Mrs E and I are on a diet. I know, I know, neither of us need to and you’re very kind but we have our reasons.
Reason one is that we have returned from Sicily, after 6-8 hours hiking every day, both half a stone heavier than we left. Thereby proving that lots of exercise really didn’t balance off against eating nothing but cake for breakfast and pasta/gelato in the evenings.
We divert at this point on the reasoning front. Mrs E is keen to look a million dollars for Jr Emu#1’s wedding in the summer. I’ve not asked her what her current currency self-valuation is, and, of course, I wouldn’t be so rude, but it’s sad if it’s more than a couple of grand shy of the million, because I think she’s never stopped looking fantastic since the day I met her. Well, there was an incident with a heavy fall involving a trifle dish that made her look like Frank Bruno, but even that was quite endearing. And anyway, self-image is just that, isn’t it? It’s all about how we feel ourselves rather than what others think.
My reason 2 is slightly different. For quite a while now, my fitness has been going down the pan, and I had a look at some of my training diaries from years ago, when I was running at a decent lick. According to these diaries, I could knock out a sub 3 hour marathon in the morning, have a couple of pints and fish and chips at lunchtime, more chips in the evening, and be nicely rested in time for another run the following morning. I couldn’t do anything like that now, and, of course I’m in denial about that all being twenty years ago, so the only factor that I can change is the one that gets me back to the weight I was when I was running well, which is about half a stone lighter than I am currently. I do appreciate that what I’ve just written is the ramblings of a deluded fool, but there’s a voice in my head that keep saying that I’m only a few pounds away from being able to run properly again…
So, different reasons, but the same objective, and we’ve both agreed to follow a plan based on the very lucrative writings of Dr Michael Mosely. I’ve had a bit of a root round and there doesn’t seem to be any family link between Dr Michael and Sir Oswald, and that’s a bit of a surprise, because the latest offering from Dr M has quite bit in common with a very dark, ultra-disciplined and spartan existence. Essentially, the Fast 800 approach instructs you to avoid all food for 16 hours, and then to eat two meals, of around 400 calories apiece, with nothing in between. No sugars, no alcohol, no chocolate, no snacks, no bread and definitely no chips. Frankly, if you enjoy your food. this is not the life for you.
But it makes a bit of sense. There’s links in there with ketosis, which, as a runner, means you need to shift your attention to running slowly to burn fat. Theres a lot of sense in reducing the number and size of your insulin spikes to a couple a day. Giving your body something to do other than processing food all the time seems to be a good call as well. But it’s fairly tough going, especially at the start.
One of the things that you do at the start of the exercise is set your target weight. The target weight is a bit like a carrot on the end of the stick which is attached to the top of your head, and possibly your self-esteem. It’s in sight, but never quite achievable no matter how hard you try to get to it. Incidentally, there are 41 calories in a carrot, which means that you could have 10 of them for lunch. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dr M’s next book gives us a calorie count for the stick as well, but I digress. Anyway, the point of the analogy is relevant – if you look on social media there are people who have been on this diet for a couple of years and not got to where they want to be – understandably the author has re-purposed the d-word into a ‘healthy lifestyle’.
Beyond the calories, the fast element can be a bit of a challenge, although personally, I’ve not had a huge issue with it. This is because Dr M and I have a bit of ‘previous’ in the from of the 5:2 diet. The idea of this is that 2 days a week you fast for 24 hours, before eating in the evening, and that you don’t go stupid on the other 5 days. I did a variety of this diet for several years, always fasting on a Monday and Thursday. It got me to where I wanted to be physically, but the impact of a 24 hour fast on my mood and mentality was a bit much. Mrs E used to work a late shift on Monday, so I would come home from work to four rowdy boys of various ages, who needed feeding, watering, cleaning, entertaining, tutoring and more, and I’m afraid that between the hours of 1700 and 1900 they mainly just got a lot of tired shouting. After food, which I would often eat without cutlery because I was so hungry, all was fine, but they collectively petitioned against ‘Monday Dad’, and order was restored after a few years by me simply eating a sandwich at lunchtime.
A 24 hour fast is one thing, and it made me feel several shades of rubbish, but it’s as nothing compared to some of the fasting approaches of the past. Fasting has been a part of many religions for as long as religions have been about, of course. And if you want to know about more recent non-religious proponents, look up Upton Sinclair, Edward H Dewey, or my personal favourite, Linda Hazzard, who carried the nickname ‘The Starvation Doctor’. These days, we’d call Hazzard a psychopathic fraudster; she treated people for a range of ailments, and almost always by putting them on starvation diets with maybe a tomato and a couple of oranges a day for months at a time. She was convicted of manslaughter in 1911 for the deaths of at least 15 people at her sanatorium in Washington – a place that the locals named ‘Starvation Heights’.
So , after a few days of getting used to this, and in the knowledge that we’re not anywhere near the experience of being treated by Ms Hazzard, we can manage the fasting bit of this fairly well. Until the last 30 minutes or so before we eat. Thankfully, Mrs E writes up what we’re going to eat a week ahead so we don’t buy any food that we don’t need (let alone any that we might actually enjoy). This helps hugely, because the run up to the whole breaking the fast thing is a bit reminiscent of those hangry Mondays. Except there’s just two of us, and no children around to tell us to grow up and behave.
We bump into each other. I put things back in the fridge before they’ve actually been used. We ask each other multiple times about how long it will take for the food to be ready. I check more than once what we’re actually cooking (which must be annoying) and whether we’ll be allowed to have a spoonful of yoghurt afterwards. Occasionally, when the meals look like they might actually sustain us, we realise that they serve four. Words are muddled, thoughts go foggy, and attention spans reach all time lows.
And then we get to eat. Sometimes we use cutlery. There are 10-12 mouthfuls to enjoy, and then we’re done.
I’d been to Sicily once before, when I was young, naive and, for the duration of the entire trip, drunk. It was a university hockey tour, and probably not the best way to explore Sicily’s culture, geography and people. I look back on the trip with a bit of a shudder, but try to remind myself that everyone does stupid and reckless things when they’re young.
This time was going to be very different. Me & Mrs E wanted to walk the Magna via Francigena, which is a pilgrimage path running from Palermo through the centre of Sicily to Agrigento, and we were promised that we’d (and I rather obviously quote…):
Roam the pure natural landscape of Sicily’s rural backcountry
Stay in villages full of history, such as Sutera, with its Arabic maze of alleys
Experience the enthusiasm, hospitality and pride of the Sicilian people
Try traditional Cannoli pie filled with ricotta, pistachios and candied orange
That sounded like exactly the sort of things that we should be doing in March, so off we went.
Our arrival in Palermo was a bit less idyllic – it’s a big city, and the airport train took us to the centre through some fairly ropey areas, depositing us outside the central station, with Google maps assuring us that we had a 10 minute walk across to our hotel. Half an hour later, having wheeled our cases through cobbles, kerbs and lots of litter, we found the hotel, checked in, and wandered around Palermo looking for our dream candlelit trattoria. One brightly lit vegan burger later, we found a bar that served Mrs E some weapons grade Aperol spritzers , together with huge plates of bruschetta and chips, which were, apparently, a gift from our host, who must have thought that we looked hungry. Our Italian is very limited, so our conversation was a bit stilted, but it did allow him to say “Hello Baby” a number of times at various volumes, and to establish that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were both still alive, and that he’d like to visit us in Liverpool at some point. We made arrangements to come back after the walk for further entertainment.
We had a taxi pick us up in the morning to deliver us to Santa Cristina Gela to start the walk. Again, a challenging conversation but we did establish two important things. Firstly we should always follow the red and white path markings. And secondly that GPS was a very good thing indeed. There was some other stuff that may or may not have been about Mussolini and railways, but that was much harder to follow and probably best ignored.
Our walk to Corleone started gently on undulating, soft green grass tracks, shortly giving way to a bit of mud. The first 10km was fine, but then the mud started getting wetter and wetter and turned from mud to clay, and before too long was adding a couple of pounds to our boots.
We heard a couple of days later that Sicilians call people from Corleone ‘Men with feet of clay’, which I don’t think is intended as a compliment, but maybe we were acting like natives with our stupidly heavy boots. We discovered that many of the paths that we took doubled as streams, and quite enthusiastic streams as well, as it had started raining just as we’d started the walk. This meant going down was really scary, and going up was even worse. At one point, we went down a steep muddy path/river bed for about 2km, all the time looking at a river below which our notes said should be crossed carefully, and a grass/mud climb the other side that looked almost vertical. We managed to get across the river, with very fast water coming up to our thighs, and just about got to the top of the other side, despite picking up clay on our boots with every step. I tried to reassure Mrs E that not every day would be like this. I had absolutely no reference point to be able to say this, other than my sunny optimism, which was getting a bit of a soaking of its own. Mrs E was also less excited than me on the result of the Norwich game (a 3-2 win away at Millwall) which came through about half way up the climb.
Finally made it into Corleone, which most people will associate with The Godfather. Don Corleone is fictional of course, but there’s quite a lot of early mafia history which emanates from Corleone, and if we’d not been covered in mud and arriving two hours after it closed then we would have had a wander around the mafia/anti-mafia museum.
Instead, we trudged to the hotel, where we were greeted by power cuts and some firm instructions that we should be taking off our boots, after which we were directed, freezing, barefoot and outside, to the room furthest away from the main building, presumably because we offered a health hazard to other residents. Between our room and the main hotel there were an astonishing number of lights on every tree and every wall, and possibly giving a clue as to the source of all the power cuts.
Washed most of the mud off and opted to eat in the hotel, partly as it was still chucking it down and partly as it was the only place open in the town. An interesting experience, and again not quite the rustic candlelit trattoria that we’d hoped for – I don’t think I’ve ever been in somewhere so brightly lit, except when the power went off. We were ushered into the main eating area, and took a seat near the middle, and just as we sat down Mrs E asked if we could move – there was a smell coming from the middle of the room that was going to impact her dining experience. The smell came from the centre table, where a man in dungarees had sat, and Mrs E was absolutely right – he absolutely stank of urine, which appeared to have made its way onto the yellowing hoody that he wore under the dungarees. Feeling a bit more charitable than Mrs E (Norwich’s away win was still making me very upbeat), I suggested that he might be a local farmer, and that we shouldn’t judge, because it “might not even be his own piss”. This reasoning wasn’t really appreciated, and we noticed that the many other diners were also moving tables, so that we created a kind of neutral doughnut around the poor smelly bloke.
A succession of waitresses came to see us, our attempts to point at things on the menu and ask for them didn’t seem to work at all, and eventually the third waitress agreed that the point and say “Si” approach was acceptable, despite her attempt to upsell us the risotto. All of the staff looked as if they would much rather be somewhere else, but it may be that they were undergoing some sensory deprivation testing. In addition to the assault on their noses and the blinding lights, there was a sound system that would have done justice to one of the larger Ibizan clubs. It was mainly tuned into a local radio station, but at one point managed to mash up the radio with the football commentary from the huge TV screen in the bar, together with some romantic ballads on the restaurant speakers. A special mention for the only male member of staff, for whom the name ‘Lurch’ might well have been invented. Wordlessly and aimlessly he wandered between tables, occasionally picking something off one table to put it down somewhere else. His bow tie, which presumably had begun the evening at a steady East-West setting, had begun moving around of its own accord, a bit like a revolving tie with a very flat battery. Halfway through our meal it had gone from ESE-WNW to a jaunty SE-NE, and by the time we left it was creeping gently towards true north. Maybe that’s how you wear a bow tie in Corleone. But it’s Corleone so maybe best not to ask.
Up early the next day for the next leg, a 21km trek into Prizzi, which would have been stunning if it hadn’t been tipping it down with rain again. We’d had a hasty breakfast, sped up by the surprise arrival of Urine Man, who popped into the restaurant for a coffee and left behind a distinct reminder of the night before.
Walking up and out of Corleone past olive groves and broken down farms, an idyllic walk spoilt only by the amount of fly tipping on the side of the paths. Fly tipping feels like it’s something of a national pursuit round here – whole bathroom suites and tiles at one point, collections of kitchen contents next, clothes thrown onto the road, a bin liner which was split open and was spilling out human hair, and loads of plastic bottles and cigarette packets, often with branding that I’d not seen for years at home. I mentioned to Mrs E that there were loads of Chesterfields on the road, and she told me about an hour later that she’d been impressed that I could tell the type of sofa that had been dumped, just from a few springs and cushions. Alarmingly, there were lots of disposable gloves on the side of the road as well – now why would that cause any concern?
We saw no one else walking, but a couple of drivers took a bit of interest in us. The first one stopped his car so that he could shout a long and enthusiastic message of support, complete with lots of positive hand action. We decided that, as this was clearly a great place to waste enemies, that he was using us as potential alibis. He might well have been responsible for some of the disposable gloves. A few km later, a jeep overtook is up a hill and the driver jumped out, asking if he could take our photo, as his web site publicised the Magna Via Francigena pilgrimage. Or at least, that’s what we thought he said. There was definitely something about his web site in there, but it would have to be really specialist for a picture of two muddy tourists in walking gear for us to be the March calendar picture.
We saw a bit of wildlife, in the form of giant frogs, most of which had been flattened on the road, and vaguely domesticated dogs, many of which decided that we were deserving of a lot of attention.
Sicily has a number of dog breeds, but we mainly drew the attention of the Maremmano-Abruzzese sheepdog. These dogs, which look like oversized white labradors, are bred to protect sheep, and to bark if they see anything out if the ordinary, which definitely included us.
Apparently they’ll also attack, if provoked, and will only stop once the shepherd calls them off. Frustratingly, we saw a great many dogs, and no shepherds. Mrs E read up about the dogs later and found articles suggesting they weren’t recommended for keeping as pets in towns and cities, as all they did was bark all the time. Which led, naturally, to a conversation about Solomon, a dog who we will always miss when we go away, but will wish he could shut up within minutes of getting home.
Finally started the long climb into Prizzi, and with about 1km to go a car pulled up and the driver jumped out, addressing us by name, which was a bit unnerving, until it turned out that it was Salvatore, who owned the Airbnb that we were staying at that night. He’d noticed it was raining and asked if we wanted a lift for the last bit, but we took a look at the state of each other and the cleanliness of his car and thought better of it.
We met up with him later when we’d arrived and it turned out that he’d been a driving force behind the Magna via Francigena route – he assured us that the worst of the mud climbing was behind us, and pointed us to the only restaurant open in Prizzi that night, a very brightly lit Pizzeria which turned out to be staffed and frequented entirely with cast lookalikes from The Sopranos. At one point, Christopher’s double came in for a takeaway, while Uncle Junior held court with dozen of his family. Truly bizarre.
Prizzi is one of the towns that had offered houses for sale for €1, to anyone prepared to live in them for a couple of years. In some areas you’d also get a grant of up to €30k to spend on the property, again if you committed to live there. Cammarata, where we were walking to next, had made headlines a couple of years ago by waiving the €1 fee. You get the dilemma when you go through the towns – these are idyllic places to live but there’s no work about, and an aging population. There’s some indication that the incentives might have drawn some younger people back home, but from what we saw, probably 90% of the houses were shuttered up, and of the few people we did see, they were even older than us.
Not that we actually saw any people on that day’s walk. We did 25km on a very hilly path, mainly through the Carcaci nature reserve – more beautiful views over the mountains and deserted forest roads as we climbed up to just under 1000m. All was well until the rain kicked in again, this time with some added wind, which soon turned ridiculously strong. By this time we were descending along a cliff road, with vehicle detours in place because of falling rocks. It was probably the only really scary part of the trip, and we arrived in Castronova, making quite the bedraggled entrance into the only bar in town, and immediately being ushered into a side room for the sake of the public good, where the barman brought us hot chocolate and cannola, and suddenly all was right with the world.
We were half way through the walk now, and were in fairly good shape other than Mrs E’s blisters, which hadn’t been helped by having the previous three days walking in soaking wet socks and boots. The next day was to Sutera, another impossibly pretty town surrounding the Monte San Paolina, and it was only 15.5km, so we thought we were in for an easy hike. In reality, it was another tough one, the initial climb up to Aquaviva Platini was a challenge, then followed by a long and very muddy ridge walk to the long road up to Sutera.
Worth it for the views alone though, and we were sustained by a long round of ‘Finding The Band In The Hardware Shop’, with winning entries including Sister Sledgehammer, Sheryl Crowbar, Paint Guns and Hoses, Barbecue Streisand, U Bend 40 and Earth Wind and Firelighters.
We stayed a couple of hundred metres downhill from Sutera, and again, there was only one restaurant open, which was a little way away. Our B&B host was appalled at the idea that we might want to walk to it in the dark, so she called the owner, Franco, and arranged for him to give us a lift. Don’t think we’d get that sort of service at home. Anyway, we got picked up in a knackered Fiat with no suspension left, and we’re despatched at breakneck pace to Franco’s restaurant, where we had the best antipasti we’d had all week, then the best pasta we’d had all week. We both almost fell asleep at the table, as we had to wait for Franco to finish his pizza deliveries and lock the restaurant up, but well worth it nonetheless, and to get us home at a reasonable hour, Franco went for a PB on the way back.
From Sutera to Racalmuto then – another long day punctuated by stunning views, and very lively dog interactions, the scariest one being with six loud and lively sheepdogs at once who seemed to be keen on herding us toward their sheep, then immediately away from them. More stunning valley views and with the bonus of decent weather, the walk took around 7.5 hours – Mrs E concluded that her cut off point, for future reference, was six hours, which I look forward to forgetting when we plan future trips. Todays best game was ‘Famous People In Hospital’ and winning entries included Urinary Tract Geller, Cancer Ian McKellen, Jennifer Canestan, Rib Separatori Amos, Gina Lolladentalbridgeida, The Monty Burns Unit, and my personal favourite, The Brighouse and Gastric Band.
As ever, it was another climb into Racalmuto to end the day’s walk, but this time into a town centre with loads of pedestrians and cars. We managed to find somewhere to sit and watch what was going on, as we’d not seen so many people in one place since Palermo. It turned out to be a funeral at the church in the town square – we were assured later that it was normally much quieter, and sure enough, when we sought out the only restaurant open a couple of hours later, there was nobody around. There was a bit of confusion at the Airbnb that we’d booked before then though – we assumed that when we’d been let in, that we had the whole flat to ourselves, and so set up camp in the kitchen. I offered to get our boots cleaned, as the next day was the last day of walking and was mainly on the road – we didn’t want to trudge a load of mud into our last hotel in Agrigento. So I set to, cleaning hopefully the last bits of clay in the kitchen sink, which took a lot more time than I thought. Just as I was getting to the end, there was a loud Ciao Ciao downstairs, and into the kitchen stomped a vision in leather trousers, leather waistcoat and a very stern expression, which turned pretty thunderous when she saw what I’d been doing in her kitchen sink. Going ballistic is an overused expression, but completely valid in this case, and for the first time since we’d landed in Sicily, I was very glad that I couldn’t understand Italian. I did, however, get the gist, and apologised as much as I could, and also established that there were two other parties taking rooms in the apartment and that the kitchen was only to be used for breakfast. Cruella, who Mrs E had named within seconds of meeting her, was in charge of breakfast, which unsurprisingly the next morning turned out to be a rather spartan affair. But completely served us right.
And so to the final day, a short (11.5km) hike up to Grotte and then largely downhill on roads into Caldare, where we got a train into Agrigento. Still beautiful, particularly the start, but more houses, (mainly) chained dogs and litter as we headed towards the coast, so we were pleased to be able to get the train. We got into Agrigento and walked what Google maps had told us was 20 minutes to the hotel, and which ended up as 45. We really wanted to see the Valley of The Temples and were told at reception that it was a 15 minute walk, so Mrs R bandaged up her blisters and off we set for the last trek of the holiday. Unfortunately we took a wrong turning, ending up 45 minutes later at the wrong entrance, but that mattered a lot less as soon as we started to hike up the hill to see the temples. It would be worth going to Sicily just to see this archaeological site – it’s over 2,000 acres in size and is brilliantly preserved – The Temple of Concordia is the most stunning, and the one that you’ll see on the tourist sites – built in the 5th century BC and still looking pretty good:
We were knackered and ideally would have got in a bus back to the hotel, but there weren’t any buses or taxis, so we trudged up the hill back to the hotel, packed away our walking boots, popped Mrs E’s blisters, showered, and went into the restaurant to celebrate. It ended up being a bit of a muted affair, as we were both so knackered, but we still had a couple of days ahead in Palermo where we could get the right side of an Aperol spritzer or two, so we looked forward to that instead.
Next day, to the station and the train back to Palermo. Slightly demoralising to take 2.5 hours to cover slightly more distance than we’d taken six days to walk, but I guess the train had a lot less mud to contend with. And Palermo in the sunshine was lovely – really stylish and as effortlessly cool as many of the other Italian cities we’d been lucky enough to visit. An afternoon at the No Mafia Memorial was suitably sobering, but the Aperol was calling, and it was only a short walk away…
Yet another ‘sorry I’ve not been bothered to write a blog for ages’ apology to start. Sorry.
In particular, sorry to the several (yes, several) people who mentioned this in the pub last weekend. And not that there’s been nothing to write about, either. Since the last time we met*, me & the Mrs have been on a few adventures, Norwich City have managed to drag themselves into new lows/highs/lows on a weekly basis, and there’s been fun & games with bicycles, running, dogs and music, often all in one day. So sorry. Again.
With that in mind, I’m going to start jotting down some thoughts on being away from home (incidentally, until recently the only place that NCFC have had any success this season), and, more or less in reverse order. And then it’ll be time to tackle some of the weightier questions of the day, such as how to manage when your dog becomes older than you, what age is appropriate to stop messing around in bands, and why your smoking history may say more about brand affinity than any market research programme.
First then, to Iceland. We’d decided to go to Iceland last summer, when you might remember, it was desperately hot. Unlike myself, Mrs E doesn’t really enjoy any temperature much above 15°C, so was quite keen on planning some time away, to go, I suppose, to a place not in the sun.
Taking this sort of decision was, in retrospect, a bit of a knee jerk reaction. Just like how you shouldn’t go to the supermarket when you’re hungry, get married for the presents or lead a government with no qualification to do so, booking a cold holiday for January when you’re hot in August should really take account of the fact that you’re going to be bloody cold for a good few months before you go. But we were also going because Mrs E believes that being cold, and in particular, being cold while submerged in water is good for her joints (insert your own joke here about making them difficult to light). So it seemed an ideal destination.
Mrs E is also fascinated by countries that can be dark all the time, or light all the time, and that’s a box that was ticked almost immediately on arriving in Reykjavik around 4pm in complete darkness, and by spotting the first tiny bit of sunlight just after 11am the next day. But Iceland seems to manage its way through darkness by making the most of it. We were there mid January and were surprised to find Christmas lights everywhere – we were told later that they stay up typically to the end of February, as they lift the spirits during the more depressing months of the year. Blocks of flats have matching lights across all the balconies, often paid for by the building owners, and we heard of fines being issued if you didn’t do your bit to cheer up your fellow man. Indoors seems to be a bit different – Iceland appears to have taken elements of the Danish hygge movement to its heart, so that any time you walk into a public building, hotel or restaurant you’re plunged into darkness, even during that narrow window of light outdoors. On a couple of occasions we had to search for things we’d dropped in the hotel room by using the torches on our phones , and we used the same technique in restaurants, fearing that if we didn’t get the order right that we might be landed with some of that tasty fermented shark that we’d heard about.
Reykjavik, some time between 11am and 3pm
Maybe these low wattage rooms were something to do with conserving energy, you might think. And you’d be completely wrong. Where the rest of the world wrings its hands and pays lip service to our apparent energy-driven oblivion, Iceland sits back with a pious grin on its face. It may not be that great for fresh food, or a stable tectonic environment, but it does very nicely for clean energy, thank you very much.Electricity comes from geothermic water processing and hydroelectric dams.Hot water goes straight from the geysers and underground sources into the pipes that provide domestic hot water, which is why in older buildings you can still smell the sulphur when you turn on the hot tap.There’s so much electricity being generated that Iceland has three of the world’s largest aluminium smelters, and Icelanders pay around €90 a month for all of their utility bills.
So, they’re pretty well sorted in lots of ways, and now that most people have forgotten the Icelanders’ part in crashing the world economy in 2008, they seem to be making up their economic numbers with a heavy focus on tourism, which provides about 40% of Iceland’s annual exports, 10% of its GDP, and 15% of the workforce. This is mainly focussed in Reykjavik, where curious tourists like ourselves can step out of their darkened rooms onto a dark streets and be picked up and transported across the dark landscape to lagoons and geysers and frozen waterfalls, all of which have a significant wow factor. And if you’re adventurous, and don’t mind being cold and very patient, you can go out and search for the northern lights, probably the greatest tourist money-spinner of all. We were very keen to see the greatest free show on earth, so forked out £60 each to stand on the side of a big boat for a couple of hours in -10°C at 10pm. The lights did make an appearance about an hour after we’d set off, and danced about the sky while about 200 tourists scrambled for their phones to take some very grainy photos. Our captain obviously wanted to get a good look as well, so turned the boat towards the lights, at which point all 200 of us rushed to the stern of the boat, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the last scenes of Titanic.
Not entirely satisfied with our dodgy photos from the boat, we chatted to a couple of Icelandic folk, who advised us that Thursday would be a far better night for chasing the northern lights, but we’d be better off going by minibus across the island and away from the light pollution of Reykjavik. It was going to be a bit more expensive, but the trip did include hot chocolate and, more to the point, ‘if anyone was going to find the northern lights, it would be the driver of that minibus’. So, we were duly despatched from the hotel late on Thursday, hopped into the minibus, and spent several hours experiencing the art of searching for the lights. In practice, this seemed to be about getting off the main road and heading into the heart of Iceland, on narrower and narrower roads, stopping occasionally for the driver to jump out, look up at the sky, tut loudly then jump back in the bus and drive on again. A word about Iceland’s roads at this point. There is a main road that goes around the island, imaginatively called the ring road. This is used a lot, and looks like it is gritted. As a rule, no other roads are. Certainly no footpaths are gritted, although some people clear the snow from outside their houses, and you sometimes see a bit of black ash scattered on the paths to make them a bit less slippery. But once you’re off the ring road, you’re driving on a mix of snow and ice. Or in our case, being driven at pace by a born again fearless Viking who was keen to get his charges to their destination in record time. We wouldn’t have been surprised at all if he’d put up a novelty fairground sign with ‘Scream If You Want To Go Faster’ written on it. So a long journey, but far from boring. We stopped, as above, to check to see if the northern lights were any more visible from a layby than from the windscreen. We stopped for hot chocolate, which was hard to drink with mittens and wrapped up like the invisible man, but delicious nonetheless. We even stopped to help our fellow tourists, as our driver skidded to a halt and cried (in a very non-Viking style) ‘Let’s go and do some good, guys’, and we piled out of the bus to try and push a hire car out of a snowdrift. I realised this was unlikely to work as I found myself waist high in snow as we tried to push the car out. But we were in the middle of nowhere, so at least we were able to give the three Spanish tourists a lift back to Reykjavik. You’d think they’d be grateful, but for some reason they weren’t too happy about being rescued when they heard they’d be out for another three hours – kept muttering about having a flight the next morning and needing to tell someone that their car was in a ditch with no known location. Anyway, they held back, looking fairly unimpressed when, half an hour after the rescue, the driver finally stopped the bus and let us out. The driver was very excited.
‘Trust me” , he said, “I think I see them”.
To be fair, the ‘fairly unimpressed’ feeling was quite contagious. We’d piled out of the bus, expecting bright green fires dancing across the heavens, ended up looking at a grey sky that was only slightly less grey than the ones we’d been looking at for the previous three hours. Echoing the punchline of the Emperor’s New Clothes, an apologetic voice referenced the whole grey/green dilemma.
“Aah, but look at the photograph!” triumphed the driver.
Among his many other talents, out reckless Viking driver was an enthusiastic photographer, and had set up tripod, support lights and very expensive camera, every time we’d stopped, and this time he was fairly skipping with excitement. Sure enough, as we lined up to look at the screen on the back of the camera, we saw quite a bit of green sky. Unfortunately, as the actual (very grey) sky was also quite visible, it took quite a bit of Viking mansplaining to tell us that his camera had a more sophisticated understanding of light than our own eyes. Having said which, who were we to pass up the chance of a free photo?
“I bet they’re right in front of us”, we were both thinking
I mentioned Mrs E’s enthusiasm for managing her well-being by getting extremely cold, and ideally submerged, and Iceland in January was, in many ways, her ideal destination. We spent time in the (not so) Secret Lagoon with quite a few other tourists, swimming around between temperatures from baby-bathing to vegetable-blanching, then getting out in our cossies to hobble across the ice to the changing rooms. We had what Mrs E described as possibly the best day of her life, at the Sky Lagoon, where we descended down tiled steps into 38°C water with so much fog that we couldn’t see beyond a couple of metres – it took us a while to get our bearings, and only after some light swimming, a submerge in the ridiculously cold plunge pool, a huge sea-view sauna, an invigorating salt scrub and a bit of a steam bath did we make our way back to the pool and locate the bar, where we spent part of the kids’ inheritance on a beer and a wine, to be enjoyed overlooking the edge of the pool while the sun set over the ocean. Awesome.
I’d made a bit of a schoolboy error in the Sky Lagoon, by not wearing a hat to go swimming. I’d seem people going into the pool in trunks and bobble hats, and decided that I wasn’t going to go for such a ridiculous look. Instead I kept from getting too cold by simply submerging into the pool whenever I started shivering. Unfortunately, as the air temperature was a bracing -15°C, this resulted in my hair freezing with a thick layer of ice within a few seconds. Never thought there’d be such a thing as bobble-hat envy, but there is.
All of this wasn’t quite enough cold water action for Mrs E, so we elected to walk a couple of miles to a local swimming pool a couple of days later. The weather forecast was quite bleak, with lots of snow, sub zero temperature, and what looked like a lively wind on the forecast. We’re used to lively winds at home, and I thought that the weather app was making a bit much of it – it looked like 22 mph to me, which might normally be described as fairly brisk. About halfway to the pool, after much sliding and swearing, I realised that I’d not read the app properly; I’m pleased to report that 22 metres per second is almost exactly 50mph, which is why we’d spent so much time being blown across the icy roads. The wind was still blowing when we got to the pool, still blowing when we got changed, still blowing as we gingerly stepped onto the ice surrounding the pool, and still blowing as we tried desperately to keep warm by swimming up and down, teeth chattering in the gale. Unsurprisingly we were the only people in the pool, and the only people flying back to the hotel in the wind.
There was lots more to occupy us while we were there – Reykjavik has loads of museums, particularly if you’re interested in dark age history or cod fishing, and there are some fabulous places to eat, although, again, a keen interest in cod fishing is helpful. It’s horribly expensive and ridiculously cold, but for all that, coming home to only have to wear two jumpers indoors and managing to get a pint for a fiver suddenly felt like we were living a new dream.
So, if you have a chance, go. Take lots of money, a torch, and a hat to match your swimming trunks.
*Can’t say ‘Since the last time we met’ without reference to :
Since the last time we met I’ve been through About seven hundred changes and that’s just a few And thе changes all tend to be somеthing to do But you’ve got to believe that they’re all done for you, for you
You will win my undying admiration for placing this lyric without the need of t’internet.
Part two was kind of the whole point of the exercise. About three years ago before Covid, before some crappy bereavement experiences, and certainly before we even started to talk about the next world war, me and Mrs E started to plan the next stage of our lives. This was to involve decreasing any work that couldn’t be justified as improving the world around us, looking after the people that meant a great deal to us, and getting away into the rest of the world as much as it was humanly possible. As you can imagine, the pandemic has put a bit of a downer on the last part of that plan, and we decided that 2022 should be the point at which we relaunched our travelling ways.
We’d heard a lot about the Amalfi Coast from friends, and we’d previously enjoyed the process of booking walking tours with On Foot Holidays, so it was just a question of time before the world opened up and we could dust off our walking boots. We sorted out an itinerary with them, then went through the laborious process of navigating our way around timed Covid tests, international green vaccine passes and passenger locator forms to get everything booked and sorted for March. Delightfully, requirement for most of this paperwork was revoked the weekend before we left, but hey ho.
We took the train from Florence through Rome and Naples to Salerno. Well, we tried to anyway – we pitched up at the station to get the train, and found it packed with angry people all of whom had had their trains delayed or cancelled because ‘someone had been found on the line’. There was a general lack of sympathy for this someone, most notably from the tourists in the station, rather than the locals, which perhaps suggested a bit of self interest, but again, hey ho.
Eventually we managed to get away, had a relaxed and speedy rattle down to the south, then found ourselves on a bus from Salerno to Amalfi. It’s hard to really do justice this journey without the aid of a video or some sort of zero gravity machine. It was a fairly sizeable bus, seating maybe 50 people, split between relaxed locals who were returning home from Salerno, from local markets or from school, and tourists like ourselves, frantically looking for the sick bag. The road snakes around the coast, enjoying a great many steep slopes and an even greater number of switchbacks, most of which have a vertical drop on the side, without any sort of guard rail. The driver of the bus had a fairly testing schedule to keep, and did so with the same sort of technique that you might have seen delivered by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’. Either that, or in some of the more rapid scenes in ‘The Italian Job’. Mrs E, who had been very keen to sit near the window and to enjoy the sea view, asked early on, in a slightly shakey voice, if I thought the whole trip would be like this. And it was.
Just over an hour later, we landed in Amalfi, where we enjoyed the experience of solid ground beneath our feet, found the hotel in a maze of valleys and staircases, and got introduced to a phenomenal view from our room, of yet another astonishingly stripey cathedral:
Out in the evening for our first disappointing meal of the trip, at one of the few restaurants open, and a lesson to ourselves that we should never again trust anywhere that had pictures on the menu. Undeterred by the experience of ‘Casa Wesawyoucoming’, we continued our uninterrupted run of gelato every night (85% chocolate fondant and lemon della Nonna, thanks for asking), we took ourselves to bed, to be pleasantly awakened at 4:30am by the recycling efforts of Amalfi’s very own refuge management team. I’m guessing that they do all the recycling and waste management at such a ridiculous hour so they don’t disturb the tourists, but if so, it was a plan that dramatically backfired.
And so to the first walk of the trip, which was a climb up to the village of Ravello. This started with 380m of climbing which was pretty much vertical, and pretty hard going. There was an alternative easy walk, but on further investigation, this just started by taking the bus to Ravello. We opted to go for the harder walk, on account of this being a walking holiday, and after 30 minutes were coo-ing and aww-ing at the views.
When we first start looking at walking Amalfi Coast, I searched for some pictures online, and saw lots that looked like postcards. I guess I thought it unlikely that every view we had would be postcard worthy but I was dead wrong. Every time you look back on where you’ve come from, every time you turn a corner to look down to another cove, you just want to take another picture. To save effort describing every single picture we took, here is a generic drawing:
As we walked, Mrs E asked if I knew anything about how to take better pictures, and I bluffed my way through a vague explanation of the rule of thirds, where you split the picture into horizontal and vertical thirds, and typically place your subject into the third on the left or the right, allowing a wider image space to the side. We agreed that we’d try to take this approach on a lot of the photos we took going forward, with the added bonus that if and when we had a massive row and split up in the future, that we could edit each other out and still have an excellent set of square pictures to look back on.
We headed for the Villa Cimbrone on the way, we’d read a bit about this place, it was a favourite bolthole of Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Henry Moore, Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo. Humphrey Bogart filmed ‘Beat the Devil’ here and Gore Vidal (nothing if not a well travelled bloke) wrote that the view from the Villa was the most beautiful place that ever seen in all of his travels. Having built ourselves up to a fever pitch of excitement at walking in the footsteps of the rich and famous and taking in the astonishing vistas from the infinity gardens we found a notice on the main gate to say that everything was closed for the day.
This was a shame in a number of ways, but to put a positive spin on it, we managed to save a good deal of money on wasted wedding deposits. To explain, we’d started the morning with a video call from New Zealand from Jr Emu #1 and his lovely partner, who had called to say that they were now engaged which is fantastic news that fuelled every one of those bloody steps up to Ravello.
Apparently the Villa Cimbrone now functions primarily as a wedding venue, so if we’d had access to it in our current elated state it would only have been a matter of time before we put our first downpayment on some wildly impractical venue hire. Instead we spent time considering what hats to wear for the big day ahead and enjoyed a convoluted discussion on how the stag night was likely to map out, depending on who got the job of the best man.
Back to the walk, and through Ravello, past the views to Atrani, and up to the Torre dello Ziro, a coastal watchtower built to protect against Saracen pirates. This is apparently haunted by the spirit of Giovanna D’Aragona and her children, who were locked up here after she was accused of having an affair with her butler.
So it’s probably pretty scary to come here at night, but also manages to be fairly testing during the day…
It takes about 15 minutes of climbing and sliding to get to the tower. There is no signage, you just go inside the pitch black opening, give thanks that your phone has a torch built into it, and start climbing the stone spiral staircase. Once you get to the top of this, you notice that someone has kindly installed some metal stairs and the sort of mesh cage that you see on cherry-pickers, that goes out over the top of the tower. You can stand on this and scare yourself stupid as you look down a couple of hundred metres through the metal mesh, and this is a good time to reflect on the levels of health and safety adherence there in place in different parts of the world. Standing and gingerly peering over the edge of the drop, I wondered just how much control and process would be in place in the UK to stop you from getting to this point, but here it’s just a long abandoned tower with a really scary and dangerous ascent just left for you to take your chances on.
Back to Amalfi via the Valley of the Mills – lots of descending on steps and slopes, and towards the bottom of the valley, past a number of abandoned paper mills which were straight out of the Scooby Doo sets. Huge buildings that are now just shells, and the memory of the Bambagina paper that had been produced here since the middle ages. Rather than just using wood pulp form paper, Carter Bambagina is made from the slurry pump by mixing water with wood, rags, cotton and hemp white. There are still a few ‘authentic Amalfi paper’ outlets around if you find yourself here, desperately needing a greener alternative department to parchment.
The second day of proper walking took us to Praiano – this would take about 25 minutes by car, but on foot, with lots of ups and downs it took us almost 6 hours. We were given a few route options, including taking the bus, and were a bit concerned that there were ‘less vertiginous’ choices, thereby making ‘vertiginous’ a word of the day. We opted for the longest and hardest option (still believing in our walking invincibility two days in), which took us through San Lazzaro at 650m and then onto the Abu Tabela path, which stretches all the way down to Praiano. Abu Tabella came from this part of the world, and settled in San Lazzaro after having made his fortune as a mercenary and tax collector in and around the Khyber pass. Later he became governor of Peshawar, where he had a fairly direct approach to governing the peace:
When I marched into Peshawar, I sent on in advance a number of wooden posts which my men erected around the walls of the city. The men scoffed at them and laughed at the madness of the feringhee [a disparaging local language term for Westerners], and harder still when my men came in and laid coils of rope at the foot of the posts…However, when my preparations were completed and they found one fine morning dangling from these posts, fifty of the worse characters in Peshawar, they thought different. And I repeated the exhibition every day till I had made a scarcity of brigands and murderers. Then I had to deal with the liars and tale bearers. My method with them was to cut out their tongues. When a surgeon appeared and professed to be able to restore their speech, I sent for him and cut out his tongue also. After that there was peace.”
Apparently even now, in times of unrest, Peshewar citizens send a small wish for the return of Abu Tabela, to re-establish law and order. Abu sounds like someone who wouldn’t take much truck with anything that irritated him, so I suspect he might of kicked off at the descent into Praiano – one of those stages where you seem to be slipping down steps for miles, but never seem to get to the bottom. As ever, the view makes it all worthwhile, and you get to see Praiano which is predictably easy on the eye from a distance.
And just as lovely, it turns out, close up. Still waking up from the winter, so much of it was still closed, but well worth wandering around, particularly if you’re a fan of very very long stone staircases.
Walking day three, and time for the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), up to the San Domenico monastery and across to the village of Nocelle. The first couple of kilometres go more or less straight up to the monastery, past the markings for the 14 stations of the cross, and finally up to the square in front of the church where, bizarrely, there was a man asking us to buy some lemonade, and another asking to have his picture taken against the view. We were nicely off-season, so we’d not seen any other people on either of the previous walks and this was the only day that we did. Fortunately we had a week of immersing ourselves in a whole load of some heavily accented ‘Buongiorno’, ‘Buono Sena’, ‘Ciao’, ‘Grazie’, ‘molto bene’ and ‘non-Parlo Italiano’, so we considered ourselves almost completely naturalised. If only we’d actually met some Italians we could have tested ourselves, but instead we cross paths with Americans, Dutch, Germans, French and some occasional Brits. I was surprised not so much that there were foreign tourists, but that there were so few locals. I figured that if this was on my doorstep I’ll be walking here every day, but maybe that’s the thing about stuff that’s on your doorstep.
Anyway, the Path of the Gods was the day that would’ve justified the whole holiday. Fabulous views, stomach turning drops, challenging ups and downs, blue skies, blue escape seas, and a brilliant drop down from Nocelle to Positano – another coastal town with its waterfront stepped houses, and tiny narrow streets with, apparently, a gelato shop at every corner.
As I’ve mentioned, we hunted out the ultimate gelato wherever we went which was both a great reward for the walking, and an excellent guilt trip for us in the land of Catholicism. And probably the only place where we would rub shoulders with Italians who went on holiday. I’ve been told about this culture before, but this was the first chance to see first-hand the importance of gelato in society. It seems to be an opportunity to meet, date, chat and generally shoot the breeze for everyone, not least for the age group that, at home, might be getting tanked up on Breezers and WKD to talk to each other. Access to gelato is all hours, often until midnight, and available to anyone who owns the scooter. Which is everyone. The only challenge that we saw in this impossibly simple social network was the need these days to wear a helmet when riding a scooter. So the number of times we saw the young and beautiful of southern Italy parking their Vespas a few hundred metres from their destination, in order to resolve their ‘helmet hair’. Aah, first world problems, eh?
Leaving Positano the next day we headed for Sant Agata. Again, we were given route options, which were termed medium/hard, and perhaps should’ve been hard/harder. We wimped out and wandered down to the port area of Positano, found a shop that sold bus tickets (not as easy as it sounds), and jumped on the bus to Colli di San Pietro. This turned out to be a smart move, as the weather turned from idyllically continental to bloody miserable – we’d avoided the really tough option because the route instructions look ridiculously complicated and would’ve been much worse in the wind and rain that greeted us when we stepped out of the bus to reacquaint ourselves with our stomachs.
The route took us along the coast for a few miles, then turned inland at Torca,, climbing higher and higher so that we could see both the coast we were leaving behind and the one we were headed towards. Unfortunately having made the decision to leave the difficult map-reading behind us, we managed to get lost almost as soon as we headed north, and found ourselves in a bizarre network of terraced allotments and wilderness. Fortunately my ‘trusty’ GPS map came in use here, and I persuaded Mrs E to follow my confident scout leader-style tramp across the hillside to what looked like on the map to be a proper footpath. And, to both of our surprise, it turned out to be exactly where we needed to be, and I briefly bask in the glory of my wife’s admiration. Very briefly, as I’m pretty sure I that as I announced that we were back on track, I heard her muttering about luck versus judgement.
We found a hotel in Sant ‘Agata and were greeted as if we were the first guests of the year, which we subsequently learnt that we were. Found a great place to eat around the corner, and declined a tiramisu as we said we were too full, and then sneaked our gelato (85% chocolate and black cherry) past the restaurant on the way back.
And so to the last day of walking and talking, from Sant ‘Agata to Sorrento, via Schiazzano and Masso Lubrense. Slightly grey again but still plenty to coo about, including a detour out to Villa di Pollio – there is the remains of a Roman Villa here but it almost gets in the way – the view out to sea; south east to Sorrento and south west to Puolo is really worth the trek.
We headed east to Sorrento and got there about five hours after we’d set off, to another near empty hotel with lovely people treating us kindly. At our advanced ages, that seems to have become something to treasure.
We stayed an extra night in Sorrento because we wanted to see Pompeii, so we hopped on another train the next morning and did just that. Pompeii is astonishing beyond words, not just the story of the a huge site (170 acres – really?), but the story of the excavation which had started in the Middle Ages and gradually progressed and been bodged right up to the present day. Like so much of what we saw in Florence, there wasn’t a great deal of labelling, so I think you had to do your bit of (ahem) digging to understand what you were looking at. Nor was there a great deal of limit to you wandering about – obviously there was a bit of protection around the frescoes and some of the really well preserved buildings, but very little restriction about what you could reach out and touch or walk around. So that’s what we did, and completed the second week of awestruck cooing.
Home the next day, leaving our last Ciao’s behind us, and enjoying the delights of Ryanair and ‘Greater’ Anglia. Home to grotty weather, lively rows in the Stansted queue, no mask wearing and no vaccine checks. Kind of the opposite of where we come from, which was a bit demoralising. But also home to the dogs, who were exceptionally pleased to see us, and back out the next day for a run where I didn’t need to use my hands on the hilly bits. So we didn’t want to come home, but we’re glad that we did, and is that the best kind of holiday? I bought a bottle of Limoncello from Tesco’s when we got home and put it in the freezer. It’s almost finished, it’s only been used when we bore our friends and family about our holiday.
Well it’s been a funny old couple of years hasn’t it? There’s been very little of excitement or humour to write about anywhere, much less than to grace the pages of your favourite grumpy blog. However, I have actually managed to leave the house for the first time in a couple of years, and as a consequence this one is very much about ‘What we did on our holidays’. Here we go, starting with the process of getting out…
We left the dogs (without saying goodbye) at 6:30 in the morning just as it was getting light. Our taxi driver told us that we didn’t need to wear masks, so we kept them on. Then he told us about some of the problems in the NHS because his mate’s wife works on one of the wards. Although to be fair he didn’t really know what the problems were, or what challenges she faces, but it’s nice to know he has an opinion anyway. A fairly inauspicious start for Mrs, E, who was on her two-week break from nursing.
Onto the 7 o’clock train to Stratford – fully masked up – some of our fellow travellers less so, and at Ipswich a large man who looked like he say look like he’d say ‘rugger’ rather than ‘rugby’ sat next to Mrs E, and a prematurely bald businessman sat next to me. They both helpfully wore their masks around their necks which says exactly what needs to be said about Ipswich folk.
From Stratford to London City airport, which was practically empty but for five British Airways flights out to Europe. Some touristy types like us looking both excited and nervous and some business types that might have been nervous too, but they cunningly disguised their concerns by talking loudly on their Bluetooth headsets, often about what a tough week they were having (it was Tuesday morning, 11:30 and they were just about to get on a plane so ‘tough’ may have been the wrong word). Onto BA3279, where we broke our fast with a roll that had enjoyed a very brief encounter with some sliding egg and avocado. We were sitting next to each other with no one else around until some twit decided to relocate next to us and relax by pulling his mask down and start snoring away. You could almost see those little crown shaped droplets spraying out of his nose as he spluttered away, waking only to press the flight attendant button so that he could demand some coffee.
Flight all over and fun ensues when the flight attendant asks people not to stand up, which is a clear cue for some people to stand up, which is itself a cue for the attendant to say “Look, I can see you, please sit down”, and so on. Then the same exchange follows when certain rows are asked to stay sat down while others disembark, and so on.
I had tried to learn a few words of Italian, on the understanding that if I used an effective accent, I might be taken for a native. So I tried ‘good afternoon’ and ‘thank you’ at passport control, which seem to get a bit of a sarcastic raised eyebrow return (a look I was to get used to). I even threw in a ‘Prego’ after the guard said “Grazie’. I’m not entirely sure when to use ‘Prego’ – I think it roughly translates to the French ‘de rien’, ie ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘it’s nothing’, but it’s a bit softer than that – it feels more like something that you just said to close an exchange. It saves a lot of time too, because it avoids being caught in that “thank you” cycle at the end of every conversation that you have at home.
Blinking into the sunshine outside the airport, we negotiated the tram ticket machine successfully and shelled out €1.50 on tickets to Firenze, then hoiked our bags on wheels across half a mile of cobbles to the hotel.
Our hotel, we learnt, was the oldest one in Florence, and, we were later to find, had not only a history dating back to the 13th century but a plumbing system to match. To our room on the almost top floor then, dump the bags, make an immediate cup of tea (because we are English and by 3 pm will suffer withdrawal symptoms if we don’t), and then out, out, down to the river, promenade along the bank, look at the cocktail options at the cafés and saying to each other that we could do that if we wanted to (because we could) but just carrying on walking anyway because there’s so much to see in a new city, and wandering around because around every corner, it would appear, is something to make you gasp. I envy anyone arriving in Florence for the first time because you do a lot of gasping. One minute you’re on the banks of the Arno, looking out at the bridges, all lit up by the sun behind you (gasp), then you turn around and see the Ponte Vecchio (gasp) with all the shuttered windows facing facing you and the second storey looking suitably precarious on top. The second storey was built for the Medici family (as was quite a bit of the city) so that Cosimo I could travel across the river without getting wet in the rain. He also decreed that the butcher shops, which he had dominated the bridge from the mid 15 century should be banned, because he objected to the smell. This ban is still enforced, which is the reason why it’s now dominated by jewellery shops, which are much easier on the nose and eye. Anyway, gasp.
We spent the first night enjoying the sounds of the city settling down for the night, which unfortunately involved some serious drum and bass action from the nightclub a couple of blocks away, interspersed with the couple in the flat opposite shouting at each other, possibly about whose turn it was to complain about the music. By the second night, the club managed to ramp up their hours and as our friends at M/A/R/R/S would say, pump up the volume as well. So we trooped down to reception in the morning all prepared to have a row, and were told it was, of course, no problem to change the room for an internal one, and yes, it is a problem living in the city, and yes it was inconsiderate of them to play music that loudly, and yes they had had several complaints, and no we weren’t making a fuss, and yes we would very much like to show you the room. So we packed up all our stuff, went to the new room, unpacked everything, opened the bathroom door to find the smell of rotting sewage flooding out, contacted reception, got a visit from a maintenance man who shook his head and said he’d try to find the switch for the pump and would be back in ‘due minuti’, waited for half an hour, phoned reception again, had a visit from the duty manager who tried her very own sniff test in the bathroom and exited gagging noisily, rapidly taking us to another room, where we all nervously sniffed the air, took us back to our room so that we could re-pack, got someone to help us carry the bags, and finally landed us in the room which we could call home for the next four nights. They also gave us a bottle of Prosecco which we necked almost immediately. Which was nice.
All of the days in Florence followed pretty much the same pattern. We woke up early, got some exercise, in order to justify breakfast, got out of the hotel soon after nine, headed for something cultural by foot, spent the day doing just that, with maybe a break for coffee, then found somewhere that wasn’t too touristy in the evening to eat. So we were tourists, and in Florence there doesn’t seem to be any shame in that. There’s so much to see that we could’ve just spent another week or two doing touristy things, but being there for a chunk of time allowed us to at least do justice to the things that we did visit.
Mrs E is a big fan of the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ follow-up ‘Hannibal’, and encouraged me to join her on a pre-visit screening, so I could familiarise myself with the film locations. This meant that day one of the visit was spent climbing to the top of the 95 meter tall Torre di Arnolfo, which sits offset to the Palazzo Vecchio, and has some seriously good views over the city. It also has the window where Hannibal throws Inspector Pazzi onto the Piazza della Signoria after first disembowelling him. I think that’s right anyway. The viewer gets to watch Anthony Hopkins ask “bowels in, or bowels out?”, then say “out, I think”, before the cut away to the drop. Mrs E likes this sort of thing, she calls it light entertainment.
Anyway, six days in Florence fairly flowed by. Exercise for me was running, either out along the river to the end of the Parco delle Cascine (gasp) or up into the hills overlooking the city (2x gasp). Both routes were stunning and times were pleasantly slow, not least as I was forever stopping to take pictures:
Filling up on hotel breakfast is a skill that we’ve developed a fair bit on previous trips. Always eat eggs if they are offered, drink more coffee than you’d normally need, and if there is anything portable (fruit and pastries are good), make sure they make their way into Mrs E’s handbag so that we don’t need lunch. After 3 to 4 days of this, we were slipping into an easy routine such that within a few minutes of sitting down, I had an Americano and a mushroom and cheese omelette in front of me, and Mrs E had her cappuccino and eggs (bolle per sei minuti) in front of her. (There was a danger that we were turning into regulars at the hotel in the same way as ‘the major’ and ‘the ladies’ did at Fawlty Towers. We may have escaped just-in-time.)
And then, post-breakfast, we went exploring. The Uffizi on the first day – astonishing pictures on the walls and even better ones on the ceilings. Botticelli to remind us where we were, Caravaggio’s Medusa, to give us sleepless nights, and more religious iconography than you can shake a stick at.
Then the Palazzo Vecchio, with its astonishingly huge rooms, yet more frescoes, and an exhibition on Dante thrown in for good measure.
Over the river to the Pitti Palace, home of the Medici clan – huge ballrooms, stunning views of the gardens, more astonishing ceilings and priceless artwork.
Back to the Loggia to wonder at a few amazing statues – we thought it was impressive by day but then we saw it by night and it blew us away:
After a couple of gallery days, we crossed the river again, and wandered up to the Piazza Michelangelo – amazing looking down on the city, then further up the monastery of San Pietro which had even better views:
and the most ornate and complicated cemetery that you’ll ever see. Crumbling mausoleums, gravestones built like wedding cakes, some plots still cared for after 100 years:
It’s an amazing and beautiful place to be buried. You manage to feel very alone, in amongst thousands of bodies altogether at close quarters. On the way back down the hill, I told Mrs E about the plot of ‘Lincoln in the Bardot’, which is about the afterworld/underworld of graveyards, and, amongst other things, makes you want to choose your neighbours very carefully when you get buried yourself.
I had a run the following morning up to the same place but went a bit further, hoping to turn around when the hill stopped, but after 25 minutes it was still going, so I turned around anyway, for probably the best mid run view I’ve ever had. I stopped briefly again on the way back down at the Piazza Michelangelo, and for the first time noticed that the huge bronze statue next to the viewing point is a copy of Michelangelo’s David:
There’s another one at the Loggia outside the Palazzo Vecchio, but it’s dwarfed by the other statues, and by Neptune on the other side. The original marble sculpture, which Michelangelo sculpted from a spare piece of marble in the cathedral workshop yard, is in the Accademia gallery, which is devoted mostly to sculpture. Inevitably most people are there to see the nine ton, 17 foot statue of David, and once you turn the corner in the gallery and see it at the end of the corridor you can’t but ignore all the other astonishing pieces that are nearer to you. I was expecting a similar experience the one you get in places like the Louvre, with a limited time allowed in front of it, but people were just able to mill for as long as they wanted to, alternating between gazing up and marvelling, and relentlessly taking selfies:
We took the train out to Siena as we’ve been told it was ‘like Florence but smaller and better’, and it was indeed smaller, but not necessarily better for that. The cathedral was amazing both inside and out – the outside reminded us of an elaborate wedding cake and the inside of the Cat in the Hat movie – it was by far the stripiest thing we saw all week:
Siena’s civic museum had its fair share of amazing art and frescoes but after a day we were keen to get back to Florence, where we knew that just wandering around would end up with another jawdropping church or square that we’d not yet discovered. I’ll admit to being slightly distracted as we toured the incredible mediaeval relics in the museum, as I was trying to also follow what was going on in the Leeds-Norwich game. This was a ‘must-win’ game for Norwich, which they rather predictably ‘did-lose’. With Norwich one nil down early on in the game my mood nicely reflected quite a bit of the mediaeval portraits of purgatory, and I may well have let myself down when Kenny McLean equalised in the 91st minute. Normal post-match mode was restored shortly afterwards though, as Leeds sealed the victory in the 96th minute.
We spent the last day in Florence at the Basilica di Santa Croce – a little way out of the centre, and very much the place to be buried if you’re anyone from round here. So there are memorials or graves for Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Marconi…and many many more:
The Basilica di Santa Croce, as Mrs E was keen to point out, was used for the opera scene in Hannibal, where Anthony Hopkins goes a bit creepy with Chief Inspector Pazzi’s missus.
Anyway, a gasp around every corner is how we will remember Florence…and that was only the first part of the holiday…
Apologies for the radio silence from the Emu blog. Like most people, I’ve had a rubbish 2020, followed by a rubbish 2021 and I’m not sure that sharing any of that is going to be of any help to anyone.
However, what I have noticed over the last 18 months or so, is that everyone has been able to derive some sort of enjoyment from other people’s misfortunes. So here’s a blog about misfortune, disaster, stupidity, weird cows and stagnant water for you all to enjoy. Here goes:
Like many other people with time on their hands during lockdown, I decided that I was going to do something exciting once I was allowed to be properly outside again. What I had in mind was a really long run over quite a few days. I’d been talking about this for a while with Mrs E, who approved of the project on condition that a) I didn’t do anything stupid or injuring and b) it didn’t cost too much money. So b) put the idea of running between luxurious B&Bs across the country into the long grass, and I started planning a more spartan event, involving a small tent. I started training properly, and planning routes between campsites, which were beginning to open up in May. And, most excitingly, started ordering all manner of ultra lightweight equipment. As each piece of lightweight gear arrived, I unpacked it, held it gently in my hand, and marvelled at its delicate being. It didn’t strike me until much later that combining lots of lightweight gear in one place would make for something that was actually quite heavy, and that may well count as my first school boy error.
I planned a route over six days, which roughly covered the perimeter of Norfolk, on long distant paths. By the start of July I had all of the routes downloaded, all of the kit bought and paid for and all of the campsites booked. By the start of July I was ready to go – I tried out the tent, albeit in the living room with unwilling volunteers pretending to be tent pegs, because it was raining, and it seemed to work. I could even just about sit up in it. On the 2nd July it had just about stopped raining, and at first light I was ready to go, just managing the time so that I could bring Mrs E her morning cup of tea. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she looked me up and down; the first time she’d seen me in my new lightweight gear.
“Those trousers are ridiculous”, she said, instantly putting me at my ease before my big expedition. “They look like the sort of thing that Lionel Blair would wear. And they woke me up.”
To be fair, they were a bit ridiculous. Alongside an elasticated waistband that was straight out of the Damart catalogue, they also boasted a roomy nylon fit with long side zips to allow for speedy changing without shoe removal. This was the first time they’d been worn, and she was right, they really did make quite a noise, a sort of shushing, swishing noise that I could only avoid if I walked like John Wayne. I wasn’t really sure about the Lionel Blair reference. Somewhere on the internet there is video evidence of our band playing on TV with Lionel Blair introducing us, and dancing along as we played. I suspect it was more memorable to us than to him, but I have no recollection of him wearing noisy lightweight running trousers. Anyway, armed with this peculiar insight into my wife’s waking thoughts, off I went.
I hopped noisily onto a train to Cromer about half an hour later, with my lightweight/heavyweight bag on my back. Got to Cromer, walked down to the sea, removed the Lionels and started to run, keeping the sea on my left. The plan was to get nearly to Caister-on-Sea, then turn inland to Martham, and then on to Clippesby, where a pitch with my name on it would give me a well earned night’s rest.
Day One was relatively uneventful. Even by keeping the sea on my left I managed to get slightly lost, and had to circumnavigate Bacton power station, which I can report is a good size bigger than it looks on the map. And as I was on the the Norfolk coastal path, unsurprisingly a lot of the running was on sand, so quite a bit of this soon turned to walking. No matter though, and 29 miles later I jogged into the campsite, bought an ice cream from the reception area, found my pitch and (you’ll have to forgive me here, cos I’m new to this camping parlance) ‘set camp’. The campsite even had its own bar, where they were showing Spain vs Switzerland on the TV and serving food. So, one veggie burger, a caramel slice, three pints of Guinness and one penalty shoot out later, I staggered back to my very small tent, and negotiated with my sleeping bag and inflatable mat. The three pints of Guinness were probably my second schoolboy error, as exiting your way out of sleeping bag and very small tent several times during the night is not to be recommended, particularly if your legs are complaining about a long run the day before.
Refreshingly though, I found that I could move fairly freely in the morning, and I’d (apparently) ‘broken camp’ well before my fellow campers had changed out of their jim-jams.
Day Two involved getting onto the Wherryman’s Way, which runs between Great Yarmouth and Norwich – I was going to follow this to Loddon, then pick up the Angles Way, which by the end of day three would land me somewhere around Thetford. I’d decided that today was going to be more walk than run, so had slipped into my Lionels, and made my way noisily out of the campsite, no doubt waking many of the other campers as I shuffled past.
“Did you hear that noise, Brian? Fair woke me up. Any idea what it was?”
“No idea. But it sounded strangely like….well, Lionel Blair, going for a walk”
Off I set along the route, when a voice in my headphones advised me to turn left onto the hiking path. I mentally made a note to write a charming letter to the navigation software company when I finished, as without their help I’d have completely missed the small gap in the hedge which led onto a narrow path.
A few minutes later, and I’d redrafted my note a couple of times, as the path gave way to a jungle of nettles, thistles and reeds which I had to negotiate like an Amazon explorer. Each time I got to a clearing I checked my tedious progress on my phone, and I was still on track – river to my left, field to the right, so there was nothing for it but to press on. In actual fact there was a very clear alternative, which was to turn round, go back to the road and to stop entrusting my well-being with a silly black line on my phone, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking of that as an option. And while I wasn’t thinking of that, a very loud bark was barked from across the field. The weeds and grass were up to my shoulders at this point, so I wasn’t able to see anything that was in there. I’m not by nature a fatalist, but I have read the legend of the Bungay Black Shuck, and I was headed in that general direction. I hoped that me shouting ‘Sod Off!’ very loudly would do the trick. It didn’t, and I was replied with a louder, more menacing, and worryingly closer bark. So I stood as still as I could, like a meerkat, popping my head above the nettles and swivelling around to survey my impending doom….
Meanwhile, about twenty yards away, a frustrated deer put his head above a similar set of nettles, looked in my general direction, barked again, and wandered off. Relieved, I just tried to remember whether deer got particularly aggressive during rutting season, and for that matter, when rutting season actually was. Tentatively I carried on, and finally was rewarded up a climb to a jungle free bank of a field. Checking on my trusty map, I saw that I was still on the hiking path, and off I jogged, with not a care in the world, other than the thought of lunch that no doubt awaited me at some Broadland inn en route.
Crossing the field, I came to a drainage ditch. It was about 3 metres across, and thankfully some kind soul had put a couple of logs across it, and I balanced like a tightrope walker with a bad case of DTs. As I lumped across to the other side, I looked behind me, and saw the log disappear into the stagnant ditch. ‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘no going back now’. It was amongst my more stupid thoughts of the morning.
Along the next field, still no noticeable path anywhere but on my phone, and I got to another drainage ditch. No kind souls placing logs in advance here, and a couple of metres across – too far to jump, even without a ridiculously lightweight/heavyweight pack on my back. What I really needed was some sort of pole, so I could reenact one of those village sports days where they vault across a river. I should confess at this point that I never, for one moment, considered that a ridiculous idea. I found a tree nearby that looked like it had been struck by lightning, and managed to pull off a branch that, to all intents and purposes, looked like something that the Slag brothers from the Wacky Races would carry:
I’m not entirely sure how I managed it, but with a bit of fancy footwork and the help of a muddy island and my caveman club, I managed to get across to the other side without getting my feet wet. Again, the familiar ‘no going back now’ thought rattled around in my head, almost as if it was a good thing.
I strode on purposefully across the next field, still on the path, with a drainage ditch to my left, and still holding my trusty club. I was about halfway across the field when I noticed a cow to my right. And another, and another, and another. In fact, quite a few cows were headed in my direction. I don’t like cows. Never have and never will. They’re gormless, dangerous and the wrong size for their brains. By rights they should be British political leaders, haha. Anyway, several of them were headed in my direction. I tried the tactic that had worked so well with the deer/Black Shuck situation.
“Sod Off!”, I shouted. And to my surprise, they did.
I felt quite pleased with myself, but this was quite a short-lived experience, because as I looked up, I saw many more cattle, all headed in my direction. Clearly the first lot had found my ‘Sod Off!’ so amusing that they’d been to get all of their mates. They were all headed in my direction, and by the time they were a few yards away, I was beginning to panic. I tried ‘Sod Off! and a number of variations on that theme. I tried waving my trusty caveman club around, and over my head. They inched forward, and started to pin me in. Finally I tried.a line that had only previously worked outside a chip shop in Edinburgh, around midnight, about forty years ago, to a drunken charmer who was offering to beat me up.
“I’M NOT FROM ROUND HERE!”
Maybe it was the volume of the voice, the anxious tone, or the combination with the caveman club wave. Or maybe they understood every word, and decided, as did my Edinburgh opponent all those years ago, that if those were the best words that I could offer, then I really was a pathetic specimen that deserved to be left well alone. Whatever it was, they turned on their ridiculously tiny heels and stampeded off in the other direction.
I wandered on towards the edge of the field, still holding onto the club, just in case. Gently stepping on to some reeds, I lost my footing and fell directly into a drainage ditch. By the time the water hit my waist, I’d managed to use up almost all of the swear words I knew, and was cursing on repeat as I threw myself across the reeds to the other side. The bottom half of me was covered in a sludgey mess from the ditch that absolutely stank. As I scrambled up the side of the bank, still cursing, I thought again that at least today’s hike couldn’t get any worse than this point. On reflection, this was a hopelessly optimistic thought. By now, the route had mysteriously disappeared from my phone, as had any mobile signal. So even if I’d wanted to call my wife I’m not entirely sure what I could have asked her to do. My cheery optimism started to peter out.
Seeing an abandoned windmill a few fields away, I decided to head for it, on the logic that there still ought to be some sort of path to it that didn’t necessitate diving gear. I navigated a couple of further ditches semi-successfully, although by now I wasn’t overly worried about getting a bit wet.
I can’t remember the sequence of events that led to the next disaster. One minute I was finding my way towards the edge of a field, looking for a way across the widest ditch I’d seen so far. The next minute, I was in it – I’d fallen through the reeds, I was literally up to my neck in drainage, and my feet weren’t touching anything other than water. The lightweight/heavyweight rucksack was pulling me down, and I wasn’t able to turn around, so I kicked as hard as I could against the reedy bank and launched myself across to the other side. Fortunately I managed to keep my head above the sludge, grabbed onto the reeds on the other side, and hauled myself out. It doesn’t sound too bad written down like that, and it was over very quickly, but I was as scared as I think I’ve ever been in my life. A couple of other thoughts struck me. Firstly, that I’d exhibited astonishing levels of stupidity – if any of my children had been half as idiotic on an adventure as I had in the last couple of hours, then I’d have sounded off at them for being ridiculously irresponsible. And secondly, that if I were to have any say over when I got to meet my maker, then it definitely would not be in a Broadland drainage ditch, dragged out goodness knows when and in goodness knows what condition.
Away from the ditch, I did my best to assess the situation. Mentally, I was now, by a country mile, the most stupid object within a five mile radius. Including the cows. Physically I was tired, and I’d managed to knock my back and left knee so that neither was very keen on any further movement. Stylishly, I had rather lost the edge. My lionels had lost their jaunty swish, and, like all of my clothing was now clinging to me unhelpfully, under a carpet of slime and small-leafed greenery that until recently had been laying peacefully on top of the stagnant ditch. And pungently…well , I was in another place altogether. If every farm animal in the county had shat on me from a great height for 24 hours, I think I would have smelt slightly fresher.
‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘I’m not sure it can get any worse’.
And naturally, it did, but fortunately only for a bit. After climbing up the bank, I found myself in a very large field, fairly close to the windmill. I wandered around the perimeter, peering into the drainage ditches that surrounded it on all four sides. Thankfully there were no cows, but that was probably because, other than airlifting them into position, there was no obvious way to get them onto the field. I considered the situation as best I could. Despite the submerging incident, the waterproof rucksack had lived up to its billing, and everything inside, which included a tent, sleeping bag, two chewy bars and a bottle of water, was all usable. My phone had been in an unzipped pocket but had miraculously not disappeared into the drain – it was complaining of being wet, and was still functional, but without any signal. So things weren’t exactly desperate, but there was still no obvious way to get out of this miserable field.
Walking back around the field again, I noticed that a corner had been fenced off with barbed wire. Behind the wire was lots of reed bedding, which I assumed led to the connection of two drainage ditches. I didn’t have much option but to try it, to see if there was a way of getting across, but I was very nervous about going into an area that was fenced off, given how precarious the unfenced area had been. I said a quick prayer before passing my bag across the barbed wire. Thankfully the bag didn’t sink, and neither did I, as I tiptoed through the reeds. After about twenty yards, I came across a brand new galvanised five bar gate, and beyond that dry land which seemed to lead up to a path. It suddenly struck me that the gate and the barbed wire were there to stop idiots like me going into the field, rather than stopping idiots from getting out, and I fair skipped up the slope, as well as my left leg and lower back would allow.
I realised that I’d managed to get myself onto the Wherryman’s Way. I realised this partly because I knew that the path follows the river Yare, and beyond the path was a huge river. And in the river were the sort of pleasure boats that you only ever see in summer in Norfolk. There were quite a few of them, many piloted by cheery souls in captain’s hats, and they merrily waved at their fellow nature lover standing on the footpath. I waved back, trying to forget that I looked like Stig of the dump, and hoping that they were upwind of me.
I couldn’t run any more because my knee was still complaining. I checked my phone and was delighted to see that I had a signal. So I phoned Mrs E, who was slightly put out to have her Saturday morning dog walk interrupted. I don’t think I’ve ever actually cried down the phone before, but the threat of this must have come through to her, and she said she’d come out to Acle to meet me. Optimistically I asked her to bring a change of clothes and some wet wipes so I could carry on.
I made my way to Acle, found somewhere that sold coffee, and even better let you drink it outside, and waited. Mrs E turned up in a cloud of dust in the car park. She said she had the clothes ready if I wanted to change and carry on, but by then, I was completely fed up and my left leg had given up the ghost. I asked if she could take me home so I could get a shower, lie down, and forget about the last few hours.
On the way home, I asked if she wanted the window open. “That’s alright”, she said, “you don’t smell too bad. Those bloody trousers were a mistake though”.
You might be reading this as a Paul Simon fan. In which case, feel free to step away now. Big fans of Rhyming’ Simon (or lil’ Pauly, which his diehard fans definitely don’t call him) tend to be a bit precious about his work – kicking back when phrases like ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘oversized monitors for everyone in the band except Paul’ are used.
I’m fairly ambivalent, but I’ll confess to a bit of a black mood every time I hear the opening chords to ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’. This always leaves me disappointed, insofar that Paul tends to leave the listener a little short changed on the learning front. Having had a look at the lyrics, short changed to the tune of 45 ways, so if we’re looking to the song as a list of ideas, we’re a good 90% down on our expectations. To be clear, the ‘ways’ which are outlined in the song are:
Slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Hop on the bus, Gus
Drop off the key, Lee
Even these five recommendations seem a little flimsy on closer inspection. If your name was Roy, for example, you might feel a little underwhelmed if you’d gone to Paul for your relationship-ending advice.
However, the Emu is very much here to ease the pain in these troubled times, and would respectfully suggest a further set of strategies to leave your lover, which Paul may want to incorporate into future versions of the song.
6. Bogart the spliff, Cliff
7. Play her all your records by The Fall, Saul
8. Snip through his brake cable, Mabel
9. Wait till he’s asleep then violently sever his nose, Rose
10. Go swimming and tie her legs to an anvil, Granville
11. Mention ‘big boned and jolly’, Wally
12. Tell her you’ve been charged with Gross Moral Turpitude, Dude
13. Tell her the sea’s your mistress, Idris
14. Dig a shallow grave, Dave
15. Slip your head in a noose, Bruce
16. Give her a swerve, Merve
17. Show her your truss, Russ
18. Walk around in her skirt, Kurt
19. Shoot some amateur porn, Shaun
20. Tell her you’re a slave to your work, Dirk
21. Say you fancy her Gran, Stan (a bit more effective than ‘A New Plan’)
22. Say you play for the other team, Gene
23. Cop an inappropriate feel, Neil
24. Reveal you’re a cleric, Derek
25. Leave an unpleasant stain, Wayne
26. Tell her your real name is Doris, Maurice
27. Reveal yourself as a big fan of Boris, Horace
28. Forget the safety word, Edward
29. Establish that behind your back she calls you Just In, Justin
30. Tell her you’re married already, Eddie
31. Reveal your prosthetic leg, Greg
32. Tell her you have the virus, Sirus
33. Mention your chlamydia, Lydia
34. Call him Mr Floppy, Poppy
35. Test his olfactory gland, Fran
36. Lower his sleeping hand into a blender, Glenda
37. Stab him in the hand if he tries to feel ya, Ophelia.
38. Play him some folk songs on your concertina, Katrina
39. Elaborately fake your own suicide, Clyde
40. Use the trusty ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line, Clementine
41. Impale him on your fender, Brenda
42. Pretend it’s a vaccine, Maxine
43. Resign from (or, possibly, join) his quiz team, Christine
44. Tell him that’s not what you meant by a mouth organ, Morgan
45. Tell her you need to set the bar higher, Isiah
46. ‘Forget’ to feed the cat, Pat
47. Give her a bath in something corrosive, Joseph
48. Hop on your cycle, Michael
49. Carelessly leave laying around the elaborate plans for her mausoleum, Ian
50. Tell her you’ve modelled your emotional development on the personality of Hannibal Lecter, Hector
As I write, Bob Dylan has just released a seventeen minute version of a song documenting his thoughts on JFK and the American dream. So it’s probably not too much to ask for Mr Simon to go in the same direction. (I can guarantee that the rhymes above are no more contrived than the one’s you’ll find on the lyric sheet of ‘Murder Most Foul’).
Well, during these strange times, I’ve been looking to find ways of wasting time productively, or filling the gap between a) proper work and b) my vegetative state between the fridge and the TV. You may have a similar challenge in your life – some people seem to have the energy to do interesting things in their gardens, or setting quizzes, or spending time with Joe Wicks; I’ve decided to spend a bit of time researching my family tree. This involves taking the contents of boxes of stuff that I’ve accumulated over the years, and plugging this in to the rather wonderful ancestry.co.uk site, which gives you not only a platform to land your ancestors onto, but also links to all the digitised census, birth marriage, death & criminal records from the past, and, if they let you, access to all the other family trees that might intersect with yours.
I’m aware that hearing about other people’s family trees can be desperately tedious – a bit like listening to, say, Matt Hancock spinning another yarn about government guidance. Things start off uninspiring, and go steadily downhill, until you start running calculations in your head around time off for good behaviour. This will happen at about the time you’re told about a second cousin who might well have had a grandparent on the Titanic, or, in Mr Hancock’s case, where he starts advising on your civic duty. But this blog isn’t really about a family tree as such, it’s about one person – not an exceptional person by the sort of standard you might set today, but someone with a telling story nonetheless.
Below is a picture of my grandmother, Dorothy Kerridge. She’s on the right – from the left of the picture are her brother Reuben and her elder sister Dora, then her mother, Mary.
Grandma was born in 1909, and this picture was taken around 1916. By this time, her other elder brother Sidney had been called up and was fighting in the Great War. He came back unscathed, and came out of the army at the end of the war, but millions of others didn’t. There’s a war memorial in the village where Grandma lived; it has 60 names on it, which at the time would have been about a loss for around every fourth household – she would have known most of the families as she grew up. One of the names is P Kerridge – this was Grandma’s cousin Percy, a sailor who lost his life in the Indian Ocean somewhere near Bombay – a long long way from Suffolk.
And just at the end of the war, the Spanish flu epidemic claimed 50 million lives – 500 million were infected, which was about a third of the world population. I’ve never seen memorial to Spanish Flu, but this would have dominated thinking in East Anglia several years after the war ended:
Having survived those early years, Grandma attended school in Wickham Market and in 1922, aged 13, was enrolled on the ‘Rural Teacher’ training course, she completed aged 19, at which point she was appointed as an assistant mistress.
She met my Grandpa at a fair in Suffolk when they were both 16. He had to move to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, but would visit her every month until they were married in 1933. By then they’d both seen the Great Depression and the tough times of the 1920’s – one of the reasons they were apart was because he was following his father around the country finding work as a journeyman butcher.
They had two children, my father and his brother, in the 1930’s, and life was beginning to settle down until the Second World War broke out, when, again, they found themselves travelling about after Grandpa was called up. They were never separated during the war, despite him being posted all over the country, often to the sort of location where a young family would be in danger.
Some sort of stability came after the war – Grandpa was back in the butcher business with his name above the shop, my father and his brother left home, and they became grandparents just about the time that his heart problems meant he had to give up work – they moved into a static caravan on a park near Bournemouth. I was their second grandchild, born just before the Cuban missile crisis, when the world held its breath and waited anxiously for the big bang.
My Grandma died in 2005, aged 96. Between my arrival and her passing away, she’d seen multiple recessions; world famine; the Cold War; cholera, flu and measles pandemics. She saw all three of her siblings and her husband pass away between 1987 and 1995.
I’m writing this down because I’m keen for some perspective at a time when so much talk seems to be of the end of all things. I’m not diluting today’s crisis in any sense, but the nature of all crises is that they do, eventually, come to an end. And also because, at this time, I can remember my Grandma very clearly indeed. Any one of those world events could have hardened and depressed her, and they didn’t. She lived a very, very happy life, never seemed to stop smiling, and took delight in simple pleasures. She would have got through the current challenges by waiting it out, and being sensible and caring for those around her. Being a very British person, she’d have raised her eyebrows a little at some of the pictures in the paper:
And being a very kind, generous person, she would never say anything rash like ‘they don’t know they’re born’. But you really wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d thought it.
Mrs E and me are away for the weekend. Staying in a hotel, no less. No dogs, no work, no responsibilities. Bliss.
We have a fabulous Saturday, filled with all the things we like, spending time with a couple of the kids, a very wet run and some light retail therapy. About the only downer of the day was at 16:09 – four of us were having a meal and Mrs E started describing something very serious and emotional. I know it was 16:09 as that’s the point at which my phone beeped, I made the mistake of loudly celebrating Todd Cantwell’s goal against Everton (A), and quite rightly was told that I wasn’t really concentrating on the conversation in hand.
With that almost forgiven, we had a level of entertainment in the evening that was more fun than space permits to tell, and fairly skipped back to the hotel just after what used to be called closing time.
The great thing about hotels in the UK used to be that they could keep serving to residents for as long as either party was interested in buying or selling. The licensing laws have gone a bit skewed on us now, so there isn’t quite such a distinction, but there’s still something splendid about walking into a hotel bar after hours and feeling that you can have the run of the optics.
So I was particularly impressed when Mrs E, not one known these days for late nights or drinking, suggested we have a quick pint before bed. I was even more impressed when I saw that the main event in the hotel’s ballroom was the annual Magic Circle Dinner Dance.
We agreed that there might be some people-watching to be done here – we both have a passing interest in quirky societies and the people that inhabit them, and magicians are about as quirky as you can get. And the idea of them perhaps the worse for a light ale or two, maybe settling old scores or generally getting a bit ‘office party’ in front of us, was too good an opportunity to miss. We grabbed our drinks and made our way to the quietest corner of the bar, and prepared to be entertained.
Well, we weren’t disappointed.
First up, a couple leaving the ballroom and sidling up to the bar to drink gin. He’s in a rather relaxed outfit which, contrary to most of the other guests doesn’t even involve a waistcoat. She is wearing a slinky green number, which they both seem quite keen on. He’s got a stubbly beard and carries himself with the air of someone who really ought to lose a couple of stone, but hasn’t yet noticed it. She has a face that has the eyebrows a little too high; and if they’ve been lifted, they’ve forgotten to leave the lower eyelids behind. We conclude that he must be one of the new generation of magic circle members, and that she may well be his new magician’s assistant. They certainly seem to be using the annual dinner dance getting to know each other’s patter.
They come and sit a few yards away from us, eyelids are fluttered on both sides, and they provide a slightly seedy romantic backdrop to the rest of the evening’s events.
There’s a sound of shouting over a PA in the ballroom, sounding like the post dinner entertainment winding up. Tough gig, that, to entertain a room full of magicians and their confidants, and it sounds a bit like bingo calling, which it may well be. This soon gives way to the sound of a band playing disco hits from the 70’s and we guess that the transition from dinner to dance is complete.
Cue the succession of people leaving the ballroom, either to avoid dancing or to stock up on drink. First a portly man in an immaculate dinner suit, with a woman on each arm. One, who looks of a similar vintage, also looks bored out of her mind – probably the wife. The other looking slightly bemused, and needing his arm to support her balance on 3 inch heels, is about twenty years younger, and we reckon she’s his assistant. This is very much the stuff of short stories.
Next up, a man and a woman looking a little off kilter – she topples over when she hits the red carpet, and manages to pull over the elaborate metal stands holding the velvet ropes. In other venues this might have resulted in a cheer or a concerned silence, but everyone in this hotel just continues as normal – other than the man, who makes a point of kicking the rope stand before trying gallantly to help her up.
Then the balloon models start to appear. It’s well past midnight now, and although the event is due to finish at 1am, people are beginning to leave with the spoils of the evening, and those spoils seem to consist entirely of balloon models. Another tough gig, I would expect – how do you show off your balloon modelling skills to someone who may well be a master balloon modeller? Anyway, out come the guests who need taxis – first woman is clutching a very fetching Daffy Duck – the colours are spot on – and if she owns a nightstand, then that will be sat there before she hops into bed later. Then a rather odd looking model which may well be a palm tree without the palms. Possibly the modeller had had a run on green balloons. Then my absolute favourite – a balloon gun, about two feet long and looking like the sort of ray-gun that Dan Dare might have used. On the end of the gun was a slightly glazed man in what had probably started the evening as a very smart tuxedo, but was now, like him, showing signs of tiredness. Mrs Glazed Man was looking very much the definition of long-suffering. They made their way outside of the hotel. Fortunately Mrs E’s position near the window allowed her to keep up a hushed commentary on their progress on the taxi situation.
‘He’s getting a bit upset now…he’s pointing at her with the ray-gun…he’s walked down to the road…he’s trying to hail a taxi with the ray-gun…he’s back now cos it’s raining…he’s still pointing…he’s coming back inside…’
Which he did, to go to the gents, using the ray-gun as a weird latex divining rod, completely oblivious to the world around him.
Also oblivious were the couple from earlier. By now, their bar stools had mysteriously moved much closer together , to a point where you might expect her knee to be causing a little discomfort to his crotch. He didn’t seem to be too concerned though, just kept chatting away as if having someone massage his genitals with their knee was just something that happened every Saturday night. And then they kissed. For quite a long time. I tried not to look but I did. She looked as if she had her eyes closed, but frankly she’d looked like that all night. But I hoped it was the start of something…magical.
Another entry into the bar from the ballroom, this time from a man, on his own, who was the living embodiment of Don Revie, circa 1974. With one exception – he was about two foot shorter, so maybe the living embodiment in 5/8th scale. Other than that, the hair, the sideburns, the firm jaw line, even the suit were dead ringers for everyone’s least favourite Leeds and England manager.
Witnessing some light porn and seeing a miniaturised Don Revie made me remember that I’d been drinking, so I decided that I needed to wash my face. The man with the ray-gun had emerged from the gents by then,. so I knew the way, and pretty soon I found myself at a urinal, standing next to a man who appeared to be wearing a mayoral chain of office over his dinner suit.
‘That’s a nice medal’ I said, foolishly thinking I was being clever. ‘Did you win it this evening?’
‘That’s more than just a medal, my lad’, he replied, thereby in just eight words, managing to get information, charm and condescension into a single short sentence. I suppose in many ways, that’s very much the art of the magician at work.
I followed him into the ballroom.
‘There’s not much to see now the dancing has started. But it was a grand night’
It was indeed.
Next morning, we stuffed ourselves with as much breakfast as would last the long trip home. As we were leaving, I saw a familiar face arriving at the restaurant. It was the casual magician from the night before, this time on his own, and wearing exactly the same clothes. With one exception – he was wearing shoes but no socks. They’d disappeared. As if by magic.
Last Wednesday I was walking around the local cemetery, like you do, when I bumped into my friend H, who was cycling about. We stopped minding our own business and had a quick chat about where our lives were currently at. He was trying to get a very young baby off to sleep by taking her for a bike ride. I was trying to shift an injury in my left calf from the previous night’s run, in preparation for walking Hadrian’s wall later in the week.
‘How long is that going to take?’ asked H.
‘Five days’, I replied
‘Wow’, he said. ‘That’s the stuff of bucket lists’.
Which took me by surprise. Firstly, I’ve never really been one for a bucket list. You’ll be unlikely to get to the end of such a list, and it all seems a bit like a tick list of how you’ve managed your life. And secondly, I’d not thought of it as that much of a deal. Me & Mrs E were going to do some walking, and it was going to be from one side if the country to the other, but that was it. And I knewa couple of people who’d done the 84 miles in a couple of days, and one who’d knocked it out in under 24 hours, so 5 days was unlikely to test us. But the bucket list comment kept coming back to me over the next few days…
The next day we biked down to the railway station, hopped on a train to London, tubed across to Euston, got on a train to Carlisle, hung about there for a couple of hours before getting a bus out to Bowness-on-Solway, and made our way to the only accommodation I’d been able to book, which was a small shed in the garden of a rectory.
We’d exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the inside of the shed within a couple of minutes, so repaired to the pub, which already contained two sets of walkers, one of which was just starting, and the other who’d just finished. It was fairly easy to tell which was which – the ones who’d finished were the ones with four pints, two g&t’s, and a bottle of red to their name. We fell into an easy conversation with them as they moved onto large whiskies, and I made a mental note that they’d set the benchmark for how to celebrate finishing.
So, off early the next day, and ironically back to Carlisle, in rather more time that the bus driver had managed the trip the day before. The bits that we didn’t share with cows were shared with some lively traffic for the first part, along the Solway, which separates England from Scotland. Years ago, there was a bridge across the water, which Scots would walk across on a Sunday if they needed a drink, and occasionally fall off as they made their way back. We rattled along, fuelled by banana and jam sandwiches, and made our way into Carlisle, which, in the late sunshine, felt as if it was trying hard to come out of a depression. Friday night in Carlisle doesn’t seem to be a particularly lively time, we had a quiet pint in a pub and wandered down to the ‘number one curry restaurant in Carlisle’, for further refuelling. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she’d recommend anything on the menu, and she said she couldn’t, as she didn’t eat spicy food. Mrs E gently suggested that she might be in wrong profession, and was told that ‘it’s just a job, innit’ before walking off, thereby assuring us that the hospitality industry in Carlisle is in another safe pair of hands.
Setting off the next morning, safe in the knowledge that we only had 18 miles to cover, we started to hit some proper rolling countryside, all grass trails and sleepy villages, occasionally interrupted by wild eyed farmers whizzing about on quad bikes. Every now and again we’d come across a small fridge by the side of the road, advertising snacks and drinks for walkers, and asking for payment in an honesty box. I looked more closely at one of these boxes to read the small print, which basically said that anyone close to the box was monitored by cctv, and that that non-payment would result in unholy retribution. That kind of defeats the point of an honesty box,but maybe they’ve had a spate of tracker bar thefts in the area, who knows?
We’d started to see a bit of the wall by now, and oohed and aahed appropriately, trying to get some appreciation of how 15,000 soldiers built a 5 metre high wall and a massive ditch over 84 miles, in about 5 years. By any measure, it’s remarkable, and you don’t necessarily have to be right next to it to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the thing, but once you’ve been up and down a few of the hills, and seen the size of some of the stones, it certainly helps.
The 18 mile estimate proved to be woefully short, once we’d taken a couple of wrong turnings and remembered that tonight’s hotel was a little way off from the path, and we finished on about 24 miles. We limped into the reception of the hotel to find ourselves, confusingly, in the middle of a Scottish country dance convention. With our fleeces, sensible shorts and sturdy boots, there was a danger that we would be fully integrated, but thankfully we managed to find somewhere else in the hotel to eat away from the reeling crowd. Unfortunately the place we managed to find was a dark look into our future, an institutional room with the lighting and food that will be a feature of the retirement home that our children send us to a few years from now. We ordered quickly and safely, having been told that the kitchen was closing at 8:20 sharp, possibly as there were some neeps that weren’t going to stew themselves next door, and our food arrived in about the same time as it takes to defrost and reheat a vegetable lasagne. The experience of actually eating the food confirmed our future carehome worries – it all sort of blended into itself ina bit of a lukewarm brown mess, and all around us in the big room with the bright lighting and the gentle 80s music were peoplelooking as if they were dragging their way through their final meal.
We stopped to look in on the country dancing on the way up to our room, the party was in full swing, and there was a serious amount of jogging and reeling to be seen.Mrs E was delighted to witness one guy, dripping with sweat, race up the stairs to his room, to return minutes later, and ask her if she’d ‘nae fancy a wee reel’ with him. She said no (or nae), and managed to mention that her feet had just covered 24 miles and weren’t in any fit state to be chasing around the floor. Off we went for another early night, and were serenaded fairly robustly for the next few hours by the kind of noise that was going to keep men in kilts constantly on their feet. I could only make out two accordion players (which, frankly, is two too many), but they seemed to be able to punch above their weight on the volume front. On our way to breakfast early next morning and the riddle was solved – we walked past the stage in the ballroom and saw a PA system that Megadeath would have dismissed as far too loud for their needs.
Breakfast had been prepared by the care home cook from the night before, and he/she had managed to cook a variety of food and blend into a single taste. On a positive note, it’s probably quite a skill to be able to cook mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and beans separately to the extent that they all taste like mashed potato, and there’s probably a market for it, possibly at that stage in life just before it’s liquidised and fed through a straw.
Well, we ate it all up, in the knowledge that we needed fuel before the long and challenging third day. We knew this was going to be tough, as we already had it down as 21 miles, and given the previous day, was likely to be more in reality (it ended up being 28, which Mrs E has mentioned several times since). We had fantastic sunshine and saw the most spectacular parts of both the wall and the surrounding countryside.
It was Sunday, so there were loads of people out walking bits of the wall, contrasting with the pair of us as they sprang along in trainers and shorts, carrying tiny rucksacks which contained proper sandwiches, flasks of coffee and car keys. We had more of a knowing slog about us, and it would be fair to say that the wonder of the wall was palling by the time we hit mile 20.
In the event we walked for 11 hours, and had to phone ahead so as not to lose our hotel room.
‘Don’t worry’, said the kind lady who answered the phone, ‘I’ll hold your room and I’m here till 10 so I’ll probably see you’.
Which was probably meant to make us feel better.
But, into Chollerford we finally trudged, straight into the bar where we drank cider and bitter and ate about half of our body weight in fried food. It’s funny, said Mrs E, after wolfing down a plate of chips. ‘I feel rubbish at night but my injuries seem to heal after sleeping’.
And so it proved as we scampered down for more fried food in the morning. The leg from Chollerford to Heddon-on-the-Wall was going to be less taxing than the day before, but there was one really long climb at the start which we fairly whizzed up, not minding the rain at all, and even showing a bit of renewed interest in the next mile castle or fort ruins. We’d passed into Northumberland by now, and once the weather cleared we could see the country falling away in front of us, still with the line of the wall visible through the trenches stretching off ahead. We had another diversion into Wylam, where we were staying the night, which didn’t please Mrs E particularly, as it added yet more miles onto what werealready some fairly manky feet, but that did give us a chance to go past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. Like Hadrian’s wall, there’s nothing to stop you reaching out and touching this bit of history (although you’d probably annoy the current residents) – we take all of this astonishing stuff in this country for granted and it’s even more fantastic that we don’t feel the need to rope it off.
To the pub then, for beer, ginger cider (‘Not sure about this’, said Mrs E, ‘it tastes like squash’, before necking a pint in record time and demanding another in the style of Father Jack), and Thai food, which was fantastic. All followed by a night’s sleep caroused by the local youth of Wylam who may well also have been knocking back the ginger squash.
And finally on to the last leg, which at last matched the guide book in mileage, and took us across yet more gently descending fields, a little away from the wall and onto the Tyne into Newcastle. It’s hard to properly follow the wall at this stage, as it effectively got hijacked by the soldier/politician General Wade in the 1700s, to create the military road for his troops to march across to quell a Jacobite uprising. It’s now the slightly less romantically sounding B6318. Paving over the wall was an astonishing act of outright vandalism, and if General Wade was alive today, he’d probably fit right in to the current cabinet.
Coming into Newcastle along the North of the Tyne was both exciting and depressing in equal measure. I know Newcastle reasonably well, I worked there on and off for a few years and have mixed feelings about whether it was ever my kind of town. When I was there, I punctuated the work with long runs in the evening, and similarly, some of these were fabulous, and some of them quite demoralising. Which is pretty much how the last bit of the walk goes. Walking around the bend of the Tyne to see the bridges at Quayside is fabulous, and the buildings just fit their surroundings; if that had been the end of the walk then it would have been great. But the wall went a little bit further onto Wallsend (of course), so we still had another 5ish miles to go. Along the path, the litter began to pile up, not just odd cans of coke and papers, but assorted underwear and, for some reason, a number of disposable gloves; normally Mrs E and me will make up back-stories about the the unusual things we see on a walk, but thankfully by now we were too tired to do so.
We walked straight past the sign that flagged the end of the wall, retraced our steps, and a kindly coast to coast cycle rider took our pictures. We popped around the corner into the visitors centre, where we were met with smiling faces and sympathy for Mrs E’s feet (and feat, come to think of it). She has been testing the security and decency settings of social media ever since :
We asked to go into the museum, and a very astute woman behind the counter suggested that we might have seen enough Roman ruins for now, and that we might be better off just going upstairs for a coffee, which we did.
Upstairs, I chatted to the woman making the coffee, who told me that her boss had just completed the walk in three days carrying a 25 kg backpack. I’m sure she didn’t mean to piss on our chips, so to speak, but it felt a bit deflating. And it shouldn’t have; we’d walked over a hundred miles in five days, carrying all our own gear, met some fabulous people and some ridiculously steep terrain, and seen some of the most glorious countryside ever, and the stuff you’d never see from a car. And in Mrs E’s case, done all that in a pair of boots that even now were making her feet bleed, and were destined for a more appropriate place.
Perhaps the walk should have been on a bucket list after all.