Black Sea, Blue Sky – Balkan Rain

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This rain that has been falling almost incessantly here for the past 48 72 hours seems to have followed me back home from the Balkans. Travelling coast to coast, from Adriatic to Black Sea, over a three week period I experienced completely rain-free days only at the very beginning and end of my trip.

After a sunny start in Zadar on the Croatian coast a low blanket of rain cloud followed me all the way from Dalmatia to Srem, then eastwards to the Serbian capital. Rainfall dampened most of my days in Belgrade, pooling the pot-holed pavements of the Old Town, swelling the Danube and Sava rivers, soaking my inadequately-clad feet. The view from my apartment window was drear, smeared by a greasy film of droplets forever abseiling earthwards. Rain’s moist music filled my ears: gurgling drainpipes, the subliminal hiss of drizzle; the soft tintinnabulation of raindrops on roof tiles whenever it started to fall a little more heavily; in the distance, the rhythmic swish of car tyres riding wet cobbles. Any ventures outdoors necessitated frequent dodging into doorways and regular respite of strong coffee in smoky kafanas. Smudged ink in notebooks, vital scribblings rendered Rorschach by an ever-leaky sky – uninterpretable, beyond analysis. Water dissolvingand water removing, the song goes. There is water at the bottom of the ocean! Yes, but there was water in the streets too; thoroughfares transmogrified to shallow streams, solid surface rendered fluid.

I followed the Danube east then south along the Romanian border, enjoying a brief interregnum of fine weather before thick cloud and more rain greeted me at the east Serbian city of Zaječar. Reaching Niš, a balmy afternoon gave way to a brutal evening storm, with rainfall as dramatic and sudden as an opened sluice, lightning flashes illuminating the street like magnesium flares. Southern Serbia was a little better – just drizzle in Vranje and hazy sunshine in Pirot, although after dark it rained some more. Railroading into Bulgaria I thought I might have finally left the bad weather behind me but it was sheeting down in Sofia when I arrived, too wet to venture far from the shelter of the railway station while I waited for the overnight train to Burgas.

Mercifully, I finally managed to escape the rain on the Black Sea coast. I took a minibus to Ahtopol, the most southerly town on the Bulgarian littoral. By my reckoning this would be about as far away as possible from the concrete over-development that plagues much of the coastline. Ahtopol turned out to be refreshingly low-key: a quiet resort that still possessed a modest fishing fleet and a measure of unspoiled charm. Although summer had arrived the town was still locked in preseason inertia. The town’s beaches were virtually deserted, serried ranks of sunshades still unfurled. The sky – at long last – was blue, as was the water (not black at all). Tiny boats bobbed out to sea on gentle waves. Wild flowers bloomed on the cliff tops. Hyperactive flocks of house martins swooped low along the shore collecting flies to feed their young. In the overgrown scrubby area that led down to the beach, hidden nightingales sang, their joyous bubbling out-competing the construction noise of  workmen trying to coax a new-build hotel into service for the season.

I had a couple of days before my flight home and so made the most of this long-awaited clement weather. Even so, I scanned every passing cloud, even the most flimsy and innocent-looking, for any sign of rain to come.

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Posted in Balkans, Eastern Europe, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Ghosts of Mattancherry

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The best of India is often seen in the slow hours before breakfast, the time of day when the subcontinent’s multitude of people and gods stir themselves in the cool mercury light that follows dawn.

On my last day in India I rose early to retrace steps from a walk I had made the day before. Down to the Mattancherry shore, to the narrow streets of the area known as Jew Town, a small waterside enclave of the port city of Kochi. The name was self-explanatory, although very few Jews now lived in the vicinity as most had left for a new life in Israel in the 1940s.

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In the midday heat of the previous day there had been the usual noise and mayhem, the customary bluster that accompanied daily life in any Indian city: pavements blocked with vendors and parked motorbikes, auto rickshaws tuk-tuk-ing incessantly up and down as their drivers looked for fares and nonchalantly swerved around any pedestrian foolish enough to get in their way. Jew Town lay next to the shore, beyond the compound of Mattancherry Palace. A gently touristified quarter of souvenir shops, Kashmiri-run gift emporia and restaurants serving the appetizing alchemy of rice, coconut and spices that was Keralan cuisine, there were few reminders that this quarter of the city was historically Jewish apart from a pristine, albeit virtually redundant, 16th-century synagogue.

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The sun had barely risen above the coconut palms and low-rise stucco of Fort Cochin as I set off down Mattancherry Palace Road. Even at this early hour the Hindu temple on the corner was buzzing with activity, with bare-chested drummers welcoming a procession led by a dhoti-clad priest clutching an offering of fragrant flowers in a coconut half. Most of the businesses that lined the road were still shuttered but a few shopkeepers were already at work outside their premises brushing the pavement in preparation for the day ahead. There was little traffic apart from a few cyclists determinedly peddling somewhere. Whether they were on their way to work, or perhaps heading home after a night shift, there was no way of knowing. In modern India motorbikes are the preferred means of transport for those wealthy enough to afford one yet here in Kochi it seemed that bicycles still had an important role to play.

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I passed a lorry being emptied of its load of bananas on a side street. It was hard to imagine life here in Kerala without bananas. Or, even more essentially, coconuts, whose flesh and milk flavoured almost every meal, whose oil glistened in most women’s hair, whose swaying palms cooled almost every street. Every street, that is, apart from those close to the shore, where ancient rain trees cast huge penumbras of shade – massive, branching moss-hung trees that looked like as if they had been directly transplanted from a rainforest.

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Curiosity led me down another inviting side street but after about five minutes it ended abruptly and so I turned around to return to the main road to continue east towards the water. I soon reached Mattancherry Palace and skirted its grounds along a road that took me past a jail, a newly built mosque and a post sorting office. This curved round to reach the main waterside drag of Jew Town Road. On my previous visit the road had been busy with gift shops, souvenir hawkers and sunburned tourists coached-in from coastal resorts. At this early hour, though, it was a very different place, a somnolent neighbourhood where the stalls were unmanned, the coach park empty, the touts still deep in slumber. In the sprawling branches of rain trees above the road white egrets were perched in anticipation of the free meal that might come later when the food stalls were set up for business. Below them on the electricity wires pigeons had spread themselves out like notes on the stave – a serendipitous score for a morning raga.

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I wandered down to a deserted quay to get a view to Willingdon Island across the water. Faded remnants of advertising were still visible on some of the walls although a ferry had not run from here for years. Back on the main street I walked south through the small tourist enclave into an altogether more quotidian world that declined in prosperity as I continued. What had once been a prosperous Jewish neighbourhood had since become a less affluent Muslim one. Cavernous godowns – spice warehouses – lay behind peeling sky-blue doors. A few were still operating as such while others had been given over to businesses like motorcycle repair workshops. Some of the walls had been painted with colourful murals – public art with text in Hebrew and curling Malayalam script that celebrated Kochi’s maritime heritage. One building that caught my attention had an open entrance behind a pile of rubble. Inside a half-collapsed porch stood another portal, a ragged blue cloth dangling in the space where a door would once have been. It was a synagogue – or what remained of one – its roof aerated by enough missing tiles to allow light and rainwater to penetrate the interior, a void filled with broken bricks, rotting beams and a thick carpet of guano. The throat-searing ammoniacal stench of pigeon shit was so overwhelming that mere inhalation felt hazardous. This sorry wreck of a building was a long way from the lovingly maintained Paradesi Synagogue I had witnessed the day before – the officially sanctioned tourist sight just up the road beyond the gift shops. Here in this neglected, unloved ruin the sense of wholesale abandonment of a community was tangible: here was a place whose ghosts whispered of sorrow and loss.

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Palani – a temple town

 

Palani, a temple town in western Tamil Nadu, barely gets a mention in the guidebooks. Too close to the hill resort of Kodaikanal to be of much interest other than as a transport hub, the town was a necessary stopover on our rail journey between the Kerala coast and the hyperactive Tamil city of Madurai.

We arrived in the town just as it was starting to get dark – enough time to have something to eat and wander around the market stalls that stood at the base of the steps that led up to the hilltop temple. The temple, dedicated to the god Murugan, was clearly a big draw for south Indian pilgrims and all the necessary facilities were in place to service their needs. As well as numerous ‘hotels’ offering ‘Pure Veg’ food and a mass of stalls selling mass-produced trinkets and cheap jewellery, a large sign outside a booth offered an ‘Ear Boring’ service, while another advertised itself as ‘Tonsure Centre’, a place dedicated to providing the correct sort of haircut – head shaven with an application of sandalwood paste – for dutiful pilgrims.

The Murugan Temple – Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple to give its full glorious name – stands on a hill above the town. Murugan – aka Muruga, Kartikeya, Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya – is a Hindu god of war, a philosopher-warrior figure, son of Parvati and Shiva, who is particularly popular in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. The temple at Palani is one of six ‘abodes’ (actually, temples) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Murugan. A long flight of stone steps lead up to the top, as does a meandering path for elephants and winched cable car that takes a different, more direct route around the back of the mound.

A little too hot in my hotel room, even under the swishing fan, I dreamed that night of Mark E Smith of The Fall, who in my dream was performing a solo outdoor gig in a Norwich back garden. In the dream world, as in life, Smith was as rambunctious and curmudgeonly as you might expect. He also looked painfully thin, as well he might, and before I woke I recalled mentioning this to someone else present, saying, “I know he’s dead so I suppose this is a dream isn’t it?”

We stepped out into the streets at dawn next morning to make our way to the steps that led up to the temple, leaving our sandals at the bottom before we started the ascent. A line of orange-clad saddhus flanked the base of the steps and scattered by the wayside at various stages of the ascent were gift sellers who touted garlands and puja offerings to present of the shrines above. We were the only foreigners, the only obvious non-Hindus present, yet we were welcomed without fuss. Amplified music of devotional singing accompanied our climb, and mobile phones blazed away around us as we made our way uphill with the other visitors. As everywhere in India, there were numerous friendly requests for selfies – group photos that included us in the frame as some sort of Euro-exotica. This seemed fair exchange, and it was pleasing to know that somewhere out there in the digital ether, in a parallel world to this posting, there existed no small number of images on Instagram and Facebook that included our own heat-flushed faces.

The steps to the top – I did not count them but estimates range between 550—700 – are rock-cut into the hillside. For those unused to it, it can be oddly sensuous walking barefoot for any distance, especially on stone that is deeply embedded with the patina of human activity – a layering of daubed sandalwood paste and windblown dust compounded by the devout footfall of countless pilgrims. Heading uphill we passed chalked mandalas, small shrines and intriguing side temples with attendant bare-chested priests. Macaque monkeys frolicked in the trees that overhung the steps; a solitary owlet stood sentinel on a branch overlooking the plain below. Some of the more elderly pilgrims struggled with the effort of climbing, and a few reluctant children dragged along by parents complained noisily, but overall the atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed – more holiday fun than holy day solemnity.

 

At the top, groups of people were scattered around, snapping family pictures on their phones, eating snacks, waiting patiently for their turn for darshan (a view of the sculpted deity) within the temple itself. Large signs carried warnings about thieves and cheats. We circumambulated the temple clockwise, the scent of incense, jasmine and wood smoke permeating the clear, bright air. This intoxicating cocktail – so evocative, so quintessentially Indian – was my madeleine. Here was the India of old that I knew and loved, a deeply felt nostalgia rooted in time and place that touched a nerve, or rather, caressed it tenderly. Here was something that invoked the emotional memory of previous visits made decades earlier: an echo of that indescribable early morning magic when the deep, ancient culture of the subcontinent seemed to manifest itself in a mysterious yet timeless way. To adopt the epithet used by the late John Peel to describe his favourite band, The Fall, whose erstwhile leader I had so peculiarly dreamed about the previous night, India was ‘always different, always the same’. And it was true, despite rampant modernisation in recent years, India at heart was always different, always the same.

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A Berlin Interlude

img_1874What do you do on a drizzly grey day in Berlin? A midwinter day when the sun is enfeebled and hidden, cowering somewhere beneath a thick duvet of cloud. What do you do in a city that you do not know well and only have experience of in winter?

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In early January the detritus of Christmas can still be seen in the streets – fairy lights cling obstinately to avenues of artificial trees, and discarded Christmas trees litter the pavements awaiting collection for recycling. The year has turned and spirituality and festivities will soon give way to politics. In less than a week, Berliners of a left-leaning persuasion will be attending another regular winter event, the commemoration of the deaths of the Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were summarily executed during the uprising of January 1919. Each year on the second Sunday in January Berliners gather at the Memorial to the Socialists at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery to commemorate Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others who perished at the hands of the right wing Freikorps. This year is the centenary.

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I am a few days too early for this event so I decide instead to take a walk along the main body of water that flows through central Berlin, the River Spree. I walk out of Berlin Hauptbahnhof railway station and cross the river to its south bank to follow the path to Museuminsel (Museum Island), from where I will strike west away from the river towards Alexanderplatz. Light rain and dense cloud renders the urban landscape almost monochrome. Such colour that there is stands out for its rarity – traffic lights, bright umbrellas, the hi-vis orange jackets worn by street workers. Although this is the heart of a populous capital city there are few other walkers to be seen – the poor weather has seen to that – but here and there is a jogger, a strolling couple, a woman pushing a pram. Tracing the river, I pass a succession of ultra-modern waterside buildings – enterprise temples of concrete and glass that give the impression of being hermetically sealed from the gloom outside. Office workers in a brightly lit dining canteen pay me no attention as I walk past on the other side of the glass wall that separates us. The Foster-designed glass dome of the Reichstag makes an appearance above the surrounding buildings as I progress; black, red and yellow flags flutter in the breeze.

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Leaving the canal behind after traversing Museuminsel, the lofty TV tower of the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz comes into view, as eventually do the twin Communist period tiered towers that flank Karl-Marx-Allee. At Alexanderplatz I descend underground to catch the U-bahn and a few stops later emerge once again at Potsdamer Platz where I cross the square to enter the railway station. Past sunset by now, the sky squid-ink black, the fluorescent blaze from the office blocks that fringe the square throws up reflected light from the rain-wet pavement. After colour-robbed days such as this the bright lights of human endeavour contrasted against the intense darkness of night can seem almost a comfort.

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(Thirty-)Six Views of Bass Rock

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It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.

Robert Louis Stevenson Catriona

Japan’s Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano that looks just like a volcano should. An almost perfectly symmetrical, snow-capped cone, its image is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Sacred, beautiful, mysterious, its most iconic representation in art is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series painted late in life by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849). Probably the best known of the series is Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts a distant Fuji framed by a terrifying tsunami wave. My own favourite is no. 33 Fine Wind, Clear Morning, which shows Fuji’s cone rendered deep crimson by the rising sun. Featuring delicate cirrus clouds against a blue sky and iconic sun-lit mountain, its aesthetic simplicity ticks all the essential boxes of classic Japanese woodblock art.

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In the United Kingdom, a long way from the tectonic frontline of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, our volcanoes are of a more ancient vintage. Not so much dormant as comatose, long inactive through an aeon-slow unfolding of geological time, all that we have are fossilised remnants of our islands’ distant fire-spewing past. In Scotland, Arthur’s Seat just outside Edinburgh is one such example, as is the rock upon which Edinburgh Castle sits — both volcanic remnants from the Carboniferous period that gripped the Earth over 330 million years ago. Further east, close to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the island of Bass Rock, located about two kilometres offshore, is of similar pedigree. An igneous volcanic plug created when magma hardened within the vent of an active volcano, the surrounding rock eventually eroded to expose the plug and leave an upstanding landform that rises 100 metres above the water it finds itself in today.

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Bass Rock is probably better known for its bird life than its geology. Northern Gannets nest here in enormous numbers — something in the order of 150,000, making the rock the largest colony of the seabird in the world. The gannets are not permanently resident but leave the rock after breeding each year, migrating their way south for the winter. They were still present when we viewed the rock from the East Lothian shore at Tantallon Castle in October, a small number of the birds straying from the security of the rock to fish close to the shore.

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We had seen Bass Rock from a much closer viewpoint six years previous when we had sailed past it on a boat. It was June then, the height of the breeding season, and the birds seemed to fill the sky above the guano-washed rock, crisscrossing haphazardly above our heads before peeling off to plunge vertically at great speed into the sea in pursuit of fish. On that occasion we were able to smell the colony long before we arrived – an ammoniacal stench so strong that you could almost see its vapour shimmer skywards. Our boat drew close enough to the rock to be able to identify the individual nests of birds, and we could also make out the ruin of St Baldred’s Chapel atop the rock – not the most obvious place for a retreat into the spiritual life given the omnipresence of eye-watering guano deposited by the  rock’s hyperactive tenants.

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Even from the more distant viewpoint of the shore we could discern the rock’s landing places, a fragment of the old castle remains and the white lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David. Although there was nothing to be seen now, there was also once a gaol here. James I incarcerated a number of political enemies here in the 15th century, and two centuries later religious prisoners, Presbyterian Covenanters mostly, were also held on this island prison.

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Comparisons between Mount Fuji and Bass Rock are, of course, futile. But there is at least some commonality: both are/were volcanoes; both are capped with white. Hokusai famously produced 36 different views of his beloved mountain, each work unique in terms of distance, viewpoint and time of year. I can only offer something far more modest. Here then, are six views of Bass Rock, taken either in June or October, from shoreline (Tantallon Castle and North Berwick) and from sea.

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Posted in Islands, Scotland, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Rule of Home

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As a few of you may know, I have been working on a much longer project, a book in fact, for quite some time. This work is centred on a walk made coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to follow a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance, to join up the dots and connect the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like.

An edited fragment of my slog through the Fens appeared on the Burning House Press online journal when it was selected by guest editor C.C. O’Hanlon back in April.

This month’s guest editor, Rachael de Moravia, chose another piece of mine that will eventually find its home in the book in some form or other. This extract, entitled The Green, Green Grass of Ceredigion, comes from near the end of my journey as I approach Aberystwyth. It muses over ideas of home and the Welsh notion of hiraeth. It is also about roots and routes, and the desire paths of personal topography. You can read it here.

PS: I recommend spending some time perusing the Burning House Press website, which is themed monthly under the auspices of various guest editors. There is plenty to enjoy here, with a wide range of writers and artists venturing off into different and sometimes starkly contrasting spheres of the poetic.

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On Stiffkey marshes

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On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

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We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

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In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

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The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

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That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

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Beside Song-Köl Lake

IMG_1182There are places that stay in the mind long after visiting. Places that haunt the mind’s memory cache to prevail even years after having set foot there. Such places might be mountains, or rivers, or stretches of coastline; or even villages that charm and bejewel the bedrock of a singular landscape. Usually though, it is a combination of factors that constitutes the essence of such places – earth, sky, water, topography, the patina of a human occupation that beautifies rather than despoils. One such place is Lake Song-Köl in central Kyrgyzstan, the poster girl of a country that has occasionally, and not unreasonably, been described as the most beautiful in the world.

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It had been a long time – twelve years in fact – since I had last visited. My assumption was that it hadn’t changed much in the interim. I was right – the landscape was as I remembered it, almost exactly. If anything, it was I who had changed: a dozen winters of freeze and thaw had affected me more profoundly than it had the pasture of the lake’s hinterland, the ever-renewing grazing pasture that justified its seasonal occupation.

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There are several ways to approach the lake, set high at over 3,000 metres in Naryn province in what is more or less the dead centre of Kyrgyzstan. We drove up from the east, through stark, tightly folded valleys and arid badlands, until the lake finally revealed itself as a blue sliver beyond meadows grazed by yak herds.

The yurt camp where we stayed seemed familiar, although they all tend to look much the same – a cluster of yurts, an isolated toilet cubicle, a hitching place for horses. For all I knew this may well have been where I had stayed before. Its location was certainly very similar: up along the lake’s north-eastern shore away from the main concentration of yurts close to the approach road. The camp was overseen by a cheerful baboushka*, who exercised gentle rule over her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, and fussed over her laughing grandchildren who looked so at home here on the jailoo* that you might imagined that this was the only world they ever knew, although outside the summer months they would probably be town-dwellers like the rest of us. As ever in Kyrgyzstan, we were welcomed with tea and bread… and jam, and honey, boiled sweets and biscuits – just a token snack before lunch – plov*, salad, more chai – which would be ready in an hour. There was just time for a quick walk up the broad, green valley where a drift of chestnut horses were grazing the thin grass of its slopes.

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After lunch, we went horse-riding with the baboushka’s son for the best part of three hours, two hours longer than my habitually non-equestrian body was comfortable with. Later, stiff and sore, and thankful to return to bipedal ways, we hiked up above the valley before descending down to the lake water where horses were lined up drinking. A small marshy area close to the shore revealed a solitary redshank and a grey wagtail. We had hoped for birds of prey but, other than a single circling buzzard, raptors were shy in revealing themselves. Wheatears, on the other hand, seemed to be almost everywhere, flashing white as they cocked their tails flitting from rock to rock. And skylarks too, an improbable density of them jangling the sky – the birds had flown up in such abundance from unseen nests whilst on horseback earlier I had been concerned that we might trample eggs beneath our inexpertly guided hooves.

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After dinner – fish from the lake fried in batter, more bread, more chai – another brief walk to watch the full moon rise. A band of pink cloud humbugged the darkening sky like a vein of quartz in rock as definition blurred and colour drained from the land. Above us, hovering low in the sky, as if serenading – or perhaps, scolding – the rising orb, a single skylark clattered its song in the ebbing light.

*baboushka – grandmother

*jailoo – alpine meadow providing seasonal grazing

*plov – Central Asian dish made with mutton and rice

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Posted in Central Asia, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Beneath a Concrete Sky – to Gravelly Hill Interchange by canal

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Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.

Which river was it? Two. More or

Less.

 Birmingham River Roy Fisher

The idea was to follow the Birmingham canal system north to Spaghetti Junction. I had already traversed the city by means of the Grand Union Canal a couple of years earlier, following the canal path west to arrive at the meeting of the waters at Gas Street Basin. That time I had turned left at Aston Junction but I knew that returning to that same point it would be possible to follow the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal north to reach Salford Junction directly beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange.

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Accompanying me on this venture was my friend Nigel Roberts, a fellow Bradt author devoted to Belarus and Blues (Birmingham City FC) in equal measure, who gamely agreed to come along despite our planned route veering close enough to Aston Villa’s turf to risk bringing him out in hives.

We rendezvoused in the gleaming concourse of New Street Station before making our way to Gas Street Basin by way of Victoria Square with its Queen Vic and Iron:Man  statues. A notice on the ever-present temporary fencing that characterises Paradise Circus gave notice that Antony Gormley’s  Iron:Man was soon to be moved to a new home. How, I wondered, might this effect the city’s sacred geometry, its unchartered leys that converged at Victoria Square? But Birmingham (motto: ‘Forward’) was always a city that messed with its past, forever rearranging the deckchairs, refurbishing the urban fabric, reinventing the wheel and then re-forging it by means of a Brummagem hammer. It always seemed a place where time not so much stood still as had a frequent lie-down, a place that lump-hammered the past into something that never quite made it to the future.

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After a swift half-pint and perusal of the map at the Malt House pub opposite the geographically incongruous Sealife Centre we set off along the Birmingham & Fazeley branch towards Aston Junction. The day is atypically glorious, warm, blue-skied – peak May, the time of year you might happily be time-locked in were it at all possible. Cow parsley froths alongside the canal path, complimenting the blossoming hawthorn. Oxlips, red campion and broom compete for attention with the lurid graffiti that seems to embellish almost any available wall space. Above a lock, daubed high on a factory wall, eponymous Roof Top Vandals have left their mark in neat, bold lettering – a noteworthy combination of art and athleticism. Passing beneath the bridge that feeds railway lines into Snow Hill Station, the shimmering reflected light from the water dances like an electrocardiograph on the concrete above.

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Approaching Aston, we pass the red and blue holders of the Saltley Gas Works, scene of the Battle of Saltley Gate some 46 years earlier when the fuel storage depot was mass picketed during a national miners’ strike.

A little further on, we become aware of a familiar figure atop a building – Britannia, complete with trident, excised from the back of a fifty pence piece, supersized and raised to roof level. It seems churlish not to investigate. We detour from the canal to seek out the building and head for the Lichfield Road in the wake of two teenage girls who swig beer and swap yarns in rich Brummo-Caribbean argot. It is, as we thought, a pub; no longer operating as The Britannia but as The Aston Cafe. We are now perilously close to Villa Park, or Vile Park as my companion prefers to call it. It does not bother me either way – I am agnostic in such matters – but Nigel has started to sense that he is well behind enemy lines.

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Returning to the canal to press on north, the Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction is already clearly visible ahead. The last house before the tangle of overlapping roadways takes over has iron railings decked in Union Jack flags – patriotism doing battle with traffic pollution. Just beyond, a defiant stand of purple lupins, garden escapes gone feral, announces our arrival at Salford Junction. Here we detour left for a short distance along the Tame Valley Canal, the curving multi-carriageway of the M6 immediately above us, articulated lorries flashing by half-seen above the barriers as they career along in compulsive centripetal motion. Above, spanning the roadways, blue signs point the way to London (M1) and The North (M6), while beside the water a navigational signpost for boats shows the various routes out of here – west to Tipton in the Black Country, north to Tamworth in north Warwickshire, back to the City Centre and Gas Street Basin (3½ miles) from whence we had come. But there are no boats today: the troubled pea-green waters beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange fail to match most people’s criteria of what constitutes an ideal boating holiday.

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Huge concrete pillars support the roads overhead – 559 in total if you were foolhardy enough to count them. The pillars bring to mind Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt – Luxor, Karnak – although hieroglyphs and carved lotus capitals are noticeably absent. But this whole chaotic enclave of concrete, water and channelled momentum is an unintentional temple of sorts – a nexus of late capitalism; a dinosaur footprint of transport and industry, an entropic sump. The water beneath, largely deprived of direct sunlight, is an opaque soup that looks incapable of supporting anything other than menace and monsters but here and there the light sneaks in to highlight graffiti, reflect on the water and cast shapes on the wall that mutate with the sun’s arc: accidental light sculpture, the oeuvre of James Turrell; found land art.

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Locked between the various roadways the trees and bushes of a green island rises defiantly within its looping concrete confines, home no doubt to all manner of wildlife – birds, pioneering cats… foxes perhaps. A Ballardian realm of preposterous nightmares and Sci-fi imaginings – there are probably parts of the Amazon rainforest that are better explored than this singular non-place.

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Satiated with the chiaroscuro experience of this interchange underworld, we return to Salford Junction and take the Grand Union Canal south through Nechells to return to the centre via a route best described as elliptical. We pass the vast entertainment complex of Star City, another latter-day temple to mammon; then an enormous recycling plant that has a conveyor belt receiving the load from a Sisyphean procession of tipper trucks, each crushed metal parcel crashing onto the hill-high mound with a shrill clatter. In uncanny juxtaposition to this unholy clamour, set back from the water is a small pond with reeds, yellow iris, water violet and water lilies – a Monet garden awaiting its artist. But for the deafening backdrop, this might be a scene in leafy Warwickshire. Indeed this whole stretch of canal, just a few minutes’ walk from Spaghetti Junction, has a disconcertingly rural feel to it. What is more, it seems almost completely deserted of people.

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Reaching Garrison Lane in Bordesley we make another brief detour so that Nigel can show me the location of The Garrison, the pub whose fictional 1920s counterpart is centrepiece to the Peaky Blinders television series. There’s not a peaked cap or Shelby brother to be seen but it offers an opportunity for Nigel to fill his lungs with the right sort of air – St Andrews, Birmingham City’s home ground is only a little way up the hill.

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Approaching Digbeth, we finally come upon the elusive River Rea – a shallow, sluggish channel beneath the canal viaduct. One of Birmingham’s two rivers, the other being the River Tame that it merges with it close to Gravelly Hill Interchange, the Rea (pronounced ‘Ray’) spends much of its course through the city below ground out of sight. As the poet Roy Fisher claims in Birmingham River, the Rea does little to draw attention to itself: a ‘petty river’ without memory seems about right.

a slow, petty river with no memory

of an ancient

 name;  a river called Rea, meaning

river,               

and misspelt at that.

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Posted in Cities, Human Geography, Midlands, Walking, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Shores of Loch Bee

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An island. A loch. An island — South Uist — that forms a link in an archipelago that lies off a much larger island, which in turn lies to the northwest of the world’s largest continental landmass. If the world has an edge, a legendary place for ships to plummet off the rim, then this is as good a contender as any.

A loch that shares its name with an insect but there the comparison stops: Loch Bee (in Gaelic, Loch Bì). The shallow loch extends across the northern reaches of South Uist, joined to the sea on both coasts by a floodgate at a narrow inlet. A causeway traverses the loch, north to south. There’s a road sign here that says, Caution: Otters Crossing — photographic click-bait for any visitor in thrall to the sheer otherness of these islands. There are no otters today, nor on any other occasion that we motor across the water in the direction of Benbecula, but their existence seems tangible enough.

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Venture a little further south beyond the loch and you soon reach a tall imposing statue on a hillside, a modernist rendition of Madonna and child, a reminder that this is around the point where the Wee-Free north of the archipelago morphs into the Catholic south. Not that it matters that much, it would seem that the people who inhabit this landscape share a mutual islander mentality that rises above any petty sectarianism.

Our rented house lies just beyond the causeway, its lounge window gazing east towards the water of Loch Bee, the far-distant Cuillin Hills of Skye across The Minch providing an impressive backdrop, a jagged wall of limestone in a world of water, peat and gneiss. The loch’s brackish water changes colour with the light and the play of clouds. In late April the heather is black and withered, still reeling from winter, the moorland devoid of flowers other than tiny violets. For the few days of our stay it is bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. The brilliant sunshine, although welcome, seems like an interloper so far north and so early in the season.

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The sunshine and translucent sky engenders a clarity of air that reverses the wing-mirror axiom that objects may be closer than they appear. Even the Cuillin Hills, which given the curvature of the Earth, must be teetering on the brink of the horizon, look reachable in a stiff day’s walk were in not for the inconvenience of The Minch. The weather eventually turns of course, giving way to showers and scudding clouds; then uniform dreich, a grey eiderdown of cloud hauled over the land to render it almost monotone. As each day passes, the wind grows a little stronger, un-sensed behind the double-glazing until sight is caught of the wind turbine blades spinning like dervishes. Whipped up by the strengthening southwesterly, the surface of the loch transforms from glass to whisked meringue, its colour darkening azure to peat black.

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The loch is home to a large population of mute swans that float regally around on the far shore, occasionally taking to creak-winged flight in search of better pickings. Greylag geese honk by in small squadrons, while lapwings and oystercatchers pipe wistfully above the heather of the loch shore. A small group of red-breasted mergansers in the middle of the water, their handsome plumage reduced to piebald by distance, take turns to dive down in search of trout. Almost overlooked close to the shore, a solitary raven appears reluctant to stray far from a group of plastic-bound hay bales next to a gate. The mystery of this is revealed with a stroll down to the water, where the corpse of a young deer is found lying behind the bales, its ribcage already exposed to the elements in a slow exposition of sky burial — a mortal slur on the tranquility of the scene, perhaps a necessary one. There are other predators at large. As dusk descends, a glimpsed crepuscular flurrying may or may not be a short-eared owl in search of voles — this is indeed their territory, as it is for hen harriers, which we do see several times elsewhere on the islands although not here.

Early evening is also the time when the red deer usually make an appearance, arriving in view by nonchalantly leaping over fences that pose not the slightest barrier to them. A small herd of females and a lone stag nervously stray between the house and the loch shore, ever vigilant, their heads bobbing erect and watchful between mouthfuls. Our human smell is masked by brick and glass but can they see us, recognise our human outlines, curious figures with protruding metal and glass eyes that gawp at them from behind the window pane?

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Posted in Islands, Scotland, wildlife | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments