Indonesia: here be Dragons!

“I’ve already paid!”…….“I paid at the desk back at the airport!”……..“That was what I was told to do!”

And I was pissed off! Hardly surprising when after a flight across the planet starting yesterday afternoon the taxi to the hotel was – predictably – twice as much as I was told it would be, the driver didn’t want me and took a route through town in the tropical night that – when I got my bearings – I had reason to believe was deliberately lengthy. All this after a long flight when one feels tired and disorientated in an unknown place after nightfall. This was a weak link in my journey through 4 countries. Taxis were usually more expensive than one was led to believe and potential trouble. Mike – a genius otherwise with travel plans – couldn’t understand this and had lined me up for a situation I despised. And as for being accused of not paying; well that was the last squalid straw! The driver was forced to learn fast that I was in the mood for a fight, gave in and left.

The hotel was not a luxury one I’d hoped for but would have been ‘interesting’ in other circumstances. It seemed to be composed of converted colonial bungalows up a back street staffed by teenagers. I knew a few words of Indonesian for courtesy’s sake and they knew more English so one could just about communicate, but that was another problem to be coped with. I was led to my room through a confusion of light and shadow, raised levels, the odd exotic plant and a small swimming pool, starkly illuminated or in black shadow in the hot tropical night.

My room appeared to be one small league up from the Athens hostel. Looking bare with basic old furniture. The TV reception was bad enough for it to be almost as unworkable as the Greek one. At least the room was big with a double bed. Last time I was in the Philippines they just had sheets on beds being a tropical country. Same thing here. So one could actually get cold if the air conditioning was on all night. Another way was by using the shower here which was just a nozzle in the same tiled room as the toilet. I tackled that with humour imagining I was being harangued by Michael Caine;- “Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics fer Chrissake!”

There was no room safe but there was a small cafeteria at the other end of the space I’d walked through. At last I was able to unwind as long as I kept my stuff within sight.

Never mind, the main plan was holding. I’d wondered what the flight was going to do regarding the Middle East and Isis held territory? But the route was south then east across the arid masses of rock that passed for mountains in Sinai and Saudi Arabia, before flying into the night through the Empty Quarter until the plane was over Abu Dhabi, it’s pinprick city lights and tentacles of more light along the outlying highways in the night making it look like a bejewelled organism in outer space. During the long wait there I’d resigned myself to the dead weight of the largely useless laptop in my cabin max – which could have held a paperback – for the whole journey; it resolutely didn’t delete junk emails. Court martial and set a date for execution by hammer on my return then. Onward across India to SE Asia, somehow sleeping while hurtling through the atmosphere 1,000s of feet up until dawn over Java. The volcano that had closed 4 airports in this region had quietened down, the airports were open, so Jakarta airport was okay apart from an obstacle course of customs and security, but there was time for it was another long wait for the plane to Bali; hence the arrival after nightfall. I’d got here on schedule with all my stuff – apart from my old alarm clock which had joined Rupert Brooke on Skyros Island – and there’d been no problem with baggage at the airports. Now for a good night’s sleep before the challenge of tomorrow.

Easier said than done. It sounded as though we were next door to the centre of Bali nightlife: between a karaoke bar and the biggest disco in town. I got to sleep by imagining – then dreaming – that the pandemonium was the awesome WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of those native drums and delirious chanting when that actress was being sacrificed to the monster gorilla in that film King Kong. Well the film was set near Indonesia on an island off Sumatra and where I was going in the next few days would be the closest anyone could get to that.

 
Thousands of feet up again the following day; but this time it’s on a propeller driven plane and although it looks gleaming and efficient it belongs – like the one that got me to Greece – to another of the world’s ten most unsafe airlines, giving an Indiana Jones feel to the adventure! Especially as when I get to my destination I’ve got to get to a harbour as soon as possible after checking into the hotel to hassle for a trip to the island. A chancy operation but Mike told me it could be done. There might be an opportunity to arrange this at the hotel anyway. I’d given the whole thing up for lost when the original trip fell through and the price was hiked by $300 dollars so I was doing it now quite literally on a wing and a prayer and there was no guarrantee that I’d find any dragons when I got to the island. Komodo Island. Komodo Dragons. Hence the title of this journal. Yes that was the reason why I was in Indonesia, to fulfill one of my boyhood ambitions – after watching David Attenborough – and have a cracking good adventure while doing so!

It felt like that as the plane descended over steep hills set in an endless sea, very close over one of them to land on Flores;- one of the main long islands along the chain of them from Sumatra to New Guinea, the western end of which was going to be the base for this exploit.

There was an easy link up with the drive to the hotel and on the way the driver told me he could contact a friend who ran trips out there. I was ahead of the game but wanted to check out the hotel.

The hotel this time was luxury jackpot! No trips to the island though so I gave the green light to the driver. His friend came, agreements were made, money changed hands, hands were shaken.

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By the time I’d sorted myself out sunset was on it’s way. Out by the pool with a beer or 2, the sun silhouetting boats that looked as though they could have sailed out of a film, I felt my luck was in!

 
Up and downstairs in the hotel lobby at the for the rendezvous at 6 am. A few night staff were lounging below the wall TV or asleep on a sofa. Dawn had arisen.

The guy taking me to harbour hadn’t though. The time for departure came and went with no appearance. Don’t panic.

By quarter past I felt the pressure – not of panic but anger – rising inside me.

By half past I was doing something about it by trying to get the staff to do something. Communication – though difficult – was not impossible. The whole thing had been a long shot and I had to hassle hard before the trip left without me.

Eventually a driver turned up to take me to the harbour. The fellow supposed to meet me had had an accident. Now it was a battle against fate and would we still make the boat?

Down at the ramshackle harbour the boat for the journey was still there thank God! But I was the only one going! And the boat itself:-…. Not a sleek tourist vessel but a narrow long craft decked out in blue and pink. I hoped the crew of 2 weren’t as frivolous or were going to kidnap me. Sulawesi island to the north was reported as being unsafe and north of that were the Muslims of Mindanao in the Philippines where the police kidnap tourists, so I’d heard. The guide was a skinny teenage girl, of 17 – she told me later – but the tour uniform and cheer found in tour guides anywhere was reassuring and I’d wanted adventure anyway, which by its nature was supposed to involve risk.

Kchunk kchunk jalopy jalopy jalopy rrrrrrrracket! went the boat’s engine, giving it all it had got to the point of breaking down by the overwhelming sound of it; as the boat edged out of the harbour, edgeways it seemed to me, although that was probably down to where I was sitting, nevertheless it looked as though we were taking on the sea crossing slightly sideways and would we make it without breaking down, sinking or exploding? It was 30 miles each way, littered with reefs and the odd whirlpool, I later learned.

The harbour shrank into its proper perspective astern: dwarfed by the immensity of nature, although the hotel was too tall for its surroundings really. The immensity of nature this time was an emerging moutain range to the south with small islands everywhere and the odd fishing village, one of them had a mosque. 100 million years ago some present day mountain ranges looked not unlike this: a chain of volcanic and mountainous islands emerging from under the sea.

The thrill of adventure took me over. Here I was on a rickety boat in the hands of people I’d never seen before that I had to trust to get me there and back again, through unknown waters. (Well it felt like it.) As for ‘there’ it was the haunt of dangerous – almost mythical – dragons. And not a health and safety official for thousands of miles! Absolutely bloody brilliant!

So was the scenery. Rumpled convoluted hills and mountains of all sizes, some conical indicating volcanoes, or piebald with shadowy valleys, tawny grassland scorched by dark areas of previous fires, stretches of trees and tufts of palms; ascending up to the dark bulk of primeval mountains to the south, all the more awesome with overhanging mountain ranges of cloud. It was easy now to imagine this sort of scene in the Jurassic or Cretaceous.

Here be dragons! There were some on Rinca Island which we were passing now, about the same size as Komodo Island. But Komodo Island had more so the best chance of seeing them was there. And it was further so being the kind of nut I am it had to be Komodo Island.

Not that Rinca should be underestimated. A party of scuba divers had become beseiged for a night on the island by the Komodo dragons there. Further incidents involved an old woman who was bitten on her leg and a guy who actually survived a dragon that had ‘stealthily entered the house and suddenly jumped on to the victim!’

Yes this region was one place where that ancient call to adventure ‘here be dragons’ had some truth to it. Rumours of dragons and a ‘land crocodile’ led to the discovery of Komodo Dragons by Europeans around 1910. They weren’t fire breathing or the size of Dinosaurs but were undisputably awesome animals – whopping big for lizards – and dangerous. The first zoo in Europe to have the honour of exhibiting Komodo Dragons was actually London Zoo in 1927. Since then their spectacular size and primeval nature have made them favourite zoo attractions. The film ‘King Kong’ released in 1933 was inspired by an early expedition to Komodo Island.

And now I was on my way there! We had something to eat and the sea became rough which only added to my delight while the crew and guide became concerned about spray drenching me. No worries I explained: my smile was that of ‘a crazy old man’ who’d refused to grow up and was really in his element now.

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Komodo Island. Like Rinca it was tawny with grassland over sawtoothed mountains. ‘Here be dragons!’ I tried to spot any for it was mostly open country. We were navigating a minute part of the biggest tropical island archipelago on this planet, so one would imagine the scenery being carpeted in jungle but the trees here were mostly woods hugging the shore or clustered up valleys and defiles, with tall mop like palms on the hills. A friend has remarked since that the crumpled terrain spotted with clumps and scatters of trees looked ‘made up.’ Maybe it was a climate anomaly. It looked sufficiently alien for dragons anyway and I even wondered if they’d been ripping up too many trees?

Round a headland was a village beyond a bay. I’d heard that one here was supposed to have a wall of stakes round it to stop the dragons from getting in, just like in King Kong!

There was a long jetty within the bay. I had a perilous moment getting myself and camera over the gap between the prow of the boat and the jetty. A national park existed here to protect the Komodo Dragons and the place had the trappings of controlled conservation: an ornamental wall with sculpted dragons on it, bare tidy spaces under trees and around huts and a lodge with massive photos of the dragons and maps.

There were introductions to a young lad who was a park guide and then the head of the park, at least in that area. I had time to comment on whether there was a wall around the village I’d seen, like in King Kong, prompting laughter from the head which indicated it was folklore for the tourists. Then we were interrupted by someone saying there was a dragon nearby!

It was a very young one crossing a sunlit patch of rough ground, with striking markings in contrast to the duller hues of the adults I’d seen on photos. The size of a monitor lizard and looking exactly like that. Logical since Komodo Dragons are really giant monitor lizards. Oh well – I thought taking the photos – at least you got here and got a result. Very likely wouldn’t see any others though. So that was the joke;- I’d come this far to see a baby dragon.

Further on though was confusion. I was warned to avoid an adult lying across a path! Sure enough I could see a big prone form dozing across a path amidst the dappled shadow of the trees but there was something odd about it’s sprawled posture; indicating it could be stuffed. On the other hand reptiles looking inert to the point of being dead could suddenly move very quickly and these were dangerous animals. It became apparent though that this was a wind up for the tourists.

But then the real thing came round the corner of a hut! Just as long or longer than a 6ft. man definitely, skin like chain mail, the grey bulk of it much bigger than a lizard ought to be, one felt. An adult Komodo Dragon for real! But everyone seemed to take it so matter of factly. To me it was like a Stegosaurus showing up with nobody seeming to care! It was probably there for the mud wallow at that corner with water in it but before long people were getting close to it. It was amazing how close people could get to it. Too close in my opinion.

There had been a lot of argument over whether these animals were actually poisonous. Two glands in the lower jaw secreting proteins inhibiting blood clotting and causing paralysis seem like enough evidence to me.

The Komodo Dragon was a female, I was told. One of the tourists knelt to take a photo of her from the front less than her length away from him. If that animal had lunged forward the way I felt it could have it would have had him! But she just lay there in repose, as though enjoying being admired.

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My turn came and I was motioned closer by the park guide who had a long branch ending in a fork. If I’d have seen the ‘U’ tube I’ve watched since returning home;- of a Komodo Dragon belting after a deer for an astonishing distance I wouldn’t have got as close as I did; but I was to be photographed with a Komodo Dragon, something I really prized. In theory I had more chance of getting away than the foolhardy tourist in front of her for if she became frisky I was near the tail as opposed to the head. The photo above captures one of the more memorable – not to mention fantastic – days of my life and how incredible it is that these monsters seem to have become so used to people around them. Nevertheless I felt that there could be accidents waiting to happen here.

I took more photos of this lady dragon focusing on ‘portraits’ from the side. While she ‘gave me the eye’ as it were and opened her mouth. What was going through her reptilian brain? I doubted the open mouth was a smile that she was being appreciated; though it looked like a smile! Or was she sizing me up as possible prey? More likely that perhaps but my camera had a zoom and I was using that, enabling me to stay out of harm’s way. Unless peering though a viewfinder was making one oblivious to the likelyhood of being eaten.

The park guide, tour guide and me made our way inland. In the bank of a dried up watercourse he pointed out a hole under a tree that reminded me of badger burrows I’d seen in Gosport. Only this one was created by a Komodo Dragon. They retire to their burrows at night to retain body temperature and can stay cool by day within them.

My encounter with a female dragon would have been a good enough result I guess but the story wasn’t over yet when we moved on I found! There was a bridge over the watercourse with another dragon at this end of it! A handful of tourists were milling around again seemingly unaware of the potential danger while another park guide stood guard with another forked branch. I wondered if it could stop this Komodo Dragon for it seemed a bit bigger, stouter, longer. It was a male, I was told.

As we drew close it decided to lurch on to the bridge and I got a rear shot of it with a man on the other side transfixed by the prospect of a great photo of this thing lumbering towards him. A woman who originally had the same feeling gave in to common sense and legged it; also included in my photo of the whole thing. Luckily he got out of the way in time too.

Then there was the ultimate surreal walk of my life! A well maintained path led off into the jungle and this Komodo Dragon seemed to prefer the smoothness of it to the natural habitat on either side. So it started walking up the path with a patient plodding manner, with a steady regular flip of its paws, and kept on lumbering onward, and kept on. While we followed respectfully behind it as it dictated our speed, nobody being foolish enough to overtake. Like traffic behaving itself when a police car’s in front. In a sense it did police me at one spot when it took a short break and I got too close for its comfort. A cock of the head meant “watch it!” I retreated. It’s not every day you get told what to do by a lizard.

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Yes it certainly was surreal ‘being led up the garden path’ as it were, by one of the more dangerous animals on this planet who’d obliged us by taking on the role of an veteran guide with an unhurried casual manner; because he’d led so many dumb tourists before.

After what felt like a long way the park guide drew level with this Komodo Dragon on a space by a flimsy sapling and motioned me forward. I passed with nothing between me and this monster lizard but the sapling and the guide with an inadequate looking stick. The dragon was taking another break lying in the middle of the path and was as close as the door into the room – not a big one – where I’m typing this now. The guides and me got beyond him. Other tourists and guides remained behind.

This walk didn’t lead to more spectacular dragons but there were still discoveries. I’d thought the Komodo Dragon’s main diet was buffalo but it was mostly deer. Now and then we could see them in the underbrush of the dry woodland we were passing through.

We went up a steep hill. Nothing more than a spur of bigger hills and central mountains. There was a good view of the bay though and a name hinting at volcanism: Sulphurea Hill. A dragon had taken a dump there. I was invited to survey a soggy grey/brown ball of a turd with milky issue around it.

The woodland below held more deer, some spectacular palms and tree ferns, but was mostly dry forest: a profusion of bare trunks and branches and little enough greenery for it to begin to resemble winter woodland in England. Except it was hot and we were really in the dry season here. This part of the East Indies is a region of monsoon forest which we were walking through, cloud forest on the mountains and savannah. Photos taken after the monsoon show this country green enough to resemble a island sized park, with mountains and beaches thrown in.

It was in these woods that the 2 guides I was with told me they were really boyfriend and girlfriend. So: my lust for adventure had become the girl guide’s ticket to get over to the island and see him. I approved, for it’s nice when an enterprise of mine happens to work out benevolently for others involved. Back at the beach I left them alone for a bit by buying a T shirt with a dragon on it.

Again that worrying step across camera ruining deep sea water from a stable jetty to a rocking boat. Made it; but there was one more stop on the way back.

It was snorkelling over a coral reef, a spectacular one. Colours, shapes and size. And every tropical fish a jewel of colour. I couldn’t admire it for long though for the life jacket chafed me raw under both arms.

On the way back I decided to tip the 2 boat crew members to their delight and shaking of hands. I’d already done likewise to the guides. Why not? This enterprise had been run on quite literally a wing and a prayer and had turned out to be a real who dares wins triumph against the odds: a journey across half the planet on a schedule with no margin for error, to hunt dangerous monsters with a camera, with no guarrantee of seeing any. I’d seen 3; it had been a good hunt!

It was such a good result that even a theft didn’t mar it. Back at the dock on Flores I took a last photo of the boat, then found the tour guide had made off with my Komodo T shirt which was in her bag. Oh well, I was thinking of tipping her more anyway since she’d been with me all the time; so that solved that problem. Neat! Photos were the real trophies I came for anyway.

And it wasn’t over yet. The organiser who’d had the motorbike accident was there and announced that despite that he would kindly take me back to the hotel on the back of his motorbike! He considerately showed me his injury too, a bloody scrape on the shin. All this while a tropical thunderstorm had built up and was about to break gave a ‘this is getting better and better!’ feel to the situation. I could tough out the rain (Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics) so I tried to get it across to him;- forget the rain! Just drive safely and get me to the hotel in one piece!

It must have worked for although it was a wobbly ride it wasn’t that fast. The rain started but only became a downpour on the entrance drive to the hotel. Like any good adventure there was suspense right to the triumphal end.

The rain was soon over in time for more photos of the sun sinking into the sea while downing celebratory beers to honour what must be one of the more fantastic days of my life. A hairy, cockeyed,surreal and comical cracking good adventure!

 

Back in Bali there was some confusion with the hotel over my lift there from the airport. Maybe Mike had a point after all preferring the taxis. When I eventually got back to the hotel I still had plenty of time to chill out. This included a quick foray up the back street to the main tourist drag and a photo each way before popping back to my quarters. There was some sort of monument to the right at a junction but otherwise it was a crowded garish tourism scene with the odd tropical plant.

 

The plane taking me to the next country wasn’t taking off until well after nightfall on my last day in Indonesia so Mike had managed to line up a one day tour of Bali; an island I’d felt guilty about overlooking in my haste to hunt dragons. For it is a beautiful island.

The trip arranged for me was better organised than the dragon venture, with a rendevous that went according to plan, with a spruced up air conditioned combi. Again though I was the only one going.

The Guide was a Catholic. Indonesia is mostly Muslim. Bali is the biggest enclave of Hinduism outside of India, but it’s a Hinduism influenced by Buddism and ancient beliefs. There’s a religious ritual for everything here but they’re observed more in the spirit of celebration than duty. The Balinese are also prolifically creative. The result is an artistic powerhouse inspired by their religious beliefs.

It’s as though their religion was not only tolerant to other beliefs but a visionary drug if their art was anything to go by. Anything from masonry to fabric was utilised for fantastically intricate and frequently colourful work. The costumes of the Barong dance being a good example with the monster in particular taking on aspects of a LSD induced vision. That was the first example of Bali creativity we visited: a dance which was also a play about the struggle between good and evil. The plot was chaotically entertaining and the ‘gamelan’ orchestra of xylophones, gongs, chimes, percussion and flutes really got one into the atmosphere of it.

To be honest a lot of it was a tourist trap. One was taken to several craft centres where one was ‘encouraged’ not to just admire but to buy stuff. Wasn’t my original plan but it all looked beautifully made and I became interested enough to acquire a shirt of lurid swirling marine colours depicting a kraken in a storm. It actually became very useful for it was a lightweight but distinguished addition to my T shirts to the point of women admiring it, I found. I was less interested in a silver ring but the woman at that craft centre was expert at the hard sell, though she only succeeded at the cost of some haggling, which I was only good at because initially I didn’t want it; but I’m still wearing it. I managed to avoid taking woodwork on board – though it was the same striking standard – being concerned about the trees needed to make a store of woodcraft.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry. Bali is much more a typical tropical island than Komodo. Though it was city, habitation then rice paddy cultivation as we drove inland one could see lush tropical vegetation where there was the slightest chance for it to grow back towards a jungle again. Then there were the standards here. I’m probably wrong but did the psychology brought about by small temples or offerings to the gods at almost every home help to curb commercial excesses denuding the island of trees? The driving too, didn’t seem bad compared to many 3rd world countries, more laid back perhaps. I’m not normally a fan of organised religion which could be responsible for a lot of evil but maybe Bali could show the world how it should be done if one’s going to have that kind of society.

Then there were the ‘Penjors.’ My internet research has only just revealed the correct name and explanations in broken English. Indonesian flags were everywhere through the outlying suburbs and villages because of yet another festival tomorrow. Along with these were upright bamboo poles outside every house drooping over the road, embellished with ‘coconut, small shrine, snack, fruits, paddy and many more’ so the description goes. Penjors: an example of the fusion of art and religion here, these weird looking 10 metre long lengths of bamboo tree had become religious artifacts through a competition for artistic excellence. They were burned after a month to symbolise a break with anger and emotion. An answer to rioting and crime? Get rid of those urges through ritualised vandalism perhaps?

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The Bali temples could look like fragments of heaven; with tropical paradise vegetation, pagodas and pyramidal roofed structures, exotic statues. One was on a clifftop, another on a great rock set in the sea, another in a volcanic lake. We saw 2 others which were sited at springs; of holy water in at least one case. Water gushed into rectangular pools inhabited by large fish but at certain times of year people bathed there. One of those -Goa Gaja – included a cave, the entrance of which was sculpted into a mouth big enough to swallow the devoted and others.

It was worth noting the sarongs around the statues at the entrance and elsewhere. They were supplied at the temple entrances. The laundry logistics of my lightning campaign had led to me running out of jeans and track suits by now so I was wearing shorts. Not to be advised when touring these parts of Bali. The Balinese often prefer legs to be covered.

One structure kept being repeated: an open gateway between 2 identical edifices scuplted to a greater extent or less on 3 sides of each edifice with the outer side sloped or rounded. By contrast it was sheer and unembellished where one walked through. The guide explained that they symbolised a mystical mountain one passed through.

The volcanic mountains to the north were sacred in fact. Treated like gods with the kind of respect shown to volcanic eruptions. Dead flat to begin with the ground gradually rose towards the volcanic terrain forming the spine of the island. Gullies became surprisingly deep and filled with jungle. More numerous too the further north one went, broadening into valleys, forming ascending ridges between.

Eventually we were on high ground and at a restaurant where I could have a break and a meal. It was a meal with a view. A grandstand view of the volcanic forces shaping this planet.

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Right before me was a panorama of curving escarpment to the left, volcano with barren slopes around which a road ran, including through a village, right in front, large lake under more escarpment and mountains over to the right, rain forest with the odd habitation in the foreground. I had this grandstand view which I could photograph at leisure between mouthfuls of delicious food because the restaurant was sited on the edge of the escarpment which was actually a ‘caldera’ wall; formed when a volcano blows its top off or slumps inward, maybe sometimes both. Either way I was on the edge of what was once a much bigger volcano.

The volcano before me – Batur – was more than one volcano. One on it’s southern flank had erupted the most recently on this side and I could see the lava flows. The guide told me it had erupted in 1922, the year my father was born. Research shows it’s erupted many times since, sometimes every several decades, sometimes through several consecutive years. One last thing: the alignment of this volcanic complex marks a fissure system pointing towards the restaurant where I was.

Furthest to the right – to the east – a great domed cone of a mountain loomed above the clouds and the landscape. Mount Agung. The name means ‘paramount.’ It was Bali’s most sacred mountain and the highest at 3,142 metres. It erupted less frequently than Batur but its 1963/4 eruption was one of the largest in the 20th century with many fatalities.

On the return journey I was shown a cocoa plantation where – on a covered gallery with benches and a view of rain forest – one could sample various high grade cocoa beans and associated foodstuffs. I spotted an old friend: a papaya or pawpaw tree.

We returned past increasing settlement, endless bamboo penjors, motorbikes and a fortune in artistic craftwork stretching across half the island. The guide – impressed with my knowledge of calderas and pawpaws – chatted. I’d overlooked one thing though that had been right under my nose.

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“You know you’re next to where the Bali bomb went off?” No I didn’t! But hang on, there was a monument just to the right of where the backstreet to my hotel came out. So that’s its site! I’d wondered how close I was to that event but somehow hadn’t cottoned on to the monument’s significance. The land plot opposite the monument used to be the site of the nightclub and hadn’t been rebuilt since then.

In 2002 the ‘Bali Bomb’ – 3 bombs including 1 main one – killed 202 people from 21 countries. Most were Australian and there were 28 Britons. The trouble was the force of the bomb igniting and exploding nearby cars, one man remarked back at the hotel. The swimming pool there might well have been used to soak burn victims, swimming pools were. If this horrific crime was intended to stop tourism it’s been a complete failure.

Nightfall. Time to go but there was a problem represented by a youth whose nervous giggle was truly irritating. I gathered despite the language barrier that the car taking me to the airport had left 10 minutes earlier than the agreed time to pick up someone else. Why? But I waited without losing it despite not being sure of when the plane was going. This approach led absolutely nowhere with no result but the irritating giggle. My car was stuck on the main road somewhere. Finallly I made it clear that I was infuriated, took off with my gear on foot, followed by the giggle on a motorbike who caught up with me at the main road. It was jammed solid! But there they were!

It took ages to get out of there but reaching a the huge exotic statue on the junction near the airport was a good sign. When we got close enough to the right building I fled.

The plane wasn’t taking off until the early hours. Strange how arguments at the beginning and end of my Indonesian foray had bracketed what had actually turned out to be a brilliant success! And I was over half way with the 13 plane flights. 6 to go. Next stop: celebrating my success with friends.

© D. Angus 01 16

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Greece: calm amidst the storm.

The hardest part of travel is the first step.

True enough. It was a wrench shutting and locking the front door leaving home for a long journey. Had everything been thought of and done? Oven switched off? I’d checked that everything had been switched off. Doors locked? Likewise. Everything sorted that should be taken with one? Etc. And this was the most complicated journey I – or I and Mike my travel agent friend who’d be looking after my place – had planned. 13 plane flights – a real test of logistics and superstition – through 4 countries and places not exactly safe such as Kiev; luckily the undeclared war had remained in the east of Ukraine. Then there was that Java volcano that had taken out 4 airports – 2 of which I was supposed to be landing at – just as the Iceland one had shut down airports with clouds of ash. A friend called it “Dave’s apocryphal holiday” what with Greece and its economic storm being on the route too.

Also I was trying out a daring concept: travelling light to the point of putting nothing in aircraft holds; feeling that to do so on as many as 13 flights was asking for trouble with delayed or lost baggage. I’d come across ‘cabin max’ bags and although the weight allowance was only 7 kilos it should still be possible to squeeze 5 pairs of shirts, a similar number of jeans and shorts, socks, pants plus toiletries into one. Apart from that there was the large camera bag which in theory would be allowed too. Mike thought I was nuts but I was adamant about nothing going into the hold. I’d wash clothes whenever possible and wear more than one change of them if necessary to get through airports.

The hot climate in all 4 countries to be travelled through worked in my favour: no need for bulky clothing. One plastic mac and light pullover was all I took for rain and unexpected cold.

I needed the plastic mac on the first day, taking the bus and ferry to Portsmouth harbour station under a gloomy Gosport sky through streets drab with rain. Typical of England one can’t help thinking. It was just about the only time I needed it. Then I shared train seats to Gatwick Airport with 2 large ladies – there are a lot of them in this part of the world – plus their children.

At Gatwick the check in wasn’t open for another 3 hours. A dread of arriving too late at airports had led to miscalculation. I relaxed into the evening at a coffee bar with a magazine in an easy chair by a huge window displaying drizzle over a motorway.

Wearing 2 pairs of trousers I got through the first check in when it was time with no problem. The first hurdle was overcome.

Kiev was reached at dawn. There’d been riots here since I’d come to the city with a friend 2 years ago during a non existent spring with dirty great dumps of snow at the airport. Now Kiev seemed peaceful again in high summer, with breakfast in early morning sunlight at a spot in the great length of the departures hall. There was a 6 hour wait and there would be more of those.

On to Greece. Soon the plane was over alternating sea and country that began to look arid. Mountainous too. Had to be Greece.

Greece had been teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe – and dragging Europe with it – for months if not years. Were events waiting until I got there? There were likely to be large numbers of desperate people in Athens and I had a long journey from the airport to my place for the night that I regarded as vulnerable. It was my first time in Greece and one tends to be vulnerable after a long journey or flight to an unknown place – fatigue and sometimes jet lag -and therefore easy meat for anyone up to no good, so I followed a military strategy: seize the initial objective in strength and consolidate: get to the hotel ASAP without going anywhere else then secure valuables, shower, eat, booze, get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow’s the time – when fully rested and wide awake – to get out there and see what you can do. Maybe I was over-reacting but I’d sooner be safe.. and I knew of at least one case where a lady without this approach got lost, asked thieves for directions and lost her laptop to them.

Athens airport in brilliant potent afternoon sunlight, flanked by mountain sized hills . So far so good; despite getting here by one of the world’s most unsafe airlines – I learned later – via a country unofficially at war where an airliner had been shot down.

I’d never been to Greece before. I always tried to learn a few words of the local language of any country I was visiting but the alphabet – being different – didn’t help. It was still surprising how far one could get with the aid of signs at the airport and elsewhere, words similar to English or English adapted from these words: also tone and gestures. Also surprising how many people worldwide spoke a few words of English. The station was easy to find but there seemed to be no directions for Athens or its stations.

I still got on the right train because the airport was a terminus, I realised later. The airport slipped away through arid countryside but could still be seen for a long way because it was in a basin of terrain. After a stretch down the centre of a motorway – just like in America – there was the first change of trains.

Underground into Athens. Stay sharp on the Metro. But it was okay. Not too many people, station names clearly marked in and off the train and commendable maps in 2 scales at each station telling one what was above. One more junction and 2 more stops brought me to where I wanted.

It got more dodgy from then on. The Youth Hostel linked ‘hotel’ was easy enough to find in the canyons of seedy grandeur of central Athens; but a disreputable looking character thought I was lost and attached himself to me while stayed alert. Though the streets weren’t empty they weren’t crowded so he didn’t seem to have an accomplice.

He drifted away and I found the hotel: a long flight of steps up to a cramped desk area. It was run like a Youth Hostel. Further steps up led me to a broad landing with tall imposing doors. It had been agreed that though the room had 3 bunks I was on my own and I was looking forward to a shower in what I expected was a large area beyond that door.

The only good things about the room were no one else being there and the air conditioning. There was no shower or loo but 3 bunks in a cramped sweaty space with a window opening on to a narrow waste at the back of buildings, the waste being a similar level to the window giving easy access from outside that I didn’t want. I felt better after washing myself as best I could in a basin but then a key opened the lock and there was a girl who said she was ‘cleaning.’ Late afternoon was an odd time to be doing that. This place didn’t feel secure. I was going to stay put apart from going to the loo across the hall . Tough it out with no food or booze. I was quite capable of doing that for one night knowing it was easy to eat and drink too much and abstinence teaches one to savour luxury afterwards. Tomorrow would be an easier day. It was possibly paranoid and I didn’t care, having lost a camera and mobile phone at another hostel. Security was paramount on this trip, especially at the start of it!

Meanwhile back in Portsmouth a friend had been kind enough to arrange a barbecue inviting other friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, the day after I flew out. It was going to be a long night. During the first part of it there was a party next door just to rub the point home. My time would come.

Early morning. I was told breakfast would be outside the building. The place it was supposed to be at was closed. Across the street was another place that was only good for a coffee. While there another young disreputable came up and begged for money. I’d been expecting this in Athens and gave in anyway – to a small extent – having brought plenty of Euros because of cash points drying up. There was a surprise here though.

“You speak good English.”

“I am English.” He’d come out here years ago from Sheffield and what with the economic crisis had been on the streets for awhile. Now this was interesting. He wasn’t violent, knew the score around here and – because I’d done him a favour – could be a good and fluent source of info. We chatted. It seemed that Athens was not dangerous as long as one used common sense. One shouldn’t throw caution to the winds.

I relished breakfast at a classier place further on, found the hotel where I was supposed to meet people at 11 am. and left the cabin max there.

There was still time to reconnoitre the Acropolis and get back in time for the rendevous. It was only a mile or two away and one of the main streets – the ‘Athinas’ – led straight there. Walking down it past a down and out sleeping on a bus stop bench I could see the high buildings and trees framing a distant high crag beyond and part of a temple was on top of that; though I was dismayed to see scaffolding up there too. I hoped if I got up there that refurbishments or repairs wouldn’t ruin the atmosphere of antiquity.

‘Acropolis’ is derived from Greek words meaning ‘edge’ and ‘extremity.’ From the map it looked as though it was on the southern edge of Athens centre. The whole thing was 150 metres high; a citadel of rock 300 metres across, crowned by a showcase of ancient Greek architecture and civilization dating back to almost 500 BC.

After ousting a tyranny in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC the Athenians founded the world’s first democracy as a radical solution to prevent the aristocracy regaining power; thus becoming the fabled and revered cradle of that political process. This first democracy promoted not only full participation in affairs of society but the kind of quality of life which prized personal development rather than wealth and possesions along with working all hours to get them. These ancient democratic Greeks might have had much to say about present day Britain regarding ‘aristocracy’ in terms of corporations and the super rich; market forces and the commercial world.

The road to the Acropolis was lined with substantial city buildings and trees so there was a fair amount of shade but when I penetrated a tourist area beyond and narrow uphill streets (stay sharp) modern buildings gave way to the older ones and ruins of antiquity, which seemed to reflect and build up the heat. Luckily I’d supplied myself with bottled water. One couldn’t rely on any water but bottled where I was and where I was going. I would need it.

I got into a kind of park with views of Athens and the odd temple. That being the marble Doric styled Temple of Hephaestus about a mile away. It looked complete enough to look much as it had done thousands of years ago. Much of the rest of the ancient architecture around here existed only as columns or blocks of pale stone. Anyway: I continued around the base of the citadel of rock hoping to find a flanking way up, but found that barred not only by gates with a pay booth – should have realised that would be so – but also a traffic jam of tourists although it was only something like half past eight. No chance of getting up there and back in time now, but there was time to continue the reconnaisance around the whole thing. The rear was even more forbidding: no way in and a massive sheer wall complimenting the sheer height above. How old could that be? At least it was good for photography along with secluded streets and exotic plants with some sporting flowers, a shaded restaurant in a downhill alley with the sun scorched city beyond, a small domed church with an ongoing service. It was a trial of endurance though because it was bloody hot! Thank God I had bottled water and you could get it easily here.

Finally, in time, I realised I’d circumnavigated the Acropolis and went back up Athinas to the rendevous hotel, past a drunk lying face down on a grating with a glass of beer nearly drunk beside him. A representative of the Athens science fiction group rather than a casualty of Greek economics perhaps? Knowing the amount of alcohol my friends consume.

Back at the hotel a young fellow proposed a market survey on tourism. Tourism, one thing the Greeks had going for them, was threatened by the economic storm and resulting cashpoint problems. I was early so there seemed enough time to co-operate. While this was going on people assembled and I had to hurry the guy up towards the end. Such is the nature of market surveys.

I was meeting people here for a Skyros holiday which in my case involved a 2 week writing course. Skyros Holidays were ‘alternative holidays’ involving health, well being and the creative arts.  Skyros holidays had a strong Greek connection because they were compatible with Greek philosophy and one of the 2 founders was Greek: Yannis Andricopolous, Ph.D. A former political journalist and editor he’d become an author. I was glad I’d read a trilogy of his regarding the present commercial/political status quo and the freedom to some extent from that through Greek virtues; it seemed to confirm a lot of what I thought. I’d met Yannis too, at their Isle of Wight Skyros base for weekend breaks, celebrating a New Years Eve there. Skyros holidays were present in places as far flung as Cuba and Thailand but we were heading for Skyros Centre on Skyros Island.

The holidaymakers were mostly – or nearly all – women; I chatted to a few from Ireland. The coach showed up.

After we finally got clear of Athens we were on high ground. Greece is a country of mountains, though the ones around Athens and further north had the shape of giant hills, clad in dusty pine woods, olive groves and frequent habitation. It was also a country of views, panoramas of faraway mountain and sea fading into blue haze.

A stylish white car ferry was our boat for the first ferry crossing. A few accompanying sea gulls made for great photo opportunities. I love the way they just glide up and hang there in the air, as though waiting to be photographed.

The countryside on the other side seemed to be more of a holiday zone. With a ferry terminal looking like a resort and a now and then secluded bay with sunbathers. Otherwise it was more or less a repetition, with its mountainsides and arid heaths.

Then the ferry to Skyros Island. A bigger stretch of sea with the mainland disappearing into the sky behind us and the mountains and hills of Skyros materialising out of it on the forward horizon.

There was a minute port called Linaria´. There was a ride to where we were staying on the other side of Skyros.

A white cuboid inhabited rock outcrop the size of a town on the side of a mountain. That’s the appearance of Skyros town from one viewpoint. We got into it at the other end, where the road became a lane at an open square, dwindling past shops, restaurants and bars into stepped passages and steep alleys. There was hardly a level bit of ground anywhere. The white canvas of the architecture picked out the details of door and window woodwork, wrought iron railings and stairs, chairs, and shops with their wares. Most of all the green of plant life, isolated often against the white but crawling over buildings and curtaining off them in the form of vines: an occasional surprising statement too of exotic tree or mass of brilliant purple or crimson flowers. All set off against the brilliance of white buildings and hot blue sky above. Perfect for a photographer.

Then there were the inhabitants: The local jabber and melodic chatter along the main street of wares and bistros, sometimes almost linked to the frantic newsround buzz and screech of insect communities in the greenery. Scrawny but graceful cats lying or watching in their miniature neighbourhoods. Children with flawless brown skin wandering fearlessly through the sun. Stunted but formidable old women dressed mostly in black sussing out the incoming lunatics of the Skyros Centre losing themselves up and down the wrong passage and directing them to the asylum. Yes they warned me. It was easy to lose your way here and I loved it. One of our group later called the place enchanting. A word that might be improved upon accuracy wise but I haven’t been able to do so.

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After walking through most of the town we were suddenly at the centre. Through an arch in a white wall and down some steps was a paved area;- a terrace with big long solid tables shaded by a framework; all rich brown wood. Exotic plants were everywhere but even the massive fronds of a palm didn’t obscure the view beyond a low broad wall: beyond an open slope lay one of the few flat parts of Skyros framed by hills and the slope we were on, speckled with white buildings and greenery stretching to the sea, almost as pale as the late afternoon sky.

There was a welcome and a briefing about where we would be staying. I was introduced to one of the old ladies who offered a place nearly back at the commercial part of the town. Up two flights of steps and through a solid door was a sizeable high ceilinged room with a coffee table & chairs, TV, small doors on the left to a balcony and ornate plates on the right wall. Later I learned that plates on a wall in a Greek home could be a sign of status. Before me was a kitchen the same size as the bathroom to its right, with shower;- over that was a level near the ceiling with steps come ladder ascending to a double bed. The windows were small giving a dolls house come eyrie feel to the place. The balcony added to the feel of an eyrie with a view over flat rooftops to arid though partially wooded hills. It projected over the way we’d just walked to get here; within jumping distance of the rooftops. I wondered about security but I learned that Skyros just wasn’t the kind of place to worry about that. The perils of economics aggravating crime had been left behind at Athens and the old small television reinforced this by appearing not to work. I didn’t worry feeling that one of the pleasures of travel was a temporary change giving a fresh look at life. It would be interesting and healthy to abstain from a TV and the world outside for a fortnight.

I’d travelled widely but had never stayed anywhere quite like this before. The same could be said of the town. It was the opposite from the pretentious grossly overpriced housing estates of the UK enforcing conformity. White walls appeared to be the only conformity here. The houses, small from the outside, seemed roomy enough and their closely knit adaptation to every level encouraged creativity and intimacy. It was well;- enchanting could be one way of describing it.

The idyllic feeling continued when we met at the centre for the evening meal and the first taste of Greek cuisine, definitely good for you. Drink including alcohol was available too up another flight of steps on the Skyros Centre building to the left of the entrance. One was relied upon to leave money there and it worked. While we relaxed under these influences into twilight deepening towards night and lights began to sparkle out on the plain we learned more from staff members Richard, Clare and Ari. I’d met Ari on the boat: an American from New York he was sociable and a comic at the meetings. Anyway;- Skyros town was built on the side of a volcanic plug, which explained the huge rock above us. It was built on the other side from the sea to confuse pirates or raiders anyway and the up and down convoluted layout of the place was perfect for defence and ambush. Just as well the weather was good now because when it rained any path and passage became torrents of rainwater. So there was no artificial drainage; the sort of thing that made one think the place should be a slum but there was a sense of neatness and order here, somehow it all worked. By the way, a path going down the slope below went to the beach which was surprisingly close, just round the shoulder of the slope we were on.

There was a monastery up above us on the rock, the volcanic plug itself. Maybe it was that which gave a touch of Tibet to the place though I’d never been there. There were no soaring snow capped mountains or ethereal waterfalls cascading into chasms but for me the Skyros Centre took on aspects of a cross between Shangri La and Rivendell; maybe because there was a great view in an idyllic setting and – like Frodo and company at Rivendell in Lord of the Rings – it was the calm before the storm to come; the awesome adventures for me were still to come after leaving here.

Morning. They would all be lovely ones here. After nearly totalling the TV by losing my balance on the stairs or steps I was on my balcony looking over the rooftops at my first morning on a Greek Island. Too late for morning yoga but that was optional and my first week of the two was going to be more holiday than work which meant more drinking and less exercise.

Breakfast was at 8.30. A meeting of discussion, information and compliments would follow without lasting long. Then there’d be a little time before the courses which would finish at lunch. Time to get to know the layout of Skyros Centre more: kitchen and lounge/library on same level, massage room – handled by the yoga teacher – and a comfortable meeting room up the steps where the drinks were. Ari – a psychologist – led the meeting where we got to know each other better, including names, in theory anyway. I’m worse than most at remembering names, especially when the weekend after we arrived I still hadn’t got my writing course tutor’s name right. Embarrassing.

Maybe it was because Mez gave us plenty to think about. A lecturer and author she was an energetic and creative tutor, setting short timed themed writing which was often entertaining. There was ‘homework’ though that was not really compulsory and sometimes not discussed the following morning. There was plot structure and aspects of writing a novel and marketing it. All discussed seated around one of those big tables with the view.

I was the only man in the writing group of 6 women and Mez. The same was true of the ‘Life Choices’ group which Ari ran in the meeting room. It made for a good last email to my SF friends back in Blighty along the lines of ‘loads of women and booze in a place like Shangri La.’

Then there was the art course. Only one person on that. She and the tutor retreated up to what I thought was a large garden shed with windows on the other side of the terrace from the centre. It was the Art Studio. I felt for the tutor, Amanda, somewhat: a lady from Brighton she was a good conversationalist and found me interesting too.

There was no washing machine in my kitchen; which meant I would be picking up some powder myself, scrunching my clothes around with that in the sink and hanging them up anywhere I could to dry which wasn’t too difficult in this kind of heat. Hadn’t done it this way since crossing Africa in 1978. All part of the fun of being here.

The only part that really wasn’t fun was having to put used toilet paper in a bin by the loo instead of down the same. The Greek ones were small enough to get bunged up if one did that. It went completely against my instincts of not leaving the worst samples of oneself around for others; particularly maids, whose job could be demeaning enough anyway. But this was the rule in Greece and its worst aspect for me. Not that Greece should be singled out. The loos in Indonesia and the Philippines would have the same design and the same rule that applied in Greece applied in Thailand. Let’s change the subject now this explanation is behind me, as it were.

The afternoons were ours to play with. The Greeks had a pretty prolonged siesta judging by the shops closing at 2 pm and not opening until 7. I went to the beach past 3 cats taking it easy under a park bench – well it was the same as that – at a junction. I called it Lazy Cat Corner. (Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner ranch.)

At the beach I witnessed a ship in the sky! No really; It looked like that! The haze was such that the blue of the sea blended into the sky without a horizon and it was almost as though Skyros was floating in the sky. An incredible effect but I didn’t have my camera. Sometimes it seems the best photos are the ones that got away.

Turn left out of the Skyros Centre instead of right – down to the beach – and one goes uphill. That way is the ‘Manos Faltaits Museum.’ Manos Faltaits was an artist whose style reminded me of Modigliani. The museum was housed in the Faldai family residence and was almost more of a multilevel warehouse than a museum. Chock full of costumes, paintings, embroidery, antique furniture, ceramics, daggers, cooking pots and vintage photographs: a history of post Byzantine Greece to the present day, preserving tradition.

It was also on the site of an ancient temple. And there was a naked male statue – like ‘David’ – on a pedestal; that the women made a bee line to have their photos taken under this example of manhood, much to my amusement.

After the museum there was a break on a terrace shaded by vines, with a fantastic view of the plain and sea which still looked like the sky.

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Shangri La? Rivendell? How about simply a Greek paradise. Backed up by a great meal at dusk and beer that went down very well in a nearby restaurant with a view, followed by a drunken trek home through the steep labyrinth of Skyros.

I was down on the beach the following day with camera but the seamless blending of sea and sky had gone. Going back up the incline was a killer in the heat.

Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner Ranch the moggies were laid out by the heat into identical corpse positions along the ground under the bench, by the time I trudged back up there. I was feeling the same way myself what with the incline I’d just come up so I didn’t blame them, renaming the place Dead Cat Corner. It became known as such.

The heat had the opposite effect on the Cicadas or whatever insects were making the racket. A nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge noise that was almost loud enough to interfere with the writing group what with readings and so on. It would seem to be even louder than what I’d encounter in the tropics later. One of these insects was found camouflaged to look exactly like tree bark.

The writing group continued its good work anyway. Which included mine even after I’d been kept awake in the small hours by Greek youths partying under my place with what sounded like toy cars running down inclines. The following morning I’d warned Mez that I was likely to be slow witted but she thought highly enough of my stuff to say I should be kept awake more often. I told her I’d try not to make a habit of it.

Sometimes we’d eat out, there being many places to chose from. The same applied to drinking; the most memorable evening being the cocktail evening trawling the beach bars. That would coincide – Ari told me – with a full moon being up over the sea so I took my camera along.

Talk about a great evening. I’d no idea what I drank but it was all nice and the effects were extremely pleasurable. It also either helped me take good photos or didn’t harm my attempts at it because I got some good mystical ones of that full moon; the sky displaying the pastel hues of the afterglow of sunset. Once in awhile one comes across a fragment of heaven on Earth where the place is not only beautiful but has an otherworldly feeling and the company’s good. Skyros was it.

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Well into the night we had great seafood at a restaurant at the other end of the bay where there was a small harbour. Several of us then tried skinny dipping we were that loosened up from normal inhibitions. I’d make it an offence to spread them, regaling everyone at the restaurant with how I hated that word ‘inappropriate’: “a mealy mouthed pusillanimous kiss of death office politician’s charter of a word from the curse of political correctness” were the words I used, or similar. After the holiday I told a lady that people fond of using that word should be sentenced to loss of love life for an indefinite lingering period. Anyway it was unlikely that people could see us from the shore but one had to be careful of submerged rocks or concrete in the harbour.

Then back in a bar in the early hours I danced salsa with Amanda who later told me I was brilliant. How this should be so was mystery to me. I’d not only not danced salsa for 15 years but wasn’t that good when I did! Perhaps it was the cocktails; but I was told not to say that.

I’m not sure how I got back up the mountain not only to my eyrie but up that ladder to my bed! But I made it and somehow could rouse myself early enough the following morning to photograph a man sweeping the shadowed street cum alley below my window, while – remote from his toil – the early morning sun highlighted the hills out of town. Did he do the whole town on his own or were there others? Either way that was why Skyros town was tidy.

There was another place on the island for Skyros holidays: Atsitsa Bay. A drive across the island there went through hills wooded with pine. There was also a strange tree I’d never seen before. A stunted oak might be the best way of describing it. Another small plain was to the north west, like the one before us at the centre. There was a military airfield there; Skyros being central in the Aegean Sea.

Atsitsa Bay seemed to consist of a hotel on one side and the Skyros holiday resort on the other, apart from the ruin of a dock consisting mostly of a double pillar that stuck up like a sea stack at the entrance to the bay. There had been a railway there from a mine on the island. Otherwise it was a delightful rocky cove with pine woods.

The resort spread through subtropical vegetation on different levels; though it wasn’t on a mountain like Skyros town. The odd sculpture helped give it the feel of a hippie sanctuary and life was largely freewheeling here. One could chose from a great variety of things:-
Landscape Art.
Yoga.
Windsurfing.
Singing.
Meditation.
‘Passionate Living.’
Mosaics.
Abseiling.
That was one variety for a 2 week holiday but there were many others.

There was a beach party in a neighbouring cove. One could walk there but some swam. Sure enough there was drink and company there. As for swimming this Greek holiday and my further travels would see me catching up on years of neglect of that.

Once again Ari was a good source of info. for some great photography. The sunsets were good here he told me and though I missed sunset itself I got a few good ones of the declining sun burnishing the sky and sea into bronze and gold. The dying glow of the western sky at dusk was good too with the ruin adding a great silhouette throughout.

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Then there was food and drink and an audience for a Hollywood writer waxing enthusiastically about where we were and how good it was for creativity. A celebrity on top of everything else. If only mankind could slow down from the commercial rat race into more of this kind of life.

Nor was that the only trip there. They were good at organising trips at Skyros Centre. The 2nd journey there involved a boat trip. Another halcyon time: of cruising round a remote part of the coast in the sun, witnessing a beached boat wreck as big as a house and contorted strata on the cliffs;– a fantastic sight. I got spectacular photos of that cliff strata; like a geology lesson on the forces that build fold mountains. This is an active area regarding that and there was a notice about earthquakes at the centre.

And then there was the swimming.

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There was one place in particular. A secluded cove free of humanity apart from us, with beautiful turquoise hued sea. It was as though a swimming pool had morphed into this small bay. The waters were incredibly clear; which happily went against my feeling that the Mediterranean region might be a trap for pollution.

The worst thing that happened here was the laptop I’d brought refusing to delete junk emails or send any home by the end of the first week . I was cut off which could worry Mike. I hoped it was the wifi here but suspected it wasn’t. The bloody thing was now wasting time that could have been spent at the beach and had been nothing but trouble since I bought it in June, wasting time that could have been spent learning how to take great photos with the Nikon instead of good ones.

We were coming into the 2nd week so it was time for yoga to calm the nerves; at the cost of getting up earlier. It was on a rooftop within sight of the centre going towards the beach, still with the view. Trouble was there was only one way in and out and one of the old ladies along the route kept letting her small vicious psycho yapping horror of a dog loose to attack the yoga teacher’s dog, more graceful, probably a greyhound. This resulted in some lively Greek slanging matches while other little old Greek ladies in black emerged in sinister fashion from doors in white walls to watch the fun. I felt guilty about its humorous aspect for it was serious enough to have us band together to run the gauntlet of what I called Yapping Dog Gulch until we reached the friendly territory (or couldn’t care less territory) of Dead Cat Corner.

There were a few trips I’d been looking forward to. One of which was with Ari up the steep alleys to as close as we could get to the monastery. I’d been nagged by one woman about getting flip flops like everyone else rather than wear hiking boots, but one had to watch ones step with the up and down nature of this place, hiking boots were good for grip whereas flip flops were useless and it was folly to risk injury when I had real challenges in front of me; all for the sake of fashion!

As we ascended we learned that the wealthier or more favoured Greeks lived on the upper slopes whereas the poor were down below; which explained the weeds growing in the byways below my place. But the route we followed seemed to be often up the side passages of houses and I expected a challenge of the private property nature only to emerge at picturesque junctions.

Churches and small places of worship exist at random spots in Skyros. One at least had a bright blue dome reminiscent of what I’d seen in Kiev. That might have been the one where a funeral was held lasting for a day at least; I was walking up the main shopping street and became aware that I was threading my way through a real crowd of people dressed in black. They were there when I went back that way later.

There were more cats. These looked healthy enough so maybe they were upper class ones. Cats in Skyros tended to be on the slim side though and I’d seen a few in bad condition. In the past things were rough for them until there was a drive for more humane treatment. The Dead Cat Corner cats had a small bowl of something so apparently someone was looking out for them.

The monastery – or it’s outer parts – was a study in photographic still life: an arched passage led up to a courtyard with rich brown pots and their plants and an occasional small tree set against the sunlight and shadow steps and white buildings, with magnificent views beyond. There were a few bells too. A service was in progress in the dark ornate interior of part of the monastery. Packed with the locally devoted. I felt like an interloper. This society was only carefree and creative up to a point; religion was more in evidence here than in Britain.

After that the descent. Although Skyros can be a confusing labyrinth there aren’t – as a rule – dead ends. So it was the kind of place where before long one can surprise oneself with an “ah I know where we are now.”

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That evening I had a meal with Ari and Amanda. Skyros comes alive at dusk with bejeweled lights and conversations at bars, bistros and restaurants galore. It’s got the perfect climate for it. After a hot day here there’s nothing better than to unwind in the evening with a beer or two and Greek cuisene when there’s no need to put more clothes on because it’s going to stay comfortable in a ‘T’ shirt all night. Carefree relaxation for all. Nice to have a table overlooking much of the nightlife too, as ours was.

The 2nd trip was to Rupert Brooke’s grave. Yes this notable First World War poet was buried on this island. I’d already referred to – or played on – that at the writing group to their amusement. My travelling alarm clock that was like an old friend became the first casualty of this campaign when it was dropped out of the camera bag on to the cobblestones and stopped working. So:-

Now I’m defunct think only this of me.
That in some corner of a foreign field
There lies a clock of England.

It was a journey across the whole of the island. Skyros is actually two islands joined into one, an enthusiast at Atsitsa Bay told me. I could believe it from the map and from the scenery. The other southern end of the island could be seen from the beach near Skyros town: a great mountain bulk like a gigantic hill descending in precipitous slopes and cliffs to the sea. The central part of the island was the narrowest part; consisting of a flat bottomed valley hinting at fault lines and a possible join of geology. The southern mountain being different terrain from the north;- massive, high and barren, in contrast to the jumbled hills and extensive pinewoods of the north.

There was a place in the valley where we visited dwarf ponies – and a foal – which are indigenous and unique to Skyros. Then the road wound up around the mountain bulk with views of silhouetted promontories and islands set in a dazzling sea.

Rupert Brooke’s grave was set in a secluded olive grove, surrounded by green railings which together with a low white monument formed a fence around his grave. His famous poem was inscribed at the front. He died from an infected mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli when he was 28. What an age to die from something that insignificant, in its early stages anyway. Though many were dying tragically younger than that then. When I was 28 I crossed Africa but would live to have many more adventures and achievements, though there was time too for more frustrations and disappointments. The only thing death has taught me is the importance of making the most of life or having a happy one as long as one’s able, physically or mentally.

There was a bay at the end of the valley on our return where we could have a swim and supper at an open air restaurant. The drink flowed and one of our party had octopus, the size of the tentacle prompting another to exclaim “was that hacked off when it attacked a village?” An Irish girl who didn’t drink but was a comedian took drunken photos of me judging by the angle. Another fun filled evening. Make the most of it for poor Rupert’s sake.

Towards the end of the stay I decided to explore the plain below with my camera to the far coastline, hoping to link up with the others on the beach while returning; but I fell against the coffee table back at my digs breaking what looked like expensive china. At the centre Ari was on a never ending phone call so that delayed my worried report. I was sure I was in for financial damage but was told not to worry and – inexplicably – was not charged anything; which I think should be a recommendation for Skyros holidays.

Anyway, after this late start I descended to a hike past subtropical gardens and white villas to that far coastline; a scenic dazzling one especially to the west where there was a national park. Beyond the harbour were 2 more places of worship: one carved into a whitewashed corner of a huge rock, another on a rock outcrop offshore. The Greeks are a religious people or seem to be. Then the journey back past a spectacular eroded rock: many picturesque views of boats and bathers in beautifully clear water, with Skyros town on the slopes of the volcanic plug beyond and the awesome cliffs of south Skyros much further, but I was too late for some of those bathers to be the people I’d got to know.

The writing course was more or less wound up with a reading of work we’d done on the novels – short or otherwise – that we’d been preparing. It wasn’t a success for me although my descriptions of ‘dragon’ wildlife and jungle I’d been writing about were admired. I was having a bash at an SF fantasy extrapolated from the jaunt I was about to attempt. The trouble was I got bogged down in a quicksand of describing the planet concerned. Obviously planets fascinate me but I hadn’t put enough ‘human interest’ into it; according to the women. I’d noticed that they were better than me at putting themselves into other people’s shoes as it were, complete with emotions. I wondered if women tended generally to be better at that?

That was only one way of looking at it though, I felt later. It could be tedious trying to follow their stuff too, which often appeared to delve into the minutiae of people and their problems. It reminded me of soap operas which made me feel claustrophobic. ‘Let me out of here to the world outside!’ I wonder sometimes if soap operas and too much emphasis on what can go wrong with people is making us lose sight of alternatives? Is actually educating us into behaving badly? An alternative for me is to lose myself in the beauty and scale of the natural world. One example was being comforted by the fantastic tapestry of stars in a desert night sky reminding one of the true scale of things and reducing human affairs to their true proportion: ‘that big.’ (Tiny.)

The subject of feminism had also come up. It seems to me to be a broad church and I support aspects of it, or women’s rights anyway;- such as birth control, equal pay structures and last but not least equal educational opportunities. I get the impression though, that some feminists are not interested in equal rights but want to swap one power game – male dominated society – for another;- female dominated society. Worst of all are the puritanical feminists who seem to condemn men as being potential rapists and are hell bent on imposing no freedom of speech and a society of inhibited fear.

At least there was little puritanism in our group when Mez set us a final bit of fun in which we had to deliberately include as many sexual innuendos as possible. I played along with a piece based on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a cabaret that evening and my offering followed the raunchy example of one of the women in the group. Mez publicly complimented me the following morning for not getting upset when they got worked up reading out the innuendos. (Why should I?) “Oh I thought it was wonderful,” I replied. “Just took awhile getting my head round it.” Laughter.

Our last night was a slap up meal at a restaurant in the town square. The waitress who served us had worked at the centre and gave me a big kiss when she arrived with my pizza. That – and the illuminated merrymakers eating and drinking all round the square – reinforced the feeling that Skyros town was one big fun palace; but I had an early night for it was time to leave.

My new travelling alarm clock went off. I heard a suitcase being trundled along the alley below in the night, went out on to the balcony and hailed one of our fraternity making his way zombie fashion to the centre rendezvous.

At the other end of town there was still noise and drinking at the clubs and bars. When do the young ones sleep in this place? Traces of dawn were coming up as we left.

“I’m off to the Misty Mountains, Rohan and Mordor” I exclaimed to Clare; to whom I’d explained my sensations regarding Rivendell. Well not exactly, but I was going to hunt dragons. (Don’t miss the next episode.) We saluted each other when I was on the deck of the huge ferry. Dawn came up as we left Skyros.

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Back in Athens everyone was flying home so I had with an afternoon to explore the Acropolis. The magic of such places can be imagining a different world with some props and the more info. the better. But! It was blighted by refurbishments. The Parthenon was a cage for construction junk and they even had a light railway up there. Talk about saving a ruin from becoming a ruin by ruining it. I consoled myself with the panoramas of city and landscape while thinking of an old Cliff Richard song ‘The Next Time’ that was filmed with the Parthenon in the background. Part of ‘Summer Holiday.’
“And heartaches such as this
Will just be ancient history.”

Back at the dump I was staying in though they had a room with a shower and a view this time.

Onward. Thousands of feet over holidaymakers in Greece. Greece had been a good time and the first stage was completed without mishap. Only 11 more flights to go.
© D Angus 10 15

Posted in Travel | 1 Comment

Conventions: 2014.

 After the walkabout I had a few weeks break, then I went and partied in London. And what a party it was.

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The biggest science fiction convention ever! And I was taking one of my planets there, one of the ‘ExoEarths.’ a 2ft diameter model of an Earthlike planet. An old one in this case for the continents were more regular in shape indicating an older geology, like Africa and Australia. I’d laid a van on for it and was to travel up with the driver, whom I’d previously worked with, taking models to a science centre near Winchester. I had taken this planet up on the train to London but I was going on to Dublin after the convention and needed someone to take it home. Just as well I was taking him up to London, for the convention location looked a muddle on the map.

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It was a good well organised trip on a sunny day. Journeying to a city too, in the 21st century – or 2014 anyway – can be a visual adventure. The cluster of high rises on the horizon nowadays can hint at science fiction and momentous things about to happen. Welcome to the future. It might not be one of manned space rockets, planets colonised and mankind looked after by robots. Residential architecture might be rubbish representations of twee England that has enslaved the population. However;- the solar system had been explored since my 1950’s childhood, there’d been a revolution in computer technology and commercial architecture was enterprising enough in style to be futuristic. To begin to take on the same kind of look as architecture found on SF book covers. That and the more streamlined cars and highways looked not too unlike the future imagined in the 1950’s.

Before the fun could start though there was the challenge of getting the globe into the Art Show within The Excel Centre. A building of a mile long. A tough nut for navigation. A tangle of roads led us to a parallel street to the one we wanted and we finally got to the wrong end of the centre of course! Refurbishments – always handy when you need to get to somewhere – had partially obstructed the access road and put the driver off going any further. Much later internet research revealed that this centre has had serious access problems!

I kept my cool because the refurbishments weren’t barring me from the centre itself, up a flight of steps on a higher level. Also my planet was light enough to carry and my only luggage was a backpack. Only problem was the planet was big enough to put a strain on one’s arms carrying it for any distance and once I was inside this vast exhibition hall complex its concourse stretched before me, down the length of the building to vanishing point.

No problem actually. My planet was in bubblewrap and I’d rolled it before in that. Yes, actually rolling it along the ground! One one occasion through Reading confusing a policewoman. This time it would be a floor, which would be easier, also it was deserted, so there was no one to wonder if I was a lunatic? Until I reached the other end where the SF fans were supposed to be, who could take this sort of thing more in their stride. So off I rolled it past occasional closed cafe’s and fast food outlets with large deserted seating areas, down the long echoing expanses.

It was the day before the whole thing really started but convention staff were here plus a handful of fans wanting to beat the rush and people like me wanting to set up. Gradually I was reaching inhabited regions: better lighting and a few people. Then a few people scruffily or unusually dressed. Science fiction fans. I was entering friendly territory. Well mostly anyway. Their numbers increased the further one went and eventually I found the right info. The Art Show was back aways through a narrow entrance. I’d rolled my globe for a distance not much shorter than the length of the building.

There was another huge space as big and high as an aircraft hangar on the other side of the entrance and a short corridor. Within it was the Art Show area. As soon as I got there they knew who I was and it was easy enough setting up. While there I started meeting people I knew. My Health and Safety friend from the local SF group confirmed with news of growing numbers that this was about to be the biggest convention ever. He was one of the staff and would be working throughout the convention. Some people are happier doing that and it was the kind of event where one should be ‘doing one’s own thing.’ There was too a well known artist whom I’d socialised with at previous ‘cons’ (SF fans jargon for conventions) and kept in touch with on Facebook. And another artist I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years! That was a happy reunion with advice about art materials.

It was going to be a recurring theme at this convention: running into people not seen for decades. After setting up and registering at the convention – easy to do with not many people around – I had time to relax with a bite at one of the eateries just opened up. While I was perusing the con literature there a vaguely familiar looking woman came by, stopped and recognised me. A creative comical friendly lady I’d regretted losing touch with since 2001! She joined me for another joyful reunion. I was rapidly gaining a good feeling about this convention. Later we went to the exhibits area where she was also setting up some of her videos; though not without problems since staff were letting her down.

Early on in this convention I would be running into a guy I hadn’t seen since the last millenium and a lady I hadn’t seen since 1987! It would get better and better all the time.

Explorations of this vast place revealed the Art Show to be next to the Dealers area – books trinkets and so on – and Exhibits;- which could exhibit anything from wild and wacky ideas to established organisations like the British Interplanetary Society. This whole massive floor overlooked the ‘Fan Room’ – or rather hall – on a lower level. As did the concourse and a way to Docklands Light Railway. Here was at least one obligatory bar, fast food snack area, seating and chill out areas and marquees going up for promotions and fannish stuff. Later I realised that there was even a Tardis in there. The programming areas – for panels and discussions of anything remotely SF related – seemed to be around the back of the Fan Hall and on the upmost level above Operations and the Green Room, which had taken over an eyrie overlooking the concourse. Last but not least the opening ceremony and maybe a few films would take place in a huge hall on the other side of the concourse.

The first night here I would be staying with the same invalid I stayed with before did the sponsored walk 2 years ago from London to Chichester. Right out in Stanmore on the NW edge of London. Time for the light railway, tube and hike to his place.

Coming in on the morning Docklands Light Railway train were other fans heading for the convention, including a few Polish girls who were interested with my visit to Poland last year, until I mentioned Auschwitz. I didn’t blame them. Although it wasn’t my idea to go there it still put me into the disaster tourist category rather than someone genuinly interested in their country.

They were in for a long wait. Which was minor compared to those arriving later. The registration queue grew to an unbelievable length. Thank God I’d got here yesterday!

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Time to check in to a Travelodge on the other side of the dock by which the centre was situated. Or so I hoped. One could see the true scale and setting of the venue at the opposite end to from where I’d rolled by ExoEarth. A broad car park/plaza flanked by ornamental trees and a few hotels. And the expanse of Royal Victoria Dock. A flyover crossed it with a walkway under the road and I was able to look down the dock’s rectilinear length towards the Canary Wharf cluster of high rises and the City of London. Planes took off overhead down the dock’s length from London City Airport on the other side of the flyover, into a sky which would be mostly stormy throughout the convention. That didn’t stop canoing and other recreational stuff happening on what had become a man made lake. All it needed now was some wildlife.

On the other side was a tall sculpture of what looked like a silver naked lady with no face, legs leaning forwards but body backwards with upthrust arms, celebrating the airport it seemed, from the centre of a roundabout.

Then there was the Travelodge. I was too early after all. I’d have to insert myself in there that afternoon.

Memories of the first few days:-

Participating in my first programme panel. If I’m lucky I get invited to them and I had a fair number at this convention. I love the think tank style exchange of ideas and growth of knowledge, with fellow enthusiasts, some of whom are scientists. I love being treated on an equal basis with them to put it honestly, despite certain lowly aspects of my life. Ric was there. My Jewish friend in the local SF group who’d advised me on Auschwitz. He said I held my own well with them. As it turned out this was going to be a convention for compliments too.

Ric was also staying at the Travelodge and we occasionally had breakfast together when the degree of severity of ‘the night before’ allowed that synchronisation. Other notables were Dave – the Irish SF fan who’d been with us at the Kiev Eurocon and whom I knew well anyway – and the Science Fiction Collections Librarian for the SF archives at Liverpool University. He was also someone I hadn’t seen for a long time and it was good to meet up because I’d made out in my Will that the SF Liverpool Uni. archives were to be the home for my planets.

One of the programme events I went to was more of a tour, around a certain model in the exhibits hall, with eye catching out of scale incomprehensibly interesting structures. An architect from Greenwich University had led this futuristic project and thought architecture ought to be more represented in Science Fiction. I agreed. Much SF dealt with social trends and civilisation which would include urban environments, which must include architecture. Apart from that a lot of SF art involved futuristic cities and those in the western world were beginning to take on some aspects of science fiction.

There was more to this last one. The architect was a science fiction fan. His project was a cross between a conurbation and theme park. Within it one could design and act out one’s fantasies apparently. Whether one was underground or within the weird structures depicted by the students, some of which looked organic. They were, he assured me! He also hailed from the Essex side of the Thames estuary where his conurbation was set, naming it so the initials matched those of the city sized spaceships a favourite SF author. It was the same length too. Nobody else in his architectural circle had appreciated this and one reason he was at the convention was to mix with people who would.

But what about ‘we’ve all gotta have somewhere to live?’ The demands of the mundane world of the daily grind to pay the mortgage on some subsized architectually backward looking box? His project was to be realised in the post commodified era. ‘Commodified’ – the demands of commercial market forces – was a word he often used in a dismissive fashion. I liked his style. If only it was as easy to change the status quo as it was to dream up something like this! One reason it wasn’t – he told me – was major developers keeping prices artificially high by ‘land banks:’ reserves of bought land which would only be built on when there was a sufficient housng shortage to raise prices. Just when I think I can’t find another reason to loathe the world of residential property along comes another one I can add to my armory. This was one reason I went to conventions: information one might not find elsewhere.

There was another architect at his show whom I wowed with my planets, apart from discussing all this: an attractive girl in her twenties who really did look as though she was still in 6th form. She ran her own company. Another aspect of this convention was that it turned out to be a happy hunting ground for chatting up the fairer sex. I prefer to call it conversation.

I wished life was like this most of the time: the money somehow never running out during a freeform existence mixing with interesting stimulating people, for many of the more imaginative in Britain were here. From aged authors and scientists to precocious children, any one of which could be a future genius. With the odd alien thrown in, (yes I know it’s fancy dress but it’s well done here.) I even saw a sentient machine: what looked like a pole on wheels with a TV screen on top sporting a face. Apparently someone far removed was exploring this event by remote control.

What with that and people doing their own thing; whether it be socialising, working hard, debating, playing, wandering, drinking. With a glowing blue drone under unseen control flitting and swooping over this scene. It reminded me of the SF series involving those miles long spaceships. Our gathering could have been part of his civilisation, albeit in one of the smallest ships he’d referred to.

There was more programming for me. Dougal Dixon – an Earth Sciences author – had proposed we play drunken colonists explaining the colonial history of ‘Greenworld:’ a planet he’d devised and I’d ‘built’ so to speak.

Thus arose what was one of the best Saturday nights I’ve known. Maybe the best!

It began with a party in an adjacent hotel. A friend who ran a satellite company held these champagne ones and at this party there was not only a woman whose paintings were fantastic displays of light and darkness (she wore thigh high boots too) but the last ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’ Da! He’d commanded the Mir Space Station in the last days of the Soviet Union which made him their last hero. As if that wasn’t enough there was another astronaut there under his command on the station: a woman I’d met years ago – like others at this convention – who recognised me and was convivial. To the extent of assuring me that if I could walk 65 miles for my school when I was 64 I was still fit enough to be an astronaut!

WOW.

I mean;- I know I’d said that if John Glenn could do it at 70 then I still could but – to be honest – I just thought I was talking bollocks really. Until I got the most mindblowing compliment of my life!

Obviously this once in a lifetime party would have been enough for the night as far as I was concerned but – unbelievably – I had to leave it in order to get down to where Dougal was. It all happens at once.

Yet more unique fun. We were well on form with a good audience. I was really enjoying the part. Dougal’s Greenworld on which the play was set was named that way not because of its colour – the vegetation was red – but because of green issues arising out of colonisation of the planet by the human race and I was happy to play along with this theme – in the form of a drunken colonist – in raising people’s awareness. If there’s reincarnation I could do worse that wind up in a bar on another planet.

Back in the Fan Hall the boozing was well under way and the South Hampshire Science Fiction Group were there in full force. When I eventually joined them I mentioned the astronaut compliment, still spaced out. A friendly rival I sometimes wound up unintentionally proposed a fund for me:- “LSDIS: Let’s Send Dave Into Space!” A massed drunken cheer greeted this! Including mine with beer bottle held high for it was a magic moment. “I know it would suit you but it was very well done, very well done.” I assured him.

So well oiled I became that I euphorically assured another friend that I would be with my planets at midday tomorrow to meet someone he knew who was interested in them. Then totally forgot all about it to my chagrin. Something I have never done before in my life.

The convention carried on and there were more alcoholic get togethers. There was that meal where I rejoined the astronauts party; the last hero of the Soviet Union looking prominent by being the best dressed of us in his suit and tie. T shirts were more the norm at an SF convention. I – among others – was allowed to hold his gold medal. Heavy.

Later he was honoured in one of the big halls where he talked about the Mir Space Station in Russian, with the help of with a young interpreter I’d known from News Years Day do’s at my satellite friend’s place. I was in the front row with them.

Dougal held a liquid lunch for those who’d worked on Greenworld. I met the artist who’d illustrated the truly alien lifeforms Dougal had created. By then Dougal and I had laid on another simulated bar session. One of those problem child geniuses I’d briefly mentioned earlier asked some tricky questions, putting Dougal on the spot. I didn’t help matters by being amused. All good clean fun. Especially as I felt that this was the spirit of youthful enquiry at its best.

I was still able to help Dougal for I met a German woman in the Art Show – a publisher or agent – who took a professional interest in Dougal’s work and wanted to know if he was interested in ‘expanding into Europe’ so to speak. I’d no idea as to his commitments but there was a fair chance he’d be interested and told her that certainly they must meet. When I got this info to him he became excited. It seemed that – as my luck would have it – this was just the sort of thing he was after. It was that sort of convention.

There was a show on the life of John Wyndham. The first paperback SF book I’d read was ‘The Day of the Triffids’ after waiting for my father to get through it on holiday in Cornwall. It was extraordinary how a man with that intellect continued to lead a somewhat Spartan little travelled existence even after his books brought him considerable wealth. Then there are those who are super rich. Maybe we get a reverse status quo in a parallel Universe. Maybe that’s one appeal of them.

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There were good times in the Fan Hall. Dougal had held his liquid lunch there. Ric and I photographed each other coming out of the Tardis. Children colonised a large open space with cushions and one crawled around under a cardboard box like a tortoise. The spirit caught on with bubblewrap: when a swathe of it was jumped on by the kids to make it pop one of my friends joined in. To give support for arrested development so did I.

My involvement in programming and the Fan Hall went on until the last day. A vivacious girl I’d corresponded with helped me lay on a planetbuilding workshop for those child geniuses and a few arrested development adults in a marquee in the Fan Hall. She said I was fantastic after the do.

I rolled my bubblewrapped planet back down the length of the building to my rendevous point with my driver, where I intrigued a watchful child with my antics. He turned up, luckily for me.

It must have been a great convention. I felt really good despite not selling anything.

That was Loncon 3. What followed that was a tour of TV locations in London run by my friend Dave, the Irish SF fan. There were only 3 of us actually wandering around, much of the time on foot. Highlights for me included:-

Steed’s place (The Avengers) which was near the BBC.

Outside the BBC was a picket. It seemed demonstrations went unreported these days. ‘Safety before profits’ proclaimed one of the banners. In the opposite direction were sartorially dressed gentlemen and an opulent car outside a club. I doubted these two groups ever listened to each other.

The Regent Street Polytechnic. This had nothing to do with the tour. We passed it by chance and I had time to tell the receptionist within that my father had studied architecture there.

The subway passage Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) stormed though on his way to resign. One got the impression it was under the Houses of Parliament. It was actually at Hyde Park. Parts of that subway complex were an abode for Eastern Europeans down on their luck.

The home of ‘The Prisoner,’ where he was gassed, later to wake up in ‘the Village.’ It was in Westminster. Unfortunately the block it was in was covered in scaffolding ruining the photograph I would have taken. Refurbishments.

Just round the corner in a front garden was a strange metal sculpture based on a plant. Looked like a sunflower.

More strangeness followed after a pleasant spell at a pub. When we reached Westminster Bridge the 3rd member of our party just wandered off and wasn’t seen again.

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At sunset Dave and I reached Leadenhall Market where I captured that on my camera; along with The Gherkin, the Thames at sunset and Tower Bridge at night. The bridge I was on gave good solid support for the camera, so the photos were clear of camera shake.

Dave called his tour a convention: a small travelling one as it were. There was another I was about to go to though. In Dave’s country. The European SF convention in Dublin, Ireland.

I had a day between my last night at the Travelodge and Victoria Coach Station. Luckily there was something interesting on at The National Theatre, South Bank: Love! Something of an exhibition of it. Erections dare I say it;– of gaily coloured words describing all aspects of love at the front of the theatre, exhibits and workshops within. Of course none of the workshops coincided with my movements or ability to get there and it all seemed a one off unfortunately. It was heartening though, compared to the usual rubbish choice of Sun newspaper ‘are you getting it every day’ culture, computer dating agencies everywhere like flies on dung and political correctness zealously imposing a climate of fear. I hoped the alternative on the South Bank was the start of a trend.

Lucky I was going on the journey to Ireland journey in summer. It took a long time to get out of London so I was surprised it was still daylight when the coach had gained full speed on the M1.

It was still daylight – just – when wind farms in the Midlands could be seen from the coach. They’ve been described as eyesores but were photogenic at dusk and a visual welcome to the 21st century. Let’s hope a lucky shot I took across the coach while on the move is not the sunset of mankind. Their energy contributions have been questioned and their size might indicate it’s a case of the government being seen to do the right thing rather than pull out all the stops for the best energy option. I’m in favour of solar power now and maybe fusion power later.

Nightfall covered a stop at a motorway station and the route along the North Wales coast. One could tell it was there by the way the masses of town lights ended at a clear border with a black void beyond.

At Holyhead there was the usual organised muddle of customs, under the stark lighting one gets in places like this at night. Not something to look forward to when one’s semi conscious after a long coach ride.

Finally the ferry. It was massive. That didn’t stop all the long seats being comandeered by temporary adult corpses trying to forget about the rest of the night by sleeping. Otherwise the passenger deck became largely governed by children who seemed to have their seat of power in the amusement arcade and gain their power from it, having more energy than those adults still on their feet. Kiddies weren’t allowed on the outer deck though which was the domain of cold gales, darkness and cigarette smokers.

There was a cinema. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes took me away from it all nicely.

Dawn came up when we reached Dublin. I could see the coast unfolding in the early half light and even the Wicklow Mountains. I’d never been to Ireland before.

I’d been saving Ireland until I was old and decrepit because it was so close and easy to get around. Now because of SF conventions I was getting there earlier in a slightly better state. Maybe just as well. The ferry docked early enough for – after a ride through a desert of dockland – everyone to be deposited at the coach station at dawn, with the morning to get through before I could check in to a boarding house I’d booked just south of the centre.

I was right in the centre of Dublin. There was an official looking building with a dome: The Custom House. There was the Liffey which cut a straightish course through the centre, widening past the docks into the harbour and a bay between headlands. My first sight of Ireland.

I crossed a bridge to the south. Was anything open? I had all morning to kill. There were a few massive piles of buildings which appeared to be museums. Also a park. Places were opening up and I had enough time to have breakfast twice at 2 of them. South Dublin was as urban as south London but somehow less tatty and fraught; with plenty of places to eat and drink.

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There was a park I wandered around. Quiet with ornamental trees and small lake. Perfect for a morning run and a runner passed me as I sat on a park bench checking the map.

A canal marked the southern edge of the centre. I still had to kill time and found another park with a tramp in it; on the run from another tramp or official, apparently. Overcome that this was my first morning in Ireland after a sleepless night he offered me a piece of cardboard, to rest my head on a seat. A comical but touching gesture. At the risk of stereotyping it seemed to me to be a classic Irish experience. This short stay was to give me a very limited experience of Ireland but while there I found there seemed to be a certain sense of kindness less common in England.

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The boarding house was in a leafy suburban neighbourhood. My room was at the top. Quite a climb but with a good view through a sash window and a small TV on top of a wardrobe.

It was on a parallel road to the one the convention hotel was across. It took only a few minutes to get there as long as one was careful for the hotel road was one of the main routes out of the city to the south. Another thing to watch out for was bicycles. There seemed to be a lot of them travelling at speed and the only reason I didn’t have a happy accident with one girl was her quick reflexes.

The convention was nice enough and well run. People were friendly, there was a really good Art Show, programme panels a few of which I was on, meals out with friends, Dave was there and met his family in the bar. There was plenty of alcohol of course, especially on Saturday night when future conventions were vying for popularity. Dublin was making a bid for a world SF convention in 2019 which I supported. It would be a good start or end to a more thorough exploration of Ireland.

Loncon 3 though was a tough act to follow. The one in Dublin just wasn’t as memorable and it must have been due to that, or convention fatigue on my part. Definitely wasn’t the convention itself which was still a good one to party at.

The real trouble for me was trying to go home.

It was pouring with rain. The sort of rain that’s not a heavy downpour and then it’s done, or a soft refreshing shower, both of which I actually like, but the sort of soaking rain that persists under relentless cloud all day.

The bus station was well within reach of where I was. Unless the weather’s like this. I wound up having to make 3 return trips to it that day! Luckily departure was not until the evening. Why did this happen? My paperwork was not in order.

I kept being turned away by a girl who looked like a school leaver. Who seemed to have forgotten her Irish roots in her dedication to becoming a company official: dead to all concerns apart from the rules and regulations of the company making money. It was then I learned that company officials can be crap regardless of what country one happens to be in; can mushroom a manufactured problem into the main purpose of a journey – sorting out that problem – rather than the minor detail it should be. The volume of explanation here indicates the expanding complicating quality of this sort of event.

Okay so it was carelessness on my part. Officials though often seem to forget common sense. The price on the paperwork I had was proof I’d bought the ticket, a man from the rear decided after the 3rd trip, making me feel a fool for not spotting that during 3 in and out trips – mostly walking – in the rain. Like a punishment I’d reached the end of because letting me go on the basis of price was the only way to get rid of me. By that time I was soaked through, which didn’t help a bug I’d somehow picked up at the end of the convention.

Yup. I was ill too and had been exposed to the perfect weather for it. That’s what I meant about the girl – I grew to hate – forgetting her Irish roots: kindness anyway. To the point of being deaf, dumb and blind to the fact I felt really ill, repeatedly pointed out to her. ‘Customer relations’ were also overlooked. If enough company officials ignore that concern customers should go elsewhere and – hopefully – the company will do badly to the point of the officials being out of a job.

I was so relieved it was finally over that I celebrated with a drink or two on the way back to my digs although I felt like crap. That didn’t stop the landlady offering a free extension on the room for the day although I’d been obliged to involve her daughter in helping me with fruitless phone calls arising from this crisis. More Irish kindness that might have been a real lifesaver in this case.

The nap I had during the afternoon just about fortified me for the journey. Then I was befriended at the bus station by a woman who was concerned about my coughing and shallowness of breathing. She was English but had lived in the middle of Ireland for some time, adapting to the finer points of the way of life here, it seemed.

There was a fantastic sunset over Dublin as the ferry sailed off from Ireland into the night. The photos I took of that though were so affected by camera shake and the state I was in that they were better described as abstract works of art. The night journey was probably worse on the coach but it was mostly hell and purgatory anyway. The kindness of my newly acquired lady stranger friend was there though and dawn over the wind farms of central England signalled much of the journey had passed into my personal history, lifting me to a better circle of hell.

We said goodbye at Victoria Coach Station and she tried to shake my hand but because of my bug I wanted to spare her that. So she became – she had my card – one of those met on my travels I haven’t heard from again but would like to.

Breakfast at Waterloo Station.  A view of the station with its rush hour commuters with the final leg of the journey to follow actually made me feel good, morale wise anyway, although my physical state continued to be crap.  Th final train journey down to Portsmouth was another improvement.

Then luckily I was able to hole up in my home for several days before school started and my job ferrying kids to and from it commenced. Time enough to recover.

So what sort of trip had it been? The biggest party of my life with the most mindblowing compliment. 12 days of high class fun more or less with a few days of humiliation hell and purgatory at the end. 12 days good to 2 bad. Pretty good trade off really!

© D. Angus 02 15

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HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

 

HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

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Down the grassy way under a summer sky and through an arch of trees into a field of barley this time. Wayfarers walk crosses clean through it as it did with the prairie sized one south of Arlesford. This field is on a similar scale with a farm and wood on the other side.

Into a leafy lane where I’ve bracken and birdsong for company and the odd car seems an intruder.

Down a track and under the shade of a railway bridge for a break. The bridge is the only sign of the first of 2 railways running west of Basingstoke. This one veering south to Winchester is the one I use now and then. When I’m flashing by above its difficult if not impossible to pick out this spot, the railway being hidden by trees along the embankment from the surrounding countryside and vice versa.

On up a slope past boys jolting down this grassy rutted track on mountain bikes. The track goes on between hedgerows and trees and I spot a butterfly.

Another lane, an upmarket country house and a silver leaved tree which doesn’t look part of the natural landscape tells me I’ve arrived at the hamlet of Deane. There’s a main road here, a bus stop – not that I need it – and a pub which would be good for a coffee if it’s open. I’m not sure it’s still in business.

I can see the bus stop at the crossroads ahead looking the same as the one in Dummer;- a hut like affair with – I find later – no timetable. The pub looks like it would after man. Derelict. Boarded up. Another dried up waterhole. I take a quick break at the bus stop then get moving. I’ve now got serious uphill hiking ahead of me up on to the Malborough Downs.

It begins past a church and a rustic abode called ‘Tom’s Cottage.’ A grassy path up through another wheatfield with – as with many others – swathes and flattened strips running off in parallel stretches, lines and curves. People will ask me about ‘crop circles’ after this walkabout but they’re not that.

A hedge at the top. Good for another break sitting on the grass relaxing agains the backpack. Already there is a view.

The grassy way continues up through another repetitious field. The horizon’s close though. Daisies survive along the edge of the way. Lichens too I see on brickwork when I reach a bridge over the 2nd railway beyond the close horizon at the top of the field. I get a photo of a train.

There’s a level patch. 3 horses under 3 trees at the edge of a field. A long clipped residential hedge of alternating light and conifer green foliage along a grass verged lane. Neat low fences. A barn. A bulrush swamped pond. A line of cows. Everything is picturesque here.

Then the ground ascends over a series of slopes and hills clad in wheat and woods with the odd farm nestling in them. The views to the south increase.

I’ve strained my left foot, feeling it first back at Doug’s when I got up in the morning. It seemed to recover but now I’m going uphill it’s worse: hurting enough to slow my rate of progress.

On a rare downhill slope in a wood I pick up a discarded water container with a tube attached. I’m rescuing it from being rubbish as I might be able to make use of it.

I’m heading for Hannington – one of the highest villages anywhere – on the eastern end of the Malborough Downs or North Hampshire Downs as they can be known here. Hannington is near that radio mast I saw yesterday but it’s main attraction is a hog roast at the village pub. A rare stroke of good luck puts this on my route on the right day. Doug had gloomily assured me he’d always found the pub closed, which contrasts with my fantasy of drunken revelry with countryfolk. Anyway I was there once before and it was okay then.

Or it’s practically on the route. Wayfarers Walk works its way round to the west of the village and I decide to follow that, leaving it at a spot I can get back to. I reach a lane at the hamlet of North Oakley, follow it past a few houses and trees out round the shoulder of the down. Over widening horizons hangs a variety of cloud; the sun shining through the higher haze highlights the thicker stuff into spectacular formations.

I strike off through inclining fields and reach a track. The map no longer makes much sense but the direction and lie of the land is obvious making the last mile or two of purgatory bearable.

I get into Hannington past some outbuildings emerging on to the village green by the church. The village seems deserted apart from a spectacular old car on the far side of the green and a lady who assures me I’m on the right track.

The village is at the pub along with numerous representatives of the surrounding countryside. I can’t get to the bar, but after cleaning up I see a big garden at the rear full of people attending the hog roast itself and ale being served there which is more available. Obective achieved. Having obtained the necessary victuals I relax and rest my feet on the grass by a low wall and a couple of young but large ladies, having impressed them with tales of my trek. Before long though drinking and eating (let’s get the priorities right) take over, giving me time to think.

I’ve got here in time for a limited break before going on further to what I call the Kinsgclere escarpment: the high ridge of the chalk downland just south of the village of Kingsclere. When I was much younger my family used the road over it as part of a route from our home at Burghfield near Reading to the A303 at Andover, which would take us to Devon and Cornwall. Later I did likewise on a motorbike. There was a layby near the top of that ridge with a spectacular view. That would be good for a rendevous with Steve, the last friend I would be staying with.

There was a fair amount of personal history here. More than 20 years ago I’d reached this pub on another hike to Andover which was the longest I’ve ever walked in one day: 32 miles.

When I got going parts of me were aching but it was only a few miles now. I couldn’t be bothered going back to the point where I’d left the route because the detour added more miles than I’d have hiked had I stayed on Wayfarers Walk anyway.

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Back on the lane I followed it over a hill towards a pylon. On top a line of them marched across great open expanses of crops barely contained by the odd hedgerow and wood. In the middle of all this combine harvesters and tractors laboured like stylised insects.

My mobile rang. I was about to phone Steve and he’d beaten me to it. He’d just got home and would come out and pick me up for I can’t have been much over a mile from our rendevous. Faraway views stretched south and north. I was on the crest of the downs now and was walking down a grassy track – easy on the feet – through a vast blanket of cropland to where the line of it disappeared over the brow of the downland scarp.

The layby was indeed on the other side of that and I didn’t have long to wait for Steve, though he turned up behind me having driven up the back lanes.

Steve was a physicist working at AWRE. Or Awe Plc as it’s marked on Google Earth now. It wasn’t all atomic weapons for at one stage he had been involved in fusion power research: atomic power without the dangerous disadvantages. Like me he was a single guy living on his own but in some ways had a jet set lifestyle, flying to places in the USA such as the eastern seaboard and Los Alamos. I knew him because he was also a science fiction fan.

Steve lived in a semi more modern than Doug’s just south of ‘Awe Plc’ between Tadley and Silchester: site of the ancient Roman capital of southern Britain. He also lived on the edge of Pamber Forest: a tract of ancient woodland which existed as far back as Norman times. After I showered I was ready to pay for a Chinese meal for both of us in Tadley. Over more beers and a full meal deal he very kindly offered to run me up to the Kingsclere escarpment early in the morning before work.

 

Good though the meal and offer was it didn’t improve my left foot by the following morning, despite treatment with ointment. It ached with twinges of agony when I descended the stairs. My bloody mindedness took over now. Nothing for it but to press on, even if it meant hospital after the walkabout.

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Back on the Kingsclere escarpment the view was certainly spectacular with early morning sunlight and shadow highlighting every aspect of everything under a sky of awesome cloud formations. In particular a towering fan shaped mass lying to the north east just like the one seen near Arlesford.

Steve and I took photographs of each other but he had to get to work. I had to get moving too. The shape of that cloud reminded me of ones I saw long ago on the Congo;- anvil and mushroom shapes slow motion expanding/exploding like immense hydrogen bombs over that river and rainforest. Stormclouds. Convection rainfall. That was what they meant. Unusual to have that so early in the morning though. The cloud I was looking at now covered the Lower Thames Valley and could spread so that spurred me to hobble on along the downs. I was like an ant making my way around and away from the cloud’s edge.

On my own again, apart from a few other dots on the landscape: a man and his dog, also dwarfed by the fan of cloud. Above wheeled a corresponding number of large birds. Of prey possibly.

Far out in the dark masses of trees making up the middle and far distance was a level pale streak of industrial development. It could be – being in the right direction – the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. If that was it the setting did look suitably sombre under that doomsday cloud for the original purpose. Steve should be arriving there now.

I was creeping up a long incline towards Watership Down. An unforgettable book and film about a journey to a promised land and a struggle won was set here with rabbits as the characters. My family and I had been to Watership Down once finding the copse where Richard Adams placed the final home of the migrating rabbits. Some wag had carved ‘Bigwig was here’ on a tree.

I saw nothing like that. Just a bare expanse of down divided along its length by a what looked like a racecourse, with occasional clumps of foliage spaced far apart but behind each other on my side of the course, looking like isolated sections of hedge. Deciding to rest at one I realised it was a jump for horses. Like the Lambourn Downs to the north this was horsebreeding country, and ideal training country.

I donned my mac for the outer haze of that cloud was spreading above shutting out the sunlight. It looked like rain and things didn’t look good. Apart from the depressing lack of sunlight and the foot I needed a loo despite taking care at that back at Steve’s. There was nothing like a pub until I got off the Malborough Downs near the end of the day’s walk. Oh well, when the going gets tough the tough ..well…hold on. Apart from getting going again of course.

Later I met a wood on the wrong side of my route where the ridge bent back in an embayment. That meant I must have wandered along Watership Down and left it without realising it! I didn’t remember that racecourse when I was here with my family so that must have confused me. After the walkabout Google Earth showed that if I’d wanted to get to the wood with the Bigwig carving I should have stuck to the track which went past it instead of leaving it just before the horsetraining stretch to get more of a view northwards off the downs.

There was a lot of money in these parts. A large country house come mansion sat in parkland below the escarpment.

After a few miles of views obscured by the wood and an Iron Age hill fort I was turning south into a southerly bulge in the route; descending to a gap in the hills where a main road went through. Back on the downs on the other side it was only a few more miles to the next main road which led down to a pub and accomodation. Thank God I’d planned limited distances for the last 2 days of the hike.

Descending from the high ground one could see that the road was busy with trucks and various vehicles moving at speed as though on a never ending conveyer belt. I’d be alright though for the ordnance survey map showed a bridge where Wayfarers Walk met the road.

Things were becoming more man made instead of natural. A helicopter – possibly police – was above. On the shoulder of a hill was a regimented windbreak of pine trees, 2 abreast. A pylon line swept over the steppe like stubble of a harvested wheatfield and a tractor on the skyline.

At last I could see the bridge under the road. It wasn’t until I got close that I realised the traffic was not going over the bridge but thundering past the other side. I’d misread the map, it was a disused railway bridge not a subway under the road!

There was a signpost but that looked damaged and the information there was useless. I went under the bridge to take a closer look at the road: made up of dual carriageways, no way under or over it, a gap in the crash barriers in the middle and it didn’t look too difficult on the other side, but the traffic was heavy enough for a motorway and it should have been one, being the main route from Southampton to the Midlands. Not a road I wanted to cross but the ground looked unkempt and impassable to the south and the map seemed to show the same thing to the north. Unless I crossed it I faced huge detours either way.

What I’m about to describe is not what I would advise anyone to do. But there was a traffic gap big enough for the next vehicles to be specks down the road on my side. It’s now or never! MY HAT’S BLOWN OFF! KEEP MOVING! Without stopping my run I got to the safe enough centre. After several cars had gone through there was – by sheer luck – another gap like the first one. Get the hat and get out of here! MISSED IT! GOT IT GO! I made it back under the bridge. At no time had any vehicle hooted me so I can’t have been close enough to them for it to be life threatening.

Nevertheless a direct crossing was out. Far too dangerous. I wasn’t even sure that somebody wasn’t alerting a police helicpter to get on my case. Got to work out another route on the map.

Going further south looked hopeless for a long way and would deepen the bulge in the route sending me miles off course. To the north though closer perusal showed that there was a barely visible sign of a subway under that road by a confusion of disused railway lines. A track on the other side led south then cut westwards across the bulge to rejoin the route on top of the scarp of the downs. That was the way to win this ‘battle of the bulge’ if that subway existed.

Then just as I was getting under way a small group of people appeared from the south telling me there was a way under the road in that direction. Just what I didn’t need for it reintroduced indecision, it was the wrong direction and the only track that way appeared to be a path used by animals heading straight into brambly undergrowth.

It was a difficult choice but I stuck to my plan. It was only a mile north and I got on to the disused railway but it seemed longer than a mile of course. Trudging along I reflected that this railway was one of those condemned to dereliction by Doctor Beeching when railways disappeared across Britain, removing a solution to global warming just before that became a problem. Getting rid of this railway was one of his worst choices. It was the main line to the north from Southampton and now the passengers and freight displaced by its demise were on that main road, so this railway was a strategically important line. What underlined the whole business was the route of this road or motorway not just following the railway here but also around Newbury. That was the notorious Newbury bypass over which a battle was fought with protestors! Talk about unnecessary; had that line remained open.

There was the subway! A crude square hole but the green of foliage on the other side promised salvation. On the other side there were a pair of pheasants to greet me.

That huge cloud had overextended, losing its fringe where I was, so my mac was back in the bag for now the sun was powering up the heat again and the chalk of the track was reflecting it up at me. It was only a small rise ahead but I had to cave in on it until I could get some water into me and relax my feet.

The landrover materialising right by me must have been driving on carpet slippers I thought. Quiet enough to have beamed down from whatever mansion around here it belonged to. Hardly welcome after the crisis I’d been through and ongoing physical trial. I didn’t like the leer on the face of the young guy in it either.

The real problem though was proposed by the driver: an old farmer Giles type judging by the accent. This was a private road and I shouldn’t be here etcetera. It developed into a regular verbal pissing contest to mark territory, what with him stating I should be back where I was and me replying that the signposting there was bad – for all I knew he was responsible for it – that this track would lead to the right route and I didn’t want to get wiped out on the motorway! He was impervious to my enterprise being a sponsored walk – which gave a clue as to his character – as did his persistence in repeating himself. It became a circular conversation for when the chips are down my resolve is firm.

Eventually he gave ground lecturing me in detail about where to walk to on the track – which was wrong – while I conned him by pretending to listen dutifully.

Oh you’re finally going now jolly good! That’s right just sod off and take your wide boy son or worker with you who – judging by the leer – thinks he’s cleverer than anyone he meets. I needed this pair like a turd in the backside when I was trying to recover my strength, with a bad foot while needing a loo, to complete a challenge for a worthy cause, after a trial of nerves that could have been life threatening. Better get going anyway before I get arrested.

Another battle won so some martial music was right to play in my mind at a time like this. A war game at home dealing with the Russian front offered 2 themes: ‘forward to the glorious slaughter comrades’ or what I can only describe as ‘the Hitlerjugend top ten.’ Innapropriate I know but my justification is Lily Marlene being enjoyed on both sides during the war. One in particular gave me strength;- demonic probably since gunfire formed the orchestra. It’s sentiment was so what if danger threatens on all sides, we have our courage and our cause. Shame about the cause in their case.

The best one for me though was ‘Dad’s Army.’ “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler” and so forth. The comedy of geriatrics and misfits taking on what could have been a horrific challenge and succeeding in their aim through no fault of their own. That together with the proud marching music was unbeatable for me. Maybe it was my imagination but my foot actually seemed to be improving.

The scarp I had to get back up was an decent opponent compared to the ones just gone, exerting a tough but fair price for being overcome, with a few surprises on the way up.  The first being a deer which dashed into a wheatfield so I could only photograph its antlers and title it ‘spot the deer.’  The 2nd being a log for taking a break on, with a good view under a few nice little trees giving cover from the sun and helicopters that might be hunting me.

I took photos and mulled things over. It wasn’t farmers I was against, feeling that there should be a code along the lines of Thou Shalt Not Leave Litter Or Disturb Livestock taught more effectively at schools and to the general public everywhere. After all if they were going to wander around the countryside like me they had to be considerate to whoever was there. I drew the line at the attitude of those landowners who didn’t seem considerate. There was a lot of money around here. Too often there seemed to be a progression from that to landowners assuming they could seal off huge amounts of country and make footpaths disappear. And I hadn’t forgotten how one with a similar attitude to what I’d just encountered had put me on to a dangerous main road I was trying to avoid on my first walk for the school.  That gave me enough bloody mindedness to attempt any number of hikes.

I was back on the downs and there was the linkup with Wayfarers Walk! A notice I’d just passed declared ‘ESTATE VEHICLES ONLY’ when I looked back at it. In the spirit of Dad’s Army I gave it the Churchill salute.

The trek to the next main road went smoothly enough along the crest of the downs; which were a kind of causeway between views of rolling English countryside under cumulus cloud cluttered skies. Except when there was a wood. In it I found a short tower like a castle turret. The word that sprung to mind was ‘folly’ but it was obviously inhabited with cars parked outside.

At the main road the bus stop shown on Google Earth wasn’t even there. Not even a shelter as far as I could see. That meant negotiating a main road down to a pub and where I was staying that night. The road was narrow for a main one and full of bloody blind bends. It didn’t seem much less dangerous than the road I’d come from. Luckily the main traffic was on that road and this one was quiet enough to hear vehicles coming. My objectives weren’t too far either.

I worked my way down to a straight stretch and there at last was the pub! Now would it be closed like that one south of Basingstoke? Just what I didn’t need but the place I was staying at was only a mile further.

Thank God it was open though! I was happy enough not to care about the wait for the loo and explaining the wait to the guy after me. Perched on a bar stool chatting to the barmaid later with a hearty meal and a few pints I was still too content to leave that for a more comfortable sofa. It was a rambling rustic thoroughly nice pub. My trials were over.

Well not quite. Afterwards the road hemmed me in again. Just as I was about to enter the tree tunnel come bobsleigh run with traffic I had to cross back over the road to understand what a man on the other side of it was calling across to me. He told me it was a dangerous road. I knew that but he meant well. He was one of the few surviving blacksmiths in England. His workplace behind him was a long dilapidated looking shed. After he’d gone back in I decided to take a look. He was hunched over his work so I decided not to disturb him and tackled the road again. (Remember you’ve been drinking so stay sharp!) There was a way out some distance down this road but I was hoping for a break in the hedge before then.

There was one, leading into an unkempt meadow. Hopefully there was an opening in the other end. There was and the farm I was staying at was after that.

I arrived. Solid Georgian looking farmhouse on the left, converted outbuilding on the right. That consisted of a big meeting/dining room with stairs up to a landing and bedrooms. Mine was up there with a sloping roof ceiling, roomy and comfy with a bathroom and shower. After some confusion with the shower I slept through the late afternoon; I’d arrived early. That bed was bliss.

In the evening I’d recovered enough to realise there was a small flatscreen TV across the room. Okay for channel surfing on remote while in comfort in bed. The TV informed me that the big cloud I was on the edge of that morning had flooded Ruislip and cause bad weather chaos elsewhere. All in all I’d come out of today pretty well.

 

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The final day beckoned. There was a big breakfast while outside a shadow dappled lawn enticed me with seats under trees and animals beyond idyllic in morning sunlight. But I had to be on my way for the final push.

It was a piece of cake. Instead of a main road I’d learned there was a quiet parallel lane up to the escarpment, perfect for me. Up that lane past hedgerows wild and ornate with gardens behind, up to the golden fields beyond I strolled, all bathed in that beautiful sunlight. Before I knew it I was through a wood and back up at the folly on top of that scarp slope. It looked more picturesque from this side.

On the other side of the main road there was a long woodland track with glimpses to the left of copses beyond fields full of the high yellow grass of wheat, reminding me of savannah I’d seen in Botswana what with the rising heat. To the right was a stretch where vegetation ended closer than it should, unless there was a steep slope with great views beyond.

Eventually there were. A farm nestled below in a fold of terrain and woods. Nearby the whole region seemed to disappear under a dark green lawn of trees blocking out open areas like fields, extending to the far horizon. An immense wooded park was another way of putting it for here and there I could make out the roofs and upper parts of some of those big landowner properties.

Later one of the boys I took to school saw a photo of that and exclaimed in high pitched wonder “you can see the whole world!” just like Fiver in ‘Watership Down.’ Well not the whole world really but the views up here did inspire a sense of wonder.

Even the property up here was good. Such as that folly and a house I came across in another wood. It’s architecture appeared influenced by Scandinavia, Japan or Frank Lloyd Wright, rather than the pretentious overpriced bogus little England boxes that we are supposed to devote our lives to. But it was as though I was on a higher plane now. Not only spiritually but literally. Even a helicopter over one of those private estates was below me.

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As I walked along this level ridge I felt as though I’d broken through some sort of pain barrier too. The most extraordinary thing was my foot didn’t hurt at all now! I’d noticed that on my way up to this ridge but felt it couldn’t last, but it was. Also I’d told the young guys at the radio interview that there was no such thing as perfect hiking weather but I was wrong and this was it! The beautiful weather was not only continuing but there was a breeze this high up that took the edge off the heat. Quite weird actually how after days of some sort of discomfort that I took for granted was a condition of hiking the whole thing had become painless enough to indicate I’d achieved a higher plane of existence.

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Then there were all those white clouds. They’d been forming up from little puffs and odd wisps into shapes and distribution that looked idealised, almost regular. Almost as though the children at the school had painted them! Had I expired and wound up in some sort of Heaven for someone who walks for a special needs school? That would explain the kiddie clouds and total lack of any sort of discomfort. All this and the landscape which was idyllic enough to be unreal under those clouds and endless immensities of blue sky, of a deep blue hinting at a subtly different atmosphere. Was I – on the other hand – on another planet that looked remarkably like England?

I wandered on in this bemused state but didn’t remain on my own. Normalcy returned to some extent when I met a local man out walking his dog. There was the companionship of a long rambling conversation with him; the sort one has in this sort of setting and weather.

That encouraged me to think – when we parted – that there’ll be more people on Walbury Hill – my objective – who could take a photo of the triumph of me completing another walk for the school. I was almost there. The last few miles of a walk can be psychologically the toughest but today had been a perfect day.

The track led past wildflowers and bushes to what had become a close horizon and I was there. On the highest hill in south east England. More of a featureless grassy plateau actually, probably because it was also an Iron Age hill fort. There were also no people to record my success. Oh well.

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Wayfarers Walk ended here but the track led on to more views appearing where a few trees guarded the edge of the hill. A line of small clouds seemed to drift up and away into the summer sky like a few last stray thoughts on the whole enterprise.

There were all the people in cars! In a car park just off the hill and and along a high lane where they could still see the view. Was I becoming one of the last wild men while everyone else was evolving into a race of legless Daleks? Oh well. Just down the lane was a memorial to a group of men who’d had to be much tougher than any of us: the paratroopers who’s stormed the Merville Battery at the onset of the D Day landings. They’d practised the assault here because the terrain was suitable.

Walbury Hill might have been a bit of an anticlimax and I still actually had some miles to go, but it was downhill mostly, through a profusion of leafy lanes and it was still a lovely day. Besides, there was a pub I would soon reach where I could celebrate.

Ramble on. Down the hill past bushy wildflowered banks and stunning views. Into the shadow of sunken lanes where a tractor trims a hedge. Past a country mansion whose owner is disturbing the peace powering up the racket on his machine to mow his massive front lawn. Through a tree resplendant hollow with a signpost for Kintbury where I catch the train. The pub should be just up on the right and there it was but….

Oh no it was being refurbished! Just looking at a refurbishment can make me feel tired and builders hoardings can make me feel as though I’m being confronted with a blank wall of crap. Irritating. Apart from which they were probably ruining a perfectly good and historically valuable pub. Another manifestation of property values driven by market forces which I love to loathe. Once clear of it there seemed to be nobody around so I vented my feelings at the top of my voice with a poem I’d composed:-

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Brainwashed shalt thou be.

Calloused.

Dumbed down.

Erased of courage and creative thought.

Fearful otherwise.

Gravity, debt pressing down on you like gravity.

Home ownership or financial black hole either way. 

In the status quo of property.

Just conform and be streetwise.

Kill all other dreams, all creativity.

Less they become a liability.

Marketing of mortgages makes us grateful slaves.

NO!

Ownership I don’t decry.

Perhaps I’d have owned more if that was run differently.

Question though one’s life revolving round it.

Rebel against the money tied up in it!

Stunting us with mortgages, maintenance, bloody refurbishments!

The curse of cowboy builders, DIY neighbours, estate agents.

Useless Mr. & Mrs. Dimmo on property programme infested TV!

Vent your spleen, their budget would set up you, me, or the odd 3rd world country.

Wankers.  And to Hell with those mortgage marketing bonus bankers!

X for execrable.

Yield not to the wonderland of property.

Zombiefied otherwise shalt thou be.”

It wasn’t home ownership I was against, it was the colossal amounts of money, conformity and lack of freedom tied up in it.  It’s not that I intended this blog to be an anti property diatribe but too often some manifestation of it seemed to interfere in my affairs and others.

Just as well I’d finished my rant anyway by the time I’d crossed what was Inkpen Common and reached ‘Hell Corner.’  Nothing hell like about it.  Just a party of people in a wooded lane around children on ponies.  Ramble on.  Down the rest of Rooksnest Lane into another lane named Pebble Hill, which became Blandy’s Hill after another mansion.  Ramble on.  Ramble on.  That was actually the title of a track based on Middle Earth by the rock group Led Zeppelin:-

“Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor

I met a girl so fair.

But Gollum and the Evil One!

Crept up and slipped away with her-er

Her her. Yeah.

And there aint nothing I can do about it.

So I guess I’ll keep on rambling!”

I’d started writing about this adventure by referring to Gandalf so why not finish in the same vein, or world?  Middle Earth and The Shire.  I could identify with some of the song, especially the bit about “Gonna work my way, round the world” which I’d done.  I confess that one of the reasons I’d ‘rambled’ or walked through many places and went on my travels was to compensate for things I felt I couldn’t do much about, by experiencing and achieving things others hadn’t.

I’d reached Kintbury.  I replenished at a corner shop; the only one I’d seen on the entire journey, then found an ice cream van after passing a graveyard.  Then I was crossing the canal by the railway, just missing a train.  There was another pub where I relaxed with a few pints and the barman took photos of me with the deflated balloon draped over the backpack.  The other refurbished pub and just been a blip in a day good enough to be memorable.  Not to mention the journey; an incredible fact struck me about that.  Despite walking 65 miles I didn’t have any blisters!

I finished a celebratory pint and crossed the canal to the station, hoping I’d missed the train again so I could go back to the pub.  I hadn’t.

Got a good shot on the way home of a big cloud haloed by its shadow.  A similar effect to those mountains at dawn in the French Alps.  I’d taken a shedload of photos on this journey, plenty for the photolibrary.

 

Sometime after I got home I notified Hampshire County Council about the lack of good signposting where Wayfarers Walk met that road, telling them it was a deathtrap because of that and because the bridge was not fenced so people could walk straight on to that traffic filled highway.

In September I would run into a brick wall trying to collect sponsor forms.  Nobody would know about them or care.  The biggest disappointment being my community centre where the form would be removed from the noticeboard over the holidays and not be found afterwards.  Nevertheless I would still make £250.50p.  More than last time.  There would be another school assembly in my honour.  Like last time.

In the meantime I was in for a couple of weeks of R and R.  Then it was off to the biggest SF convention ever in London.  Party on!

© D Angus 11 04

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HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Over hill and down dale.

 

The heat of yesterday seemed to have left a hazy morning when Jay dropped me in Droxford. Mostly thin cloud above, muting brightness and colours below as I hiked up Wayfarers Walk – a lane at this point – to the edge of the village where small children being dropped off at a small school eyed the good luck balloon floating along tethered to me. ‘What’s the story there?’ I think I explained to one of the mothers. After all I’d brought the balloon to attract attention and had decided to let it drift along with me for the whole walk.

I think asking questions is – or should be – a child’s basic right, but I wasn’t sorry to move on, beyond the school and end of the lane to the peace and solitude of open country. Apart from a distant tractor with harvester which disappeared over the shoulder of a hill. It was gradual uphill going to a much steeper slope below which the track turned right though a wood towards a saddle between hills.

A bramble or something got the balloon in the wood. I noticed it trailing along the ground on the other side. What now? I’d keep it throughout the walk. It might have perished but its soul goes marching on!

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The sun was coming out now over the wheatfields, a few already cut to stubble. The Meon Valley ethereal beyond, below a veil of cloud across Hampshire vaporising into blue sky.

On the saddle was a junction of lanes. Back on the hill I could see a writhing track that looked designed for go carts but Google Earth has given no clue.

Beyond the junction Wayfarers Walk went down the side of a golf course through a stretch of bushes grown thickly beside and over the path like a woody cloister.

A problem with golf courses was getting across them. Apart from navigation – and flying golf balls – there might be no right of way. I was questioned by a man hosing the green when I came to a break in the bushes but a relaxed chat led to friendly directions and a photo of him at his work.

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Crossing the course I came across a seat. Always make use of them on a long walk and I did. 3 old golfers came up when I was drinking and asked me if I was alright? Well I was splayed out a bit and – drinking water – looked as though I was hooked up to a plasma bag;- my water ‘bottle.’ Another friendly chat and they proceeded to play from the green I was at the edge of. In a professional manner. One hit his ball so hard I couldn’t see it fly!

Trees and a hedge. Harder to leave the course than it was to get in. There was a ‘B’ road too. Straight for that kind of road though and without much traffic. Easy enough to find the footpath leaving it too.

I’d been going down a gentle slope since the beginning of the golf course and that continued. The trail through Hampshire became narrow with undergrowth between a hedge bordering a field and woodland. It was here that I met a couple of other hikers. One at least was a postman and he was 75! Fitter than I was for one’s age – what one might call ‘spry’ – but he’d had the ideal job for it. There’s a lot of walking in delivering mail so that was first rate preparation for what a nurse had told me was good exercise when one’s older. Walking’s moderate exercise so it’s just right for the heart without straining it. Something one should watch when over 60. Then the conversation moved on to a more ribald topic: ‘Betty Mundy’s Bottom.’ It was a dry valley going up towards a chalk ridge. There were millionaires properties up that way too. There was a garden full of statues. Property is an altar I refuse to worship at so I brought up the subject of a certain notorious property magnate who was against The Ramblers association. After an entertaining round of shared condemnation I left them thinking I’d be running into people on the trail to talk to throughout Hampshire. What with the golf course and Percy yesterday. As it turned out there was no-one else really until Berkshire.

Betty Mundy’s Bottom was a defile carpeted by blocks of woodland and wheatfields leading to a long slope up to some of the highest ground in Hampshire. I nearly got lost at the start of it on a lane when it veered uphill through a wood. A map check revealed it shouldn’t have done that. It also revealed that the lane was ‘Sailors Lane.’ Did someone naming this part of the world have an inappropriate sense of humour? Good for them! ‘Inappropriate’ is a word that sets my teeth on edge: a mealy mouthed kiss of death office politicians charter of a word from the politically correct.

Blessed be the politically correct, for they shall inhibit the Earth.

By that time the photogenic regularity of a hedge and grass verge was hinting at serious money; but I didn’t see any statues. There was an extensive property though on the point of a major expansion.

Once round and past that Wayfarers Walk crossed a narrow wheatfield between conifer woods where I found a big flint stone shaped just like a giant’s mitten. I was more into geology than who owned what. It’s not clear exactly how flint was formed but it’s found in chalk and chalk covers a great deal if not most of Hampshire. I’d entered the great swathe of it below Droxford and most of the hike would be across a chalk landscape I would not be leaving until I came off the Malborough Downs to go home. Chalk was deposited as a marine sediment in the Upper Cretaceous when the giant marine monsters then were given more seagoing room by a rise of 300 meters in ocean levels. Again it’s not clear why this happened but today a rise like that would submerge southern and central England and leave features such as Dartmoor and the Pennines as small islands. After the chalk’s formation – and the comet that took out the marine reptiles among other monsters – the newly forming Alps warped the chalk strata and erosion sculpted it into ridges and escarpments such as the South Downs and Malborough Downs.

Oh by the way there was a 2nd millionaires property forcing a steep detour uphill through another wood; but that was nothing like as bad as the miles down a dangerous main road added to my route by a landowner 2 years ago on the Surrey Sussex border. Just a pleasant shady hike around 3 sides of a box tilted uphill then back to the planned route.

Before long I was actually ascending up to the South Downs. The western end of it – where the South Downs Way crosses Wayfarers Walk – is a dotted line of higher hills and ridges rather than the more obvious line of chalk downland. I’d stopped for a map check and water break where the trudge uphill started. Under blue skies with puffs of cloud it felt warm to hot but not as severe as yesterday. Maybe there was a bit more breeze and I was travelling light.

The ridge ahead was nearly 200 metres high but I was already at 100 metres in Betty Mundy’s Bottom. The trouble with hills is the convex slope. What you see at the top isn’t the top but a shallower slope out of sight of your incline. And so on. The view’s worth it though. I was amazed to make out the refinery at Fawley on the South Coast. About 15 miles away as the crow flies. In this part of the world one gets used to views being hemmed in by nearby hills, woods or houses. Plenty of opportunities for photos of faraway Fawley along with the occasional flint walled building.

There was a lot of Hampshire to see at a stile on the other side of the ridge too. Beyond the stile though was an easy grassy slope down through occasional trees spaced out like a park not far below one. In contrast to a typical South Downs scarp slope: steep and a long way down.

In the parkland I caught side of a deer on the edge of a wood and shot on maximum zoom. Not one of my best shots but at least the deer shows up well in the sunlight against the dark green shadowy backdrop of the wood. Once in awhile deer can be seen – usually when on foot – in Hampshire at least.

Further on I came to a wheatfield with a difference. The footpath led straight across it towards a tree which was the proverbial speck on the horizon! A notice notified me of ‘ground nesting birds please keep to footpath.’ Had no intention of doing anything else.

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It’s size and parched look under the sun reminded me of a desert once I was crossing it under this hot sun going camera happy. Sometimes my mind becomes a kind of radio playing music. I was wandering through a county so rather than a walk I felt ‘walkabout’ to be more of a correct word. So I should be thinking about that beautiful music in the film ‘Walkabout’ starring Jenny Agutter wandering through the Australian desert. What came to mind instead was the theme to ‘The Big Country.’ Long ago my mind had played that in South Africa when I was on a motorbike crossing a real desert! Now I was crossing a Hampshire that few people see: a prairie sized field under a sky big enough for ‘The Big Country!’ That exultant theme and this landscape expressed the excitement of the challenge of freedom. Braving the unknown. I was doing that again with this walkabout. YE-Haah!

Later on this trek I was to find my definition of desert for this field closer to the truth than I realised. A low big leaved plant like an alien intruder on an otherwise bare path was a clue.

The tree was part of a hedge with another wheatfield on the other side. Smaller though thankfully. Elsewhere it looked as though whatever wasn’t wood in this part of England was wheat. Great stretches of it. At least I think it was wheat and not barley. Checking my photos against Google Images seems to prove this.

Beyond all that lay Kilmeston. This village began with well kept paddocks where there was a horse wearing a zebra coloured cover, incongruously. Actually a zebra is a kind of horse. A weed choked path brought me to a neighbourhood of small village greens, tree tunnels and fields between rustic cottages. I saw no people. Just a rabbit. And later another horse.

Beyond that were meadows and a big house on a hill. And a big cloud. I’d noticed this near the horizon while crossing the wheat region but now I was out of the confines of Kilmeston it was a lot closer, covering the north and east, having the kind of grey hue that spelt out steady persistent rain.

By the time I’d reached some gardens near the house there was an overcast quality to the light. Hinton Ampner was the name of the place. National Trust and well worth visiting one day. I was actually about to come out of the ‘South Downs National Park’ here. I’d entered it south of Droxford. Here I could take a few photos from a gate, of a garden of grassy aisles flanked by junipers and lush foliage, but the light was bad enough to give the scene the sombre feel of an Agatha Christie murder.

I tried to move faster. It looked as though it could start raining at any time. There were a few pubs in a long village – Cheriton – strung out along a ‘B’ road and stream, actually the source of the River Itchen. The pubs weren’t in sight of Wayfarers Walk though. ‘B’ roads in villages have pavements and lack of hedges so the going was easy, so I pushed on.

And on along the road. The rain held off.

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Long enough for Wayfarers Walk to strike off right on a hill through a strand of trees. When I got to the other end I could see Arlesford, my objective, on the next hill. At that moment it started to rain.

That’s all that happened though. Spits and spots. It kept that way across another golf course, over a bypass and along the edge of town until I got to the pub Jay and I were to rendevous at. I had time to clean up and get a drink before she arrived. Oh one thing though. The sole on my right boot had begun to detach itself.

Back at Jay’s we relaxed with red wine and ‘Sharpe’s Waterloo.’ ‘Over the hills and faraway’ from that series was more stuff I played in my head, being the right kind of sentiment for this kind of venture.

Casualties were mounting though. Apart from the strap on the bag yesterday the balloon this morning had been ‘brambled’ I guess. The water bottle – which I’d hoped wouldn’t leak – persistently did so. As for the boot…

Jay’s husband suggested I go to a shop in Fareham to get the boot sorted out but that was the last thing I wanted. Tomorrow would be a long hard hike with full kit over hills and if I started that with a ‘shopping experience’ next thing I’d know would be ‘oh it’s midday.’ As an alternative he suggested a lash up job with sailors darning equipment and duct tape, saying if I turned up with a boot like that on one of his missions he wouldn’t accept me, but I had a schedule to keep, so I got to work and somehow mastered that job.

I more or less started the following day’s more urgent hike by getting lost at Arlesford. There’s a small river winding around the northern side of this big village or small town; confusing one’s direction and mapwork with it’s twists and turns so I wound up on a ‘B’ road and had to backtrack. It took me a long time to get clear.

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Lovely start to the first day’s walk in full kit though! A level stroll along this stream under shady trees after going downhill from the pub past flowers and even a tree fern and palmettoes. The river weeds and gravelly sandy shallow bottom were in full detail under crystal clear water in the sunlight of a beautiful morning. One of the best features of chalk scenery are these occasional streams. An ancient thatched mill was built over it dated 1258 judging by the date on the warning notice against fishing that still was on its wall! Plenty of birds about too; from the swan I saw just after getting to the river to the numerous ducks everywhere with the odd duckling family. What was most memorable was a tiny bird persisting in hopping towards me along most of a bench I sat on. Turned out to be a baby robin; one of it’s parents showed up too, seeing how it was doing cadging food. I felt guilty not having any, getting what turned out to be a good photo.

I started to pull away from the river past a building site and a big property among the trees of a hill across the river. Arlesford was the biggest place on this route and was still picturesque. Wasn’t sorry to be leaving it though as the map told me I was on the verge of heading north again. I had a long way to go with a heavy backpack and camera.

Wayfarers walk, initially constrained by neat fences, became wild with undergrowth again and the summer heat was getting serious; making me think of the African Savannah. Lions and Puff Adders would feel at home here now lolling or lurking in the foliage in ambush. All I had to worry about really might be an adder that would usually be gone when sensing my approach. Also it’s venom is weak, only being dangerous to dogs, children and the unwell. Still would need medical attention though which would screw up the walkabout.

There was a fallen tree, the bottom of it with it’s roots being by the track. Most of the earth coming up with it was pure chalk, white as the driven snow! Incredible how Hampshire could be this verdant when it was less than a few feet from the surface.

The walk became a quiet lane. Up and down gentle slopes with the river to the west.

At a farm Wayfarers Walk struck northeast up a long slope though a big bare patch on the map that I was afraid would feel like a desert but there was a hedge on the south side of this farmtrack giving shade all the way up past the weed choked ruins of another farm to another wood.

Past ‘Oliver’s Battery:’ an Iron Age hill fort with – it seems – signs of Roman Occupation. Hard to tell though for it was submerged under trees and greenery. Must have been one part of Britain where there were far fewer trees when it was built. The ‘B’ road from Arlesford to Basingstoke went straight through it.

On the other side of that was a vegetation choked path across a dip between fields that had me thinking about adders again. Up on the left was a much more modern earthwork than the Iron Age fort. A cross between an abstract rectangular version of that fort and a bunker. It had sloped sides with vents or some sort of structures like that sticking up here and there. I can only think of a submerged reservoir, having once worked in the construction of one.

Onward into open country: quiet long lanes past a maize field, then wheat and the odd house with a view all the time for miles across a valley to the west. Eventually I knew that I was going to have to do more than a dog leg back down a tree fringed track to that valley bottom and the ‘B’ road, then start up it northwards. It was worth it though. There was a pub where I would meet the road and I’d managed to time it for lunch.

The flint walled Woolpack Inn and that road were suddenly in front of me. With an old couple sitting outside at one of those trestle tables. Inside it was nicely rustic and I’d soon got cleaned up, got on good terms with the barmaid and was getting my liquid refreshment: lager interspersed with orange juice with ice to limit alcohol dehydration. The pub was actually hosting a wedding party but the rush hadn’t arrived yet – just a barfly or two, a few people marking time until the main horde showed up. Lucky I’d got there before them, or it would have been a long wait for the meal or walking northwards hungry.

By the time I left they’d shown up. Many outside.

Not far up the road was a quandary. Google Earth showed – or seemed to show – an obstacle on Wayfarers Walk where it left a lane going off from the road. I was trying to learn from not heeding it 2 years ago and meeting with near disaster so I chose the alternative – which seemed more open – leading through a farm. I chose the farm but when I got there it had that patina of a 2nd home rather than a farm. At least the place seemed deserted so I shouldn’t have to cope with “Can I help you?” While I worked out the best way to the walk. Gratifyingly.

“Can I help you?” (Oh ****!)

The man was charming but insistant and dismissive of Google Earth. The walk was signposted and there was a way through on the route I’d rejected. I was right about the 2nd home or a well to do one anyway. Oh by the way the walk was on the other side of that hedge, not along it on this side. ‘Can I help you?’ encounters can be embarrassing and this one was to the last. Could have been worse though for some are code for ‘can I hinder you?’ Ever get that feeling you can’t win?

Wayfarers Walk went parallel to the road then along it through the village of Brown Candover. There was a ‘wildflower verge’ there. At this time of year wildfowers were cropping up in many places I passed. There was a stream too which – when I took a few close ups – could have passed for a aerial view of a tropical river on an alien world;- with some imagination the weeds could have been exotic jungle.

Then there was a church off the road behind a huge lawn. Wayfarers walk went up the side of it.

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And uphill on an easy slope mostly, past wildflower strewn hedgerow undergrowth then beneath branches and foliage meeting overhead cloister fashion again. Suitable for a church. Not to mention useful in hot weather going uphill. A tunnel of foliage with a few breaks by a farm where there was a crossroads of tracks and where I photographed a shepard and his dog rounding up cattle on a field across a dry valley. The foliage tunnel went on uphill for a very long way.

Eventually it framed wheatfield upland seamed by hedges and lines of soaring trees. The slope continued.

There was a line of small trees too. Looking newly planted. Their ornamental look gave a different feel to the landscape. Almost like walking through a garden or maybe a model.

I could see a long way to the south. Probably all the way back to that ridge marking the end of the South Downs. Maybe that crop of woodland was where I’d crossed it.

The slope just went on and on. Until it flattened out where there was a tree tunnel, a view of combine harvesters clearing a distant field between woods and a walk through a wood. By then I was going generally downhill, though only slightly.

Well kept verges and fences spoke of serious money again but – thank God – this property – mostly on the right – didn’t have private notices everywhere. Maybe because they’d realised Wayfarers Walk went straight through here. The trees looked photogenic and even the industriously tidied haystacks in a field looked like experimental cuboid art exhibits. I continued down a narrow lane. The top of a noisy hedgetrimmer machine on the other side was devouring a hedge top like some robotic form of life.

Down to a country road, up that a short way towards smoke from a bonfire, off that road luckily before the smoke, along another small residential lane in a dry valley past cylindrical hay bales like giant cotton reels. Up a sharp incline round the house at the end of the lane and its pleasant gardens, up to more Hampshire scenery of wheatfields and woods.

Then I was on a long straight lane, down and up which was the village of Dummer, with a pub and bus stop which would be the link to my friend’s place in Basingstoke. Dummer was my days objective.

I saw a puzzling grey mass behind the trees on the horizon. Not some warehouse complex surely? The viewfinder on maximum zoom would settle it. It was my first sighting of the Malborough Downs! One can get used to seeing hills not much higher than trees if that, because they and other things limit the view in this part of the world so anything bigger such as a major range of hills can come as an optical surprise.

A couple in the distance were walking towards me. When we met and had a brief conversation there was real surprise regarding how far I’d come. Something I take childish pleasure over. Also the reply of jaunty heroism regarding the pub. “I’m gonna make it!”

Dummer was what English villages should be. Shady lanes and signposts under huge trees, no traffic, a small church on high ground, a beautiful manor house behind a high wall and – joy – a picturesque pub! The car park seemed deserted though.

A horrible suspicion dawned upon me when I saw a small notice on the door. It turned out to be fatal as the pub didn’t open until 6 and I’d got there just after 5! The name ‘Dummer’ seemed to change to ‘Bummer.’ Dried up waterhole. It really was like that: My water carrier had run out a few miles back on the trek.

Nothing for it but to trudge to the bus stop past thatched cottages and residences festooned with flowers. Shame about the pub. It seemed a long way and I almost missed the stop tucked into a hedge on a bend. So – it seemed – had many buses for there was no timetable.

At least I’d looked after my mobile better than on my epic trek down that Roman road 2 years ago. I could phone my friend and managed to get in touch. But it got better and better. “We were expecting you next weekend.” was the cheery response. Luckily I was talking to one of my 2 oldest friends and most of his family had just departed so the situation there was the same as a week later. I could prevail on him for a lift and stopover as long as I trudged back to the pub.

When I got there the seat by the side of the building was still a luxury. So much so that I couldn’t care less about the strange look a member of staff gave me when he turned up early. He was the odd one out anyway;- other travellers – on wheels – started arriving and were perplexed at the pub’s opening time.

I thought Doug was one of those. He had to attract my attention and wondered how I couldn’t see him? I was more tired than I thought. It can go like that on a long hike. One perseveres for as long as it takes but afterwards fatigue catches up. Hell, I’d run out of water and couldn’t get life saving beer so I might have been dehydrated too.

Doug and I met when I’d just moved from an environment full of houses to one that seemed on the edge of a real wilderness. I was 12; so to move to an area of common heathland and pine plantation in Berkshire at that time of life when one was into exploring and nature was like moving to Africa or Canada.

Doug was in the same year and grade as me at school. Even then he was powerfully built since he actually had Viking ancestry, whereas I was a weedy individual and would remain so for a long time. Those differences didn’t matter for even then he was also a great naturalist, his knowledge of animals and plants always much more extensive than mine. So he soon became the ideal guide on those expeditions I wanted to mount, exploring the wilderness of ‘the common;’ identifying animal tracks, birds, insects and pond life while we caught anything of the creepy crawly variety.

Much of what I caught escaped. My parents had a tough time of it. My mother discovered newts walking along the landing, my father had to evict lizards every time he wanted a bonfire since they preferred that to the rockery I tried to get them to colonise. He also had to help evict a grass snake who’d got into their bedroom and wanted to make a home under their wardrobe. When relatives joined us my parents spent the night in my bedroom where they learned all they never wanted to know about the sex life of the Common Toad. It was probably that which condemned relatives to my bedroom which became notorious as a hazardous zone for them, especially grandparents. I called it my Gerald Durrell phase. Happy days.

We drove off but not to his place to begin with. It was compulsory with Doug to have a natural history tour or lecture. Never mind a day’s hike, dehydration or eyes smarting from suncream getting into them;- when in Rome do as the Romans do. Not that I didn’t appreciate it. The car was a real comfort after the hike, the topic he loved – and I more or less did – was a damn sight better than more than a few man made affairs my ear has been bent with. With any luck my mind might retain some of it.

There was also the view. Doug took me to Farleigh Hill. Part of a rumple of chalk hills between the Malborough Downs and the North Downs to the east. From there I could see across a nearby motorway to the high ground of the Malborough Downs where over to the left was a faraway radio aerial. That more or less marked my objective for tomorrow. To the right was a pale stretch of industrial buildings and office blocks amidst the darker mass of trees and suburban roofs: Basingstoke.

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I was standing next to a hip high plant where a lot of its burrs could attach themselves to me. Goosegrass, warned Doug. I was too tired to heed him properly and had to take scenic photos so after that we had to spend some time getting them off me.

Somewhere along that route we came across a nettle leaved bell shaped blue flower. I was taking enough photos of wildflowers on this trip to fill a garden. There was the subject of Ash dieback as well, which could become as bad as Dutch Elm disease. Doug also had a bat detector that could pick up on faint sounds of grasshoppers or crickets which the hearing of fellows our age could miss.

Not a sausage. Doug blamed pesticide drenched crops for killing many of them. That was when I thought of that wheatfield I’d crossed. Indeed it was a biological desert for that reason Doug asserted;- pesticides killing off any other plants in them -such as wildflowers – which removed whatever animals depended on them also. Most likely small fry, but small in nature is no guarantee of unimportance. Bees – much under threat – being a good example. So when I thought of a desert while crossing that prairie sized wheatfield I was closer to the truth than I realised.

We drove off the hill and passed a cyclist about to go up it. He had a water supply attached to his bike. Doug took water in his bike carrier but was disparaging about the modern emphasis on staying hydrated. Not with cyclists but with cases like joggers when they’re only running a mile or two. I knew where Doug was coming from for I too was getting fed up with excessive nanny state emphasis on personal health, and safety of course. We were probably wrongheaded but it was the comradeship of old timers. ‘Wimps,’ ‘what’s the world coming to?’ etc.

Doug lived in a semi on this side of Basingstoke centre. Like Jay he had green fingers and apart from a well stocked garden there were more plants obscuring the front window. Otherwise it was homely and cluttered. One never knew when one would pick up something interesting to read out of the clutter. One of his sons who practically lived in a small side room under the stairs augmented this with a computer and – being a military enthusiast – model tanks, terrain and a few life size weapons.

The bathroom was okay for a bath although there seemed to be no way of getting the plug out afterwards. “That could be a problem.” Doug later remarked, though he seemed confident about dealing with it. I felt much better of course and what with a stroll through the balm of evening for some cans of beer and a knock at the door later heralding an ordered Chinese takeway my well being was on the up. Unlike most times here when I had a sleeping bag and settee cushions I even had a bed for the night. Not that I minded about the other times. It was good that a friend could offer a roof for the night, period.

The following day I forgot to take the paperback I was reading at bedtime. When I realised that I considered it a contribution, bearing in mind my old friend’s hospitality. Just as well. That dammed oil the nurse had told me to put in my ear had wound up on the pillow. Doug later reminded me of it in an email as ‘the leaking of your brain through your ear.’ Nasty.

When he took me back to the bus stop in Dummer Doug understood my reluctance to go back to the pub. It was further than he thought, he admitted. Now though the motorway was only a stone’s throw away judging by the map. Odd how some trees and a winding lane over rising ground seemed to mask it the sound.

The motorway was in a cutting and I crossed it on an interchange of tarmac and tension I didn’t want to be a part of. It was also potentially hazardous I thought since the map didn’t show a footpath by the access road on the other side. There was a partially overgrown one though behind a crash barrier so I was okay on that, walking down past a swathe of pink flowers that Doug said did well after fires if I remember correctly.

Across a clear dual carriageway, down a lane past a house with a white picket fence and sunflowers into another field. The dark block of a wood was on the other side.

When I got there everything opened up: the landscape, the view and the path which developed into a broad grassy way that would have been okay for covered wagons. I looked at in that way for in the distance were ‘them thar hills:’ the Marlborough Downs, like sunlit uplands across the prairies. It was ‘The Big Country’ all over again.

Why not give in to that urge to wheel an arm over one’s shoulder with a “Wagons.. Rollll!?”

YEEHAAH! Freedom. I love it.

© D Angus 10 14

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HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Preparations and disused railways.

In January 2014 I was ready to walk another 65 miles for my school.

2 years ago I’d walked that distance from London to Chichester for the same school and because I was 62 had declared it my ambition to become like Gandalf: to be capable – though ancient – of hacking it across the Misty Mountains. I loved exploring on foot and it was a way of keeping fit. Well, by February I’d decided to walk across ‘The Shire.’ The county I lived in: Hampshire. In 3 stages:

Disused railways; which would make up most of the trek from Fareham up through Wickham and the Meon Valley to Droxford.

Over hill and down dale. At Droxford I’d join Wayfarers walk which traced a more drunken looking route northwards over the hills and vales of Hamphshire to Arlesford and up to the west of Basingstoke.

Along the Malborough Downs. Wayfarers walk followed the top of them to Walbury Hill. The highest chalk hill in Britain and Berkshire where it extended south. Then it was a short hike up to Kintbury where I could get a train home.

I’ve decided to call what I’ve just done a walkabout for although most of the walk was northwards it curved round the north of Hampshire to the west once it got to the downs.

It had advantages over the last march down the Roman road to Chichester. I could stay with friends along the route on every night apart from the last one; that was one night better than last time. Just as important were far fewer main roads, although there were more hills. There was also learning from hindsight and much more time to prepare. I’d made certain of the time to the point of giving the deadline of the end of January to a man planning a walk from Normandy to Arnhem. I was thinking of joining him for the old British sector of World War 1’s Western Front but when there was no news from him by that time I made my choice. After that there was the fun part of planning it: mapwork.

So to discover I had high blood pressure at Easter was a surprise of the worst sort.

Having already committed myself to the walk I decided to keep the school and my council employers in the dark about this scare – in case I worried either and got smothered by Health and Safety – but my walkabout is now complete so ‘now it can be told!’

I had an average of 150 over 90 the doctor told me and prescribed a pill a day for the rest of my life. The very morning after that the first bit of news on the radio was about a scandal involving drugs company employees leaning on doctors! It’s not that I didn’t have respect for the medical profession but I wanted to investigate things thoroughly before giving in to a life sentence of drugs which – I learned – might have side effects. Meanwhile friends already on them gave me a ‘join the club’ welcome and lets face it we’re old, but though I was 64 I still wanted a more active lifestyle.

Then I found that blood pressure monitors are incredibly innacurate. A doctor friend near Reading swore by calibration and after a hard march from the station to his place we tried my monitor out then his, which looked as though it had survived from the time of HG Wells. There was a 30 point difference! Every monitor was on a different calibration. Having worked a lot with maps this offended my demand for accuracy; crucial with something like blood pressure, especially with the consequences involving serious drugs! It worked in my favour though because the professionally advised monitor I obtained gave lower readings.

“You’re going to make a fight of it aren’t you.” observed the taxi driver I worked with taking the kids to school.

“You’re dammed right I am.” I was determined to cut this problem down to size before it compromised the walk, organising a counterattack on all fronts:-

  • Water. A basic need and it was surprising how much more I should drink.

  • Diet. More fruit and vegetables of course and less meat and alcohol. I still managed to enjoy the odd alcoholic evening out and the odd pig out.

  • Timing of amounts eaten. Another surprise was being advised to have a bigger breakfast, more food at midday and nothing much in the evening. Evening meals could lead to obesity it seemed and I knew 2 guys with pot bellies who had no breakfast. I soon lost a stone.

  • Exercise. Most days if not every day of course but not first thing in the morning I discovered. The afternoon was best if one was older. Walking’s the best thing but the exercise bike could still come in useful if it was raining. I also occasionally did yoga down at the community centre.

  • Relaxation/meditation. I bought an American musical relaxation machine.

  • ‘Alternative medicine.’ The woman heading a yoga group I occasionally attended recommended hawthorn tablets for the heart together with a consultant. I outflanked the expense of that by picking up the advised tablets in a few health shops in Gosport.

I’ve no idea what worked best or if one or two things worked at all but I met with success! So I stuck to these tactics. The weekly average kept falling. Until I went back to the doctor’s and got the same kind of reading as the first time. However he said that the readings I’d written down seemed lower than the average I was claiming and there was such a thing as unconscious nervousness in surgeries leading to higher blood presssure. He conceded that I could stay off the pills.

This was no mean feat as by now I’d got sucked into the middle of the kind of war that was just what one didn’t need if one had high blood pressure: a power struggle against a character who wanted to demolish the neighbourhood for a housing estate, mentioned in the last blog entry. It was the evil business of property interfering and pressurising again. To cut a long story short I removed him from my life and others by buying his shares. That didn’t put me into debt but it did leave me out on a limb financially.

Despite that I could say that it was ‘victory on all fronts’ a week before the walk:-

I’d achieved my lowest weekly blood pressure average: 126/76.

The first of those shares were sold to re-imburse me with many more offers promised. It seemed I was making a new career out of being a part time hero, what with this and the next 65 mile trek for a Special Needs School.

4 more photographs made it into that high standard prestigious photolibrary making a total of 8! I was widening the breach.

But what about the walkabout’s preparations? After the last walk I wrote out a post mortem with bullet points. I’ll explain the preparations now in the same style:-

  • This time I contacted local radio and had a good interview with them. I also announced the sponsored walk on Facebook and had a special email address arranged. Not that it got me any contacts but I don’t mind. The media side of things had been covered this time and money was coming in anyway from 15 sponsor forms I’d arranged or left with the community centre, the leisure centre, a coffee shop, art gallery and sports shop, housing company, the school itself, 2 technical colleges, 2 banks, my council employers, the local surgery, the local SF group. Twice as many as last time.

  • I’d already approached the local paper that let me down last time to see if the same staff were employed and wound up speaking to the journalist who’d done so much of nothing 2 years ago. Of all people. There was no more involvement with the press.

  • Old Ordnance Survey maps would be taken with me but also more recent larger scaled ones and research was carried out on Google Earth.

  • A meeting with my friend in Health and Safety for advice led – when I dared speak out of turn regarding one restriction too many – to my ear being bent on how unfair the public and press were to the Health and Safety profession. I helped end the conversation before its paralysis immobilised me. The silver lining to this cloud was the embarrasing H&S statement people having to sign when coming with me being superfluous anyway. The only person interested in joining me disappeared then emailed me a few days before the walk saying she had too much work.

  • Charity websites. The most likely one demanded that the school be a registered charity, then passed me on to another charity website described as ‘fantastic.’ I smelt sales talk. The ‘fantastic’ site insisted on the burden of a target which meant me carrying that across the whole of Hampshire with a chance of getting absolutely nothing afterwards. I dropped charity websites from my plans.

  • I wrote everything down on a piece of paper then for good measure copied that on to the computer.

  • Recharging equipment was taken for the mobile phone. And camera of course.

  • Maybe my counterattack on high blood pressure counted as an emergency plan if things went wrong. It was also warm and dry enough to take no sweater and just a light mac rather than the parker in case of rain.

With any journey though there’s the risk of conspiring events coming at one out of nowhere to screw up the schedule or make one feel guilty about going on any adventure, trip or holiday:

The first was the first time I went to an appointment to have my ears syringed and was told by the nurse that she couldn’t do it. Worse than that was a woman who insisted on a double appointment and so couldn’t organise one before the walk. I would have to drop olive oil in my ears throughout it. Didn’t bother with that much, as things turned out. Medical matters were becoming a pain.

If that was irritating the next bad turn made me turn the air blue! The block I lived in had been in dire need of recladding or rendering since 2000 when I’d moved in. The last property maintainance company had been parasites running down the neighbourhood for demolition. The new company were doing their best with trying to get grants but the government kept thwarting them by changing the rules. Including a few days into the walk: resulting the long awaited recladding building inspection suddenly taking place without warning over 1 and a half days at the worst time. Being away for one of those days I could only squeeze this latest property related bollocks into the late afternoon after school broke up delaying the beginning of the walk: a meeting and evening meal with one of my 2 oldest friends who was giving me the greatest support!

I phoned Conservative Central Office and told them why I wouldn’t be bothering to vote in the next General Election. I’d always voted on principle regardless of whether it did any good or not, but this time I had absolutely had it with central government just mucking everyone around. I took care to give them the benefit of my views on property too. Up yours!

Early lunchtime closing day at the school for the holidays. One of the less well off mothers had surprised me by offering a really generous amount of money for my endeavor. Equalised by my driver which took us nearly half way to what I’d gained last time. I informed the Head Teacher when we got in then waited in the hall with the assembling children. There was confusion when I didn’t realise a teacher had headed for the school entrance with one of mine. My driver had to come back and tell me. Hurrying with the other 2 kids I suddenly found a helium balloon thrust into my hands and the female teaching staff gathered round the entrance cheering me! Led by the Head Teacher. The weather had held, it was the start of the holidays and I was being given a heroes send off!

Morning. Breakfast with Jay in a house of similar design to the houses our parents had bought when we met all those years ago when I was 12. It felt well to do now compared to much of my existence and took me back to adolescence. Jay had become a music teacher, married a naval officer and raised a family while I’d become the footloose adventurer. After long absences fortune had brought me to a neighbouring town. She would be picking me up and dropping me off as far north as Arlesford and I was going to stay at her place for 2 more nights. That meant I could travel light for 2 days. With my hero’s balloon. It might attract attention and interest in the walk.

Once we’d all got strapped in yesterday and driving off from school my first thought had been what do I do with the balloon? Might as well let the kids look after it in order of them getting home while I worked out that question. The first boy was soon on the case, critical in his slightly peeved manner that it said ‘Good Luck’ without my name on it. I really wouldn’t worry about that though because he was full of penetrating questions such as why hadn’t I made the planets the same size? The next child was a simpler minded fellow who just considered life to be one big party! The balloon confirmed his point of view. Nothing like children for teaching one how to laugh again.

I picked my way through the labyrinth of outer Fareham gradually leaving my cares behind under a stunning blue sky. London had hit 30°  again just like last time I’d walked for the school and just like last time it looked like a heatwave, which was why I’d decided to wear shorts for the first 2 days.  It only took one subtropical plant to give a semi desert feel to the suburbscape I was wandering through.

I’d been warned against carrying plastic water bottles because too many of them gave one cancer, apparently.  So I’d been sold a new fangled one – or carrier – that looked like a plasma bag and had a tube one could suck water up.  I hoped it wouldn’t leak, wrapping 3 shopping bags round it.  Wait a moment, since the new fangled one was also plastic – presumably – couldn’t that also give one cancer?  Oh what the hell?  I’d been to Chernobyl which was worse and guess what?  Sooner or later we all……Die!  To be blunt.  No two ways about it.

After I’d finished the packing yesterday I’d tracked down the young man doing the inspection.  That went easily enough although he wanted to see the heating bills.  Despite bringing the kids home at lunch I’d not made the bus stop until twenty to five.  Later than I would have been on a normal afternoon run.  The last walk had begun with a free lift to London, like scoring a 6 on a dice roll.  This time I’d rolled a 1 or missed a turn.  Oh well.

With some relief I reached the disused railway that led out of Fareham. ‘The Deviation Line.’ That’s what the notice said. I couldn’t suppress the thought of a footpath with that sort of name being a nice place for an evening stroll in fetish gear with a chance of meeting others of like persuasion! If one’s into that sort of thing. The name could be explained by the map as being an branch line curving off only to rejoin the line it had left further north.

It had been a long slog uphill in full kit from the Fareham bus stop to Jay’s place so by the time I’d got there I needed a shower and being unfamiliar with her bathroom wound up having a bath. It had to be quick because she’d said so and I was late because of that bloody inspection.

 Hampshire walkabout 005

The disused railway had become a path which some people used for cycling and their dogs. Soon I was under the motorway and under the shade of trees after that. Disused railways are not only level and direct. The trees along it in this sort of weather are an advantage too.

After the bath Jay had revealed that we were going to a meal with a friend of hers beyond Chichester, just as I’d suspected. Sods law operated of course since we were late, with the motorway being blocked necessitating a diversion through Havant, then after picking up the friend a level crossing held us up within sight of the pub.

The Deviation Line ended with a small footpath up to a lane and a bridge over the real railway. The lane was full of ‘Durkin’ vehicles in a hurry for some reason. Knowle was near: a business park and a complex on a low hill that had been involved with mental issues. Hampshire Councilling and Psychotherapy Services still resides there according to Google Earth. Not a bad first stop if one was crazy enough to walk 65 miles. There were private notices making me feel unwanted and irritated but a runner came the other way totally unconcerned. I passed through without incident. There were more trees than I remembered though parts of this place looked unkempt. I sat on an abandoned fridge for a water break and map check.

I’d usually had red wine when Jay and I had meals out but this was lager drinking weather! Also red wine would give me more of a hangover on the morning of the walk. That was what I felt at the pub. Instead of steak I had a lighter meal too, but conversation was spirited as usual. Afterwards there was a surprise when we were settling up at the bar and Jay produced a sponsor form I’d forgotten I’d given her. It had the same amount I’d picked up that morning which meant the total had doubled in one day! Before the walk had started. This looked like mushrooming.

The lane beyond Knowle brought me out into the open and into the heat. One photo a mile would supply proof that I’d done the walk, but I must have gone camera happy by then because I was taking photos of everything including pylons! Although the camera was the heavy Nikon. When I had the blood pressure scare I didn’t want to lug that along so had tried to find a lighter waterproof one; the Nikon not being waterproof. The photolibrary wouldn’t allow that though so I took a chance in order to get photos that might pay.

Hampshire walkabout 025

I reached Wickham and crossed it’s car parked square that was turning into a micro desert under the hot blue sky, to get a long awaited orange juice at a restaurant. Wickham was to host a big folk festival but I caught no sign of it. Back to the shade of the trees along the next disused railway.  I was actually entering into the National Park covering the South Downs and – it seemed – half of Hampshire.  I would not be leaving it until Arlesford.

Hampshire walkabout 032_edited-1

It was mostly a green tree tunnel. Not much in the way of views but they’d come later. No it was better to be under these trees on a day like this. When I emerged to photograph a field the edge of the shadows felt like a division between jungle and desert. Lee on Solent was 32°!  According to rumours.  If it was anywhere close to that heat I was doing the right thing:  getting a direct, level, easy shaded walk for the better part of the 11 miles of the first day, while getting used to the footslogging.  What my driver calls ‘boxing clever.’

Some of Wickham and further afield had similar ideas.  People and dog walkers were around, thinning out the further one went northwards with cyclists going further afield.  I had a long rambling conversation while walking with a man named Percy who was another keen photographer venturing further afield, before he had to get back to his wife.

Hampshire walkabout 033

It seemed there was only the occasional bridge to tell me where I was. Like neglected relics of a departed fraught civilisation. That’s what they looked like from below with the old iron or brickwork and odd plant or dangling creeper. In a way that’s what they truly were, for this line was useful as a route to the south coast ports during the war and was used by Churchill.

Once in awhile though there was the humdrum hum of traffic on a main road. I’d grown to loathe that sound 2 years ago but now it was welcome, a navigational aid. Once there was the raucous row and sight of a nearby sawmill too, visible as an unusual complex of grey on the map. Wasn’t sorry to get away from that, back into my quiet easygoing green gloom.

Hampshire walkabout 047

Not far from Droxford I came across ‘a tree surgeon’ up a tree and got permission for a few photo’s. No need to pose just work away I assured him. People didn’t always like being photographed by a stranger and it was simpler to indulge in my love of landscape and natural forms. Sometimes though people made a shot by giving it scale or character and on this walk I learned to be sneaky, taking shots from the rear, or on zoom, often both.

There was also the Meon River. A couple of times it had shown up in the shadows like jungle pools and it was getting nearer again on the approach to Droxford. There was the chatter of people enjoying themselves beyond the trees and through a break in them I could see through the zoom that they were summer bathers in the river across a field.

Hampshire walkabout 054

There was just one little snag where the disused railway was crossed by the lane to Droxford. No obvious way off the railway. That’s the way it looked on the map and also at the bridge when I reached it. I was in a cutting through temperate jungle with no way up to the left. Would I have to trek another mile north before heading back again? Pretty undesirable on the closing stage of a days walk. No wait. There were small steps up into the foliage to the right. Like long forgotten steps to a lost temple. This was where it was vital to have my build of not being too overweight plus sustained persistence; for I had to inch my way up this between the bridge and a pipe through the undergrowth like a slow motion Indiana Jones before weaving my way round and out.

I emerged from darkest Hampshire on to the lane. The final footpath to Droxford should be just beyond the river. Time to phone Jay on the mobile.

The crystal clear sandy bottomed river just cried out to be bathed in. The footpath almost disappeared in what looked like the backend of a farm but the map I had was large scale enough to show fields and the configuration was right.

There was a hike through parklike meadows. Where the strap on a bag I was carrying broke. After tying a knot in that I squeezed down a path at the back of a hedge and came out at a church. Wayfarers Walk. I was now on it for the sign said it was crossing the village here. The main road through the village was ahead and the pub should be back a bit. As soon as I got out on to the road I could see Jay.

Hampshire walkabout 058

The pub was lovely and so was the beer. The balloon excited some comment and Jay took a photo of me. And that was about all to report for the first day really.

Driving home there was no sign of the route I’d followed. Hidden by woods and cuttings it seemed as though the disused railway running parallel to the road belonged to a parallel world. Compared to the roads I was now on it was as though I’d followed a mysterious trail created by rather large animals.

After getting cleaned up there was another pub nearer Jay’s. “I’ll have a San Miguel because that reminds me of the Philippines and this is like the Philippines.” I exclaimed to the chuckling barman. Outside the heat I was referring to was mellowing down into one of those long golden summer evenings that makes one feel privileged to be British.

© D. Angus 08 14

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Europe: Poland.

 Auschwitz was actually near the headwaters of the Vistula river: the course of which runs across the Polish plains like a story of Poland, from Auschwitz through Krakow – once the Polish capital – Warsaw and eventually to the Baltic near Gdansk or what was Danzig, the flashpoint that started the Nazi invasion of Poland.

After going through Auschwitz I was hoping things could lighten up with the tour of Krakow. We had the ideal guide for that: a beautiful young Polish lady who was an enthusiastic not to mention voluble guide; to the point of being comical I was to learn. It was the inner city or ‘Krakow Old Town’ we were to see; surrounded by fortifications that were now mostly a ribbon of parkland encircling – in the shape of a bloated tadpole – what was Poland’s capital from 1038 to 1569.

Starting from the ‘head’ on the northern edge. At the round fort of the Krakow Barbican, guarding St. Florians Gate, the main entrance to the city. Then down the ‘Florianska’; a main thoroughfare flanked by ornate architecture and running commentary to the cathedral like St. Mary’s Basilica.

This had two towers at the front but only one had a spire. There was a trumpet signal on every hour from this religious edifice that was cut short. The explanation being that the trumpeter had an arrow in the throat when warning of a Mongol attack: there were 3 Mongol attacks during the 11th century, the 1st virtually destroying the city.

Now for the comedy. Our charming guide showed us how miscreants – in the view of religion – were punished in the middle ages. By a large side door I was invited to kneel so a collar and short chain attached to the wall could be clipped around my neck. Then Jocelyn took a photo of what some might describe as a middle aged male fantasy: me looking as though I was enjoying it – the humour anyway – while our guide kept me in my place with a hand on my shoulder and a radiant beam of achievement for the camera.

Inside St. Mary’s the enthusiasm continued unabated. Amidst the shadowy gloom and reverent splendour it dawned on me that our lady’s lecture on Polish culture was audible enough for most in this cathedral sized church to overhear it. It did occur to me to ask her to soften the volume a bit but somehow it was like thinking ‘I’ll swim against that overwhelming current in just a bit.’ A priest beat me to it, sidling up to her and murmuring in her ear. Profuse apologies to everyone.

Comedy aside it’s worth mentioning the role the Catholic church has played in Poland. What our guide had put around my neck was an example of how repressive this church could be and its intolerance is well known. However: given that Poland didn’t exist as a country for over 100 years and given its domination by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for half of the 20th century the Catholic church became a source of solace, strength and resistance for this country.

St Mary’s was on a corner of the largest medieval town square in Europe. Big enough to surround the ‘Sukennice’ or Cloth Hall in the centre. Once a centre of international trade, now a market and a centre for museums and restaurants. Museums were also housed in the Town Hall Tower;- an outsize Gothic tower near a corner of the Sukennice. Other attractions included a statue of Adama Mickiwiecza, a famous Polish poet, destroyed by the Nazi’s then rebuilt. Also a flower market where I photographed the girls and a great hollow sculpture of the head of Eros – incongruous in this setting – that kiddies inconguously played around in.

Next was the University quarter. Most memorably the garden sandwiched between buildings housing the oldest University in Poland. It was a cultural garden with statues on plinths of the great and good. Polish culture embraced the extremes of Pope John Paul 2nd and the Astronomer Copernicus who both graduated from this University; also a heavy metal trend – I’ve learned since – called ‘death metal.’ At least one of its bands by the name ‘Vader’ had gone international.

 University garden_8645

In fact Poles who’d become famous or trailblazed anyway included Marie Curie or Curie-Sklodowska, Aleksander Wolszczan who actually discovered the 1st extrasolar planets, Joseph Conrad no less, or rather Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Stanislaw Lem, Roman Polanski, Max Factor and Michael Marks. The latter 2 founding business empires, Marks and Spencer in the case of Michael Marks. Then as if that isn’t enough Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the 1st woman to sail round the world single handedly.

Last but not least was the famous composer Frederyk Chopin who had a sculpture in a park beyond the University. Along with other dedications throughout Poland and the airport near Warsaw.

By then we were in the greened over fortified belt. A long walk down that brought us to the end of Krakow Old Town. It was a hill occupied by the massive walled citadel of the Wawel Royal Castle, built by Casimir III the Great who reigned from 1333 to 1370, on the site of a settlement and trade centre that has a history stretching as far back as 50,000 years ago.

It has been called Gothic. However in the early 16th century it became something of an ‘arts centre’ when Italian architects and sculptors, German decorators and others native and foreign were brought in create a Renaissance palace.

Wawel Royal  Castle entrance Castle_8666

After this though the place fell into neglect when the capital was moved to Warsaw and the Swedes invaded Poland in 1655-57 and 1702. Royal insignia were stolen by the Prussian Army in 1794 too.

After 1795 the Austrians recognised its defensive advantages, strenthening its position by adding some of the walls, but not its aesthetic qualities, pulling some of its buildings down. Restoration began after they pulled out in 1905 and after surviving the 20th century it is now a preserved landmark.

Vistula at Krakow_8664

It still offered a good view of the Vistula.

One thing I’d seen now and then and would see again in Warsaw were girls in wedding gowns. They were having their photos taken with their grooms. A charming custom. The sight of a girl in a sensuous white gown amidst normally dressed passers by was ethereal, enigmatic, dreamlike.

Finally the Jewish quarter on the same side of the river but beyond Krakow Old Town. Not much time here but enough to spot the oldest synagogue in Poland and a Jewish memorial for a community the suffered the Holocaust after living there since the 1400’s.

I realise now though that Jocelyn and I were neglecting Polands’ natural attractions. Within the railways of Katowice and Krakow to Warsaw lay not only the ‘Polish Jura’ but a desert! The Polish Jura is an upland that has hills rather than mountains; nevertheless there are caves and rock formations, some surprisingly spectacular. As for the ‘desert’…well it’s more a particularly sparsely vegetated heathland with an unusual amount of sand deposited during the Ice Age. It’s surrounded by forest but is pale enough to show up on satellite imagery and the Germans took the desert definition seriously. The Afrika Korps trained there during the war.

Warsaw tram_8671

Warsaw with its modern buildings and more being built was in contrast to Krakow. There were also futuristic looking trams. They were a real feature of central Europe; I’d seen them in Krakow and Brno.

Most of Warsaw was a modern city because 90% of it was destroyed in World War 2. The day after Auschwitz and Krakow was a free day to explore but we got off to a shaky start when I fell over on a wide street crossing, luckily with no traffic near. Also – construction being a feature of modern cities – there was that block sized area excavated for a metro line we had to find our way round before we got to the museum for the Warsaw uprising. A former tram power station.

This took place at the beginning of August 1944 when the Russian army was in the eastern suburbs. The Poles soon liberated 3/5ths of Warsaw often isolating the Germans in pockets. Stalin though didn’t want an independent Poland so the Russian army didn’t help the Poles though it was by now so close. Also Soviet airfields were denied to the Western Allies, making supply drops a hazardous business. The result was a slowly losing battle for the Poles as they were forced into smaller pockets and away from the river. An orgy of atrocity and destruction. German forces included a brigade composed of criminals, massive siege guns and flame throwers. At the beginning of October the Poles surrendered.

On the other side of Germany the liberation of Paris was also taking place during August. Hitler had ordered the general commanding the Paris garrison to destroy the city. Had the US army halted outside Paris like the Soviet army and the German general obeyed Hitler’s orders Paris could have suffered the same fate as Warsaw.

The first thing we saw when we entered the museum was a glassed over hole in the floor which appeared to reveal part of a sewer people were walking along. We went looking for that and found a sewer mock up but it wasn’t under reception. Eventually we realised that what we’d seen under reception didn’t exist but was a clever deception highlighting 2 factors of the Warsaw Uprising: sewers and confusion.

The sewers were used to link up areas of the city and suburbs captured by the Poles. Communications, supplies, reinforcements and withdrawals were effected in this way. This added to the confusion of the Germans, initially at least. Also – apart from districts taken over by the Poles – large parts of the city were contested with the outcome in confusion for some time.

Signs through several levels guided one through the course of the Uprising. This museum was stuffed with exhibits and overall had a similar gritty grim realism to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev. Brilliantly done, from the sewers, simulated rubble of wrecked buildings, clandestine radio station and printing press to the names of those who took part, weapons, sounds of destruction and the biggest exhibit: a B24 plane used in supply drops.

We were – without realising it – on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. Scene of another uprising in April 1943. A smaller version of the Warsaw Uprising with a similar result. Ghetto liquidation and rumours of death camps – all too correct! – sparked this Jewish uprising. The survivors were likely to wind up in places like Auschwitz.

On the other side of that was the Saxon Garden; one of the oldest parks anywhere. Inspired by Versailles it was largely wooded but under the trees were formal flowerbeds and walks. Together with a magnificent fountain and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the far side. Dedicated to unknown soldiers who fought for Poland in World War 1 apparently. That meant they were doing this before Poland became a nation again. Albeit briefly.

Pilsudski Square – the largest square in Warsaw – was named after the Marshall who achieved this. He also achieved the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ in 1920. This was a battle similar to the Marne outside Paris: a turning of the tide against an invasion on the point of enveloping a country. It’s a very little known battle in the UK but the Poles split the Red army which retreated from the edge of Warsaw into what Lenin called “an enormous defeat.” It was truly decisive in stopping Communism in early years of success from entering and very likely taking over central Europe.

Then it was the Old Town by the Vistula. Completely reconstructed after the war with another huge square, on the other side of which was The Royal Castle, complete with carriage rides. Past that and an open air restaurant were the narrow streets of the Old Town where a girl blew huge bubbles for the tourists. It was that kind of place. It all appealed to me but not to Jocelyn whose mood didn’t improve when some food we were eating dropped on her. Not mine by the way.

A calming influence was another square in the centre of the Old Town, a walk around the ramparts there and a view of the Vistula. Across the river was a stadium with a balloon nearby. One could just make out the huge flat horizons of the eastern European plain beyond the suburbs.

The western bank of the Vistula was higher than the eastern suburbs. That meant a pattern was building up because the same thing existed with 2 other cities in this overall geographical region: where the northern European plain broadened into eastern Europe west of the Urals. Kiev on the Dneipr was also sited on the higher western bank. Same thing with what was Stalingrad on the Volga. 3 cities sited on the western banks of 3 major rivers where the western bank was higher. Why? I wonder if there’s a geological reason?

Warsaw from Old Town_8716_edited-1

From our viewpoint there was also a panorama of the city centre to the south. Another day, another part of Warsaw to the south of that.

The Old Town was still a central part of Warsaw. The science fiction convention we were to attend south on the other side of the city centre in the University quarter wasn’t far to walk. Just as well. The registration process had been even worse than the Kiev Eurocon. To the point where it still had to be sorted out in fact, for despite all efforts there was no communication from the Polish contact.

At least the convention was in progress judging by the queue outside the ‘Politechnika Warsawska’ or Warsaw Polytechnic. In effect the University of Warsaw. Fortunately an Irish fan friend of ours was well known here so a bit of name dropping ensured we got in.

Once inside though it wasn’t long before we found there was no English program and Jocelyn was disappointed. I was just relieved to get in and felt it was fair enough to lose the gamble on English being available here. After all it can’t be spoken everywhere and this was the Polish National SF convention in the middle of Warsaw so one couldn’t get much more Polish than that! ‘Cept Krakow which might have a certain edge perhaps, what with our guide there.

Polytechnic_8725

The convention was to me another aspect of young Poland growing out of old Poland. Most of the people there were young with a large fancy dress contingent, some gathering on the lawn under the trees outside the main convention building: a modern tech college affair. A short walk to another part of the convention led us to a new building with lecture theatres and a glass wall offering a view of older or reconstructed Warsaw University.

To me there seemed an air of youthful enthusiasm in Poland. Not only in promoting the talents of its culture but getting on with the business of embracing change and progressing; economically and otherwise. I felt that some would call the enthusiasm naïve. Well frankly I don’t like that word. It’s a patronising put down word used by those who assume too much in the way of intellectual superiority.

No. Given that much of Poland is finally free to go its own way after a history bad enough for the Catholic church to become a liberating force I say jolly good luck to them! From the middle of the 17th century there have been invasions and the country ceased to exist from 1795 to 1918. The Poles had only just gained their independence when they had to fight and win an epic battle against the odds to save their capital and the country. Only to be crushed less than 20 years later by a genocidal regime. The regime that got rid of that was still notoriously repressive, shifted the whole country westwards away from Belorus as far as the Oder near Berlin and stayed for the next 44 years.

We wandered around just looking most of the time. We found someone who spoke English in a hall used for games though. She was promoting ‘Westerplatte:’ a game dealing with a battle fought at Danzig on the outbreak of World War 2. It was an inspirational battle for the Poles for a garrison of a few hundred held 3,400 Germans at bay for a week. History repeated itself as the British – Jocelyn and I – attempted without success to help the Poles. The rules were intiguing but by the 2nd game we had a better idea and I really thought we were going to win. Except we didn’t.

In the evening we tried to find an ethnic meal out and found a place that left us at an outside table without serving us but the menu didn’t appeal to me anyway. After sneaking out of there we found what we wanted in the University quarter restaurant set in a cellar.

Near the end of our stay in Warsaw Jocelyn revealed – probably over a beer – that she was disillusioned with Auschwitz. ‘Disillusioned’ was probably not the right word but it was something similar for I didn’t question why so much as understood. If you see a lot of something on documentaries, news or whatever, the reality is rarely quite what one expects. Besides which it had been turned over to the tourists now. She wasn’t sorry about going though so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

a plane home_8735

At the airport the weather was clearing like a brighter future for Poland.

We were encouraged by the air hostess to have enough wine on the flight home.

Which might have helped my idiot abroad comes home act when the alarm clock went off in my luggage on the carousel at Heathrow. “Shut up!” and a frantic grapple to open the bag to the amusement of passengers. I was afraid security might think it was a bomb.

A coach ride home while I sat at the front, the road unfurling through the night in front of me.

Down in Southampton teenagers and 20 somethings were still up clubbing, some playing chicken with the coach.

At Fareham I got off and left Jocelyn to travel solo the last few miles in the early hours. So what if I was hiking home with backpack and heavy camera through the night for 3 miles when I was 63? It was a chance to exercise and a one off hike to a comfortable place I could call my own where I could lie in tomorrow instead of walking further twice a day to and from crushing workloads and filthy conditions, starving all the time. So much for Auschwitz; what about Polish history transposed here? There wouldn’t have been an England from the Napoleonic wars to World War 1. The Battle of Britain would have been fought just after that. The Nazi’s would still have conquered us in 1939, set up something like Auschwitz in southern England probably near Fareham and 90% of London would have been destroyed. We would have gained Ireland and lost East Anglia and the North East under the Russians who would have let us go our own way a mere 25 years ago.

Shouldn’t be walking 3 miles home at my age at this time of night? C’mon get real it’s a piece of cake when I think of where I’ve just been. We don’t know how lucky we are. © D Angus 03 14

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