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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Mountain, Sea, Forest, Desert: Landscapes of the Soul

Friday, September 14th, 2018

Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you it could be something else. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.

Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi Brain at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc, who also survived the fall that should have killed them both, predeceased him. In Mike Clarke’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.

Yossi on the summit of Cotopaxi, 9 January 1998.

What was it that called them out of the normal and the everyday, through the barriers of exhaustion and discomfort that must needs be endured to climb these sorts of peaks, and took them to their early deaths? According to Aristotle, men desire what is good, at least in their eyes, so where is the good in a pile of rock that is as insensible of your ascent as it is of your death?

Perhaps I can sketch out an answer by first tracing the growth of my own passion, one less lethal than that of my friend, but just as unlikely when I think about it. For as long as I can remember, the woods and rivers, moors and hills of England have been my passion. Yet I grew up, and still live, in a city, as do the vast majority of the population. However, my imagination was primed by childhood reading – The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine adventures (set in real countryside you can visit the author promised in the foreword to each book) and The Lord of the Rings. Each of these provided a vision of an England unknown and, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, unknowable, yet the landscapes they described seemed somehow more real than my world of brick and road and car.

Little did my eight-year-old self know that it was setting off down a well-travelled road. ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined… the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,’ wrote Tolkien and though the tales I read were different, they suffused my imagined England with a secret fire.

We do not see the world with virgin eyes, but rather through a lens that has been ground in the ideas and stories and experiences of generations of our forefathers. Only Adam ever saw the world fresh, and he promptly gave names to everything and changed them forever. But the stories we tell are not static. Mountains were once avoided. They were the haunt of demons and dragons, storm and sudden, unexpected danger. They might provide a temporary refuge for the hunted, and a home for the hunter and the shepherd, but they were generally seen as benighted places. Then, as Romanticism took hold, the mountains became places first of inspiration and then of aspiration. The age of the mountain climber had begun, and it soon produced its heroes and its martyrs.

By Carsten.nebel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3494027

In the early accounts of mountaineering expeditions there is much talk of conquering and exploring, a language in line with the imperial ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming more up to date, the themes tend towards the personal: testing your limits and overcoming them, ideas more appropriate for our narcissistic times. In all this we see our shifting cultural mores reflected and refracted in the heights. A number of writers, notably Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) and Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory), have written about how we construct our view of the natural world and their books are eminently worth reading.  But they don’t ask, let alone attempt to answer, why we should fall in love with a particular landscape. It was the desert for Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Abbey, the woods for Henry David Thoreau, the sea for Herman Melville and the cold of the far north for Jack London. Simply reeling them off gives part of the answer: many of these men responded to what was there. Melville was a sailor, Thoreau lived in thickly wooded New England and a young Jack London set off to the Klondike Gold Rush – what else were they going to write about?

But for Abbey it was love and there lies the mystery. Yes, this love was in part a product of his reading and his culture, and shaped by it, but the peculiarity of this sort of affair is that it survives the encounter with brutal reality, and in fact is strengthened by it. Through stories and films it’s relatively easy to get a view of mountains or seas or deserts as romantic places of untrammelled freedom, but the experience of the places themselves is different. Days of exhaustion and cold, seasickness, the flattening heat, all of these should serve to correct the romantic ideal. And, for many, they do. A long traverse of an all too exposed sea cliff with Yossi was enough to put me off climbing. Nothing is better calculated to give the lie to the post-modern fantasy of a constructed reality than a mountain. Try deconstructing your way down that, Derrida.

By Nepenthes – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5623273

Perhaps a clue as to why different people are attracted to different landscapes lies in the different methods of approaching those places. Mountaineers and climbers go into lonely places, but they do so in groups or pairs. There is a little remarked aspect of community to climbers, as well as the more familiar personal testing against limits of endurance. And extreme experiences undergone together make for the sort of bond not found elsewhere. So part of the answer as to why climbers are drawn to the mountains may lie here, in the shared encounter with the wild and the high.

Compare this to sailors. A sailor may be alone or with a crew, but the most vital part of his voyage is the boat. This is seen most clearly with solo sailors, when a deep and intimate union is created between man and vessel. Sailing becomes as rhythmical as the ocean’s waves, and this rhythm once found can be hard to let go, most famously in the case of Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the first round the world, solo, non-stop yacht race. Rather than finish the race, he kept on going, sailing in the end almost twice around the world.

By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3379848

Although these attempts to find a cultural or social key to people’s response to the natural world are illuminating, I still get the impression that they miss something. Beyond everything else, there is a vision. And, yes, I know visions are mediated through culture and environment, but there is still something lurking at the heart of our experience of the natural world and producing our response to it that seems to transcend cultures and times as much as it exemplifies them. For, more than anything else, it’s the sense that we’re encountering something real that drives us up mountains and onto moors and over waves of water and sand. And I would like to suggest that at the heart of this is the sacramental or symbolic nature of these landscapes. Now, hold your horses at the back there. This is not necessarily a religious view, for we need to understand what is meant by the sacramental and the symbolic in this view.

A sign is not a symbol. A sign points at whatever it is signifying, but it partakes in nothing of the thing signified – road signs are good examples of this. But a symbol both points beyond itself and, simultaneously, makes present in a real way that towards which it points. So a wolf both symbolises the wild and makes the wild present. But, hang on, the wolf itself isn’t interested in human concepts of the wild – it has no idea that it now howls out of any number of T-shirts, usually next to a wise old Red Indian shaman – so aren’t we just plastering our human ideas over something to which they do not apply? That would be the usual argument nowadays, an argument strongly if unconsciously rooted in the default position of relativistic thinking that our culture assumes, but I think it is wrong. Let’s take an example from an area in which there is little dispute that human concepts are an accurate reflection of what’s out there in the real world: mathematics. There are three beans on a table. The beans both point beyond themselves to the mathematical concept of threeness and also bring that number to the table. The beans are obviously insensible of their numeric properties, yet they have them. Similarly, the wolf is unaware that it is wild, but it is.

Our cultural tendency to assign a reality to numerical values that we do not give to qualitative ideas goes back to the French philosopher, Descartes, who famously declared that he thought, therefore he was. He less famously, but more influentially, went on to argue that only numbers were real, being measurable, whereas the qualities by which we actually experience the world – things like colour, touch, taste – were purely subjective and thus, by implication, unreal. And so we come, by long and tortured philosophical byways, to a culture that is unsure of the reality of anything.

By Brazilian things – http://brazilian-things-page.tumblr.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61588374

The natural landscapes represent the antithesis to this. They are really real, and perhaps never more so than when they destroy our carefully constructed imaginings amid a welter of storm and heat and wind. Somewhere deep inside we know the difference between the airy imaginings of our mind and the deep reality of things, and mountains and sea, forest and desert bring us more closely into contact with this deep reality than anything else in our world today. As such, it becomes possible to see why people will pursue this vision to the gates of death.

St Augustine once said that there is a God-sized hole in man, and we cannot rest content until that hole is filled. Even a card-carrying atheist could accept that Augustine is on to something here, for it seems to me that we have a thirst for something more, something beyond the walls of our increasingly constricted and trammelled world, and the land and the sea, in all their various moods and modes, give us that something more, for they truly do make present what they point towards. What Yossi saw on the mountain tops was really there, and although it cost him his life, the vision was not a phantasm but something real. He died, but not for a lie.

The dreams and visions that take us out of our everyday homes and lives and into the wild places are the place where our cultural and personal histories encounter a wider reality that stretches beyond any limits known to us. A mountain is not just a hunk of rock and the sea is more than a lot of water, and these perceptions we have of them are true. We should not be embarrassed of them.

In Search of England’s Lost Wildernesses

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I like it and, to save it from complete obscurity, here it is for my handful of faithful blog readers. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve included some of the photos I took for the article, but my camera failed for the first walk, to the Thames marshes near Fobbing, so I’ve included a couple of Wikipedia images in its place. As a writer who takes photos for articles, my only advice is to get there early to catch the dawn light and, possible in this digital age, take hundreds of shots. Some of them will turn out all right!

In search of England’s lost wildernesses

Confession time. I love mountains, the wild high places this magazine is dedicated to, but it’s the flatlands – marshes, fens, plains, steppes – that fascinate me, exerting a sort of appalled, rubbernecking attraction. There’s something about the way I can walk for hours and then stop and look around and realise that I haven’t got anywhere; how the sun pins the walker to the ground like a sadistic lepidopterist; the way the world itself seems to roll beneath your feet as if each stride is turning the globe.

I would have chalked this all up to personal peculiarity if it had not been for a series of discoveries while writing and researching my books. It turns out that, for almost all our history, the true wildernesses of England, the places people whispered of in fire-lit tales as the refuge of monsters and the haunt of bandits, were not mountains and moors, but marshes and meres. When Alfred the Great fled Guthrum’s surprise attack on Twelfth Night, he made his way through the winter landscape to the ‘fen-fastnesses’ of Athelney, the Isle of Princes, an island surrounded by the shifting waterways of the Somerset Levels. After William the Bastard had cut down Harold at Hastings and harrowed the north, the last defiance against the Normans came out of Fenland. Smugglers and bandits, radicals and revolutionaries have all emerged from or taken refuge in England’s shifting, uncertain wildernesses, disappearing into legend among the rushes and reeds. Today, those seeking escape from civilisation and its discontents head north and west, to where the geology of Britain has largely confined our hills and mountains. But, once, wildness was wet, not high.

So, I set out to explore what remains of England’s lost wildernesses. But, first, I had to find them.

I’m a Londoner: child of immigrants, born and raised in the Great Wen. The city is a creation of the river, the ‘strong brown god … unhonoured, unpropitiated … but waiting, watching, and waiting’, and the Thames marshes were the first lost wilderness I went in search of. The Romans built their bridge at the first bridgeable point of the Thames, joining the gravel pile of Ludgate Hill to the salt marshings of Southwark. Downriver, the river carved brown channels through a flood landscape, until generations of hydro engineers forced it, sullenly, into channels. The gateway to Empire, the Thames became the busiest, richest thoroughfare on earth, a honeypot of sail and steam, with settlements perched upon high, dry ground, all the way to the sea.

The marshes of the Thames

By the village of Fobbing, near the candy-coloured delights of Canvey Island, the land steeps down to a flat, ridged plain, scored with creeks and channels; a five-thousand-acre remnant of the great Thames marshes that walked along the river to the sea. Arriving at dawn just after the longest day of the year, I was greeted with a sight that was slightly less apocalyptic than I’d hoped for. Yes, the sun in its rising stained the river a pleasing shade of crimson, but where were the columns of fire? Last time I’d been this way, the oil refineries by the river were sending up great gouts of flame from ranks of flare stacks, as if greeting the sun in kind. But today, the refineries were cold, lifeless. I learned later that they had gone into receivership; the last shut down in 2013 – apparently even oil mega corporations can go belly up.

Fifteen minutes later I was thoroughly lost. This, I decided, staring at a hugely unhelpful OS map, was ridiculous. I was only just outside the M25, smack in the middle of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated country in Europe (England having overtaken the Low Countries), and I was lost. But lost I was, and as morning mist rose up to cover my legs, and drown any appreciable landmarks in shifting grey, I caught a first, halting sense of the shifting, subtle nature of these places, which are neither land nor water, but phase from one state to the other; as shapes swirled thickly in the mist, I began to catch some of the fear that stalks the accounts of fens and marshes in English tales and legends. But then the shapes resolved into cattle, as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and the rising sun began to burn off the mist.

By Glyn Baker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9150043

After so long walking on level ground, the climb back up to Fobbing proved surprisingly difficult for muscles trained into the horizontal. In the village, outside the White Lion pub, I saw a sign commemorating the villagers who had risen in revolt against the imposition of a swingeing poll tax – but this revolt took place in the 1380s, not the 1980s. The people of Fobbing lit the match that set off the Peasants’ Revolt; John Ball, the hedge priest whose sermons (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) on the injustices of the feudal system provided the spiritual justification for the revolt lived in Norfolk and Essex before moving to Kent; John Wrawe raised the men of Essex and stirred revolution in Cambridgeshire.

By ClemRutter – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2104727

As I walked the flatlands and marshlands of England, I found myself also following a trail of religious and political radicalism – it almost seemed that the flatter the landscape the more revolutionary the ideas it spawned.

The island of the marshes

There are few areas flatter than Lincolnshire. This was once the marsh kingdom of Lindsey, one of the small realms that grew up in the post-Roman splintering of Britain, a domain created by its geography for the great fenlands of Cambridgeshire formed its southern limit, and the Humber estuary its northern edge, while the rivers Witham and Trent all but cut it off from the country to the west. Lindsey, ‘the island of Lincoln’, has the cathedral as its peak, but other islands rose from the surrounding seas of marsh and reed, notably the Isle of Axholme. That was where I went next in my search for England’s lost wildernesses.

Trent, the name of one of the two great rivers that drain into the Humber Estuary, comes from the Brythonic word ‘Trisanton’, which means ‘trespasser’. A better description for the river could scarce be found, for it is a wilful, unpredictable water, forever flooding the flatlands around its mouth. The Isle of Axholme was an isolated area of raised ground above the surrounding marshland, and the site of the first great battle over the use and reclamation of fenland. In 1626, King Charles I sold Hatfield Chase, a huge area of peat bog just west of the Isle of Axholme, to a Dutch drainage engineer named Cornelius Vermuyden, who would get to keep for himself one third of the drained land. Only, the king had no authority to sign over the rights of common grazing, which local people depended upon. For where outsiders looked upon Hatfield Chase and saw it as ‘evil in winter, grievous in summer and never good’, the people who made their living around and upon the marshlands understood them well, exploiting them for lush pasture in high summer when other fields were bare, fishing and fowling, harvesting hemp for sails and rope, and cutting peat. But the marshmen were viewed with no less suspicion than their land: ‘Fenmen, disgusting representations of ignorance and indecency!’ They may not have been educated, but the people of Axholme could work out what the drainage ditches Vermuyden was digging through Hatfield Chase meant and they ‘came unto the workmen and beat and terrified them, threatening to kill them, if they would not leave their work’. The Battle for the Bogs had begun.

It continued for the best part of the next three centuries, the rich and powerful gradually nibbling away at the marshland and taking it under their control, until the original 880 square miles of marsh in the Humberhead Levels was reduced to the peat bogs of Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moor, which Fisons continued to strip mine. It was only in 2002 that the remaining peat bogs were saved.

Arriving at dawn, and pausing to take photos, a cloud of insects descended and I was immediately reminded that the first, and greatest, defender of the marsh was the mosquito and the diseases it carried. Ague – malaria – the sweating sickness of marsh and fen had done much to create the miasma of fear that surrounded England’s wildernesses – for after all, a true wilderness must have the potential to kill the visitor.

‘Beware of adders.’ The signs, helpfully posted at intervals, showed there were other possibly lethal inhabitants of the Moor. Sadly, any snake sunning itself in the early morning light heard me long before I saw it, and slid quietly away, but the birds were not nearly so bashful, serenading me throughout in the most full-throated manner I’ve heard outside a rainforest. The patchwork of ponds, bogs, lakes, woods, scrub and stripped clear peat make for as varied a series of habitats as can be found in Britain today.

It was a dislocating place, caught between different places and times, and I, more suspended than most, was held in remembrance of King Edwin of Northumbria, High King of Britain, who fought his final battle here, amid the meres. Thinking of the men slain thirteen hundred years before, I emerged on to the stripped slabs of the Moor, where the industrial scrapers of Fisons and others pared the peat from the land, leaving a landscape that’s as near to the Western Front as anything I’ve seen. Walking out into the wastes, water lying in sheet silver either side of the ridges, I was in as lonely a place as there is in England.

Perhaps the inmates of HMP Lindholme, the double wire, razor-topped fences of which run alongside the western edge of Hatfield Moor, take some solace in the grey green banks of alder and willow that wave beyond the prison’s confines. Walking the perimeter fence is a chastening experience, the metallic clangs from the prison works interpsersing with the occasional siren. But a turn into a glimpsed opening, and I was bathed in green, leaf-filtered light, the skeletal finger of a bog-drowned tree pointing from water to sky. Leaving the moor – in Old English, the word derives from ‘morass’, again showing how our wilderness derives from the wet – I returned to the Isle of Axholme and found that here too, the flatlands had produced a radical re-evaluation of society; for Epworth, a village of the Isle, was the birthplace and early home to John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Again, the flatlands were the cradle of radicalism. What would the Fens, greatest of them all, produce?

The Great Level

Driven from Hatfield Chase, bankrupted and imprisoned, Cornelius Vermuyden bounced back. The Fens were the great prize for the land reclaimers, and Vermuyden, with his Dutch expertise, was their chosen champion. But the locals fought back, destroying sluices and breaking dams. Insurrection was in the air, and the commoners found a champion in a local farmer, a ‘Mr Cromwll of Ely’. This farmer ensured that their complaints against the commandeering of the commons was included in the Grand Remonstrance presented to King Charles I in 1641.

But in a betrayal that seems as great as the remonstrance, once the king was beheaded and the farmer had become Lord Protector, Cromwell instigated the draining of the Great Level, engaging the men of his own New Model Army to guard the work parties. Battle continued through the next two centuries, but it was a one-way process. Charles Kingsley, writing in the 19th century, remembered how ‘dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon … high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see … They are all gone now.’

The largest of all England’s wildernesses, the Great Level, which brought down a king and defied a conqueror, was finally bisected and dissected, its life-giving waters drained, in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Ah, well, at least … children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen.’

It’s not quite all gone. Wicken Fen is the oldest site in the care of the National Trust, some 900 acres of fen, part of which has never been drained. The Trust plans to extend this to 10,000 acres, stretching as far as Cambridge, by the end of the century. I set off to walk from Wicken to the Isle of Ely, Cromwell’s home, following the River Great Ouse. Wicken Fen is a bird watchers’ – and song listeners’ – delight; it resounded with liquid chimmers and churrs. The channels that bisect it would have been easy for the shallow-drafted vessels of the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings to navigate, enabling them to strike inland, far from the sea.

The river ran north, between over-engineered banks, towards the distant, looming tower of Ely Cathedral. I’d been walking for a while before I realised that the Ouse ran at a higher level than the surrounding fields of carrots and cabbages; it flows between raised embankments for now but should the levee break, the flood would be catastrophic; for the peat of the levels, once drained, has shrunk, lowering the ground surface below river level, below sea level. It was with fantasies of flood running through my imagination that I arrived in Ely and plodded upwards to the exquisite cathedral – our medieval forbears knew better than us how to create an architecture that enhanced a landscape. Cromwell’s old house is now, ignominiously, a tourist office and small museum.

Returning, as twilight fell, along an almost enclosed green lane, a hunting barn owl swooping below the branches nearly flew into me and two playing hares ground to an abrupt halt before making off into the fields.

The Fen was dark when I returned. I, as do we all, enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation but listening to the creak of willow I dreamed of flood, and the return of the waters to the Great Level. In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Hrothgar’s hall from his lair in the fens. In England’s national poem, the monster comes from the marsh. I listened, but all I heard was silence.

The writer, George Monbiot, has called for the rewilding of Britain, but he has largely confined this to the hills and jeremiads against sheep, to places far from where we live today. How much more worthwhile would it be to reclaim England’s true lost wildernesses, that mostly lie around and about our centres of population, that we might, once again, have at our doorsteps the great, stinking, shifting levels.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

 

Travel In the Old Style

Friday, May 25th, 2018

Proofreading the excellent Bradt Guide to Somaliland, how about this for an insight into travel in and out of an unrecognised country:

Coming by road, a few 4x4s daily connect Djibouti and Zeila to Hargeisa [the capital of Somaliland]. These… cost around US$40 for a cabin seat, US$28 to sit in the boot, and less for a perch on the roof.

Note that the journey from Djibouti to Hargeisa takes a minimum of 12 hours, and that’s if your 4×4 doesn’t break down on the way. One traveller reported it taking him 36 hours to make the journey. That’s a long time to spend sitting in the boot!

I’m Back!

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

A long time since I posted anything on my blog, but we were away for the summer in Sri Lanka, visiting the land of my father. Here’s a photo of me and my boys, trying to work out where we were going to go next!

‘I’m sure this isn’t on the map.’

More about the trip later, but for now, some big news and announcements that I’ll make in the next couple of posts.

Adventures in Bookland: The Teardrop Island by Cherry Briggs

Friday, May 5th, 2017


The great task for a travel writer is to transcend the what-I-did-on-my-holidays subtext of the genre. The Teardrop Island escapes this, somewhat, by being more accurately subtitled ‘What I did on the Weekends During My Work Placement’. Having taken a post teaching English in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Briggs, to her credit, wanted to find something to keep her from the ex-pat round of escaping the city to the beaches or hills, there to moan about the country that had given them home. She found it in the writing of James Emerson Tennent, one of those extraordinarily industrious Victorians who combined a public life – in Tennent’s case he was colonial secretary of Ceylon from 1845 to 1850 – with artistic and literary endeavour. Tennent combined both in his two-volume Ceylon. An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Production and Briggs, having been given the books, decided to follow in his footsteps around modern-day Sri Lanka.

Although The Teardrop Island is entertaining enough, it does not really escape the usual tropes of light travel writing: long accounts of uncomfortable bus journeys, meetings with eccentric locals, a little light history. In comparison, the extracts from Tennent that Briggs rather unwisely includes are enough to suggest that the Victorian was a better writer, a more perceptive traveller and, most surprisingly of all, less patronising about the natives than a modern-day, painfully right-on Western traveller.

Right, I might be being oversensitive here, but let’s lay the cards out straight. My father is Sri Lankan (half Sinhala and half Tamil to be precise). So the country and the people are in my blood. And, frankly, I found this book deeply patronising to the people and the cultures of Sri Lanka.  Of course, I’m sure Briggs had no intention of being patronising, and she is clearly completely unaware of doing this, but the deep-rooted condescension becomes clear whenever she attempts to deal with any aspect of religious belief, and shades over into her frankly inadequate attempts to give the history of the long civil conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Briggs had the advantage of travelling the island not long after the final defeat of the Tigers, gaining access to many places that few westerners, apart from agents of NGOs, had seen for a decade or more. Without, apparently, realising it, she also shows quite clearly the cafeteria compassion and cultural imperialism of modern NGO workers – from talking with my Sri Lankan relatives, it’s clear that the big international aid organisations are seen there as being mainly in the business of providing a comfortable, conscience-satisfying living to people who like to justify a tax-free salary (UN and WHO employees pay no tax) and jet-setting lifestyle on the backs of people’s poverty and misfortune. (Apparently, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lankans took to calling the Toyota Landcruisers that were the preferred mode of transport of NGO workers, vulture wagons.)

There is, though, some entertaining writing to be found here, and it’s a light, quickly read introduction to Sri Lanka, in a field with few other competitors bar the usual travel guides. If you’re not actually deeply rooted in the culture and people of the place, you’ll almost certainly find the book completely fine. For myself, I’m grateful to have been introduced to James Tennent’s writing and it has whetted our anticipation for our trip to Sri Lanka in the summer, so it was a worthwhile read.

 

 

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):

15dt8oy

And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:

bamburgh-sword

Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:

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And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.

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It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

Photos from London’s Margins

Monday, January 18th, 2016

There are lots of unused photos from my feature in February’s Country Walking magazine on walks from the ends of London’s tube lines, so I thought I would post a few of them here – I got up really early to get to these places for the dawn light, so I’d like someone else to see them too!

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What We Did On Our Holidays

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Just back from an almost rain-free week in the Lake District (it poured on the day we arrived and again when we left, but was dry in between [for my friends abroad, just take it as read that this is the single most important news I can relate when talking about a holiday in Briain]). Here are a few photos to give a taste of what we saw and did. Walney Island turned out a little different to what I had expected (this was the edge of the Island of Sodor in the Rev. W. Awdry’s imagination). Still, we thought it would make a moody shot for our proposed boy band (plus one) album cover.

Call us the the Fab Four. Er, the Fantastic Four. The Famous Four...

Call us the the Fab Four. Er, the Fantastic Four. The Famous Four…

 

The next is Isaac investigating for himself the ancient conundrum of the chicken and the egg.

Now, which is it?

Now, which came first?

Matthew, the lord of Piel Island… 

Lord of the Island

Lord of the Island

…and Theo, leaping up the Old Man of Coniston like a mountain goat.

King of the Mountain

King of the Mountain

And, finally, me setting off with Isaac on my back to climb the Old Man of Coniston.

All set...

All set…

And me, a few hours later, questioning my earlier decision.

All spent...

All spent…

Harrogate History Festival

Monday, October 27th, 2014

In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “Well, I’m back.”

Admittedly, I’ve not been to Mordor, just Harrogate (a considerably pleasanter place), but it was just as much a journey into the unknown: my first history festival, my first literary event, my first time meeting other writers; presenting myself at the reception desk, I was a most unlikely virgin!

But I’m delighted to say it all went well. I got to meet and speak with people whose books I’ve read, one of them actually bought my book (thank you, Giles Kristian!), I had a free supper while talking with some lovely members of the public, met the brains behind Salon London (the lovely Helen Bagnall) and the voice of Scotland (the enchanting Sara Sheridan). And here are some photos to prove I was there!

First, one of me with my books (a slightly pathetic show compared to the feet of shelf space required for other writers but gratifying nonetheless).

Me and my books (dark glasses not because I'm too cool but because I'd just come in from outside)

Me and my books (dark glasses not because I’m too cool but because I’d just come in from outside)

Then one of me sidling in between two of the best young writers of historical fiction in an attempt to catch some of their lustre: Ben Kane (left)  and Giles Kristian (right).

Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)

Ben Kane (left), me (centre), Giles Kristian (right)

And finally, but certainly not least, the two finest beards in Harrogate, possibly the world: Robert Low (author, journalist, raconteur, life liver) and Irving Finkel (Assyriologist and rediscoverer of cuneiform tablets from Babylon with instructions on how to make the Ark).

Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)

Rober Low (l), me, Irving Finkel (r)

England’s Last Wilderness

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding

Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back

Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.