London Bridge is quietly buzzing. I’m halfway through sandwich two of my Boots meal deal and watching commuters come and go beyond the glass. I can’t see many face masks anymore. The only masks I’ve seen in three minutes were worn by a couple of Asian women who got off the Gatwick train. To look around now, you might be forgiven for thinking the crisis is over. I wonder whether we eventually shrugged off the great plague with the same British phlegm.
Two twenty-somethings on the next aisle crack open a thin-tin of strawberry daiquiri and discuss the “right” way to shake a cocktail. A sweet synthetic hint of something that might once have been strawberry permeates the carriage for a few seconds, somewhere between the strength of a spring flowerbed and a subway urinal. A trendy man in dark glasses phases in and out of sleep a few seats along. A made-up mum scrolls through her Zara app and her daughter waves goodbye to London Town.
Graffiti lines the tracks. It daubs itself on every bridge, every sign and lamp post, every standing stone. Tags and words and call-signs in silver and black that make no sense to me, but mean something to someone, somewhere. Preek. Eo. Prydz. Busta. Cosa. DGMan. Looper. You never see them in the act, but the aerosol artists must work throughout the year, like Reebok-wearing shoemaker-elves.
The conversation shifts. The daiquiri girls discuss their thoughts about their respective partners and the foibles of men. “Don’t forget him, just think of him as, you know, that was a shiny boy you dated for a while,’; “He said that being in love is more important than being right, and that just didn’t sit with me, you know?”; “Mm yeah, that does sound a bit intense,”; “I just want to be in control all the time,”; “Me too!”
A yuppie asked to take the seat next to me on the train up last night. I noticed his face fallen slightly – that slight tightening of the jaw that I think is called emotional leakage in psychological circles. Perhaps I saw in it what I wanted to see, or perhaps I just saw a face I know too well. He was drafting a message in Notes to one “Alissa Bumble”. He struggled with one sentence, writing, erasing and re-writing the same words: “thank you for being honest with me”. His jaw twitched and he stared through his phone to the floor and into the empty space beyond.
In four months of experimenting with Bumble and it’s kin I’m more or less resolved to pull the plug at the end of the month. It was worth a shot, but I feel that yuppie’s frustration on my own level: it’s a soul-sapping task at best. I’ve seen that same quiet exasperation in the faces of many a young Tantalus on the train, now that I recognise that swiping gesture for what it means and read it like a book whenever I see it. Apples bobbing near, but always out of reach.
These social networking sites seem one and the same. One goes into the water like a fisherman and, though you could be sure you felt a tug on the line here or there, when you start to draw in the net you find your hands are empty. Maybe it was a missed encounter, or maybe it was a capricious twist of the algorithm, clamouring for your attention – and your custom. They play you like a lyre; Apollo in Diana’s hands. Even those connections you thought you’d made tend to disappear like so much dust in your hand. Again and again it’s the same hurdle online as it is in truth. Ambition gets in the way. Ambition for work and ambition for looks. It’s a game for the beautiful and the mirror never lies, and for somebody who would rather share stories than photos, the current of the online dating world flows like the Gibraltar Strait: close, tantalisingly so, but vicious and unforgiving. It’s been an interesting experiment, but it’s not for me.
The sun is shining on Crawley Town. A nuthatch twirrups from the canopy and the wind whispers through the alder trees. A robin is singing as the clouds roll in. The bluebells are out at last and a walk home through the woods is the best therapy nature can provide, especially when it rides off the back of a night spent in the company of such honest and kind-hearted friends. The world has been good to me.
Time, I think, for a spring clean. First of the flat, then of the heart. BB x
Three days in and I’m already a day behind. I guess that’s a good thing, as it means I not only had a packed day yesterday, I also had a busy sociable evening swapping stories with fellow travellers. It’s travelling done right, and all I ask is your patience, dear readers – such days make for good writing.
Wednesday was another make-it-up-as-you-go kind of day. I had it in mind to visit the smaller islands out in the lagoon – namely Murano and Burano – but as the vaporetto rolled up to Fondamente Nove, I suddenly decided to take a chance on mysterious Torcello, Venice’s predecessor. Most of the guidebooks pointed out it was almost deserted with very little to see other than an ancient church – the oldest in the lagoon – but if you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that’s one big fat tick in the box for me.
The lagoon feels truly vast once you’re out on it and Venice is behind you. Wooden struts stacked in threes mark what can only be described as water highways, giving the lagoon the appearance of a race course – until you realise it’s not mere practicality but also a safety measure for sailors, as there are multiple areas of the lagoon that are considerably shallower than they seem. Here and there, large expanses of mudflats rise out of the water, giving the lagoon’s waterbirds a place to retreat from the noise of the city.
The vaporetto chugged into Murano, city of glass, and then Burano in turn, city of lace and paintbox streets, but I spurned both of these for the diamond in the rough that is Torcello, risking a stranding for a chance to see one of the lagoon’s hidden gems. (In hindsight, I needn’t be so melodramatic – Torcello is surprisingly well serviced by the vaporetti, with a boat every fifteen minutes from neighbouring Burano).
Why come way out here? Easy. Torcello is nothing less than Venice’s ancestor, home of the first Venetians who arrived in these islands around the year 422 fleeing the forces of Attila and his Huns as the Western Roman Empire fell beneath fire and the sword. Guided by the visions of their priest, the refugees escaped into the lagoon, believing the great water would hide them from the Huns. They named their new home Torcello, meaning “Tower and Sky” – which is eerily apt today, as that’s almost all that’s left of what was once a thriving city.
In its heyday, some twenty thousand people called this island home, and it punched well above its weight as a centre of commerce and tolerance until at least the tenth century, though you’d never guess to look at it today. All that remains are some twenty residents, a few houses, some scattered allotments, a collection of Romanesque statues abandoned to time and an old church in the Roman-Byzantine style, whose bell-tower still dominates the landscape – the “Sky Tower” that gave the town its name. On a clear day you can just about see it from Venice itself, staring jealously across the lagoon.
Several factors brought about Torcello’s decline, not least of all the lagoon itself. Just as she did during the first COVID lockdown, Nature showed how quickly she can regain control when she wants to. Over time the island began to sink back beneath the water, swallowing up the villages and turning the once prosperous salt-flats into malaria-ridden marshes. Torcello’s disciples fled in the wake of the tide, seeking refuge on the other islands.
And then, of course, there was Venice herself. What was originally an offshoot of Torcello quickly took advantage of its father’s plight, absorbing its fugitives into its own ranks. Eventually, the son far outshone the father, and as more and more citizens abandoned their former home to its fate, the glory of Torcello faded into memory. The many thousands who once called this island home simply disappeared.
I had my lunch on a jetty east of the Roman church with four ducks paddling hopefully in attendance below. Venice is quiet, but Torcello is something else. Sure, maybe not so much that afternoon, as one of the locals had his radio on full blast as he scoured his fishing boat upriver, but I can imagine this place is as silent as the desert most days.
I’ve always been attracted to the desolate corners of the world. A childhood spent exploring Dungeness, Stodmarsh, Elmley and Doñana National Park has left me with a voracious appetite for marshlands that has never really gone away. So when I look out across the mudflats and listen to the cries of the shorebirds, my heart falls into step and I feel calm and content. But marshes are lonely places. I can think of few places in the world with a lonelier atmosphere. The mournful cries of plovers and sandpipers out on the flats give the place an eerie sadness. The gulls almost sound as though they’re laughing at you for losing yourself here. Solitary herons and egrets prowl the canals like watchmen. And of course there’s the mournful curlew, whose bubbling trill is possibly one of the most haunting sounds in nature. What unholy terror drove the first Venetians to such a lonely place? Their fear of the Huns must have been great indeed to seek to build a home out here in the lonely marshes.
As I leave the island, a thin dark cloud appears on the horizon, moving fast toward Burano. As it draws near, I see it is no cloud at all but a raft of pygmy cormorants, thousands of them, flying in a loose formation that surely stretches for half a kilometre in length. Like oversized starlings, they sail over the marshes, moving deeper into the lagoon.
Perhaps these little sea-crows are the perfect metaphor for the Venetians themselves. A creature of the land that took to the water, making himself a master fisherman, building his nest out on the lagoon. I’m not the first to jump to that conclusion either. A sixth century Roman official wrote of the denizens of Torcello thus:
You live like sea-birds, with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water.
Cassiodorus, 523 AD
Standing on the forgotten shore of Torcello, it’s easy to imagine that the thousands of cormorants passing by really are the spirits of those first Venetians, making the same exodus from land to lagoon every morning for generation after generation, like the denouement to a tragic Greek myth: some cruel trick of the old gods, granting the refugees an eternal escape from their would-be oppressors. That such creatures should choose to haunt Torcello, the forgotten ancestral home of the Venetians, only adds to that mythos.
The outlying marshlands of the Venetian lagoon are full of such spirits, if you’re prepared to leave the bustle of Venice and its glass-blowing cousins behind for a couple of hours. If you truly want to see what Venice might have looked like before its canals become cloudy and green from all the water traffic, come to Torcello, whose ancient canals are clear as daylight, revealing a colourful array of sea grasses, seaweed and scuttling crabs on the silt below. And listen, just for a moment, to the ghosts out on the mudflats, knowing you’re hearing the same haunting sounds that the first Venetians defied to make their home here, over a thousand years ago. BB x
This time tomorrow I will be in Venice, hopefully enjoying una cena veneta with a few fellow travelers, but more likely getting some rest from a busy day on the road (and a 4.30am start). So, as is tradition, I went for a walk in the countryside to bid adieu – or even addio – to the England I love, as it will be almost a fortnight before I return to this island.
I originally meant to get a breath of fresh air and nothing more, having spent most of the day inside, packing and preparing. But the darkness between the trees in the dying light of the evening pulled me in, so I decided to take an alternative route home through the forest.
There’s something intensely magical about walking in a forest after sunset. For some reason it’s never given me the shivers – at least, not if we don’t count that frightful wild camping episode I wrote about a couple of months back. With the light failing with every second, your sense of hearing intensifies: the crunching leaves beneath your feet crackle like a bonfire, and the alarm calls of blackbirds echo through the trees like klaxons.
If you stop and stand still for a moment, though, you’ll hear other sounds. The rustle of movement in the undergrowth. The drumroll wingbeat of a cock pheasant after his cry. The distant hoot of an owl. The footsteps of deer, not too far away.
I came across the herd in their usual clearing, where the poplars grow. I call it the cathedral, because of the way the trees soar into the air in four rows, their branches covering the sky like the vaulted arches of Canterbury. It’s also blissfully dark here in summer, when the leaves blot out the sun, and I often find the muntjac here. Tonight, the fallow herd were resting between the pillars – until they heard me coming, that is.
Even with my keen eyesight, the deer did a fantastic job at staying out of sight, though there must have been at least twenty of them, fading seamlessly into the forest floor the moment they stopped moving. Only one remained visible, shining like the morning star: the white hart. Look closely and you’ll see it, even in the shoddy resolution of my phone’s camera.
In British folklore, white stags are quintessential symbols of quests. Lots of children’s books feature white stags that can never be caught. If anything one ought to feel sorry for the beasts, as nature can hardly play a crueller trick than to make a prey animal absolutely incapable of blending in to any environment that isn’t covered in thick snow. All the same, it’s always a sight to see – even if our white heart hasn’t got any antlers to show for it. So I won’t be following in the footsteps of Saint Eustace and seeing Christ between its antlers. Not that I got close enough to see whether it really was Jesus or a chaffinch perched upon its head – the beast had enough good sense to disappear deeper into the forest as I drew near. Saint Eustace must have been a damned good sneak.
As for my quest, my quest is to rediscover the thrill of the open road once again. With my taxi due to arrive in only a few hours’ time, I suppose I’ll know soon enough. BB x
2:45pm, 20th March. I’m sitting on a bench on Brighton’s Palace Pier, sheltering for a moment from the wind. A sign in front of me reads “It’s fun all year on Brighton Pier”. Somewhere down the coast to the east, there’s a few mad folk towelling off after a swim. The sea doesn’t exactly look inviting today. I look down through the slats. The bottle green waters of the Channel heave and swell about the centipede legs of the pier below. I wonder what creatures of the deep might be looking back up at me, besides the silent starfish in the silt.
Two men wander over to the parapet, gazing down at the beachgoers below. One of them watches in silence, nodding occasionally. His companion holds a recording device of some kind in his hand and is whistling a crude but not inaccurate imitation of the gulls. Is he trying to lure them in, perhaps? To what end? I can’t quite make out his game. He keeps it up the whole time, occasionally saying something in Arabic to his companion and chuckling, and then whistling his gull-call again. After a while, they move on, whistling. His friend must have the patience of a saint. You get all sorts in Brighton.
A few seconds later, a herring gull lands on the parapet. It’s not there for long, as a gang of girls in tracksuits race up the aisle towards the gloom of the arcade, screaming and swearing, sending the panicked bird into the air in their wake. Two scavengers in a truck trundle by in the opposite direction, trailing two heavy GLASS ONLY bins behind them. The planks tremble beneath my feet. I imagine, for a moment, the structure collapsing beneath its weight. In slow motion I see the bins rolling over backwards and a cascade of bottles plummeting into the sea below, some of them shattering on the struts of the pier before they hit the water. I have a pretty active imagination.
I move on up the pier, past the booming darkness of the arcade, which still seems to draw in a faithful clientele, despite the mobile lure of pocket entertainment. In fact, I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the absence of phones on the pier – for once, I’ve got mine out more than most as I take notes. Beyond the arcade, I reach a collection of outdoor game stands. Tin Can Alley with a bored-looking brunette in a red shirt waiting for custom. Dolphin Derby with an enthusiastic announcer who wouldn’t look out of place in a pinstripe waistcoat and boater a hundred years back. An Indian family points out across the water talking in a language that isn’t English. A couple walk past, hand in hand, one of them gamine with a grey-tinged ponytail over shaved sides and a nose ring, and her partner robust, black, ripped jeans and winged eyeliner, a rainbow lapel badge pinned to her sleeve. The air is thick with the pungent smells of Brighton: fish batter, candy floss and the distinctive damp tang of weed. The breeze coming in off the sea cancels out one of the three at a time, but not for long.
Behind the Tin Can Alley shack, a huddle of turnstones get some shut-eye. These often hyperactive creatures look out of place when static, and one wonders how they manage to get any rest at all with the thumping bass from the fairground rides at the end of the pier. It almost looks as though there’s a physical pecking order to the clan, and the ones at the bottom aren’t having much luck, hopping from strut to strut with remarkable dexterity. A passer-by sees what I’m looking at and stops to take a few photographs on her phone. The turnstones don’t seem to be fazed by me, or her, or any of this. After all, it’s fun all year on Brighton Pier. They’re probably used to it.
Nearer the fairground, an old gypsy-cart sits awkwardly beside the parapet, offering Tarot readings for a modest sum. Career, love, happiness and luck mingle strangely with Nestle, Astra Zeneca and Cornhill Insurance plc. I remember finding an abandoned gypsy-cart in the woods once when I was a child, its richly-painted woodwork fighting a losing battle with the forest’s silent army of moss, lichen and brambles. The gitanos in Tierra de Barros had no such fancies, eking out a living from beat-up cars and shabby tents. There is an old song of theirs I have consigned in part to memory, telling of their love for the Guadiana River, that came to mind:
The region of Chal was our dear native soil, Where in fullness of pleasure we lived without toil, Til dispersed through all lands ’twas our fortune to be, Our steeds, Guadiana, must now drink of thee.
Gypsy ballad, translated by George Borrow (The Zincali, 1841)
I doubt the gitanos camped outside Villafranca de los Barros would know the song. It comes from an older world, much like the incongruous cart parked at the end of Palace Pier.
The fairground plies a busy trade for a chill-if-sunny Sunday in March. I feel like I’m walking through a childhood I haven’t known in twenty years, not since the distant summers in Dymchurch. Tea cups, log flumes and merry-go-rounds. A helter-skelter – see the Isle of Wight on a clear day! – painted up like a stick of Brighton Rock (or maybe the sticks are painted after the fashion of the fair). The static gilded horses on the merry-go-round look no less terrifying than they did when I was a boy. The ghost train reels in customers one at a time, lethargic, a chameleon in the cold. A father explains the “this high to ride” sign to his son, who is just a little too short for any of the attractions. I get the impression I’m snooping a little too much and wander away from the noise.
There’s a quiet spot behind one of the rides, looking out towards the mouldering wreck of the old pier. Seen from its sister with the city behind it, the Western Pier looks small and unimpressive. From the shore it looks a little more mysterious, where its mangled skeleton claws at the horizon like the blackened bones of a giant, mechanical whale, picked clean by the cormorants that sit on its ancient struts. In their oil-black funeral garb, they might as well be an extension of the wreckage. Brighton’s gargoyles.
Something bobs in the water closer to the Palace Pier, and without looking through any lens it looks too misshapen to be a buoy. It turns for a moment revealing long whiskers and those baleful black eyes, before sinking beneath the waves. I’ve been scanning the water all morning for that sight, and now I’ve found one, I can’t let the moment pass me by. I count the seconds. One, two, three…
Seals are such mesmerising creatures to watch. It could be their friendly faces, the way they seem genuinely curious about the world above the waves. For me, it’s all about their eyes. There are few creatures out there with eyes like a seal’s: enormous, black orbs that seem to see forever. You only see the whites of a seal’s eye when they’re really close, otherwise you might as well be looking into the dull glaze of a shard of volcanic glass. I used to watch them bobbing about in the waves from the white cliffs when I was a teenager, and once or twice I was lucky enough to see them closer still, lounging about on the mudflats of the Stour Estuary and snorting their indignation at the noisy ferry-boat off the Farne Islands.
Those were greys: hulking, dog-like beasts of considerable size, especially the bulls who came charging after the boat. It’s not hard to see why so many languages label the creatures sea-dogs, or sea-calfs, or even sea-cats. But unless you’re in the water with them, all you see is the inquisitive face, bobbing above the surface. The seal comes into its own beneath the waves. I should love to see one in its murky underwater kingdom one day.
Some creatures command the eye. The ghostly silence of the male hen harrier, or the aerial mastery of the kite. The sunken eyes of the fox and the stern gaze of the stag. I once sat in my bedroom poring over bird guides of Spain and the Mediterranean, bemoaning how drab our world was by comparison. With age comes understanding, I suppose. If the seal hadn’t drifted further and further out to sea, I could have watched for hours.
I spent most of my teenage years growing up on the pebbled shores of this same stretch of ocean. The salt breeze and yellow-grey skies of the Channel are written into my skin like age-lines. I should make a point of coming down to the coast more often in future, if not to blast the cobwebs of work aside with a healthy salt spray, then to find the writing material I’m always searching for. If I can find my way to a quieter spot than Brighton, I might even be able to sidestep the bookshops that always draw me in. Fortunately, I’ve been such a loyal customer to Waterstones over the last couple of months that I was able to walk away from today’s haul for a steal of a price. Just don’t ask how many books I bought – or how big the discount was. It’s all for a good cause. I’ll keep telling myself that. BB x
There’s a great big mound of earth down in Downside Wood where the old bridge used to stand. The stream that once ran gaily beneath its mossy arches hiccups and lurches through two black plastic pipes, swallowed at one end of the slump and regurgitated out the other. The vegetation hangs back from the mire, keeping a cautious distance, thorns and nettles recoiling as though stung by the mud. Caesar’s legions made siege ramps that looked more sightly. At either end, where the track leads up and out of the forest, smoothed slabs of brickwork poke out of the mud like the bones of the bridge that was. The rest of the rubble lies buried deep beneath the mound, I suppose, making a barrow of the dell. Do bridges have ghosts? I suspect this one might.
I sat up in the branches of a tree during a break between lessons one summer, listening to M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind and taking in the view of the bridge as for the last time. That was the year I saw the first signs of what was coming: a waterlogged sheet of A4 paper in a plastic wallet, fastened to the masonry by a tag, bearing the stamp of the local council. The word “SAFETY” written in bold black ink is all I can remember, smudged and blued at the corners by a couple of days of dew and rain. Safety… how satisfying it must sound to the inspector, and how terrifying to the stonework of the old buildings of the world. If stone could shake, it might do so at the word.
The world cried out in despair when Palmyra and the Buddhas of Bamiyan went up in smoke, reduced to dust by religious bigotry, but when I see the Great Slump in Downside Wood, I wonder how many other beautiful works of man and God disappeared under the councilor’s red pen without a word of protest.
As I looked down upon the devastation, a nightmare from my childhood came back to me: a scene from a film that haunted me so terribly that I remember every word, every brush-stroke, every note pulled from the strings of the violins. I’m talking, of course, about the nightmare fuel that is the 1978 Watership Down:
Holly: Our warren… destroyed… Men came… filled in the burrows… couldn’t get out… There was a strange sound… hissing… the air turned bad… runs blocked with dead bodies… Couldn’t get out…. Everything turned mad. Warren, earth, roots, grass… All pushed into the air. Hazel: Men have always hated us. Holly: No… they just destroyed the warren because we were in their way. Fiver: They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth.
Richard Adams, Watership Down
I know so little of the bridge that once stood in Downside Wood. Was it only a fanciful exercise by a local mason for the lord of the manor, or did it have stories to tell? Did lovers sit upon its parapets before the ramblers and the cross country team tramped across its back? Did a poet or writer pause for thought over the archway and listen to the buzzards crying over the meadow beyond, before cigarettes were hastily stamped out into the mud as somebody saw Sir coming?
The bridge is gone. Safety and development swept it aside like so much that was beautiful. The old meadow behind St Aidan’s College, where I once saw a barn owl drifting in the evening air looking for voles, lies deep beneath a building site as the students choke the city. Like Richard Adams before me, I can only look on in dismay and add my voice to the thousands. There is a mystical beauty in the ruins of man’s work that is surely greater than any single life, if we can but look beyond our own existence for just a moment. These things around us, these rocks and trees, will be here long after we are gone, and will tell their own stories from generation to generation.
I hope that, one day, a generation will come along with mercy in its heart. It’s too late for the Downside Bridge, but not for a thousand other unsung relics scattered across this island. Not every fern is sacred, but in the grand scale of things, the world around us is worth more than a human accident. BB x
Saturday afternoon finds me out on the side lines, camera in hand, supporting the boys. We put up a valiant fight and place third, thanks to a surprise goal and some seriously impressive goalkeeping. The ball comes my way at some point and I aim to block it, but apparently the ball was way over there and my leg was somewhere else. One of the boys saw fit to rib me about it in house later. I can laugh it off now as I did then. Football has never been my forte, or any other sport for that matter.
Working in a boarding school has got me more invested in sports than I ever was at school. There’s something magnetic about watching your charges do themselves and their team proud, whether they win or lose, that I never really felt when I was obliged to play the game. It’s not that my parents didn’t try to get me into sports when I was younger – goodness knows they tried their best – it’s just that then, as ever, it wasn’t in my interest. Which is why I’m here, not far off the age of thirty, and I still couldn’t name you more than about ten footballers at best. Somewhere along the line it seemed a great deal more important to consign to memory the sight and sound of every single feathered animal in the UK. I guess my excuse for stretching myself thin with the things I do – making music, speaking five languages, writing books and knowing my way around the natural world – might be construed as compensating for the fact that I could never do the one thing that comes naturally to most boys… that is, kicking a ball.
I can’t really remember a great deal about my sports lessons at school. If the truth be told, I’m pretty sure I used what cunning I had back then to wangle my way out of sports for good by the time I was sixteen. I think it was along the lines of “rehearsals for a musical” that I managed to stretch over two years. At least in my first year at school I was given an excuse when an angry sixth former stoved in a few lockers, including mine, with my sports kit trapped blissfully inside. Two memories alone remain: being made to play on through a blizzard in woefully short football kit, and the humiliation of being made to keep attempting the high jump until I was finally able to clear it – by which point it was almost level with the mat. And while I’d normally pull a face at using the same verb twice in succession, “being made to…” sums up my sporting experience pretty well. Understandably, this air-headed naturalist wasn’t ever really at home on the sports pitch.
Which is why it’s all the more surprising to me that I get such a kick out of supporting my boys in their games at the weekend.
Because leopards never change their spots, I turned my camera skywards a couple of times on the buzzards that came drifting over the pitch, as I once did during the summer fixtures a decade ago. Spring is here and the birds are pairing off already. There’s a part of me that sighs, but a sunnier, more hopeful side that smiles, and I cross my fingers and I hope theirs is a successful pairing. Successful being the appropriate word, since happiness seems out of sorts. We still don’t know for sure whether birds feel emotions like we do, but I’d like to think they have something close to it. You see hints every so often that they might: a swallow mourning beside its partner’s tiny body, crows sliding down snow-bound rooves, choughs hurling themselves from great heights seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.
It’s uplifting seeing the smiles on my boys’ faces during a game, and I find myself wondering whether that’s the same electric feeling you get after a concert, or from sighting one of our island’s most beautiful creatures riding the spring thermals. And now the sun is out again, I might just go for another heart-healing walk in the Weald. The forest weaves a magic that never dies. BB x
My phone is telling me I walked some twenty-five kilometres today. After trekking to Three Bridges Station there and back on foot, various perambulations through Reading and London and walking the Combe Gibbet Circular, I can’t say I’m surprised. What I can say is that I bloody well ought to learn to drive, because it’s frankly ridiculous how much of the world I could be exploring at weekends which is just too far away to reach on foot. Dammit.
Fortune favours the bold, which is another way of saying if you want to get lucky, you have to make your own luck. Fortunately, today’s little outing got off to a cracking start with luck knocking on my door. With the kids off site this weekend, the grounds were eerily quiet, even for a Sunday morning. I guess that’s why one of the forest’s more secretive residents made it all the way up onto the main drive this morning.
Muntjac deer are such fascinating little creatures. They keep some of our boys up at night with their barking in the summer, and unlike some deer species they’re quite fearless if you cross paths with one in the wild: I’ve had what can only be called a stand-off with a buck in the woods on my way into town more than once (and probably with the same individual). This one didn’t hang around for long, and if I’d not happened to look out of the window as I was getting dressed I’d probably have missed it.
I managed to make it out into the windswept wilds of Berkshire this weekend. I haven’t been up that way since a school retreat to Daoui a few years ago, and I remember feeling spellbound by the place then (well, I was certainly spellbound by the evening prayers, that much is true). On the way, signs that the year is very much on the turn were everywhere. Masses of frogspawn in the usual spots in the forest. Crocuses pushing up through the bracken as the snowdrops wilt away. The explosive chattering of a roving band of siskins in the treetops. And, Berkshire being Berkshire, red kites absolutely everywhere. I swear I saw more kites than pigeons today.
Climbing high up onto the downs above the hamlet of Inkpen, I even heard my first skylark of the year, merrily singing its heart out as it soared skywards. I haven’t seen any swallows or martins yet, but spring is certainly well on the way.
Standing tall upon the summit of Inkpen Beacon is a lonely-looking structure that can be seen for miles around: the Combe Gibbet. As we climbed towards it, my dear friend and learned guide Kate (one half of the dynamic duo that were Langlesby Travels) regaled me with its dark history: as the story goes, it was built in the year 1676 for the hanging of local murderers George Bromham and Dorothy Newman after the double murder of Bromham’s wife and son, the only obstacles to their unrequited love. For Bromham’s infidelity and the brutality of their actions – they supposedly bludgeoned the mother and child to death before hiding the bodies in a nearby dew pond – they were hanged by the neck in Winchester and their bodies displayed high upon the hilltop for all to see. Apparently the sight could be seen from “several counties”, which seems a bit of a stretch, though it really did feel like you were on top of the world up there on Inkpen Beacon. It’s always an incredible feeling when you’re looking down on the raptors wheeling through the air below.
I was particularly keen to see the gibbet because I’m currently looking into the Great Plague of Seville and the curious habits of the plague doctors of the 17th century. There – I’m sure you’ve got that image in your head already: the broad-rimmed hat, the long, heavy black robes, leather gloves and – of course – the sinister, raven-beaked mask. It’s hardly surprising that the plague doctor became associated with despair. I’ve read somewhere that when Venice was devastated by the plague, the bird-like plague doctors were quite a common sight along its canals. I’ll have to do some exploring to that effect when I’m out there in just over a month’s time.
We were followed on the way down the Beacon by one of the Combe’s kites, wheeling lazily in the spring sunshine, its forked tail steering it effortlessly over our heads without a single wingbeat. I’ve always been in awe of kites. If it weren’t for the utter majesty of the griffon vulture, I might well hold the kite close to my heart as my favourite bird of all. It’s certainly a bird that’s been a part of my life for years, from the black kites of the Raya Real to the termite-hunting horde that haunted the Bishop’s Residence in Lira, Uganda, almost a decade ago. A solitary raven drifted mightily on the wind on the way home, a couple of hares skidded up the banks and out of sight as we passed, and a bullfinch was singing its mournful song from the hedgerow as we reached Kate’s car. Berkshire’s an expensive part of the UK to live for various reasons, but I never knew just how healthily wild it was until today. I guess the downs I can see from my window are every bit as breath-taking, if I could only reach them somehow. Still – that’s something to look forward to, I suppose.
Walking home in the dark, I almost had a conversation with a fox. A vixen, I think it was – it didn’t have that long face with the sunken eyes that dog foxes do. She froze in the middle of the track like wild things sometimes do, and if a man hadn’t come by walking his dog, I could have sworn we might have gone on looking at each other. Dogs and foxes have something of a chequered past, though, and at the first sound of the approaching mutt it was off into the verge and gone without a trace.
Today was a wild day, and wild days are always easy to write about when you’re as big a nature nut as I am. Write what you know, I suppose. Now if only there weren’t already a famous nature writer called BB, I might just squeeze my way into that very cramped market. Since when was BB short for Denys Watkins-Pitchford, anyway? BB x
The students have gone home for half term. Silence hangs over the school. The corridors of the boarding house are dark, and a little cold, too. The floorboards creak under my foot with the kind of volume that only darkness can amplify. The dull glow from the torch on my phone casts long shadows. A friend of mine once explored an abandoned hospital on a dare. I did not go with him then, out of some primordial fear of the darkness within. And yet, here I am, haunting the empty corridors of this old house by night, the last man standing. Filling up a water bottle from the cooler on the Year 10 corridor becomes a quest in its own right.
I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. I guess coming out of a long term relationship will do that for you. One of the things I thought I might be able to recover was the fierce reading streak I had on my year abroad, but I just can’t find my mojo for that right now. Time just seems to slip through my fingers when I’m not at work. I wonder what the world does when it’s not working? I guess that’s what television is for, or Netflix, or whatever streaming service is in right now. But then, I’ve never been good at sitting down to movies or TV shows. My brain wants to be involved. There’s a precious few I’d happily watch over and over and over again, but it’s rare that I find a new picture out there that sinks in.
There’s not a day goes by where I don’t feel a genuine fulfilment in my line of work. Teaching is in my blood, a duty that my ancestors have carried out for generations. Knowing that I am the torch-bearer for my generation gives me a sense of purpose that is utterly unshakeable. And it’s not as though that purpose hasn’t been tested over the years. It’s just that, whenever something comes up to shake its fist in my direction, I know instinctively that there’s a greater mission behind it all, and that’s reason enough to persevere – even when my core beliefs are thrown into disarray. I wonder if my great-grandparents, Mateo and Mercedes, ever had such doubts?
There’s a little owl calling outside. It’s been piping away from the upper branches of the Atlas cedar in the drive for half an hour now. The foxes have been quiet for a week or so now. I suppose their noisy January antics in the front quad are over for the year. Three buzzards were soaring over the grounds the other day during morning break, but none of the students seemed to notice. The redwings and the fieldfares have moved on and the snowdrops are out. The daffodils will be on their heels soon enough. I escaped to Richmond Park a few weekends back, just as the first blooms were sprouting. It was good to see the wide world again, even if only through my own eyes.
The meltwater of the long Covid winter is starting to run. Just like the birdsong and the subtle shift in the light over the last couple of days, change is in the air. Piece by piece, the last fragments of the old world are coming back. At the request of one of my students, I blew the dust off my long-neglected violin and rocked up to orchestra this week. I’m about as good on the thing as I ever was – that is, haphazard at best – but I’d forgotten how much fun it used to be. It’s one of those things that simply slipped through my fingers over the last couple of years.
I think I’ll take up the guitar this half term. A zealous diet of sevillanas have powered me through the darkness of the winter months this year, and I’m done with being able to sing along but never sing alone. At the very least it will give me something to do until my provisional arrives and I finally confront the long-delayed challenge of learning to drive, which I have put off for far too long.
I’m done with playing games. It’s high time I went on another adventure. The Easter holidays aren’t far off, and I could do with some more writing fuel. And spring is always such a hopeful time of year. BB x
There’s a day in the second or third week of January that, at least in these cloud-ridden islands, marks the turning of the year. Not the first day of spring exactly, but an early harbinger that the dark days of winter are finally on the retreat. For me, it’s always marked by the first real blast of birdsong, and it usually goes hand in hand with a generous glow of sunlight after many days of cloud, or that infinite whitening of the sky that is so very well-known to those of us native to this rock. There’s no calling when exactly that day will fall, but when it does, it’s nothing more or less than exactly what the doctor ordered, as far as I’m concerned. I grab my journal and keys, leave the flat, walk up to the office and – boom. There it is. The dawn chorus is already in its final movement, but still going strong. The voices of robin and blackbird and woodpigeon and sparrow lift my heart skywards. I’m then in an irrepressible good mood for weeks which neither marking nor duty nights nor even thunder, rain and storm can stamp out.
I guess I can only apologise to my colleagues for the nauseous wave of positivity that nature washes over me. It’s almost first-year-of-university-level enthusiasm (which, for those of you who knew me then, you know…).
Perhaps spurred on by that wintry magic, I made two random throws this weekend. I bought a kite, and I decided to re-read one of my favourite childhood stories. The kite is easy enough to explain. I had a kite once, when I was a lot younger, which has Jeremy Fisher emblazoned on its face. If I remember correctly, it didn’t fly very well. I guess we never tried it out on a day when the winds were good. It just seemed to gather dust in one of the cupboards until, one day, it disappeared. Anyway, I’ve got the whimsically romantic notion in my head that kite-flying is one of those things I’d love to do with my kids someday, so I ordered one on that whim. It arrived yesterday, and if I get a moment’s peace this week, I’ll put it through its paces out on the South Downs.
As for the reading – alright, I confess, I didn’t do any reading per se. I had a fair amount of spring cleaning to do, but I wanted a soundtrack while I worked and I figured an audiobook would be just the ticket. I’d had Michelle Paver on my mind after dipping my toes back into her ghost stories a few days ago, which naturally conjured up memories of reading her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series when I was at secondary school. I remember absolutely adoring the first in the series, Wolf Brother, and motoring through at least the first sequel through my school library. I cannot remember exactly whether I made it as far as Soul Eater, the third in the saga – if I did, I forgot the plot more completely than that of the second – but I remember the books rising out of a videogame-clogged adolescence like icebergs, one of precious few literary stepping stones across a goggle-eyed, pixelated river that ran at full strength for far too many years. Was it Paver’s intense attention to the natural world in her writing that hooked me? Probably. She is one of my favourite authors for precisely that reason: she knows her settings as though she has lived within them her whole life through.
Wolf Brother had a lasting impact on me as a writer, more than I had previously suspected, and it took listening to the masterful narration of Sir Ian McKellen over the weekend to realise just how deep the roots of her magical storytelling stretched into my own creations. Naturally, my own stories have changed a great deal since I started writing them over twenty years ago, but if you look closely, you can see the tell-tale brush strokes of the authors who showed me the way. I could fire up my hard-drive right now, pull up a folder, pull out a chapter and point out the guiding hand of this or that storyteller. Here is some of Paver’s naturalism, and there’s some Rider Haggard gung-ho. Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell had no small part to play in the healthy dose of tragedy, and I’d wager a fair amount that there are traces of Michael Morpurgo spread throughout like watercolour, since at a certain point in my childhood I pretty much read nothing else. There was just something about his writing that spoke to me like no other writer could. He had me hooked on all his animal-centred storylines, his Scilly Isle adventures, and his occasional reference to something on my wavelength (like namedropping The Corrs in Arthur, High King of Britain). Kensuke’s Kingdom and Why the Whales Came rank near the top, and sit in pride of place by my desk alongside the other books that mark certain turning points in my life: Day of the Triffids for traveling solo, King Solomon’s Mines for going mad in Amman, The Arabian Nights from my university days and The Outrun for a dose of reality when I left that world behind… and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny… just because.
What were the stories that had the biggest impact on you as a child? Which authors colour your writing? I’ve ended the last couple of posts with a question, which is a) repetitive and b) pedantic and c) a sign of how much I’ve been teaching and how little I’ve been writing these past three years. But it’s something I love to ask people, when I get the chance. The power of storytelling has been precious to me since I was a bratty kid insisting on the fifteen-minute bedtime stories and not the three-minute tales (I swear I wasn’t just looking for an excuse to stay up late…!), and I hope it’s a joy I can share with my children someday.
When you come back to a book you enjoyed as a child, you see it through two pairs of eyes and two hearts: the eyes of a child embarking on a journey as though for the first time, and the eyes of a parent who knows the dangers ahead but cannot help hoping things turn out for the best. It’s incredible how the magic contained within the pages of those stories never fades, no matter how many times you come back to it. I make a point of re-reading Triffids every time I travel alone, but I’ve neglected the stories of my childhood for too long.
Once I’m done with the rest of Torak’s adventures, you’re next, Morpurgo!
On a balmy September afternoon back in 2012, three friends and I were sitting on our suitcases in the bustling complex that is Heathrow Airport. We’d already played the find-the-most-expensive-item-in-duty-free game and were killing time for the gate to flare up on the departures board. We were bound for Uganda, to our partner school in the north, on what could so very easily be construed as your generic gap yah adventure. We were under no illusions as to that. Teddy made a joke about one of us ‘finding ourselves’ out there. Maddie was quick to reply that she’d already found herself right here in the terminal. That made me chuckle – probably because, with good reason, that joke about ‘finding yourself’ was squarely directed at me.
I’ll admit it. I have a habit of falling head over heels for things. Especially places. It goes with the terrain of being a self-confessed Romantic. Naturally, this obsession with location carries over into my reading. Setting is one of the first things that I look for when I read a book. Bother dialogue. Bother clever plot twists. If the cast doesn’t travel any further than their cul-de-sac then I’m out. Any author that can make the setting just as enthralling as the plot has me round their finger. That’s why I’ve always adored M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. India comes to life through her words, so vividly that at times I could almost hear it, smell it, feel it through the pages. Michelle Paver weaves a similar magic in her writing, and I earnestly try to conjure the same enchantments in my own efforts, though Spain is a fickle mistress and so very hard to please.
The funny thing about travel and this idea of ‘finding yourself’ is that no two people ever feel the same way about a place. I remember all the raised eyebrows when I used to tell colleagues that my favourite place in all of Spain was a town in the western marshes of Andalusia by the name of El Rocío. Outside of romería season, it’s ostensibly little more than a cluster of whitewashed houses overlooking a seasonal lagoon in arguably the flattest corner of the peninsula, where you can stare across the horizon and see nothing but mile upon mile of shimmering heat. And yet, there is something about that corner of Huelva that calls to me, some spell that weaved its secret magic on me a long time ago.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel across Spain a great deal over the last few years, and there are a number of contenders now for that ever-congested corner of my heart. The gorge at Ronda and the green hills of La Vera. The limestone maw of Zaframagon and the devil’s leap of Monfrague. The vast steppe of Caceres and fair Trujillo, a throne set upon Extremadura’s golden fields. The lonely silhouette of Olvera, and Hornachos, jewel in the Moriscos’ crown and once proud watchtower over the Sierra Grande. Putting my extremely biased affection for Andalusia and Extremadura into a basket, you can add the mysterious heights of Montserrat, the windmill-crowned slopes of La Mancha and the awesome majesty of the Picos de Europa that once guided the weary conquistadors home. All this, and I know I’ve only really scratched the surface.
All the same, though my heart is spread across Spain with a rigour that would reduce a piece of toast to crumbs, there is still one spot that reigns supreme over them all. If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you’ll have seen it over and over again in the header up there. But in case you missed it, here it is again.
To the east of the sanctuary town of El Rocío lies the Raya Real, a sandy track that cuts through the heart of the Parque Nacional de Doñana. Once a year, it serves as the primary conduit for almost a million pilgrims who descend upon the town in colourful, bolshy gaiety (as only Spaniards can) to pay homage to the Blanca Paloma herself, the guardian patroness of the marshes. Like most pilgrimages, it’s as much about the journey as the destination, and listen to any one of the many sevillanas sung by the pilgrims and you’ll get a flavour for just how in tune they are with the world around them. What an excuse to journey through some of the most incredible scenery on God’s Earth, all while dressed to the nines!
This is all romantically hypothetical, of course. I’ve never seen the Romería in full swing. All the same, there’s this one patch of the Raya Real that I can see in my mind’s eye right now, if I close my eyes for a moment. As for you, dear reader, you need only direct your eyes back up at the top of this post. It’s that tree on the left.
There’s a cluster of stone-pine trees (acebuches) that grow in an island of grass where the Raya Real forks temporarily, before the two tracks converge at the Puente del Ajolí, the last stop on the pilgrimage. A dead tree stands at its westernmost edge, which more often than not hides a gecko or two – I even spooked a Montpelier’s snake mid-hunt here once. A stand of ashes flank the edge of the great pinar, where cuckoos sometimes sing, and in the skies above the Raya Real, bee-eaters go wheeling and soaring in the spring, with bellies like sapphires, backs like rubies and voices like springwater.
Here, under the shadow of the stone pines, I used to sit when I was a boy and listen. After a few seconds you tune in to the silence and hear it all. The wind over the shimmering plains, the rustle of the ash trees. The whistling kites overhead and the mechanical clang of a butcher-bird in one of the branches nearby. From somewhere far off, a panzorrino (native) calling to his horses, or the bark of a dog. Open your eyes for a moment and stare into the blue, and you might see a tiny speck or two up high in the heavens; a griffon and his mate, perhaps, riding the thermals above the coto below. Just once I saw a Spanish Imperial Eagle here, soaring high above the kites below. Maybe that was the first wave of the wand for me – I was a highly impressionable novice birdwatcher at the time. And though it’s kites and booted eagles that have plied the skies on every return visit, the magic in those splayed wings is always there.
In my eighteenth year, I remember sitting beneath my tree, leafing through a copy of Lorca’s Yerma that I’d picked up in town, when a couple of horses rode down the track nearby, one mounted, one riderless. A local girl had fallen from her horse some way back and tried unsuccessfully to get back into the saddle for a few hundred metres. She asked if I could lend a hand, and so I did, giving her my hands to step up and back into the saddle. I watched them go, I heard them laugh and look back, and I went back to my tree, to Yerma and the kites. A golden opportunity to get to know the town of my dreams through its people slipped through my fingers like the sand on which it stands. I’d make some quip about the Virgen del Rocío being a jealous woman, but I really think I had my head in the clouds then and there.
Is there a place you return to in spirit, even if you can’t be there in person? This is mine, beneath the shade of the stone pines on the Raya Real. Millions pass by that tree every year without knowing the connection I have to that singular tree, to the kites that nested in its branches once, to the snakes and geckos and their game of cat-and-mouse about its roots. And why should they, when their goal is in sight? They don’t need to do any soul-searching: la Blanca Paloma waits with open arms.
I’ll leave you with a couple of lines from one of my favourite sevillanas that conjures up some of the magic where my words fail. If you like, you can listen to it here – sevillanas should never be read when they can be sung – performed by that band which takes its very name from the road of my dreams: Raya Real.
Las llanuras ardientes de la marisma El ganado retinto con paso lento Se acerca hasta el arroyo que esta sediento Seco está el monte bajo, seco está el rio Los pastos del invierno ya se han perdido
El Rocío es un milagro, una mañana lo vi Cuando Triana cruzaba el Puente del Ajolí…