Apologies for the absence of updates to this blog. Two small people are keeping me busy and away from here. I am travelling and writing as much as I can, though, and hope to share some news soon. x
Who set his own shirt on fire to cure a bout of hiccups?
What experience did John Betjeman describe as like “being lifted up to heaven”?
Where can you pet a llama, go down a mine, sing in an old-time music hall or stand with one leg in England and one leg in Wales?
When was Shropshire a coral reef in a tropical sea?
Why did weeping Victorian tourists flock to a ‘grave’ in Tong?
Find the answers to all these questions and more in Slow Travel: Shropshire, published by Bradt Travel Guides to a very positive reception in February this year.
Between now and the end of November 2016, I’m taking orders for signed copies – the ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves Shropshire already, or who deserves to be let in on the secrets of this quietly beautiful, unjustly overlooked, historically important county.
Get your signed copy directly from me, the author, for only £12 (RRP £12.99) plus £2.30 P&P*. Just send me a message with your details: I’ll forward you a link for instant payment and get the book to you right away, with the handwritten sentiment of your choice inside.
Please hurry, though, as I have only limited stock. This offer will end on Wednesday 30 November.
*Price for UK second-class postage. Please let me know in your message if you’re overseas or need it sooner than a second-class service can deliver.
My book for Bradt Travel Guides is available to buy now in online bookshops and some of the best real-life mainstream and indie ones too (cover price is £12.99).
The book came out two days before my second baby so I’ve been very busy (and awake) ever since.
Here is just some of the lovely feedback I’ve received so far:
“an interesting read even for a local, puts a really interesting spin on places you normally only ever drive (or ride) past”
From Shropshire Review
. . . “an excellent guide book, packed to bursting with information and painstakingly gathered detail which will have not only visitors but also natives of the county wanting to get out there and explore.”
From a PhD student at the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham:
“it’s a lovely format and felt much more like travel writing than a traditional guide book. I was really impressed by the depth of research that went into it and the way it drew me into the stories of the places in it.”
Over at Amazon:
“I found myself reading it almost from cover to cover.”
Just a few of many sweet tweets:
You’ll also find lots of extra content at the Bradt website.
At this very moment it is likely I am wearing wellies, hopping over a stile, falling in a mere, climbing a hill, testing cream tea (VERY important), scribbling down museum opening hours or waiting for a train. Or just holed up in my office writing …
Slow Travel: Shropshire will be published by Bradt Travel Guides in February 2016. Available for pre-order now.
Edith & 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.
I’ve got a feature in August 2013’s special coastal edition of Real Family Travel, the brilliant iPad magazine based in the US.
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.
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.
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.
But while he may hate showers, at least Vincent is too small to have developed coulrophobia …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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
* 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
* The cavernous Hay Cinema Bookshop
* Once Upon a Tree cider from Dragon Orchard – I liked Putley Gold 2010
* 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.
As the Mega Nova fishing boat carries me and a dozen other hopeful whale-watchers into the Bay of Fundy, our chance of seeing whales feels slim. Brier Island, where we boarded, has been snarled in fog since the evening before. The narrow stretch of water left visible by the low-hanging sky looks grey and impenetrable, the crosswinds skimming over it creating hatchet lines.
If I were a whale I’d choose a day like today for moping about in the murky fathoms, rather than performing for a boatload of tourists.
Not that performing comes into it. My hosts at Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises Ltd conduct marine research in the bay, recording the behaviour of sealife and making their findings available worldwide. We are there to observe, not harass, and any close encounters will be at the discretion of the whales. Even the Mega Nova is named in their honour: megaptera novaeangliae is the scientific term for a humpback whale, meaning ‘big-winged New Englander’.
I’m already in love with Nova Scotia; its foggy mornings, torn coastlines pinned by lighthouses, and cultural diversity shaped by the native Mi’kmaq people and settlers from France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and New England. I’ve had a wonder-filled trip so far: digging for clams, learning about shipwrecks and exploring the UNESCO town of Lunenburg.
So although my enjoyment of the week doesn’t depend on seeing a whale, it would complete the experience. Sometimes they swim under the boat, I have heard. Sometimes they get so close you can smell their fishy breath.
Harold Graham, the owner of the company and our cruise captain, is optimistic.
“We always see whales – we’ll find some,” he tells me from the helm of the Mega Nova. He would know: Harold has been running whale-watching tours for 27 years, navigating the Fundy waters for many more. In the winter, when the whales migrate to the warmer shores of the Dominican Republic, Harold is a lobster fisherman. I think I can guess which role he prefers.
“This is more like a hobby to me. It’s lots of fun and it’s nice to see the whales coming back every year.”
Showing me computers tracking the depth of the seabed and our position in the bay, Harold says he is looking in particular for a humpback whale named Shuttle, so called because of the rocket-shaped markings on the underside of her tail.
“Last year she was here with a calf, so we’re just waiting to see her this time and make sure she returns.”
A finalist in the New7Wonders of Nature, the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has the highest tides in the world. One hundred billion tonnes of seawater flow in and out twice each day, bringing nutrients to the surface and encouraging the productivity of plankton and, in turn, mackerel and herring. This makes the bay an attractive summer playground for whales, dolphins and porpoises to feed and breed – and an ideal place for us to spot them.
The marine life extends up and out of the ocean too, to migratory birds flitting at the water for its plentiful supply of fish.
“Anyone interested in birds?” asks Shelley Barnaby, the chief naturalist on board. Two boys turn up their noses: “Oh my god, no!” says the elder. Their mother looks indulgently on, telling Shelley the youngest had been studying whales at school. He nods in agreement: “I know everything about them now”.
But I’m interested in the birds. During the cruise we’ll sight puffins, greater shearwaters darting at the surface for food, and gull-like northern fulmars which Shelley says throw up when frightened. At this the boys show a little more enthusiasm, baring their teeth out to sea and growling.
As the Mega Nova powers further out of the bay, the fog lifts, the sun emerges from its grey pall and people start tying their coats and jumpers around their waists. The calmer waters are black-blue now, instead of their earlier charcoal. Having heard via a radio to another cruise boat that there are whales in the vicinity, Harold drops the engine so we can drift quietly for a while, the atmosphere tense as we listen for the slapping of flukes or the booming of a lobtailing humpback.
Suddenly: “On the right side,” says Shelley, grabbing her camera, and we scramble in the direction of her pointing finger. The younger boy bowls over to the edge of the boat, knocking people out of his path. The other boat is bobbing on the water about 30 metres away, and I hear the delighted cries from its passengers before I see them myself: three humpback whales gently surfacing in near synchronicity. It is hard to believe their enormous sleek dark bodies are real; their dorsal fins jutting out of the water like animatronics from a monster movie.
Several of our passengers shunt up the metal ladder to the top deck for a better view. I’m not surprised to see that the youngest boy is one of them; nor should I be surprised to hear a breathy blow from a whistle above.
“Please don’t do that – the captain will think you’re in trouble,” calls one of the crew members kindly.
The other boy, below deck, having upended himself into a coolbox of food supplied by his parents, is leaning over the side of the boat, cramming a sandwich into his mouth.
“Those three whales were Flash, Tusk and Urik,” Shelley says, having photographed and reviewed their tail markings. “They were logging, which means sleeping”.
Seeing the humpbacks has made my day, but there are more cetaceans to meet, more gasps of joy to be elicited from the Mega Nova. During the three-hour cruise we also encounter porpoises and, briefly, fin whales, nicknamed ‘greyhounds of the sea’ because of their speed and streamlined shape. We spy a humpback whale called Churchill (who got his name from the V-shaped notch in his tail) and Vibes, accompanied by her calf.
By far our most spectacular sighting is of Lewkos, though, a humpback whale who swims close to the boat near the ocean’s surface and gracefully flips up her flukes as she dives, droplets of saltwater cascading from her body as she honours us with a perfect view of the underside of her tail. One of the biologists tells me later that humpbacks’ tails are graded by intensity from white to black and Lewkos’s bright flukes had inspired her name (lewko means ‘white’ in Greek).
But still no Shuttle.
The elder brother, recovering from a bout of seasickness – perhaps intensified by his sandwich cramming – stands next to me and leans casually on the rail.
“Come on, when do you think we’re going in?” he asks. “We’ve been out here, like, hours.”
He is pale and I feel sympathetic. Although the waters are calmer than earlier, the irregular loppiness of the boat is making me feel queasy too and I’m hanging on to my breakfast thanks to salted crackers pocketed the night before at the Brier Island Lodge. I could watch whales all day, but my sea legs are ready for land.
I am disappointed not to have seen Shuttle. I have to remind myself that the Bay of Fundy is a natural wonder, not a theme park, and whales come and go in their own sweet time.
But a few weeks later, as Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises enters its 25th-anniversary year, an update appears on Facebook. The bay had been “flat calm” one day, it seemed, and not only had the crew added two new mother-and-calf pairs to its list of whales, but Shuttle had been spotted in amongst the waves.
I hope Harold is at the helm of the Mega Nova today, and even happier than ever in his work.