All posts by Sue

Pembrokeshire: Dolphins and Saints

I’m just back from two weeks in West Wales where heavy rain in the first week meant I had plenty of writing, reading and editing time!  We did get out for a walk more or less every day but had to be satisfied with short, local walks – it’s not a pleasure to walk in saturated waterproof clothing and nil visibility. Fortunately, our lovely property in New Quay had the most amazing view.  We spent hours watching the light changing on the water and rainbow after rainbow arcing across the rain-swollen skies.

Dylan Thomas lived in New Quay for a year or so (1944/45) during one of the coldest winters on record.  It was a very productive time for Dylan’s writing and the town played a large part in informing the characters and places in Llareggub, his fictional fishing village in Under Milk Wood.  Dylan also had magnificent views from his bungalow, Majoda, just north of the town.  In his verse letter ‘New Quay‘ sent to Tommy Earp in 1944, he describes the scene:

‘I sit at the open window, observing
The salty scene and my Playered gob curving
Down the wild umbrella’d and french-lettered
Beach, hearing rise slimy from the Welsh lechered
Caves the cries of the parchs and their flocks……’

Vera Killick, a friend from Swansea days, lived near Dylan, Caitlin, and baby Aeronwy.  Vera’s husband was an army captain and often away on active service.  Captain Killick, on his return from service in Greece, was not comfortable with his wife’s friendship with her bohemian neighbours.  His feelings came to a head one night in March when he encountered Dylan and his friends in a local pub.  A fight ensued and was broken up, Dylan and his friends headed back to Majoda where, a short time later, Killick proceeded to attack Majoda with his service weapons and grenades.  Killick was tried for attempted murder but acquitted thanks to his exemplary military record.  Dylan and Caitlin were much disturbed by this event and told their friends that they now went to bed under the bed!  The events were made into the film The Edge of Love, starring Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys and Cillian Murphy.

Here’s a still of Rhys and Miller as Dylan and Caitlin:

The Edge of Love - BBC Film

New Quay is much changed since Dylan’s time.  When it came to filming Andrew Sinclair’s 1972 version of Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton, Liz Taylor and Peter O’Toole, New Quay didn’t make it as a contender for the village and instead nearby Lower Fishguard was used as Llareggub. We had some great beer in The Black Lion, Dylan’s favourite local watering hole, which he described as a ‘Pink washed pub…..waiting for Saturday night as an over-jolly girl waits for sailors.’  Now it sports some very evocative black and white photographs of the pub in his day and Dylan drinking both there and in The White Horse Tavern – a longshoreman’s bar in New York.

Another Dylan haunt, The Blue Bell, is now a coffee bar and restaurant.

New Quay - The Dylan Thomas Trail

I was pleased that our walk to Abaeraron (where the local specialty is ice cream flavoured with honey…) incorporated Llanina Sands where Dylan “hoofed with seaweed, did a jig on and barked at the far mackerel.”  Under the waves there’s a drowned cemetery which Dylan claimed was “the literal truth that inspired the imaginative and poetic truth of Under Milk Wood.”

And yes, I did write a Dylan inspired poem; it’s hard not to when in Wales!

During the gaps in the rain we discovered some lovely coves and saw bottle-nose dolphins in the bay on several occasions. They are in Cardigan Bay all year round, surprisingly the Bay has the largest population of dolphins in Europe. It’s such a privilege to watch their slow, sinuous progress – I wonder if they ever speed up?

Our second week was spent in a farm cottage near St David’s.  The owner’s grandfather, Bertie Griffiths, had been the last person to successfully farm on Ramsey Island in the 1930s/40s.  The owner’s father, Elfed, had spent most of his childhood on the island and had written a fascinating book of his memories.  It was such an isolated existence.  They had to use Morse code to communicate with the mainland and anything they needed, including livestock, was brought by boat.  Pigs had to be floated over on barrels so their trotters wouldn’t cut their throats as they swam.  Sheep got a boat ride so their woolly coats wouldn’t get saturated and pull them under.  Horses and cows would be lashed together and persuaded to swim across.  French fishermen would come ashore and exchange lobsters for rabbits.  During the war there are stories that the crew from German submarines came ashore in the dead of night for fresh water and the odd lamb…  During the week Elfed went to school on the mainland and communicated with his parents by carrier pigeon.  Often the weather was too bad for him to return home, or, if he was lucky, too choppy to make the crossing back to school!

We took a trip to the island and it is a magical place.  It’s managed by the RSPB and only two boatloads are allowed to land each day.  We were too late in the year to see the colonies of sea birds, but the seals were pupping and there were bundles of cream, white and dappled fur yapping for food on every beach.  There are plenty of rabbits still on the island, descendants of those bred for meat and fur.  There is one rather noble white Welsh pony who cantered obligingly around when we looked down from the highest point of the island, occasionally stopping and posing like the star of a Disney film.

The island is also known as St David’s Island (the word Ramsey might come from the wild garlic which grows on the island).  I loved discovering the legends about some of the saints connected with the area, and there are many of them!  St Elvis baptised St David and yes, there is a group trying to find out if Elvis Presley (Presli?) has Welsh connections.  David’s mother was St Non and there’s a ruined chapel dedicated to her near St David’s.  But best of all is St Justinian.  He was David’s confessor but didn’t like the lax ways of St David’s monastery (although St David allegedly lived on leeks and water which doesn’t sound very profligate to me!), so he decided to set up on Ramsey Island which was, at that time, linked to the mainland by a causeway.  Justinian hacked the causeway with an axe to complete his isolation, but as he got closer to the island his axe got blunter and he left the chunks of rock which are known as the Bitches and line the route to the island’s tiny harbour.  Justinian’s monks mutinied, finding him too austere, and cut off his head.  Justinian walked over the water, back to the mainland, carrying his head.  When he laid it down a spring flowed from that place.  His murderers were struck down with leprosy.  A veritable 6th century soap opera!

Here’s the picturesque lifeboat station at St Justinians (yes, where he put his head…) where you pick up the boat to Ramsey:






Just across the fields from our farm cottage, out on the peninsula, a group of archaeologists were excavating an Iron Age fort.  As we walked sections of the coast path that week we saw many earthworks (covered), so it was fascinating to see the outline of a fort being uncovered.  While we there they had just found a hearth and evidence of metalworking.  The coast path is stunning, almost unphotographable in its majesty.  My favourite section was Trefyn to White Sands.  Near the beginning of the walk you pass the beautiful Blue Lagoon at Abereiddi.  The lagoon is in a former slate quarry and it’s the slate which gives the water such an incredible colour.  There are many former industrial buildings on this section of the path.  Porthgain, on the way to Abereiddi, was a small but important port in the local quarrying industry.  Almost every harbour, however small, had limekilns.  These coastal kilns served the local farms.  Limestone would come in on the ships, be crushed and burnt and then carted off to the fields to keep the land fertile.






Pembrokeshire is a strong Welsh-speaking area and it was wonderful to hear this lilting, poetic language and see it on the road signs, timetables, menus etc.  I had some very scenic swims, my favourite was the very cold water of Caerfai Bay – as I floated I could see across to the isle of Skomer.

One of my favourite harbour villages has to be Solva.  It’s got picture postcard prettiness but also shock value as, whether you approach from the east or the west, it’s so tucked into its deep cove that you don’t see it until the last minute. If you go there, head straight to Mamgu Welshcakes – they make their melt in the mouth welshcakes themselves – sweet and savoury – unmissable!

Look for the blue shop with the flag outside - a few doors down from the main carpark. - Picture of MamGu Welshcakes, Solva - Tripadvisor



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…

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: 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): 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: 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): 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:

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!



“Smell the sea, and feel the sky…” (Van Morrison)

There’s no arguing with Van Morrison and the above is what I’ve been trying to do all summer.  It’s not been the best year for swimming, there have been some wonderful days of flat sea or sea with a slight swell, but most days have been too surfy for swimming and I’m not a great fan of being thwacked round the head constantly with waves.  Still, I’ve managed nearly forty sea swims since mid-June so I really shouldn’t complain!











One of my new favourite things is hiring a beach hut from the Reef Stop Café in Cromer.  They are cheap and cheerful, basically just decorated sheds with a table, four chairs, two fold-up chairs and two deckchairs, but they are perfect for a day out and the weather doesn’t matter so much if you’re prepared (two visits above, one in July, one in September!).

We only live a mile away from the huts but there’s something holiday-like about packing up a big picnic, lots of books and writing paraphernalia and colonising the hut for a day.  It’s fascinating to watch the world go by, there’s somewhere to change if you fancy a quick dip and when it gets stormy or windy you can hunker down in the doorway of the hut.  Often people go past and point, but it’s usually at the Bagot goats grazing the steep cliff behind the huts.  These hardy goats do a grand job at keeping the cliffs suitably manicured.  Only half the herd are with us this summer, the other half are at Salthouse Heath, grazing the gorse around the old WWII radar station remains.

So, as I’d found the hut so productive for my own writing, I decided to run a Beach Hut Writing Day and hired all three huts from the Reef Stop.  The day before the weather was awful but my every five minute updates from BBC Weather showed me that the next day would be windy but dry and fine.  It was a lovely bright day, albeit chilly, and six brave souls joined me for an intensive day of writing and experience the local environment.  This experience included a dead seal, not quite adult, washed up on the beach.  It looked quite fresh.  Juvenile herring gulls made swift work of stripping its head to the bone.  I was just about to wax poetic when I realised that I had a poem about exactly that already in The Saltwater Diaries.  Am I running out of new things to say about the sea?  I hope not, it is ever-changing and ever present…






Many early beach huts were abandoned bathing machines from the Victorian era.  Enterprising entrepreneurs took off the wheels and hired them out – they would have been useful in the Edwardian era when, although mixed sex public bathing was no longer frowned upon, public changing would have been.  Some beach huts were converted from fishermen’s huts or boat-houses.  I love the beach-huts at Southwold though will never be able to afford one as they often sell for £150,000!  One of my favourite walks is from Wells (Norfolk) harbour to the beach, and then past the multi-coloured beach huts which never fail to cheer me up.

Discover Wells-next-the-sea and Holkham

Today, there are thought to be over 20,000 beach huts in the UK.  Most of them are for day hire but there are those which are so well-equipped and luxurious, such as those in Mudeford which can be hired as a kind of shabby chic holiday home by the week.  There’s a royal tradition behind the popularity of beach huts, George III gave the stamp of approval to them when he took a medicinal bath in Weymouth to the strains of “God save the king”, while Queen Victoria had one installed at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight in 1840.  Up until 2003 the Queen had a large bathing hut in the woods near Holkham, but it was destroyed by fire.

The queen's beach hut at Holkham | Beach hut, Outdoor decor, Hut

Cromer’s fortunes took an upturn in the eighteenth century when sea bathing became a trend and bathing huts were being advertised from 1779.  Cromer was for many years a small but exclusive resort, favoured by a circle of rich Norfolk families including the prominent banker, Quaker and philanthropist John Gurney. It was a watering place of some fashionable standing, and was even mentioned in Jane Austen’s “Emma” in 1814.

The fashionable few in Cromer rejoiced in its isolation – according to a town guide from 1841, as quoted by the Cromer Preservation Society: “Its undisturbed quiet has rendered it a paradise for the clergy and old ladies whose never-failing theme of mutual congratulation is the difficult access which saves them from being over-run by excursionists.”

Cromer’s exclusivity ended when the first railway station opened in 1877.  It was some way out of the town, so it was the opening of the second station, “Cromer Beach Station” in 1887 which had the greatest influence on Cromer’s development.  Towards the Overstrand (East) end of the promenade there’s a terrace of more permanent looking bathing chalets which were built in 1912 for the Cromer Protection Commissioners.  These Commissioners had remodelled the sea front in 1845-6 and commissioned new promenades and sea walls in 1899-1900, as well as the cliff retaining walls, and sloping pedestrian pathways and Victorian Pier.  There was a lot to maintain and hopefully the bathing chalets afforded them shelter and a few creature comforts.

Today, if you carry on along the East Promenade you’ll come to the end of the beach huts.  The promenade drops sharply and steeply onto the pebbly beach.  It is here that the Cromer Banksy appeared in mid-August as part of Banksy’s Great British Staycation project.  The celebrated and secretive street artist’s work (he must be Bristol’s best-kept secret) appeared in Gorleston, Lowestoft, Cromer and Great Yarmouth.  King’s Lynn enjoyed a brief Banksy claim to fame when a tongue and ice cream cornet was added to the statue of Frederick Savage, engineer, inventor and former mayor of the town, before being removed by the authorities.

Great Yarmouth -

Recently, we took a day trip to Great Yarmouth to explore the amazing cemeteries which stretch from St Nicholas’s church almost to the seafront.  There are four cemeteries in total, with wonderful wild areas, atmospheric gravestones, mournful trees.  Each cemetery is contained by what look like quite ancient walls in places.  I’m fascinated by burial sites and am currently reading Peter Stanford’s How to Read a Graveyard: Journeys in the Company of the Dead which looks at different burial sites through the ages and stories and traditions associated with cemeteries such as Greyfriar’s Bobby, Burke and Hare, celebrity graves at Père Lachaise, the cemetery in Rome where Keats and Shelley are buried, and the graveyard where he would like his final resting place – St Margaret’s Church in Burnham Norton.  Stanford begins the section on Paddington Old Cemetery with a quote from J C Loudon on managing cemeteries:

“No dogs or improper persons; no smoking, drinking or even eating; no running or jumping, laughing, whistling or singing.’

I guess he wouldn’t have been happy at the joyous schools-over-for-the-day schoolkids using the cemetery as a shortcut, the amount of tinnies under the trees or the hilarity when Chris bent to read a gravestone and a ripping sound meant yet another pair of trousers was lining up in my sewing basket…

We also went to the brilliant photographic exhibition of fisherwomen by Craig Easton at our favourite Norfolk museum, the Time and Tide, and popped up to Admiralty Road to the now famous bus-stop where another of the Bansky artworks has appeared.  Also to be admired were the gorgeous iron structures of the adjacent gasworks – all my favourite things were included in this day – romantic graveyards, urban grit and street art, and the seaside!  There’s always something quirky going on in Yarmouth’s shop windows.  Here’s the perfect Granny – I wonder if she’s part of the yarn-bombing trend?








And then it was back to Southwold, a regular haunt, where we discovered the tiny “rent by the day” council beach huts, gawped at the posh beach-huts with their porches, daybeds, and perfectly equipped kitchens, watched the dogs running on the huge sandy beaches, hunkered down in the dunes with our sandwiches after a boat ride across the Bly to Walberswick, scanned the shingle for amber and admired the yarn-bombed postboxes.  This one, of a gull perched on the beach-huts, is my favourite.

It was good to see the Pier again and remember that this time last year I was collaborating with John Crossley, a Suffolk artist, in the A Common Ground project, run by the Eames Art Gallery in London and 26 Writers.  John and I were paired up and asked to find a common place we could write about and paint.  We chose piers.  John painted Southwold Pier and I wrote about Cromer Pier.  Here’s my poem and the link below will take you to the whole project:

the pier knows the bite of barnacle

panicky flutter of caught seaweed

shrugs off gull snarl

holds his underbelly low

for waves’ rub


the pier loves the foxtrot beat

of tourist feet

after storms his skin flakes

like an old snake


sometimes the moon teases

pulls at secrets locked

in his iron heart

& the pier remembers

his first kiss

(With thanks to Phil Hawtin and Christina Hogg for many of the photos which appear in this blogpost.)


Ups and Downs – Coast and Dales

How strange to be on holiday after so long… We are very fortunate that the area we live in is so beautiful, a wonderful coast and great access to walks in the countryside from our doorstep, but after months of semi-confinement we needed a change and Yorkshire felt far enough away to tick all the boxes.  It’s a county we have visited many times and we were there in March 2020 as the country started to close down so it felt apt to close the circle with a visit that wouldn’t get truncated this time!

I find it hard to be away from the sea so our first stop, Whitby, was one I was very much looking forward to.  It was our third visit to Whitby and it’s certainly a town of contrasts. During the day it’s full of day-trippers, there are long queues outside the fish and chip shops and the pavements are bustling with tourists and seagulls with an eye out for opportunity.  The pavements and everything standing on it, including us, are in constant danger of being showered with seagull “guano” to put it politely.  On the other side of the River Esk from the chip shops tower the gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey and alongside is St Mary’s Church,  surrounded by ancient gravestones.  These two landmarks can be seen for miles, as we discovered when we walked the coastal sections of the Cleveland Way.  The sands of Whitby are, of course, where the doomed ship Demeter, containing only one survivor, Count Dracula, runs aground and Dracula, in the form of a dog, races up the 199 steps to the Abbey.

Stories of Whitby Ghosts | 5 haunting tales from Whitby

You can find out more about Bram Stoker’s connections with Whitby here:

Stoker wasn’t the only writer to be charmed by Whitby.  Lewis Carroll also loved to stay in the town and the house which was one of his favourite haunts is now a themed hotel, the La Rosa Hotel, with each room reflecting one of the town’s famous inhabitants.  It is thought that Carroll might have composed The Walrus and the Carpenter while walking along the sandy beaches of Whitby.

Lewis Carroll and his connection to Whitby - Shoreline Cottages

Whitby also has connections with Captain James Cook who was apprenticed to a draper in Staithes and it was there that he fell in love with the sea.  He later moved to Whitby as a trainee in a local fishing firm. He charted the coast of New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, a meticulous surveyor as well as a fine sailor and intrepid explorer.

Beyond the chip-strewn streets of Whitby, nestling in quirky streets above the town, there are many independent shops and even a French bistro or two!  There’s also a wonderful heritage sculpture trail featuring life-size sculptures by local artist Emma Stothard.  My favourites were Dora Walker, one of the first female skippers:








and the herring girls on the quayside:

In a way, the sculptures and their themes reminded me of Norfolk and home.  The herring girls would follow the fishing fleets up and down the East coast of the United Kingdom and Great Yarmouth has strong connections with these women too.    Emma Stothard sculpts using wire, and has also made some stunning willow sculptures.  Seeing these figures set against seascapes reminded me of the the Lifeboat Horse sculpture at Wells-next-the-Sea, made from steel bars and whisky barrels.  It was created by artist Rachael Long as a tribute to the horses that once pulled the town’s lifeboat more than two miles from the quay to Holkham Gap.  I think the past fifteen months of uncertainty and limited travel have given me a stronger sense of “home” and I could feel its pull however much I was enjoying being away.

Wells-next-the-Sea - The Lifeboat Horse - Wells Guide

The coast path which forms part of the Cleveland Way and which runs from Saltburn to Filey is stunning.  We had done the Filey to Scarborough section in 2019 on my birthday in November so we focused on Saltburn to Scarborough and completed it in four stages – Saltburn to Staithes, Staithes to Whitby, a circular walk from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay (outward on the coast path and back on the Cinder Path, following the old railway line) and, finally, the biggie, Scarborough to Robin Hood’s Bay.  The latter was definitely the most challenging, lots of steep steps up and down the crevices in the cliffs and lots of steep walks as the cliffs got higher.

Between the Abbey and Robin Hood’s Bay we discovered Kittiwake City – a cliff full of the strange cries of the colonising kittiwakes.  This discovery was somewhat trumped by a visit to the RSPB reserve of Bempton Cliffs where we discovered Gannet City.  Over 11,000 breeding pairs of gannets have colonised these steep cliffs and there are puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars too.

We didn’t manage to fit in a steam train trip on the brilliant North York Moors Railway this time, but we did go through Grosmont on the “ordinary” train on the day Harrison Ford was there reprising his role as Indiana Jones for his next film.  We had no idea as we sat, masked up, while our train rested a while in the pretty station, that we were so close to Hollywood stardom…

For our second week we chose Hawes in beautiful Wensleydale as our base.  No coast nearby but plenty of rivers and waterfalls!  One of our first walks was to Hardraw Force, a single drop waterfall of around 100 feet which very much impressed Wordsworth.  He wrote to Coleridge in 1799:

Writing to Coleridge in December 1799 he says;

Twas bitter cold, the wind driving the snow behind us the the best style of a mountain storm. We soon reached an inn at a place called Hardraw, and descending from our vehicles, after warming ourselves by the cottage fire, we walked up the brookside to take a view of a third waterfall, . . . . .

We walked up to the fall; and what would I not give if I could convey to you the feelings and images which where communicated to me?

After cautiously sounding our way over stones of all colours and sizes, encased in the clearest water formed by the spray of the fall we found the rock, which had before appeared like a wall, extending itself over our heads like the ceiling of a huge cave, from the summit of which the water shot directly over our heads into a basin, and among the fragments wrinkled over with masses of ice as white as snow, or rather, as Dorothy said, like congealed froth. The water fell at least tens yards from us and we stood directly behind it.”

Wordsworth greatly admired Turner’s sketches of the Fall.  Turner stayed in Hardraw for three days completing four drawings of Mossdale Head, and two sketches of Hardraw Force one of which he worked up into the finished painting now hanging at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.   I’m guessing he probably stayed in the wonderful Green Dragon Inn where I discovered some great local beers.  The Inn’s sign is fabulous, straight out of Tolkein.



Hardraw Force has another claim to fame for it was here that Kevin Costner, as Robin Hood, bathed naked in the Falls, just as Maid Marion and her entourage passed by.  I celebrated this bit of Hollywood trivia by going behind the Falls fully clothed:








It was a beautiful time to be in the Dales.  The area is known for its hay meadows and we passed through many of these on our walks.  I kept a poetic diary of some of our walks, it’s such an inspiring area…

fields awash with buttercups —the spilled gold of an English June

On our final evening we hiked across the fields past Haylands Bridge for a sheepdog demonstration by local farmer Richard Fawcett, who is a bit of a celebrity for his role as a judge in international sheepdog trials and also for his TV appearances.  Sheepdog matriarch Lola was having physiotherapy for a bad back so she couldn’t join in the whole demo (she was named for the Kink’s song), but her sons Keef (named after Keith Richards) and Croft, did her proud.  It was a great evening – below is a shot of Richard lecturing his sheep on how to behave when there are people watching.  Up on Dodd’s Fell on one side of the valley, and Stags Fell on the other, we had passed flock after flock of sheep, not realising that they were all owned by Richard and his brother.  I am full of admiration for these farmers and their tough lives.

A skylark’s explosive song crackles in the blue air; sheep stare, wondering how they have conjured us from grass.


Confetti Dancers – Behind the Scenes

I am delighted that Live Canon have published my second collection this month.  I’m especially delighted with the cover which features a photograph by brilliant dance photographer Jane Hobson.  It’s the stage at Sadlers Wells and the material on the backdrop is parachute silk – it’s just so gorgeous I can’t stop gazing at it!

Confetti Dancers is a very personal voyage through grief and loss but it also looks at generational loss.  I thought this month I’d give a behind the scenes look at some of the themes and ideas behind the collection.  After much thought and tweaking I re-ordered the collection to reflect the idea of a ballet – it has three acts (Parts I, II and III) and in between Parts I and II there’s an interlude.  The final section of the book is a Coda.

The Turning Point (1977) - Movie Review / Film Essay

When I was very young I remember having a few ballet lessons in one of those draughty church halls.  This one was somewhere near Tudor Drive in Kingston-upon-Thames where I grew up.  I remember running around a lot and pretending to be a tree and various animals.  Then the lessons stopped.  We were very poor, so that might have been why.  My mother’s mental health was never particularly stable and that might have been another factor.  So ballet wasn’t a presence in my life until I was a teenager and Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the West and subsequently starred in The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Lesley Browne.  I don’t know how many times I went to see this film.  I had a massive crush on Baryshnikov and in those days films, however cheesy, seemed to run and run.  When the film finally left the local screens I was transformed into a balletomane.  I would take the bus to Richmond for adult ballet lessons and the bus up to London for cheap seats to watch all and any ballets.  In those days two buses at a child’s fare meant I could get to Londona back for around 20p via the Kings Road.  I managed to get tickets for New York City Ballet at the Royal Opera House on the nights Baryshnikov was dancing.  I remember being so high up that when the whole auditorium gasped as he leapt on the stage my gasp was delayed by several seconds as I was unable to see the stage where the leap began and he appeared in my limited field of vision fully suspended, a myth of a dancer.  (I’m pretty sure the photo below was one of the many I had on my bedroom wall.) Trawling around Covent Garden,  I would press my nose against the window of Freeds and dream of my first pair of pointe shoes (needless to say this never happened).  I became obsessed with all things Russian, the dances, the dancers, the music, the whole idea of this exotic place which I’d learnt to fear as a child of the Cold War suddenly became a place of delight, but also exile and difference.

Happy 72nd Birthday Mikhail Baryshnikov – Waldina

The first part of Confetti Dancers explores Russia/Eastern Europe as a place of mystery and difference.  A place of exile and defection.  A place where rumours start and people are scapegoated for their dreams.

Ballet left my life again when I left college and lived in Paris on a shoestring, sharing a flat with a French anarchist and a friend from college.  Back in London I continued to haunt Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells and, after a longish spate temping in Central London, got my dream job as PA to the directors of The Royal Academy of Dancing in Battersea, a magical building in former warehouses.  The Academy was the main international ballet examining board.  We organised exams, trained examiners, trained teachers (the college dance studio was above my office) and ran summer schools and award events.  After the first starry-eyed weeks as a succession of famous dancers and ex-dancers paraded through my office, I settled in.  One of my roles was to become fount of all ballet plot knowledge.  If someone was going to a ballet that evening they would race into my office for a two-minute synopsis of the plot and a quick heads up of the dance highlights.  I’d settled in so well that I even dared to roll my eyes when my boss asked if I could whip up some quick snack food to go with champagne as he’d invited thirty visiting dancers from the Bolshoi to a party in the huge Directors’ office.  There were staff dance classes at lunchtime and aerobics classes which were very much the new deal in the early eighties.  I also went to the The Dance Studio in Covent Garden for classes several times a week.  Some of Arlene Phillips dancers taught jazz dance there.  I often turned up at the office in my fuschia Dance Centre T-shirt, jeans and legwarmers.

Battersea – Temporarily suspended. No current – Contours Pole

The Royal Academy of Dancing changed its name to the Royal Academy of Dance earlier this century and certainly didn’t have this posh glass walkway when I worked there although the flag and reception entrance are very familiar.  I often took a turn on reception and used to love saying “putting you through” like they did in the films.  My worst moment was thinking a staff member was playing a trick on me when they said “This is Dame Margot, ringing for Alan Hooper” and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the voice plaintively said, “But my dear this IS Dame Margot…”

G-A-Y nightclub owner launches lawsuit over 10pm Covid curfew | Business | The Guardian

It was here I met Bryce Cobain who worked in the library and was the resident Laban choreologist, an expert in dance analysis and notation.  He became such a dear friend, and I learnt so much from him.  I was still so young, barely nineteen and he helped me to grow up and see the world differently.  The whole of Confetti Dancers is dedicated to Bryce and my poem Bryce appeared in my first collection In the Kingdom of Shadows and was the catalyst to the central sequence of poems in Confetti Dancers which makes up the whole of the second section.  Bryce was gay and out and proud and through him I learnt about the London scene and what it was like to be gay (and Australian!) in an intolerant world.  He was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with AIDS.  I remember so clearly the day he came into my office and showed me his arms and asked me what I thought the livid marks were which seemed to be appearing so regularly.  We had great fun together, parties and dancing in Heaven nightclub, long chats and so much affection.  I saw AIDS decimate the dance world as I knew it and was living in Paris when Bryce died.  I left the Academy to go to University but would still work there during my holidays, running meetings, taking the minutes, translating any exams which came in written in French.  My knowledge of French includes quite a lot of anatomical words and obscure facts about famous dancers.  I’m not sure I ever came to terms with the grief I felt at this time but writing about it, even so many years afterwards, has certainly helped.

The Battle Of The Somme - Full Documentary - YouTube

The third part of Confetti Dancers contains just one poem Read Their Lips.  In 2016, alongside nine other poets, I was commissioned to write a response to the 1916 documentary film Battle of the Somme.  We were each given a section of the film to respond to, my section was the first part of the film.  Early in 2017 we gave a performance of our 50 minute long poem at The Cinema Museum before a rare screening of this silent film.  I was very conscious that Confetti Dancers was going to be published during the Covid 19 pandemic and I was conscious that the devastation caused by the AIDS pandemic still hadn’t been fully acknowledged.  I’d been doing research on the Spanish flu for a project which never came to fruition.  Somehow, to have a poem about the First World War and the generational loss this entailed felt appropriate.  It precedes Part III of Confetti Dancers which is about family, grief, loss and trauma.  My grandparents grew up during the First World War and my parents during the Second World War and I found myself reflecting on how trauma is carried through generations.

The Never-Ending Scandal of the Tutu | Ballet To The People

My mother had electric shock treatment after a nervous breakdown caused her to be sectioned.  She had quite a few false memories after the treatment, one of which was that she believed I’d had ballet lessons throughout my childhood, reaching quite a high level, and that my father had bought me a tutu which lived in my ancient childhood wardrobe.  The poem The Tutu in my Wardrobe is an exploration of this memory.

The final secion of Confetti Dancers, Coda, is a place of realisation and healing and contains several of the poems I wrote during the pandemic in 2020.

I’ve been working on Confetti Dancers my whole life, processing memories and feelings of profound loss until they are ready to emerge, transformed, into poems which I hope will speak to a wide range of people. Poet David Batten recently said, “I write poetry to explain the world to myself” and this gave me a profund moment of realisation as it’s exactly what I do.  It’s how I process everything which happens to me.  One of the great delights of putting a collection together is to hear the responses to the poems and to the collection’s trajectory.  It will mean completely different things to different people and I’m ready to let go of my deep involvement in these themes and to let them live their own lives.

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.

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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…

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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!


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:

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! 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:

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:

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:

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:

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"

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.”