Sunday, 29 May 2011

An Interval in Sunlight

I rode up onto the Dunkery range this afternoon under leaden grey skies and in a very strong wind. There were no deer up there today and I came across only one heavily pregnant Exmoor pony mare and her yearling foal. The only buzzard I saw was hulked up on an oak branch in the woods, sulking until the wind dropped so that he could get aloft again.

It's nearly the end of May and  I wanted to revisit Bagley Wood before the bluebells die over so that's where I programmed Hoss to go.  Despite the headwind and the drizzle it was flinging in our faces, Hoss was very spritely and by the time he'd trotted me up through Allercombe and Hollowcombe the sun had broken through the clouds. The Moor changes quite dramatically when the sun comes out and I paused to look around at the still-winter-bleached hillside, its heather not ready to purple the slopes for another couple of months and its grasses not yet  verdant. Massive cloud shadows fled across distant fields giving a different picture with every passing second.  Below me, behind a screen of beeches, a wildstone wall marked the boundaries of Bagley.

As I rode on down the rough stony track, it gave way almost exactly at the stone boundary to a worn-grass path that dropped steeply into birch woodland. I could see the distant groundmist of bluebells long before I could identify individual blooms.  Spirals and waterfalls of blue ran down through curling summer ferns and barely-grazed woodgrasses and all around, despite the wind, a faint scent of hyacinth pervaded the air.  I pulled Hoss up and let him stand while I gazed around the wood.

Exmoor is not an easy place for trees to grow into towering giants and most of those in the bluebell wood are birches, holly and smallish oaks.  Past storms have toppled trees into the combe but over the years, determined survivors lying at impossible angles with their canopies lower than their bases, continued growing. Some of the branches on the upper sides of these fallen trees headed for the sky again and the result is an extraordinary sight. Close-growing rows of birch turn out to be branches of the same trunk and all take their strength from the remaining roots of the original tree that the wind failed to pull free of earth.

Sunlight filtered through the overhead canopies and sparked silver off raindrops on a spider's web pinioned among the bluebells.  The wind, still blasting from the south west, shivered the birch leaves and a few of these, shaken loose, startled Hoss into moving off.  Almost at the same moment, the grey clouds won their supremacy battle, the light in the wood changed quality again and the magic faded away.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Swiss Roll

I've just come back from being on a roll out there, in a village overlooking Lac Leman and the miles and miles of vinyards on its northern side. Switzerland is lovely in springtime, not too hot and not too tourist-busy - but the traditionals are all there to be admired: cheeses and chocolate by the tonne, flags flying outside every chalet type house big enough to support a pole in the garden and everywhere cows clanging their bells - wonderful.

I used to work in Lausanne many years ago and my French was once near-fluent but it's rusted somewhat and it always takes several days to get my 'ear in' again. It's fun to be able to eavesdrop on conversations on the train in a foreign language! And as every writer knows, fellow-passenger-watching and eavesdropping are tools of the trade so I didn't even feel guilty about hearing about the recalcitrant children etc ...

The Swiss birds (in and out of the cuckoo clocks) all chitter in French just as loudly as they do in English, and the crickets answer back seemingly for much of the night. There are two churches in the village and both have chiming bells, one dong for the half hour and the correct number of dongs for the hour - but the two towers sound about a minute and a half apart: apparently the later ring gives the real time!

The scents of the open meadows - they're ready to be mown for hay any day now - are divine, so many different grasses and wildflowers and no ragwort or thistles in sight, how DO they do it?  There is no barbed wire in Switzerland (it's actually against the law to fence horses in with it) and the milch cows all graze right up to the lanes and roads with only a thin wire keeping them in their own places.  The wire is plugged in to the national grid though, so I guess yon cows aren't going to argue more than once about the grass being greener on the other side of the wire.

All is not wonderful, however: the lovely old chalet that used to mark the entrance to the village has been pulled down and hideous flats have been built in its place. Even though the whole village population signed a petition to prevent it, the authorities went ahead anyway.  Ghastly. There's a huge amount of building work going on in Switzerland, has been for several years and each time I go it seems another dozen of these horrid concrete block buildings have appeared, either for industrial or domestic purposes. Although the old villages retain their charm, all along the roads between them and crowding around the edges of the villages, wherever another few acres become vacant when someone dies and the heirs don't want to farm or grow vines, some horrible building goes up.  There are protected areas, of course, indeed UNESCO has just designated as 'special' the whole region around Lavaux from Pully to Vevey - thank goodness somebody has seen the problem and is starting to put brakes on.

Vevey is a gracious small town with a lovely lakeside area where I found the most beautiful carousel, dating from 1900.  It looks like a giant toy - it's a fantastically ornate merry go round of enormous proportions, with two tiers of 'rides' on it - separated by carved staircases.  On the lower deck are well-made and exquisitely painted carnival horses which go up and down on some unseen mechanism as the carousel turns.  There are Cinderella rocking carriages, into one of which I saw a delightful Italian couple climb and they spent the whole ride leaning against one another, holding hands and enjoying both their own relationship and maybe also memories the Carousel brought them. Every available surface of the Carousel was decorated - including the ceilings which had paintings of classical legendary scenes and other 'proper' artwork painstakingly set onto them.  The walls and supports were gorgeously decorated - in tasteful and classic pale green and pink and cream, with gilt finishing touches and mirrors everywhere, two-tailed mermaids carved on the uprights - I stood and watched for half an hour and I don't think I saw all there was to be seen even then. I wish I'd had my camera.

Switzerland is riding high as the dollar and the pound are at a low exchange rate - I've never known it to be so expensive and would caution anyone travelling there to be aware of how hideous the prices are - a very mediocre salad plate at lunch for two will set you back about £18 and afternoon tea and a pastry much the same.  Maybe I'm just out of touch, of course, perhaps even in the UK this is the going rate now.  As you know from previous blogs, I am not by nature or inclination a 'lady who lunches' - just as bloomin' well, at those prices!

On the whole though, the sounds and scents and sights of Switzerland continue to delight me and of course seeing old friends and spending time with them is always a pleasure.  But I don't think I'll be visiting again for another year or so. 

Sunday, 15 May 2011

One Way Trip

In 1941 the Swiss passed a law allowing assisted suicide.  It does seem extraordinary that they would be working on such legislation with the maelstrom of a world war raging all around their borders but that's the way things were. In the canton of Zurich only, foreigners are permitted - courtesy of Dignitas - to end their lives legally also.

I'm off to Switzerland this morning.

I do, however, have a return ticket and I'm not visiting Zurich anyway.

I'll be back

Monday, 9 May 2011

Losing one's SatNav virginity

Maps I can read. Courtesy of the delightful (late) Miss Lancaster of Withington Girls' School and the equally delightful and long-suffering Mrs McQueen of ditto, I learned to read a map and navigate hills and moors when I was in my teens. I know what the funny close-set multitudes of lines mean, what the crosses on the creases of the maps are and what a public footpath looks like both in reality and on paper. 

Trouble is, all that is so out of date as to be out of use now, particularly when circumnavigating Warrington on a busy Saturday afternoon from a motorway to a dual carriageway and back to a motorway.

Bugger Warrington.  I finally got out and headed for Liverpool (I'd never been there either before last weekend and to be honest, no offence, I never wish to return) and was feeling a bit (terrified) uneasy when I suddenly remembered I was supposed to be using a borrowed SatNav to get me to the Heart and Chest Hospital. 

Hah!  I stopped at a service station on the M62 and looked at The Instructions.  I finally found the power source (the car's cigarette lighter) plugged this thing called TomTom into it, looked at first postcode I'd been given and tapped it in.
Five circuits of the car park later I realised TomTom was either having an April First Moment or a problem with brick walls (I can't drive through them). The voice of "Jane" kept telling me to turn right. "Fifty yards, turn right." (I tried both Charles (British Male) and John (American Dork) and reverted to the just-tolerable voice of  "Jane" (British Female).  I sat and screamed after the fifth circuit.  I knew perfectly well I needed to be heading West, so I sang loudly ('Hit the Road, Jack') to drown "Jane" out until I'd got back onto the motorway heading west.

"Jane" instructed me to "turn round and go back".


After a panicky few minutes during which time I nearly side-swiped a hundred tons of articulated lorry and scared the tish out of the occupants of a 1978 Ford Capri by swerving across three lanes of mid-afternoon motorway traffic, I realised I'd put in the postcode of the Warrington address I'd left half an hour earlier. I started singing again because I couldn't work out how to shut "Jane" up and her smug instructions were beginning to piss me off. This time my choice of song was the wishful-thinking 'Take me home, country roads'.

Using commonsense and not SatNav I got in close to Liverpool, off the motorway and pulled over again. This time I put in the correct postcode and tried again.  I was at the hospital in about 10 minutes - easy.

Denying any terror or problems, by the time I had finished my business at the hospital I reset the postcode navigation to an address near Tarporley in Cheshire, about a million miles away and managed to get to my destination with no-longer-white-knuckles and a steady heartbeat.  The song had now changed to the old Harry Lauder number "Keep right on to the end of the Road".

On arrival, my knowing brother handed me the largest G and T I've ever seen and removed the SatNav from my custody.  I've lived in the Back of Beyond too long, it seems. Give me the sun, a map, a compass (and another large G and T) and I can orienteer with the best of them, on foot or on hoof, across bog, moor and river. But offer me the latest global positioning navigation technology, the use of an American satellite and a cigarette lighter with attitude and I'll have a nervous breakdown before sunset.

I know where Liverpool is, thank you.  I know where Exmoor is.

Guess which direction I'm headed?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Duck Patio

HKC2, the big Siamese/Maine Coone cross (a Tycoon, really) has disgraced himself again.  After the Pheasant Episode some years ago which resulted in a broken catflap, I thought he'd give up Big Game hunting. Mostly he concentrates on small but tricky prey, such as weasels, rabbits, the odd squirrel and when the wind's in the wrong direction, rats.

At Christmas he'd grown bolder again and nabbed a near-neighbour's guinea fowl, leaving me the feet, a LOT of feathers and some explaining to do.  I couldn't face it: I binned the evidence and let Charlie-the-fox take the blame.

Another near-neighbour has three large Aylesburys and a couple of not-Mallards, Mrs of which is sitting on eggs in the back paddock and Mr of which has taken up with the Aylesburys cos he was bored. I'm sorry to say that HKC2 invited a protesting Mr Not-Mallard in for dinner one evening via the new catflap and wouldn't take no for an answer.

The catflap survived. Mr Not-Mallard, however, although rescued and repatriated, died 48 hours later and as a result, relations are Strained between HKC2 and Mr Not-Mallard's owner.  I offered to pay  of course: blood money, vet's bills, funeral costs, whichever was needed or came first but the neighbours sportingly declined ... and dined on duck themselves.