links it to the Canal de l’Ourcq.  It’s a brilliant area, full of street art and quirky venues.

There are still so many traditional restaurants in Paris and I go to as many as I can if they have a vegetarian choice on the menu, something which was unheard of when I first changed my diet in the 1980s but is much more common nowadays.  Paris is also embracing veganism and round the corner from my flat on Rue des petites écuries was Jah Jah by Le Tricycle which creates fantastic African vegan food. Over the road from my flat was Passage Brady, a covered arcade full of Indian shops: grocers, clothes and restaurants.  You can have a delicious, cheap thali here and watch the world go by.

Category:Passage Brady (Paris) - Wikimedia CommonsPassage Brady

My local café was Le Napoléon where the crockery bears Napoleon’s bee symbol and the walls are full of old black and white (or rather brown and white – they are very faded and sepia tinted) photographs.  There’s an ancient cast iron stove and it was a warm and welcoming place from early morning coffee to late night kir!

I’m very good at doing Paris on the cheap but occasionally you just have to splash out!  My friend Sally and I are both hell bent on celebrating the fact that we are in our sixtieth year (we first met when we were seven!).  Sally came over for a very packed five day visit and one of the many highlights was a pilgrimage to the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz.  It’s tiny, intimate (25 seats), with fantastic service.  The cocktails are expensive but, seriously, you only need one, they are sooo strong.  The waiters brought endless complimentary dishes of salty roasted almonds and green olives.  Best of all, the walls are dripping with Hemingway memorabilia: photographs, battered slippers, boxing gloves, newspaper clippings and more.

Bar Hemingway, Paris, France. - Bar Review | Condé Nast Traveler

Hemingway famously said that, if he got to heaven, he’d like it to be like the bars of the Ritz. It feels as if his dream has come true – he is still so much a presence here.  Hemingway was with the American Forces who liberated Paris in 1944 and claimed that he had personally liberated the Ritz, and, more importantly, its wine cellar!  He was a frequent and much-loved visitor.  In August 1957 the Ritz concierge discovered two suitcases full of Hemingway’s notes, thought to have been lost for decades, and these notes contributed to Hemingway’s famous memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s, “A Moveable Feast”.   The title comes from this line in the book: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”   I think that’s why, despite lengthy absences, I still feel so connected to Paris, having lived there in my late teens.

Here’s Hemingway standing with Sylvia Beach outside the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Rue de L’Odéon.  Sylvia is one of my literary heroes.  She supported so many writers in the early part of the 20th century and was instrumental in getting Joyce’s Ulysses published.  She was hugely supportive of Hemingway.

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition: Amazon.co.uk: Hemingway, Ernest: 8601406215108: Books

I love Transport for London’s Poems on the Underground initiative and it’s wonderful to see the Metro has followed suit.  On many platforms there were posters of poems by Hugo, Rimbaud and the greats of French Literature, including speeches from Moliere’s Tartuffe.  On the trains themselves were poems by local people with their age and Paris area postcode included with their poem.  I wrote a lot of new poems during my visit, Paris will always be my muse, but the collection still feels incomplete.  They say that if you leave an article of clothing behind somewhere, then it means you want to return.  With me, it seems to be words I’ve left unfinished in the air… although I did lose a cardigan on the Metro and a woolly hat somewhere on the Boulevard St Germain!

I think it’s high time I shared my love of Paris!  Over the years I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the literature, culture, geography and social history of the city.  So, I’ve decided to offer a week- long poetry course in Paris in April 2024.  There’ll be daily pop-up poetry workshops, plus evening mini-tours and meals in very special places.  There’ll even be an opportunity to (safely) try some absinthe!  Details are slowly coming together and I’ll have space for six participants only as we’ll be negotiating a busy city, mostly outdoors; my fellow flâneurs will need to be able to walk up to three miles with ease.  Watch this space!  And Part II of the Paris trip blog is coming soon!

 

 

 

A Book at Bedtime

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about childhood reading and how much it still influences me as an adult.  Like many people, I don’t remember learning to read, but just remember reading.  I don’t remember being read to, or having bed-time stories, but I have strong memories of the books I read as a child.  Learning to read is hugely empowering and one of the reasons why it was a crime to teach American slaves to read. Frederick Douglass, an African-American social reformer who escaped from slavery in Maryland, sums it up perfectly:  “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, echoed this by saying, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”  So it’s doubly annoying not to be able to remember when this key process took place!

Twinkle Comic 399 (13 September 1975) | Childhood memories 70s, 1970s childhood, 1980s childhoodPrincess Tina (1967 Fleetway) comic books 1967

I vaguely remember Ladybird books in my early childhood, but comics were far more important.  Twinkle, Diane, Princess Tina, Beano, Dandy, Treasure: I devoured them all.  I think it was a combination of a story in a comic and The Children of the New Forest which led me to write my first “novel”.  It was around thirty pages long and was the story of two sisters, Roma and Maritza (I think the story in the comic was about gypsies) who lived in the woods self-sufficiently due to some crisis which I have no recollection of whatsoever.  I loved books which explored how to live off the land and survive.  Like so many children I longed to live far away from home and school and have adventures.  My Side of the Mountain by Jean Arthur, was never far from my side.  It’s the story of Sam Gribley, a teenager who runs away from his parents’ crowded New York apartment to make a new life in the Catskills on land formerly belonging to his grandparents.  He tames a falcon, Frightful.  He fishes.  He sews his own clothes from deerskin.  He makes friends with animals and humans but is always wholly self-sufficient.  I was entranced.  Sam lived in a hollow tree just like Susan, Peter and Angela in Enid Blyton’s Hollow Tree House.  One of my regular haunts as a child was Richmond Park and I remember constantly checking trees for any tell-tale signs of habitable hollows.  My alternative plan was to run away with the gypsies, after all, another of my prize possessions was Secrets of the Gypsies so I knew a few useful words in Romany and everything there was to know about baking a hedgehog over an open fire.

Secrets of the Gypsies (Piccolo Books): Amazon.co.uk: Henwood, Kay: 9780330239424: Books9780140303636: My Side of the Mountain (Puffin Books) - AbeBooks - George, Jean: 0140303634

I fully appreciate now that these books gave me a love of nature which has come to the fore more and more since I relocated to Norfolk in my twenties.  Another great staple of my childhood was Something To Do, a sickly germolene pink Puffin book which had things to do every month, both indoors and out.  Each month started with a poem.  March exhorted children to make a matchbox church, keep a nature diary, learn to skip, do bark rubbings and make a herb tub.  There was also a pet of the month featuring such stalwarts of childhood as hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, budgerigars etc.  How I loved that book!  My shoebox dolls’ houses were full of wobbly bits of furniture made from conkers, pins and wound wool.  As an older reader, still living in a town and with very little access to the countryside, I immersed myself in Alison Uttley’s Country Child, the semi-autobiographical account of a child growing up in the country before the First World War.  I had the Royal parks and the River Thames, but it wasn’t the same somehow.

Something to Do: Amazon.co.uk: Septima: Booksalison uttley tunnicliffe - country child - AbeBooks

On rainy days I would pore over my father’s huge (to me) clothbound book of birds and copy the colour plates with my soft pencils.  My favourite was the jay.  It seemed so exotic. I’d never seen a jay before.  Today Surrey is over-run with parakeets, bright green, the sky full of their now familiar screech.  They would have had no place in my dad’s book, a reminder of how things are constantly changing.

At my junior school I ran a Pony Club.  It was an efficiently run organisation for three or four girls who were as horse-obsessed as I was.  The fact that none of us owned horses or knew how to ride did not bother us in the slightest.  We had Ruby Ferguson and her Jill series to teach us all we needed to know.  I was always destined to teach I guess, and would regularly test the club members on their knowledge of tack and the special words for the colours of horses: dun, chestnut, bay, roan… We could identify horse breeds as speedily as we could dogs (another Club, needless to say).

Jill books | Horse and Hound Forum

The Jill series was a constant source of joy.  Jill was poor, like me!  But there the similarities ended as Jill grew from pony novice to rosette winning expert.  There are one or two rules to follow if you’re considering writing a successful children’s book.  The parents/adults must be largely absent (Jill’s mother was a writer and always off in her own head rather than keeping an eye on her daughter), hence the proliferation of orphaned children, evacuees and boarding school pupils in children’s literature; and secondly the child protagonist should be slightly older than the intended reader of the books, something for them to aspire to.  Jill was twelve and I was ten, so we were made to be friends.

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats by Jane  BrocketMidnight Feasts and Lashings of Ginger Beer | Famous Five Style

A book I cherish as an adult is Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer which explores the food in children’s literature and supplies recipes so you can replicate the seed cake described in Swallows and Amazons and the Gloriously Sticky Marmalade Roll Mrs Beaver makes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (another huge favourite!  In my head I was Lucy for a large part of my childhood.)  “An Adventure was one thing,” says Enid Blyton, but an adventure without anything to eat was quite another thing.  That wouldn’t do at all!”

So many other books were my bedside companions.  Being sent to my room if I had been disobedient in any way was a joy.  I raced through all the Edith Nesbits, loved Noel Langley’s In the Land of Green Ginger, it’s illustrated by Edward Ardizzone who was a constant in my childhood and whose drawings I still love to this day.  I loved ballet and particularly enjoyed Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. The book is about three adopted sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil. Each of the girls is discovered as a baby by Matthew Brown, an elderly, absentminded palaentologist and professor, during his world travels, and sent home to his great-niece, Sylvia and her childhood nanny, Nana.  I loved how each of the girls had such distinctive characters and talents.  Most of all, I loved the girls’ names.  How could my parents have named me Susan?  The frustration with my boring name increased when I went to secondary school and discovered there were four other Susans in my class.

The Little White Horse (Puffin Books): Amazon.co.uk: Elizabeth Goudge; Illustrated by C.Walter Hodges, C.Walter Hodges: Books

My desert island book, the one that has endured and moved with me from house to house from my late teens and early twenties to today, the one which is so battered and worn that a friend bought me a Folio edition which I adore but it’s not quite the same as my browning, mildewed copy, is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.  I’m not sure why I love this book so much.  The story is full of morality but also adventure and excitement.  The descriptions are delicious and I always wanted a bedroom like Maria, the heroine, as she goes to live with her uncle in his amazing house in the most picturesque village with the nicest governess a girl could want.

‘No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room.  It was at the top of the tower and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen.  It had three windows, two narrow lancet windows and one large one with a window-seat in the thickness of the wall…There was no carpet upon the silvery-oak floor, but a little white sheepskin lay beside the bed so that Maria’s bare toes should meet something warm and soft when they went floorwards of a morning.  The bed was a little four-poster, hung with pale-blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars, of the same material as the window curtains, and spread with a patchwork quilt made of exquisite squares of velvet and silk of all colours of the rainbow, gay and lovely…the fireplace was the tiniest she had ever seen, deeply recessed in the wall.  It was big enough for the fire of pine-cones and applewood that burned in it, filling the room with fragrance…Over the fireplace was a shelf, and on it stood a blue wooden box filled with dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on them, in case she should feel hungry between meals….It was all perfect.  It was the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and skill… ‘    from The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge

 Best of all, though, I discovered that Elizabeth Goudge not only wrote children’s books, all of which I raced through, but books for adults too and my smooth and painless transition to a different world of books was complete!

I often wonder if I would be a different me if I’d read different books as a child.  To explore these ideas further I’m running a zoom workshop called A Book at Bedtime.  There are details on the courses section of my website if this might be of interest.

 

 

 

Canterbury Tales

Nat Field's House | Canterbury | South Of England | Self Catering Holiday Cottage

In November I had a big birthday to celebrate and did so in style staying in a quirky 15th century cottage right in the middle of Canterbury.  One of the previous owners of the property was Nat Field, an actor and dramatist who would have been a contemporary of Marlowe and Shakespeare. His father, John Field, was a puritan who disapproved of all the entertainments his son was involved in.  Apparently Nat was a bit of a ladies man who led a wild life and may have fathered a child with the Duchess of Argyll.  His name appears as one of the actors in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. He may well have replaced Shakespeare when he joined the King’s Men in 1616.  Like Shakespeare, he spent most of his life in London, presumably retiring to Canterbury, although details are scant, apparently he was forced to quit the stage after a scandal.  A facsimile of his portrait watched us from the wall in the bedroom in that eerie way that old portraits do, the original is in the Dulwich Picture Gallery and is impossibly romantic in that wild haired piratic way that a young Shakespeare and Marlowe are depicted…  Christopher Marlowe, son of a Canterbury shoemaker, is probably one of the most lauded connections and the cottage was a minute away from the stupendous Marlowe Theatre.  So little seems to be known about Nat Field beyond his professional life, he feels ripe for the picking for any budding novelists out there.  Susan Cooper, in her children’s novel, King of Shadows, features Nathan Field as a character. Set in 1599, it uses Field’s background as a student of Richard Mulcaster’s at St Paul’s as a springboard. The Nathan Field in the story, who briefly works at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is actually a like-named boy from 1999, who has switched places with the young Elizabethan actor.  As you can tell I became rather besotted with the romance of all this!

Nathan Field (1587–1633) | Art UK

The current owner is also an actor and the cottage was festooned with theatre posters, TV scripts (he was in The Bill for many years) and original artwork.

Rupert Bear 1920-2020: How Canterbury's Mary Tourtel created an iconic character 100 years on

Canterbury has connections with so many literary figures, including Rupert Bear!  Mary Tourtel lived all her life in Canterbury, creating Rupert in 1920 for the Daily Express.  Rupert was conceived as a rival to Teddy Tail, who was the star of a popular comic strip in The Daily Mail.  When Tourtel’s eyesight deteriorated too much to continue with her illustrations in the 1930s, Alfred Bestall was her replacement.  I adore Rupert.  We have two framed snowy scenes from a Rupert calendar which come out every Christmas as part of the festivities and a framed Bill Badger scene in our porch!

Chaucer succeeded in putting Canterbury on the map early on with The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 and available in a printed edition from 1476.  The reader follows a group of pilgrims from Southwark to Canterbury where they are to visit the tomb of the martyred Bishop, Thomas à Beckett.  Their individual tales told in the inns they stay in along the way form the narrative.

Aphra Behn was born just outside Canterbury.  She was one of the first English women to earn her living as a writer although, before she became a poet, translator and playwright she was a spy in Antwerp for the Court of Charles II!   Just as little is known about Nat Field, or even Shakespeare, and the true nature of Marlowe’s death, Aphra Behn is also somewhat of a mystery.  Her biographer, Janet Todd, laments, “she has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual. She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks.”   I do love a shadowy figure that allows space for speculation!

Dickens knew Kent well.  In addition to his London residence, he had a house just outside Gravesend, Gad’s Hill Place, for the last fourteen years of his life and had spent much of his youth in Kent.  Legend has it that he had always coveted the house, which he had seen on country walks with his father, and he expresses this in The Uncommercial Traveller, a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences:

“Bless you, sir,” said the very queer small boy, “when I was not more than half as old as nine, it used to be a treat for me to be brought to look at it. And now, I am nine, I come by myself to look at it. And ever since I can recollect, my father, seeing me so fond of it, has often said to me, ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might some day come to live in it.’ Though that’s impossible!” said the very queer small boy, drawing a low breath, and now staring at the house out of the window with all his might.

Still from Daved Lean’s 1946 film of “Great Expectations”:

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) | Great expectations, Film stills, Movie scenes

Dickens wrote Great Expectations in his Kent house, penning some wonderfully evocative descriptions of the marshes:

The marshes were just a long black horizontal line … the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black, and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermingled …The dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it…the low leaden line of the river…and the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, the sea…

I am used to marshland as we have a lot of saltmarshes in North Norfolk, but the Kent marshes seem bleaker and wilder and Dickens captures this desolation and isolation so well.  The marshes between Whitstable and Faversham seem unchanged since Magwitch leapt out and terrified poor Pip.  Part of the Thames Estuary they used to stretch right up to Westminster and have been drained and embanked since the 12th century.  One of my favourite days out during our week away was a trip to Faversham and a long loop into the countryside and back along the saltmarsh.  The town is full of medieval buildings, breweries and quirky shops but one of the sights that interested me most of all was

the Cardox factory (left), which opened in 1924 and was part of Faversham’s once extensive explosives industry.  Today it looks derelict, but the sheds are still in operation and are deliberately flimsy and far apart from each other to prevent fires spreading and to allow easy rebuilding should an internal explosion occur.  Closer to Faversham town is the Chart Gunpowder Mill, the oldest of its kind in the world. Ships would transport the gunpowder along the creek and out via the Medway and Thames to the royal arsenals at Chatham or the Tower of London. You could even argue that the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was won in the gunpowder factories of Faversham. Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, carried 35 tonnes of powder to supply its cannon. I like pretty places but find myself drawn much more to traces of industry and spent ages peeking through the fence at these tumbledown sheds!

Faversham Creek was bleak and beautiful on the very cold and windswept day when we did our walk.  Daniel Defoe, a customs officer, knew Faversham well, stating in 1724,

“in the arts of that wicked trade the people hereabouts are arrived at such a proficiency that they are
grown monstrous rich.”

The “wicked trade” is, of course, smuggling.

As we got closer to Faversham on our looping walk we had to cross a small wooden bridge over Cooksditch Stream into Ironwharf Boatyard.  On the other side of the bridge was a very welcome mirage, Quint’s Retreat.  This tiny vintage caravan, run by a cheery lady, supplies tea, cake, bacon butties and toasties to dogwalkers, boatbuilders and very cold tourists.  It’s named after Robert Shaw’s character in “Jaws” and was totally unexpected.  The boatyard housed some real treasures alongside decommissioned goods wagons which were stranded when a section of the railway track was dismantled.

 

 

Faversham’s architecture is outstanding and another of my favourites was this magnificent warehouse (below) which stored locally grown hops ready to be transported up the creek to the London Hop Exchange.  My mother’s family were East Enders and, during the war they spent a lot of time living in Kent hop huts, bringing in the harvest and part of their evacuation duties.  My aunt remembers the whole family living in one hut with all the kids joining in at harvest time and my Nan sitting in state ready to receive the hopheads.

There was so much more to explore in Faversham, such as the remnants of the once thriving brick industry and the priory and abbey vestiges.  The four-mile walk took us all day to complete and it felt as if there was much more to discover in Faversham’s layered history.

 

Another passion of mine is run-down seaside places.  Fortunately, we were a stone’s throw from the coast as I start to pine if I can’t get to the sea regularly.  As well as a brilliant trip to Whitstable we also walked from Margate to Ramsgate.  I’d love to go to Dreamland, Margate’s vintage theme park dating back from the end of the nineteenth century when an entrepreneur reclaimed it from the saltmarsh.  It’s changed a lot since then, of course, and its current status is a little hazy.  We could see into the site from our train to Margate and it looked fantastic.  The boards around the site contain some wonderful artwork combined with the memories of locals:

As the text is a bit blurry, but also totally brilliant, I’ve transcribed it here:

“My best birthday my Mum made me a cake in the shape of a thatched cottage.”

 

When the candles were lit, the shredded wheat roof caught fire and my Dad drove a toy fire engine in NEE NAW NEE NAW! and poured water on!”

 

 

The town itself is a strange mixture of decrepit and genteel and all the bits in between.  Tracey Emin clearly had a large part to play in putting Margate back on the map from its heyday as a popular seaside resort.  Over Droit House, one of the most distinctive buildings on the seafront, is Emin’s neon artwork “I never stopped loving you,” her love letter to the town where she grew up.

T S Eliot wrote part of The Wasteland in Margate.  There’s a really interesting article here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/09/ts-eliot-waste-land-margate

And a great quote in the waiting room/toilets area of Margate Station:

 

“My name is only an anagram for toilets.”

T S Eliot

 

 

 

As we walked along the front for our walk to Ramsgate we were surprised to see a figure seemingly standing in the sea as the waves washed over his head.  A bit of zooming and googling with phones and cameras showed that it was, in fact, one of Anthony Gormley’s  Another Time cast iron figures (number 23 out of the hundred cast, to be precise).  They have been placed all over the world and are very similar to the Another Place figures, again 100 in total, all facing out to sea on Crosby Sands.  It felt as if one of these figures had waded round the coast until it came to rest in Margate.

Antony Gormley: Another Time | Turner Contemporary

The walk to Ramsgate was splendid.  One of the highlights was this amazing chalk arch on Kingsgate Bay on the way to Broadstairs.

 

 

And another highlight was Broadstairs itself with its distinctive bay and Dickens connections.  I spent a couple of years in Broadstairs as a very young child and have very blurred memories of it, I think I was about eighteen months old or younger when we arrived and getting on for four when we left.  But I’m sure I remember Morelli’s and who wouldn’t?  It’s an institution and provided a great rest-stop for the final leg of our walk.

Best Things To Do In London – Your Ultimate Guide To London | Things to do in london, Broadstairs, Ramsgate

Canterbury was a great base and we explored the town and Cathedral thoroughly, but it was the harsh landscapes of the Kent coast and countryside which really spoke to me.  I’m sure there are poems brewing, particularly from the weird and wonderful sculptures, found pieces I snapped along the way!

 

 

I Remember…

I do like a few days of well-behaved snow and North Norfolk has delivered this very efficiently.  Gorgeous, shiny snow, enough to cover the muddy bits every now and then but not enough to cut us off.  All kinds of falling snow, from soft, floating flakes to that polystyrene packaging looking stuff.  I’ve been devouring Nancy Campbell’s entrancing Fifty Words for Snow in which she explores words from a wide range of languages that refer to snow from Korean to Spanish, from Irish to Lugandan.  One of my favourites is an Icelandic word, Hundslappadrifa, which translates as snowflakes big as a dog’s paw. 

Fifty Words for Snow (Hardback)

I’m no longer very keen on getting my gloves off and shaping the snow into balls and men, but fortunately someone locally has done that for me.  I  love this snowman with his bracken brows in a field near us!  We are so lucky to have the countryside on our doorstep and have been exploring the area known as Roman Camp.  This area has medieval ironworkings but no apparent links to the Romans.  It was thought that nineteenth century coach drivers named it so to make it more appealing to tourists.  There are sunken lanes,  ancient quarry pits, earthworks and woods.  There is heathland where you can gaze down at the sea from the highest point in Norfolk, Beacon Hill, site of a medieval beacon, last used during the Napoleonic wars.  Recently the sea has been a swollen lavender colour, dark and solid as the land.

So I’m wondering why my mind is constantly turning to Mexico at the moment.  Perhaps I’m craving the forbidden fruits of foreign travel or some colour and sunshine.  As I look out from my desk I can see the roof of the barn opposite covered in a thick, glistening layer of snow.  It could also be because I’ve been exploring the works of the Oulipo movement.  I recently taught a poetry workshop using oulipo techniques and I’ve become a little obsessed with this group of writers and mathematicians who, from 1960 onwards, started looking at how constraints served to unleash greater creativity. Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau are my favourite oulipeans, but there are many!  The movement still exists today and there are still practitioners publishing their work. I love Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary which uses playful word games to produce innovative poetry.  Another favourites is Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology, 101 stories of girlfriends consisting of 101 words each and in alphabetical title order.  I’ve been reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember which inspired Georges Perec’s book of the same name.  This is basically a list of memories, all starting with the phrase “I Remember…” so I thought I would have a go at doing this with my memories of Mexico.  In the 1990s I was studying art history and training to be a guide at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (on top of a full-time job!) and became increasingly fascinated with the Meso-American objects in the collection.  We took a two-week holiday in Mexico where I was able to see more of these objects at the National Museum of Anthropology, as well as visiting various Aztec and Mayan sites.  In the early 2000s I travelled to Mexico for work quite a few times doing international recruitment for the University of East Anglia and also as a guest lecturer and teacher trainer.  This enabled me to visit more sites and discover different parts of the country, a truly eye-opening experience.  So, here goes!

Image result for zocalo mexico city

I remember the main square in Mexico City, the Zocalo, with the sinking, shifting cathedral built on Aztec temple remains.  There were men with signs round  their necks on the edges of the square, advertising their availability for work.  Huge frying pans of insects ready to be coated in chocolate and sold as snacks.

I remember a Harley Davidson rally on the Plaza de la Republica.

I remember the Casa de los Azulejos, a cafe with walls covered in beautiful tiles.  I don’t remember what I ate and drank, just how the tiles told me stories.

Image result for casa de los azulejos mexico

I remember drinking margaritas on the roof terrace of the Hotel Majestic, overlooking the Zocalo and wondering why they were going to my head.  Then realising the whole city is 2,250m above sea-level and I was probably suffering from a touch of altitude sickness.

I remember Plaza Garibalid, full of rival mariachi bands, busking their hearts out.  How the music was both melancholy and celebratory.

I remember the Mercado de Sonora, the withcraft market, dark and smoky and full of the inexplicable.  They probably had the answers to all my problems somewhere in that market, but I think I just bought a candle.

Image result for mercado de sonora mexico city

I remember the Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional and how rousing they are.  For a few minutes I wanted to start a revolution.

I remember taking a colourful boat at Xochimilco to travel the old Aztec waterways.  Mariachi boats would come and serenade you for a few dollars. I ate my first tamale and took pictures of all the deteriorating and decapitated dolls on the island known as The Island of Dead Dolls.  At the time I was writing a poetry collection on dolls which was never meant to be…

Image result for xochimilco

I remember climbing the Temple of the Sun and feeling that I would become a sweaty puddle of sacrifice on the steep steps.

Image result for temple of the sun mexico city

I remember tasting mole poblano for the first time.  It’s a rich, spicy sauce and one of the main ingredients is chocolate.  I still use chocolate in my vegetarian chillis and chilli/chocolate paste in most of my sauces.  It was in Puebla and I bought a beautiful blue and white tile which I have to this day.

I remember sitting on the verandah of my hotel one evening.  It was in the Chiapas region and near the ruins of Palenque.  I could see a creature approaching in the dark and sat as still as I could.  It was an armadillo.

I remember going to the beautiful Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas and losing two of my nine lives.  I was dozing on the bus and was woken up by screams.  On a high mountain road the driver had misjudged the bend and when I looked out of the window the wheel was hanging over the edge of a long drop.  We survived and then I slipped on one of the dodgy bridges over the river.

Image result for san juan chamula

I remember the Iglesia de San Juan in Chamala and how Catholic and indigenous beliefs blended together to make this the most unusual church I’d ever been into (and that’s saying something in Mexico!)

I remember speaking Spanish and being understood.

Image result for frida kahlo's house

I remember Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacan and how happy it made me with its beautiful colours, her vibrant artwork, the feeling that I was close to the spirit of this amazing artist.

I remember flor de calabaza (courgette flowers) floating in soup and stuffed with rice and vegetables.  And nopale, cactus that when cooked tasted like green beans.

I remember staying with a friend in Taxca and staying up all night to watch the Oscars, then going down the silver mines the next morning.

I remember buying silver jewellery and how, even if it had the most intricate and beautiful designs inlaid into it, it was the weight of the silver that counted.

Why not have a go at this technique?  I use it a lot in my teaching and it’s incredible how one memory leads to another and how it seems to dredge up memories previously “forgotten”.  It’s important to repeat the mantra of “I remember” as it seems to have a hypnotic effect on the mind!

But for now, I’m returning to the snow and leaving you with a poem I wrote in the first lockdown, little believing when it actually snowed we would be in Lockdown Three!

Snowdream 

This year we have all learnt

what it means to be snowed in

to have drunk our fill of its burn.

 

Some mornings I sing the snow to life,

populate my garden with imagined snowmen –

dark-eyed, top-hatted – their long embrace

my only source of warmth.

 

I only know three words for snow:

slow   quiet   cold

 Once there was a man who died

planting his flag in a vast white wildness,

his name the echo of a high-wheeling bird

that dives for small, unburied things –

Falcon to my blazing Snow Queen.

 

 

The Saltwater Diaries

The Saltwater Diaries (Hedgehog Poetry Press)  was finally launched on 21 September 2020 to a wonderful audience of poetry friends and family and since then I’ve been lucky enough to read from the pamphlet at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.  This year the Festival was on-line and I so missed being able to stroll on the shingly beach between readings, banging into poet friends both old and new all over the town.  But, but, every cloud really does have a silver lining – it appears I have a stress fracture on my left legbone and it has been very difficult for me to walk any distance so Aldeburgh in real life would not have happened for me, ironically.  I read with wonderful poets Maria Isakova Bennett, Katrina Naomi and Martin Malone, each of us reperesenting a different part of the UK.  Henny Beaumont was the artist-in-residence and I was delighted to have a portrait sketched by this talented artist as I read.

 

 

 

 

 

Sue in Aldeburgh – Henny Beaumont

Those of you who know me well will understand how frustrating it is for me not to be able to walk, albeit temporarily.  Both pamphlets, Lumiere and The Saltwater Diaries were written as a result of a multitude of different walks.  In Lumiere I becamea flaneuse, following in Baudelaire’s urban footsteps, and in The Saltwater Diaries I devoured the Norfolk coast path in bite-size chunks.  I thought I would dedicate this blog to the places which inspired The Saltwater Diaries.  These are places I can’t visit until I’ve healed, but through the power of my imagination and some very amateurish map drawings, I can be there in spirit!

At the beginning of October we did manage to get away to real-life Southwold for a couple of days and this is really the place where The Saltwater Diaries began.  When I was at the University of East Anglia teaching English to the international students we would organise cultural field trips and it was while researching a trip to Blythburgh and Southwold that I discovered the legend of Black Shuck, the devil dog who comes out at night and spells death within a year to those who encounter him.  You can find devil dogs all around the coast and, allegedly, while staying in Cromer Hall, Arthur Conan Doyle heard the legend of Shuck and went on to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I firmly believe that Shuck is a creation of the local smugglers who wanted to keep the local population indoors while they went about their business.

I’ve written about this area of Suffolk many times before and have a poem Legends of Suffolk in my first collection.  Once, as legend has it, Black Shuck tore through the congregation at Blythburgh Church on a murderous spree and left scorching clawmarks on the church door as he left which are still visible today.

Equally worthy of poems and stories are the towns up the coast from the Blythe Estuary.  This mysterious, marshy and woodland area boasts both the village of Walberswick, accessible by ferry from Southwold, and the town of Dunwich – or rather, the remains of Dunwich as much of the important medieval port was swept to sea in a momentous thirteenth century storm and subsequent erosion has reduced it to the size of a village.  They say you can hear the bells of the sunken churches when the wind and tide are right….  Go to this website and scroll down to see a revelatory map of this area’s ongoing coastal erosion:

The last ruins of Dunwich, Suffolk’s lost medieval town

We walked from Southwold to Dunwich and back again with a wary eye on the weather which, at one point, was totally different in each compass direction with the sky behind us looking positively apocalyptic.  A brief drenching followed by sunshine led to one of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever seen.  Here’s proof that there’s a poet at the end of every rainbow:

As we walked back to Southwold with the marshes on one side and the harbour on the other, the marshes emitted an eerie, otherwordly smell of sulphur as the sun set bloodily across the big skies.  A fitting end to a wild day.

The Norfolk coast has been my main inspiration for the poems in The Saltwater Diaries with Revenant written on the cliffs at Weybourne after a journey back from Paris the night before.  This was a day of double rainbows and I felt so disoriented – plucked from the grey, filtered January light of Paris to the windswept birdcalls of North Norfolk.  There were even a couple of puffins out at sea, no doubt as disoriented as me!

Filming David Copperfield on Weybourne beach - YouTube

In a further extraordinary feat of disorientation, Weybourne Beach (shingle, cliffs) recently stood in for Great Yarmouth (sandy, no cliffs) in Armando Iannuci’s superb recent adaptation of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel as a thoroughly engaging David.

 

 

 

 

 

Marginalia, which begins with the lines:

Today I am full of winter/unnatural with mucus and itch

was written on a day when I thought I was recovering from a cold but actually ended up feeling quite delirious.  Of course, this is always a good place to write from, a liminal space in the head between fever and clarity perfectly echoed by a walk across the no-man’s land of saltmarsh to the shingle beach at Muckleburgh.  I always find the area around Muckleburgh quite sinister with its remnants of WWII coastal defences and military museum.

I wrote I Believe in the Sea on Cley beach with a group of other writers from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve.  We’d been beachcombing and one of the group had found a sundried dogfish which we all desperately coveted.  I’d found a nice pebble (solid but unspectacular) and someone else had found a pound coin!

A Conversation with My Father was written on the day after an immense coastal storm and there were still blistering winds of over 40 miles an hour.  My father was a boatbuilder and as I passed the boats moored in Blakeney Harbour to walk along the tidal flats, I kept thinking how he would have found this area both alienating, mystifying but also familiar.  It’s certainly not the River Thames but there is so much he would have related to, particularly the feisty little boats beached at low tide.

The area around Glandford Ford, just inland from Blakeney, is rich in inspiration for me and one of the poems in The Saltwater Diaries was written here as I stood knee-deep in the ford on a beautiful July day.  The poem is called All the Water there will be, is and I refer to myself as an upright Ophelia  – both the ford and the River Glaveney are probably a wee bit too shallow for dramatic floating!  I’ve discovered that poet Anna Selby actually writes underwater and am in awe of her dedication!

I love watching dogs’ reactions when they discover the road in front of them is covered in water:

a dog enters the ford, nose to the surface/as if the meniscus holds old smells/ the musk of deerhounds/the slink of fox/a footstep softened by rain

A bit closer to home I wrote a poem celebrating Cromer and its famous pier Haibun – The Winter Sea.  I almost feel the pier is sentient and am in deep sympathy with its degradation: barnacles feast on its underbelly…

I brought the pier’s persona to life in a poem I wrote to accompany John Crossley’s wonderful painting of a pier.  The words and painting appear in the Eames Gallery exhibition “A Common Place” which can only take place virtually at the moment.  There’s a film and an on-line version of the exhibition here.  Artists and writers were paired together, asked to find a place they had in common which they loved, and then to celebrate it in words and pictures.  You can join in the experience here:

https://www.eamesfineart.com/viewing-room/31-a-common-place-connecting-people-through-art-words-and-a-common/

Many of my poems in the pamphlet refer to my love of swimming in the sea and my walks on the beach.  The poem Beached evokes one of my more unusual walks where we discovered thousands of beached starfish:

The beach is strewn with starfish, thousands – limbs puckered, vibrating with dehydration.

I loved every minute of the “research” I did for The Saltwater Diaries and hope my empathy with this extraordinary landscape shows in the poems.  I feel very privileged to live here and, even if I can’t get out and about, from my window yesterday I saw Brent geese flying over, the glowing white cap of the windmill down the road, the autumn hues of the allotments opposite,  three riders on gorgeous horses trotting back home, and the distant glisten of the sea.  I’ll be back soon!

The Lure of Wild Swimming

I’m delighted to announce that my new pamphlet (or chapbook as my American friends call it), The Saltwater Diaries, will be coming out in September.  The collection explores my relationship with the sea, formed over the last five decades and more, and features poems mostly written since moving to a house which is a seven-minute-walk from the sea.  Many of the poems mention swimming and, as it’s the season for sea swimming (well, for me, anyway, not being quite as hardy as some I know who swim all year round!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the joys of wild swimming.

First, a confession.  I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty five.  Why, so late?  Oh, where do I start….?  My father was a boatbuilder and spent most of his life on or by the river, but he never learnt to swim, maybe a throwback to the days when sailors considered it unlucky as, if you fell into the water, it would prolong your death.  They wanted the sea to take them quickly and cleanly.

Water is one of my earliest memories as we lived in Broadstairs when I was very young.  I have a strong memory of burying a grandparent in the sand but can’t recall any details.  Perhaps this is a false memory – isn’t it what everyone is supposed to do at the seaside?  One of my favourite recent films, starring the superb Billy Connolly, is What We Did on our Holiday.  It’s a hilarious and touching tale of the effect warring parents can have on their children and Billy Connolly’s character is indeed buried by his grandchildren at one point.

Film Review: What We Did On Our Holiday, aka, British Kids Say the Darndest Things – We Minored in Film

I remember nearly drowning in a public swimming pool when I was tiny, and being hauled out by the lifeguard and resuscitated.  My mother said she wouldn’t take me swimming again as I’d shown her up.  I loved my pink towelling bikini even if I had nowhere to take it.

School swimming lessons didn’t really teach me anything except how to dodge the floats thrown at my head by our sadistic PE teacher, Mr Fernside – it made a change from chalk…

I could swim perfectly well with armbands out of my depth so I probably could swim without knowing it.  Bizarrely, I loved the smell of chlorine and that strange echoing atmosphere of swimming pools, even the wet chaos of the changing rooms where you could never get completely dry however much talcum powder you shook over yourself and everyone else.

Not being able to swim was never an issue.  I spent a year in Israel in the 1980s and whenever a chance arose I would be pootling in water and under waterfalls, sometimes up to my neck, sometimes led into deeper water by kindly friends holding my hands as if I were an overgrown child.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly frightened of water despite my lack of ability.  I’ve swum in the Dead Sea twice, once from the Israeli side and once from the Jordanian side, once knowing how to swim, and once not. It doesn’t really matter in the Dead Sea, it’s so ridiculously buoyant that the only issue is how to get vertical again and get out!

Amazon.com: Wee Blue Coo Vintage Photography Man Dead Sea Umbrella Book Jordan Palestine Unframed Wall Art Print Poster Home Decor Premium: Home & Kitchen

Then, at the age of twenty-five, Chris and I went to Greece and he had me swimming with relative confidence on the first day.  Since then I’ve never really stopped, instantly developing a hunger for wild water and lap-swimming in any kind of indoor or outdoor pool.  I particularly love lidos and often swim in the wonderful Hampton lido.  On my bucket list is a swim in the Ladies Bathing Pond at Highgate/Kenwood.

Hampstead Heath

One of my favourite poetry books from the last decade is Elisabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims, a haunting, experimental long poem that flows and intrigues.  There’s a review here:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/08/swims/

I so want to be by the poet’s side as she slips into the water and explores it.

Another ideal swimming companion would have been Roger Deakin, whose book, Waterlog, is a classic.  There’s a lovely documentary which was repeated on TV recently where Alice Robert’s follows in his footsteps and enjoys some fabulous wild swimming, including underground cavern swimming which looks incredibly scary.  She also discusses the differences between swimming in a wetsuit, a costume and skinny dipping.  I’ve only skinny dipped once in a water-hole in Arizona where you were made to feel very odd if you tried to cover up – kind of a hippy dip I guess as we were on a Green Tortoise holiday which seemed to mostly be run by people who’d come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair…  You can see the Alice Roberts documentary here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9r28

Sadly, Roger Deakin died in 2006, so no more accounts of his watery exploits.  I love the fact that the University of East Anglia archive contains a pair of his speedos.  There’s a great obituary of Deakin here, a real celebration of a life very well lived:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/roger-deakin-412989.html

He seems such a quintessential English eccentric, swimming in his own moat every day and breaking the rules to trespass on private stretches of river in true entitled style.  He describes his attitude beautifully here:

Most of us live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

The Swimmer Burt Lancaster 24x36 Poster Bare Chested full length in back yard at Amazon's Entertainment Collectibles Store

In Waterlog, Deakin’s inspiration for swimming around as much of the UK as he can is John Cheever’s brilliant short story The Swimmer, immortalised in the 1968 film of the same name where Burt Lancaster (above) spends the whole film clad in a rather snazzy pair of belted black swimming trunks.  It’s an extraordinary story which I often use in my masterclasses.  You can read it here:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/20cusliterature/syllabus2014-15/cheever_the_swimmer.pdf

So, what is it about wild swimming?  It feels elemental, adventurous, invigorating (it’s rarely warm!), primeval – yes, primeval is the best word – getting back to our human source – losing our ability to walk and discovering our watery roots.  We spend the first nine months of our consciousness floating in fluid so perhaps the need to be in water is part of our psyche.  Deakin clearly believes this too:

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached ourselves at birth. To swim is to experience how it was before we were born.”

Wild Swimming Brothers 🏊 on Twitter: "For a geothermal swim like nowhere else on earth visit the Víti Crater in Askja, Iceland #iceland #wildswimming https://t.co/OydxBFV71s"

Most memorable swims?  There have been so many.  One of the most striking from a scenic point of view was swimming in the Viti crater at Askja in Iceland (above).  In fact, all the swims I did in Iceland were memorable.  The Viti crater is like swimming in thick, warm, turquoise soup.  The Blue Lagoon (below) feels as if you are swimming in some kind of weird dystopian experiment.  Swimming in Icelandic rivers  means you have to be ready for the unexpected as the river can switch from freezing to very hot in just a few yards due to geothermal activity.

Acquisition offers put $286m value on Icelandic geothermal spa Blue Lagoon | Think GeoEnergy - Geothermal Energy News

I’ve enjoyed white water experiences in many countries, the most memorable being white water swimming down a river in Turkey towards the sea.  Not really swimming, more lying on your back in a life-jacket and pushing off as if you are on a giant, wild flume.

While trekking in the Amazon rainforest on a bird-watching trip our group took a boat across a tributary of the Amazon (don’t be fooled by the word “tributary” – they are pretty wide!).  We discovered on our return that another group had taken the boat back, we could see it clearly and tantalisingly moored on the opposite bank.  We were stranded.  Some of us decided to swim across and help the guide bring the boat back to “rescue” the group, a mission we accomplished with panache.  It was only afterwards we were told that the piranha native to the river will only consume human flesh if it is already dead and dying…

Blog- Detail page | Hotel Sternen Oerlikon

Switzerland is one of my favourite places to swim.  There’s a lovely outdoor wooden swimming pool on Lake Zurich, the Seebad Utoquai.  It dates from Edwardian times, as you can see from the picture above, and has a timeless elegance.  You can tell if you have swum to the middle of the lake if you see the twin spires of the Grossműnster become one.   I’ve also got a soft spot for the River Limmat which runs through Zurich – it’s such an odd feeling to be swimming through a city and watching city business carry on as normal from such a lowly perspective! I remember walking alongside the Rhine to the Tinguely Museum in Basel and seeing commuters swim to work with their waterproof floatbags containing their workgear.

In fresh water, I love seeing swans go by, unconcerned, as I quietly tread water; clearly you are not a threat when only your head is above water. I’ve been lucky enough to have great crested grebes carrying their young on their backs pass very close to me.  When I swim from my local Norfolk beach I have the privilege of seeing terns dive, cormorants doing a flypast, and even the occasional skimming swallow.

Today, as I write, it’s rainy and blustery, which doesn’t always stop me swimming, but I’ve just checked the surf report and there are 8 foot waves predicted.  Last week I trod on a weever fish in bare feet (not pleasant and not the first time either!) so I’m trying to be a more sensible wild swimmer – my list of rules so far is quite short but will no doubt increase with time:  wear surf shoes, check the surf height, don’t float and daydream and realise that you are farther from the shore than you should be etc

And the last, rather poetic, word has to go to the inimitable Roger Deakin:

Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”

 

With Love from Lockdown

Is anyone else finding this stage of lockdown the hardest, the most uncertain and the most stressful? I’m probably going to stay with the former stages for a bit longer in a hopefully safe summer hibernation in quiet and lovely East Runton.  I am privileged to be able to do this and totally recognise that so many others do not have this choice.

Lockdown has been a positive experience from the micro point of view but extremely disturbing from the macro point of view.  The what-ifs and uncertainty, the heart plummet and increased heart rate with every newsfeed scroll and perusal of the weekend papers.

So, in this blog I’m going to focus on the micro and  the positive and share some of my lockdown experiences.  I hope you will all do so too in the comments section of the blog page!

Lockdown Highlights

  • Sunsets over the sea. We try to watch these a couple of times a week – they are always different – sometimes watercolour, sometimes oil, sometimes the sun hides behind angry monochrome.  One of the things which hasn’t improved over lockdown is our photographic skills, but this one’s my favourite so far.

 

  • Beach walks. Foam on the beach liked whipped cream from churned algal blooms; terns diving like tiny missiles; the changing texture of the sand underfoot and the thought that these were once part of much bigger rocks and stones, that we are treading on particles of pre-history; the occasional paddle with underlying thoughts of when the sea will be warm enough for me to attempt my first swim of the year; Cromer Pier as the light changes.

 

  • Local walks inland – we’ve seen the lambs grow from bouncy Easter newbies to plump-bottomed teenagers. The pygmy goats are still pregnant, as is the dun coloured donkey – come on girls, we want babies!

  • I’ve been enjoying a friend’s on-line diary/blog which he kept every day for at least 12 weeks to record impressions of pre-lockdown and lockdown. I didn’t realise that the Mass Observation project, which started in 1937 and continued into the 1960s, had been revived.  They’ve been recording the observations of ordinary people since 1981 and are particularly interested in responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The original project consisted of questionnaires and diaries kept by 500 volunteers, one of which was Housewife 49, Nella Last.  Her diaries have been published and were immortalised on TV with Victoria Wood in the role of Nella.  It feels an important time to record experiences, this is history in the making.  If you are interested in sending your observations go to http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/covid-19  for more information.
  • Cycle rides – we are gradually going a little bit further every time. When we lived in Norwich I clocked up around 100 miles a week cycling to work, into the city to meet friends and to the stables where the horse I owned for around 10 years would be impatiently waiting for his hack around Keswick Mill.  Some weekends we would cycle for around 70 miles for pleasure.  Then there was a 12 year gap where, once we relocated to West Norfolk, we tended to walk rather than cycle.  Now, we’re back!  We’ve cycled to Mundesley and back via the Quiet Lanes (Mundesley, sadly, always looks closed, lockdown or not), then another trip to Cley where we sat on the beach and watched cormorants and avocets fly past as we ate our sandwiches.  This week was the big one – all the way to Waxham.  As we hit the beach we could see a row of curious grey seal heads, like black periscopes, all turning to watch the spectacle of humans sitting and walking and paddling.  Waxham’s sands are punctuated by old style groynes and rocks and, as we clambered over each one, the same scene greeted us until we hit the jackpot – hundreds of seals, all different ages, basking on the beach, their low moaning calls muffled by the noisy waves.
  • New murals appearing in Cromer and Sheringham – lockdown art is a big thing from rainbows to chalk drawings on the seawalls.  Here’s my favourite.  Einstein on the Beach!
  • Chris’s harmonica lessons. I thought this might drive me slightly crazy but it’s actually been really endearing to hear his dedication to the cause.  The other day a shiny new harmonica arrived in the post with the all important 10 holes (he’d been struggling with an inappropriate 12 apparently).  His impression of a 1930s American goods train is slowly taking shape…
  • Chris’s 1960s viewfinder found in the loft of his childhood home and languishing in our own loft until very recently. We ration ourselves to a set of slides a day.  The commercial slides all seem to have been compiled in the 1950s and early 1960s: a very jingoistic set of Tarzan slides, bizarrely out of order Munsters and Mary Poppins.  There are also endless slides of Greece, Italy, Berlin – all very unprofessional with garish colour, people in the way and dodgy composition (yes, these are commercial slides you actually bought back in the day!).  It’s been totally engaging and an insight into what now seems a very innocent age of travel and entertainment.Vintage 1950's-1960's Sawyers 3-D 3-Dimension Viewer Model E ...
  • Poetry Events. Normally I have to limit myself due to time and travel but not now!  Every Monday night I “go” to an open mic poetry event in Paris.  It used to be held in the basement of Le Chat Noir but is now hosted by organiser David Barnes from his balcony near Père Lachaise.  It was once called Spoken Word but is now called Spoken World – the poets come from all over the USA as well as Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh and East Runton!  The Norwich Stanza group (peer poetry feedback) I belong to is now happening via Zoom (no more worrying about missing the last train home!) and I’ve joined another Stanza group in South Kensington.  I’ve been to lots of poetry launches and open mic events in London and next week I’m going to the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistence, hosted by her Welsh-based publisher, Seren.  One of my favourite events was Jenny Pagdin’s Lockdown Stage which brought together a host of Norwich poets and two talented London guests too, you can still hear the readings via this YouTube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g32XN9tlcwo  Martin Figura and Helen Ivory are regularly hosting some great poetry readings from lockdown in The Butchery.  All this without shelling out for a single train fare.  The downside is that I’ve bought rather a lot of new poetry books, no, wait, that’s an upside!
  • I’m just writing my 20th new poem since lockdown although my creative energy is starting to flag a wee bit. There have been a lot of articles in the press about how productive Shakespeare and Milton were when they were, respectively, locked out of London and theatreland due to the Plague, or in prison.  My life hasn’t been quite so extreme.  I’ve very much enjoyed having time to curl up on the sofa in our garden room (more like a ramshackle conservatory-cum-lean-to, but we aspire…) and write.  The title of this blog With Love from Lockdown is also the title of the first poem I wrote after lockdown.  I was delighted when it was accepted for the Poetry for an Infected World, Postcards from Malthusia project by the two poets who run New Boots and Pantisocracies where you can find a series of interesting poetry projects. Go here to see the poems: https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/  I’ve always been interested in 18th century economist Thomas Malthus’s ideas.  His theory that if a species becomes too dominant then nature will find its way of redressing the balance seems to have considerable relevance today.  He’s known as the Gloomy Philospher but looks unfailingly chirpy in the portraits I’ve seen of him:

Thomas Malthus on Population

  • I’ve loved catching up with friends via Zoom, Skype and phone calls. So much more time to do this – I feel much more connected to my gang! It’s been wonderful to connect with friends in Europe and London friends who have, in the past, had such busy diaries it’s been like trying to find a tricky bit of sky on a giant jigsaw for a get-together.  Another upside is that I’m more technologically literate than I used to be, but that’s not difficult to achieve as I was a pretty low-level user before lockdown!
  • More time to read has been a real boon. I’ve got through piles of hitherto unread books and have been particularly enjoying exploring American poets including Ada Limon (The Carrying, Dead Bright Things), Mary Ruefle (My Private Property), Danez Smith (Homie).  Heidi Williamson’s superb Return by Minor Road is out officially this month (one of the many books delayed by the Coronavirus).  I love, respect and admire this book.  Heidi is a great friend and she has put her heart and soul and so much else into this collection which explores the primary school shooting at Dunblane where she was living at the time.  It’s so sensitively written.  An intensely profound meditation on love and loss.  If you do buy any poetry books during this period then do try to get them directly from the publishers as they are really struggling with no bookshops open to sell their authors’ work and the only launches possible are on digital platforms with no bookstalls…  Heidi’s is available from Bloodaxe  https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/search/  My latest read has been the bizarre and wholly wonderful Alice B Toklas Cookbook which describes all the recipes Alice would cook for her lifelong partner, Gertrude Stein.  They lived together from 1908 when Alice arrived in Paris, a refugee from the San Francisco earthquake, and were together until Gertrude’s death in 1946.  My favourite moment is where Alice serves a dish to Picasso and is told it would be more suitable for Matisse! I love this picture of them, they look really conventional but were completely groundbreaking in so many ways.

Legendary Lovers: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

  • T’ai Chi, qi gong, meditation and yoga. I used to do these so regularly but other things gradually pushed them into a minor role.  During lockdown I’ve been doing a combination of these practices on a more or less daily basis, with a bit of Pilates thrown in to try and strengthen by ever pesky wrists (weak thanks to a bout of tenosynovitis in my twenties).
  • I’ve learnt how to cut my own fringe!
  • Recipes – new and old – one of my best re-discoveries is the joy of cornbread and how much better the accompanying spicy chilli is with the addition of a bar of very dark chocolate.  It takes me back to my travels in Mexico, but that’s another story…

In the Time of Isolation – Separating the Sheep from the Goats

 
So much has happened since I last posted that it’s hard to know where to begin in terms of the strange new world we are living in at present.

My own journey to isolation started in Yorkshire.  At the time it seemed safe to travel and to go ahead with our two-week holiday, but that weekend everything changed in terms of both the political and public attitude to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Northern railway stations such as Leeds and York, usually so crowded you had to fight your way to the platforms, were completely deserted.  Trains were cancelled as drivers self-isolated.  We made it to Ilkley and walked on the Moors as much as we could before deciding it would be better to cut our losses and come home. Five days later, safely home in Norfolk, we were in Lockdown.

Charles Darwin Blue Plaque, Ilkley | Peter Hughes | Flickr

Ilkley was a great little town, the High Street flanked with blossoming trees and the moors looming at the end of the road.  Darwin was a fan of this area and would surely have loved its prehistory.  Once on the moors it does feel like a different world, there are stones marked with neolithic carvings (see the Swastika Stone below) scattered all over the rough terrain, craggy brooks and a rather enigmatic stone circle called The Twelve Apostles which might, or might not, be ancient.  The views from every point are sweeping, one way to Leeds, the other way to the Three Peaks – the weather was mockingly good throughout as we started planning our return.

 

 

 

 

 

There are far worse places to be locked down than East Runton.  We are very fortunate that our favourite local walks are all within the somewhat confused remit of one-a-day exercise as they all start the minute we step out of our front door.  It’s a time to appreciate the little things and to celebrate what we have access to.  I’m a Skype convert and have chatted to friends in Denmark and The Netherlands as well as having a virtual glass of wine with my best friend in London a couple of times a week.

It’s a time to be inventive with food too – infrequent supermarket trips mean there’s plenty of opportunity to delve into the back of the storecupboard and transform that slightly out of date chickpea flour into onion bhajis and calentica (a kind of North African pancake mix which I used to have a lot when I was in Paris in the 80s).  It might be time to try and make nettle soup too – we have so many locally and it’s been on my radar for a while!

Paternoster Square, shopping, events near St Paul's - Richard ...

Then there are the projects.  We’ll be working our way through our DVD box set of Wagner’s The Ring – my favourite opera(s).  I can’t describe the feeling when the first notes of Das Rheingold rumble out – primeval.  Foolish actions almost leading to the end of the world – perhaps not such a strange choice… Chris has dusted off a 10-hour History of Reggae from Mento to Lover’s Rock by Linton Kwesi Johnson so I might be a far better bet in pub quizzes from now on!  I rarely buy hardbacks but splashed out on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light having so much enjoyed the first two books of her Cromwell Trilogy.  As a writer I am in awe at how she makes the characters’ speak so naturally, and how she does this without using quote marks but the reader is never confused.  I’ve also bought Atwood’s The Testaments and two Ada Limón poetry collections Bright Dead Things and The Carrying – beautifully accessible poetry.  And Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities.  Check out both these poets at the wonderful Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ada-limon

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/chen-chen

So, now to the sheep and the goats!  One of my previous blogposts featured the gorgeous Kashmiri goats of Great Orme, the rocky outcrop which looms into the sea and starts in the town of Llandudno.  Well, these goats are now international stars – a YouTube sensation.  Since the lockdown they have started to come into Llandudno and run riot.  They always ventured down in the past but now there are no humans to chase them back up to the hills.  Check out this article with accompanying video.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2020/mar/31/goats-take-over-empty-welsh-streets-llandudno-coronavirus-lockdown-video

One of the most interesting things about the global lockdown has been the effect on nature.  I’ve been reading about Malthus, the nineteenth century economist and demographer.  His theory is that if one species becomes too dominant then nature will find a way of redressing the balance.  As we stay local for a few weeks and consume and travel less, there’s a neat bit of rewilding going on – less pollution, more birdsong.  There have been lots of news items about nature taking back Venice as the waterways become clearer.

There’s a very interesting writing project called Postcards from Malthusia which might be of interest:

https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/

Nature has always been prevalent on our favourite local walk.  It only takes 40 minutes but at the moment, in terms of what you can see in the Springtime, it feels epic!

The walk starts with a hedgerow full of glowing lime-green alexanders.  These edible plants were introduced to the UK by the Romans and known as the “pot plants of Alexandria” – every bit of the plant is edible and it’s often known as Roman celery.  It has a beautiful sweet scent, a bit like elderflower, and a tangy sap.  It’s too pretty to forage, but you never know…

Then, under the double-viaduct that separates the village into Top Common and Lower Common.  It was built in 1902 to bring holidaymakers to the coast from all parts of the country.

At this stage we always do a quick double-check to see if there are still nine classic white farmyard geese hanging out like bored teenagers on the green (there were twelve when we moved here).

 

Then on to Manor Farm which is just like the kind of farm you’d have as a kid, a little bit of everything – donkeys, sheep, lambs, hens, a cockerel, Muscovy ducks, sometimes goats, the occasional horse.

Up the road to check on the lambs.  In just a few days they have become more solid, less leggy and much calmer, less inclined to do their Harrier Jump Jet VSTOL (Vertical Short Take Off and Landings) leaps.  I can’t help thinking about military planes when I see these lambs.  Well, I do come from Kingston-upon-Thames where British Aerospace had their factory and it was almost mandatory to work there for a bit – I temped there for two summers and both my then boyfriend and my brother did their apprenticeships there.

Down the green lane to the pygmy goats.  These are hilarious.  I seem to have perfected some kind of fake Swiss yipping yodel which brings them running, bells clanking and I can get them to follow me along the fence line to the next gate.  The goat whisperer!

Then along the lane with views to Cromer Ridge and Incleborough Hill to the crossroads and back towards the village via the Big House and Britain’s first Montessori School.  Quick recount of the geese, back under the viaduct and home.  It’s a lovely walk, never tedious, always full of wildlife (buzzards wheeling, a green woodpecker calling) and wildflowers (the celandine are particularly beautiful at the moment).

On a pre-lockdown walk in February we took a friend up the Hill to see the Bagot goats who were overwintering here before being let loose on Cromer cliffs to do their bit as live lawnmowers.  I gather they are now self-isolating on Salthouse Heath but hopefully there’ll be a bit of Summer for us all, with a bit of the Old Normal seeping back into our lives.  Until then, stay safe everyone…

Limestone, Laugharne and Delusional Goats

 
At the beginning of September we spent a week in Llandudno followed by a week in Tenby to explore the Welsh coast path.  Llandudno immediately satisfied one of my requirements for the perfect seaside town, a pier, but also supplied things I wouldn’t expect in a seaside town such as a surprisingly large outdoor paddling pool and excellent third wave coffee at the wonderful Providero café.  I decided another requirement might be my very first sword after discovering this unusual shop in Conwy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ormes, vast projecting limestone and dolomite headlands, dominate Llandudno’s classic curved bay.  The Vikings thought the headlands looked like sleeping serpents, hence the name (it’s where our word “worm” comes from).  Great Orme is full of surprises, not least of which are extremely handsome Kashmir goats who pose with little smirky smiles on their faces for their close-ups.  They are right to look so supercilious for they are descended from a pair taken from  a herd owned by the Shah of Persia and given to Queen Victoria.  They may even have been there longer as it is also said that a local squire brought them over from a Kashmiri herd in France and presented a pair to George IV. 

Goats have always been shrouded in lore.  The association with the Devil is well known, as he is usually depicted with horns and cloven hooves. However, goats were also thought to bring good luck, especially to farmers. In ancient Babylon, a goat was sent to die in the desert, in order that it could carry away the diseases of the people, and the Hebraic scape goat was driven into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the Jews. The Kashmir name for the wild goat is “Markhor”, which means “Snake eater” and goats are believed to kill adders by trampling on them and afterwards eating the remains. And it gets stranger…

The tradition of having goats in the military originated in 1775, when a wild goat walked onto the battlefield in Boston during the American Revolutionary War and led the Welsh regimental colours at the end of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Another Welsh military goat, Taffy IV, served in the First World War.  William “Billy” Windsor I is a Kashmir goat from the same bloodline as the Great Orme herd although he was born at Whipsnade Zoo.  He served as a lance corporal in the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh, an infantry battalion of the British Army from 2001 until 2009, except for a three-month period in 2006 when he was demoted to fusilier, after inappropriate behaviour during the Queen’s Official Birthday celebrations (headbutting a drummer) while deployed on active duty with the battalion on Cyprus. On retirement he was replaced by a wild goat from the Great Orme herd.

Another day, another walk, this time in the Conwy Mountain area where we met some of the feral Carneddau ponies which inhabit this beautiful landscape.  Of course, they have a story too.  Four hundred years ago Henry VIII ordered that horses unable to carry a knight in full armour should be culled.  These ponies escaped due to their remote habitation and are now thought to be unique.  They are sweet-natured and quite relaxed when it comes to being photographed.  I don’t think Henry’s men would have any problems capturing them today!

This area was truly intriguing.  We visited a bronze age mine, sat in a druid stone circle and marvelled at the weird concrete knuckles which form the sea defences at Llandulas – they could easily be acclaimed as an art installation.  We fell in love with tiny St Trillo’s Chapel by the beach at Rhos on Sea.  It only seats six and may well be the smallest church in the British Isles, complete with its own spring-fed well.

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And so on to Tenby where I could indulge my love of all things Dylan Thomas.  It’s possible that the first time Thomas aired Under Milk Wood in public was at Tenby and District’s Arts Club in 1953.   I love the 1974 film version of Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton as First Man, Elizabeth Taylor as Rosie Probert and Peter O’Toole as Captain Cat.  Burton was a drinking buddy of Dylan Thomas and there’s a very bad poem by Burton on the wall of Brown’s in Laugharne – Thomas’s local during his on-off residency in this lovely place.  I was struck by the number of Welsh speakers I was hearing and the wonderful musicality of the language which, combined with the unique voices of the preachers of his childhood, certainly influenced Thomas’s own sonorous reading voice.

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There’s a really good little museum in Tenby which has a room dedicated to Augustus and Gwen John, the artistic siblings, who were brought up in Tenby – “so restful, so colourful, so unspoilt” was Augustus’ very favourable verdict. Below is Gwen John’s Landscape at Tenby with Figures, painted at the end of the 19th century.

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Dylan Thomas famously stole Caitlin Mcnamara from Augustus John in 1936 when the artist foolishly introduced him to his young mistress.  Augustus John would have been 58 and Caitlin just 23.  There are stories of John chasing Thomas around the castle grounds at Laugharne when he caught him smooching with Caitlin in the car…  John and Thomas were regular drinking buddies so it clearly didn’t damage their relationship too badly…

Appropriately enough, in a glass case on the stairs of the museum are a rather fabulous pair of Dylan Thomas’s trousers in a grey-blue and white stripe with a rather swashbuckling sailor cut.  They were presented to the museum by Elizabeth Bowen whose father bought them from Dolly Long, Thomas’s housekeeper in Laugharne.  The trousers were stopping the rain coming in through an attic door and Dolly had no compunction about selling the souvenir to Dr Bowen.

Laugharne is still such a beautiful, unspoilt place and it’s well worth visiting The Boathouse where Thomas spent the last four years of his life with Caitlin and the children and pressing your nose against the window of Dylan’s Writing Shed a little further up the lane. The view over the estuary from The Boathouse is extraordinary – swathes of glistening water, quiet herons and such intense light.  “Off and on, up and down, high and dry, man and boy, I’ve been living now for 15 years in this timeless, beautiful, barmy (both spellings) town…” said Dylan of Laugharne. One of the first people to rent accommodation to Thomas was Richard Hughes, the author of High Wind in Jamaica who lived in grand Castle House and kept a very good wine cellar.

We did the Dylan Thomas birthday walk which has extracts from “Poem in October” to read at various breathtakingly lovely viewpoints.  It’s such a moving, contemplative poem, richly satisfying to read.  Here’s the first stanza:

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
   And the mussel pooled and the heron
           Priested shore
       The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
       Myself to set foot
           That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

It always makes me sad to read this poem and think that Thomas only had another nine years to live.  He died at the age of 39 and, I know it’s a cliché, but oh, all those unwritten words…  Dylan and Caitlin are buried together in the new graveyard at St Martin’s Church in Laugharne.  I loved walking around this pretty town, thinking about all the characters who inspired Under Milk Wood, although of course New Quay was also a huge inspiration and the film was shot in Fishguard, which seemed to fit the concept of Thomas’s Llareggub perfectly.  Thomas is very much a poet of place, steeped in the sounds and sights of Wales.  Do have a look at A Dylan Odyssey which is a lovely book containing essays by writers, artists and family members, all exploring the effect of Thomas’s surroundings on his work.  Oh, and if it happens to be your birthday (and you can prove it!) and you decide to do the birthday walk on that day,  then you can claim a range of freebies including a pint at Brown’s and coffee and welshcakes in  Cafe Culture as well as free entry to The Boathouse.  You do have to recite “oh may my heart’s truth still be sung ” every time but it’s a small price to pay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenby was clearly the place to be if you were a writer.  George Eliot found literary inspiration in the town and also fell in love with George Henry Lewes there. Roald Dahl visited Tenby as a child every Easter, fondly recalling donkey rides, clifftop walks and the boat to Caldey Island.  He loved it so much he brought his own children there too.  Dahl’s Oslo born father had emigrated to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the 19th century coal boom.

It’s fascinating that the whole concept of the seaside town happened because 18th and 19th century wars meant the great and the good couldn’t go on their Grand Tours so the UK suddenly became a destination, followed swiftly by the craze for seabathing.  Originally the men would bathe naked but then were obliged  to bathe at one end of the beach only until a bell was rung at 8am!

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I wrote a great deal while we were in Tenby.  We walked, over several days, from Bosherston’s massive lily ponds to the wide sands of Pensarne, via the quirky castle of Manorbier, passing extraordinary jagged cliffs, the odd blowhole, booming caves, bobbing seals, military bases, cromlechs and moors.  We had torrential rain, gale force winds, rainbows and such strong sunshine I got my first peeling nose since I was a girl!

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I also realised how many Welsh poets I have on my bookshelves and what a brilliant contribution they have made to the canon.  So many poets with such an enviable facility with words: a lilt, a cadence, a turn of phrase that I would love to emulate – R S Thomas, Gillian Clarke, Dannie Abse, Samanth Wynne Rhydderch and Owen Sheers whose heartbreaking film-poem The Green Hollow, is a tribute to the survivors of Aberfan starring many stellar Welsh actors such as Jonathan Pryce, Eve Myles, Sian Phillips and Michael Sheen.

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Every year, at Christmas, we listen to Cerys Matthews’ evocative recording which weaves together Swansea memories of Christmas from elderly residents with my favourite out of all Dylan Thomas’s writing,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  This year it will have even more poignancy.

 

 

Summertime and the living is quirky…

 
There’s so much to celebrate in the UK in the summer and I feel particularly lucky to be living in North Norfolk.  Last night, strolling down to the beach to watch the sunset an excited family from Cambridge were taking photos of a seal lazily floating on its back.  Earlier in the year we did an extraordinary walk from Sea Palling to Great Yarmouth along the beach all the way.

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As you get closer to Horsey Gap you start to see seals.  We were quite chuffed at seeing ten lying on the tideline until we realised that the strange rock formations up ahead were also seals, packed liked sardines, hundreds of them, heaving themselves into and out of the sea, hissing, barking and emitting such appalling smells in their constant state of fish-fuelled excitement that by the time we approached Winterton we had to desperately seek refuge on the path running behind the dunes.

Friday mornings I walk along the beach with my yoga mat for a 7am yoga class on the pier.  If you look closely in the photo below you can see me doing a dodgy tree pose on the far right-hand side.

On my way to yoga yesterday, as I went past the cliff slopes where the Bagot goats spend the summer keeping the vegetation in order, I witnessed quite a bit of goat argy bargy as horns clashed and kids bleated.  They are a lovely sight and Delilah Bagot, the spokesgoat, is getting quite a lot of media attention and even has her own facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/delilah.bagot.1

We’ve had peregrines nesting on Cromer Church tower this year – all three chicks fledged recently and it’s now a common sight to see crowds looking up with state-of-the-art binoculars and scopes.  I’ve been going to the NWT nature reserve at Cley Marshes more often now I live at this end of the coast and was rewarded recently by the sound of a booming bittern.  I’ve always wanted to hear this and it certainly lived up to expectations.  It absolutely does sound like someone blowing across the top of a milk-bottle!  What a great mating call!

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A few weekends ago I was in Leeds with fellow poet Heidi Williamson for the UK’s first ever Prose Poetry Symposium.  It was such an energising event and included the launch of the Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry which I’m very proud to be in as it includes so many fabulous poets.  On the Sunday morning we had time for an amble through Leeds and came across a Kitty Café.  I’ve never been a great fan of Hello Kitty and was bemused that my usually very sensible friend was bouncing up and down like a six-year-old.  When Heidi could finally speak again she explained that the café was not a vehicle for a Japanese animation, but for a cat rescue organisation.  You pay a fee to go in, find a comfy place to sit, order your food, and then realise that the whole café is full of scratching posts, hammocks, ledges, catnip toys, catflaps and is actually a temporary home to thirty-three cats and kittens!

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Back in Norfolk and yet another trip to Great Yarmouth, a place I’ve become very fond of over the years.  It’s a fascinating mix of history, quirkiness, urban grit and the great British seaside in all its Kiss-Me-Quick glory.  We decided to forego the End of the Pier show in Cromer this summer and experience the Yarmouth Hippodrome Summer Spectacular instead.  The Hippodrome was built by George Gilbert in 1903.  It’s Britain’s only surviving circus building and one of only four in the world to have a water feature.  Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini performed there, Lillie Langtry sang there and Lloyd George held political rallies there.  In wartime it was used as a military shooting range.  Peter Jay (of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers) bought the building, alongside others in Great Yarmouth, in the 1970s and restored the water feature in 1981 (the wooden floor of the circus sinks dramatically to reveal a circular water tank and spouting fountains…)

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I loved the fact that all the young women selling candyfloss and programmes and showing you to your seat transform into the circus dancers in the first half and the syncopated swimming troupe in the second.  The guy with the American accent selling popcorn turned out to be one of the extraordinarily athletic Chicago All Stars.  In the interval performers from all over the world put on their black crew gear and help to erect the scaffold for the aerial display.  It’s a real team effort!

After the show we went backstage to the Circus Museum where many of the performers were milling around, relaxing on sofas, although the Finnish trapeze artist seemed happy to spend her free time walking up and down a fellow acrobat’s back as he lay supine.  The Circus Museum features some of Peter Jay’s equipment and tour posters as well as a hoard of memorabilia which was found just lying around when Jay bought the building, including a programme, printed on silk, for the first ever show at the Hippodrome.  Some of the memorabilia is stored in the old stables where the animals were kept.

Another Great Yarmouth gem worth visiting is the Lydia Eva, the last steam drifter in the world.  You’ll find her on the South Quay.  She was the last boat to be built at the King’s Lynn Slipway Co in West Lynn as the local shipbuilders were on strike.  Named after owner Harry Eastick’s daughter, the boat was launched in June 1930 and has been lovingly restored.  If you want to know more about the Great Yarmouth herring industry then the Time and Tide Museum is the place to go – leave time for a visit to the Silver Darlings Café!

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Summer wouldn’t be summer without a reading list and I’ve been revisiting the classics this year, inspired by visits to two wonderful writers’ houses during our week’s holiday in Hastings.  First stop was Lamb House in Rye where Henry James lived from 1897 until 1914.  He wrote many of his most famous works here, including my particular favourite, The Turn of the Screw.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you might see a shadowy figure doing a little light haunting…  Joan Aitken’s book The Haunting of Lamb House is a supernatural tale featuring both Henry James and his friend friend E F Benson who lived there from 1914 onwards and who also wrote ghost stories.  Benson’s celebrated Mapp and Lucia stories are set in “Tilling” which was modelled on Rye.  Mapp and Lucia’s home, “Mallards” is, of course, Lamb House.  Rumer Godden, one of my favourite writers when I was a child, lived there from 1967 to 1974.  Her book, A Kindle of Kittens, is set in Rye.  I particularly adored Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, the story of two Japanese dolls and how their new owner, Nona, a homesick little girl, decides to build them a Japanese house.  I’m sure  my love of all things Japanese stems from learning, along with Nona, what the dolls might like to be surrounded with to lessen their homesickness.

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Our second writer’s residence was Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell.  We walked along the banks of the Ouse from Lewes to Rodmell and it was hard not to imagine Virginia, on that fateful day in 1941, setting off from the house and walking into the Ouse, pockets full of stones.

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The house is utterly charming and the Woolfs clearly thought so too, despite the lack of home comforts.  Leonard said that he thought their daily life was closer to Chaucer’s than that of modern man!  Woolf was writing her seminal feminist essay A Room of One’s Own as her bedroom was being built at Monk’s House.  It had no internal links to the main house and was full of artworks by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her niece, Angelica Garnett.

In the garden is the Writing Lodge, where Virginia wrote many of her novels and articles, even sleeping there on fine summer nights.  The house was a magnet for the Bloomsbury Group with T S Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Duncan Grant and many others spending time here and dubbing it Bloomsbury on Sea!

 

As well as revisiting some of the books in my classics collection I’ve also set myself a project which I’m calling The Paris Project.  I’m trying to read every book I can with the word Paris in the title.  I’ve come across some great ones so far.  I would recommend The Paris Wife by Paula McLain which is about how Hadley Richardson (the first of Hemingway’s four wives) and Ernest Hemingway adapt to life in Paris as impoverished Americans in the 1920s.  If you like a bit of time travelling then pick up futurist adventure Paris Adrift by E J Swift – a really intriguing read.  One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau is a wee bit farfetched but it’s set around a cinema and is a bit of a paean to all those romantic city-obsessed Woody Allen films so you can forgive its foibles!

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And, of course, I’ve been reading plenty of poetry books – there have been so many good ones recently.  I’ve particularly enjoyed Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Threat by Julia Webb, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, Everyone Knows I am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, and King of a Rainy Country by Matthew Sweeney.  The last is particularly close to my heart.  Matthew and his partner, fellow poet Mary Noonan, were in Paris at the same time as me in 2016 and staying very close by.  This collection of prose poems was Matthew’s response to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris.  It’s a magical read but also a sad one as Matthew died soon after completing it.

So, look out for the quirky, wherever you are, it’s what makes life interesting.  I’ll leave you with a final image from a shop in Great Yarmouth which was in the process of closing down…