Sailing the Dodecanese islands …

In 1970 we drove an old Land Rover from London to Greece and back over two and a half months. We said then that this would be the first of many journeys to Greece – but we never made those journeys. I’m hoping these islands will make up for it …

Our boat

I booked this trip hesitantly during Covid, knowing that it might be postponed, even cancelled. As we got nearer the date I began to have grave doubts, dithering about sailing in a ‘gulet’ with eight (as yet unknown) other people. It just conjured up ‘mal de mer’ on many fronts.

But as the date grew closer, I had to accept the uncertainties that stalked my psyche and – after long and probably Covid ridden queues at chaotic airports – we finally made it safely to Bodrum, where the Aegean Clipper was berthed in the harbour, ready and waiting.

Finding a plane to take us had meant we had had to go two days early (a big thank you here to Dennis and Stan from ‘Dial A Flight’, who saved us not once, but twice).

The Su hotel in Bodrum was a welcome haven – a small, Turkish, hidden paradise, only ten minutes walk from the harbour. A perfect retreat in which to acclimatise ourselves.

Su hotel, Bodrum
Su hotel, Bodrum – steps up to our room
Su hotel – cherry juice and a favourite author
Su hotel – nightlight
path to the harbour from the Su hotel

Bodrum castle is a favourite and next day it was a treat to have the chance for a return visit – Turkish ice cream is a treat too …

Bodrum – down by the harbour …
playpark by the harbour – Bodrum
old fishing boat – Bodrum
Bodrum – boats

One of these boats is ours – Peter Sommer Travels –

Bodrum – jacaranda tree
inside Bodrum castle
Bodrum castle – cannon balls
elegance personified – Bodrum castle
ancient stone anchors

There’s even more to see from the last time we were here. A new room shows another shipwreck, which was full of glass ingots and vases as well as amphorae. I can’t imagine how some of these survived intact, sunk and buried in the sand. Also, how painstakingly other objects have been repaired. The archaeologists have done a magnificent job.

green glass
shipwrecked cargo of glass ingots and amphorae
glass bowls found on the sea bed
cracked vaseatmosphericmagical
more luminous finds …
and did this vase capture the sun?
two portly jugs enjoying a joke (belly laugh) together
two of a more elegant (posh) demeanour having a ‘seriousdiscussion
a couple of ducks
eyes – with a description underneath …
extraordinary
a princess has her eye on John …
John studies inscriptions carved in the stone – English Tower, Bodrum

The castle was built by the Knights of St. John from 1402 onwards, although it changed hands many times throughout history. There are four towers – English, French, German and Italian. If you are interested in heraldry, the English tower has a wealth of it to pursue. At some point fourteen cisterns were carved out of the rocks beneath the castle. The location is stunning with great views over the open harbour and sea.

Heraldry – English tower

Later on, the castle lay empty but in the early 1960s it became the location for the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. The sinister calls of the peacocks which roam the battlements are a fitting backdrop to a violent history.

and the pigeons even have their own castle …

Time for a cup of sage tea which we find at the Maritime café, looking out over the water. With a little lemon and some sugar or honey, it makes a very refreshing drink.

refreshment
patisserie sweetness

A concatenation of cats prowl around town in the hopes of sharing whatever you’re eating. They are bold and a law unto themselves.

You can skip this section if you don’t like cats. I don’t have a cat but was curious to see how many different types there were in Bodrum and among the islands.

café cat
I’ll have what you’re having …
Mafia-esquethe old bruiser
Bianca sits by the pool staring at her reflection … miaow
harbour cat – Bodrum
maritime cat – Bodrum
langourous
macho perfetto
glamour puss
Orlando – the marmalade cat
colour coordinated
I think I’d rather catch a tasty mouse …
piebald, young and frisky
Patience
The Godfather – not to be tangled with …
watchtower cat
Serena
inscrutable …

We’re now on board the Aegean Clipper, meeting our fellow travellers, captain and crew with our two guides, Michael and Nota. Setting sail for Kalymnos – island of sponge diving.

Pothia harbour – Kalymnos

We’ve arrived in Greek waters, where the bronze statue of The Lady of Kalymnos (4th or 3rd century B.C.) was dragged up in the nets of local fishermen in 1995 and is now displayed in the archaeological museum here. She looks sensational, even if on the very heavy side! There must be other statues on the sea bed waiting to be discovered and hauled up …

The Lady of Kalymnos – 4th or 3rd century B.C.
Kalymnos – pebble mosaic in the town square

These attractive pebble mosaics can be found throughout the Dodecanese islands and in other parts of Greece. They were to be seen both in public places and private houses. Some are black and white, but coloured pebbles were introduced later on. Where did all those pebbles of a similar size come from I wonder?

We had docked in the main port of Pothia and since this is the last Greek island which still has a sponge diving fleet, we were shown a warehouse by the harbour to see the different types of sponges and how they are treated to make them ready for market. They are cut off the rocks and what is left continues to grow again. There’s one called an elephant ear sponge – unmistakable. I bought two very fine ones for washing your face, which are known as ‘silk’ sponges.

sponges for sale – Kalymnos

I was rather charmed by a man who has a shop nearby. He told me that he’d been diving for sponges his whole life. I had to buy some from him as well as from the warehouse so as to remember this delightful encounter!

Lovely chap!

We have a fish dinner on board, cooked by the captain and tomorrow morning we leave early for Patmos and its famous monastery of St. John.

I wish I had brought less to wear as the cabins are small and John is not very tidy – but the shower and the loo work very well and that’s really what matters. There’s a stash for books at the bottom of the bed. I finished ‘Trio’ by William Boyd, which is very entertaining. John has kindly lent me ‘What Strange Paradise’ by Omar El Akkad. Worth a try … I wonder what we will have for breakfast…

Turns out to be brilliant and very touching – pause for thought …

The monastery of St. John on Patmos attracts both pilgrims and tourists. It’s a long, meandering walk uphill to The Cave where Saint John is said to have had his vision of The Apocalypse. A painting is pointed out, said to be by El Greco – but looking at it doesn’t convince me.

Patmos – intense colours
Patmos – frescoes

Some parts of the monastery are closed due to Covid, which makes Nota frustrated. However, she takes us to the museum, where there are a number of paintings.

One stands out primarily because it’s a portrait which looks 3D rather than the usual flat way of painting portraits at that time. In fact, this person (angel) looks to me very like Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame!

Patmos – reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan’s face (James Bond)?
Patmos – mother and son

We were waiting for the others to come down from the museum and I thought this made a lovely picture by the entrance.

There are a number of tempting small galleries and cafés on the way up to the monastery. I nearly bought an octopus plate but decided to be sensible. I already have no room in my case and it could easily break if I stuffed it in. Here’s a photo of what I didn’t buy!

Mmm … I rather regret my common sense approach now!
probably best to have these plates if you lived by the sea

I do like them!

Walking back down the hill to the boat these colours in the window with that delicate pattern appealed. I get a ‘high’ looking at intense colours.

Patmos blue …

At the harbour I came upon this tiny car – I think it’s a Messerschmitt. My friend had one in the sixties/seventies called Roger Radish. I wonder who this one belongs to?

Roger Radish turns up on Patmos …

I’d like to come back and do a bit more exploring here. John managed to get a great photo of the library, which is a boon for researchers of ancient Greek manuscripts.

We now have a long crossing ahead of us to Samos, which I’m looking forward to.

Michael and Nota compare notes on the boat

A slightly blurry photo which I can blame on some lively wave power …

Gaye arrives with tea and something very delicious.

tea time

I feel very cosseted and it’s a joy to be cooked for. And to learn new things every day with Michael and Nota. I’m sitting reading in a corner, watching the blue of the sea and the white foam as the boat surges onwards. I also appreciate just having time to think and collect one’s thoughts together without being interrupted by domestic chores – none of that to be seen. Somebody else is doing it all!

I think I made a good choice after all to come on this trip. I’m beginning to feel the ‘pull’ of Greece again very strongly – the way I felt for the first time when we came in 1970.

towards Samos

SAMOS

arrival at the village of Pythagoreio, Samos – named after Pythagoras, who was born here

We are sharing space with a coastguard protection vessel.

There is time to do a bit of exploring before making our way back to the boat for supper.

evening shadows – supper is waiting …

Next morning we make our way to the site of Heraion, where Hera is meant to have been born and to which she returned for her marriage to Zeus. The pilgrimage to her shrine every year by the populace was an important event..

Unfortunately, although the site was magnificent with temples supported by huge pillars, the ground they were built on was very marshy and the pillars kept sinking, which meant buildings kept having to be renewed.

One lonely pillar remains, which looks slightly wobbly. Shades of Ozymandias. But the site is very atmospheric, preparing us for the immense surprise in the museum later on.

site of Heraion, Samos
inscriptions carved in stone, Heraion, Samos

The museum is in Vathi, the modern capital of Samos. We have to remember to wear masks and to bring our audio sets, which are a very good idea. You can ramble around at your own pace and still hear Michael and/or Nota cramming our brains with Greek history. I like this way of learning.

A few seconds later I’m ‘bouleversée’ as we enter the museum and and see a giant 5.25 metre statue of a ‘kouros’ which was discovered when excavating the Sacred Way at Heraion.

Michael introduces us to the ‘kouros’ at Samos

‘Kouros’ was the name given to free standing, ancient Greek sculptures that depict nude males, glorifying youth. This is one of the tallest ones found. The museum has lots of interesting objects; people came to Heraion bringing votive offerings and bearing gifts and many of these have been found at the site and preserved in the museum.

Samos – feet

These feet reminded me of the trip six of us made in an old Land Rover from London to Greece in 1970. We were approaching Nafplion as darkness fell. Somebody said ‘Let’s pull off the road into this field’, which we duly did. The Land Rover had a tail gate which made it possible to lie down flat in the back to sleep – the canvas top covered us except for our feet.

I was woken early following a nightmare where someone had chopped off my feet with an axe. I lifted up the canvas and saw a man standing there, an axe in his hand. My feet still seemed to be attached but it was a mighty shock.

The field was part of an open prison and the man was chopping wood. John found out that he had murdered his wife but was sorry about it and still loved her. He didn’t plan on having another wife when he was set free… the feet in the museum are prettier than mine.

Museum at Vathi, Samos – votive offering
Samos museum at Vathi – votive offering
breaking loose at the museumSamos – look out!
Vathi, Samos – the lion pounces …
belligerent or what? – Vathi, Samos
eyeballed? – Vathi, Samos

This was a great museum to spend time in. It warrants a return visit.

We had the most delicious seafood lunch in a taverna by the water’s edge. I should have taken a photo of all these delicious fish dishes but I’d eaten them before I thought about it. Greedy genes … vegetables and salads in Greece are very tasty too.

It was extremely hot and although hats helped, John needed a scarf around his neck to stop getting burnt. There are some attractive shops here and a scarf was duly found. I think he should wear one all the time – reminds me of Monty Don wearing his while exploring gardens in Italy. Or Richard E. Grant looking glamorous, telling stories as he wends his way around the Côte d’Azur.

the scarf … lovely, soft and stylish – does its job …

It was time to return to the boat. In the bus we passed a roadside shrine at speed. There are lots of these shrines along the way. Do they wish drivers godspeed or do they mark accidents?

Samos – speedy shrine …

Now we are back to Pythagoreio with time to explore the village before supper. More inviting shops but I was chivvied along by John and we finally arrived at the church which overlooks the sea.

Adjacent to the church and graveyard is an archaeological site which needs more investigation but funds are needed.

Archaeological site by the church – Pythagoraio, Samos
beautiful graveyard, Pythagoreio, Samos
flower edged icon – church in Pythagoreio, Samos

I love Greek Orthodox churches. We lit two long, thin beeswax candles before leaving, along with a wish … although world peace is probably too big an ask …

This church reminds me of the one in Arachova in the Peloponnese which we visited just before Covid hit in early 2020. I don’t know what all the icons mean but they seem to create some sort of stability in a chaotic world. Perhaps this is wishful thinking …

pretty in pink

Next morning we take a trip up the mountain to the famous Tunnel of Eupalinos. This was cut through the rock for over a kilometre in the 6th century BC so as to supply the city secretly with fresh water. It’s an amazing feat of both endurance and perfection, the two ends meeting in the middle. Very well worth looking up more about this and a definite must for a visit if you go to Samos.

about to visit the tunnel of Eupalinos – Samos

In the end, I didn’t go because there’s a ladder to contend with and I was feeling somewhat unbalanced that morning. I wish now that I’d done it … bof !

In the afternoon we were taken to the local archaeological museum, showing artefacts from the time that Pythagoreio was the ancient capital – Samos.

artefacts from the ancient city of Samos
found on the ancient site of Samos, now Pythagoreio
snake worship from the ancient city of Samos
snake vase found at ancient Samos site
candlestick rabbit? !
stone lion sculpture from ancient site of Samos

I’ve put in this lion because it reminds me of the massive Lion of Knidos, a place we are bound for later. Knidos is an astonishing site except for the fact that the massive lion now greets you at the entry to the British Museum, rather than looking out to sea from its original mountain top.

just a rather pleasing picture of a cock …

Ancient Samos had connections with Egypt and at some point the Egyptian ruler sent this to Samos as a gift.

intriguing

The next island is flagged up as Léros but we make a short stop at tiny Lipsi, which looks inviting.

ever onwards – shearwaters ducking madly in and out of the waves …

Lipsi is only four square miles in area and quite green. The wine it produces is meant to be good – also cheeses. Officially it is owned by the monastery at Patmos, a day excursion away. It is also a good island for swimming, with many sandy beaches. A small haven.

the harbour at Lipsi
church dome at Lipsi

We climbed up to the church but sadly it was closed. I wanted to see the icon of Panagia Hárou known for its lilies, which apparently bloom within the frame on 23 August each year. (Info from DK Eyewitness book on Greek Islands – much recommended).

On the way back we pass an art gallery (closed) and a small chapel.

Lipsi – shades of blue and white
Lipsi – a tiny chapel

We sit watching boys playing with a giant chess set by the harbour, kicking a football inbetween moves. I really like the feel of this small island …

I’m thinking that we are almost half way through the trip. The only downside to date is that if you wash any clothes they have to be hung on deck and can be at risk of an early grave if you don’t attach them firmly.

The upside is that the sea is calm this evening and I’m all for an early bed with my book on the Greek islands.

at the end of the day

I wake up hungry, have a quick shower and make my way on deck. It isn’t long to wait for breakfast, which looks very tasty. Nota has bought a jar of pistachios in mastic which I find very moorish (more-ish). She is very good at bringing all kinds of delicacies as an extra treat to the table. Much appreciated.

breakfast on board …

Our next stop, the island of Léros, has a strange atmosphere, unlike the other islands we have been to. Lakki, the main port, was occupied by the Italians from 1912 to 1943, when it was taken over by the Germans.

Blocky, fascist architecture, Bauhaus modernism and Art Deco lie uncomfortably together. The town could be a film set for a dystopian vision of the future. We visit a circular building open to the air, which used to be a busy fish market. It would have looked very picturesque with all the stalls laid out but is now completely empty and dilapidated, except for a few scrawny pigeons. The town feels empty of people and a little melancholy.

As we walked along the harbour I saw lots of black sea urchins in the clear shallows and remember being shown how to eat them by two grizzled fishermen when we were travelling around in 1970.

Our main reason for being here is to explore the castle which means walking up many steps to the top of a mountain, overlooking the sea. It’s impressive.

view of Léros from the castle of Panteli
Castle of Panteli, Léros

The castle has gone through various changes, from Byzantine (11th century fortification) to the Knights of St. John in the 14th and then 15th centuries and it does look very cobbled together in parts and somewhat run down. A caretaker arrives and complains to Michael about lack of funding.

Michael, whose knowledge of military history is vast, gives us a virtuoso soliloquy of how these islands have fared throughout the ages – taking us right up to the end of the Second World War. ‘Awesome’, as our American companions might put it. Michael is a great guide, always to hand with answers to our questions. And offering support up the steep bits of castles too.

Léros – Castle of Panteli – hot and dry
Léros – Castle of Panteli – ancient ramparts
Léros – Castle of Panteli – watchtower
another example of Dodecanese pebble mosaics
on our way down the mountain – an impressive succulent survives the heat

We are back in the bus which takes off along the shoreline. And then we stop. Michael and Nota shepherd us into a graveyard for so many British young soldiers that died out here in World War II. It’s a sobering experience and I can’t help but shed some tears. A swathe of youth whose lives and hopes were brutally cut short. The gravestones look out to sea.

When I complain about things I must remember how lucky I am to have had a long and interesting and rewarding life, (well, mostly!) – much of it owed to these young men. We spend about half an hour here – I’m glad to have had this time to reflect.

Léros – World War II British graveyard
WWII British graves at Léros

I was hungry but had no idea that we were about to have the best lunch ever, sitting on a terrace in a vineyard run by a delightful family. This was a different side of Léros – a delicious side.

Michael and Nota have a wealth of knowledge about where to eat among these islands and we are just the happy recipients of this. Many plates appear and much is consumed.

The white wine they make here is excellent – so much so that we bought two bottles. I think we’ll have to quaff them before going home.

If you find yourself in Léros, track down ‘iokallis’ – Chatzidakis wines … and enjoy lunch on their terrace.

Our next stop is the island of Kos, so time on board now to read, chat, have a siesta … a drink … cake …

a classy yacht passes by …

I’ve just read ‘Skios’ by Michael Frayn, which is about what happens when two identical cases are mixed up when taken off the carousel at the airport. I’m mentioning this because that is what happened to us at Bodrum.

My case is quite distinctive – Samsonite – grey, furnished with a noticeable pink taffeta ribbon. John took the case off the carousel and put another bag on top of it, so the ribbon was covered. I then joined him, vaguely thinking that my case looked bigger than I remembered. I’ve never seen another case like mine and it’s fairly old and easy to pick out.

Everyone had now left. I was waiting for John who had been ‘caught short’ when a Turkish man came up to me and indicated that my case was his. I was suspicious. However, I lifted up the small bag on top of said case – alarm bells – there was no pink ribbon underneath. The man then pointed to the carousel. Oh no, perkily pink ribboned and jauntily making its way round and round on its own was my lonesome case.

The two cases were exactly the same, except his was a bit bigger. Disaster was averted at the last minute – I clutched the man’s arm in grateful thanks, and we both looked relieved and happy as we went our separate ways.

I’m glad I had the happier ending – but they deserved what they got in the book!

Kos is a large island with a lot of tourists and it was a bit of a shock when we manoeuvred into the packed harbour.

arrival in Kos
the castle Neratzia is right next to the harbour
view of bicycles from castle walls, Kos
palm trees, castle walls – and a hat – Kos
a small group visiting Kos
Michael, Nota and John – Kos
The demise of ancient pillars – Kos

This island is prone to earthquakes. The 1933 quake uncovered many ancient ruins, many of which have been restored. However, there was another worrying tremor in 2017 and some sites are still temporarily closed.

The Archaeological Museum has many treasures and we got to see them …

a mysterious embrace

I would love to know who or what is being embraced here!

Greek pot

The Greeks loved to portray animals on their pots. I don’t know what this animal is but whoever painted it had a sense of humour!

interesting jug painted with sea snakes and fish
Greek figs or apricots – well past their ‘sell by’ date!
I don’t know what these are but they look good enough to eat … on closer inspection – maybe not! Lovely colour though …

Blue black figs masquerading as a bunch of grapes – ?

exquisite
a lovelorn youth ?

This was a great day and there’s lots more to see tomorrow.

On our way to Asklepion

Next morning we make an early start to a site a little way out of town, built in the 4th century BC, after the death of Hippocrates, (who was born in Kos) and is known today as the legendary ‘father of medicine’.

It is set on a slope, with three levels, served by flights of steps and surrounded by pine trees with a view out to sea from the top. Asklepios was the god of healing and this location was chosen to encourage rest and recuperation after illness in beautiful, natural surroundings.

Asklepion, Kos

You feel a sense of calm and tranquillity as you enter the site – a sanctuary from the busy world. Many more of these ‘asklepieia’ can be found all over Greece, a famous one being Epidauros in the northern Peloponnese.

Asklepion – amongst the trees

Hippocrates was first to proffer the philosophy that illness was not a punishment from the gods but happened from natural causes – for example, environmental factors, diet and living habits. Doctors should only prescribe beneficial treatments and the Hippocratic Oath, symbolised in Western medicine even today has the message ‘Do No Harm’. The symbol is of a snake wound around a rod. I wondered whether that is why so many snakes are portrayed, painted on the pottery we have seen? There is more to find out here … snakes were powerful in some way …

Asklepios – view from the top of the site towards the sea

This setting is glorious and stirred something dormant deep inside me. My father was a doctor and I’ ve always been interested in the history of medicine, preventative medicine and how to stay well and healthy. I wish I could have brought Dad here.

We’re in the busy harbour of Kos again tonight but the captain is planning to take us to the islet of Giali for a welcome swim en route to our next island.

On the way we pass a place where obsidian is mined. Obsidian is black and shiny – natural volcanic glass – which, for example, is used to make jewellery. We are on our way to explore the crater of a massive volcano on the island of Nisyros, which spewed out obsidian and pumice amongst other things at its last eruption. I hope it continues dormant during the next twenty four hours – you never can tell! There were strong earthquakes here last in 1997 …

Arriving in Nisyros
Nota holdng up the castle walls at Paliokastro – Nisyros

These massive, tightly hewn together blocks of stone (how did they manage this?) are extraordinary. Sort of unbelievable in a way, as if they were slotted together by giants. And Nota’s knowledge of Hellenistic history is just as amazing. Both our guides are terrific.

Michael as king of the castle – the steps were dangerously steep and uneven!
Nisyros – John on top of the walls at Paliokastro
Nisyros – starry flowers
dolphin coin found on castle site
coin showing youth with crown of laurel leaves
Nisyros – Spilianis monastery dating from about 1600
Nisyros – one half of the crater
standing on the edge of – the other half !

The crater (caldera) is 260 metres across at its widest. Michael said that it used to be possible to walk across it but a fence has stopped that now. Maybe it claimed a victim … Mud bubbles just underneath the surface. The threat of eruption or perhaps the equivalent of ‘hot’ quicksands lies in wait for the unwary explorer …

Obsidian and Pumice

The yellow colour in the crater is sulphur.The smell comes out of vents in the crater floor, and the stink of sulphur is so strong that I feel quite nauseous – but the view standing on the edge of the caldera is magnificent.

There’s a small café and a stall selling pieces of pumice stone and obsidian, which this sleeping monster has scattered around. I have to buy some of course. I’m also thinking of Mount Etna, where ladybirds live amongst the ash and black lava – I’m very lucky to have been so close up to both volcanoes in their dormant state. Like being in a lunar landscape without having to travel to the moon!

Glasses of a kind of local nut milk are provided – delicious – as we sit under blossoming eucalyptus trees, vibrating with the buzz of honey bees above our heads. In heaven, on the edge of hell. I am totally happy!

info on obsidian at the stall on the edge of the caldera

This volcano visit has been utterly fascinating. There’s a television programme, presented by Iain Stewart (a geologist) on Eurasia – he shows how all the continents have moved so much in the past and continue to do so now and explains the parts played by volcanoes and earthquakes. A violent and fragile planet lies beneath our feet.

path leading to mountain village of Emborios – and dinner!
the lonely donkey
Michael and Nota – our guides outside The Balcony restaurant
in the village of Emboriós – Nisyros

The restaurant has a beautiful terrace at the back with a breathtaking view over the Stephanos crater. As we went in for supper I noticed a shattered mirror and an old photograph of a military man.

The story is that the Germans came here in WWII and a Greek captain was shot. The original shattered mirror is still on the wall along with the captain’s photograph. I took a (rather blurry) photo, which shows the current owner of the restaurant reflected in the mirror. A sad occasion but important to keep the memory.

look up www.livenisyros.com for the full story

The restaurant pulled out all the stops for us this evening and gave us a delicious meal, full of fresh produce. This day has been so rewarding on so many fronts. It’s now ‘Goodnight’ from me, the underlying movement of the waves rocking me into sweet oblivion …

night closes in as we return to the boat

I’ve rather fallen for Nisyros. It’s so original – with the massive volcano and yet the peace and quiet of this little port with its flags from many countries fluttering along the jetty.

Next morning we have a short time to explore the village – Mandraki – by ourselves before setting off for the ‘green’ island of Tilos. I always enjoy some time on my own to find things out, say hello to the locals, potter about and do a little shopping. Perfect! John is staying on the boat to read. He doesn’t like pottering.

on the way to the village – I love these trees …
how Nisyros came into being

This scroll was painted on a wall. Glad I wasn’t here when it was happening. I look out to sea to check that Poseidon doesn’t have his eye on me!

fabulous example of Dodecanese pebble mosaics

Sea horse, starfish, dolphins – I’m just sorry my camera couldn’t fit in the whole mosaic. It’s very impressive and very beautiful.

Dodecanese pebble mosaic – anchor and dolphins

This is a smaller version but I thought I’d just squeeze it in – these pebble mosaics are special and can be found in different areas of Greece from the fifth century onwards. I must find out more about who did them and how they found the stones.

pot of yellow flowers by the blue sea
Mandraki village – Nisyros

This is a most delightful seaside village . I need more time to explore. However, I did buy olive oil soap, some mixed with seaweed, some with honey. Small Greek cookery books for friends – I could have gone on but ‘tempus fugit’ and I must make my way back to the harbour.

Mandraki – more gorgeous flowers …
farewell Nisyros

Our first week seemed to go quite slowly as we familiarised ourselves with living on the boat and getting to know our companions. The captain has found small coves for swimming along the way and there’s a special one coming up, he says. I love climbing down the ladder into the water which is very clear even twenty feet down. Swimming here is a joy.

Meanwhile, Tilos is the next island on our itinerary. It’s the first Aegean island to rely entirely on renewable energy and the only island to ban bird hunting.

arriving at Tilos

This island is very fertile, growing citrus and almond trees. I can’t help but buy two jars of Tilos honey. They will have to be wrapped up in the laundry – fingers crossed. My case is getting heavier …

Tilos – entrance to the monastery

The star turn is a visit to the monastery of Agios Panteleimon. A long, winding road leads ever upwards on the edge of cliffs beside the sea to a dramatic location where the isolated monastery is tucked into a ravine between high mountains with sheer drops to the sea far below.

source of the spring at the monastery

We are greeted by the priest, a youngish man with dark hair who is very welcoming, offering us a drink from the cold water spring. The views from the top of the monastery out to sea make you want to take off like a bird. The air is pure and fresh and the atmosphere of this sacred place is of peaceful solitude. I light a candle. I’m glad places like these still exist.

floor of the monastery courtyard

I didn’t manage to take many photos as the camera’s battery ran out. But John took some good ones for his journal. Apparently, Eleonora falcons have been seen, plunging down the cliff faces, enjoying the air thermals.

Tilos also has a strange story to tell of pygmy elephants, whose remains have been found here. We didn’t have time to visit the elephant museum at Megalo Chorio but apparently these creatures lived here until 6,000 years ago, survivors from an ice age, who became smaller and smaller as they were trapped.

Tilos doesn’t attract tourists who come for sea and sand and night life. Here you can walk, go birdwatching, and enjoy good Greek food and hospitality – time slows down away from the busy world.

It’s a short hop to Hálki with a stop for a swim from the boat on the way.

Hálki

Hálki has a very picturesque waterfront. There are many cafés and restaurants to choose from and an Italianate clocktower and some fine villas. I’m tempted to sit here all day and just look at the comings and goings with a drink to hand.

The flâneur part of me is insidiously taking over but Michael and Nota have other ideas and we’re soon all in the bus making our way to the highest crusader castle we’ve visited to date.

High in the sky, overlooking the sea, was our goal. Would I manage to make it to the top? Perhaps not but it was worth a try. Step by step, slowly but surely, with a little help from Michael here and there, the castle was finally in my grasp. And it was glorious … spectacular.

Hálki – these plants grew by the steep path to the castle
almost there!
made it!

The views out to sea are just fabulous …

Hálki – John on the top of the crusader castle
Hálki – sunlight
Hálki – where the sky meets the sea

This reminds me of paintings by Mark Rothko. They are contemplative and in the same way I am drawn to the meeting of sky and sea – the mystery of infinity.

Reality bursts into my musings as I gingerly pick my way down, avoiding loose boulders on the path. It’s a long haul.

Two of our group opted to stay behind this time and we went to chat to them on a small bridge, where they were waiting for us to return. John said he would take my bag – he can be forgetful, so I was reluctant to hand it over – passport, money, the lot. But for some contrary reason, I did.

Everyone was now assembled and we got back into the minibus. I was in the front, John in the back. Ah, my bag. I asked John to pass it over and he looked puzzled. ‘I don’t have it’, he said. Panic stations. ‘But you took it from me on the bridge’. I didn’t wait for an answer – I raced back. Abandoned but still there, it was propped up against the wall. Phew! (Grrr!)

We were back at the harbour, looking at the astonishing teeny police car. I wonder how much it’s used. The café was inviting but after a long drink I couldn’t help but do a little exploring and found a white nightdress. Soft, luxurious cotton – rather too large but edged in very pretty lace. Twenty five euros. I am content …

Hálki – the police car

I think I’ve managed to buy at least one thing on each island to date. The Greeks have been through a bad time these last years and I hope the tourists will put some money into their pockets this summer.

Time to move on again. The next stop is Rhodes. There will be a lot to see and I sort out the cushions on deck to read up about it with my DK Eyewitness book on the Greek islands, which is well written (with illustrations).

John outside the castle – Rhodes

There is the old town and the new town. I am rather shocked to see a ribbon of concrete hotels and beach sunshades as we approach Rhodes via the new town. But we don’t stop there. The boat comes into harbour and moors next to the old, medieval city, surrounded by castle walls. There’s a bird’s eye/drone view of the old town in my book, which proves useful.

The Marine Gate with the twin towers
Rhodes – spyhole view out to sea

Michael and Nota suggest we go out to look around the fortified medieval city on our own for a while after giving us some of the history.

The city is enclosed by walls and what was a moat, where you can walk. In 1988 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded in 408 BC and has gone through many changes of ownership from Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and from 1310 taken over by the Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitallers) followed by the Ottoman Empire, then the Italians right up to WWII.

The Knights Hospitallers built over thirty fortified castles throughout the Dodecanese islands and owned the island of Rhodes for over two centuries.

Rhodes – the famous street of the Knights Hospitallers

Maybe I should mention the Colossus of Rhodes as it still intrigues even though it isn’t there! It was a thirty three metre high bronze statue of the Greek sun god Helios, erected in 280 BC to celebrate the island defending itself successfully against the enemy. There were many enemies!

In 226 BC an earthquake destroyed the statue. It was never rebuilt. The remains lay on the ground for eight hundred years and were finally sold to the Arabs. The bronze would probably have been melted down and maybe made into coins or tools.

Rhodes – a choice of icons …

It’s fascinating to immerse yourself in this enclosed walled city, which includes a mosque, a library and a Grand Palace. Walking around at your leisure makes you motivated to learn about all the different peoples that have made it their own through its complex history.

Rhodes – entering the Grand Palce

Besides the grander buildings there’s a plethora of market stalls, places to eat and drink, narrow alley ways and houses where people live.

Ancient buildings vibrate to the sound of buzzing velos and motor bikes. It is somewhat like a beehive, except that it’s full of exquisite architecture. These walls can’t talk but they are steeped in blood, sweat and tears – a cliché but a very apt one here!

Rhodes – market place
Rhodes – a sunlit cul- de- sac
Rhodes = winding alley way
Rhodes – mosque + moon

I’d now completely lost any sense of where we were and a long drink was top of my list of things to do next. We finally muddled through to the main gate. Nearby was an entrance to a secret garden with a huge tree spreading shade – a mysterious white statue glimmered through the leaves.

‘Let’s go in here’, I said. It turned out to be the most enchanting garden café called the ‘Auvergne’. The best place! It’s such a great feeling when you come upon somewhere special by chance! My strong tendency to be a flâneur was sated as we sat down to fresh orange juice and sweetmeats. Heaven – or its equivalent …

Café Auvergne – in the historical garden

We had a great time exploring the Old Town by ourselves but next morning Michael and Nota gathered us up early and off we went, audio sets at the ready. This is the type of travel which suits me best. Interactive learning with Michael and Nota about the history of places we visit, time to explore on our own, taking photos, looking forward to convivial meals, being looked after so I don’t need to organise every day and, of course, a bit of shopping thrown into the mix, like icing on the cake.

I love these islands and this is a great way to visit them by boat. Lovely crew too!

I’m just putting in a few photos of what I enjoyed looking at and to give a window into what Rhodes has to offer in the Old Town. I’d love to go back.

Rhodes – tower built by Knights Hospitaller
Rhodes – Old Town
Rhodes – bougainvillea

INSIDE THE GRAND PALACE AND THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

through the keyhole …
dark corner
mysterious faces
what happened to him?
enchanting
seductive
oleander

These are a few of the things that caught my eye but you could spend so long here. My history of it all needs much improving but I hope I’m giving you a flavour of what is on offer that may whet your appetite for more …

We then came upon the mosaics, which are truly wonderful. This was a day to remember.

floor mosaic
birds and flowers
gryphon
handsome sea god – with wings?!
winner takes all …
an intriguing scenario

All the same, poor bunny!

I’ve gone a bit mad showing the mosaics but I find them fabulous – just one more, a favourite …

Medusa

I’ve always been both fascinated and repelled by Medusa with her wriggling snakes for hair ever since I read the Greek myths as a child. There was a picture of Perseus escaping her clutches in my book. If you looked at her face to face you would be changed to stone. Perseus had a very well polished shield and was able to chop off her head by looking at her reflection. I found this both clever and terrifying.

The book I was given as a child on the Greek myths was called ‘Once Upon A Time’, published by Ward Lock with memorable illustrations, many in colour. It was a well loved bedtime read and unknowingly shaped my future love of Greece.

When we were in the Peloponnese just before lockdown, we stopped at a petrol station, where there was a gift shop. I came upon a roughly made ceramic head of Medusa. I so wanted to buy it but how would I have got it home in one piece … also, it did fill me with horror – children’s memories live on … where did that story originate?

And that reminds me of other Greek myths – Narcissus and the water nymph, Echo, Icarus flying too near the sun on his wings made of wax, Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece, Andromeda and the Sea Monster, Atalanta and the Golden Apples, Pan Pipes, Midas, Hero and Leander … they were all there. And of course, all the gods!

I must pass this book on to our grandson …

On that note, we say farewell to Rhodes. The captain is taking us to a secret cove for swimming.

secret cove – accessible only by boat
Robinson Crusoe on the beach …

It’s actually a member of our crew, attaching the boat to a large boulder for safety – you can see the rope in the water.

après swim – John enjoying his book in the sun
on our way to SymiSafak and Gaye

After a peaceful night we are feeling in good shape – Nota has more pistachios in mastic in a jar at breakfast and I must ask her where I can find some. I don’t want to appear greedy but they just hit the spot!

Ergun, our captain- in full flow …

We are making for the island of Symi – not too far away. I am making the best of these glorious moments as we plough on through the swell of indigo seas. To be here is to be without a care in the world – of course it can’t last … but it is lasting right now …

Sailing into Symi harbour is like sailing into a picture postcard. It is so unbelievably pretty. This island was once very rich because of sponge diving and shipbuilding and there are many beautiful neoclassical villas cascading down the steep hillsides. I can’t helping thinking about which one I would choose to live in. Oh, forget it, any one would do!

Symi – arriving into harbour
Symi harbour – later in the day
Symi – Customs House
Michalaki – a fisherman by sculptor K. Valsamis
a rope of garlic drying in the sun
staircase to the stars
Greek denizen of the deep …

We explored winding alleys, up and down, until we all met up for dinner in a taverna by the harbour.

Symi – taverna

Later, having drunk a wee bit too much I’m careful not to go too near the water’s edge. Arrived back safely at the boat, just time to look up into the hills of Symi at night before bed.

Goodnight !

Another sunny day and after breakfast Michael and Nota take us on a trip up the hill to see how people live here – beautiful mansions often cheek by jowl with neglected ones, ready to be rehabilitated. I think there are quite a lot of expats living here permanently – somebody mentioned British and Italians. Luckily, Symi doesn’t seem to have attracted too much of the noisy nightlife – I hope it stays that way.

Nota leads us uphill, explaining the history of Symi as we follow.

Nota answers our questions

There are hundreds of steps, quite steep in parts. Deterrent for cars, Daleks, etc. And it preserves the old way of being, which is very attractive. I’m slightly out of breath as we climb higher and higher.

it just needs lots of money and time spent on it!
like this one, nearby
more old fashioned with a beautiful pebble mosaic to welcome you
the silent heat of the dayde Chirico-esque?
just for the colours! Plumbago?
octopus pebble mosaic – spectacular!
Greek summers – the scent of the fig
Symi – bird’s eye view
had to put in this ‘maritime’ table – the creative restaurateur makes the salt, pepper and napkin into a sailing boat – brilliant!

It’s time to retrace our steps. We are now also homeward bound but the double harboured site of Knidos is en route.

leaving Symi
a house only accessible by boat

We have to make a stop at Datça as we are once again in Turkish waters and our passports have to be shown in the port. Photos are also taken and we are well and truly stamped.

The interesting thing about stopping here is that for us it’s a return visit from a time maybe seven years ago when we sailed along the Lycian coast in a similar type of boat (gulet). I’m curious to check something out. On my quest I find a shop which sells Datça almonds. They are known for their high quality and will make perfect presents.

Two of our companions, Gail and John, are eating ice creams down by the port. They look good. ‘Yes’, said Gail, ‘they are made of goat’s milk and really delicious’. She pointed out a low building with a picture of a goat on the wall. Thanks, Gail, that was a highlight of my day!

Goat’s milk has a slightly more viscous consistency when made into ice cream and I had crunchy honeycomb added. Oh my, was that the most special treat ever! I was tempted to go back for seconds but there was something more important to resolve.

‘Le Flâneur’ bookshop in Datça

The last time we were here our guide, Andrew Wilson, pointed out a small bookshop a few minutes away from the harbour. It’s called ‘Le Flâneur’ and is owned by a very delightful couple. And it was still there! And so were they …

They sell both new and second hand books in twenty languages – we bought one in English and I bought postcards – old ones of Knidos with those wavy white edges of yesteryear. And I was absolutely so happy to see the two of them again. And because I was so happy I took a lovely photo!

the delightful owners of ‘Le Flâneur’ bookshop in Datça

Leaving on a high note, Knidos was in our sights …

The lion of Knidos now welcomes you at the entrance to the British Museum. It is a massive sculpture made of marble and was initially found by a young archaeologist. It was part of a tomb, looking out to sea near Knidos. 150 years ago the tomb was excavated and the lion ended up being transported to the BM. To learn more there is an attractive, small book by Ian Jenkins, published by the BM.

Michael points out where the lion used to reside as we pass.

where the lion of Knidos was found

On top of the cliff at the front you can see the remains of the tomb that was excavated. I expect the lion misses his view over the Aegean …

I should know which island this is – but I don’t it’s dramatic
cake by Gaye

While we were getting our passports checked Gaye was making a cake which appeared at teatime and was duly demolished.

We’re in harbour with fishing boats for the night – I think the site at Knidos has been developed a lot since we were last here. I remember our group doing a Greek play in the amphitheatre last time, directed by Andrew, our guide. Ian Parmenter, a celebrity Australian cook took the main part and made it his own!

fisherman – Knidos

This is a spectacular location at the end of a peninsula. There has been a lot more excavation since we were last here. I didn’t take a lot of photos this time. Instead, can I direct you to my journal dated December 2014 ‘The Lycian Shore – take 2’ when I did take some good photos. It was interesting to get up to date but I was aware that the site would attract more and more tourism. But that has a positive side too. It’s a very special place.

Now we’re in Turkish waters again I’m thinking about how so much has changed since 2014 when we were last here and wonder about the outcome in both the near and distant future. It’s an unsettling time.

And we’re about to enter that world again …

arriving back in Bodrum

As we arrive back in Bodrum, cases are being packed and we have a last night on the boat. It’s lovely to meet some of the families of the crew as they are welcomed home.

Dinner is a mix of exchanging emails and thanking Michael and Nota for being terrific guides – Nota leaves early next morning for Athens and Michael goes later on to Italy. Breaking up is always hard to do, even though we knew our companions for only two weeks but I hope we may keep up with some of them.

John and I have a day in Bodrum as the plane leaves in the evening. We put our cases in a safe place organised by Michael and having said our goodbyes, decide to visit the castle once more.

Bodrum castle – stone anchors
Bodrum castle – stone carving 1
Bodrum castle – stone carving 2
Bodrum castle – a hedgehog?
Bodrum castle – an intriguing three legged pot
Bodrum castle – plant pods

I saw these pods on the ground and wondered where they came from as there was no tree nearby. I just find them very beautiful. I’m including them as at the moment I’m watching a programme on botany – about photosynthesis and how plants grow. It’s especially relevant in the present climate.

Bodrum castle – the old and the new

The ancient clay pot sharing space with a naval WW1 mine. Food for thought.

The blue and yellow colours made me think of Ukraine as we sit by the harbour with an energising drink of sage tea.

Bodrum – sage tea
in the heat of the day …
farewell Bodrum

Not so fast … when we got to the airport our plane was cancelled. What to do? We ended up in a mad dash by taxi 170 kilometres through the darkening night sky of the Turkish hinterland to Dalaman, where we managed to get on a packed flight home at 1.30am in the morning.

Luckily, we had booked our flights with a company recommended by our daughter. It was Dennis and Stan at ‘Dial A Flight’ who did a sterling job in taking all the hassle out of our hands. Dennis found us flights from Gatwick to Bodrum at a late stage and Stan now got us home. And they also refunded our flight back and saved me from filling in endless forms and waiting for a refund from Easyjet. I can’t thank them enough. They were brilliant.

And that’s about it! I hope this piece might be helpful if you’re choosing to visit the Dodecanese islands. Personally, I can’t wait to go back.

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And then we had Paris…

Having been confined to these shores for so long I realised that although I longed to ‘cross the Channel’ I was also afraid of ‘spreading my wings’.

When my daughter said she had Eurostar vouchers and invited me to join her, I was thrilled – but could I do it? I hadn’t had Covid, I did have my booster – my worry was just filling in all the forms for Covid and trying to organise them on my phone. She knew what to do and ‘voilà’ – I’m sitting at a table on the Eurostar, waiting for take off! Coffee arrives, followed by lunch with a glass of wine and suddenly, we burst out of the tunnel into another country. Unbelievable!

On the Eurostar to Paris
We are in France!

I had always wanted to stay at the ‘Hotel des Grandes Ecoles’ – but it was always full. This time there was a chance, probably due to Covid and we were soon installed in ‘The Garden Room’. The hotel lies behind a massive door to the street. A cobbled road inside leads to the old fashioned hotel and garden.

Paris – Hotel des Grandes Ecoles
Paris -The Garden Room

One of my favourite places in Paris is the Ile St. Louis. Fifteen minutes walk downhill from our hotel, it’s now bathed in the golden light of late afternoon.

Ile St. Louis – late afternoon

A favourite café, the ‘St. Régis’, is at one end. Very French, untouristy. Just the place to immerse ourselves for a while and enjoy the surroundings.

Paris – Café St. Régis
Paris – Café St. Régis

As we left, the sun was leaving too and the lights of the city were appearing. The bridge by the café seemed to be closed to traffic. There was a man sitting at a piano in the middle of the road, playing music which brought tears to my eyes. We stood there transfixed, along with others, including children and I could only believe that Paris had put on this show especially for us! We made a recording on the phone which I wish I could include here. It was just a very special moment and I was so happy to be here.

Paris – a one man concert in the middle of the road …

I looked around as we made our way to dinner and could hardly believe the Van Gogh sunset scene. ‘ Incroyable’!

Paris – Van Gogh sunset

We’d seen a restaurant – L’Ilôt Vache – on a corner as we came down to the Ile St. Louis and liked the look of it, so we retraced our steps. It was just opening for the evening, with a very tall, handsome man in charge. It turned out we’d made a great choice. ‘Confit de canard’ with ‘pommes de terre rôties’, followed by ‘crême brulée’ and ‘tarte aux pommes’. And a rich, red wine.

Confit de canard avec pommes de terre rôties
Paris – L’Ilôt Vache – crême brulée
Paris – L’Ilôt Vache – tarte aux pommes

Breakfast at the hotel was delicious too. Lace ‘doilies’ grace the old, round wooden tables and the waitresses are buzzily welcoming, asking how we would like our eggs done – nothing is too much trouble for them and hot coffee is on hand.

There are two middle aged men at another table with roguish eyes, a family with small, sticky fingered children, a lone dowager dressed in black, wearing a hat – the dining room is full. A monstrously furry cat explores silently under the tables.

We have tickets for an exhibition of Vivien Maier’s photography at the ‘musée’ in the Luxembourg Gardens. The sun is shining. We make an early start, walking past the Panthéon on our way.

It’s so good to get to places early and the Gardens looked wonderful, even though it’s the beginning of November.

Paris – The Luxembourg Gardens – November 2021
Paris – The Luxembourg Gardens – November 2021
Paris – The Luxembourg Gardens – November 2021

The weather is mild but it is Autumn and the trees are losing their leaves.

Vivian Maier, born in 1926, made her living as a nanny, mainly in New York, but her work as an amazing street photographer came to light when some forgotten storage lockers were found to contain over 100,000 photographs of ‘street life’ she had taken over many years.

A film called ‘Finding Vivian Maier’, has been made by John Maloof, the man who found these photos and Charlie Siskel. The exhibition we were going to see in the Luxembourg Gardens contained some of these.

The exhibition was fascinating and the way the photographs came to light after decades in a lock-up is astonishing. I bought some postcards and took a few photos but cannot for copyright reasons show them here. Looking up Vivian Maier’s life and work is really worth doing. Watch the film!

By this time we were thinking about a bite to eat and I really wanted to see if we could get into ‘Le Fumoir’, a restaurant opposite Le Tour St. Jacques by the Louvre. We had no reservation but were lucky. There’s a room which contains a small library at the far end but that was full. However, we sat under this painting and had ‘une assiette’, which satisfied our hunger. Much recommended.

Paris – at ‘Le Fumoir’

We hadn’t had much time to look at the shops and decided to walk along the Seine, enjoy the river views and maybe come upon some small boutiques and galleries. It was interesting to see that many seemed to have survived ‘lockdown’.

Paris – clothes
Paris – pumpkins and bouquets
Paris – cheese and wines …
Paris – sweetmeats

We passed by one of the celebrated landmarks of Paris – ‘Les Deux Magots’. I couldn’t help being ‘touristy’ and took a photo.

“Les Deux Magots’ – spot the twins!

Paris is always awash with small, quirky galleries. Time was precious, so leaving the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay for next time (!) we trawled through unknown streets, searching for windows catching our eye en route. It was probably lucky for my purse that some galleries were closed and we could only manage ‘lèche-vitrines’. Nonetheless, a little frustrating!

Paris – ultra chic
Paris – let me in!
Paris – mystère
Paris – ‘bonjour tristesse’ – grâce a Françoise Sagan …
Paris – yes, please …
Paris – ‘rouge et noir’
Paris – birds by Pylones

I’m not on Twitter but these enchanting birds ‘tweet’ when you pick them up. Fun presents for children …

All good things come to an end and our last evening is here already. And while our passenger locator forms are being processed by the lovely lady in reception, she recommends ‘Café Delmas’ – a restaurant just minutes away in ‘Place de la Contrescarpe’, where we are made very welcome.

It’s always a worry after Brexit but I think speaking French helps – we were treated with warmth and kindness everywhere. ‘Bonne nuit’ et ‘beaux rêves’ …

Time to return to ‘Le Gare du Nord’. It’s been a real treat but now the door closes on our little sortie to ‘the City of Light’. I hope we’ll be back soon …

Paris – ‘Au Revoir

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The Biscuit – The History of a Very British Indulgence

by Lizzie Collingham – a big thank you for an inspiring and very enjoyable book …

If somebody had given me this book to read at school – ( obviously not even written then!) – I would have fallen in love with history. Corn Laws didn’t do it for me. But at this later stage in life, I’m giving ‘The Biscuit’ my personal ‘book of the year’ award for a riveting account of why biscuits played a major part in encouraging world trade. And how their delicious success continues apace today. They really do ‘take the biscuit’!

You might think that the subject is pretty mundane – a cup of tea, usually accompanied by a ginger nut or digestive biscuit, preferably dunked in the cup for extra indulgence. And drunk (mostly every day) by the masses. But there is much more to it than that.

ginger nuts

Lizzie Collingham’s research is mouth wateringly more-ish. Starting off with the word biscuit coming from the French, ‘ bi-cuit’ (twice cooked), the origins of the first biscuits were from dried bread, used by travellers of all kinds, sailors and also the army, as it did not go mouldy en route. She also tells us that it was in the medieval Islamic world that sugar was added, eventually leading to the Empire’s global trading in biscuits which developed what is today a staple for entire nations, specifically the British.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit tins with their colourful patterns etched onto the metal, making the biscuit tin into something of an icon. Packed full of biscuits, they were shipped all over the planet. Some people even put the empty tins on the mantelpiece as a decorative feature! I remember, as children, we filled the empty tin with the wooden animals which came with our Noah’s Ark in the toy cupboard.

These ‘large square tins’ (although they were to expand into all sorts of shapes and sizes) had much more fascinating uses.

In Uganda, bibles and other books were made to measure expressly to fit into these tins to save them from being destroyed by ants or similar creatures who ‘ate’ and destroyed books in the tropics.

In the Sudan a sword was found with bands of metal covering the scabbard, the name of Huntley and Palmer proudly displayed.

In Trinidad they were used as musical instruments and dustbin lids. In Bolivia a young mining engineer used an empty tin successfully to carry £1,000 across a dangerous mountain pass and fast flowing river to distribute his mens’ wages.

When Queen Victoria’s son-in-law died of malaria in Africa, the body had to be preserved in order to be taken back to Britain for burial. A coffin was constructed out of biscuit tins and filled with rum.

The writer, Thomas Hardy, apparently had his heart excised from his body to be buried in Dorset by the side of his first wife, Emma. The surgeon, having extracted the heart from the corpse, found he had nothing to transport it in. Someone came up with an empty biscuit tin.

WARTIME

In the First World War porridge was made over a fire using biscuit tins and they were also used as washbasins and, unpleasantly, even latrines. Soldiers used them as seats in the trenches. Temporary army camps made use of them filled with sand together with mealy bags to build most of the huts. During the Second World War the tins were used in an innovative (explosive) way to make tea or ‘char’. Obviously, given so many empty tins, the biscuits were very popular!

The author includes recipes for all kinds of biscuits – plain, iced and jam filled, followed by chocolate coated ones. The choice grew with the profits made. At first biscuits were the prerogative of the upper classes but with industrialisation biscuit factories brought the prices down to all and sundry.

something a bit more luxurious …

Biscuits are a bridge between bread and cake – they last longer and with the addition of sugar have definitely carved out a tasty and nostalgic niche – comfort food, which we all desire from time to time.

Do read this book if I have whetted your appetite and find out lots more about the evolution of the biscuit across the world – and of social history, packaged in an original and unforgettable way – preferably taken in with a cup of tea to make a good match with a ‘ginger nut’, a ‘digestive’ … or even something more luxurious. The choice is endless, a welcome indulgence, wrapped into our daily lives.

“A stellar observer of the day-to-day and the mundane, a social historian of extraordinary talent” (New York Times Book Review’).

The book also has illustrations – some of which are in colour.

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Hollyhocks in Britain – ‘Roses trémières’ in France …

I’ve often tried to grow hollyhocks (alcea rosea) but with little success. And yet I’ve seen some growing eight feet high in places where you would think nothing would survive. For instance, against a high wall in full sunshine, their roots presumably finding water below a hard, arid, gravel surface.

Hollyhocks, Nassau Road, Barnes

The Anglo Saxon name was ‘holy-hoc’ or holy mallow. A plant from the Holy Land. Gerard, who wrote his Herbal in 1597 knew hollyhock as ‘Malva Hortensis’, part of the Malvaceae family, related to common mallow, rose of Sharon, lavatera and tropical hibiscus.

Hollyhocks were probably introduced to Great Britain in about 1573, although they are mentioned in a poem in a manuscript much earlier. Most likely they hailed from China, via the Silk Roads to Palestine. The seeds would have been brought to Britain during the Crusades.

In France they are known as ‘roses trémières’ – coming from ‘outremer’, meaning from ‘overseas’. Again, from China via the Middle East. The flowers range from shades of burgundy to scarlet red, pink, yellow and white.

Hollyhocks – painting by Caroline Elkington

Unfortunately, hollyhocks succumbed to a rust disease, which spread across Europe and cultivation was almost abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have revived and are again an eye catching stalwart of English cottage gardens and even cityscapes. They seed themselves quite easily.

I found that mallow, a related shrub, also part of the Malvaceae family, symbolises health, love and protection. Mallow’s medicinal properties include guarding against TB and inflammatory diseases. It makes me happy to know that these shrubs have flowered magnificently in our front garden for over fifty years – a close cousin of hollyhocks with the same tendency to take on different colours. Another garden nearby has a beautiful blue one.

Mallow as a shrub
Like hollyhocks, mallows come in different shades and colours
Mallow – close up

A couple of years ago I was in Dieppe with my sister and brother-in-law. I’ve never seen such a profusion of ‘roses trémières’ and other glorious flowers, which border the shingle beach – as prolific as all the parked cars. Should they have been triffids, the cars would have been swallowed up. Yet another reason to visit Dieppe, with its castle, picturesque ‘centre ville’ and a house and garden designed by Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll nearby.

‘roses trémières’ by the beach, Dieppe

roses trémières’ in Dieppe – note the castle in the background
a bushel of scarlet ‘roses trémières’ by the sea
‘roses trémières’ Dieppe – toutes directions …
‘deux chevaux’ with ‘rosees trémièresbackdrop – Dieppe
Dieppe – the beach

Maybe hollyhocks flourish better in the sea air. Then what about the ones in Barnes? Well, the Thames is a few minutes away and is slightly salty …

Hollyhocks and ‘roses around the door’ spell out the epitome of English cottage gardens and cream teas – yet their origins are from so far afield.

Cuppa tea?

Just as I feed my mallow shrubs on tea leaves and coffee grounds, which come from plants that continue to grow thousands of miles away … yet coffee and tea are now staples of our daily lives. How would most of us manage without them?!

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I bought a painting of Sarah Bernhardt at the Maas gallery … and found out so much more …

About two years ago, I was walking along Bond Street and noticed a very pretty, small gallery at the bottom of Clifford Street – The Maas Gallery. The painting in the middle of the window which drew me in was of waves – spectacular but sadly, way above my price range. However, I was happy enough that they asked me to leave my email for future exhibitions they might have.

MAAS GALLERY – photograph taken by the owner

In lockdown last October I had a message to say the gallery was moving to bigger premises in Duke Street, St. James’s, after sixty years. Out of curiosity, I looked up the exhibitions they had shown in recent months – one was called ‘In Good Company’. Looking through it, I came upon a pencil drawing/watercolour of the actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), by Walford Graham Robertson (1866-1948).

On looking him up, I found that he was a contemporary and friend of John Singer Sargent, who had twice painted Robertson’s portrait – one of him in an elegant, long coat. Robertson himself was also a good friend of Sarah Bernhardt and another actress, Ellen Terry – he painted portraits of both women – the one of Ellen Terry is in the National Portrait Gallery, here in London.

It was as much these connections that motivated me to buy the Sarah Bernhardt painting – as well as being at a price I could afford. It’s a small panel painting – Sarah is looking romantic, standing in a fern filled garden with a dog at her feet. The framing is particularly suited to it.

Sarah Bernhardt by Walford Graham Robertson (1866 – 1948)

As well as being an actress and sculptress, she acquired an amazing menagerie of animals, whom she adored. They included a lynx, a parrot, a boa constrictor, a lion, a tiger cub, three cats, several birds and dogs, a jaguar, six chameleons, a chimpanzee called Darwin and two alligators – one of whom died of a surfeit of champagne.

champagne rainbow

The other alligator was shipped to her apartment in Paris. As it was being unpacked in its drugged state, her Manchester terrier went to see what was going on. Its furious barking awoke the sleeping reptile, who unfortunately made short work of said dog.

Sarah Bernhardt ordered that the alligator be shot – she had the head stuffed and put on the wall of her apartment, with a notice underneath. ‘My beloved little dog – his tomb’.

Alligators – by John Singer Sargentbook cover

Rupert Maas, the owner of the gallery, had told me that Walford Graham Robertson (WGR) had written a book – ‘Time Was’ – a collection of reminiscences of his famous and celebrated contemporaries in art and literature, many of whom were also good friends – John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Henry Irving, Count de Montesquiou – to name a few … later on in his life, when Robertson moved for the most part to the Surrey countryside, he met Kenneth Grahame, of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame. The links are so many.

Diverted by extraordinary stories of alligators, I now returned to tracking down ‘Time Was’ and a trawl through Abe Books threw up a copy in very good condition from Jacques Gander, an antiquarian book dealer. A lucky find.

‘Time Was’ – the reminiscences of Walford Graham Robertson

Robertson comes over as a very likeable, observant and thoughtful individual, modest about his own talents – he was a prolific painter, illustrator and writer and did both sets and costumes for the theatre – and he was obviously dearly loved by many of his friends and acquaintances of the time. The more I got to know about him while reading ‘Time Was’, the more keen I was to own this painting he did of Sarah Bernhardt.

I would have liked to have known WGR. He was knowledgeable and curious about finding things out, a lover of art and books and the theatre but also somebody who was a good listener, interested in other people, kind, intelligent and not seemingly self centred. A joy to spend time with, in fact …

On the back of ‘Time Was’ are comments by critics. J.C. Squire of ‘The Observer’ writes, “His book is a delight to read and I think that it will leave many readers with a feeling that I have myself, namely, that one would rather go round the world with the author than with many of the famous people whom he writes about.”

Opinions by the critics on ‘Time Was’

‘Punch’ writes “His whimsical and sensitive impressions of studio and stage are the unique commentary of an artist, and dramatist sufficiently masterly to be loved as one of themselves by painters and actors and sufficiently the ‘prentice to return the love with a certain self-effacement and veneration.”

Others mention his humour, his ‘bouquet of wit and kindness’ and “as for good stories the book bubbles with them.” He may not be remembered himself today but John Singer Sargent asked to paint his portrait. Whistler, who was known for his faint praise of other artists – and I quote from Robertson’s book, ‘Once – only once – he (Whistler) really liked a painting of mine, a small portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, and I remember him carrying it about the room, putting it in various lights and ejaculating at intervals – “No, but I say – eh? – isn’t it – eh? – isn’t it – pretty?” – and the word ‘pretty’ was not used opprobriously.’

I wonder if that is the portrait I now have? I like to think so. I found it difficult to get a good photo and, like Whistler, carried the picture around, looking for the best lighting. He probably did a better job …

I was also interested in the fact that Robertson became obsessed with William Blake and collected many of his drawings and paintings. Blake was born in 1757 and one of his books ‘The Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ still sells today.

Blake was a creative polymath and poet, a philosopher whose thoughts on scientific understanding made him prophetic about such discoveries as the atom. He would also have experimented with all types of drugs and was wildly extreme with an unusual sex drive. He often read aloud to his wife in the garden, both of them naked. I remember a story about two women who used to race around Soho with large pairs of scissors, cutting off anyone’s long locks who came into view. Blake would have found this eccentricity very entertaining.

Most of all, he was a ‘futures’ man, who instinctively saw ahead of his time.

Songs of Innocence and of Experienceby William Blake (1757 – 1827)

And the fact that WGR loved Blake and collected so much of his work makes me find him even more fascinating as a person. Robertson bequeathed his collection of Blake’s work to the Tate Gallery on his death in 1948.

As all this was coming together, I spoke by chance to someone I worked alongside at Oxford University Press in the early 1970s. She recommended reading ‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes, which is about Samuel Pozzi (1846 – 1918), a French society doctor and pioneer gynaecologist, born in Bergerac, France, who lived out his extremely successful professional and complicated personal life against the backdrop of the Parisian Belle Epoque.

The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes

And the first reason for including him here is, like Robertson, he also had his portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, wearing a glamorous, long, red robe, which Julian Barnes analyses in a very entertaining way. And, secondly, Pozzi and Robertson both knew Sarah Bernhardt.

I wondered if Robertson and Pozzi ever met, although there is nothing to suggest in ‘Time Was’ that Robertson ever went to Paris, even though Sarah Bernhardt lived there most of the time. But Pozzi did come to London. Julian Barnes starts off his book recounting a time when Pozzi and two friends (Count Robert de Montesquiou and Prince Edmond de Polignac) came to Liberty’s in London – Pozzi to buy both furnishings for his house in Paris and tweed material for his suits.

WGR became good friends with Sarah Bernhardt. In Paris, Samuel Pozzi also became good friends with her – she called him ‘Docteur Dieu’ as he did at least one operation on her. She often called on him for medical advice and it’s more than possible that he became her lover for a short while. Moreover, they continued, like WGR, to be friends for life.

But what really intrigued me about Pozzi was the rich and full life he led and, surprisingly, how few enemies he made during his life in this age of the ‘belle époque’, as he moved confidently among the ‘glitterati’ of the art and theatre world.

Paris

As a doctor/surgeon, he was talented, admired and celebrated by his peers. He was tall and handsome, had married into money, his wife, Thérèse Loth-Cazalis, being the daughter of a railroad magnate. He was also a collector of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, books, fine furniture and interesting objects from around the world. He had good taste. And overall, he seemed to be blessed with a very well balanced personality, using all his talents and charm to great advantage. He advanced the progress of medicine in many ways and he should be remembered for that alone.

Paris – stone lion, Place des Vosges

I became more and more intrigued by Pozzi. In his desire to learn more about and improve medical procedures, he made trips both to the U.S. and to Brazil and Argentina to visit hospitals and was astonished by the quality of medical care in those countries. He was curious, outward looking and determined to find cures for all kinds of illnesses, so as to relieve human misery. He also kept in touch with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, New York, set up initially by two brothers from Lancashire, England.

His first trip to Britain in 1876 was to attend the British Medical Association’s conference in Edinburgh, where he met Joseph Lister and learned about the sterilisation of wounds, operating theatres and of surgeons’ hands. This opened up a lifelong series of exchanges with European and American colleagues. Pozzi worked for thirty five years at the public Lourcine-Pascal hospital in Paris, putting all the information he gained into practice. At another hospital, the Broca, he got his artist friend, Georges Clairin, who incidentally was also a close friend of Sarah Bernhardt, to make a huge wall painting. Today, we try and make hospitals more friendly to patients. Pozzi maybe planted the seed of this idea. The results of all his researches made him very well known in his field and he was fêted and celebrated during his latter trips to the U.S.

As a surgeon, he went on to specialise in gynaecology. It was rumoured that he had affairs with many of his patients but there is no hard evidence to support this. Pozzi was discreet about his private life although, especially through his daughter’s diaries, we hear that his marriage was not happy and that during the latter part of his life his house in Paris was divided into two parts. He lived in one and his wife, her mother and the children in the other. They never divorced. However, Pozzi was seen with his mistress, Emma Sedelmeyer Fischoff, on many occasions as they travelled around Europe together.

Pozzi was a Darwinist, a man of science and reason. His wife was from a deeply religious Catholic family and much influenced by her mother, who lived with her and found Pozzi unacceptable. Perhaps that is why the marriage was bound to fail. I like to think though that Thérèse’s fortune was put to good use by her husband. He was a phenomenon and I would very much liked to have met him.

Paris – toujours créatif, toujours original …

A two volume treatise on ‘Gynaecology’ which Pozzi wrote was very well received and probably helped to make him the first person to be awarded the First Chair in Gynaecology in Paris in 1884. Later on he became a military surgeon in the First World War. He was also for some years mayor of Bergerac in south west France, where his family came from. He seems to have possessed enormous energy and drive, along with all his other talents – a trait I envy!

And yet this man also made time to enjoy the good things in life to the full and I feel, unlike many men of his type, who are often too egotistic to have true friends, he did have close relationships with both men and women and appreciated their various creative talents. He looked out at the world, he wanted to make a difference for good in his field and he also seemed approachable and relaxed – he loved life, he embraced opportunities and gave as much as he took.

Robertson and Pozzi are quite different personalities but I find I am drawn to both of them, even as they were both drawn to Sarah Bernhardt … and John Singer Sargent was himself drawn to paint the portraits of both men.

‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes is beautifully produced and is full of fascinating characters and anecdotes. A much recommended read.

Singer Sargent’s father was an eye surgeon, his mother (née Singer), an artist. They lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts and ended up living in Paris and other European countries, leading an itinerant and peripatetic lifestyle. This move from the U.S. happened initially because of a girl child that died aged two years old and led them to have a change of scene.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy. Ultimately, this decision would be advantageous later on, given both his artistic talent and the connections he was able to make. Singer Sargent was also a good linguist.

I’d love to go back to that period as an invisible onlooker, tracking down all these people and their professional and personal links to one another. Impressionism was on the rise and in later years Singer Sargent left portraiture, which had made him a good living, for landscapes painted in oils and watercolours.

Evan Charteris wrote of Sargent’s watercolours in 1927 – ‘To live with Sargent’s watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held …’ These pictures have also captured and held me ever since I saw them first. I know who I am when I look at these paintings – Singer Sargent is my ‘Docteur Dieu’!

Book cover

I bought a painting – and it unlocked a treasure trove. It’s in my bedroom to remind me that we all have our short time in the light and to remember others of a different era, who shone brightly for a short time – some of them for longer.

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‘Wilding’ the garden – Chris Packham style …

After watching Chris Packham (Springwatch) on television, we decided to let our (small) lawn grow wild this year – except for a narrow path, (which I snipped with scissors), running through the middle, so I could get to the washing line. It meant that in the morning my feet and ankles were covered in dew – I got to like this, knowing we were offering a home to lots more insects. For the first time in ages I saw an earwig – it fell from one of the drying sheets on the line into the grass. Just as well I didn’t meet it in bed!

Insects have declined by 75% in the last fifty years. Without them, the planet ecosystem will not survive and that means we won’t either. In 1963 Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring’ warned that the amount of pesticides being used was destroying not only insects but soils too. More recently, climate change has highlighted this.

To know more, read ‘The Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse’ (£20) by Dave Goulson, who is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex. He has also written a book on the different types of bees and founded the ‘Bumblebee Conservation Trust’.

We are slowly waking up to the reality of our depleting ecosystems but we need to act much faster. There is still hope as long as we manage to convince most people of the danger in time and get many countries involved in regeneration. Nature doesn’t recognise man made borders. We have a difficult task ahead but more and more people, both young and old, are taking up the challenge. A programme to watch on Sunday evenings is ‘Countryfile’, which really helps to understand what is going on and how we can all make things work in new ways.

Going wilder
A jungle of colour …
Mimosa and rosesnot exactly wild but both very beautiful
Wild foxgloves
The bottlebrush plantCallistemon – which is hardy and drought friendly
enough to make a daisy chain …
Nettles drenched in evening sunlight

Certain types of butterfly lay their eggs on the underside of nettles. We imported a few plants and they have multiplied – somewhat aggressively!

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly …

Not exactly wild – but a great favourite of bees and a strongly fragrant perennial.

Some plants are seen as weeds, partly because they arrive unannounced and grow so freely that they become invasive – like alkanet. The bees love the intense blue flowers but their rough and hairy leaves, tough tap roots and greedy nature need a firm hand. Plants like herb robert and the frothy white blossoms of the herb, sweet cicely, come back each year and are welcome, as is the evening primrose, a tall and sturdy plant with creamy yellow flowers. Lady’s mantle loves to spread too, often with a dewdrop in the middle of its fan shaped leaves. They just choose where to show up, wherever suits them. I like that.

Someone gave me a few seeds of quaking grass, also known as rattlesnake grass because of the shape – like a rattlesnake’s tail. They have interwoven themselves with the geraniums. Nipplewort flew in and found itself a place under the apple tree. There is now an App on your phone which will give you the Latin and common names of any plant you happen to come upon. Brilliant!

quaking grass

Our mallow shrubs in the front garden were here before us, so must be at least fifty years old. They continue to produce hundreds of flowers in August/September, visited by bees. I give them tea leaves and coffee grounds, a prune in the Autumn and they reward me ten times over.

Mallow- a cousin of the more exotic hibiscus

Different types of poppies have appeared at random, their seeds blown in on the wind from other gardens, or from further afield. We had scarlet ones with black centres, huge mauve, pink and purple ones and the ubiquitous, smaller, yellow ‘Welsh’ poppy, which sews itself all over the place and doesn’t mind growing in between the paving stones.

I’d like to have enormous swathes of poppies – reminding me of paintings by the Impressionists. Opium, which they produce, and which is a powerful drug, shows the darker side of their history. Opium Wars. Addiction.

The poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lt. Col Macrae, describes the poppies that grew on the battlefields after the First and Second World Wars, remembering those who gave their lives so that we might have better ones. The symbol of Remembrance Sunday is the red poppy.

This also reminds me of the famous lines from Rupert Brooke’s poem: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England.’ The ephemeral beauty of poppies which return each year in the French landscape are a timely reminder of thousands of senseless deaths. Poppies incite powerful emotions. And opium is addictive.

At this point, on a more cheerful note, I’d like to recommend Michael Pollan’s latest book, ‘This Is Your Mind on Plants: Opium – Caffeine – Mescaline’. The book is divided into three parts. The first chapter is about the poppy, ‘papaver somniferum’, from which he makes a tea and, unbelievably, tells the story of the criminality of growing poppies in the U.S.A. Ten plus years in jail! Just don’t fiddle with the pods …

It’s a great read – like having a conversation with the author. Caffeine, which concerns the second part of the book, has him sitting down outside his favourite café, with his ‘addictive’ cup of coffee. I’d love to join him but he then ‘goes cold turkey’ for three months, as an experiment.

Mescaline comes from certain cacti – I probably wouldn’t use this myself but after I’d read the book I knew so much more about poppies, coffee and tea and what certain cacti can produce – all of it fascinating.

Pollan’s also a bit of a wizard with words and a good communicator. He reminds me of an English journalist, Hunter Davies, whose book, ‘Happy Old Me’, made me want to invite him out to lunch. I find them both very entertaining and I’m sure would be welcome companions – in completely different ways.

‘Welsh’ poppy

I don’t have pictures of red and pale mauve poppies but there are plenty on the Internet. That’s partly because the flowers come and go so quickly and I didn’t have many. However, I dried the petals when I found them on the ground.

Mind you, not only the petals. The dried seed pods look very good in flower arrangements. Some pods are huge, the ones in the photo below are tiny by comparison. It’s what you might do with the seed heads that concerns the U.S. government. Floral decorations are happily exempt!

Welsh poppy with seed heads
Larger seed head of red poppy

That was something of a digression from wilding my garden but I hope it opened up some doors of perception …

I passed a neighbour’s house and gloried in the blue of her ceanothus in the rain. Not wild but again, perennial.

Penny’s Ceanothus
Anne’s roses in her front gardenseen from my study
Cranesbill/common geraniumthese spread across our garden unchecked …

It’s interesting to see what plants flourish and what disappear when left to their own devices … the monsoon rains this July, causing flooding in neighbouring houses with basements, followed by 30 degree heat, have made everything larger and more feral than usual. And the ancient apple tree is bowed under the weight of the fruit this year.

I hope we’re increasing our pollinators and making our garden more friendly for the diverse lives of insects.

Below is a photo of our roses, which have flourished in this wilder place, despite the advances of bindweed and nettles. A colourful and hopeful note to end on this ‘wilding’ ramble.

rosebowl
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Down by the river Thames – Barnes, June 2021

A quite exhausting day with the ever present, pushy Zoom in annoying evidence. In the early evening we escaped and walked down Nassau road towards the river, following a slight breeze, to rest our eyes and blow way digital cobwebs.

Something different and special was going on. The sun was deciding to call it a day, making cloth of gold reflections on the water and creating wonderful silhouettes of birds and boats. Many families of geese and goslings were circling the yachts. A swift, high in the sky, swooped down suddenly and disappeared into a hole by someone’s chimney stack.

Three yachts on the Thames at Barnes
Swans, geese and goslings caught in the evening sunlight
The river Thames with yachts and wild valerian

I think there must have been a race earlier on – maybe downriver. It was wonderful to see so many boats, just a few minutes walk from home.

Moorings
sole yachtsman
Duo
The Thames – cloth of gold …

Home to a nautical supper of ‘moules marinière’ in a white wine sauce with new potatoes and steamed samphire. And a fresh baguette. Enough to make you forget about ‘Zoom’ – until tomorrow!

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Lockdown days

I’m trying an experiment. Some days I’m up in blue skies and other days I’m down in the mud. I decided to find something for each day of one working week to illustrate beauty and optimism in the world. I’m starting from home – looking at things locally, since we’re in lockdown. I don’t know how this will work out but it’s a positive step to relieve the ‘boxed-in’ feeling.

MONDAY Cold and overcast. The domestic chores of the day loom. Washing, hoovering, ironing. Making sure the recycling is outside in a tidy state for collection. The amount of cardboard packaging is alarming, having to depend on deliveries rather than go to the shops. Up at 7am with a hot cup of green tea. Good start.

beautiful bubbles – washing up!

A book I’ve ordered from Waterstones, ‘Klara and The Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, arrives. The design, its colours and presentation, are terrific – they are by a Japanese designer called Toshiyuki Fukuda. It makes my day. I dip in to the first few pages and am reassured I will like reading it.

‘Klara and The Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

TUESDAY Dull and grey. I make an early morning visit to our local supermarket (five minutes walk away) with my wheelie bag. The staff are super friendly and helpful and I buy a big bunch of daffodils. A welcome note that Spring is in the air.

Daffodils – March 2021

Later on the car won’t start but the flowers give me the energy to ring the RAC. More dispiriting rain later but after supper I watch a fascinating TV programme about Çatalhöyük in Turkey, presented by Janina Ramirez and now designated a World Heritage site. It sends me to bed in an upbeat mood. I’ve learned something new.

WEDNESDAY Overcast and damp first thing but I have to go to the bank. The train is almost empty and it takes only six minutes to get there. On the way to the station I pass a massive mimosa tree in full bloom, which is gorgeous.

Coming home, a wind has blown up and I breathe in stormy gusts of fresh air as I walk across the Common, passing a swathe of purple crocuses and a wild black dog chasing an orange ball. The grass is a vivid green.

On Barnes Common

THURSDAY Lockdown can become very frustrating. Not seeing people face to face for so long makes me very lethargic at some level. A weird fog in my head. This gets much worse when it’s dull and cold with a heavy goosedown sky – like today. I can hear the muffled silence. I hope I don’t go deaf in later life …

In the morning I throw dried mealworms and sunflower seeds for the birds under the apple tree (brownie points) and they are soon pecking away in a greedy fashion. I chase away the magpies because they bully the little birds. The pigeons are making a nest in our bay tree. Birds are what remain of dinosaurs – (I mean, not counting fossils!).

The sun pushes out of the grey blanket at midday and we go for a walk in the park. I fall over in the mud and look as if I’ve wallowed in it like a pig but my jacket goes in the washing machine later on and is as good as new. I have a few scratches but got very close to nature 🙁

Later on, I was tidying up and found a cache of Nevil Shute books. Now reading ‘Trustee from the Toolroom’. He’s a great storyteller. It’s wonderful to find something like that by chance. Like a necklace down the back of a drawer you thought you’d lost. I’m hooked – it’s a good feeling.

Trustee from the Toolroom’ – Nevil Shute

FRIDAY Monsoon type rain swilling down the roof windows, followed by bright sun.

Mimosa branch in the rain – on the roofagain!

The sun wins out and we go for a local walk and see lots more flowers appearing, comment on peoples’ gardens and come home with some delicious baguettes for lunch with cheese and fruit.

An appealing cloud with a silver lining …

We’re going to have ‘moules marinières’ for supper with garlic, white wine and parsley, and new potatoes. A favourite. And so I come to the end of another week of lockdown. Some good moments have lifted the tedium.

And what could be nicer than being sent a very original bouquet of flowers from ‘Storm and Grace’ for the weekend. It contains Ladies’ slipper orchids, Fox grape fritillaries, Neapolitan miniature alliums and butterfly lavender with catkins and cherry blossom twigs about to bloom …

Flowers from ‘Storm and Grace’ for me!

Obviously, I did much more during the week but I can see that the special, uplifting moments mainly include books and flowers, looking up at the sky and learning something new … not to forget good food. It shows how much we depend on the natural world, not only for survival but for pleasure too.

The curiosity factor is big for me as I have always liked finding things out and learning new stuff. We’re lucky to have the Internet and TV as well as books nowadays. Mmmm … I don’t always love these gadgets tho’ … I miss writing and receiving letters.

I’ll finish off with one of my favourite quotes. It’s quite relevant in today’s world. Pause for thought …

‘A person hears only what they understand’ – by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – 1749-1832. You could add ‘sees’ as well as ‘hears’.

Exquisite poppy from ‘Storm and Grace’

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‘To a Green Thought in a Green Shade’

This is a line in a poem called ‘The Garden’, by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) and it came to mind as I explored a gravelled alley way between houses on a daily exercise ramble, passing by a garden fence.

There was a short piece by David Attenborough in ‘The Times’ suggesting how humanity’s relationship with nature could be repaired. Besides the beauty and wonder and diversity of Nature, we also depend upon it for our own lives – we need to breathe, eat and renew our bodies every day and as we damage the natural world, we also damage ourselves.

Fortunately, we are now slowly becoming aware of this and there is a small window of time to try and put things right. Nature can regenerate quite quickly if given the space to do so – we need to make this happen. And there are many individuals working on various schemes all over the world to achieve this regeneration.

DA suggests that we can also reconnect with our natural surroundings by stopping our busy schedules and sitting quietly for ten minutes – in the woods, in the mountains, by the sea, in our garden, even contemplating our houseplants… he says that extraordinary things happen, even in that short time – for instance, do you recognise that bird call? How many insects hove into view and do you know what they are?

I found ladybirds overwintering in the cracks of our sash windows … small black bees turning up in the house … a wasp’s nest, resembling a ghostly white football, prettier though, under the eaves. Even for those who don’t have any interest in the natural world, without the sun and water from rain, human beings would not even exist …

Maybe this year we’ll be able to travel again – think of being in a jungle, say in Costa Rica and seeing and hearing things for the first time that you knew nothing about. I’ve used DA’s article a lot for this piece, so I can spread his ideas further.

To return to my ramble and the prosaic subject of a garden fence. The sun was shining and catching the spaces in the fence with its rays.

Colours lift my spirits. The camera sometimes catches more than the eye can see and makes the ordinary extraordinary. I’m bedazzled and aware of how much I don’t know about our planet and how much I want to learn about it. All because of a walk … and given time to contemplate.

In the same way as people are keeping ways open for hedgehogs, we should keep our brains open to the natural world.

Hedgehog tunnel for travel between gardens …

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Ups and downs in the weather… a few local observations during lockdown …

Heavy rain, storms, floods, howling winds, followed by snow and ice, brilliant sunshine, extremes of temperature … small tornadoes have also been reported in different parts of the country. Climate change can’t be ignored any more.

Mimosa, which comes out in February, soaked in a heavy downpour …

Below are a few recent local photos of the Thames and Barnes Pond, showing the changeable moods in the weather. I’m aware that these influence my own moods too!

I’m a member of ‘The Cloud Appreciation Society’, set up some years ago by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I’m letting you know just in case you think there are too many cloud panoramas here …

Cloud panorama over the Thames – January 2021
The Thames at Barnes towards sunset – January 2021
Sunset over the Thames at Barnes Bridge – January 2021

During lockdown we may only walk for exercise close to home. As well as walks along the river towpath, enjoying a fresh sea scented breeze in our faces, we are also getting to know a few of our neighbours’ front gardens more intimately, as we ply our course along quiet, residential streets.

Some front gardens still have shrubs and flowers but many of the larger ones have been paved over to house massive SUVs. This could save the price of parking permits but doesn’t save the environment. Maybe if you do this, you should also have ‘bee friendly’ pots of flowers and shrubs surrounding your charabanc.

Concrete is bad because producing it creates an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Also, rainwater should be able to sink into the earth. Paradoxically, the more front gardens are paved over, the greater the risk of flooding.

Eye catching sunset clouds above Glebe Road, Barnes

Barnes Pond (‘rus in urbe’), makes for a green and pleasant, (socially distanced), rendezvous for grown ups, who sit and chat/read/phone on the surrounding wooden benches, which, in turn, are dedicated to various Barnes residents no longer with us.

Children whizz up and down on scooters and babies in their prams with mothers and nannies are drawn to the water’s edge – ten Egyptian goslings being the latest excitement.

If you go in the rain you are lucky enough to get it all to yourself …

A miserable, rainy day at Barnes Pond – February 2021
A dusting of snow – Barnes Pond – February 2021
Seagulls flying over Barnes Pond – February 2021
Ice covering Barnes Pond – February 2021

And then there was a fanfare of sunshine and blue skies …

Blue ice on Barnes Pond – in full sun – February 2021
Barnes Pond – pigeons wondering why they can walk on water February 2021

These are the days when being out and about beckons – but I also like walking, even trudging, in the rain – as long as I know the sun will return, and that home isn’t too far away. We are lucky to have seasons in the year.

Looking through a bookshelf the other day I came upon a book entitled ‘Since Records Began’ – the highs and lows of Britain’s weather, by Paul Simons. It was the first book to bring together all the extreme weather events in the U.K. since records began – something to dip into while in your warm and comfortable bed, when last week in Scotland -20C was noted, close on the heels of this week, which is reaching 14C or more in the south of the country. What other extremes are in store for us this year, I wonder?

An interesting record, full of fascinating facts
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