Saturday, 25 January 2014

Woke to watery grey sky, followed by brilliant blue and sunshine, then window-rattling wind, heavy rain, and thunder and lightning. British weather trying to be unpredictable.

On Monday (today is Saturday and, in case you're wondering, I have been working all day - except for when I broke off to hang pink satin curtains, which look exceedingly good against the green of Farrow & Ball's misnamed French Grey...), we went for the long-anticipated 'Amersham Tour' out of London Transport's Country Walks, First Series (first published 1936). There was something about following a walk with accompanying map from a time before the Second World War, across London's Green Belt, I found irresistible. What would have changed? What would be the same? Would it still be possible to use the old map?

We had mixed results. Old signage was gone completely and a lot of it was renamed the South Buckinghamshire Trail, but it was just about still do-able.

Most notable was the early confusion about where exactly we were, as our 2014 signage took us over a little stile that didn't exist back in 1936, across a very fast road, and then over another stile on the other side and downward into a wood. None of this corresponded with what the book said and the only recognisable landmark was a church, which we headed for. When we arrived, its yard contained graves marked with a head and foot stone, and an almost bed-like stone in between (see handy picture). I'd never seen anything like them before and there were quite a number. 
My walking companion suggested that the fast road might be new and we continued with that idea in the back of our heads. We managed to get all the way to Amersham Station (also on the old map) and began the walk back, which took us through the beautiful and very elegant high street of Old Amersham.
It was dotted with original pubs, courtyards and doors that opened directly onto the pavement, and the general impression was that the only change since 1936 was that it had all probably been vastly loved up since those days and probably cost a fortune to live on now - while in those days they might have seemed like small little workers cottages left over from late Georgian/early Victorian times. I liked this little shop tucked into the arch of a courtyard.

After a little while, as the new road began to come into sight and hearing distance, my walking companion was proved right: the new road is undoubtedly a bypass, to divert traffic from the delicate old high street, and so our earlier confusion over where we were was explained.

Much tramping on and upwards, as well as discussion about where exactly we were on that old map, continued as we went on. A stately home, Shardeloes, and its surrounding parkland, remained virtually unchanged - even the book said it was part of London's Green Belt, land that has (hopefully!) been put aside for protection from development - but trees have obviously grown and enough subtle changes have taken place that we began to have serious doubts about where we were.

With the light fading and an ominous-looking electrical sub-station looming to one side, my companion suggested we turn around and go back to where a path had led off to the right, in the general direction of where we'd left the car. I have to admit the idea of retracing our steps and still not knowing if we were really going in the right direction didn't appeal, so I did the sneaky thing and took out my iPhone - google maps to the rescue!

So, much mud and up and down followed, but we made it back with a feeling of accomplishment and adventure having taken place.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

 Am calling this Moon Over Nerja, in homage to Ansel Adam's Moon Over Hernandez. However, it won't be selling for thousands of dollars...

Andalucia, at least in January, was a revelation. After years of Brits rolling their eyes in a 'Don't even say Costas, let alone go there!' way, I discovered that it's ruggedly beautiful and, while the coastline is overdeveloped for my tastes, it's no worse than much of the Med.

We took two walks while there, once into the hills behind the Nerja Caves and once up the hill behind Frigiliana, where we met the psycho donkey, whose picture is here. Don't let that sweet stance fool you: he mostly wanted to chase, bite and kick us for daring to come on to his mountain.

One of the things I loved in Spain was the extraordinary house we stayed in. From the front, it looked like a little two up, two down job. But inside it was a Tardis, widening out and going up two more stories which contained five bedrooms, a central narrow airshaft that some of the windows opened on to, tiled floors and whitewashed walls. Best of all was the long garden that led down to the sea and which contained a lemon tree. On the last morning I was invited to pick one to take home, which is how I came to choose and pick my first lemon (no puns, now!). It was as large as many oranges and I put it in my pocket for the journey, quietly reminding me of the mildness and brief sunshine of Spain every time my hand found it.

There was just one night in London before heading to Stoke Park, one time stately home of the Penn family, of Pennsylvania fame, and now a hotel, spa and golf resort just west of London in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.

It looks not unlike a wedding cake and in highly maintained grounds, through which we walked. We were there to review it for a parenting magazine, so no charge to us for staying in the enormous Lancelot Suite, which had its own terrace looking over the countryside toward Windsor and a marble bathroom that dwarfed my bedroom at home. I took the biggest bath of my life, just to experience it, but the truth? It was too big! I couldn't lie back because my feet had nothing to brace against. Still, a very luxurious experience!

In the grounds were a number of trees that supported mistletoe - a funny, parasitic plant that makes its host look like something out of a Dr Seuss illustration.

I want to write more, but I'm making myself late for work as it is (yes, I'm back at work...). Will update more soon!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Nerja, Andalucia, Spain: I'm sitting here, facing a large, room-width window that gives a view of the tops of three clumps of bamboo and, beyond them, nothing but dark blue Mediterranean to the straight horizon, where the heavily overcast sky fills in the rest of the picture. A Mozart piano piece is playing from someone's laptop and I have a mug of tea on the go. Earlier, after waking from the first unbroken night's sleep in years, we went by public bus to the Cueva de Nerja, extraordinary underground caverns first 'discovered' by five local teenagers in 1959. I've been to stalagmite and stalactite-stuffed caves before – in both Kefalonia, Greece, and the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia – but this time it was actually even more awesome than I could have imagined. Absolutely enormous spaces with tremendous columns, including the world's largest (thus found, anyway!). When e came out, we went looking for the sink holes the boys first found – not hard, as they were right behind the ticket booth, with metal fences around them – and then carried on up the hill path that led from the entrance to the parking lot.

The sign said it was 10km/4 hours to the top, but we just walked until we'd had enough, talking, oohing at the view of either the caves, the ravine or, most spectacular, the cloud that covered the top like dirty shaving foam and which eventually chased us back down, slipping between the trees like the fog from a Stephen King novel.

Back in Nerja, we walked up and down the tiled streets of the old town until we found the very local restaurant – all Formica, chrome and large TV screen behind the bar – where we sat at a paper-tablecloth covered table and ate potato and onion salad, bread, sardines, gambas al pil pil (shrimp in spices and olive oil), grilled vegetables, deep-fried calamari and, best of all, eggplant (ok, aubergine then) cut into strips, dipped in a light batter and fried, and then dipped in something they call black honey in this area, but which tasted to me not unlike sweet plum sauce, like you get in Chinese cooking. Was so delicious I ended up putting it on everything. And did I mention the two glasses of tinto (ie, red wine)?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

It was a bright, sunny, blue-sky Saturday, so naturally I took predictable pictures of early openers, like all the flowers and blossom here. It's also predictable that I could say something like, "And it's only January! And we're getting flowers already!" Blah, blah...

Read this morning that a blog post entitled something along the lines of 23 Things to Do Aside From Get Married When You're 23 has apparently gone viral. Really? Do people really need lists like this? Or do they just like lists? Some do, it's true. I remember Mark Boxer, one-time editor of Tatler, rubbing his hands as he walked past, saying, "I love lists!" At the time, I was a virtually faceless freelance sub who'd just got off the plane and didn't understand what Tatler was about or who all the people were that got snapped at parties. I ended up there by accident: not sure if it's still the case now, but in those days, Condé Nast never advertised editorial job vacancies, but it seems they must have been desperate for a copy-editing bod, so when my CV (that's Brit-speak for resume) landed on someone's desk, it was simply good timing. But I digress!

Wasn't I talking about lists? Oh yes, and how some folks like them. I suppose they're to the point and you know what you're going to get. I certainly write lots of lists, full of things I should be doing or need to do. Somehow, writing them down makes me feel as if I've at least made a start. And, also, I don't have to remember what they are anymore, because they're on the list, which means there's more space in my head for... Well, reading other people's lists, I suppose! Except that I guess I'm not all that interested in what 23 things a 23-year-old should be getting up to. I've got my own 23-year-old, and he seems to have plenty to do without adding another 23 to his list. I guess I prefer not being told what I ought to be doing, whatever age I am. Surely it's one of the joys of living that we get to choose what goes on our own life lists? Like my top 5 list of places I want to go, which is constantly being updated and re-ordered and this morning contains southern Spain, Istanbul, Southeast Asia, Sweden and just about anywhere with hot sun and a beach...

I leave you with pix from yesterday's ramble that took us by this lock, that started a conversation about taking a narrow boat trip in the spring or summer, so that's something else to put on the list!