All along the supple river: following the Ystwyth to the sea



ystwyth (Welsh) adjective:  supple, flexible, pliable

The harbour at Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales holds the confluence of two rivers. One of these, the Rheidol, is probably best known for the narrow-gauge steam railway that plies its length, once used to transport ore from mines in the valley but latterly employed in taking holiday makers on pleasure trips. The other, the marginally longer Ystwyth, is the one that gifts the town its name. The Ystwyth valley is now sparsely populated but once many people were drawn to it because of its mineral wealth. Lead, zinc and silver were all mined here in the past, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century, although mining was a tradition that had started back in the Bronze Age and continued into the Roman era.


Having walked over a high forested ridge from Llangurig in Powys, I joined the Ystwyth valley in its upper reaches close to its source where a number of streams fed down from the lower slopes of Plynlimon. The river that met a single-lane tarmac road at this point was little more than a rock-strewn mountain stream flowing in the cleft of a steeply sloped valley. This same upland area was also the limit of the watershed of the River Elan, and a signboard at the roadside provided a map of the Elan River catchment area and the wildlife that visitors might see. A little further along were signs that announced the Powys/Ceredigion border together with another that warned against Rhew – Ice.

I started walking west, downstream towards the coast. It was some minutes before a car passed, its passengers waving at the novelty of a pedestrian on this desolate road to nowhere. But it came as a surprise to see anyone at all here – the road seemed like an intruder in the landscape, a mere afterthought in an expanse of wild moorland that possessed few trees other than wind-gnarled rowan.


Soon I passed a roadside grave – a traffic accident victim or a landscape-loyal local I could not tell – a simple affair with a carved wooden cross stuck into a pile of rocks. A little further, more signs flanking the road announced that I was leaving the Elan Valley catchment area behind me. Continuing west, following the winding road downhill, I came to an isolated farm that looked to be in good order but was completely deserted – no cars or tractors, no sign of life – a holiday home perhaps, or a property investment project? This was an outlier of the loose sprawl of habitation that was Cwmystwyth, once the epicentre of mining in the valley.


The old mine workings soon became visible a little further on: a large fenced-off area with piles of stone and skeletal buildings. The unrelenting grey sky and cool wind blowing down the valley from the east enhanced the dreariness of this grim industrial wasteland; the sudden scream of RAF fighters flying low overhead completing the image of a landscape that seemed almost post-apocalyptic.


Although entry was discouraged, a detailed information board provided background on what it referred to as the Central Wales Orefield. Each significant ore – breccia, galena (for lead), sphalerite (for zinc), chalcopyrite (for copper) – was illustrated and described in detail in English and Welsh. Standing amid the low cairns of grey rock were the remains of the buildings, now roofless and with broken walls, that once would have provided accommodation for the mine workers. Seen from afar, with no awareness of location or even continent, the buildings might have been a ruined caravanserai or desert palace; close-up, any such romance quickly evaporated. The bleakness of days spent toiling in a dangerous and hostile environment, nights in a cold cheerless dormitory, was all too tangible. And a bleak life it was: because of the inevitable lead poisoning that blighted the health of those who worked in this industry the average life expectancy of Cwmystwyth mine workers back in the 18th and 19th century was reputed to be just 32 years.


Further down the road a short length of rail track led directly to the river.  Water from the Ystwyth was used for working the ore and the degree of pollution would once have been extremely high. Now the river had largely recovered from centuries of abuse but analysis suggested that continuing seepage was still contributing to elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.

Cwmystwyth, its ruined mine now a scheduled ancient monument, has more than one claim to fame. The oldest gold artifact ever found in Wales, the Banc Tynndol sun disc, an early Bronze Age object of great beauty, was unearthed in the area in 1992. The wider settlement is also of geographical significance, standing as it does close to the dead centre of Wales. The precise centre is calculated to lie on a hillside just 2.5km south of the river. The very heart of Wales, its Celtic centre of gravity: what could symbolise the Welsh spirit better than ancient gold, tough miners and green, steep-sloped valleys?


Beyond the mine the valley narrowed and started to cheer up a little, the landscape softened by more trees, ash and oak. A cuckoo (this was May) called repeatedly from across the river; further on, another distant two-note call indicated a separate territory – each bird to its own bespoke stretch of valley for its piratical breeding.

img_6383At Pentre Farm I crossed the river by an old stone bridge to follow the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail, a trail that must qualify as the country’s longest in name even though it is relatively modest in miles. The trail climbed a little way up the southern side of the valley to skirt woods and follow farm tracks above the river below. I emerged close to the village of Pont-rhyd-y-groes where, appropriately perhaps, I stayed for the night at the Miners’ Arms pub.

The following day I took my leave of the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail to follow a minor road west through beech woods close to the south bank of the River Ystwyth. At the edge of the village stood a large water wheel that once would have driven machinery for the village’s former Lisburne Mine. The gloomy weather of the previous day had by now transformed into a light drizzle, although paradoxically this seemed to make everything seem a little brighter, the fresh green leaves of the trees seemingly glowing with life. Wayside bluebells scented the damp air.

At a footbridge I left the woodland to cross to the river’s north bank where the workings of another disused mine had been tidied up and repurposed as a nature reserve. A thick stand of gorse bushes stretched away towards the riverbank. Very soon I passed more ruined mine buildings beside the path. With just thick walls of shale left standing, the buildings were hard to interpret as to their original function – more than anything they reminded me of the rectangular stone huts found at the base of Machu Picchu, although I knew that Incas were not thick on the ground in this part of Wales.


img_6452I followed a forest road away from the river towards Llanafan. Emboldened by the damp conditions, large black slugs crossed the track in front of me pursuing a gastropod pilgrimage to pastures new. From somewhere deep in the woods below came the strains of a saw mill: an oddly musical metallic whine that sounded like electric violins playing variations around a drone, serendipitous harmonics adding high-pitched counterpoint. A percussive element was added by the periodic crash of a sawed-through trunk onto a metal base. Further musical detail was provided by birdsong in the trees – the local blackbirds seemed to be familiar with this strange aural backdrop and piped defiantly above it in the same way that birds that sing close to a busy road always seem to rise to the challenge and sing louder.

From Llanafan – a tidy cluster of church, village hall and cottages – I was forced to follow a murderously busy road for a short distance. Lorries and white vans rattled past me too close for comfort as I hugged the road edge (no footpath) and occasionally mounted the narrow verge to keep out of their way. It came as a relief to leave the road and return to the river at Trawsgoed, where a bridge crossed the water and I joined the route of the Ystwyth Trail, a walking and cycle path between Aberystwyth and Tregaron that traced the track-bed of the former Great Western Railway route for much of its way.

img_2162 img_2159

The final nine miles into Aberystwyth were a soothing amble through dappled green light – the track partially shaded by overhanging branches of lime and oak, the river close enough to be audible through the trees to the right. At the village of Llanilar a raised brick bank indicated where a railway platform would once have stood, while the surrounding greenery, Station Wood, also commemorating this ghost station in name.

Aberystwyth finally announced its proximity with the sight of a steep hill with what looked like a tall chimney on top – Pen Dinas with its monument to Wellington. The hill, overlooking Cardigan Bay and located between the Rheidol and Ystwyth rivers, had long served as a strategic defensive location and a Celtic Iron Age fort had once topped its summit.   As with the mine workings of the upper Ystwyth valley, history ran deep here: a continuity of settlement that spanned millennia – the valley’s cultural capital was as rich as its ore deposits.


Although Cardigan Bay lay not far ahead the sea refused to reveal itself until the very last minute. There had been clues though: a change of light, a water-reflected translucent sky, the gentlest whiff of iodine on the breeze. Quite abruptly, the path had become busier too – with runners, dog-walkers, grandparents with children wobbling on scooters – and it was clear that, sight-unseen, I had fallen into Aberystwyth’s benign orbit. A glimpse of silhouetted figures walking the sea wall next to Tanybwlch Beach ahead in the distance confirmed this.


On reaching the coast the Ystwyth refuses to play the estuary game – the river merely winds around the base of Pen Dinas hill to merge with the waters of the Rheidol in Aberystwyth harbour. The combined river that flows out of the harbour into the Irish Sea takes just a few metres to reach its destination – confluence and river mouth are within a pebble’s throw of one another.

From the harbour – tucked away from the rest of the town as if some sort of secret – I crossed the Trefechan Bridge and climbed up to the castle mound from where all of Aberystwyth was revealed below. Just beneath the mound were the brownstone turreted buildings of Old College; beyond that, a parade of fine Victorian guesthouses, tastefully rendered in pastel shades, that curved around a beachside promenade pinched by a pier and the rocky bluff of Constitution Hill to the north. The modest, supple river that gave the town its name had already vanished from view.


Posted in History, Human Geography, Walking | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Lammas Day, Suffolk Coast


Lammas Day – the first day of August. School holidays, warm weather, beach visits, perhaps a swim in the sea? Or, on a windy cloudy day, a walk; a beach walk. At low to mid tide it is possible to follow the beach all the way between Lowestoft and Southwold on the north Suffolk coast without ever venturing inland. The coast along this stretch of the North Sea foreshore is a mixture of sand and shingle, with low cliffs and the occasional freshwater broad lying perilously close to the ever advancing tide. At odds with the gentle agricultural landscape of the hinterland the coast here is an uncompromising full stop in the landscape: a sudden transition from land to sea. Far to the east, beyond the horizon, are the European Low Countries that were once so closely tied, economically, and culturally, to this region. Lowland – sea bed – low land: the North Sea (WG Sebald’s ‘German Ocean’ in The Rings of Saturn) is but a watery interruption in the flow of things, both a barrier and a conduit for the movement of humans and goods. IMG_1716I set out from Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft, where a large expanse of dunes and shingle separates the sea from the holiday homes and caravans that line the low clifftop like racing cars at a starting grid preparing to rush towards the sea. Truth be told, there is little in the way to stop them. It may be August but even now the beach is relatively quiet – just a few families and dog-walkers clambering over the dunes to reach the sea, which today is grey, grumpy and not particularly welcoming. The Kessingland littoral is distinguished by its specialist salt-tolerant flora: sea holly, sea pea, sea campion, sea beet – in fact, place a ‘sea’ in front of any common plant name and there is a good chance that such a species will exist and flourish here. Also rooted into the shingle, thriving on little more than sunshine and salt spray, are clumps of yellow-horned poppies with long twisting seed pods. The poppies are mostly past their flowering peak but elsewhere, where there is a thin veneer of soil to root into, colour is provided by stands of rosebay willow herb – a rich purple layer of distraction between the straw-hued shingle and the cloud-heavy sky, both washed of colour in the flat coastal light. IMG_1718Further south, the cliffs grow a little higher. Ferrous red and as soft and powdery as halva, they are irredeemably at the mercy of the North Sea tide. And it shows: the cliffs are raw and freshly cleaved, with collapsed chunks that have been further eroded by the incoming tide such that they appear to seep from the cliff bases like congealed gravy.  Man-made objects receive no preferential treatment – a collapsed WWII concrete defence bunker slopes between cliff and sand at one point, its long process of total disintegration still in its infancy as its perches ignominiously at 45 degrees, an involuntary buttress for the flaking cliffs.IMG_1744

The cliffs may be ephemeral geomorphology, constantly pushed back by the eroding tide, but they possess enough permanence for colonies of sand martins to pit them with nesting burrows high up the cliff face. The birds swoop and chatter in high-pitched whispers as they gather flies above the shingle, flying in and out their nest holes faster than the eye can bring itself into focus. IMG_1802

Further along, a red-brick building lies in an even more advanced state of breakdown. Dead trees, devoid of bark and bleached pale by saltwater protrude from the sand. Some stand roots-proud with their upper trunks planted in the sand as if drawing nutrition from deep underground. Others are inverted stumps that appear to channel the centrepiece of north Norfolk’s sacred Seahenge, upturned roots on display like rustic altars.IMG_1768

IMG_1783The tide is still going out, revealing new treasures on the wet smooth sand. Footprints ahead of me heading south look like my own but, of course, they are not – I have not been there yet. The unidentified boot-print doppelganger must be far ahead of me. One of the imprints has narrowly missed a solitary beached jellyfish, red-veined and otherworldly. Soon I notice more jellyfish on the tideline: unveined, translucent specimens that stare up from the sand like the detached iris of a giant’s eye.IMG_1770

Approaching Southwold, the pier stretching out to sea becomes clearer in detail. The town’s white lighthouse flashes in warning. Beyond the resort, a few miles further south, the gargantuan golf ball of Sizewell B glows uncannily white. Halfway between sea and cliff on the freshly revealing sand are miscellaneous concrete blocks, remains of footings, moorings, buildings. Some of these have been almost completely submerged by sand to leave a line of tiny pyramids like the vertebra of a buried dragon. Frame the scene carefully and squint and this might be an aerial view over the Egyptian desert. The lack of a viable sphinx and presence of a battered clifftop caravan soon disabuses such fantastical musing.IMG_1810

Southwold arrives – or, rather, I arrive there – the beach approach heralded by groynes and breakwaters. Then comes the first phalanx of the town’s famously expensive beach huts, a sink estate for solvent holiday makers who have succumbed to the Southwold equivalent of shed-envy. The huts trace a line along the seafront past the pier where a Punch and Judy show is underway, delighting a crowd of children and adults with good old-fashioned, non-PC entertainment that glosses over domestic violence and police brutality. “That’s the way to do it,” swazzles Mr Punch before exclaiming, “Lookout children, the Devil’s going to come and get you.” The Devil was, in fact, coming for Mr Punch yet is outwitted by the trickster anyway in the show’s denouement. Light entertainment, yet such darkness – the seaside has always taken liberties with propriety.

For more on this stretch of coast see my earlier post: At Covehithe


Posted in Suffolk, Travel, Walking, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments


IMG_2002The far west of Norfolk between Terrington St John and Walsoken on the Cambridgeshire border is often referred to as Fen country but technically it is part of the Norfolk Marshland. John Seymour in his Companion Guide to East Anglia (1970) writes: “The Marshlands are not to be confused with the Fens. The Marshlands, nearer to the sea than the Fens, are of slightly higher land, not so subject to flooding, and have been inhabited from the earliest times”. IMG_1982Like the Fens proper this is a region of wide horizons and big skies, a table-flat landscape of barley and mustard fields, of plantations of poplars and lonely farmsteads, of electricity pylons that march across the landscape like robotic sentinels. This is the countryside of The Goob, of Eastern European farm labourers and itinerant travelling folk. This is Tony Martin territory, where the stark cereal prairies of west Norfolk give way to the reclaimed farmland of the Cambridgeshire Fens. No airs or graces, no romantic rural idyll, this is countryside without finesse, without apology. IMG_2006This region, along with the Fens to the west, is a Brexit stronghold where many bear a grudge towards the Eastern Europeans who come to work in the fields here. Antipathy to itinerant farm labourers is nothing new and Emneth, a village located hard against the Cambridgeshire border, has become particularly, and probably unfairly, infamous thanks to its Tony Martin connection. Interestingly, John Seymour, writing in the late 1960s, describes Emneth as having “one of the pubs in the Wisbech fruit-growing district that does not display the racialist (and illegal) sign: NO VAN DWELLERS, and consequently it is one of the pubs in which a good time may often be had”. They still grow fruit in the Wisbech district but I cannot vouch for the welcome currently proffered by its pubs. IMG_2008IMG_2014IMG_2018IMG_2021IMG_2025IMG_2026IMG_2031IMG_2039

Posted in Norfolk, Walking | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

In Bear Country

IMG_0686This was bear country. No doubt about it. Over breakfast Alfred from the guesthouse had said, “You should make sure that you talk when you go walking there – or maybe sing – that way you won’t take them by surprise. My wife and I saw a mother bear with cubs in those woods earlier this year but don’t worry too much, just make sure that you don’t take them by surprise.”IMG_0644The drizzle had stopped by the time we left the guesthouse to walk east along the bank of the Valbona River. The day before we had come across four snakes in the space of a couple of hours, including a sluggish horn-nosed viper that had the tail of an unfortunate lizard protruding from its mouth, but today, perhaps because of the lack of warm sunshine, they were nowhere to be seen.  Undoubtedly they were still close by, skulking beneath rocks, sleeping the deep reptilian sleep that comes with the digestion of a heavy meal… of reptiles. No snakes, but we did see an extraordinary large lizard  – a European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) as we later identified it – with strikingly beautiful markings that morphed like a potter’s glaze from sky blue on the head to copper-stain green along its back and tail. Among our fellow guests at the guesthouse were a couple of German amateur herpetologists and, confronted by reptilian magnificence as this, it was easy to understand the appeal. Bear country it may have been but this was snake and lizard territory too.IMG_0680In a meadow just beyond the footbridge that led across the racing river to the tiny hamlet of Čerem, stood a monument to Bajram Curri. Bajram Curri (pronounced ‘Tsuri’ like the English county rather than the universal Indian dish) also gave his moniker to the principal market town of this far northern border region of Albania, its name only 20 years ago a watchword for lawlessness and gun-running – a KLA stronghold that was more closely connected to what was then war-torn Kosovo than its own national capital in Tirana. These days, Bajram Curri is a quiet provincial town that only ever becomes animated on market days when hard-bargaining farmers might raise their voices over the price of sheep. Like the rest of Albania, it is now as safe as anywhere in Europe – safer probably – yet still there were those who looked askance whenever Albania was mentioned as if the country was still lawless and dangerous and run by shady mafia figures. It is not… but there are bears in the woods.IMG_0723Further on a wooden sign pointed steeply uphill towards ‘The Cave of Bajram Curri’, the cave where the Albanian hero and patriot was said to have once taken refuge whilst fleeing his enemies. We followed this up through woodland for a short while before taking another path to the left that signposted the springs at Burumi i Picamelit. This track, marked by occasional red and white ciphers painted on trees like Polish flags, lead through dense beech woodland scattered with huge boulders that had long ago thundered down from the cliffs far above. It was an evocative place, a numinous realm of shade and fecundity – the light tinged green by filtration through the high leaf canopy and by the thick carpet of moss that coated every surface. Here and there were saprophytic ghost orchids poking through the coppery leaf mold – pale, bloodless plants that had no truck with the chlorophyll that otherwise permeated the woodland like a green miasma.IMG_0741The path eventually bypassed a glade where large moss- and fern-covered rocks formed a natural outdoor theatre. Dead dry branches snapped noisily underfoot as we made our way across to the largest of the rocks – silence was not an option and any lurking bears would have been duly warned of our intrusion by our clumsy, crunching progress. Growing high on one of the larger rocks was a solitary Ramonda plant, a small blue flower and rosette of leaves anchored to the moss. The plant had an air of rarity about it – and scarce it was: a member of a specialised family found only in the Balkans and Pyrenees. Growing in solitary isolation and providing a discrete focal point in this hidden glade it almost felt as if this delicate blue flower had lured us here – the trophy of a secret quest, an object of worship. Indeed, the whole glade had the feel of the sacred: an animist shrine or secret gathering place; the location for a parliament of bears perhaps?IMG_0730.JPGWe looked for evidence of ‘bear trees’ and eventually we found it: beside the track we discovered a conifer that had a large patch of bark missing from its trunk, freshly removed by the action of claw sharpening – or maybe as some sort of territorial signifier. At the junction of tracks further on was more visceral evidence in the form of a footpath sign that has been quite brutally attacked by a bear (or bears), the support post whittled away to a fraction of its former girth by unseen fearsome claws. Why this post had more bear-appeal than live growing trees of similar size was a mystery. Did bears have a preference for scratching away at machined timber? Was the unnatural square profile of the post especially tempting? Or did the bears somehow understand what signposts were for – to direct clod-footed human walkers into their territory. Fanciful and absurdly anthropomorphic though this might seem it did somehow hint at a thinly disguised warning – a re-purposing of man-made signposts to advertise the bears’ own potential threat: ursine semiotics. The day had, of course, been characterised by a total absence of bears – and woodpeckers too, despite numerous dead trunks riddled with their excavated holes – but their unseen presence in this secretive bosky world was nonetheless all too tangible. All the signs were there to be read.IMG_0750IMG_0755We ventured on to visit the springs at Burumi i Picamelit where underground water emerged straight from the limestone to race downhill in a fury towards the Valbona River below. Tucked away in a crevice beneath one of the rocks was another Ramonda growing just inches from the fast-flowing water.IMG_0768Heading back we become temporarily lost in the woods and spend ten minutes walking in circles looking for the trail before finally rediscovering it. Shortly after, we met the German reptile enthusiasts from the guesthouse walking the other way. We stopped to compare notes. None of us had seen any sign of bears in the flesh (in the fur?) but we had all seen the evidence that beckoned us: the claw-scratched trees, the mauled signpost. We concurred that it was probably best that way: an absence of bears on the ground but a strong sense of their presence as we politely trespassed their territory.IMG_0780

Posted in Balkans, Eastern Europe, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra

IMG_6581Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the  brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a  Georgian building that had started life as  a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. IMG_6568The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond.  This  was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. IMG_6589If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. IMG_6602Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue,  the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. IMG_6591Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett?  Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.



Posted in Literature, music, Norfolk, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

San rock art – Drakensberg, South Africa

IMG_9016One of the highlights of my recent trip to South Africa was to see some really well-preserved rock art. The cave paintings were made by the San people, the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Drakensberg mountain region in KwaZulu-Natal province close to the Lesotho border before the  incoming Zulus drove them from the land. The rock paintings date from between 2,000 and 200 years ago and the best preserved are those found in south-facing caves where there is never any direct sunlight. One such cave is that found beneath Lower Mushroom Rock in the central Drakensberg.

IMG_9026The figures show hunting scenes involving various animals indigenous to the region, like eland, which are still numerous, and lions, which are no longer found here. Other paintings depict animal skin-wearing shamans in trances, a state of mind artificially (and partially chemically) induced to connect them with the spirit world in order to foresee the future and cure illnesses.

IMG_9025The paintings were made using brushes made from animal hair and dyes and pigments extracted from indigenous plants and mineral-rich rocks. The colour and attention to detail of the paintings are remarkable, and even depict the typically steatopygic buttocks characteristic of the San bushmen who nowadays mostly occupy the arid regions of Botswana and Namibia.




Posted in Africa, Human Geography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kumano Kodō, Japan

downloadMy feature on walking part of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail in Japan will be published in a few days time in Elsewhere journal. Elsewhere is a Berlin-based print journal, published twice a year, dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination.

I was delighted to have a short piece on Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan published in the second issue and am now even more pleased to have a longer essay on the Kumano Kodō route in Honshū, Japan in the third.

The third edition also has features on Yangon, Myanmar by Alex Cochrane; Swedish Lapland by Saskia Vogel; Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada by Knut Tjensvoll Kirching; Belfast, Ireland by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh; Faversham Creek, England by Caroline Millar, and Berlin and Trieste, Italy by editor Paul Scraton.  The features and articles are accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Julia Stone, who also did the cover that shows the cedar forest through which much of the Kumano Kodō route passes.

Here is a very brief taster of my feature (the photos here on the blog below are not included in Elsewhere) :

“The temple here is considered to be the sacred centre of all the Kumano Kodō routes. The large fluttering banners that flank its entrance bear the temple’s distinctive emblem, the yatagarasu, a supernatural figure in the form of a three-footed crow with raised wings.”

To read the article you can buy the issue or even better a subscription to the journal.

You can follow Elsewhere Journal on its website, blog and Twitter.


Posted in Asia, Travel, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ghosts of Empire – Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

IMG_5918One way of looking at this evocative, if mildly disturbing, place is as a hidden enclave populated with the ghosts of colonialism. Situated right in the middle of Kolkata, tucked away purdah-like from the mayhem of the city streets, the Park Street Cemetery seems like another world. It really is another world: one in which time has coalesced to leave a thick patina on the colonnades and obelisks that commemorate the colonists who created this tropical city in their own image. The colonials mostly died young – easy victims of the disease-ridden, febrile climate that characterised this distant outpost of the East India Company. In true Victorian manner, those who were unfortunate enough to die young and never be able to return to their temperate homeland were interred here in magnificent mausoleums among lush, very un-British vegetation – a tropical Highgate transposed a quarter-way round the world. The cemetery is reputed to be the largest Old World 19th-century Christian graveyard outside Europe. It is also one of the earliest non-church cemeteries, dating from the 1767 and built like much of Kolkata/Calcutta on low, marshy ground. The overall effect is one of Victorian Gothic, although there are also some notable flourishes of Indo-Saracenic vernacular that reflect the influence of Hindu temple architecture. IMG_5919Arriving at the gatehouse my name is recorded in a ledger by a lugubrious guard, an action that in itself carries the hint of entering some sort of forbidden zone, a place where the living are only tolerated and should not outstay their welcome. The cemetery seems largely deserted of visitors, although I do inadvertently stumble across a spot of surreptitious man-on-man action taking place in the deep shade of one of the tombs. Despite the funerary setting, there is nothing occult at work here, and I conclude that the young men are simply taking advantage of the privacy offered by the cemetery in this most crowded of all India’s overflowing mega cities. There are signs prohibiting ‘committing nuisance’ attached to some of the trees and I wonder if this is a warning against this sort of clandestine liaison, although in India the expression is usually a euphemism for public urination. IMG_5780There are, of course, those who take full advantage of the cemetery’s concentrated occult power – fakirs who use it for training apprentices by making them spend the night here alone, an experience that could never be a comfortable one however much one was inured to the idea of djinns being hyperactive after dark. Even for hard-nosed rationalists, the sense of the numinous here is quite tangible, and the cemetery is without doubt a thoroughly spooky place. This is true even in broad daylight when the taxi horns and traffic thrum from the manic thoroughfare of Mother Teresa Sarani (formerly Park Street; before that, Burial Ground Road) cuts through the trees to provide a background drone for the tuneless squawks of the urban crows and parakeets that loiter here. IMG_5917Not requiring of any such thaumaturgic rite of passage, a short afternoon visit suits me just fine. I am left alone with just the crows for company – dark portentous forms that swirl and scatter in the trees above, occasionally coming down to perch scurrilously on the sarcophagi as if they were extras from an Edgar Allen Poe film adaptation. Indeed, this would be the perfect location for a Gothic horror film, especially one that required a steamy colonial setting. Park Street Cemetery is the sort of place where dead souls rising from the ground can seem a distinct possibility – an eerie realm where the hubris of the Raj confronted its own vulnerability and the sad ghosts of empire still linger. IMG_5784IMG_5920

Posted in Asia, History, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Beauty and the beach: Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk

IMG_5333What is it that draws us to the sea; to the coast, the beach? On hot days in summer the answer is fairly obvious: to sunbathe, to swim, to cool off in the sea. Hot summer days are not such a common commodity these days – not in the British Isles anyway – but, whatever the weather brings, people tend to be drawn to the coast like moths to lanterns.

IMG_5307Perhaps it is part of an unwritten code of leisure etiquette, something that established itself in the British collective unconscious in Victorian times when those who could afford it caught trains to the newly developed resorts on the coast in order to take the air. The tradition persisted into the 20th century when, given more leisure time and improved public transport, the working classes too could enjoy the same privilege. Nowadays a trip to the coast is a commonplace activity: a Sunday outing, an hour or two spent strolling on the beach, exercising the dog, dragging the children away from the virtual Neverland of their electronic screens.

IMG_5294But maybe there is something that lies deeper? Some sort of atavistic compulsion to gaze at the sea, to see where we come from, from land masses beyond the horizon, from the primal sludge of the seabed. An urge look at the edge of things where seawater limns the shore and shapes our green island. We are, after all, an island race.

Or maybe that’s just me.

IMG_5312Either way, there is beauty on the beach. Sensuous ripples of sand adorned with calcium necklaces and bangles; the pure white glint of breaking waves. Serried ranks of breakers on the incoming tide, parallels of swell and surf creating a liquid stave for the ocean’s moonstruck music: swash and backwash, the gentle abrasion of pebbles, the faintest tinkle of dead bivalves.


Posted in Norfolk, Ocean | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Winter solstice – Wells to Blakeney

IMG_4979It was the day after the winter solstice – a bright sunny day with the wind from the south, the temperature mild. Conscious of the turning of the year, a last minute escape from the frenzied Christmas build-up seemed appropriate, even if just for a few hours. The north Norfolk coast beckoned – where better to go when days are at their shortest, when the sovereign reign of darkness is turned on its head and the world set aright once more?IMG_4880Wells-next-the-Sea was already closing up for Christmas when I left it behind at midday.  I followed the coast path east, skirting the salt marshes and mud flats, the pines of East Hills silhouetted on the northern horizon. Scolt Head Island aside – Norfolk’s most northerly territory a little further west, its Ultima Thule – this was the last tract of land at this longitude before reaching the North Pole that lay far beyond the horizon and sunken, sea-drowned Doggerland. IMG_4895Scattered at regular intervals, poking for invertebrates in the mud were redshanks, curlews and little egrets – the latter once a scarce bird in these parts but now commonplace thanks to climate change.  Brent geese, Arctic natives wintering here on this soft-weather shore, were feeding in large groups in the salt marshes. Periodically, without much warning, and honking noisily – the wildest of sounds – they would take to the air to describe a low arc before landing again. A hen harrier, white-rumped and straight-winged, quartering the marshes seemed to go unnoticed by the geese.  Focused on much smaller prey, the harrier presented no threat to them – this they knew. IMG_4948The mildness of the winter was clear to see. This was late December yet gorse bushes were weighed down with mustard yellow blooms. The emerald early growth of Alexanders lined the path edge, and there was even a small, yellow-blushed mushroom, its umbel newly fruited, peering up from the grass. The recent rainfall was quite apparent too – water that had accumulated to render the surface of the path in places to a viscous gravy that made walking hard work. IMG_4971After a couple of hours walking, Blakeney Church came into view on the low hill above the harbour, its tower a warning – or a comfort – to sailors of old on this stretch of coast without a lighthouse. Stopping briefly to eat a sandwich on the steps of a boat jetty, my back to the sea, a short-eared owl, another winter visitor, swooped silently past, its unseen quarry somewhere in the wind-rustled reeds. IMG_4958Approaching Blakeney, the moon, almost full, rose over the sea as the sun started setting behind the low ridge that topped the winter wheat fields. It was only three o’clock but already the light was vanishing. But there was change afoot – from now on the days would gradually lengthen and, in perfect solar symmetry, the long winter nights would slowly begin to lose their dark authority. IMG_4981

Posted in Norfolk, Walking, wildlife | Tagged , , | 10 Comments