South Africa is not all the same. The Cape is very different to the area around Jo-Burg. It’s all in the seeing I guess. Many people from our parts hated their visit to Jo-Burg, too shocking and too massive and without the compensation of wonderful scenery, cool sea breeze and Penguins and the Cape Wineries.
This watering hole in the Addo reserve is a case in point. Nothing here, right? Continue reading →
Images crowd one upon another. A vivid mind film replayed before sleep every night. The ones that stick are not always the big screen panoramic vistas.
A tortoise under a bush,
a group of resting penguins and their smell,
the fierce intelligence and menace of a pair of baboons at the roadside.
A sandy track leading back in time to the first settlements and farms. The scale and majesty of the place.
The diversity of people and the beauty of faces in a city filled with excitement and potential. Energy and drive and dignity, even in the new shanty settlements so shocking to our comfortable eyes. The satellite TV dishes on the little cardboard and tin and ticky-tacky self built houses shouting of priorities we find odd but are they?
It goes on and the images pile up making a visit with years worth of replays and sifting.
South Africa is both familiar and at the same time intensely exotic to anyone educated in a British school of the fifties and sixties, as I was. We were taught more of the British colonial adventure in that far away land than we are about the history of the land we were intimately connected to – Ireland.
Being here now, has been exciting, profoundly thrilling and horrific too. This nation is in flux and there are still vast problems to solve before Nelson Mandela’s dream of ‘the Rainbow Nation’ is made real. However I will not dwell on that since I’ve been here only a week and can’t pretend to understand the cultural complexities faced by our overwhelmingly generous hosts. Continue reading →
Yesterday the beloved ‘B’ and I went for a stroll in one of our favourite wandering sites, the Arboretum at Fota Park. This ex hunting lodge is located within the coastline of Cork harbour (The second largest natural harbour in the world, after Sidney. See below for history of Fota.)
The collection of trees and shrubs from all over the world is spectacular but beautifully compact, the very essence of picturesque. Perfect for a dander just as the leaves are changing, taking on their autumn shades and before they fall.
B calls this place the garden of sighs. She sighs a great deal when we walk here. The soft moist oxygen rich breath of the trees gives you a feeling of wellbeing that is both stimulating and relaxing. We try to go every few months to witness the changing costume of the seasons. I am struggling with a damaged knee and walking is still difficult but this is one walk I can do willingly. We always return feeling renewed and with our imaginations stuffed full of beautiful natural image replays.
One image stands out: the sunlit splendour of a mature Paperbark Cherry. This demanded fondling and wonderment at it’s silk ribbon wrapped red-gold beauty.
I now have a new scene for the novel in progress, Trial. David and Regan must walk here hand in hand. David is wrapped in Regan’s beauty but made melancholy by the falling of the year and their failing relationship.
(Fota’s arboretum and gardens are what they are today thanks to the Smith-Barry family who recognised the significance of Fota’s sheltered location and warm soil – “Fota” is derived from the Irish “Fód te” meaning warm soil – perfect for the growing and cultivation of rare trees and exotic plants.The development of the arboretum coincided with the great plant hunting expeditions around the world bringing back wonderful specimens from places such as the Orient, South America and the Pacific coast of northwest America.In the 1840’s, John Smith-Barry showed considerable foresight in generously spacing the trees, enabling them to thrive as they do today with stunning seasonal displays of colour. The family also recorded the plant collections throughout the 19th century and this important work of cataloguing, conservation and development continues today. Many of these plant collections are arranged in association with the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, and other botanic institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, Scotland. Fota arboretum and gardens were transferred to state care in 1996 and are now in the care of the Office of Public Works in conjunction with the Irish Heritage Trust.)
Whitepark Bay lies between the tourist hotspots of the Giants Causeway and the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. At one end of this beautiful sweeping bay, sheltered below the cliffs from the prevailing winds, lies the small fishing hamlet of Portbraddon and at the other end the basalt islands that surround Ballintoy harbour.
Whitepark Bay was one of the first settlements of man in Ireland and evidence of these Neolithic settlers are continually being exposed on the raised beach and sand dune system. It is known that the manufacturing and exporting of axes and arrow heads took place from here, the limestone cliffs being a rich source of flint nodules. Three passage tombs stand on the high points of surrounding hills overlooking the bay, the most striking being the dolmen known as the Druid’s Altar which was placed on the highest point above the bay.
The original White Park Bay Youth Hostel can be seen in the middle of the bay. Beyond, almost buried now, are the remains of an old ‘hedge school’. This 18th Century ‘school for young gentlemen’, included on its roll call – a certain Lord Castlereagh for his early education years. What a location for a school! The modern youth hostel has a commanding position overlooking the bay. (More of that later)
A hedge school (Irish names include scoil chois claí, scoil ghairid and scoil scairte) is the name given to an educational practice in 18th and 19th century Ireland, so called due to its rural nature. It came about as local educated men began an oral tradition of teaching the community. With the advent of the commercial world in Ireland after 1600, its peasant society saw the need for greater education. While the “hedge school” label suggests the classes always took place outdoors (next to a hedge), classes were sometimes held in a house or barn. Subjects included primarily basic Irish language grammar , English and maths. In some schools the Irish bardic tradition, Latin, historyand home economics were also taught. Reading was generally based on chapbooks chapbooks, sold at fairs, typically with exciting stories of well-known adventurers and outlaws. Payment was generally made per subject, and brighter pupils would often compete locally with their teachers.
On personal note: Whitepark is significant to me because it’s where I was living when my daughter was born. She spent the first six months of her life there. At the time I was warden of the YHANI Youth Hostel. It has changed hugely since then. Much extended and now in different ownership, it is more a hotel like than the simple back packers hostel I managed. I spent an idyllic time living there. I used to go down to the dunes early in the mornings to hunt the rabbits which were very numerous. I had my dog, Pod and a shotgun. We got fairly sick of eating rabbit but Pod never tried of it and would often bring a young rabbit home for me to peel. She didn’t like the fur in her teeth. Sheep used to graze in the dunes. That has now been stopped so the flora of the bay has also changed. Wild flowers are now beautifully abundant.
We kept a goat and she produced great milk which was used to make ‘Soda Farls’, an Irish specialty bread made on a griddle or hot plate. Fresh soda off the griddle and dripping with butter was a great seller as breakfast for the hostellers. Maude the goat, had to go when the Belfast middleclass members of the hostel association decided that they wanted their ‘private retreat’ to have a rose garden and prim lawn. They didn’t like the rural reality, come to think of it, they didn’t like school children or strangers from abroad in their hostel.
This is one of the few places that gets no mention in any of my novels. I think I’ve avoided it because it’s a place that’s filled with both happy and painful memories. I’ve felt unable to share it – unitil now.
When the chairman who appointed and supported me left, my time there was over. I left and left Northern Ireland too. I had no intention of raising my daughter in that beautiful but troubled place. As an adult, she choose to return to her roots and now lives near Belfast.
B and I spent a lovely day poking about the bay and found a few interesting visitors. The Goose barnacle encrusted tree must have come all the way from the Mediterranean where they are native. There they are called Percebes and are a great delicacy. They have festivals devoted to them in Galicia. I suppose the tree may have come all the way over the Atlantic from Canada where they are also abundant.
The other visitor was Helge Mast from Leonberg in Germany. He was driving the splendid Unimog world tour van shown here. He’d traveled the length of North and South America in it and was now doing Europe. I used to have an ambition to do this and to have such a splendid vehicle but I find driving such a chore now, I couldn’t face it.
We took a last minute break and travelled north to the Causeway Coast in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. (NI)
The village of Portballintrae or Port-balance-your-tray as it’s been nicknamed as an aide-mémoire – is a sleepy little holiday village with a small sandy bay, a harbour and 50% second homes. It has also got what we think is one of the best small hotels in the world: The Bay View. The premier rooms all have big bay windows with a lounge for viewing … the bay!
The place is simple, unpretentious and offers spectacular value for money. We were lucky and found two days of sunshine in a summer of otherwise unrelenting gray and rain. When we arrived about four, we sat in the bay window, sighed a lot and watched the Oystercatchers and Redshanks following the tide up the beach.
That lounging area in the suite is supremely sigh-worthy and we drank tea, took in the views, sighed and smiled a great deal and felt a year of care drop off us.
We watched the wet-suited youth throwing themselves squealing into the harbour. The boys were trying to outdo each other with athletic excess to impress girls who were much too cool to notice. Cool in attitude and body. The water looked very cold.
Later we took a stroll round the harbour and into the next bay Bushfoot where the Bush river enters the sea. (The water from this river is used in what is reputed to be the oldest whiskey distillery in the world: Old Bush Mills). The river was pregnant with dark brown torrent water off the peat-moors so the surfers looked like they were riding creamy crests of Guinness. Across the bay stands the Causeway Hotel and the entrance to the Giants Causeway. The columnar basalt formations that are such a tourist honey spot.
On the far shore stands the gothic looking Runkerry House, built by the Macnaughtons They were given most of North Antrim in times past. They gave the house back to the NI government in the 1930s. They used it up to the 1990s when they decided to sell it. £4 million changed hands and it went to a US based developer with big ideas for a golf centre. One thing NI doesn’t lack is golf facilities so that didn’t happen. Now the place is being sold off piecemeal as apartments.
As we came back, B captured a stunning sunset over the harbour. We sat in our room, sipped a Black Bushmills whiskey and watched the sun sizzle into the sea in the west. Refreshed and delighted we retired glad we made the impulsive trip north.
Next day, after a hearty breakfast and a reading of the world’s oldest newspaper in continuous print – The Belfast Newsletter (first published in 1731), we drove round the coast to Whitepark Bay. A place of great significance to me but that story can wait for tomorrow.
This past three months, Ireland has been blanketed in the worst rain filled clouds on record. The gray has been unrelenting and the sun a source of bitter jokes. Yesterday we saw it most of the day. I stopped at the village shop to pick up a parcel of books from Createspace. Kevin the shopkeeper and I had an interesting conversation:
Me: “What’s that bright thing up there. I seem to rememeber seeing that.
Kevin: “Yes that is the sun I’m told. You must have been travelling and seen it somewhere else, not in Ireland.”
Weather complaints are not a new thing for we who live in soggy green Ireland or indeed the neighbouring islands of Great Britain. It’s the subject starter of almost all conversations. I have been writing the last of the Daniel Series – Trial and the chapter I’m on now is set in the Dawes home near the village of Eze Bord de Mer.
That’s an area I know well and have escaped to many times both in reality and in my imagination. I think I set this chapter there as an escape. The grey dullness outside my study window drove me to the bright sparkling azure blue skies and seas of the Mediterranean.
The smell and vivid yellow light of the Mimosa. The cheerful studding of Oranges and Lemons on the trees. The liberation of few clothes and the caress of the sun.
The sight of bare golden (mostly) beautiful people worshiping beneath it.
Wandering on the Promenade des Anglais taking in the sights. Calling into the Negresco Hotel to see the art opulence and old-world jet-set glamour.
Eating in it’s quirky La Rotonde restaurant amid bright hobby horses, funfair music and ancient women in furs cradling pampered poodles.
Walking on the roof garden of the Museum of Modern Art taking in the panorama and marvelling at being aloud to be in such precariously exacting place.
Eating Socca and Pissaladiere in the old town and trying not to notice the graffiti that is smeared on every wall. Mostly though its draw is the Alps behind and the blue sea in front and the light, that very special light that drew the great artists to live and work in the area. That light penetrates deep and lifts the spirit.
I’m there now in my imagination, escaping the gray. Oh – the sun has come out as I write this. I must get out and say hello and maybe lay in the garden or see if the sun will make the water lilies in the pond bloom at last.
For one of B’s special birthdays recently, I prepared a special meal as celebration and consolation. You can see part of the menu in the first pic but it’s unreadable, so here it is:
Risotto of escargot
Cep in pastry nests with red pepper sauce.
Langoustine and salmon fumé in creamed scrambled eggs
Boned quails stuffed with chanterelle and foie gras served with vegetable aspic
Venison sirloin – slow-gin flambé with braised potato
Special meals have been a feature of our lives together, both home cooked and in restaurants. We often have bed time memory trips to such times and places to ease us into sleep when the stress of life intrudes and brings on what we call ‘the dark puther’. Some of these meals have been reproduced in my novels too. They are a useful vehicle for establishing characters and relationships. Many a seduction in life and literature has begun over a table of fine food and wine.
Not all our memorable food experiences have involved fine-dinning. In Rome at Christmas: A tiny place near the Pantheon.
They served take-away roast suckling pork in a crisp pizza style bread. The pork was infused with exactly the right amount of sage and included soft moist meat and crisp crackle skin. It was perfect. We went back for seconds then sat on a wall in the shadow of the Pantheon and enjoyed a sublime food experience.
piggy – heaven
Another great memory is B’s first taste of the underrated flat fish – Brill. When I first took B to Northern Ireland, we spent some time in around the Mourne mountains. There I showed her the places of my youthful escape. (I used to rent a semi-derelict old farm-house in the heart of the mountains. It had one tap bringing water from a spring, which often spewed out live wriggling leaches! Heating and cooking was be means of an ancient wood or coal-fired range.) We found the old house again, now completely derelict. We peered in at the old rusting range. My big old coffee pot still stood upon it. I recounted how I used to leave this big enamel coffee pot simmering on the range and would top it up constantly and empty it only when the grounds filled it. I would throw old eggshells in to give the thick black coffee a wonderful sheen.
Mournes Silent Valley
After we drove through the Silent Valley and down to the fishing village of Kilkeel.
On the harbour we found a shop selling fish fresh from the boats. I spotted a lovely big Brill and bought it. Later we set up a the picnic-table and gas single ring cooker. The big fish only just fitted in my fry-pan. It was stiff fresh and was, with doubt, the best fish meal we’ve ever had. Crisped butter fried skin, milky white flesh, firm and sweet. Finished with a splash of Sancerre, it was utterly fantastic. B’s still raves about it and when I cook Brill now she invariably says: “It’s good but not at good as the great Kilkeel picnic.”
Memories like these, fuel for the body, feed the imagination and provide rich material for a writers creative efforts. Yes food and romance go hand in soft stroking hand.