Read this book: Edith & I by Elizabeth Gowing

Edith & I cover imageEdith & I is a travelogue which spans time as well as distance. In 1900, an English anthropologist named Edith Durham traversed the Accursed Mountains into Kosovo, shaded from the Balkan sun by her tam o’shanter. She was honoured for her humanitarian work and for championing the unity and independence of Albania.

One hundred years later and another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Gowing, is working in Pristina, Kosovo where her local friends and students occasionally compare her to a certain AyDIT DourHAM. This is puzzling to Elizabeth – and then flattering once she learns who Edith Durham was. We are given a synopsis of the Edwardian woman’s life, neatly, through a cloze passage Elizabeth completes with a student.

Elizabeth reads Edith’s High Albania and feels “the faltering beginning of a relationship”, finding familiarity in many of Edith’s thoughts and experiences and warming to “her sense of humour, her intrepidity, her frankness”. It’s when Elizabeth finds herself back in London, out of sorts and missing Kosovo, that her journey into the past, into Edith’s life, truly starts. Empathising with a melodramatic line of Edith’s (written during her stifling years in London spent caring for her ailing mother), Elizabeth sets out to learn not about Edith the Queen of the Mountain People at first, but Edith “the rather stout lady stuck in Hampstead”.

Elizabeth’s descent into archives and museum storage is reminiscent, for me, of the academic pursuit (as both activity and action) that takes place in AS Byatt’s extraordinary novel Possession. Of course Edith & I is non-fiction and Elizabeth is racing neither against the clock nor rival scholars in her quest for information. Neverthess she maintains pace and suspense by making Edith three-dimensional to the reader as she becomes three-dimensional to Elizabeth. First there are photographs and postcards, then Elizabeth finds Edith’s traditional ‘opinga’ shoes, “which could have just been scuffed off by her while she popped in for a coffee”. The scene in the British Library when Elizabeth listens to a recording of Edith’s voice, captured on wax cylinders in Albania, gave me goosebumps.

As Elizabeth’s journey with Edith progresses, we read excerpts from old diaries, letters and notebooks; are bumped along Kosovan roads in a ‘motokultivator’ (“the most basic form of self-propulsion possible”); enter the homes and lives of people directly connected to Edith. From Elizabeth’s retracing of Edith’s steps (backwards) through the Rugova valley, to her visiting an old Serbian monastery, there is plenty to sate the appetites of readers who enjoy travel writing. We learn more about what drives Elizabeth, and see parallels between the lives of the two women, but Elizabeth always reserves centre stage for Edith.

There must come a sense of responsibility in reanimating a person from fragments, letters, objects. Elizabeth does this sensitively, speculating a little but usually allowing Edith to shine through in her own words and known actions. I empathised with Elizabeth’s desire to find a love interest for Edith, to learn whom she “shared intimacy, or adventures, with”, as this is so often the key to a person’s essence.

Through Elizabeth’s warm writing, borne from thorough research, it’s obvious how fond of her “strangely endearing” subject she becomes, treating her with tenderness and compassion; refusing to make assumptions. Even views of Edith’s that modern readers might find unpalatable, Elizabeth sets in historical context, achieving that delicate balance of neither condoning nor condemning.

Elizabeth’s writing, as always, is compelling; her narrative persona humble and likeable. For me, not a page passed in Edith & I where I didn’t smile at the beauty of a sentence or comical or wry observation: “perhaps we are all incongruous in our love letters, just as we are in our dressing gowns”. The last two chapters in particular soar and achieve something, I believe, good travel literature should do: transcend their immediate subject matter to say more about people, families and the complexities of the lives we lead.

Edith & I is travel writing, history, love, and passion for a subject all rolled into one enjoyable journey.

You can read more about Elizabeth – and Edith – at www.edith-and-i.com.

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Resolutions update

A couple of friends have asked how my resolutions are going. I felt a bit silly for posting them here, but I did it so I couldn’t easily give up on them. So here’s an update.

* Driving to Germany with Steve and Vincent in August …
Hooray, we did this! The three of us drove to France, Belgium and the Netherlands too. We stayed (appropriately, some would say) in a converted pigsty in Heinsberg, west Germany. (I’m doing it a disservice – it’s beautifully converted.) We camped for a long weekend in the Belgian Ardennes; introduced Vincent to Nutella (and Nutella to Vincent – it even found its way into his ears); swam in lidos, and fell in love with chic Maastricht thanks to a personal recommendation from Mick Jagger. (Well, the Mick Jagger of Dutch tribute act The Stolling Rones, but he was every bit as rock’n’roll as the real Mick, if the real Mick were to be found washing his pots at a family campsite in Spa.)

Vincent's first taste of Nutella

* … and looking for family travel blogs I can guest-post for 
I haven’t done this. Guest posts are brilliant for boosting one’s profile and building linkbacks, but my hours and brain are filled up with Vincent and Good As Gold. There really isn’t much space for anything else at the moment.

Colouring crayons

* Writing the first few thousand words of what I hope will be a full-length manuscript about how motherhood clips your wings – and my journey to overcoming this
I’m on Chapter 3. Still noodling.

* Looking for funding for a very big adventure for summer 2014
This is on hold. We’ve booked a trip to Paris for early July but the rest of the summer will be dedicated to my next project …

* Waiting to hear about the future of a guidebook I’ve pitched
This is going ahead! I’m not sure how much I should say about it yet, but the editor asked for my initial idea to be re-pitched as two books. The first will be published in March 2016. I won’t have to compromise on family life as Vincent and Steve are accompanying me on most of my research trips. I look forward to sharing more news with you here, as well as my love for, and growing knowledge of, the destinations.

* Drafting an essay for a rather daunting travel-writing competition, just for the hell of it
I did this, and was happy with the result, but my piece didn’t get anywhere. Ah well … I’ll try again this year.

* Buying us a big tent (it has to be huge: “We need to zip Vincent into his own room because he snores too much” – Steve)
Done! See above. Vincent loved camping … he took run-ups at the canvas walls and bounced backwards in snorts of laughter; studied the beetles that crept under our flysheet; found joy in madly waving a torch into the darkness. Whole days spent in the fresh air made him so tired that he slept for 13 hours each night. As any parent will tell you, that feels amaa-zing!

Vincent in the tent

* Planning for us to fly somewhere in October – maybe Italy – just to say Vincent’s been on a plane
In October we had lots of renovation work carried out on our Little Donkey house and were too broke to travel far. Instead we escaped for the half-term week to heavenly Honeysuckle Cottage in Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire, which was just the holiday we needed.

Vincent experienced his first flight in between Christmas and new year, when the three of us flew to Amsterdam for a few days. It was a cop-out journey – less than 30 minutes’ flying from Norwich – but Vincent chattered happily through the trip which gave me hope for future journeys.

I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years. While our children fought over Toot Toot Vehicles (I found the battery-operated singing much less irritating in Dutch), lovely Elvira and I reminisced on our month spent backpacking, camping and carousing in Australia, 2001. I’m really looking forward to seeing Elvira again, even more so now we have small boys and work-juggling in common.

* Applying to be a Yahoo! UK contributor and writing about parenting and travel
I was accepted by Yahoo! UK, which was great, but I haven’t found any of the assignments relevant to me yet.

* Looking for a home for my unpublished book, Love On A Third Class Ticket
Nope, this is still gathering dust under the bed.

* Pitching story ideas to editors based on a wonderful-sounding press trip I’ve been offered
I looked into publications I could approach but the tourist board in question has already done a sterling job at gaining coverage in the UK national papers, none of which will feature the same destination for several years now. Most regional and local papers seem to have stopped commissioning, due to an unfortunate decline in budgets and, in one case, a change in pagination meaning less space for colour images (which are almost essential for travel pieces). I should persist with the pitching, but I also know that my going away for a week would make life harder for at least four other people … not because they’d miss me (although Vincent would be utterly baffled; I’m not ready to leave his sleepy head behind either) but because they’d have to pick up all my daily duties.

* Tinkering, when I’m stuck with travel, with a novel set in Cromer and a couple of travel-inspired poems
I return to the novel sometimes but I’m not sure my poetry will ever be ready to see the light of day.

More soon! x

Camping - Steve and Vincent

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Feature on Norfolk in Real Family Travel

I’ve got a feature in August 2013’s special coastal edition of Real Family Travel, the brilliant iPad magazine based in the US.

Real Family Travel_August 2013

My piece is on five magical things to do with your family in Norfolk, England. You can subscribe to the magazine via realfamilytravel.com or download a PDF of my article here.

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The travel writer who doesn’t travel. Or write.

This is not going to be me! It could be me … Vincent has reached that challenging age where everything must be climbed, poked, squished or thrown. Steve’s in the thick of his MA dissertation. Our Little Donkey house (which isn’t safe for a climbing, poking, squishing, throwing toddler) needs TLC and I’m building up my copywriting workload again to help its plodding. By day I’m a full-time mum – and I’m tired.

It would be Show you the worldeasy to hide behind Vincent, using the chaos of family life as an excuse to stop writing. Several wiser, more experienced travel writers have told me not to worry about my career in these early years. The travel editor of a national newspaper said he doesn’t want family trip pitches from me until Vincent is at least five and an interesting travelling companion in the eyes of readers: “Babies are, to be brutally honest, boring”. Yep, I do get that.

For several reasons we haven’t travelled as much as I hoped we would in the first 16 months of Vincent’s life. I’ve resorted to writing about bus encounters and breastfeeding in public. But I’m savouring every day with him, painfully aware that these days are finite when he is small enough to clamber into my lap for a story; that a snail or a helicopter or a fluttering leaf will only be fascinating to him for a few more flips of our kitchen calendar.

But I can’t not write. I’m not me when I’m not writing. And I feel as though I need to travel too; I would be lying if I said walking loops of the local park was sating my wanderlust, even when my small companion has an infectious enthusiasm for squirrel spotting. I know I’m not the only person who feels as though their dreams are on hold since becoming a parent.

But why should dreams get put on hold? Poor dreams. My happily ever after has already begun – in the form of Steve and Vincent – so I’d be mad to sit around until the house is finished or our family is complete or Vincent’s at school or we have more money or or or or or or … well, procrastination is a fast pass to a wasted life.

So I’ve realised I need to work much harder at combining my love for my family with my love for writing and travel. I want us to go places and Vincent to have an extraordinary childhood, but it’s up to me to make that happen. I’m writing, it’s true, but writing alone doesn’t get you beyond your own four walls (even if it takes your imagination on a flight). I need to venture out of my cosy life and bang on doors and ask for things. And I’m useless at that. Bloody hopeless.

To get anything done – in general but even more so while I’m caught up in the day-to-day rigours of early motherhood – I need to commit my plans to the written word. (Admittedly this usually only extends to scribbling window measurements on the backs of envelopes and annotating recipes I’d like to try.) So I thought I should document here what I’m working on at the moment so, when anyone asks me how I’m getting on, I can’t mutter something about noodling around with a new idea. I must give them specifics.

Deep breath.

I am …

* Driving to Germany with Steve and Vincent in August and looking for family travel blogs I can guest-post for
* Writing the first few thousand words of what I hope will be a full-length manuscript about how motherhood clips your wings – and my journey to overcoming this
* Looking for funding for a very big adventure for summer 2014
* Waiting to hear about the future of a guidebook I’ve pitched (which got a positive reception but will depend on publishing-related decisions beyond my control)
* Drafting an essay for a rather daunting travel-writing competition, just for the hell of it
* Buying us a big tent (it has to be huge: “We need to zip Vincent into his own room because he snores too much” – Steve)
* Planning for us to fly somewhere in October – maybe Italy – just to say Vincent’s been on a plane
* Applying to be a Yahoo! UK contributor and writing about parenting and travel
* Looking for a home for my unpublished book, Love On A Third Class Ticket (I’ve had interest from two publishers who both ultimately decided it was not commercial enough … I’m told this is encouragement to continue with submissions?)
* Pitching story ideas to editors based on a wonderful-sounding press trip I’ve been offered
* Tinkering, when I’m stuck with travel, with a novel set in Cromer and a couple of travel-inspired poems (although I can’t shake my perception of poetry carrying a fine line between ‘Hmmm, OK’ and ‘wanky’ so I might never share the latter).

Please nag me, bug me, bust my balls about how the above projects are going. Give me a metaphorical kick up the bum. I’m ready! x

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Pas-de-Calais: a cheat’s holiday

For my birthday in October Steve booked us a week’s holiday in a cottage in a rural French village called Tortefontaine, just over an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Calais.

Until then, the very name Calais conjured up for me memories of a miserable booze cruise, drizzle, catching a cold, and more drizzle. The only reason I’d known I was in France: the service-station waiter had picked his nose over congealed frites rather than soggy chips.

But in Steve I trust and, sure enough, I found the Pas-de-Calais region charming. Farmyards clomped across by mamies in wellies and hitched-up skirts, fallow autumn fields stretched out as invitingly as picnic blankets, and hamlets watched over by models of Jesus on a crucifix.

Jesus outside Carrefour Another Jesus Jesus on a crucifix, in a hedge

Here is Jesus again Jesus again Jesus at twilight

It was definitely not England and yet it felt like a cheat’s holiday; so easy to reach even with a little man in tow. The driving was laidback, with few other motorists around.

Crazy driver

Driving in Pas-de-Calais

The ferry crossing had been smooth. We waved at seagulls and Vincent clucked at passing women until they dutifully admired his fluffy hair and two teeth. I don’t know when to break it to him that girls will not always be so readily impressed, especially not chic European ones.

Primrose Cottage was cosy, pretty and immaculately clean. Apart from a washing machine (holidays are too precious to spend in launderettes, I think), the only amenity I missed was a bath. Showering with an eight-month-old in your arms is like trying to shower while holding a slippery pike. A screeching, red, 19lb pike with kicking legs.

Birthday welcome at Primrose Cottage

Upstairs at Primrose Cottage

Vincent laughing

But while he may hate showers, at least Vincent is too small to have developed coulrophobia …

Clown in the cottage

We didn’t need the baby monitor because we could hear every shuffle and snuffle Vincent made upstairs in his cot. The downside was that he could hear Steve and me too, scoffing crisps and drinking wine after he’d gone to bed. We watched subtitled films so we could keep the volume low; two of my favourite films of the past few years happen to be French (I’ve Loved You So Long and Tell No One) so this didn’t feel like doing homework on holiday.

The nearest commune (official town) to Tortefontaine is Hesdin (pronounced Ey-dan), with its Renaissance-style grand town hall, Thursday market and dusty bistros made stuffy from bar to bidet by old men in flat caps and corduroys. One of whom had the cheek to approach Steve while feeding Vincent his bottle and mime an embarrassingly graphic enquiry as to why I wasn’t breastfeeding. There was an inviting-looking frite van in the central square (Place d’Armes) but to Steve’s disappointment we never managed to be there when it was open.

Vincent in Hesdin

A joke with Daddy

We made day trips to the graceful walled town of Montreuil-sur-Mer (ten miles inland, despite its name) and the seaside resorts of Le Touquet and Berck which, even when wind-blown in the autumn and empty of tourists, retained a certain elegance thanks to soft expanses of beach and wide avenues lined with chocolate shops, icecream parlours and upmarket bars.

Montreuil-sur-Mer

Vincent in pushchair

Street in Montreuil-sur-Mer

Le Touquet

Café Leffe in Le Touquet was especially baby-friendly; while Steve tucked into a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and I tore chunks from my woodfired pizza, the waiter entertained Vincent with funny faces and, unprompted, washed up his bowl, spoon and bib at the end of our dinner.

At Cafe Leffe in Le Touquet

Le Touquet after dark

During this holiday I became a lot less precious about making all of Vincent’s meals from scratch. Ready-made baby food felt easier and safer to serve during long days out and – amusingly – he preferred much of it to my cooking.

Lunch in Le Touquet

Baby self-feeding

While returning from Le Touquet we got stuck down a narrow farm track in soupe de fog. It would have felt like an adventure but, with a tired baby in the back of the car and less than a hand’s span of visibility out the front, I got nervous. I felt guilty. We crawled for over 40 minutes until two combine harvesters emerged from the gloom and flooded the night with light, unintentionally escorting us almost all the way to Primrose Cottage.

We also visited Lille, just under two hours’ drive away, where classy shops and patisserie windows piled rainbow-high with shiny macaroons temporarily sated my yen to return to Paris. I couldn’t resist buying Vincent a soft bowling set shaped like the trippy Barbapapa characters I’d loved as a tot, although I’ve hidden them away until he passes this current stage of gnawing everything he lays his hands on. Barbapapa, Barbamama and their brightly coloured Barbababies do look especially tasty. More age-appropriate for now is Sophie la Girafe, that famous teething toy whom I picked up in Carrefour for only eight euros. I suspect she will be chewed and squeaked and loved long after her spots have rubbed off.

In Lille we found a great place to eat: Chez la Vieille with its earthy cooking aromas and provincial cluttered decor served the local speciality that Steve had been hankering after: Carbonnade à la Flamande or beef cooked in Flemish beer and gingerbread. I ate a tart made with Maroilles, the local cows’ milk cheese that reeked like dog poo when we’d bought it ourselves but was transformed here into a pungent, rich warm flan filling. Vincent tried – and dropped – his first frite. The manager had been fast to find him a highchair and us a space to park his buggy in the cramped bar.

Lunch at Chez la Vieille

Nord Pas-de-Calais isn’t blessed with the sunshine and vineyards of southern France, it’s true, but its clean white sands, genteel towns and hearty, Flemish-inspired food and beer left me puzzled as to why so many Brits zoom through it en route to better-known destinations. If you have a little one and fancy holidaying overseas without flying or undertaking a painfully long drive, I definitely recommend a week of cheating.

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Three travel articles in Motherhood magazine

I’m delighted to have been commissioned by Motherhood magazine to write three articles for its ‘Travel with Kids Guide’ this month – about flying in pregnancy and holidays with small children. Did you know all Singapore Airlines’ cabin crew are trained to help deliver babies? I found out some other interesting things while researching these features: take a look at my published work page

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Herefordshire with a babe in arms

Me, my husband and our baby on a self-catering week in Aylton, near Ledbury. It wasn’t the most ambitious of holidays. One of the leaflets in our rented cottage was for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens … less than five miles from our house. Steve and I joked about popping home for a cheap day out.

But Herefordshire was radiant after a record-breakingly rainy July; hedgerows sang with foxgloves and wiry lupins, and the orchards were fecund with apples and pears. This is the land of honesty boxes: eggs, jam, perennial plants and runner beans may be picked up for pence – unless you’re enjoying the Roman roads too much to stop. Steve sang along to the radio. Vincent discovered happy screeching and cut a milk tooth. I felt my tiredness lifting.

The Kiln, a converted oasthouse, is part of White House Cottages, run by Marianne and Nick Hills. It felt strangely fun to lie in bed at night and imagine the furnace that once blazed there. Upstairs in what is now a cosy living area and kitchen, hops would have been dried, ready for brewing.

Marianne and Nick have thought of everything – The Kiln even has kitchen scales, mixing bowl and a loaf tin, should you feel inclined to bake a cake. (I preferred curling up in an armchair under the sloping ceiling with a glass of wine and the Olympics on the telly.) A cot and highchair are available on request and there’s a communal laundry room with tumble dryer.

The Kiln may not be ideal for an older child or even a baby on the move – you’d probably need a stairgate and would have to be cooped up in one bedroom together. Although a gleeful entry in the visitors’ book said:

“It was calld the Kiln and I went down stairs to bed! Love Owyn, aged 6.”

Aylton is a rural hamlet, so a car is almost essential for this holiday. Aylton church, with origins in the 12th century, is always open and, unsurprisingly, contains no obvious reference to the spooky story told by Rupert Matthews in Haunted Herefordshire.

Matthews states, without apparent doubt, that the churchyard is haunted by the ghost of one 14-year-old Emma Foulger, whose body was presumed stolen by resurrectionists: “macabre villains” who sold freshly buried corpses to unscrupulous doctors for anatomy studies.

Bearing in mind many of mine and Steve’s usual holiday activities – long walks, tipsy picnics, galleries, pubs and restaurants – are out now we have Vincent, here are my Herefordshire (and Welsh border) heroes …

* Ross on Wheels: a buggy-friendly walk around Ross-on-Wye, devised by Sam Phillips of Ross Ramblers

* The Court Café at the genteel Broadfield Court, home of Bodenham English Wines


* Old Grove cider tasting and homemade scones at CJ’s Old Grove Farm Shop

* Scrumptious and generously sized cakes made by Audrey at The Hop Pocket craft centre

* Veggie scotch eggs from the Handmade Scotch Egg Company (check for stockists)

* The delightfully cluttered Old Stable Tea Rooms in Hay-on-Wye (and their homemade Chef on the Run Strawberry & Rose Jam)

* The cavernous Hay Cinema Bookshop

* Once Upon a Tree cider from Dragon Orchard – I liked Putley Gold 2010

* Baby-friendly dining at The Trumpet Inn (there’s a campsite if you’re less encumbered than we were)

* The airy and welcoming (much like a fanfare!) Trumpet Corner Art Studios and Tea Room

* Tea and brownies at The Pocket Bakery in Monmouth

* Picnicking at Queenswood Country Park

* The black and white buildings of Eardisland – a pixel-perfect English village.

.

Steve’s just sent away for Vincent’s first passport, so perhaps we’ll be more intrepid next time. But sometimes, as a new parent, just to escape is all the adventure you need.

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