Harvesting and Countryside Churches: Autumn Walks in Kent

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Autumnal Colours (Photo M. Germana)

Autumnal Colours (Photo M. Germana)

The capricious nature of British climate is obviously why in Britain weather talk is a staple part of everyday conversation. Even foreign visitors – and residents, like myself – will pick up the habit. You can’t help it. It rules your life. But it also makes us tell each other stories.

Autumnal Colours 2 (Photo M. Germana)

Autumnal Colours 2 (Photo M. Germana)

This one is about the sensual beauty of the British Autumn. I have often thought October can be one of best months to visit Britain. The leaves are changing colour, and the coppery and rusty palette is even more striking against the crisp blue sky we have seen over the last few weeks. The air has a particular scent, too, of ripening berries and sweet grapes.

Berries (Photo M. Germana)

Berries (Photo M. Germana)

John Keats paints a vividly evocative picture of the season’s generous produce, in his Ode to Autumn:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease;

For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

You may be satisfied with crunching the mulching/soggy leaves on the pavement, but if you venture to the countryside, you will be rewarded with many more seasonal gifts. If you live in London, Kent is only a short drive away, and yet you will feel as if you have entered a different world.

Kentish View (Photo M. Germana)

Kentish View (Photo M. Germana)

On two separate trips we took a couple of medium-length walks in the Isle of Harty and Maidstone areas. Both times we were blessed with the perfect weather for a Sunday walk. Mostly sunny, mild enough for comfortable walking. In Harty we came across St Thomas the Apostle, a charming countryside church, built around 1089, following the destruction brought to the area by the Danes’ incursions.

St. Thomas, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

St. Thomas, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

We  thought the church might be locked, but  were pleasantly surprised by the church warden, who asked us where we came from and then invited us in – ‘Welcome to Harty’, he said.  Inside, the small ambient of the church was made even cosier by the warmth of the wood panelling covering the stone walls. The warden told us that at Christmas, service is candle-lit and the church always reaches its full capacity.

We couldn’t help but notice baskets with fruit, lying around the church vestibule. ‘Harvest Festival’, the church warden explained. It looked like we had just missed a good feast of autumnal flavours. We made up for that on our following trip.

Our walk in Harty ended up on the Gothic-looking beach.

Beach, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

Beach, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

The sun had set and the sky was heavily overcast. But it was the dark  wooden stumps – the remains of old wave-breakers, I guess – that were scattered around the light-coloured sand that gave the place a somewhat post-apocalyptic aura. Ironically enough, on a hot summer’s day the place would be teeming with naked bodies basking in the sun – the beach is a naturist resort.

Untitled (Photo M. Germana)

Untitled (Photo M. Germana)

The weather was consistently good on our second walk, which started in Sutton Valance. To me, it was a quintessentially English walk, although the architecture of the villages – and, in particular the red roofs of some of the houses – also give this part of Kent a kind of French je ne se quois. Still, as we walked past East Sutton Church, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a countryside churchyard’, the most Romantic tribute to the haunting beauty of English countryside cemeteries. This one was particularly striking because of the most unusual style of this graveyard’s tombs: mummy-like sculptures rest above ground as suggestive reminders of those buried six feet under.

Graveyard, East Sutton (Photo M. Germana)

Graveyard, East Sutton (Photo M. Germana)

Our walk was punctuated by regular stops to gather copious amounts of blackberries and, occasionally, some fallen apples and cobnuts, left behind after the harvest.

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Cobnuts (Photo M. Germana)

There is nothing that tastes sweeter than fruit that has just been picked from it source. It’s not just the novelty of foraging, although I’m also surprised that wild berries and mushrooms are often left untouched in Britain. It is also the realisation that we hardly ever consume 0-miles food, and when we do, we appreciate the fact that supermarket ‘freshness’ is an oxymoron.

We took home the berries we couldn’t eat, but they didn’t travel well in our sandwich bag. And so they became jam. Less healthy than fresh fruit, for sure, but a good way to preserve the sweetness of Autumnal fruit for the cold months ahead.

Freshly-foraged apples (Photo M. Germana)

Freshly-foraged apples (Photo M. Germana)

Gothic London: Phantom Railings

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Warning

Warning (M. Germana)

Ever walked home late at night and become conscious of somebody else’s footsteps behind you?

I was taking a short walk on Malet Street when I was startled by a strange sound that seemed to echo my footsteps. 

When I walked faster, the beat of this uncanny tune became quicker, too. When I stopped, it all became quiet again. I was puzzled and curious.

As I walked on, I reached the gate to the Malet Street Gardens and the mystery was revealed to me at once.

Malet Gardens Gate

Malet Gardens Gate (M. Germana)

The sound I could hear was produced by technological devices, which on detecting the sound of footsteps replicates the rhythm with a metallic sound, as if a stick were running along the iron railings.

These ‘Phantom Railings’ have been here for about a year, and I’m glad I stumbled across them. It’s the work of  ‘Public Interventions’, an artistic collective dedicated to developing innovative ways of engaging the public within the urban environment of London.  They are particularly interested in using technology to establish new lines of communication and aesthetic response: in this case, they successfully manage to draw your attention to the strange absence of iron railings.

Malet Street Gardens is one of few places where the iron bars taken off during the Second World War were never replaced: the residual trace of the past punctuates the wall with dark metal stumps. The historical dimension of the installation also made me think of another evocative use of sound: Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet (‘Fallen Leaves’) in Berlin’s Jewish Museum: this uses 10,000 metal ‘faces’ carved in metal discs, and placed in an area of the museum that visitors are invited to walk on.

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Ghostly (M. Germana)

‘Phantom Railings’ speaks of a past that once was but also of the meaning of fences, barriers, and other kinds of lines demarcating private spaces. Such borderlines are expressions of power, status, ownership. They are reminders that the city has fewer and fewer public spaces. At times, the railings become, themselves, contested spaces. Like proper frontiers, they are the site of urban conflict: the number of signs urging cyclists not to attach their wheels to railings is on the increase.

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Untitled (M. Germana)

 

These kinds of warnings – and the transgressions associated with them – make me think of a poem I read when I was studying English at school: Jenny Joseph‘s Warning.

Here the poet, who was only 29 at the time, longs for the little subversions she will be indulging in later in life, breaking all the rules and regulations she is abiding to as a young person:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

When was the last time you broke a rule? And how did it make you feel?

Mardi Gras of Fire… Viking-Style

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The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)*

The weather was never going to be on our side. Although the force-11 gale forecast never came true, the locals said they hadn’t had such awful weather in a long time for Up Helly Aa. This is the annual fire festival – the largest in Europe – hosted in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. And this year – in spite of the heavy rain and the frosty blizzard – I was among the thousands that lined up the streets of Lerwick to be part of Up Helly Aa 2013.

What is Up Helly Aa? The festival’s name seems connected with the word ‘Helly’ which in ‘Shetlandese’ means week-end, but also ‘holy’, though it may also be linked to the last day of Christmas celebrations, which would fall 24 days after 5 January:

Historically the 5th of January was Old Yule, and the 24th day following the 5th was the final day of the Yuletide celebrations – a day of fire, feasting and frolic – Up Helly Aa day. It has also been referred to as the “four and twenty day” and “Antimass” or “St. Anthony Day” – all meaning “the whole festival at an end.”(Shetlopedia)

It’s a relatively modern tradition, dating back to the 1840s, when celebrations of the end of Yuletide started to involve the burning of barrels. The Viking theme is an even more recent acquisition (c. 1877), although, of course, the relationship with Norway has been a strong part of Shetland’s history and culture for centuries.

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Against all odds, we were lucky with the weather during the day.

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Helmet Detail (Photo M. Germana)

Led by Jarl Stevie Grant, and accompanied by the sounds of pipe and brass bands, the squad paraded around Lerwick and ended up on the Alexandra Wharf where the guizers’ lined up on the galley (Krisara was her name, this year) for photographs. This year’s Jarl costumes were blue and silver and as the sun kept popping in and out, the light bounced off spears, axes and helmets. Their ornate designs reminded me of those found in the treasure of St. Ninian’s Isle.

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

As my friend Bruce often reminded me, although the festival has attracted tourists for some time, it largely remains a local thing. You could certainly read the community spirit in the guizers’ eyes, looking out for thir friends on the streets and taking care of some of the youngest members of the squad… from 4 years of age and going up to 90+, there is no limit, as long as you are male (no women are allowed on any of the squads!),  fit enough to carry an axe and, in the evening, a torch for the final procession, leading to the burning of the boat itself.

The evening ceremony involves a larger crowd of guizers. Beside the Jarl’s, 47 ‘alternative’ squads took part in Up Helly Aa this year. Each squad dressed up following the most diverse themes, ranging from Rastafarian to giant Teddy-Bears, cross-dressers and fire-fighters.

There are no words – or pictures – to do this breath-taking spectacle any justice. At 7:30pm exactly, all the street lights go off. This is when you realise, for a few instants, how dark winter nights must have been in the olden days.

Then the magic begins.

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

Gradually nine hundred torches are lit and, with the smell of paraffin increasingly more pungent in the air, in a matter of minutes the streets are bright again, as the squads begin marching in a circular route along Lower Hillhead, St Olaf Street and King Harald Street. The rain is replaced by a thick shower of orange sparkles. It is like witnessing the end of the world, or being in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

The parade ends in a park in the centre of town, where music, songs and fireworks announce the imminent blaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

This year, I am told, fewer people turned up to see the burning, no doubt due to the weather. To me, it all added to the drama and, with fewer bodies around, I was able to get closer to the burning site, to watch the body of Krisara slowly being consumed by the flames.

It all happens rather quickly. The guizers throw their torches over onto the galley, which is soon ablaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

On a night like last Tuesday, the phrase ‘battle of the elements’ couldn’t ring truer. Although the wind and rain threatened to blow off the torches, in the end, the fire was the winner. The storm subsided, allowing the galley to be engulfed in the firy embrace of Up Helly Aa.

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

After the burning, people found shelter in friends’ houses to reactivate blood circulation with the aid of a dram or two… I have to thank Anne and Robert for my life-saving sip of whisky.

The celebrations continued at the 12 official festival halls where live entertainment, eating, drinking and most importantly ceilidh dancing went on until 8 o’ clock in the morning. There was also a comedy show on at the new theatre-cum-arts-centre, Mareel. The guizers visited each of the hall, performing dance routines and songs inspired by current affairs, popular culture and local business. Some of the acts are exquisitely random; think Snow White Meets Star Wars, Little Britain does James Bond or dancing giraffes… In most cases it worked, in a strange kind of way, and each performance deserved top marks for creativity. After their acts, the guizers invite the spectators to dance with them. I was the only lass in hiking boots and, by far, the worst ceilidh dancer in Islesburgh Hall, but I was welcome to join in.

The day after is a public holiday in Lerwick.  Everybody will catch a little sleep before going out again at night, to compare notes and share the gossip.

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

*A selection of photographs kindly reproduced after publication in New Welsh Review, 102, December 2013.

Does size matter?

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The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

Away from it all: my journey back to Shetland

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Tammy Norie (Photo M. Germana)

In May, when the weather started to turn unseasonally cold,  I took the opportunity to return to Shetland, nine years since my first visit to the far north of Britain. It gave me an opportunity to catch up with my friend Bruce, who, on my first visit to Shetland, let me stay at his place when the youth hostel was booked out: it was the beginning of a long-distance friendship and a beautiful way to find out more about Shetland. Like other Shetlanders, Bruce has many a story to tell about this enchanting place.

Fewer and fewer British tourists choose to spend their vacation in Britain and fewer still will choose Shetland as their preferred holiday destination. Access to package holidays promising two weeks in the sun are, frankly, too tempting for most of the heat-starved bodies living in the British isles. Still, if you can bear to pack your waterproofs and thermals instead of flipflops and bikinis, Shetland may offer the kind of cleansing retreat for anybody who overuses the word ‘busy’ in relation to their diaries, social engagements and family lives. If the idea of de-cluttering your mind appeals to you, then the open scenery of Shetland, scattered with sheep, ponies, and the occasional puffin may just cut it.

Traffic Lights (Photo M. Germana)

It was sunny, if a little chilly, when we landed at Sumburgh Airport, one of the easiest airports you will ever fly to. It is also perhaps the only one where, on your way back, you will drive across the runway to catch your plane: a special traffic-light system will flash a red light if a plane is about to take off or land and a dedicated patrol car keeps an eye out for stray ponies or lambs from the adjacent fields.

As for my packing, I must admit, it was a rushed affair and I forgot to accommodate for the unpredictability of Scottish weather;  Shetland is in a different league and on my first day I headed for the chemist’s to buy a pair of sunglasses, which, my pessimistic self had left at home. I also, to be fair, visited The Spider’s Web, one of a cluster of shops in Lerwick specialising in local knitwear, to purchase a pair of woolly gloves (this time, the optimistic side of me had not thought about packing them!): even on sunny days you will need to negotiate your outdoors activities with the persistent breeze that Shetland is famous for.

Shetland ponies (Photo M. Germana)

Perhaps this is why the topography of Lerwick is sliced by narrow lanes connecting Commercial Street, aka ‘da street’, to the sea-front, whose buildings shelter the main shopping street from the strong winds coming from the sea. Walking through these quaint passageways you will also discover some of Lerwick’s pleasant refreshment spots: The Peerie Shop offers freshly-baked cakes and coffees, though you may want to head futher up the hill, towards Charlotte Fort, to the Havly Cafe, for the nicest espresso in town… and Shetland, probably: imported coffee machines become less frequent the further north you travel. If you are after a more substantial meal, then, Monty’s Bistro is a good bet: you can generally rely on the freshness of fish and lamb.

Waterproof lambs

Frankly, however, I find it hard to believe that people could go for the latter, particularly this time of the year, when newborn lambs roam around the fields outside Lerwick. This spring was – surprise, surprise –  a cold one in Shetland, and farmers have tried hard to protect their new flock. Some of them even went as far as supplying them with – I kid you not – waterproof gear. We also noticed that sheep have a particular way of turning their ‘bottoms’ to the wind, as that makes it easier to keep grazing on in spite of the elements. Apparently, we were told by a friendly waitress in Unst, Shetland road-workers use a similar strategy and that may well explain the lack of straight roads in Shetland!

Cute animals aren’t the only reason for visiting Shetland, though if you are a twitcher, this would definitely be an unmissable destination – puffins, guillemots, gannets are all on the menu, so to speak, particularly if you head for Sumburgh Head, Noss or Hermaness, in Unst.

Standing Stone, Unst (Photo M. Germana)

Archeological ruins, both from Shetland’s neolithic past and more recent times, are a reminder that, in spite of their remote location and challenging climate, these islands always had an interesting history, placed as they are halfway between Norway and Scotland: the archipelago was a Norwegian territory up until 1468, when Christian I of Norway pledged Shetland as a dowry for his daughter Margaret, who was given in marriage to James III of Scotland; technically, Norway may still ‘buy’ Shetland back, and, judging by the number of Norwegian flags on display in Lerwick, one wonders whether Shetlanders would mind a change of hands.

Evidence of Shetland’s rich historic – and pre-historic past – is written all over its landscape, in the form of lone standing stones, crofters’ houses, ruined churches and some of the best preserved archeological sites in Britain.

Mousa Brooch (Photo M. Germana)

One of the most iconic examples is the ancient broch of Mousa, perhaps the best preserved of all prehistoric fortifications in Britain and Europe, and a place evocative of the Norse/Scots hybrid traditions that make up Shetland’s cultural heritage. Anybody interested in archeology should also pay a visit to the Jarslhof complex, south west of Lerwick: apparently, it was none other than Sir Walter Scott who gave the site its name, which means ‘the Earl’s House’, as he referred to it in The Pirate (1821). Not far from these spots is one of Shetland’s most idyllic spots: the St. Ninian’s Isle Tombolo, also the site of a famous archeological finding: to catch a glimpse of the treasure of St. Ninian you will need to head back to the mainland to the National Museum of Scotland.

St. Ninian’s Isle (Photo M. Germana)

If the weather turns wet, and chances are it will, visitors may want to spend some time learning about Shetland’s rich past in the cosy environment of the Shetland Museum and Archive, back in Lerwick, a great source of information about Shetland’s geology, archeological and historical past, and folklore.

Haunted Windhouse, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

I was particularly interested in learning about some of the islands’ popular superstitions, such as the ‘trows‘, a Shetland version of the Scandinavian trolls, and yet another reminder of the archipelago’s borderline position between Britain and Norway. Later on, whilst travelling up North, we visited the most haunted house in Shetland, the Windhouse in Yell, where, apparently, a brave shipwrecked sailor succeeded in killing a giant trow. With so much coastline – you are never more than 5km away from the sea – it’s not hard to ‘see’ how the supernatural would have played an important part in the popular culture shaped by the tidal, windswept, moody scenery of Shetland.

‘Tides’ (Photo M. Germana)

Indeed, that’s perhaps the quality that appealed to me the most about this part of the world: the landscape is remote, desolate, haunted, sublime. It may rain a lot, but it’s never boring; in fact, it will hardly ever fail to catch you by surprise. From the darkest winters to the famous ‘simmer dim’, Shetland produces a great palette for the camera. In the heart of winter, on the last Tuesday of January, the absence of light is replaced by the Viking spectacle of burning fire during the Up Helly Aa festival, which, one day, I hope to be able to see.

Rainbow in Hermaness (Photo M. Germana)

There is a sense, too, of being at the end of the world. This is not so much to do with the touristy reminders that you may be staying – as we did! – in Britain’s northernmost hotel (Baltasound Hotel), where you can have a nightcap in the adjoining hostelry known as – you’ve guessed it – Britain’s northernmost bar (Springer’s Bar), or send a postcard home from the most northerly post office in the country. The people are friendly, willing to share their problems – only one engineer to serve two islands (Yell and Unst)! – and their quirky stories; if you ever make it as far as Unst, you will not miss driving past Bobby’s Bus shelter. According to local lore  – and the website that was set up in 1998 to support the increasing popularity of this ‘attraction’ – the bus shelter was the result of a petition written by Bobby, then a school-boy, to replace the bus shelter that had been demolished because it was unsafe. Anybody who has been to Shetland will appreciate the importance of a shelter from the constant wind that sweeps the islands. When the new shelter arrived, as if by magic, new things started to arrive, too:

A few days after the completion of the replacement shelter, a wicker sofa and table appeared in it with nobody claiming responsibility for putting them in. Soon afterwards, a small TV was added, closely followed by a ‘hot snacks’ counter. In the winter, a 2-bar heater was installed, allowing an even more comfortable wait and it wasn’t long before a carpet was fitted. By this time, The Bus Shelter (now capitals) had gained some publicity in and around Shetland. The visitors book was filling up and the comments indicated the demand for a website dedicated to the Unst Bus Shelter. (The Unst Bush Shelter Website)

Bobby’s Shelter (Photo M. Germana)

This year, the theme is regal: it would appear that Jubilee furore has reached far and wide! Bobby’s story is a tribute to the imagination and the community spirit, both of which seem to thrive in spite of, or perhaps because of the harsh conditions this part of the world is frequently exposed to.

‘Scalloway Castle’ (Photo M. Germana)

The spirit of a place cannot but be affected by the nature of its territory, its climate, the quality of light, and the terrifying beauty of treacherous shorelines haunted by the ghostly memories of many a shipwreck. Shetland’s strange appeal derives from the ‘highs’ induced by the freshest air you will inhale whilst watching westward at the sunset from the Eshaness Lighthouse viewpoint and the awareness that there is nothing but the rage of the roaring ocean till the next bit of land, America. As our journey started from one of the most densely populated areas of Western Europe, the vast openness of Shetland felt like the best detoxing strategy we could hope for. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this is to climb Shetland’s highest ‘marilyn‘ – as opposed to a munro! – Ronas Hill (North Mainland): after a deceptively challenging hike, on a clear day, you will feel like the whole world lies below you.

Finally, if quality accommodation is what you are after, then one of the most attrractive places to stay in Shetland, and a great base to explore the western parts of the mainland, is Busta House, a quaintly old-fashioned private hotel, where the Queen stayed on her visit to Shetland in 1960. Her Majesty, we were told, had tea in the elegant ‘long room’; we preferred the cosy bar, and the 200 kinds of whisky it offered to the novice drinkers like us! If gourmet food is what you are craving, head instead for the restaurant attached to unassuming Scalloway Hotel, not far from the beautiful castle that overlooks the bay of Shetland’s former capital.

‘Shopping Centre’, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

The other world, round the corner

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'English Riviera' Photo (M. Germana)

You always think paradise is a far-away place. Before the rise of low-cost airlines and budget holidays, the exotic eden of foreign holidays was only accessible to the privileged elite who could afford the pricey air-fares.

Now it costs less to fly to Tenerife than spend a week-end in the South coast. Yet, whatever the weather, Britain’s coastal resorts may surprise the accidental tourists, who, like me, left it too late to book their overseas Easter break.

'Beachy Head' (Photo M. Germana)

Over the last month my itchy feet have driven me away from the unseasonal concrete heat of London to find fresher air by the southern shores of England.

The first trip, about three weeks ago now, took me to the sunny coastal resorts of Hythe (Kent) and Eastbourne (Sussex). The weather was consistently excellent; impossibly dry for March, but still welcome as we spent two days beach-combing and hiking the South Downs area.

After a day spent walking along the wind-swept trail of Beachy Head, there was nothing more conducive to the holiday mood than going to bed with the windows open, listening to the loud shrills of seagulls before falling asleep.

'Beachcombing' (Photo M. Germana)

Inland Hythe was a gateway to a gorgeous natural park, Brockhill. My travel companion and I had a pleasant walk about the gentle slopes of this woodland area, dodging the occasional sheep (we are city people after all!) and experiencing first-hand the effects of the heatwave on the British eco-system: in place of the waterfall advertised in the park brochure was a slope of soil and dried-up roots.

'Grazers' (Photo M. Germana)

In the middle of the park we took a peek at the amazing ‘hollow oak’, a beautiful old tree, which made me think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the dark inside of the tree could well be the entry point for another world within the otherworldly surroundings of Brockhill Country Park.

'Hollow' (Photo M. Germana)

My Easter break, a couple of weeks later, had a similar blend of rural and marine worlds, both of them refreshing, in different ways.

It felt different, of course, while we were stuck on the M25. Suddenly I regretted staying in Britain for Easter. My impatience made me realise how much I associate the anxious excitement of my airport experience with a holiday. It’s as if the airport has become the real start of a holiday. If you are not flying, you are not really going anywhere. Your destination is almost not worth mentioning to your cooler friends who will make the most of their annual leave to hop across to Marrakech for a spa break or Chile for wine-tasting. Suddenly your long week-end in Dorset makes you sound conservative and unadventurous.

I was very wrong.

And while I kept thinking I could have flown to New York in the same period of time, five days in Dorset were worth the five hours it took us to reach Lyme Regis on Maundy Thursday.

'Lyme Bay and The Cobb' (Photo M. Germana)

It was a trip down memory lane, too, as I returned to Lyme 19 years after my first visit to Dorset as a student. I remember drinking my first pint of lager and the giggles, afterwards, in the town cinema, where they showed the incredibly topical Jurassic Park, though I don’t remember drawing a link between the giant lizards and the fossil beach of Lyme Bay. We paid a visit to the Rock Point Inn, the hostelry that accounted for my bad cinema etiquette two decades ago, on our first night. There were few punters and as we sat at the bar with two pints of Doom Bay, I realised – not without some anxiousness – that the girls sitting beside us, who were lost in the screens of their IPhones, may have not been born at the time of my first visit to the Rock Point Inn.

'Beach Huts' (Photo M. Germana)

We had ample opportunities to check out other establishments in the village, such as the busy Harbour Inn, where we had our last dinner on Easter Sunday: if you are after a hearty fish soup, this is the place. The cosy Volunteer Inn was also a pleasant choice for a quick aperitif before dinner. They pride themselves in serving only local beer and as I joked about the fact they also seemed to have Stella on tap, the barman drily dismissed my comment: ‘That’s lager. Not real beer’. We accepted that and settled for two pints of the real thing, Cobb pale bitter, from the Town Mill Brewery, situated one street away from The Volunteer Inn, in the heart of Lyme: as far as alcohol miles go, drinking never felt more ethical.

'Waves' (Photo M. Germana)

In case you think that a pint of local ale is not worth the five-hour drive, Lyme and the surrounding area offers more than the pleasures of alcoholic intoxication. We didn’t go for any of the organised fossil or literary organised walks. Local businesses haven’t missed any tricks in the exploitation of their treasures for the amateur palaeontologists or the fans of Jane Austin and John Fowles: the latter lived most of his life and set his famous novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in Lyme Regis. Austin, who has public gardens dedicated to her, visited the town twice in 1803 and 1804 and set the climactic events of Persuasion in Lyme Regis. Without wanting to spoil either novel for those of you who may not be familiar with them, I will only say that the picturesque bay and its tidal coastline is the perfect settings for two stories which, in very different ways, deal with difficult romances.

Lulworth Cove (Photo M. Germana)

Without a doubt Dorset’s greatest attraction must be the great outdoors. The weather was perfect for the inexperienced and ill-prepared ramblers like us (neither of us had proper walking boots or waterproof gear). We did, however, pack the most succulent sandwich lunch you will find in Lyme Regis: The Whole Hog‘s simple choice of either roast pork or chicken, accompanied by apple sauce and onions will keep you going until tea-time. We struck lucky in our random choice of itineraries and stumbled upon two of the most spectacular sights we have ever seen.

Yes, even when we have travelled a fair bit, sometimes we may be surprised to find that the most astonishing spectacles are (almost) on our doorstep.

The most famous is probably Lulworth, and the magnificent site of Durdle Door. The natural beauty of this part of the world attracted many visitors and some artists, who’d set up their easels to capture the changing light over Lulworth Cove. On the other side, by the natural arch of Durdle Door, some brave people dipped their feet in… we didn’t dare, but thoroughly enjoyed the walk and particularly the variety of shades the sky painted all around us. Towards the end, after numerous changes from the blues and purple of the season’s palette, the horizon seemed to vanish, the sea and sky merged into one seamless dome above us.

Our cream tea stop, on our way back to Lyme, in the lovely Tea Garden of Bay Tree House in Chideock was a well-deserved stop after our efforts.

'Durdle Door' (Photo M. Germana)

If highlights have to be picked, the other unmissable sight would have to be the easily accessible cliffs of West Bay, near Bridport. These stunning rocky walls will capture the wonderful warm light of sunset, offsetting the dark recesses of their secretive caves: you can’t imagine a more suitable place for pirates and smugglers.

'West Bay' (Photo M. Germana)

If you haven’t packed your walking boots yet, I will give you two more reasons to visit or return to Lyme Regis. The sky could be moody during the day, but it dressed up for the evening, studded with the twinkling stars you never see in London and, later, bejewelled with the most astonishing full moon. While there seemed to be no hints of werewolves lurking in the dark alleys of Lyme, the moonlight retained a somewhat uncanny quality. It wound its way up the narrow alleyways, casting its silver beams on the shiny cobbled streets, and chased us along the beach on our way back to our room in the stylish Alexandra Hotel. From the vantage point of our double windows overlooking the bay we kept our watch on the moon’s beautiful face, until he disappeared, shrouded in a light veil of pink clouds. Otherworldly.

The best way to finish the perfect Dorset mini-break? A delicious lunch at Lyme’s most prestigious fish restaurant, Hix Oyster and Fish House: you can also visit its sister restaurant in Soho, but the fish’s got to be fresher in Lyme! Book ahead, it gets very busy. For all the right reasons.

Do you have a favourite British holiday destination? Where did you spent your Easter week-end? We would love to hear your suggestions and travel notes…

Taking Stock of Spontaneity

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Stock (Photo M. Germana)

It seems hard to remember, as we sit indoors, while a seemingly unseasonal winter rain rattles against the window panes, but we did see the sun last week-end. It was an ephemeral moment, but also a glimmer of hope that, with the end of February well under way (even with the extra day!), and the flashes of daffodil yellow brightening up the end of winter, that the new season is approaching fast.

We took advantage of the good weather last Sunday and took a leap of faith. We decided to go on an unplanned drive, with no clear destination in mind. These days – perhaps as a result of living in London – everything tends to be pre-planned and micro-managed. Even going for a drink with friends requires complex logistics including route-checking, diary-clearing and baby-sitting arrangements. After checking a couple of websites to make sure we would be able to reach a destination and return in good time, we set off with a small amount of ’emergency rations’ and headed for the exotic woodlands of Essex.

'Sparkles in the Swamp' (Photo M. Germana)

I have to be honest, we did have a vague plan to return to the small village of Stock, a picturesque hamlet we passed through some years ago. Our two (simple) aims of the day were to get a decent Sunday lunch and some fresh air. I can safely say we achieved both… sometimes it is just pleasant to allow the simplicity of basic comforts rule, when ‘non-planning’ a trip. Sure, the emotions we may experience on a a five-day hike to Machu Picchu or a drive through the fairy-chimney-studded, enchanting landscape of Anatolia may leave a stronger impression on us. We may even feel that we belong to a larger community of like-minded travellers.

Fairy Chimneys, Anatolia (Photo M. Germana)

There is something unique about the unexpected factor of the spontaneous trip that may give us something different to ponder on… something to treasure even, until the next journey. Like the wonderful sound made by a flock of birds as they glided and landed, with incredible synchrony of movement, on the flat waters of a reservoir. From one of the quiet hides situated along the trail, we just happened to be watching them perform a formation dance for less than a minute, before the leaders decided it would be safe to swoop down for a swim and snack. It was a magnificent sight, perhaps more so because we were expecting nothing of this kind from our short hike through the woodland of the Hanningfield Reservoir, just a couple of miles outside Stock. All we were looking for, after all, was working up an appetite after our late Sunday breakfast!

The Bear Inn (Photo M. Germana)

When this was achieved, we drove back to Stock and had a tasty afternoon lunch at The Bear Inn, a cosy establishment serving some great locally sourced delicacies (I had sausages from Wicks Manor Farm), though, sadly, no local beer.

I would like my next spontaneous trip to involve a microbrewery… Let me know if you have any suggestions!

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