Monday 27 November 2023

A weekend away in a time machine

It was time for a break. Our family had been afflicted by various illnesses, crises and illness-crises (a dramatic combination of the above). Half term had therefore been a washout. Somewhere inside I'm still expecting the September we never had. 
Some loyalty card points bought us a weekend in a hotel in Birmingham. I was looking forward to the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the big municipal art gallery. However, we arrived to find the gallery shut for refurbishment.
Instead, we visited a Christmas craft market, the Christmas light switch on in the Jewellery Quarter and a massive German-style Christmas market. All when we were still twelve days even from the start of December. 

There was a lovely atmosphere of chatting to friendly strangers. The live music and gluhwein helped! It felt like being at the jostling crowded heart of the festive season.

But returning home, it was odd to discover we are still a long way off Christmas. It is as if we had  travelled not just many miles, but many days. Here I am, back home and back in time again, looking forward to the eventual start of Advent and the run-up to Christmas. 


Friday 17 November 2023

Remembrance of a different kind of courage.

This year I pinned on a red poppy but it felt inappropriate -  I wished that it was white, not red. White poppies express a wish for peace, and this year that seems more important than ever.

My friend John Compton who died just over a year ago was a pacifist and used to wear a white poppy.  During World War II he refused to fight, serving instead as a London hospital porter, in danger of his life during the Blitz. It is a different definition of bravery.
It was only as I put my red poppy in a drawer (as a spare for next year) that I saw that all along I had possessed a white poppy. John's daughter Elizabeth had thoughtfully sent off for one each for Nigel and I the year before he died. 
I have put a reminder in my diary for next November so that on Remembrance Day I will wear the white poppy in memory of a man who was courageous enough not to fight. 

Monday 13 November 2023

Fireworks

Fireworks night has always been a special occasion for Nigel and I. Forty  years ago we spent it apart. At that point, Nigel and I were good friends but he was considering whether to ask me out or not. 
The reason for his hesitation, he told me later, was that he had a conviction that if he asked me out, he would someday marry me. 
Having missed the municipal display at Cambridge that year, we vowed not to miss one again. 
In our forty years together we have been to some spectaculars at Saltburn Park, the Tyne Bridge and Verulamium Park. We love to oooh and aaah.
A memorable one was Dove Holes in Derbyshire where the amateur pyrotechnician decided to set off the fireworks one at a time leading to a display that was very long indeed but at no point spectacular. We left before the end.
This year, we shunned our usual display at Verulamium to attend Alexandra Palace with Perran, Carenza and friends. 
How did it go? Carenza felt there had been a lack of communal oohs and aaahs.
However, the fireworks coordinated brilliantly with the music.   And at the end their was a man dancing on a podium with lightning coming out of his head. 
But even that was not as special as the fact that I spent the evening with Nigel.

Saturday 4 November 2023

foraging discipline

A rich variety of family illness and other crises has disrupted our autumn. I feel like I'm in a time travel movie, surfacing to find that another fortnight has somehow zipped past.

However foraging has anchored my feet to the ground once more. The best time for chestnuts and mushrooms is now.

Nigel and I were busy catching up on neglected chores.   Yet if we did not go now to the woods, we would miss the harvest.

We went up to Ashridge and sure enough the ground in the woods was scattered with sweet chestnut cases like green sea urchins. To save my fingers, I've learned to open them with my booted feet, and imagine this must be similar to what deer do with their hooves, as they too are clearly partial to the odd chestnut. 

I filled my pockets with the gleaming prizes until it was hard to walk. 

Meanwhile Nigel was stooping to gather puffballs. We've become cautious about mushrooms, but puffballs are completely unlike anything poisonous.

The chestnuts form part of our Christmas meal each year, but the puffballs were delicious right away with gnocchi. 

But even more than the food we gain, I value the therapeutic effect of foraging. After a morning in the rust and amber woods, rhythmically hunting and collecting, I was restored and ready to deal with whatever happens next.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Hit over the head with a rubber hammer


Following his emergency operation, Pascoe is making a steady recovery – I speak to him on the phone and am reassured.

He said ‘I can’t wait for the training montage to start.’  I imagine a clip from the ‘Rocky’ movies.

I, on the other hand, have felt like I’d been hit over the head with a rubber hammer. 

There was one week where Carenza had given up a week’s holiday in France to nurse Pascoe in Edinburgh and I was off-duty in St Albans.  I was so grateful for her selflessness, but it also felt very wrong not being there.

I distracted myself with some undemanding household tasks.  I took up some winter trousers, but when I looked at them afterwards was puzzled by my approach – are asymmetric trousers in fashion this Autumn?  What had I been thinking?

The only thing which went well was making forty jars of various chutneys.  I have been doing this for nearly four decades, so auto-pilot kicked in.  Okay, so my mild apple chutney is much hotter than my hot apple chutney this year, but apart from that, all is well.

So when I think of that week when I was good for nothing, at least I was good for chutney.



Friday 29 September 2023

A bit of an emergency

I looked back at my last blog and saw that it came from a different world, one where I was revving up for the Autumn term in relaxed mode. Much has happened.

As I write this, I’m on the train returning from Edinburgh Waverley to King’s Cross for the third time in a month.  The first time was a social visit to Pascoe.  The consequent trips have been due to his medical emergency.  Since May, Pascoe had been repeatedly visiting his GP with stabbing pains in his abdomen, and been sent away with indigestion medicine.  Eventually he paid for a private scan - he had a massive gall stone and inflamed gall bladder, endangering his liver.  It should have been operated on long before it got to this. The emergency operation which ensued required a huge incision (25 staples long), rather than keyhole, a couple of days afterwards when it looked like he might not make it and then a sudden and dramatic upturn on Sunday following prayer by not just our church at St Luke’s but also the church of one of the hospital doctors. 

Today I leave him in his flat, supported by Perran, well on the road to recovery, but still weak.  Yesterday, I was talking to Pascoe’s friend Kritika about the strength of love she felt when she gave birth to her baby daughter.  There is nothing like nearly losing your child to revive the strength of that bond. 

Friday 1 September 2023

How to bring a festival home

 


This summer I was privileged to attend three very different festivals and I ask what I can take from them back into everyday life. 

Primadonna – a literature festival, with the emphasis on women.

Edinburgh Fringe – a massive festival comprised of over 3k shows in a huge variety of venues.

GreenbeltFestival - arts, faith, activism. In a world on fire, we’re somewhere to believe in.

There’s a glorious ‘festival’ way of being - which elements will enhance my everyday life?

Trying new things

Because a festival is time-limited, it helps make your mind up.  This kind of thinking found me trying out a women’s urinal for the first time, and (less bizarrely) a workshop on cyanotype printing.

Fresh air

Wouldn’t work life be less fraught if one had to potter across a grassy field to get to every meeting?  I need to incorporate more little strolls into my working life.

Chat

At each of the festivals, the best thing was people – the friends/family we went with and the strangers with whom we chatted while queueing for the loo/ bar/ show.  I definitely want to spend more time idly passing the time of day with friends, old and brand new.

What won’t I miss?

You’d expect me to say the toilets – but the ‘mobile thrones’ at Primadonna and the composting loos at Greenbelt were fab.

I guess I might say ‘burning the candle at both ends’ but in fact a level of tiredness softens me up and readies me for revelations both intellectual and emotional – festivals make me cry…and that’s not a bad thing.

Picture by Pascoe Harvey - me at Edinburgh with the wonderful Katy Berry

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Birds don’t live for ever


Since 2018 we have kept doves, but it took until the 2020 lockdowns for them to become part of the rhythm of our days with Nigel feeding them by hand and talking to them as they snaffled their dried peas and corn.

Being completely white, doves are difficult to distinguish from one another.  However, this anonymity has surely saved us some heartbreak. Doves are vulnerable to predators - their pale plumage makes them an easy target for our local sparrowhawks and peregrines and cats. Yet when we see feathers scattered on the ground (carnivore confetti) it is often hard to tell exactly which dove had been taken. 

One bird, however, has been our particular favourite - an excellent mother she has raised many chicks in our dovecote.  Over the years she has had two long-term partners with whom she has billed and cooed.  We could tell her from the others by a black feather below her eye, giving her the name Tear.  Every so often, Tear would vanish for a few days to incubate eggs, but now, for several weeks, she has not reappeared.

Similarly, it was during the Covid lockdowns that Nigel encouraged our garden robin to feed from his hand, and soon mine too.  The robin was always particularly friendly when feeding chicks.  He would look about him cautiously then swoop towards me.  Fluttering in midair, onto my fingers he would place his feet, looking as if they had been drawn with a sharp pencil. Swiftly he would tilt to peck a strand of suet from my palm, then make off with his haul to his nest in the bushes.

This year, he had raised one brood of round speckled robin chicks and was on his second.  As the nesting season wore on, he looked increasingly tired and shabby, and now he too has disappeared.

In both cases, we’ll never know for certain how they met their end, and there is a kindness in that.  It is good to remember both Tear and Robin as we last saw them, waiting on the patio for us to come out and bring them food.  To catch our attention Tear would peck at the window and Robin would tweet loudly. 

And now I think about it, perhaps it was they who had trained us, rather than the other way about.

Saturday 5 August 2023

A Camp and Windy Weekend


I love camping.  It is an utter idyll to sit by a firepit with a glass of wine and good company.  You don’t have to go out because you are already out and in prime position to watch the sunset, hear the dusk chorus, spot the bats flitter past and catch sight of the first star.

Last summer Perran and I camped near Avebury.  This July, Carenza and I were to stay at the excellent Woodfire Camping site at Westlands, East Sussex. 

We planned walks on the South Downs Way and Serpent Trail and sightseeing at Petworth House.  However, most unfortunately, we forgot to book good weather.

The forecast said fair on Friday night, downpour Saturday. 

‘We have to pack all my favourite bits of camping into Friday night,’ I said. 

So we ate looking out over acres of woodland, I painted a watercolour and Carenza read. As night fell, we lit the firepit, opened a bottle of wine and switched on my bat detector (pipistrelles were passing).  Even the air stayed in our airbeds and we were woken early by a family of noisy woodpeckers. (Outside the tent, not in it.)

We also had a solid plan for the rainy Saturday evening.

1)      Go to pub

2)      Stay in pub

3)      Return to tent at bedtime

BUT I had not paid sufficient attention to the forecast – not only was there to be rain.  A MIGHTY WIND was on its way.

The blasts bent the tent poles double and forced rain in through the seams.  I could not see Carenza in the dark, but I imagined her lying like me with eyes wide open, listening to the buffeting of the storm and wishing we’d checked the guy ropes before turning in…  Every time I fell asleep, the side of the tent blew in and slapped me awake. 

In the morning our tent was still standing, but we couldn’t help noticing not all the other tents were where they had been the night before. Some gazebos were missing altogether.

At the time, we enjoyed the first night way more, but it is the second night we will still be enjoying years from now as we continue to recount the tale of the scary gale. 

Thursday 20 July 2023

Who was that masked medic?


The school holidays have started and I had plans.  Things to achieve, friends to catch up with.

But a week ago, on a nocturnal trip to the loo, I trod on something sharp. I felt to see if anything was sticking out from the wound, but found nothing.

Being half asleep, I went back to bed, but in the morning the trail of blood alerted me.

‘Nigel, can you look and see if there’s something still in there.’

He probed with my eyebrow tweezers but found nothing.

After a week which included two country hikes and dancing at the Folk by the Oak Festival, I was of the opinion there was definitely still something in there.

I had tickets for an exhibition in Oxford on Tuesday and was supposed to be driving a friend, so needed to sort it quickly.

Monday saw me at Minor Injuries.  The medic could spot nothing and was clearly sceptical.  He sent me to the X-ray department without telling me it was on the far side of the hospital.  After walking all that way on the side of my foot, my knee and hip were now throbbing.

The x-ray showed nothing, but I was unwilling meekly to give up.  So the medic had a probe with a large needle and pointy tweezers. Ouch. But then he had it! A 3mm razor-sharp flake of glass embedded in the ball of my right foot. He was not prepared to dig deep but that was ‘probably all the glass.’  He gave me a tetanus shot.

That evening, while I was glad to be vindicated, my foot was tender, my knee and hip ached and then unexpectedly, my left arm stopped working.  Maybe the tetanus jab hit a nerve?

After a night’s sleep, however, I was able to drive to Oxford.  Phew.

But, haunted by the sensation there was still some glass in my foot, I prepared for another trip to minor injuries, and in doing so managed to shrink my beloved Crocs clogs in the washing machine (don’t ask).

I saw a different medic this time.  I explained what happened before but she looked puzzled ‘Who saw you?’

I described him.  She shook her head as if not recognising this person. ‘It’s just that it’s not our policy to dig around looking for glass in people’s feet.  The body will naturally expel the object.’

Whoever that bogus medic-impersonator was, I’m glad he had a go – the glass had been cutting away in there for over a week without being ‘naturally expelled’.

And I hope that if there’s any glass left, my body gets rid of it soon…

 

 

Thursday 6 July 2023

Ordained by God


 Jenny and I met and became friends in our first week at Cambridge.  One thing we had in common was an interest in matters spiritual.  Within a term, we had both committed to Christianity.  The slightly older student who led us to the Lord later moved on to devote herself to Feng Shui, but we have both stayed on the path.

We live in different parts of the country now and see each other together with our respective families at the annual Greenbelt festival, capturing a freeze-frame vision of one another’s lives.

 

Jenny has grown via a number of roles to flower at last as a priest in the church of England and her ordination was this Saturday near Manchester.

It was very important to be there but also a really long way to travel. 

With Annabel (the erstwhile bridesmaid of both Jenny and I) riding shotgun, Nigel drove us all three hours each way. (I did offer, but he prefers to drive.)

It was a great service with the sermon delivered, confusingly, by an arch deacon whose surname was Bishop. Apparently he is soon to become a bishop. Bishop Bishop.

The sermon was encouraging, the hymns excellent, and the church welcoming. But the thing that most justified our long drive was the beam on Jenny's face.

And it's a smile which will go on to bless the lucky church at Bollington where she is to be curate.

Monday 26 June 2023

Friends you can take a risk with


 David and Carolyn are Pascoe’s godparents.  When we lived in the North East we saw them every week.  Now we live hundreds of miles apart, but still see them a couple of treasured times each year.

We wanted to take them to the Odyssey, our wonderful local independent cinema, but the choice was a predictable Rom Com, OR ‘Beau is afraid’  - a psychedelic journey of weirdness concerning the painful relationship between a man and his mother. 

We chose the latter and at the end of the three-hour film, another audience member said loudly ‘Well that wasn’t worth staying up late for!’

But the four of us found ourselves returning to ‘What did it all mean?’ throughout the weekend.  We certainly got our money’s worth.

On Saturday, we met the twins in London.  They wanted to go to ‘Healing King Herod’, a show previewing before the Edinburgh Fringe at the Soho Theatre.

‘King Herod, famed for his Massacre of the Innocents, now leads a self-development pyramid scheme. Ancient soldiers become modern clients in an interactive, drag-clown therapy session.’

I didn’t even know there was a genre called drag clown. 

After a little hesitation, we all went along and raised the average age of the audience considerably. 

The show did end with the star, Riss Obolensky wearing nothing but a nappy and rolling on the ground smeared all-over with jam, but it certainly made us laugh and Obolensky managed to pack her weirdness into one hour, which was certainly a better decision than three!

But the best thing about both shows was going along with friends who are up for something a bit different.

 

 

 

Saturday 10 June 2023

Seeking Asylum on Holiday


 When the real world is troubling, my impulse is to get away from it all.

In the last year, we were hosting a Ukrainian family.  They were bereaved in the war and although they were perfect guests, there was a weight of sadness on the house.  We found ourselves going away a lot at weekends. But each time we turned on the radio, the news from Ukraine found us again.

Likewise, on our holiday to Cornwall, I was prepared to be faced with our own family problems, such as dealing with ageing grandparents, but not the social issues which ravage our nation.  However, as we took a morning stroll around Pendennis Point above the shipyards and looked down into the dry dock, we spotted something which looked like a block of flats on a barge. 

We were curious so Perran googled the name on its side, Bibby Stockholm, only to discover that this barge was being fitted out as floating accommodation for 500 plus asylum seekers.  Suddenly the Cornish sun seemed less warm.

If we can’t escape the problems of our age by going on holiday, then I guess we just have to go on demonstrating and signing petitions and helping out voluntary organisations with extra fervour, and at least that is one thing that a holiday gives us - we return home with the energy to do just that.



 

 

Monday 5 June 2023

Family Holiday

We just had a family holiday. In many ways it was excellent - we stayed in a capacious holiday-let overlooking the Fal River. The weather was brilliant, so we walked and swam the coast every

day and cooked wholesome meals together in the evening. 

 

However, a family holiday always ends up as a microcosm of what is going on in the family.

 

Pascoe, Carenza and Perran are all busy at work so we made sure the house had good wi-fi in order to accommodate a certain amount of working from home, also great train links in order to allow anybody who had to arrive late (Pascoe), or leave early (Perran).  


We stayed close to Truro to allow us several visits to my elderly parents who have had a tough year.  


We were late departing on changeover day because one person had an important phone meeting, plus we had to take something to the dump for my dad, which meant we then hit heavy traffic all the way home, exacerbated by a train strike.  


Which in turn meant it was a close thing for Nigel to catch the train north to support his mother in the act of moving house from the north to the south on the following day.


When I look back, however, I shall choose to forget all the stresses and to remember only the sun-filled days and the evenings sharing plentiful food and wine. After all, there's nothing to beat a family holiday.

 

Wednesday 24 May 2023

To sing with a nightingale


Lately Nigel and I have been campaigning to stop the St Albans chainsaw massacre of mature trees. It makes us very sad to see the council cutting down trees containing birds' nests and chicks and it is fatiguing not to succeed.
However, a deep love for nature provides its own consolations. This weekend we attended a singing with nightingales session near Lewes with folksinger Sam Lee of the Nest Collective.
We made ourselves at home in the simple campsite, then at a given time moved to a clearing where firepits glowed. Even before the event got underway, we saw a mistle thrush chasing a sparrowhawk away from its nest.  Then Sam Lee and guest singer Eska entertained us with stories and song and told us more about nightingales - it is the male who sings, hoping to attract a female.
After dark, we set off through the wood in silence, single file, in the pitch dark. We were so quiet we could hear caterpillars munching the leaves. In the distance we began to detect the sweet liquid notes of the nightingale.  Somewhere along a field boundary, with the nightingale casting his song down on us, we stopped and lay on the grass, gazing up at a million stars. The bird dueted first with some very noisy frogs nearby, and then with Sam and Eska.
The perfect moments stretched out and overhead, a shooting star flashed past.

Too soon it was over and we filed back to the campsite.

Yet there was one last grand finale. In the morning we were woken  by a very splendid dawn chorus.
We are revived and refreshed.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Stop the Chop

One of the best things about our garden is the view of two ancient oaks in the vicarage garden next door. There are now few people who can remember the time  when our street was still farmland.  But these great trees bear witness.
They creak irritably and toss down twigs, but they are home to innumerable birds, insects, lichens and fungi.

Yet if they were out on the street, they would certainly have been chopped down as it is cheaper for the council to do that than to keep them pruned and in good order.

St Albans Council has decided to fell 300 trees (reduced to 250 after a complaint).
They claim some are diseased. Others merely 'in decline'. At sixty, what am I then?  In decline? Perhaps I too should be culled to cut costs to the NHS.

Even more shocking is the fact that these trees are being felled during the nesting season.
On Saturday we visited the condemned trees closest to us in order to make a peaceful protest and in each was at least one active nest. When the tree falls, the chicks will die.

Interestingly, when we stood round the stumps of two cherry trees which had been sawn down while in full blossom (one scheduled, the other taken down on a whim), nearby householders came out, angry at us 'tree huggers'. The trees had apparently been ruining their lives by shedding leaves and petals which blew onto their tidy drives. They were glad they were gone.

As they yelled at us, merely for taking photos of the stumps, they used the f word a lot, even though we had young children with us. It is no exaggeration to say their reaction was violent.  But it was odd since the trees were already felled and no protest on our part could possibly reinstate them.

Perhaps then, their fury might even have been a cause for hope - maybe deep down they were experiencing unease, realising that the unruly branches of a tree are more beautiful than the sterile tidiness they longed for.

What I wish for is that others can realise this BEFORE any more trees are chopped down.

Tuesday 2 May 2023

Frogs and Fountains

At the centre of the Arabic architecture in the palaces of Andalusia is the fountain. Each house arranged itself around a tranquil courtyard and in each case the serenity was enhanced by one or more fountains connected by rills, and often a central pool. 
The fountains ran quietly to give just a gentle bubbling sound. The pool would remain calm enough to reflect the arcades around and the heavens above.

If you see an array of splashy jets, they were invariably introduced more recently.

At the Palacio Viana, Cordoba, we visited each of the twelve garden courtyards, and in each of them, I found myself scrutinising the ponds for something which wasn't there.

Eventually, a fellow tourist - an English woman - appeared at my elbow and said,
'I expect you're looking for frogs. I don't think there are any here, but there are some at the Real Alcazar.'
She turned out to be quite right - see pic below.
But how did she know I was looking for frogs?  
Perhaps it is a natural assumption that all British tourists pass their holidays in a state of yearning, homesick for the frogs in their ponds at home. In my case at least, quite true. 

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Gorge of fear

Visiting the Alhambra palaces with their divine architecture had always been destined to be the zenith of our holiday, the goal around which our whole trip to Andalusia had evolved.
But afterwards we had one day of our trip left.
What could compete with the wonders of manmade architecture at the Alhambra except the wonders of nature?
So Nigel suggested we take a bus out to the Sierra Nevada and climb a mountain.
'I still have a cough. I don't think I can do it.'

Kindly, he downwardly revised his suggestion. We would explore a river gorge in the foothills from a town called Monachil.

'It will be a gentle walk.'
We had only been walking for a short time when the original trail ran out. We could go back or continue on up the steep sided canyon.

We opted for the latter. However, it turned out that the 'path' was in fact the concreted over pipe which fed the irrigation system for local farming and in a number of places it had been cut through the rock with enough space for the pipe, rather than for people.

I literally ended up crawling on a ledge on hands and knees with the river beneath me and overhanging rock above me. Three times. And shimmying along on my belly twice. I tore my shorts and grazed my knees.

On the plus side, Nigel is always very helpful and encouraging when we find ourselves in one of these little scrapes and I say dramatic things like 'I can't go on!'

And the first thing I heard when we came through into the open at the end of the canyon was the call of choughs, a bird which is the symbol of Cornwall but now very rare in the UK. Ten of the glossy black creatures were spinning and swooping in acrobatic courtship flight, and visiting their nests in the red cliff above us.
A sight which did indeed compete with the Alhambra!

Monday 17 April 2023

Basic Tourist

Our first two days in Granada were spent marching up and down hills through an indecipherable tangle of narrow streets whose cobbles were made from a peculiarly slippery rock. 

We were chasing down a number of old courtyard houses, medieval bathhouses and baroque churches. Each one had to be arrived at within the rubric of their opening hours. 

Especially as we now both had coughs, it sometimes felt like hard work.

On the third day, we had a timed ticket to the Alhambra Palace, perhaps the main goal of our whole trip to Andalusia.

The Alhambra Palace turned out to be the ultimate tourist experience - beautifully maintained paths, capacious aseos (loos) clear maps and signposts.

The only initiative required is to hold one's ground as the guided parties stampede through, stabbing at their phone cameras. Their philosophy seems to be that any wonder of nature or architecture looks much better with THEM in front of it.

As the crowd departs, minutes later in a whirl of dust, one may snatch a few tranquil moments in each perfectly proportioned courtyard, listening to the ripple of the fountains.

We pottered all day on the well-marked paths, and I revelled in the effortlessness of being just your basic tourist.

Cars in unfeasible places

 In Granada, the streets are cobbled and narrow, banked by high buildings.
Laid out in Mediaeval times, they are suited to donkeys.
But this challenge has clearly not put off the modern driver, and we frequently had to retreat into doorways to allow cars to pass. 
Almost no alley was too narrow for some car to attempt it.
Perhaps they are being driven by donkeys?

Sunday 16 April 2023

patioed out

In Andalusia, houses tend to arrange themselves around little courtyards, rather than next to a garden. These patios/courtyards were open to the sky, provided light wells and ventilation and insulated the inhabitants from the heat, noise and dust of the street. In the Arab tradition, it also allowed domesticity to remain private.

In one day we visited over twenty patios. In the morning we took part in an open patios scheme where a single ticket admitted us to the houses of eight people, and, accidentally, one man who wasn't part of the scheme but said we could take a look anyway. 
Each patio would contain a well and a large trough with washboard for doing the laundry. And every inch of wall was filled with pots of geraniums, clivia, herbs and ferns.
In the afternoon we promenaded the twelve patios of the Palacio Viana.  Geometric and ornate, these were parterres centred on fountains and framed by topiary.
Both kinds of patio filled us with admiration, each in their own way.

But then Tamara sent a pic of our own patio at home, heavy rain pinging off pots of herbs which had barely started to grow yet.
And even despite the contrast, it made me feel a little homesick.  Which is probably a good thing.

Friday 14 April 2023

The Mezquita mosque, Cordoba

If I made a list of the wonders of the modern world this Mezquita mosque would be on it. The prelude to the amazing building itself was the courtyard of orange trees, bright with ripe fruit and fragrant with blossom, punctuated by fountains and cypress trees.
Inside, hundreds of columns and arches replicated the trees.
This manmade orange grove was so large, extended three times by various caliphs, that one lost one's sense of direction until, suddenly one broke through into a much taller chamber.
Later, Christian, monarchs had plonked a soaring, rumbustious Gothic cathedral down literally in the centre of this massive mosque, flying buttresses crashing down into the sacred space.
From within the mosque, however, the cathedral was a well kept secret until one actually entered it. Yet later, when we climbed the bell tower and looked out, its extra height made it the most obvious feature of the place.
Again and again we looked back at the magic trick of a cathedral within a mosque  - simultaneously both concealed and yet standing out. 
Probably it is a metaphor for something, but I have no idea what.


Thursday 13 April 2023

The curse of Mr Sniffles

Our train journey to Barcelona took six hours. We had delightful window seats in the upper storey of the train and enjoyed watching the views and getting some work done.
Except for one thing. In the seat just behind Nigel was a man relentlessly blowing his nose, coughing and sneezing.
For the whole of the journey.
 I remembered far too late that I brought masks in my bag for just such an eventuality.
We couldn't see him but nicknamed him Mr Sniffles. At one point we heard him get up, probably to visit the buffet car. We both peered to see what our Nemesis looked like. He was in early middle age and wearing cream jeans ripped to reveal what appeared to be black rubber leggings underneath. On his top half, a cream sweater with a motif knitted into it in silver lurex. It was a skull and crossbones.
Miraculously Nigel did not contract the cold, but a few days later when I felt my throat grow sore, I remembered the skull and crossbones, harbinger, if not of death, at least of a nasty cold.

PS just wanted to say that this could equally have happened on a plane and wasn't a consequence of train travel. Perhaps Mr Sniffles was also an eco warrior!

Tuesday 11 April 2023

on safari at Doñana

We were visiting Doñana National Park for the extraordinary wildlife there. Most of the park could be accessed only by tour so at crack of dawn we joined a guide and maybe 20 others to tour the southern part of the park where land met sea.
The guide, who was also our driver, was clearly used to people who were only mildly interested in wildlife. He amused himself by pretending we were on an African safari.
'Today, we shall be viewing lions and giraffes.'
When another minibus came towards us, 'Here we have a green elephant.'
When we passed a group who had got out, 'And here is a group of primates.'
However, despite his idiosyncrasies, he did show us a number of wildlife wonders the most unforgettable of which were a great number of gryphon vultures circling in a tall column, an osprey hunting fish along the shore, and a huge Spanish Imperial eagle sat solemnly beside its nest.
And we certainly would not have seen the last of these on an African safari.


Flamingos or horses

At the town of El Rocio two rivers meet and there is a large lake which has not been dried out by the drought. 
I stood transfixed, my back to the town, with my binoculars fixed on flocks of flamingos (flamencos) and spoonbills, glossy Ibis and black winged stilt. (I could go on. And on.)
However, gradually I became aware of lots of gallopy and trotty  noises  behind me. My assumption had been that El Rocio would be famed for its flamingos and that's why anybody would visit.
But no, it was the town of horses. Horses are 'farmed' semi-wild here, in a manner similar to New Forest ponies. The streets of the town are composed of sand to suit the horses and many houses have wooden bars for tying your horse outside, like a saloon in a spaghetti western. 
People were taking excursions in horses and traps and riding horses down the street at much higher speed than would be acceptable in a Cotswold town.
My grandfather, who bred horses, would have been in seventh heaven.
The town had thoughtfully provided a wooden rail along the lakeside to divide dozy flamingo watchers like me from crazy equestrians, possibly following previous regrettable incidents.
So I was able to turn back to watching my pink feathered friends in peace.

Monday 10 April 2023

The great cat of Spain

I had heard there would be amazing water birds at Doñana national park. As you've gathered, I'm a bit of a bird nurd, but even somebody who wasn't might thrill at the prospect of flocks of pink flamingos.

But with wildlife tourism one must always hold anticipation in check, as birds and animals don't appear to order and disappointment is frequent.

First we visited the el Acebuche reserve but there were no water birds at all as the marsh had dried up.  

However, we were excited to find that Acebuche was a captive breeding centre for the famous endangered Iberian lynxes.

These creatures are so well camouflaged with their spotted pelts that we were unable to see the one in the enclosure. Even with the help of a professional naturalist and a telescope trained on the creature, it took several minutes of us going '¿donde?' and her going '¡alli!'
Finally, a patch of dappled sunlight resolved itself into a sleepy great cat.
'There she is!'

So if it was that difficult to see the lynx  - the large iconic animal of the area, just how difficult was I going to find it track down flamingos tomorrow?