Friday, 21 December 2012

More from Spain

I don’t work on things chronologically, but usually have several projects going on at once. So, after writing up some of the Spanish journey, I then went off into an essay on a Polish writer, a foreword for a forthcoming poetry collection by Petar Tchouov, a Bulgarian writer, some other travel writing, and an ongoing translation of some of Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work.

So it’s likely to be some time before I finish writing about the Spanish journey.  But, inspired by The Solitary Walker’s text and photos  from his latest walk, I’m putting up some more brief descriptions and images from Spain, before they get completely buried in the tottering pile of books and papers on my desk.

The olive groves. I managed to get lost again, quite spectacularly, one evening. After the sun had gone down, I explored a path, but after it got dark, very quickly, the path back had become invisible. This would not have been so bad, since I knew what direction I needed to go in – but the path I followed skirted a steep drop. Trying to find footholds in the dark was tricky. In the end I had to skid and slither down to the road below, hanging on to branches of olive trees. 
The next day, I followed the path and walked a long way through the olive groves. Each time I went onto a new path, I made a little arrow out of stones, so that I would know which way to go, on my way back. Incredibly – well not really so incredible – I still managed to lose the way, as I was thinking of something else and didn’t notice one of my carefully laid out arrows. And of course, in daylight, it did not matter.

distant hazy mountains

the descending track

Another day I walked in a different direction, clambered down the steep hill 
into another cluster of houses, another street. 

An old woman was sitting outside her house, knitting.

Walking back by the river I saw a squirrel, with very dark fur, almost black.

Market day in Villacarillo. 

These post bags on wheels look like a good idea.

When it is time to leave this lovely village, I take a different route back. A helps me with the ordering of a taxi to Villacarillo, then I take a bus to Albacete, which is in Castilla la Mancha, home of a rather famous literary character. 

From Albacete I take a train to Valencia 

then another to Vinaros, where I spend the night in the Hostal Teruel which I would recommend to anyone who plans to stay in Vinaros – the room was spacious and inexpensive, and you could eat in their café bar downstairs. Superb salad with potatoes washed down with red wine in the evening, and coffee and croissant in the morning.

But before breakfast, I had to visit the sea. 

The beach was deserted in the early morning. The cloud was thick – it even rained a little – the air was humid and warm, almost sultry. I suppose that most images of the sea look similar – water with waves big or small, the colour varying from green to grey or purple-blue, opaque or clear, perhaps some shoreline, the sky, blue maybe or cloudy or, as here, thick and dark. But for the person who takes the picture, each image is very different, for you can remember what was beyond the frame of the image – in this one, there were the shells on the beach, not broken up, but whole, colourful, striped, and thick. 

Carrer de la mare de deu del roser.

From Vinaros to Barcelona. The estacion franca. 

With its very grand - and rather empty - cafeteria and restaurant.

Then the night train to Paris.  Where they are trimming the trees. 


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Of Wandering ...

LindaCracknell’s Following our Fathers is an account of walking in Norway and later climbing in the Swiss Alps. In Norway they walked in the footsteps of a friend’s father who successfully escaped over the mountains from Nazi occupied territory. In the Swiss Alps she was trying to find the route her own father took, decades before. In Norway she mentions the importance of bringing their father closer, memorialising him in a walk. I always enjoy reading about Linda Cracknell’s travels  but this book held a further interest for me as I’ve recently been involved in my own search for my grandfather, which I’m currently writing about.

Although I love walking, climbing ice covered mountains is far beyond my ability. So I read this kind of literature almost sneakily, aware of reading about something that I lack the courage to try for myself. For me, it’s a bit like reading about spies and acute danger in enemy territory, safe in my own home, fire burning in the grate, or a summer evening throwing long blades of light onto the garden.

Cracknell’s prose is lyrical and descriptive. She talks of the mysterious and potentially dangerous boundary between two worlds, where rock and certainty disappear under a lip of ice and of the glacier’s troubled surface, holding secrets in layers and scars, and curved scratches, burping up occasional groans. Description of their ascent is interspersed with quotations from her father’s journal and from those of other climbers, as well as her own thoughts and fears about climbing and ‘summit fever’ so that you feel invited into her experience, rather than being kept at one remove from it. 


AndrzejStasiuk – On the Road to Babadag is subtitled Travels in the Other Europe, translated by Michael Kandel. Stasiuk’s fast-paced, urgent wanderings take him through his native Poland and on to Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Albania. His poetic and philosophical insights merge with the landscape, use it as a diving board to jump off from, sometimes to carry him deep into history and time. 

Gjirokaster, Albania
Memories are often jumbled, sometimes breathless, as he splices narrative, abandons tracks, shuffles index cards of memory, thumbs notebooks, lifts and traditions. “I remember a hedgerow and the stone balustrade of a little bridge, but I’m not sure about the hedgerow, it could have been elsewhere, like most of what lies in memory, things I pluck from their landscape, making my own map of them, my own fantastic geography.” This plumbing of outer and inner landscape is what makes his writing vivid and alive – he catches those moments that we remember from travel – dissociated sometimes from context and narrative, seeming fragments, selected by colour and intensity. It shows the disassembling process that goes on when we travel, the vertical experiences, while we so often try to present it as a linked narrative over horizontal space.

As well as what is seen, he weaves in the process of seeing and the attempts at recollection. “I should invent a graceful story that begins and ends there, provide a first aid kit that cleverly soothes the mind, alleviates anxiety and stills hunger...when I attempt to recall one thing, others surface.”

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Remembering Early Travel

sometimes the words to leave, to go away
suggest a backward glance -
but - to set off -
holds such a promise -
nothing left behind

(from Gold Tracks, Fallen Fruit)

Sunrise in the Sierra

I want to hear foreign music on the radio, turned down low, faint sounds of piano, then a voice, rising and falling, a texture of the air for no words can be made out, just this rhythm with, perhaps, a phrase coming into being like a lisp of foam, a rip of silky foam ….et puis......des orages.......agité....le sud...and then fading again, into background...wind in the trees, almost.

In your twenties you think you are beginning, just beginning, something long, this life that seems to stretch ahead of have a beginner’s eagerness, fresh into the lists, this race....for you want to move quickly, full of this desire for’s only later, looking back, you realise that it is life’s intensest moments that will be remembered, these will be the moments when you touched – what you were always longing to reach, and imagined would come further down the line, imagined that they would be reached, attained, at what you envisaged as some culmination, some cresting wave you were just beginning to ascend...but it is not like that. 

Castilla la Mancha

Looking back, the high points were often when you were most open to the unplanned and unexpected, open to what life made possible for you, only if you did not push it aside because it did not fit in with your prearranged idea of what it might and could be, what you wanted it to be and what you imagined you were looking for. When you are moving and when you are without a definite plan, without that barrier of outcome, life can inhabit that open place –

So I remember – when I first set out travelling in my twenties - cafés in France with the radio playing in the background, roadside cafés along the straight trail, poplar bordered, to the south east, to Switzerland, Basel...these straight roads, avenues of trees, and at night, the yellow headlights. It was all so other, so ailleurs and I let it all in, it was exactly what I wanted, this otherness, exactly why I had left behind what seemed like the sameness – of views, light, streets, oh just everything the same, unchanging, that’s it, a sense of nothing changing. So I had to initiate change, by moving, by travelling, by setting off...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Arrival in the Sierra

(After the bus journey from Ubeda it’s about 10 pm when I arrive in Villacarillo. There are no taxis to be found, despite a friendly hotel manager making phone calls for me, to try to find one. So I set out to walk the few kilometers to my destination.)

The night is warm. There’s a thin covering of cloud so I cannot see the stars but this covering means there is no chill in the air and gives a sense of protection. The road slopes downhill which I am glad of for despite all my attempts to travel as lightly as possible, my backpack feels heavy. From time to time, a car sweeps past, and I go from one side of the road to the other depending on which direction it comes from, so that I will be clearly visible. The light vanishes and I am on my own again, but it is never completely dark, I think there must be a moon somewhere up there, shedding its diffuse light for I can see the road quite clearly. I can also see dark shapes on each side of the road, the little olive trees, but their outlines are murky.

Warmed by the cloud wrapped sky, and the rhythmic movement of walking, I feel an immense peace in this darkness and solitude, moving towards my destination, only 8 kilometres away. And I do not feel alone, for apart from the bordering olives and the warm night itself, I am accompanied by the sound of crickets, a soft whistling in the sloping fields on either side. These little insects come out at dusk and turn evenings soft with their liquid flute- like sounds. These sounds, and the delicate sharp scent of the air, a mixture of herbs, olive leaves and the earth itself, along with the feeling of being high above the valley and so, close to the quilted covering of the sky, give the feeling of walking on air, despite the backpack. After a day spent in trains and buses, and waiting hours for the next bus to come that would take me just a little closer to my destination, it is deliciously invigorating to be physically moving, slipping into a rhythm, accompanied by that gentlest of night sounds, the crickets. And to know that I am close and moving closer all the time, to my goal.

I’d gone perhaps two thirds of the way when a car came up behind me but instead of passing me, it stopped. A door opened and the driver asked me where I was going. When I told him, he gestured to me to get in. He had a friend with him, another young man. What luck! They dropped me off in a deserted street on the edge of the village, while I overflowed with muchas gracias and shouldered my backpack.

The air was still, the street was silent, the houses looked old and welcoming. Then a woman appeared, carrying a plastic bag, heading for the refuse bin. She stared at me as if I had dropped out of a parachute, from another time. I seized my chance, greeted her with effusive buenas noches, and asked the way to my street. She gestured down some steps, and to the right, and I picked out the word ponte. Turn right at or after the bridge. So I did. The street did not appear to have a name, but I felt it was the right one. And then, there was the tree, at the side of the building. I got out the key and the small torch, slid the key in the door, turned on the power at the mains. I’d arrived. It was just after midnight. 

Street view from my balcony

I’d been told that A, one of the neighbours, spoke French, and I should go to him if there was anything I needed. And he turns out to be an unfailing source of assistance. He says he has some mail for J, the owner, and I go to collect it from him.

The sloping hall inside the front door leads up to his garden – he has vines, an olive, an orange tree, and one that’s Japanese and its fruit looks like peaches. Another whose name he searches for in French, almendra.......amande, I say, yes, he agrees, amande. He shows me his little hut, where he likes to go pour être seul le matin, pour la tranquillité. He raises the shutters on the little windows and sunlight falls onto the table, where there’s a pile of purple garlic cloves and a heap of garlic skins. Dried peppers, so dark red and purple they are almost black, hang from hooks on the wall. He offers me some, but I decline and say I probably won’t be cooking in the few days I’m here.

View from A's garden

When I go, he asks if I’d like some raisins, and cuts me a big bunch. He makes wine, he says. But the quality – well, it depends on the weather. Last year’s cold weather was not good for the grapes - or for the orange tree. Its leaves shrivelled and there is no sign of any fruit.

Just inside the front door, stands a large sack full of bread. Long baguettes protrude from the top, and the sack is packed tight with smaller, round loaves, not odds and ends, but complete and untouched. Un ami a des moutons, A explains. I wonder if the bakery gives him their unsold loaves from the day before, for these are not the odds and ends and leftover scraps that are found in most households.

A few days later, when we are both on the weekly bus to Villacarillo, he tells me more about his friend, who is a shepherd. He lives outside with his sheep during the summer, though in winter, he has an arrangement with a friend, and sleeps in his house. He moves the sheep to different pastures, when necessary. It seems that Spanish shepherds have long standing rights of way where they can move their flocks from one pasture to another and possibly there are public grazing grounds, although I was so intent on listening to A I forgot to ask him this. Young people nowadays he says, do not want to look after sheep or work in the olive groves. They prefer to go to the cities and find better paid work there - if they can of course, for unemployment is very high. So it’s often migrant workers from Africa who work on the land. And they work hard he says, but they spend very little. They save most of their earnings and send it to their families.

I like listening to A talking in his soft voice, and I like the way he describes events without making judgements, or erecting emotional barricades around any particular argument. A has blue eyes, and they often look out into the distance, where the olive trees are dotted in rows as regular as needlework, draped over the hills, sweeping down the slopes, dark grey-green stitching against a background of pale, dust-coloured earth. And beyond these hills, there’s the mountains, with tree-covered areas of pale and dark green, white and grey rock on the pointed peaks.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Linares to Ubeda

Don’t travel by public transport in Spain on a Sunday (unless you’re going from one big town to another). When I arrived in the small town of Linares, between Madrid and Grenada, I was told that there was only one bus to the next town on my route, Ubeda, although on weekdays there were several.

On the night train, someone had knocked on the door of the compartment, announcing vingti minuti before Madrid. Plenty of time to collect toilet bag, water bottle and notebook from the little pouch beside the bed, rummaging around in the dark, to pack everything away, and visit the wash room before emerging onto the dark platform.

Remembering other European train stations, I’d imagined Madrid Chamartin to be a heaving hub of people but I’d quite forgotten it was Sunday, and the station was almost deserted. It was also very clearly signposted, with an escalator to the salle, where departures were displayed in bright lights. Each platform also has its own entrance from the hall, so there is no – go here for platforms 1-5, go there for platforms 6-10, go downstairs for 11 & 12, the kind of complex information that requires careful scrutiny, that I’m used to in French train stations.

I had over 3 hours to wait at Linares-Baeza, so I walked from the station to a tree-lined avenue, where a café-bar was open and there were some signs of life, and sat down on a bench. The sky was clear blue, the sunlight delicious. Within about five minutes, a car stopped and I was asked for directions. This always happens to me, I must have the kind of face that looks unthreatening. And since I’d noticed the road signs to Ubeda, I was able to tell them, or rather, gesture to them, where to go. Later I walked along this road and tried to hitch-hike but there were very few cars and I soon gave up. Walking back towards the station I discovered a shop that was open, bought some fruit juice and biscottes and when I arrived back at the station, there was a bus standing in front of it so I asked, hopefully, if it went to Ubeda. No, that would come later, as the man in the train station had said. So I sat down on one of the benches in the near deserted square, and pulled out a book from my backpack, Winter in Madrid, by C J Sansom. 
It takes place during WW II, just after the revolution in Spain and is a gripping story that highlights the suffering of the people during the Spanish Civil War, includes espionage and underhand dealings of various kinds, love, imprisonment, and plenty of nail-biting danger. Through its characters it confronts such issues as belief or faith, portrayed by different organisations or factions, such as the Catholic Church or Communism and how far one’s adherence to tenets or dogma can take you away from compassion for other human beings. Set in the 1940s, still, such issues of fervent or fanatical belief and its results, are just as relevant nowadays.

I looked around me at the quiet, sun-struck square, with its benches shaded by leafy palm trees. Someone was sitting on another bench at the far end. A taxi was parked at the side of the pedestrian area, just in front of the station, with its hood up. The man was talking into his cell phone. I’d seen him come out of the taxi and raise the hood. Of course he must be the driver and there was something wrong with his vehicle and he was trying to get a mechanic to have a look at it. There again, this was pure supposition and I had no idea who he was talking to or what he was saying. In the book I was reading, so many people were pretending and playing parts and assuming roles, spying and being spied on – and apart from us, the whole town seemed to be deserted or having Sunday lunch or Sunday siesta ..... A couple of very large and lean stray dogs slunk past (a pack of wild dogs also figures in Winter in Madrid). I began to imagine all kinds of things, including no bus ever turning up to take me away from here. 

The road from the station, Linares

I noticed the taxi driver filling a large container of water from a slender iron pole which I realised must be a fountain. So I went over with my water bottle and pressed what I took to be the right button, but nothing happened. The taxi driver then came over, and showed me that you had to press something on the ground with your foot, to make the water flow. I thanked him for that and returned to my bench. I was to discover that Spanish people, at least in the area I was in, which is off the usual tourist track, have a natural willingness to help, which made me warm to them immediately.

Despite this helpfulness, I decided not to read any more of the novel until I had arrived at my final destination, two or possibly three bus journeys further on, in the safety of the whitewashed walls of the house where I would spend the next few days. Half an hour or so later, a van appeared and pulled up behind the taxi. It was clearly a breakdown van, with Juan Montes written on the side. He peered under the taxi’s hood, talked to the taxi driver, extracted some jump leads from his van, and soon after that, both vehicles left the square. I went for another walk around the block. The sun was now decidedly hot. A brown butterfly landed on the earth around the palm tree bole and instantly disappeared into background. The brittle palm leaves barely rustled in the still air.

Then a background sound got louder and the peace and silence was broken by what sounded like a roaring noise. A bus appeared, like a monstrous visitation from another world. I have a sudden illumination into why Don Quixote charged at windmills. Followed by a feeling of relief, for this snorting mechanical dragon is my saviour, it’s the bus to Ubeda.

en route Linares - Ubeda

At last, I’m going somewhere again, and we travel through a landscape of red earth and olive trees, under a deep blue sky.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Night Train to Madrid

cafe near the gare de Lyon

There’s an ineluctable magic about those words – night train, train de nuit, treni di notte, these great carriages with only one or two lights showing in the bar/restaurant, where insomniac passengers sit, their glass of red wine or Pernod or brandy in front of them, watching the darkness flash past. Or so they might be seen from outside, a throb in the night air, a whistle, a slight vibration in the ground.

The train was empty when I got in at Port Bou, just across the border into Spain. That feeling of excitement and anticipation as I put down my pack, arranged pillow, sheet and blanket, took a last look at a sky growing dark with threads of pink and silver, and stretched out on the couchette. This was luxury indeed. The night before had been spent on a coach from London to Paris, with a ferry crossing in the early hours of the morning. I stood on deck for a while, padded with warm layers, hood pulled over my head as the wind whipped and tugged. Later I lay down on the floor on the lower deck but didn’t sleep. Back on the coach I fell asleep almost instantly, only waking up three hours later on the Paris périphérique, and it was still dark.

Only half light by the time I reached the Gare de Lyon, Paris, so there was still this atmosphere of things taking form, destinations and purposes, directions and decisions, all murky with the mysterious smoky morning half-light, the night lights outside the station still glowing, still to fade into invisibility.

Sometimes I do wonder why I travel this way. I forget the tiredness, the carrying of a heavy back pack, the irritation of the petty rules, such as, after paying 50 cents to use the wash room the wash-hand basins are only for washing one’s hands in. One time after an overnight coach trip, I’d brushed my teeth in the basin and got shouted at by the attendant. I snapped back – there’s no sign to say you’re not allowed to brush your teeth. She pointed triumphantly to the sign that said you could only wash your hands there. I spat out the toothpaste in disgust, and she sighed loudly and raised her eyes heavenward.

But when I go to make my reservations, the young SNCF man is friendly and helpful. He sniffs frequently, a nervous mannerism, and I find it hard to keep focussed on the seriousness of the operation. For it is a serious procedure, these rules. The first possible train can be booked up to Port Bou, but there are no spaces left on the night train. So he tries the next one, and yes, there are spaces and a reservation can duly be made, and since a reservation is obligatoire, I can legally board the train. The only thing I have to remember to do now is to compost all tickets before boarding.

As the TGV swept south, the clouds disappeared, the sky became blue and cloudless and I tried to stay awake. 


Mesdames et messieurs dans quelques instants nous arrivons a Nîmes....ah Nîmes – memories of the little train from Vauvert, changing to go to Arles, the intense heat of summer, changing to go to Carcassonne, the arena, the second hand bookshop, going to the hairdresser’s to have my hair cut.... 


Then there is Montpellier, Sète, Narbonne, Béziers, and Perpignan, where I changed trains for Port Bou. Perpignan, el centre del món, the centre of the world, the Pyrenees, the peak of Canigou, rising behind it. 


From the steps outside Port Bou station you have a view out over the sea, there is a sense that the mountains have come right to the edge of the land and have peered over, and people have perched their homes and their lives on the toes of the mountains, leaned against the mountains’ feet, and walked under the hot sun and waded in the warm water of the Mediterranean.

- Why is this not the centre of the world? I ask the night spirit who presides over trains.
It has a safe, secure feeling to it as if it has arrived here and there is nowhere else it needs to go.

- Because there is nowhere else it can go. Unless you head out to sea, or bore tunnels through the mountains, as has been done, for this train to pass through. You may think the mountains make it secure, but they press close in. What protects can become a barrier if it comes too close. But at Perpignan, there is a sloping plain and then foothills between you and the mountains. So you can feel encircled and protected but not hemmed in. And you can also feel the way the mountains call to you, should you wish to climb up onto higher ground, and expand your vision....

- Ah....

Port Bou

At Port Bou I remember why I travel this way – to watch the sky darken, with its few clouds and its clear light. To pull back the clean sheets of the couchette, to stow one’s things and know that after a glass of Spanish red, one will sleep and that the train will rock slightly and hum to itself and in the morning one will be transported by magic and will wake up somewhere else.

The train left Port Bou with that almost imperceptible tug and sense of movement, soundless except for a little squeal and faint grinding sounds and I take this to be the train’s squeal of joy at being in movement again and the grinding hiss is its breathing out with the sense of relief I felt too. A slight rocking motion, the rhythm as it picks up speed. The sense of abandonment to utter security as the sky grows dark outside as one is carried by this sleek and massive creature, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, so it is as if the god himself is holding you as you hurtle through the landscape, underneath the stars.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Old Railway Track

Having at last acquired a detailed local map, I set off to explore another old railway line. I have to take 2 buses to get there. I nearly miss the second one because the route has been changed, although there is no sign saying this. But the lack of traffic makes me feel something is not quite right, so I head for another, more populated street, wondering if I’d missed it, as it’s ten minutes later than the scheduled time. But just as I arrive at the bus stop, it pulls up. This is such a good omen that I’m sure the gods are with me but as soon as I get on and sit down, this feeling of confidence is slightly challenged. The bus makes a continuous strange clanking sound as if something vital is about to fall off. Still, it does not appear to impede its progress, as it rattles swiftly along the road. But a few miles short of my destination, the driver pulls into a lay-by and announces that the engine is overheating, so he’s going to wait for a few minutes, to let it cool down. Remembering my recent trip to Carlisle I begin to wonder ...

But the bus soon resumes its rattly route and I arrive at the small town where the old railway track is supposed to start. First of all I buy some coffee at a garage on the outskirts then go in search of the track, rejoicing in the little symbols on the map that mark it clearly, sometimes shown as ‘dismantled railway line’ sometimes just a dotted line. With such obvious markers, how could I possibly fail to find my way?

And in fact, to my great surprise, because I am adept at losing my way or the way or just about any way, only once did the trail die out, when I was faced with a clear and flat field, no sign at all that there had ever been an old railway running through it. I climbed the fence, and walked along the edge of the field, to the corner, then turned and continued. And further on, the old track reappeared on the other side of the fence, green and weedy, a clear bank running along the edge of another field, where an interesting-looking flock of sheep had gathered, with pale brown silky looking fleeces, and curved horns. They looked at me at first a little expectantly, then turned tail and ran away.

Fancy brickwork on the bridge roof

But right at the beginning of the track, I found another of these slanted-roof bridges, similar to the Secret Bridge, but much smaller, going over a little river, which I reached by clambering over a dry stane dyke, topped with irritating wire. I balanced my costa coffee on top of the dyke before stepping slowly and carefully over stones and wire. And that was the only slight difficulty in the whole walk. Up the embankment, and over the bridge, I was now on the old straight track. The fields were harvested, round bales were lying there, or being picked up by tractors with fork lifts. There were sheep in some of the stubble fields, and when they sensed my presence, they moved away, and the sound of the stubble clipping against their hooves was like bursts of rain on a corrugated plastic roof, little rustling waves.


A few kilometres further on the track ended at a small village of old stone houses, with an ex-pub and hotel and a village shop. And a bus stop. Someone else was waiting at the bus shelter, a man who had the most amazing eyes, one blue and one brown. His manner was pleasant and friendly so I involved him in my deliberations as to which bus I should take (either direction being possible, but with varying connection times). 

As our conversation centred around transport, he mentioned that several of the buses he’d taken recently had broken down and I told him about the overheating one I’d taken in the morning.
I suppose it’s the difficult financial climate I say, lack of money to repair buses.
He also told me why the bus route had been changed.
The road’s subsided he said, I’d noticed for a while, driving up that road, that there was a large crack in it which got wider and wider. Eventually they must have decided it was unsafe, and so all traffic has to take another route. 


I have a brief vision of moribund rusting buses lying unattended at the sides of roads whose surfaces were fissured with gaping holes. With grass and wild plants growing in the gaps and around the ancient shells of buses. Perhaps it won’t be long before these once roads look like the old railway line I’d just walked along. Before he left, he thanked me for telling him about the railway line, and mentioned another walk, along an old drove road, that went all the way to Gifford. He left with a cheery see you later, as if he really meant it. And yet, I thought, it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever see him again.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day - The Star

Buddha Amida, Japan

To the Herbalist’s...

To remind me, with its symbol of the snake and staff,
that Asklepios teaches – not just the cure for illness,
but its meaning.
The cure then becomes a path,
a journey, a slow unwrapping
of the unknown.

It can make your heart pause
then flutter – pause, then glide
and shift, as if it stretches
in its skin, then steps out -
and enters all of your perceptions.
It can be difficult to walk along the pavements
when they glow – when people glow
and buildings glow, like this.

It doesn’t matter that apothecaries
of the present day don’t drop herbs
into alembics, mutter incantations
as they stir; that potions are sold
across the counter by bright-eyed
healthy-looking young people – the potency
is unchanged; though I regret
the passing – in this country – of the symbol -
the snake twined round the staff -
a reminder of where the power comes from.

Medicine in my bag, I then remember
there’s a jadeite axe
I’d like to see, in the Museum.
But it’s not displayed, I’m told.
Instead, I see this being
of serenity, shrouded in lotus calm,
protective guardians behind him.
And – of course – he’s glowing.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Cairn Holy Equinox

I take the bus to Carlisle. From there I can connect with another bus that goes to Stranraer, and passes the road end to Cairn Holy. But a few miles short of Longtown, the driver stops, gets out, comes back in. I think we have a puncture he says.
We’ll have to wait for the next one whenever that will be. In an hour?
Some people get out and walk. I consider this. I could hitch a lift perhaps. Strangely, after about 10 minutes, the driver decides to see if it’s possible to go on to Longtown. It is. There doesn’t seem to be any problem at all. So after talking on the phone again to his boss, he continues on to Carlisle. Of course, I have missed my connection, but there is a train to Glasgow which goes via Dumfries, and I take that. In the hour or so I have to wait for the Stranraer bus, I explore Dumfries city centre which is pedestrian and peaceful, in the late afternoon sunlight. I buy potato scones and cakes from a bakery, to take to J & E.

The bus is very crowded, mostly with young people who get off at Castle Douglas. The woman sitting next to me says it’s not normally as crowded as this. Because of all these people getting on and off, the bus is running late. I want to reach Cairn Holy before the sun goes over the horizon at 6.45, so I’m told, but it’s about that time when the bus pulls up at the end of the track. After I get off and the bus drives away, suddenly, all is peaceful. The sea is very close, there is hardly any wind. Just the trees for company as I cross the road and begin walking slowly uphill. I turn around from time to time to look at the clear view of the sea below me.

When I reach the stones there are still several people there, and J is talking to them.
I missed the sunset I say. We didn’t see it either says J, there was cloud on the horizon.

Cairnholy stones, half moon just visible over the sea

J told me that his car broke down at the end of the road leading to Cairn Holy, twenty-one years ago. He had not been there before, it was just where he ended up, spending the night in the car.

I imagine him walking up the hill that evening, the paved road turning into a stony track. I wondered if he turned round as I did, the view of the sea as he climbed higher becoming more and more spectacular. Then he would have come upon this flat and grassy platform with its straggly assemblage of curious stones, some long and thin some short, bulging in places, oddly shaped. At right angles to this motley crew there’s a tapering...something... that looks like a corridor lined with thin stones and there’s one stone at the end that seals it off, ends it the way the curve of a bowl marks the end of the place of containment.

I wonder what questions must have come up in him as the stars began to appear, as he looked around him, noted the landscape, the rise behind to the north, the dips and slopes to east and west, with the horizons there forming curves, the edges of this bowl, while to the south, the ground fell away, and he could see clear out to the watery sea edge, far away and far below.


In ones and twos the people gathered by the stones leave and go home. The half Moon in the southern part of the sky hangs over the water and begins to glow as the sky darkens. I talk for some time to a woman who lives near Castle Douglas and has been coming here for many years. Her husband kindly makes us cups of tea in their camper van. Their grandson runs about, plays with their dog then pretends to be a dog himself, coming up to me with a stick in his mouth and insisting that I throw it for him. It’s completely dark and the first faint stars have become visible when they leave, and the boy invites me to come and have dinner with them. I thank him but explain that I’m staying here, at J & E’s house, just a 10 minute walk away.
It’s nearly 9 pm when J and I take the path through the wood that leads to the mansion house, a pale blur among the pitch black of night and trees. 

western sky

Early the next morning I look out of J & E’s living room window. The light is faint, grey-blue. This getting up in darkness and watching the squares of windows turn opaque, reminds me of winter mornings. After tea and toast J and I head up to the stones, in that tremulous new light, the sky shrouded by a few colourful clouds on the eastern horizon. But a few minutes later, the clouds lift and the sun appears over the edge of hill. A shaft of sunlight falls between the two tall stones in front, and runs along the corridor.
A dance of sunlight and shadows on the stones continues for the next half hour or more (I was not looking at my watch).


J says - Cairn Holy is officially described as a chambered cairn or a passage tomb. Of course that may even be true. But it is much much more than that.
We will have to wait until J writes up all his observations and discoveries to find out about that ‘much much more’. 


The patterns of light are particularly impressive (assuming the Sun is not obscured by clouds) at the equinoxes and solstices but the experience of the stones – that is there, open and available to everyone, at any time. gives you pictures and information

many more photos here, as well as a short video with some interesting sound effects!