Entebbe 1976: I was there

 

It was July 5, 1976, and I was nursing a glass of beer in a Kampala bar while writing up my diary. George had moved to the counter to catch the news on the radio. He returned looking both anxious and puzzled. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said “but apparently Israel has just invaded Uganda!”. “No, I don’t believe it! Do you?” We agreed that he must have misheard but thought perhaps we’d better buy a newspaper. “Newspaper? No, we have no newspapers” said the newsagent sadly. No newsprint, see.” Uganda under Idi Amin was a strange place, even for experienced backpackers like ourselves. After the expulsion of the Asians the economy had collapsed. But benefitting from a thriving blackmarket for dollars we could live well, and we had found the Ugandans gracious and welcoming and the country magnificent.

We agreed to stick to our plans to spend our last day in the country visiting a famous botanical garden. “It’s in a place called Entebbe”. Said George. “Not far from here. We should be able to get a bus”.

Early the next morning, en route to the bus station, I decided to make the most of the (to us) very cheap international phone calls and call my parents. It was a strange conversation. My mother answered and sounded shocked, rather than pleased, to hear my voice. “Are you all right?” she asked, then despite my reassurance that we were having a wonderful time, launched into a monologue about how if we needed money she could send some. That was so completely against character that I was lost for words and after a few platitudes our four minutes were up. We continued to the bus station, pausing at a bookshop to buy a copy of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Woman of Rome which was displayed in the window.

Kampala was running out of petrol. We had no idea why. Cars were abandoned by the side of the road; some were being pushed towards the long queue of cars which stretched from the petrol station. We reached the bus depot and asked about buses to Entebbe. The place was full of soldiers carrying machine guns and everyone was strangely on edge. There were no buses because there was no petrol, we were told. There was no petrol because Kenya had closed the land border with Uganda. “Entebbe? Why are you going to Entebbe?” asked a young soldier. Our explanation about the botanical garden now sounded unconvincing. “Passports?”. We showed him our passports. “American…” he said looking at George. “You’re American?”. “Yes”. “Come this way”.

We followed him into a small compound where sat a bus that was going no-where. It had no wheels. A beggar dressed in filthy rags was lying on the ground looking up at a soldier with an expression which I had only seen acted in movies, so was slow to interpret: abject fear. Then I saw why. The soldier was carrying a long whip, and as we were led into the bus he started lashing the man. He didn’t cry out. He just lay there, staring up at his assailant through that mask of terror.

The seriousness of our situation was plain; the reason it was serious was explained. A hijacked Air France plane had been stormed by Israeli paratroopers at Entebbe Airport the day before. At least 20 Ugandan soldiers had been killed. Later, in revenge, an elderly British-Israeli woman, Dora Bloch, had been murdered after being taken to hospital. Israel’s ally, the USA, was pointing an accusing finger at the Ugandan government for harbouring the Palestinian terrorists. Britain was equally unpopular. No wonder the soldiers were suspicious of two white people heading for Entebbe with the most implausible motive. The more we protested our innocence, the more we convinced them that we were spies. “You must wait here until my senior officer can interrogate you”. A teenage soldier guarded us. He fondled his machine gun, and every so often raised it to see what we looked at through the sights. That’s where Alberto Moravia came in handy. When George finished a page he tore it out and handed it to me. It was a distraction from the all-pervading fear that our hotel room would be searched. The day before we had made several photocopies of a letter home describing our time in Uganda – mostly complimentary, but truthfully negative about Idi Amin’s effect on the country and ordinary people. This was laid out on our bed waiting for the hard-to-find envelopes so we could send it to various friends.

After three hours the soldier reappeared and beckoned George to the door of the bus. “Oh my God” was my immediate thought “They’re going to shoot him!” After a brief discussion George returned suppressing a smile. “This gentleman says that his superior officer has no petrol so can’t come and interrogate us. He requests that we go to the police station and turn ourselves in.” The soldier described the route we must take and drew a little map.

At our hotel we hastily packed our rucksacks and walked, not to the police station but the railway station. There was a train to Nairobi that evening (in those days there was a through train). Our hearts were pounding as we approached the Kenyan border. Would the train be searched? Had our disappearance been noticed? As the only white passengers we were easy to find. We passed through uneventfully.

In Nairobi we went to the British Council to catch up on newspapers. The first one we saw was the Daily Express. “Get them out alive!”  screamed the headline. “They” were the British expats remaining in Uganda whose lives were considered in danger following the Entebbe raid. Months later, when I returned home, my mother put our strange phone conversation into context. “I was listening to the 9 o’clock news: ‘Hopes are fading for the safety of the Britons remaining in Uganda…’ . Then the phone went and the operator said ‘I have a call for you from Kampala’. So of course I assumed you were being held hostage and were about to ask for money.”

Ignorance is bliss? Not always.

The Nemean Games, 2016

Nemea programme 001

“I think I’m supposed to run naked through Greece!” Since I never win raffles I’d barely listened to the prizes offered at the posh British Guild of Travel Writers dinner at the Savoy, even though I’d bought quite a few tickets since you never know. I won a trip to the Peloponnese to take part in – if I wanted – the Modern Nemean Games. It was generously donated by Sunvil. And, indeed, I hadn’t misheard about the naked bit. The detailed rules stated: “The ancient Greeks ran, and competed generally, in the nude – a practice that we do not insist upon.”

So where is Nemea and what are these games? It’s all down to one man, Stephen Miller, the Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of California in Berkeley. In the early 1970s, Miller instigated a dig at the ancient site of Nemea, having  been intrigued by aerial photos. First he had to buy the land, but the current land owner was happy to sell: “Nothing grows there”. Nemea was already famous for its Temple of Zeus and classical connection with the labours of Heracles (Hercules), one of which was to kill the Nemean lion. Linked to the Games is also the myth of Opheltes, the baby son of King Lycurgus, who the Oracle had decreed should never touch the ground until he could walk. But one day his nurse, Hypsipyle, was stopped by seven generals on their way to Thebes who asked for water. In her haste to show them the spring she put the baby down on a patch of wild celery in which a serpent was hidden. When she returned, the baby was dead. The athletic events, one of four of which Olympia is the best known, were supposedly created in memory of Opheltes, and some officials in the modern games wear the black of mourning. A wreath of wild celery is worn by the victors in the races which take place, like the Olympics, every four years.

On the last day of his dig in 1974, Miller unearthed evidence of the ancient stadium. This led to further funding and the thrilling discovery of the tunnel leading to the stadium. Participants of the Modern Nemean Games pass through this tunnel to reach the starting line, just as their predecessors did two thousand years ago. Their graffiti can still be seen on the walls. One is the name Telestas, who won a boxing event in 340BC and the other simply states “Niko” – “I win”. From the archaeological point of view the tunnel is particularly important since it proves that the Greeks beat the Romans in the use of keystones when building an arch.

Stephen Miller was responsible for the revival of the Nemean Games in 1996 and is still involved. It was he, wearing a yellow robe, who shooed me away when I entered the runners’ area too soon. I should have been flogged for this misdemeanor – the rules state that: “He [the judge] will be holding a switch from the ligaria tree with which he will flog anyone who commits a foul or does not obey his orders.” I escaped the flogging but everything else is done, as closely as possible, in the spirit of the original games. Participants run barefoot, dressed in Greek togas or chitons. And it’s only 90 metres. These days ability is not important, and women can take part. Participants are nicely divided into groups according to age and gender, so I was encouraged to read that I was in a group for “Women whose age is 75 years”. Nemean Games entrants 001 The programme had a looser interpretation – my friend Roz and I were in the oldest group, ranging from 83 to 71. When it came to it, there were a number of no-shows, so we were amalgamated with some of the next (younger) group.

Once our names were called we went into the tent to change into our chitons and, if we wanted to be extra authentic, smear our bodies with olive oil. To create the chitons someone had been very busy with old sheets and a sewing machine. A rope belt allowed us to hitch it up to the required length.  Nemean Games 1Then another roll call, and it was time to take the oath, promising to uphold the spirit of the games and do nothing that would bring shame on our families. I’d memorised the Greek for “I swear” which sounded something like “Gorgonzola” but I’d obviously got the stress wrong. So I just murmured something and raised my clenched fist with everyone else. “Now go forth into the stadium and be worthy of victory” said the judge (in Greek). So, as our name was called, and the trumpet sounded, we walked or ran into the arena to satisfying applause from the spectators. We picked a marble tablet with the number of our running lane on. Mine was zeta – Z. Worrying since we’d been warned that there was some rough ground in this lane.

The starting line is two parallel grooves in stone. It’s the original starting line and I speculated about all those fine masculine toes that had hooked into the grooves, as I looked down at my crooked ones. At least I’d cut my toenails. Then it was “poda para poda”, “ettime” and “apite” and we were off. I ran as fast as I could but I’m no sprinter, better at the slogging runs, so watched most of the runners’ backviews as they hurtled towards the winning line. Nemean Games 4Still, Roz and I didn’t disgrace ourselves. In our group of 12, I probably came about 7th with Roz a couple of places behind. And anyway, it wasn’t fair, the winner was a mere stripling of 68 (though at least she was British). She got a victor’s ribbon and a palm frond. Roz and I got a sense of achievement and anticlimax. That’s it? We’ll just have to come back in four years’ time.

Nemean Games 3

Death of a guinea pig

 

“I’ll tell you something about guinea pigs” said Martin, when he gave me my first one, Rico, around 30 years ago. “They’re nicest the year that they die”. And it’s true. As prey animals, guinea pigs are naturally timid, and it’s only when they near the end of their life expectancy of five or six years that they become very tame. So it was with Rosie and Gingerbread, my two favourites. Their deaths, 15 years apart, were as quick and painless as possible and, perhaps, tell us something about a good death.

Rosie first. She was the sole survivor of the Great Guinea Pig Massacre which took place on my 60th birthday (bad timing, Mr Weasel). Rosie was the daughter of Pepper who I bought as a companion for Chica who was lonely. Pepper was only a few weeks old but already, I’m sorry to say, pregnant. And who was the father? Her father. But I didn’t know that she was expecting until her ‘love handles’ started to wriggle and her nipples enlarged. She gave birth to three babies, perfect furry, eyes-open replicas of adults. Two brown, like Pepper, and one startlingly white and fuzzy. I kept the two females: the fuzzy white one, Selvi, and Rosie, named after the one rosette she had inherited from her mother. Once the babies were big enough, I built a large enclosure for them on the lawn, with lots of room to run around.  They lived there during the summer and their hutch on my balcony in the winter, a happy foursome until a predator, probably a weasel or stoat, found its way into the run and killed three of them. I found two corpses still in the enclosure, and one in the garden. I assumed Rosie had been dragged away and eaten, so you can imagine my delight when I found her, safe and sound, in the wooden bedroom where they used to spend the night.IMG_0280

I bought two more companions for Rosie, and was given a third, so I was back to a foursome. Now they spent each night safe on my balcony, with access to the hutch, and got used to the routine of their favourite treats for breakfast. Always lots of squeaking when they heard the door open. At six,  Rosie was a typical old lady, a bit arthritic, eyes somewhat sunken, and no doubt lots of wrinkles under her fur. Then the morning came that I could see what an effort it was for her to join the others for their breakfast snack. But she toddled along , sniffed the celery and carrot, but didn’t eat. Suddenly she squealed, ran to the hutch, keeled over and died. And that, I believe, is typical of a prey animal – run towards safety when you sense the end is near. But to me, it was almost as though she saw the Grim Reaper…IMG_0250

During the next 15 years guinea pigs came and went, but the most recent deaths were the most affecting because of the comfort – and there’s no other word for it – that the dying guinea pig’s companions provided. Shortly before Christmas, Cappuccino became ill. She had trouble eating, but the vet could find nothing wrong with her teeth. A bit overgrown, perhaps, so she cut them shorter (ouch) and for a while Cap did quite well with all her food grated, but she clearly wasn’t going to recover. I had the dilemma of whether to have her put to sleep (kindest for her) but there was her companion Gingerbread to consider. Cap & GingeThey’d lived together for five years, never much liking each other but never able to bear separation. Ginger wouldn’t let Cappuccino sleep in the bedroom (or maybe Cap decided she’d prefer separate rooms). I felt that if Cap was going to die, Ginger should be there at the death. And it was the right decision. Cap faded away, and during the last two days Ginger cuddled up to her in the bedroom, only leaving her to have a quick snack. I’d never seen them sleep together before, and I knew from Ginger’s uneasy behaviour when Cappuccino had died.

The next few days were poignant. Each day I’d put Ginger out into the run and she would barely move from her box. Certainly not her usual greedy self; normally she couldn’t wait to start eating the grass. And when I put her back in the hutch instead of seeing what was for dinner she always went into the bedroom looking for Cappuccino.

I hadn’t been sure about starting the whole guinea pig cycle again so advertised for an elderly companion and tried the local small animal rescue centre. No luck. So I bought babies Treacle and Smudge.GPs 2015 015

I had no idea how Ginger would take to them, or they to her, and kept them separate for the first day, but where they could see and smell each other. Then I put them all together and Ginger was transformed into a caring but very bossy granny. She mentored the two little ones, showing them what to do in the outside run, when to expect a treat, and that I might be a bit of an ogre but there were compensations.  She wouldn’t allow them to share her sleeping quarters – I had to provide an extra box so they could sleep apart.

Then, last week, Ginger suddenly stopped eating, turned her face to the wall, and was dead in two days. Very sad, but it was the reaction of the little ones that was so affecting. When she first became ill I put her out (in her box) in the run with the others but she didn’t want to eat grass. Or anything. And Treacle and Smudge didn’t know what to do. They’d never come out of the box before without Ginger leading the way, so they stayed with her until hunger drove them out for brief sorties.

I put them indoors earlier than usual, and in the evening I thought I should try to give her some water with an eye dropper. I opened the bedroom lid and there were the three of them in such a tight huddle I couldn’t see where one piggy began and the other ended; except that Ginger was in the middle. Next morning she was dead.

I buried her next to Cappuccino, with my robin in attendance, and a few lines from Hamlet: ‘Lay her in the earth and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring’.

For the next few days Treacle and Smudge were bereft. They stayed in their box rather than eating the grass when in the run, and they looked for Ginger when I put them back in their night quarters. They are gradually behaving more normally but have lost the tameness that they gained in Ginger’s company. There’s no doubt that they’re still missing her.

There’s no pretending that guinea pigs are bright, they’re not, but as social animals they do pretty well and they can, perhaps, teach us what matters at the end of life.

March 2012 011

 

Apologise: it does work!

This is what happened last Sunday. I was driving happily along a mainish road in Devon, having just gone to enjoy the best displays of bluebells to be found in the area when someone came out of a side turning without seeing me (a traffic sign obscured the view of oncoming traffic) and hit my car. This propelled it up a bank, into a wall, and it rolled down into the road on its roof.  May 17 2015 011And the thing is, I was unhurt and from then on the experience was entirely positive. People came to help. Lots of people. Someone released the seat belt so I could brace myself against the roof and not drop down. Others helped me crawl out – the driver’s side was the only undamaged part, which is why I was uninjured and the door could be opened. They insisted on covering me in a blanket, calling an ambulance, and strapping me to a stretcher and all that sort of thing, but once they agreed that I really was OK and knew the day of the week and so on they let me get up. And there was the driver apologising. So distraught at what he’d done and so concerned. And so sorry. And that’s what made all the difference. Yes, it was ‘his fault’ but no one wants to cause an accident and it must have been horrendous watching it. Worse really than for me since I was just hanging on and waiting for it to stop.

You hear so many stories of drivers refusing to say sorry or admit fault because that’s what the insurance companies tell them to do. But because this man did apologise I wouldn’t dream of pressing a claim (oh yes, I’ve been contacted by lawyers) nor of blaming him. We ended up having a hug. And you know what? It’s the second time I’ve had a hug from a driver who hit my car and apologised. The last time I was able to show him that just contributing yet another dent to a pattern of dents was no big deal. It’s only a car.

I’m sad about my Panda though, because it had been pandarised. I’d painted three pandas on it (you can just see this one on the first picture) and had only the previous day painted a fourth, rather smiley panda, on the front.Dec 2014 008

But cars can be replaced. What can’t be replaced is my faith in  the innate goodness of most people, and the proof, once again, of the power of an apology.

40 Years On…

How did it happen? How and why was my life completely changed by one evening in London? I know  exactly.

In 1964 I went to the newly opened National Theatre at the Old Vic to see a performance  of an Ibsen play, The Master Builder. It was only when I bought a programme that I realised that I’d got the date wrong and had tickets for a preview of a new play called The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Peter Shaffer. It was about the conquest of the Incas, and it was stunning. Magnificent. And profoundly moving. Until that point I had not heard of Atahualpa and Pizarro and had only a hazy idea of where Peru was but the play set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the founding of Bradt Travel Guides. I was determined to go to Peru and see the remnants of the Inca Empire for myself. I got a job in Boston to earn enough money (occupational therapists with English accents were in demand and decidedly better paid than in the UK), and made my first visit to Peru in 1969. I slept in the ruins of Machu Picchu, walked around the site by the light of the full moon, and the following day climbed up to what is now known as the Gateway of the Sun to stare at an overgrown trail leading into the jungle. Where, I wondered, did it lead? I found out in 1973 when I took my new husband George to Peru. Some fellow backpackers told us about a path to Machu Picchu from the train station at Kilometre 88. It was not easy to follow, since the most worn trails were where people had gone wrong and retraced their steps, and some stretches were ankle deep in bog. But we made it to the Gateway of the Sun and marvelled, as thousands have since, at the sight of Machu Picchu stretched out in front of us. I turned round and recognised that jungly trail that I had noted four years earlier.

026_26This was our second trek in the Andes. The first was through the Cordillera Blanca, relying on local information to help us find the route over the mountains. There were no guidebooks for backpackers and no locally-available maps. Nor did we have a tent or, in my case, sleeping bag; they had been stolen earlier in the trip. We found shepherds’ huts to sleep in or rigged a shower curtain between trees. I wrapped myself in a poncho until I found a destitute gringo willing to part with his sleeping bag for a few dollars. I had refused to buy hiking boots, thinking that this might act as a deterrent to George’s silly ideas about hiking in South America.

It was in Bolivia, on a spectacular pre-Inca trail over the mountains and into the jungle that the idea germinated that we should write a guide for hikers. We wanted to share our new-found knowledge. This was a particularly hard-won route. We learned about it from a fellow gringo who had been told by a member of the Costa Rican National Orchestra that if he went to a big ‘Jesus Cross’ near La Paz and followed his left hand he would find a path down to the jungle town of Coroico. He hadn’t tried it and warned us that the Costa Rican had been drunk at the time. We found the statue of Jesus at La Cumbre and battled through a snow storm to the pass where the clouds lifted revealing a perfectly engineered trail leading downhill to the treeline. Two days later we were picking oranges in Coroico.

Apart from the Inca Way, where we met a couple of other hikers, the paths we had discovered were used exclusively by the local farmers. When we walked past a settlement, women would sometimes scream, grab their children and flee inside their huts. We were not much troubled by the lack of topographical maps. The road map showed us roughly where to go, and our compass and directions from the locals did the rest.LYB 1 001

During a three-day river journey in Bolivia we wrote a description of the three treks and added a couple of day walks along with a few notes to help other travellers get around and sent it to my mother-in-law to be printed. ‘The Little Yellow Book’ was published in 1974 and cost US$1.95.

So 2014 is not only the 40th anniversary of the founding of Bradt Travel Guides – from that stapled booklet we now have over 200 rather smarter-looking guides on our list, as well as a clutch of awards — but it’s the 50th anniversary of that muddled trip to the theatre. I knew there must be advantages to being absent minded!

 

South Africa 1975

December 2013

In one of the many articles about Nelson Mandela and his legacy, I read today that “No one went to South Africa before 1994 … or no one I knew”. But George (ex-husband) and I did. We lived and worked in Cape Town in the mid 1970, when apartheid seemed so entrenched that I wrote home “There will never be majority rule here”.  I worked as an occupational therapist in a hospital specialising in spinal cord injuries; my responsibility was for the “non-white” quadriplegics (tetraplegics).

The second Bradt guide, Backpacker’s Africa, was written after we arrived back in England after 11 months travelling from Cape Town to Cairo. This book was one of the very few — or perhaps the only one — available in the UK at that time. George wrote “The year we spent resting and working in South Africa will always be remembered for Cape Town’s incredible beauty, the friends we made, and the sharp, complex dilemmas we saw etched into everyone’s life. The daily sadness, drama and reality of apartheid is too enormous even to grasp, but occasionally it’s broken into manageable pieces; or a corner lifted and the system reveals itself.”

Here are some pieces and lifted corners:

I went by train to work and crossed the railway line to the hospital. There was a “Whites Only” footbridge and a “Non Whites” bridge; the post office (as a government building) had separate entrances for Whites and Non Whites, while the supermarket, being privately owned, had just one. Phone boxes were segregated. At the hospital I had to be sure to keep the cutlery and crockery separate if I made tea for the patients.

The Non White patients had their own (black) porter to bring them to OT. As did the Whites. Meneer Smit (Mr Smith) who wheeled in the Whites, was very sweet but a bit dim. ‘Job reservation’ which reserved a certain number of menial jobs for whites had benefited him.  Archie, who delivered the Non Whites, was very bright and a terrific entrepreneur. One time he had bought a cart-load of apples from a friend, and my patients arrived almost completely buried in apples since a wheelchair, plus occupant, was the easiest way to transport the fruit to potential buyers.

One of my favourite patients was Jim. A former welder in a good job, he was shot in the neck and paralysed by the police when running for a bus. They thought he was fleeing them. He was entitled to compensation, but was ‘persuaded’ to drop the case. My friend Joan took up the cause and, with the help of lawyer friends who worked exclusively with victims of police crimes, got the case reopened and justice was finally done and he received compensation. But paralysis can’t be reversed.

The white South Africans who were committed to the anti-apartheid movement have not had much press these last few days. Joan was only 26 when I knew her, and had already been in detention, mostly solitary confinement, for 90 days. Physical torture, no; psychological torture, yes. She was a very brave young woman.

For travellers on a tight budget, South Africa was expensive since, as Whites, we were obliged to travel first class. The double-decker buses were segregated. Often George and I were the only people on the lower deck, and listened, mortified, as the conductor shouted “Full up!” at the waiting queue of Non Whites at the bus stop since all the seats upstairs were taken.

But we were free to hitchhike. I remember the look on the faces of passers by as we rode in the back of a pick-up truck (“bakkie”) driven by Blacks. It was the wrong way round – but not illegal.

The (brilliant) local theatre company, The Space, produced “Othello Slegs Blankes” (Whites Only Othello) somehow managing without the Moor but making a powerful statement.

Cape Town designated their new concert hall a non-segregated area long before apartheid was dismantled. I brought a Coloured patient, a former trombone player, there for a concert in 1975. He confessed afterwards to feeling uncomfortable as not only the only Non White he could see, but the only one in a wheelchair.

The bond between maid or gardener and ‘Madam’ was often very close. I remember an old lady, Dodie, and her truly devoted Coloured maid Mary. Dodie took her to Canada for a holiday. When they returned, a friend asked Mary what she thought of that country. She’d liked it except for “All them Niggers holding hands with white girls.”

As I recall, that was the first overtly racist comment that I’d heard, which surprised me coming, as I did, from years of living in the USA when real hatred was often expressed. Outspoken dislike, verging on hatred, was confined to the Whites. South Africans of English heritage disliked the Afrikaners and told me about it; no doubt the Afrikaners felt the same. There was very little mixing between these two separate groups. I grew to like and respect the Afrikaners, whatever their political views, because they were honest about their views. Hitchhiking around the country was a great way of meeting all sorts of different people holding all sorts of different opinions. I remember one farmer saying “Those boys would die for me” – jerking his head in the direction of the back of the truck where his labourers were riding. He was probably speaking the truth.

***

I remember listening to the news in 2008:  “Today the Queen will host a state banquet for President Mandela” and imagining the shock had I time-travelled forward from the 1970s. What?  President Mandela?? Meeting the Queen?  Inconceivable.  There are thousands, I suppose millions, like me who not only thought such a headline was impossible, they knew it.  Political miracles can happen.

Beyond our Kenn

Kenn view with sheepSometimes there’s no alternative to the cliché of ‘best-kept secret’. How did Devon manage to keep this place to itself for so long when I have been committed to finding its hidden gems for Slow Devon and for a recent article in Which? Travel Magazine.  How does one uncover these secrets anyway? That’s the job of guidebook researchers, and sometimes the tiniest thread of information leads to a dollop of serendipity, as it did today.

My co-author Janice Booth and I have just started working on Slow South Devon and Dartmoor. A lovely job, specially on a perfect June day when the bluebells are still in bloom and the beech leaves have that iridescent glow that only lasts for a couple of weeks in late spring. We love old churches, and Janice had spotted an entry in The Pilgrim’s guide to Devon’s Churches which sounded quite appealing. It was in ‘the picturesque Kenn valley’ and as an additional attraction its yew tree was ‘in excess of 1500 years of age.’ We were heading for Teignmouth and although we couldn’t locate Kenn on the map, we reckoned it wouldn’t be much of a diversion and that our SatNav, Lydia, would find it. She did — and what a find! Only five miles from Exeter, and perhaps a mile from the dual carriageway leading south, we turned down a little country lane flanked with banks smothered in wild flowers to find a perfect Devon village. And I mean perfect. A little brook runs past thatched cottages,  a chestnut tree splashedKenn Brook Cott 1 with red ‘candles’ stands in a grassy circle between the thatched pub, The Ley Arms, and the red sandstone church.  An illustrated board by the graveyard points out the flora and fauna found there, and the yew tree is utterly splendid. Huge, cathedral-like with its pillars of surviving trunk around a hollow centre. The church smells right – and that’s important – that indescribable scent of old oak, flowers and mildew that defines our country churches.  And it has a most beautiful screen. Lavishly carved, with leaves and saints and holinesses.  It’s old, 16th century, and somehow escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Maybe Henry’s men were no better at finding Kenn than we were. Painted saints fill the niches in the lower part of the screen, demurely separated into men and women, and what I loved most of all is that St Jerome’s lion is wearing a halo!  Kenn church

The pub is under new management and full of bustle; men came and went with pots of whitewash as we sat in the sunny beer garden drinking coffee. Too early for lunch but the menu looked appealing.

Later, as we wandered down the road, we came upon The Library. In a phone box! That, somehow, summed up the character of this enchanting village.Kenn phone box library 2

Dingle Peggy

Beach Peggy 1
My book Dingle Peggy will be published next month, a sequel to Connemara Mollie. It’s taken 30 years of hindsight to make me appreciate just how much I owe these ponies. When I started the trek, with Mollie, I was still in the mindset that the most important part of horse management was control. Was the pony obedient? Could I make it do what I wanted? By the end of the trek I had learned that it was as important for me to understand what the pony was trying to tell me as it was to impose my will on the animal. Mollie was a calmer, more phlegmatic personality, so it was Peggy who was the catalyst in that transition. As I’d remarked when I first had her, I’d never known such an extrovert, sociable horse. Communication was her thing, so communicating with me came naturally. I am ashamed now at how slow I was to learn that any strange behaviour was her attempt to tell me something, rather than sheer naughtiness.
Horses are perhaps unique in our animal-doting world. We love them, we try to bond with them, and then we sell them on. A talented horse will have several owners during its 30-year lifetime, and goodness knows how many riders. Each time it changes hands it is expected to make the adjustment and respond with generosity. Most horses do. That is an extraordinary and deeply touching fact.
My thousand miles through Ireland changed me forever. I learned how to cope alone with triumph and disaster, how to enjoy my solitary state and to live in the present as time slipped by. I learned about generosity, and about the old, old human attribute of hospitality to strangers. I learned about the history of Ireland and the uncomfortable fact of my country’s oppression, and I learned that this is one of the most beautiful places in Europe. But above all I treasure that opportunity to get to know, and be friends with, Mollie and Peggy.

The finale of the Horse of the Year Show is a Salute to the Horse. It has always brought tears to my eyes:
Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride, friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity? Here where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined.
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity. There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
England’s past has been borne on his back. All our history is his industry; we are his heirs, he our inheritance.
Ladies and gentlemen: the horse.

SAND SCULPTURE: HOW THEY DO IT, HOW I DID IT

Brighton 047

Earlier this month I spent a weekend in Brighton learning about sand sculpture. Now this is something I have never even seen close up, only photos, and as a sculptor myself I couldn’t imagine how they were done. Now I know, and I’ve had a go myself and can say authoritatively that as sculpture material goes, sand is not at all bad.

But first, if you live anywhere near Brighton, go and take a look yourself. This is actually the first ‘proper’ sand sculpture festival they’ve had. By proper I think I mean where there’s a theme and professional sculptors from all over the world for an intense week of creativity and then head home, leaving a couple of repairers on site in case the odd nose falls off.The festival is organised by Nicola Wood. It’s what she does – so much so that she’s given up her house since she’s always on the move creating these festivals in different parts of the world. She sources the sand (in this case from Redhill since Brighton hasn’t got any sand), finding the right stuff that bonds together properly, decides on the theme, employs the sculptors, teach would-be sculptors like myself, and Brighton Beethoven 1generally ensures that the festival runs smoothly until the whole lot are bulldozed in September.

Here’s how they’re done.

First the sand has to be compacted so that it’s almost as hard as sandstone. Wooden planks form a removable frame, sand is added gradually, mixed with water, and compressed using a mechanical trench-rammer. More frames are added, building the block into a pyramid shape. For my small-scale sculpture I just jumped on the sand in the frame and banged at it with a wooden block.

Part of Nicola’s job was to find out beforehand which musician the sculptors wanted to do and provide photos so they could get a likeness. And do they ever! The portrait of Beethoven was utterly wonderful, I thought. My favourite of the whole show, but then I know what Beethoven looks like, whereas most of the pop musicians remained a mystery to me even after I was told their names. Still, Bob Marley was certainly recognisable by his dreadlocks, and Elvis with flairs.

Because sand is soft, tools can be anything the sculptor chooses. You don’t need chisels. Almost everyone worked with a plastering tool and anything else that they fancied such as palette knives, spoons and so on.

I’d given a bit of thought as to what I would carve. I didn’t want to do a portrait because I’m rubbish at people, though I did consider doing Leonard Cohen since I reckoned he should be there. I sculpt animals, so I thought that “Elephant blowing its own trumpet” would be doable and in keeping with the music theme. It went fine until the trunk and trumpet fell off. So the finished sculpture is “Elephant about to blow its own trumpet” in an altogether less ambitious pose.

I wonder if it’s still there?

Photos by Phoebe Oliver

Brighton 063   sand elephant (2)      Brighton finished elephant

Mice

Our house was overrun with mice when I was a child. It was my fault. Even though I learned at a tender age how to tell males from females, I never anticipated the onset of puberty in my pet mice early enough. So at one time I had 49 mice in a variety of different cages and at interval loose in the house when they escaped.

My favourite poem was one from my mother’s WI magazine. Its first two verses were:

I live in sober Suffolk

In a dim and sober house,

And I share this dim sobriety

With a noble sober mouse.

 

On an eager April morning

I discovered that the mouse

Had minced a first edition

To lend comfort to its house.

 Of course what appealed to me was her capitulation. She caught the mouse, looked into its eyes of ‘velvet brown’ and (after several verses) let it go:

But all who gaze in velvet eyes

Must pay a settled price

For now my first edition warms

Some newly-published mice.

 Well, I’ve changed. I now have mice, and maybe rats, and they are demolishing my house bit by bit while I look on helplessly.

 Each morning I visit each room in trepidation. So far the tally is:

 Two gnawed holes in the ceiling

Two disappeared loaves of bread (yes, my fault leaving them out).

An enormous, rat-sized hole in the bathroom floor

An Everest-sized pile of carpet nibblings and a non-fitted sitting room carpet.

 But no first editions – yet – so perhaps I’m lucky. Or these rodents aren’t guide-book readers.

Mouse traps are ignored, they tap-dance to the sonic mouse repeller, and I’m at my wits end.

Advice, anyone?

 

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