Monday, 24 August 2015

Tour of Britain

It was an eventful trip. The night before we left home I got a text from the ferry company telling us that the boat we were on was cancelled. They had booked us onto the next one. This meant we would arrive in Holyhead after midnight and wouldn’t get to the farmhouse B & B in Snowdonia until much later. We rang to tell them; our hostess wasn’t impressed as she had to get up at 5 to do the milking.

We arrived to find the farmhouse lights on and knocked the front door. No reply. We knocked again. All was quiet. I tried the door, it was unlocked. They’d probably gone to bed and left it open for us, we reasoned. Creeping in, we found an upstairs bedroom with the door open. We collapsed and slept deeply till 9. Going down for breakfast, we got a challenge. ‘Where were you last night?’ Our hostess bridled, ‘I stayed up waiting for you.’ I explained what had happened. She looked daggers, then she smiled; she must have fallen asleep in the chair in the back parlour and hadn’t heard a thing.

It was a bright sunny day with clear blue skies. We did a hillwalk on the LLeyn peninsula to an extensive iron-age settlement on a hill-top. But unused to this weather, we got sunburnt. The next day we toured around North Wales visiting Portmeirion, The Great Orme, castles and gastropubs. Then we moved on to my cousin’s in Birmingham, enduring long motorway queues for a great foodie night out with Mike and Esther in the Chinese Quarter.

Next we went to Ross on Wye and the Forest of Dean, visiting Tewkesbury Abbey and its splendid vaulting on the way. After a lot of detective work we found the old cottage in which T’s grandfather had been born. It was built in the 1740’s and was just up the road from an old cider pub with an apple press in the yard. Then we went on to Stonehouse and walked along the Stroudwater canal past the old house, built in 1760, where I grew up.

Afterwards we drove to the New Forest to stay with my old schoolpal Phil. We went on some great walks: to Hurst Castle, where Charles the First was incarcerated prior to his trial, and in Rhinefield to see the magnificent tall trees. We also had a day out in Southampton by train, a shopping mecca where all the twinkling sheds that you normally have on the edge of town have been built on brownfield sites in the city centre. We finished off with a great meal at an upmarket restaurant in a country house near Brockenhurst – The Pig.

Our return journey began with a trip to Salisbury Cathedral, famous for its tall spire and copy of Magna Carta and Avebury for its fine circles of standing stones. We arrived in Bristol for my brother Allan’s 60th birthday do: a big family get-together in a local church hall with four generations present. A splendid occasion with plenty to eat and much cake, then we headed back to Allan and Christine’s for more. And the next day we all went out again for a big Sunday lunch. We also had plenty of walks with their hyper-active dog across the common.

The last leg of the journey was to drive back to North Wales to again stay in our first farmhouse. We arrived earlier, around 10, to find our hostess safely tucked up in bed. We let ourselves in to the same bedroom. The last day of the trip was again bright, cloudless and very sunny. We spent it on Anglesey at the beach near Aberffraw and at low tide walked out along the causeway to the small 12th Century church on the little island. There I was bitten on the hip by an Alsatian. We shouted at the owners, who mumbled sorry. T bathed my wound in antiseptic and in the kerfuffle the screen on her brand new mobile got broken. Nothing for it but to drive the short distance to the ferry, which took us smoothly to Dublin in just two hours. As we got back home I checked the milometer. We had travelled 1200 miles in 12 days and visited 14 different counties. It had been a very eventful tour; the sort of trip that leaves you ready for another holiday.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


My partner has a screensaver app on her smartphone which shows a forest that becomes populated by different animals. One day there is a woodpecker, the next a rabbit or a hedgehog. It makes her happy. I think it’s odd. I grew up in the country, whereas she’s a city girl. From childhood, I’ve regularly seen these animals in real life.

Living in an environment that is shared with wild native animals is not always easy. At present, from dusk to dawn, a plaintive whistling resounds from the trees at the bottom of my garden. It is a young long-eared owl that has fledged but hasn’t yet learnt to hunt for its own food. The young owl sits in a tree and whistles, so the parents know where to bring the mice or voles they catch. During the daytime the owls sit high up in the branches of a tall tree and rest. If you are lucky you may be able to spot them.

The old graveyard across the lane, a favourite haunt of owls and bats, is also home to a colony of badgers and several feral cats. The badgers are very wary and difficult to see, but if the wind is in the right direction you might catch them at dusk coming out of the sett. One evening I saw four of them scurrying across the lane.

Half a mile away is a foxes earth; T and I once saw a cub playing outside in the daytime. Late evening is a good time to see the adults, when they go out hunting. Recently, T and I spotted one in the barley-field beside the earth. The fox saw us first and bounded away through the green field, its red fur shining in the golden light of the setting sun. A powerful and strangely cinematic experience.

In the midst of this life is always death. A couple of days ago, when cycling, I came across a badly injured wild ferret. They are black, whereas the domesticated ones are sandy coloured. The ferret was lying beside the towpath not far from Scarva. I imagine it had been hit by a bike or attacked by a dog. On its last legs, it could hardly crawl. When I got home I rang the USPCA, but they don’t seem to be too interested in injured wild animals. It must have gone to meet its maker and given sustenance to a buzzard or raven.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cycling Again

I’ve been a keen cyclist most of my life. I got my first bike aged eight; it was my vehicle of freedom until I became sixteen and bought a Vespa Sportique scooter (along with Ben Sherman shirt, Levis and a parka). I turned my back on cycling for a further sixteen years, then I went on a cycling holiday around the Ring of Kerry and became hooked again. For the past thirty years I’ve always had a bike.

First I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was my trusty steed for fifteen years and took me on tours of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain. Then I branched out to a Bontrager mountain bike (which I modified into a lightweight touring bike), a Dawes Sardar for laden touring, and a Dawes Audax for faster day rides. Over the first decade of this century I cycled avidly, visiting every county of Ireland by bike as well as undertaking cycletours of Southern Europe, Sri Lanka, Southern China, North Vietnam and Southern Chile. I also completed a number of endurance events, including the Wicklow 200 and Maracycle.

Then I got cancer, had major surgery and didn’t get on a bike for several years. Two years ago I tried some gentle rides and by early last summer I was cycling regularly until my knee injury in June. After this I had the best part of a year of treatment and inactivity during which I developed breathing problems. In April this year, very tentatively, I tried the bike again. Riding along the towpath from Scarva, I was very pleased to find that neither my knee nor my lungs were a significant limitation. I began to venture further and before too long I was riding to Newry for lunch at Grounded, then returning to Scarva (some 25 miles). Later I carried on up the towpath to Portadown, before returning to the car. Later still I extended my ride beyond Newry to Warrenpoint and Rostrevor.

What I love about cycling is that sense of freedom: the wind on your face, the country roads, the natural world all around you. I love exploring a new area or country by bike. You are travelling at a slower place and are more inside the culture. I avoid cycling in built up areas, always preferring to take the bike on the car to a rural place and head off into open country. Happily I have plenty of backroads right from my front door; the only problem is the hills. The drumlins extend all the way to the Mournes and then you have road passes through the mountains, the highest of which is Spelga at 1350 feet. In the old days I would cycle up there for the challenge. I hope to be able to do that again one day.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Outage, Adaptability and Migrants

I returned home from a couple of days away to find the phone line completely dead. This had happened before but had only lasted for an hour or so, presumably due to repairs taking place at the local exchange. On checking next door, I was surprised to find that their line was still working. I rang BT to report the fault and got an Indian call centre. They were polite, but told me I wasn’t their customer anymore. I’d transferred my line rental to my broadband provider a couple of years ago. I rang Plusnet; they got me to do some simple tests then ran a line check.

The problem lies somewhere between the local exchange (a green box in the next village) and your house, they said. Okay, I replied, but how long will it take to fix it? We have to contact Openreach, they said. In the privatised UK, the phone system is just like the railways, one company maintains the network and other providers rent space on it. The unwelcome answer came fairly quickly - an engineer would be sent out within three days. I remonstrated, but it did no good. I’d have to manage for the coming days without the phone or internet.

Day one: I looked at my diary and all the things I’d pencilled in to get done for the rest of the week. Most of these required the internet. I sat at my desk in the house and stared at the unconnected screen of my desktop, feeling very resentful and frustrated. I picked up my mobile (not internet connected) and made some calls and sent some text messages. After that I thought I’d take some time out, and watched Wimbledon and the Tour de France on TV.

Day two: I began the day as usual, sitting at my desk to check my messages. Without the internet, these were just a series of texts. I got frustrated quickly and decided I’d go out for the rest of the day. I took my bike on the back of my car to Scarva and cycled to Newry along the towpath. After a late lunch at Grounded cafe, I cycled back up the towpath to Portadown, then returned to Scarva. I was tired in the evening and made calls on my mobile and watched some TV.

Day three: I broke my habit of sitting at my desk in the office. Instead I sat at the table in the lounge and read. This felt better; first I read long articles from broadsheets, then I picked up a book. Suddenly, there was a row outside. What are next-door up to now, I wondered? I put down the book and went to the front door. There was a white van parked in the driveway with no-one in it. I walked around the side of the house and found a burly man at the top of a ladder hacking at the phone cable with a knife.

What’s happening, I shouted. I fix phone, he said in a heavy East-European accent, continuing to hack away with the knife. Okay, I shrugged, and went back inside. It didn’t look promising. Five minutes later, he banged on the front door. You check now, he smiled. Sorry, my English no good, he added. I got the phone and tried it; there was an odd regular bleeping but no dial-tone. I handed the phone to him. He listened then smiled, okay, I check. He sat in the cab of his van, picked up a tablet computer and began to enter stuff with a touch-stick. A couple of minutes later he said, okay now. I checked the phone again; there was a dial-tone. I grinned and thanked him. He beamed and proffered the tablet with touch-stick to me. You sign, he said. I obliged. I fix temporary, he said. Must new line, he said, pointing to the nearest telegraph pole, I order now. Thank you very much, I said. He winked and reversed the white van out of the drive with a cheery wave.

When I began this piece, I thought I would end up commenting on my own difficult adaption to the loss of my phone and internet connection. But there is a much more important issue to do with adaptability here. Many migrants have made their home in NI and plenty of them do skilled jobs in essential services, such as utilities, healthcare and education. We need our foreigners. They are not a drain on our resources; they are a useful and welcome addition. Correspondingly, bigotry and hate-crime is always wrong - whoever it is directed towards. Surely people who have grown up here should know that better than most.

Images from Belfast

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Our Weekend Away

It all started out so well. I had a Concern meeting in Dublin on the Saturday so we decided to travel down early that morning. T would meet friends and do some shopping whilst I was in the meeting. We would get together during the afternoon and then travel out to Westmeath to stay at a farmhouse near the village of Fore. On the Sunday T would visit the ruined monastery complex that the village adjoined and I would go cycling in search of new historic sites.

The weather forecast was good for both days with rain happening overnight. Because of the early start we packed the car and secured my bike on the rear carrier on Friday evening. The next morning in bright sunshine I reversed the car down the drive and swung back towards the bank at the side of the lane. T got out, closed the gate and we were away. The journey to Dublin went smoothly and we chatted enthusiastically about what we were going to do.

I dropped T on Camden St and joined the Board meeting. It was warm and very humid when we met up in the afternoon. Driving out on the road to Sligo, we visited some inscribed wayside crosses at Killucan, a fortified mediaeval church with battlements and firing slits at Taghmon and a restored Franciscan Friary at Multyfarnham. After stopping at Hotel Castlepollard for a fine meal, we drove to the farmhouse at Fore very pleased with how the day had gone.

We were the only guests and were given a very comfortable room with large brass bed. After unpacking our bags we went out for some fresh air. The breeze was getting up and the rain was starting to come in. Something strange about the back of the car made me look down. The rear wheel of my bike was twisted at an odd angle. Anxiously I unclamped the bike from the carrier. The wheel rim was bent and cracked. I threw my head back and howled in frustration. With a broken wheel, my bike was completely useless.

Our hosts came out to see what was happening. I showed them the wheel and explained that when reversing into the lane that morning, I must have damaged it by bending the bike on the carrier against the bank. They sympathised and invited us in for a cup of tea. We learnt that they were both pretty active. John did marathons and Grainne did show-jumping. There were plenty of photos of them in action on the wall of the lounge.

This was T’s first time in Fore. I’d visited the site three times already and had been looking forward to going somewhere different, cycling across north Westmeath into Longford to see the motte at Granard and the ruins at Abbeylaragh. Oh well, it would have to be another time. I only had myself to blame.

Then Grainne said - would you like to borrow my bike tomorrow? I looked up and beamed at her. It’s not a bad bike, she said, I’ve done a couple of triathlons. Thank you, I said, that would be fantastic.

After a great breakfast, which included our hosts free-range eggs and homemade bread and jam, we got ready in bright sunshine. T packed her little rucksack with several guides to the monastery complex that John had lent her and headed off towards the village. I adjusted the saddle on Grainne’s bike and pedalled away through the leafy lanes of Westmeath, the wind in my hair.

We both had great days out thanks to our very friendly and most generous hosts at Hounslow House, Fore, Co Westmeath. It’s a 200 year old farmhouse overlooking the verdant Fore valley. A fantastic place to stay run by kind-hearted people: www.hounslow We couldn’t recommend it more highly; we will definitely be back.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Animals

My third writing workshop at the Banbridge Box turned into a brainstorm. We began by looking for a topic to work on. The best idea sprouted from recent events in Tiblisi where floods had destroyed part of the zoo. Many animals had escaped and run wild through the city. The notion that captured the imagination of the group was - what would happen if wild animals came to Banbridge?

We started off by reminiscing about zoos. I recalled going to Bristol Zoo as a child. I felt the animals were unhappy in their pens, they appeared so sad and subdued. Many did not seem to welcome visitors and some were openly aggressive towards them. I vividly recalled the chimpanzees that used to pee out through the bars of their cage and applaud when they happened to catch a visitor with a jet of urine. There were also the camels that spat lumps of white phlegm a remarkable distance beyond their cage towards the unwary. Of course, my brothers and I enjoyed these animals best of all.

Many of the workshop group had similar reminiscences, which led us to the next theme. What would the animals do in Banbridge and why? This quickly developed into a revenge story. The animals would be retaliating for the mistreatment and exploitation that they and their kind had suffered at human hands. They would be targeting different shops and businesses to wreak their revenge: buffalo trashing the butchers, rhinos destroying the Chinese Medical Centre, etc. This theme gave us a lot of pleasure and plenty of inventive links with local shops were made.

Then we went on to what the animals would do after they had taken over the town. Some said they would go to the cinema and we had fun selecting the films they might have chosen to see: Jurassic Park, King Kong, etc. Others thought they would seek to destroy all symbols of progress (e.g. cars, mobiles, etc) and try to restore the world to a sort of pre-lapsarian harmony. Others suggested they would go on their holidays to the seaside, eating ice-cream and getting spa treatments in the finest hotels.

This very productive journey lasted some forty five minutes and generated a lot of ideas. After this the brainstorm seemed to run out of energy. When the workshop drew to a close, I was left with pages of notes and the task of coming up with a poem. The fact that there were so many ideas made this a real challenge. I ended up writing a piece around the revenge story, deciding to park the other ideas for the time being.



They swarmed across the Bann
uphill and through the Cut
emperor penguins
perched on hippos backs
stately giraffes
pythons round their necks
leopards and tigers roaring
black vultures overhead
at the Old Town Hall
four elephants trumpeted
and a rhino jabbed his horn
into the clinic of Dr Shi
crocodiles invaded Donaghys
snapping at killer heels
buffalo demolished Quails
trampling ribs into the street
meanwhile at the Downshire
grizzlies made barmen dance
as monkeys vied for coconuts
hurling rocks at drinkers heads
another fanfare sounded
and the commotion died
folk stumbled out howling
are the creatures still around?


Monday, 15 June 2015

My workshop with the under-fives

I arrived at the Banbridge Box to do a writing workshop. The place was full of women and small children. There was an art exhibition on called ‘A Mother’s Earth’. The women were the artists and they had their children with them. I’ve come to do a writing workshop, I explained. Why don’t you do it with the children, suggested one of the women. I was a little hesitant; I’d never done a workshop with small children before. But then I thought, go on, why not.

There were five children aged between three and four. We all sat down on the floor. They watched me carefully. I brought out a linen bag in which I had placed a variety of small objects. When I did the workshop with adults I asked them to close their eyes, reach inside the bag and feel for an object. In essence it was an imagination exercise that went from holding an unfamiliar object to writing about the ideas that it had stimulated. I had no real notion of how it was going to work with the children. I knew they wouldn’t be writing something, I thought they might be able to tell me a story.

We began. I offered the linen bag to them. They had no hesitation in joining in (adults often had to be cajoled). A young boy closed his eyes and dived his hand in. Have you found something, I asked. He nodded and pulled his hand out, opening his eyes straight away. Moo-cow, he said, looking at the small plastic animal. He began to move it straight away. The cow began jumping all over the floor, leaping onto other toys. He was making growling noises and the cow was boring into a truck head down. What’s the moo-cow doing, I asked. Eating, he said, stopping growling momentarily. I was distracting him with my question. He turned back to the cow and it was off again, jumping around the room. I offered the linen bag to a young girl. She closed her eyes and put her hand in, pulling out a seashell that spiralled to a point. She beamed and began to move the shell around her in loops and dives. Then, at the behest of one of the mums, she put the shell to her ear.

Other kids pulled out different objects. They all began a game with the object pretty much straight away. They didn’t really want to verbalise. My questions about what was going on were an intrusion into the imaginative worlds that they were engaged in. The stories that they were making were being acted out.

After a while they left my objects and moved on to other toys and playthings that were in the room. In a box in the corner were wigs and hats, old stage props left by the theatre company. So the next game was dressing up, both kids and adults. I wore a top hat and blew up balloons. The kids pranced around in costume with them. When this game was waning, one of the mums suggested I read a poem. We all sat down on the floor and I read one of my poems. They listened rapt to the sounds right through to the end. Another, said one of the mums. I read again, but their attention began to wane. We finished up with cake and drinks, with several children running around shrieking.

It was a great workshop. The kids had made imaginative stories with their play. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I think they did too. I then sat at the table in the centre of the room and sketched out a poem. Later, one of the mums matched it with a photo she had taken.