For the last few years many friends have assumed that I’ve read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, as a classic of modern nature writing, and one that is set largely in Cambridge, where I live – in fact much of the action takes places on a hill just a couple of miles from my house. (And I vaguely know one of the people vaguely alluded to.) I hadn’t got around to it, because I’m a travel writer not a nature writer, but I found a copy on my sister’s bookcase and read it over Christmas. It’s a classic of modern nature writing, indeed, but also a classic of the woman-coming-to-terms-with-her-father’s-death genre. The latter is not of great interest to me, and only partly because I’m not a woman who is going to lose a father. In short, a Cambridge academic loses her father suddenly, gets a goshawk to train, tries to become one with nature and wildness, takes it too far and basically goes off the rails, then gradually becomes resocialised as a human being, until her father’s memorial service provides closure (and she begins taking antidepressants) – problem solved, as she realised that everyone went through the same process. Oh, she also mentions a missing twin, but not that she has since identified as non-binary. Complicated….
In addition to Cambridge, there are a few other locations in her story that were of interest to me – Walton-on-Thames, where I often visit friends, Carmarthenshire, which I cover for the Rough Guide to Wales, and Uzbekistan, which I have also written about and where she had a formative encounter with a goshawk the year before her father’s death.
In any case, Cambridge is currently a major but rather unlikely centre for nature writing (unlikely because of its largely flat and uninteresting landscapes, and the pace at which it’s being covered in housing and science parks) – we have the great Robert Macfarlane, Jessica J Lee and Tim Dee, and now Merlin Sheldrake has also appeared with a Cambridge PhD and a book on fungi that was acclaimed by Macfarlane and Macdonald (although he’s not living in Cambridge).
Macdonald’s pal Olivia Laing is not in the same category (and she recently left Cambridge for nearby Suffolk) – when she wrote that Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard was ‘about the death of a wife’ I’m afraid I lost interest. It’s a wonderfully luminous book, about travel in a very remote (and then closed) region of Nepal, about snow leopards and other wildlife (thanks to his zoologist travelling companion), and about Buddhism (both Zen and Tibetan) – there are digressions about the meaning of death, but I’d totally forgotten the bit about his wife’s death. But then I’m clearly from Mars and women are from Venus, and for me that was definitely background context only.
As a guidebook writer and a hiking guide, it’s always been important for me to know exactly where I am – and of course travel requires a somewhere to travel to, as well as a somewhere to travel from. As Eliot wrote, ‘the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time’. Painters in particular have long explored the idea of ‘genius loci’ or ‘spirit of place’, but the phrase has recently come to mean something different in academic and cultural circles. In 2016 and 2017 I rather randomly came across a rash of events and exhibitions dedicated to the sense of place – in June 2016 the Balham Literary Festival’s theme was A Way of Being in the World – celebrating landscape, that summer I found an exhibition on sense of place at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett, and at the end of 2017 I found another, in Victoria BC, called Point of Contact – On Place and the West Coast Imaginary. At a bit of a tangent, 2017 saw the publication of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which divided us all into ‘somewhere’ and ‘anywhere’ people, partially as a way of explaining why British voters were so passionately for and against Brexit. And 2018 saw the publication of Nicholas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape (also tangentially relevant but so good) and John Sutherland’s Literary Landscapes; charting the classics of world literature. Then sense of place largely gave way to the new nature writing.
There is much that is wonderful about the new nature writing, but it does also set itself up for satire – Kathleen Jamie asks, in her best David Attenborough tones, ‘What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge!’. Mentioning no names – but of course women are now fairly well represented too. I’m a white, middle-class member of the Anglo-Irish diaspora living in Cambridge, but I don’t really do rapture, so it’s definitely not me. The greatest strength of the movement is that it stresses that we humans are of nature, and not something separate and free to exploit and destroy. It’s also good at pointing out the extraordinary restorative power of nature in coping both with that destruction and with trauma and loss.
Anyway, the next on my reading list has to be The Rising Down by Alexandra Harris, which was to be published (by Faber) in 2021 but is clearly running late. It’s about sense of place, local history and changing perceptions of landscape. She looks at a specific area of the South Downs, where she has previously followed Virginia Woolf’s walks from Rodmell – which brings us back to Olivia Laing, who has done the same thing. (Woolf’s walks in London have been done in depth too, by other writers.) However Harris is in Oxford, not Cambridge (fine by me, as I have a foot in both camps).
PS In February 2022, soon after I posted this, Helen Macdonald made a BBC TV programme about training her new goshawk, Lupin, a rather different process with a happy balanced human working with another goshawk-fancier, rather than in isolation – I wish them all well!
I’ve never been to Russia, which may seem strange in someone who has at times specialised in Eastern Europe and formerly Soviet countries, but I’ve met more than enough Russians in the neighbouring countries. They talk a lot about the Russian soul, which in practice seems to mean wanting me to join them in a vodka-based search for oblivion, rather than good cheer. But when I heard that Erica Fatland had written a book about Russia as seen from its neighbouring countries I was interested! It soon turned out that, unlike me, she spoke Russian and had spent time there, writing a book on the Beslan massacre as well as Sovietistan, about the Central Asian ‘Stans (including Uzbekistan, which I have also written about in my way.
She spent 259 days (over a two-year span) making a virtually complete loop through all fourteen countries that currently border Russia, including a cruise along its Arctic frontier; I have only been to China (in 1983), Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Norway, as well as the formerly Soviet states of Armenia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, which don’t actually border Russia.
The first chapter of her tour was actually the last to be undertaken, when she finally managed to find an affordable cruise through the Northeast Passage, from Anadyr to Murmansk. This also touched on the Russian involvement with Alaska, another place that I’ve had plenty to do with, having spent two winters there and updated several editions of the Rough Guide to Alaska and the Alaska chapter of the Rough Guide to the USA. This is very different to the rest of the book, and both interesting, covering a part of the world that few of us have been to, and entertaining, with its account of her fellow passengers. It’s also the most environmentally engaged part of the book – even two decades ago it was clear that the poles were warming up far faster than the equator, and of course it’s the lack of sea ice that now makes it easy for ships to travel through the Northeast Passage. And there’s the regular mention of the rusty oil drums that were left everywhere by the Soviets.
The next section, on North Korea, is a bit too similar to other accounts of organised tours of the paranoid dictatorship – she does it very well, but for the most part we’re drifting away from the Russian theme here. Chapters on China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, similarly, are very well-done history lessons with lots of detail of wars with Russia, but they don’t reveal much about Russian character or culture.
Then we get to Georgia, which Fatland has said is one of her favourite countries – and it’s one of mine, too, for the same reasons – food, wine, scenery, and above all the sheer joie de vivre of the Georgians. The food on much of her journey must have been hard going for a vegetarian, but here Fatland would have been able to live off the fat of the land… But I don’t think Georgians dislike Russians as much as she says they do – yes, they loathe Putin and his régime, but they will almost all say that they have no problem at all with Russians themselves – partly because Russian tourism is very important economically. I also disagree about ‘the most famous monastery in Georgia’ – surely that’s Davit-Gareja (ok, a group of monasteries) rather than Gergeti, which is certainly the most iconic church in Georgia, but not much of a monastery.
The Ukraine section is excellent, with interesting visits to the remnant of the Swedish community and to the secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic; her account of Crimea is based on a visit nine years earlier, before its annexation by Russia – I was there back in 1991, but again I agree with her that, like Georgia, ‘Crimea had everything’, scenery, culture, beaches and beer. On the other hand, there’s only fleeting coverage of lovely Lviv.
As for Belarus, she finds some interest in the dullest of countries – I was interested that Lukashenko once dragged out his annual speech to seven hours and twenty minutes, because Fidel Castro had famously set a record by droning on for seven hours and ten minutes (although Fatland doesn’t mention this). The Chagall museum in Vitbesk was closed, as was the Rothko museum in Daugavpils, Latvia – I feel her pain. The three Baltic states are also familiar ground well covered, and she makes a brief detour into Poland because it surrounds the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Another detour via the Åland islands, between Finland and Sweden, is new and interesting.
It’s easy to forget how close to the Soviet Union Finland once was (politically and economically), and how carefully they walked that tightrope between keeping some independence and not offending the bear next door – there was a huge Soviet military base west of Helsinki until 1995, the year that Finland joined the EU and began to remodel itself as a modern Scandinavian social democracy. Finland has not joined NATO, but in 1996 it began to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and then Afghanistan. And from Finland Fatland actually crossed the border into Russia, with a visa-free cruise to Vyborg, once Finland’s second city and now ‘sad and worn’.
Norway is the only one of Russia’s neighbours that it has never been at war with – in other words her home country, the last one described in this book, is the one with the best relations with Russia. Even so, the paranoid deportations of the Stalinist era affected the Norwegians on the Kola peninsula too; and this area of Russia bordering Norway is, by her account, the most polluted place in the world, due to a filthy nickel refinery and dumped fuel from nuclear submarines – this is now being cleared up, but by NATO countries, not by Russia.
One could argue that she should also have gone to Iran, as it faces Russia across the Caspian Sea (and Alaska and Sweden do get mentioned), but I think we can give her a pass on that. But I just finished reading Fifty Miles Wide, by Julian Sayerer, about cycling in Israel and Palestine, and Israel is a country that has been heavily influenced by Russians – more or less anyone in Omsk or Tomsk or indeed Donetsk who feels that his or her life is a dead-end can claim to be Jewish, and these people have little interest in sharing Israel with Arabs.
Fatland quotes the father of Norwegian social anthropology, Fredrik Barth, who said that you can only see yourself, your people and your culture in relation to “the other”. It is at the border with the unknown that identity and cultural differences arise. Perhaps the people of the countries that Fatland travelled through had a clearer sense of themselves by comparing their history and culture with those of Russia, and maybe she does too, but for me this was largely a history lesson – most of it was fairly familiar to me, but most readers will find a lot here that is new and interesting. Of course there’s the endless litany of Stalinist atrocities, but if it’s any comfort, it’s clear that the very worst of all were carried out by the Nazis. In any case this is an entertaining and perceptive account of these countries in their own right.
The Border by Erika Fatland, Quercus Books, 2020, translated by Kari Dickson (first published in Norwegian as Grensen by Kagge Forlag in 2017).
There was clearly a bit of a delay between the first publication in Norwegian and the translation into English – footnotes have been added to bring it up to date, although they don’t cover the recent election and protests in Belarus. Fatland or her editors do have a bit of an issue with big numbers –
on p.106 ‘The unification of East and West Germany … is estimated to have cost between one and a half and an eye-watering two billion euros.’ In fact it’s estimated at 2 trillion euros. Two billion seems like NOTHING at all in our Covid-19 world, where Joe Biden’s relief package is worth US$1.9 trillion and Apple is worth US$2 trillion.
on p.119 ‘Two and a half million passengers travel on Chinese trains every year’ – it’s more like 2.5 billion.
on p.273 ‘on February 25 million people marched’ – one million, I think, on February 25.
and on p.381 ‘Nikishyne, between seven and eight hundred kilometres north of Donetsk’ – in fact it’s between seventy and eighty kilometres.
and some editing/ translation issues –
on p.226 ‘By the end of the 1950s, Russians were in the majority in Kazakhstan and accounted for more than forty per cent of the population.’ – no, that’s a plurality, not a majority.
on p.291 ‘there’s a clear view from Shusha to Stepanakert’ – so she obviously means that the Azerbaijanis were shelling the city, not bombing it.
on p.370 ‘winter 1942’ and on p.527 ‘winter 1943’ seems to mean early in the year, whereas I’d expect it to mean the end of the year.
on p.392 ‘strike camp’ should be ‘set up camp’ or similar.
on p.518 it was Turkey, not Italy, that was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I!
And just a couple of typos that I noticed – ‘Kakazhstan’ (p.227) and ‘A dead solider’ (p.381).
Across the world countries are moving towards ending their lockdowns and returning to something closer to normal life – even the UK, which is in no fit state, is inching in that direction. Although international travel remains virtually impossible for at least another month, the ways in which countries are beginning to open up for their citizens and residents do give some clues to what the new normal will look like.
Museums and art galleries are reopening in cities like Berlin, Zurich and Antwerp, but it’s clear that the experience will be very constrained and lacking the freedom that we have taken for granted. After booking online (or possibly making a contactless payment, which is of course key to the new normal), you’ll have a timed entry slot before using hand sanitiser and donning a face mask, then following a one-way system, with the doors jammed open so no-one has to touch them, and you won’t be allowed to linger in front of works that especially speak to you. All at a distance of at least 1.5m metres from other people – in Britain we seem to be specifying two metres, which is probably wiser but may be even less practicable than the rest of the farrago. There’ll be no maps or leaflets, no audio guides, and no groups of school kids or tourists (at last, a positive!).
China is leading the way in developing more sophisticated new systems, but only for those already resident in the country – you apparently now walk through temperature scanners all the time, to enter the metro or shopping centres, and barely notice them, much like metal detectors. People also have a ‘health pass’ on their mobile phones with a QR code that links to their name and ID number and gives a red or green reading depending on whether they’ve been in proximity with an infected person; if it’s red, they can’t go into shops and restaurants for 14 days. If you do get into a restaurant, there’s mass sanitising, and widely spaced tables, of course, with no more than three people (oddly) at each. So some kind of going out is possible – but as you may know, I have an interest (both emotional and financial) in British pubs, and their future looks far more complicated, until we have effective widespread vaccination. With restricted numbers and table service only, it’s hard to see how they can either be much fun or indeed survive financially.
The most difficult aspect of travel, and the last to resume, will be long-haul intercontinental flying – quite apart from needing to allow four hours to check in and get through the airport, what with all the social distancing, facial recognition and contactless temperature checking and sanitation (of passengers and luggage) that will be required (and probably no lounges, no carry-on luggage, no inflight mags and no in-flight catering either) there will also need to be a system of immunity passports, perhaps requiring blood tests at the airport itself. Even then if you arrive with a raised temperature you risk being sent back, or at best quarantined for two weeks – just in time for your flight home. And the air fares will have to be higher, to cope with extra sanitation requirements (and the increased time needed to clean planes between flights) and the lower seating densities. But airlines have billions of [insert unit of currency] worth of planes doing nothing, so are desperate to start flying one way or another.
Travel within a continent or region should be a bit less complicated, probably with less onerous health requirements – free travel zones are planned between Australia and New Zealand; Vietnam and Thailand; and between the three Baltic states, and new quarantine laws won’t apply to travel between Britain and France, or Britain and Ireland. One might expect the same to apply eventually between the United States and Canada (but not Mexico, I fear).
However the easiest option for most of us and for quite a while will be domestic travel – even without the hassle of airports, visas and test certificates, I won’t want to be getting on a plane any time soon, as someone who picks up a bug whenever he flies anyway. Trains are also confined spaces with dry air which helps the transmission of viruses, but you’re less likely to find them fully occupied, apart from peak-hour commuter services into major cities. Really, the most stress-free option will be cycling and camping, but by and large that will require a train journey to get to the starting point.
Cities across Europe (which currently doesn’t include British cities, apart from one seafront road in Brighton) are creating ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes with cones and paint – Paris, Berlin and Milan are leading the way, with hundreds of kilometres of safe new routes. This is to deal with two issues – first, that people don’t want to be on buses and trains at the moment and so are likely to use cars when they go back to work, unless they can be persuaded to cycle, and secondly that people are trying to walk but there just isn’t space to keep a safe distance from other people on the pavements (what with the queues outside shops as well) so there needs to be space to step into the carriageway. Shared-use paths, where cyclists are encouraged to use the footways too, make things far worse, so the more that cyclists can be persuaded to use the carriageway the better. Here in Cambridge cyclists are tending to use the carriageway and leave the off-road cycleways and shared-use paths for pedestrians, but that may change as cars return. E-bikes are going to be part of the solution, although the supply chain may dry up for a while – get your orders in now. Electric skateboards and similar monstrosities are also bound to grow in number and will have to be catered for.
Georgia leads the way
Georgia, which has done a great job so far in keeping Covid-19 to a minimum, is now racing to be the first country to open up to international tourism again. I have an interest in Georgia, of course, and my colleague Claire is planning to be there this summer to research a new edition. That will be an interesting experience, to say the least!
Domestic tourism is to be permitted again from 15 June and international tourism from 1 July, dependent on creating ‘safe corridors’ at the borders and presumably on specific air links, though I don’t know what that will involve. In addition to the mere 10 deaths thus far from Covid-19, the government is also touting its ‘enormous experience’ in quarantining over 19,000 people (in 83 hotels).
In fact Greece also hopes to open up for tourism on 1 July, althoughit’s not at all sure that bars and restaurants will be open – so inclusive resorts, yachts and agrotourism will be fine, but other holidays may be frustrating. Other countries are also beginning to open up, one way or another – mostly for internal travel, with quarantine (14 days, not the full 40 as in Venice when the term was first coined) as a rule for international arrivals. But Austria, for instance, offers two alternatives, allowing visitors to either show a certificate of a negative coronavirus test within the last four days, or pay €190 for an on-the-spot test. Hong Kong Airport has introduced full-body disinfectation booths (nasty chemicals in a confined space? I’m not keen). London’s Heathrow Airport is talking of contactless procedures such as ultraviolet sanitation and thermal screening, which is fact fits perfectly with the British government’s hands-off approach thus far – they are now talking of quarantining arriving passengers, roughly three months too late, while about 18 million people have apparently entered the UK without any form of check. Just one of the reasons why Covid-19 is cutting such a swathe through the British population.
We need to talk about testing
The only solution to this crisis, the only way to get back to anything like a normal life, is the development of a vaccine and its global deployment. It’s not 100% certain that will happen as all, and until it does there will be new outbreaks and new lockdowns, and happy relaxed travel is going to be difficult to achieve. We also need much better antiviral treatments for those infected with the new coronavirus, but that alone won’t solve the problem.
In the meantime, we have two types of tests. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for genetic traces of the virus and is fairly reliable but only detects a current infection; it’s a robotic process which is already carried out on a huge scale by drug discovery companies, so it’s been easy to ramp up for the new coronavirus. On the other hand, antibody or serological tests pick up evidence of someone having been previously exposed to the virus as well, but produce a lot of both false negatives and false positives (due to similarities to other coronaviruses such as the common cold). There’s a huge number of new testing kits being produced for this new virus, and testing the test kits is in itself a huge challenge. The British government went ahead and bought four million fingerprick testing kits from China, at a cost of £16 million, before finding they weren’t good enough. The best options at the moment will require a blood sample and lab analysis, which will be much slower and more expensive. One great unknown is whether having been infected gives some kind of immunity, and for how long, which might allow governments to issue, and accept, ‘immunity passports’. It’s possible that you need to be seriously affected to achieve any kind of immunity while those who’ve been slightly unwell or indeed asymptomatic will not ‘benefit’ at all. In any case, don’t expect immunity passports any time soon, so quarantine is going to be required for travel to many countries.
Just to be clear, this is not a disease that you want to risk catching. It’s becoming clear that the virus can affect not only the lungs but pretty much any of our organs, including the nervous system; many people who survive it will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems and never return to normal lives. It’s possible to die from a cytokine storm, when the immune system doesn’t recognise what it’s fighting and goes into overdrive. What’s more, the virus can disappear while the system goes on struggling for a month or more, so that some people need hospitalisation even though they test negative for the virus. Stay home, stay safe remains the best advice.
I’m now a month in to the (first?) Covid-19 lockdown, and maybe it’s time to think a bit about the future, specifically the future of travel. So many questions, so many unknown variables… but it won’t be how it was, that’s certain.
The most important factor is that even when we move away from lockdown, as some countries are beginning to do, this pandemic won’t be finished until we have a vaccine (or some other treatment) available to just about everybody in the world, and that is going to take a couple of years.
And I personally feel that even when we can reliably test and treat people, it will still be asking for trouble to get on a plane – as someone who usually picks up at least a sniffle whenever I fly, I’ll be happy to confine my travels to the UK and Europe for a few years at least. At the moment it looks as if the new coronavirus is liable to mutate significantly, and that being infected does not necessarily produce antibodies and lead to immunity – we don’t yet know, but the signs are not great. And it doesn’t just kill by choking the lungs with pus, but attacks other organs too in ways we don’t yet understand.
The most current research, published in Science by a team of Harvard epidemiologists and immunologists, suggests we’ll still be social-distancing in some form or other until 2022, and can expect to see new outbreaks of Covid-19 for many years to come. Likewise, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, has just said the coronavirus is not going to go away and we will have to learn to live and work with regular flare-ups of Covid-19. We will want to get out of our homes as soon as possible, but I imagine most trips will initially be to catch up with family and friends around the country.
Even so, there are billions of dollars worth of planes on the ground doing nothing and there will be huge pressure to get them back to work. Similarly, there are billions of dollars worth of idle cruise ships, but they are even more likely to turn into seething pits of infection so it’s hard to see the cruise industry getting back to what it was. And there are billions of dollars worth of hotels standing empty. With about 10% of global employment in the travel and tourism industry, it’s vital for the world economy to find a way back.
The era of travelling freely, with no visas required or with visas on arrival for many countries, won’t be coming back in a hurry, and we’ll doubtless need to carry medical certificates and to accept being sent home if our temperature is too high when we reach a new country. We will travel with a new awareness of our own mortality – obviously we’ll shy away from hotspots like Iran, but travel to Asia and Africa as a whole will be greatly reduced, I’m sure – heck, even London (epicentre of the pandemic in the UK) will be seeing less of me, I dare say.
A background of misgovernment
It has to be said that we always knew there would be another pandemic – I thought it would be more like the bubonic plague or Ebola fever, and this is actually perhaps less awful than it might have been. But the point is that we, that is all the countries of the world, should have been better prepared. Not just me, Bill Gates was also telling world leaders to prepare from 2015. Even when it was obvious what was coming our way from China our governments did very little – in the UK, the prime minister didn’t attend any of the first five COBRA meetings (from 24 January), and throughout February the government failed to organise supplies for testing or ventilators. They asked people not to go out, but didn’t actually close the pubs and restaurants for several days (not to mention the Cheltenham Festival and other huge sporting events). It took over three weeks from Sage, the scientific advisory group on emergencies, recommending a lockdown at the end of February to it actually happening. When the government finally had to act, after it was obvious that the Italian health system was being overwhelmed, they flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would effectively cull the weakest and oldest part of the population, before finally buckling down to creating new intensive care wards and testing facilities – although without the follow-up contact tracing which was so crucial in allowing Taiwan and South Korea to keep their death toll so low. The UK government wasn’t even testing people coming out of hospital and going into social care until mid-February, so it’s no surprise that elderly people in care homes were soon dying like flies.
When there was a chance to join the EU’s schemes for procuring ventilators and protective equipment the British government refused to have anything to do with it, on purely ideological anti-European grounds, choosing instead to make up stories about missed emails and to lie about ordering equipment both from British companies and countries such as Turkey and China. And when every sane voice was saying that the transition period for Britain to finally leave the EU had to be extended beyond the end of 2020, they continued to say this was inconceivable – well, we’ll see how that plays out, but a no-deal departure from the EU will be absolutely terrible for an economy already knocked sideways by Covid-19. The fact that British supermarkets are still out of flour a month after the lockdown began does not bode well for a no-deal Brexit – I know the problem is with the packaging lines, not the supermarkets themselves, but it’s all part of the much-vaunted supply chain.
As for the USA… President Trump also missed his opportunities to act and then consistently treated the new coronavirus as an opportunity to find new countries and people to blame. Both countries have handled the pandemic particularly badly, but there’s no point my going on about it. Still, there’s a strong sense that just when the world should be acting together, the countries that should be taking the lead are undermining this, most notably Trump’s withholding funds from the World Health Organisation and the UK’s refusing to work with Europe. This applies equally to the global climate crisis, which has been put to one side for the duration of the pandemic – although of course the planet is breathing a little more easily with so few cars, planes and factories belching forth their fumes. Will we return to business as before, or will people want to keep their clean air?
Obviously co-ordinated global action is also needed on the climate crisis, for instance to levy a worldwide tax on aviation fuel (at the moment no country will act because airlines just say we’ll buy our fuel elsewhere and you’ll lose out) – let’s be clear, air fares were, until the pandemic, at historically low levels and while this is great in terms of seeing the rellies in Australia every year it is totally unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact. Adding a major tax just when businesses are trying to recover from the lockdown is unlikely to get much support, but at least the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the world can pull together to take global action when it needs to.
As for guidebooks
The guidebook industry is perhaps in even worse straits than the airline and hospitality businesses which do, at least, have capital assets such as planes and hotels as backing; travel publishers, however, are paying to store guidebooks that are rapidly going out of date. I work for the Rough Guides and for Bradt Travel Guides, neither of which is able to pay royalties (Bradt had the decency to ask first, Rough Guides just failed to pay) and both may indeed go out of business soon. Lonely Planet has just closed two of its four offices, including its spiritual home in Melbourne, and is also in trouble. I’m working on updating guides to Wales and Georgia (and soon Transylvania), but who knows if I’ll ever be paid? Still, it’s a lockdown, so what else should I be doing? No, don’t answer that.
If you want to support Bradt, and to have some exciting reading to prepare for future travels, please click on this link and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this half-price offer will end, but don’t leave it too long!
PS I also meant to say something about hostels – sleeping in a dorm with unknown companions is going to seem a lot more unattractive in the future. The big trend in independent hostels recently has been a growth in the number of private rooms (ensuite or not), but for the next few years this is probably going to be the mainstay of their business and they should probably get on with subdividing dorms as fast as they can. Even so, shared washing facilities are going to be a concern and lots of cleaning products will have to be on hand at all times.
Well, the time has come to talk of Brexit, there’s no avoiding it. It’s clearly madness, the result of a massively flawed referendum, and a readymade disaster (see below), but I don’t altogether blame the people who voted for it. I blame the rightwing ideologues who treat politics as a game that doesn’t affect real people, I blame the media moguls who spread the lies (the front page of the Daily Mail carried fantasies about a flood of immigrants Every.Single.Day in the run-up to the referendum), and I blame our MPs, almost all of whom have shown themselves to be spineless and lacking integrity. Of course I blame David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson, and have no idea why anyone would vote for them – it was Tory austerity that broke Britain, not Europe. Any admiration I once felt for Jeremy Corbyn long since flew out of the window. And I blame Vladimir Putin, who is undoubtedly waging a cyber-war against liberal democracy and international groupings such as the EU.
The people who voted to leave, however, had their reasons – like many of those who voted for Trump and Le Pen and Bolsonaro and other populist leaders, they were protesting about the changes in the world economy that have worked well enough for me and many others but have left them stranded. This has to be tackled, as many commentators and politicians are saying, but I go further back in time than most of them in tracing the causes of the problems – I date them from the 1980s when we started exporting our industrial and manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere, and replaced them with call centres and video games development.
Virtually everyone I know voted to remain – I live in Cambridge which has benefitted hugely from foreign talent, and where the university stands to lose at least a fifth of its research income as well as many talented researchers. Almost the only Leave voter among my friends is ex-military, and the military still have the concept of sovereignty (they took an oath to defend it, after all), which means nothing to me – sure, the Queen is a national treasure, but I wouldn’t go to war to defend her divine right. Personally, I don’t care who governs me – City, County, Country, Continent – as long as they do it efficiently, and at the moment they don’t. The dysfunctional divide between Cambridge City Council (Labour/Lib Dem-voting), Cambridgeshire County Council and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (both run by rural Tories) is one of the reasons our roads, for instance, are falling apart – but British politics have been dominated for far too long by short-term thinking and penny-pinching tax-cutting that has not only given us ten years of awful austerity but also a longer tradition of poorly constructed infrastructure that cuts corners and soon falls apart at the edges. No, I want to be governed the way the Dutch and the Danes are governed, with their long-term sustainable thinking, and their great public transport and cycling infrastructure. This probably requires proportional representation and coalition government, but the British seem wedded to their two-party confrontational system of politics, in which a new government first of all undoes whatever the previous gang achieved. We have a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, which I have supported all my adult life and which had no fewer than 57 MPs in 2010 (including the excellent Julian Huppert here in Cambridge), but which has since been virtually wiped out. There are specific Cameron-coalition-related reasons for that, but in the big picture it does seem to indicate a reluctance to think beyond a two-party dichotomy. And to get back to Brexit, both parties have failed – in particular, we need a Loyal Opposition, which has been totally missing in action.
Why is Brexit a disaster? Yes, there’s the economic side, cutting ourselves off from a huge market and entrusting our future to the tender mercies of the US and China instead, but it has also unleashed torrents of xenophobia and misogynistic bullying – this began with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and the Windrush scandal, and the government and the Tory press have done nothing at all to rein it in, not even when an MP was murdered. Social media is massively to blame as well, and Mark Zuckerberg is actively avoiding doing anything to tackle the problem – and Putin’s troll farms are exploiting this for all they’re worth. (See the sainted Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk, if you haven’t already.)
Hearing of someone who grew up in a white working-class culture and is now the only white person on the street, you don’t have to be a racist to understand how hard it is to lose your culture and be surrounded by others you don’t understand. But why controlling migration from around the world should require leaving a European customs union and seriously damaging our economy I fail to understand… I’m a believer in the European project, which should make it easier, not harder, to deal with multiple cultures – not just new migrants, but also eg Scotland, Catalunya, the Basque lands, Hungarian Transylvanians etc. Whereas Northern Ireland has been sold down the creek and the Scots are being dragged into a situation they certainly didn’t vote for.
After a month in the Balkans in mid-2019, I can say that I am very proud of what the EU is doing there to support prosperity, stability and democracy, and it’s money well spent to avoid future conflicts. People who want to leave the EU because of this kind of spending and to axe the foreign aid budget are ridiculously selfish and short-sighted.
I do hope that the Brexiteers actually get on and try to make it work, but they’ll probably go on blaming the EU and anyone who disagrees with them for undermining the project. Or perhaps they will shut up when they see what their brave new world of trading with the Faroe Islands and New Zealand and eating chlorinated chicken while the NHS is ripped apart is really like. I dare say we will eventually rejoin the EU, but certainly not on the advantageous terms we’ve enjoyed until now, with all our opt-outs and rebates.
So there you have it in a nutshell – and if any post deserves the ‘unravelling’ category on Unraveltravel.org, this is it – although in fact we originally meant it to mean something more like unwinding.
I’m currently updating the Bradt guide to Uzbekistan, and while I was there (in October 2018) I drank little but green tea (the beer was awful) and really developed a bit of a habit. I brought some back with me (grown in Sri Lanka!) but it was impossible to keep the habit up – black tea (with milk) is just my default and I seem unable to change that. And I can’t stand coffee.
However, I was very happy recently to see the sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia hot off the press, and also to receive my first batch of tea from a plantation in Georgia that I helped to crowdfund. The Renegades, an unlikely bunch of Balts (five youngsters from Latvia and Estonia) were seized by an urge to revitalise Georgia’s moribund tea industry and have now released their first harvest. I received a case with six different blends, both green and black, and each packet has far more information than you’d get on a standard wine bottle label – eg two leaves and a bud are plucked together, withered for 17 hours, rolled for 45 minutes, oxidised for 25 hours at 35° C, roasted for 25 minutes at 150° C, and finally dried for 20 minutes at 120° C. They also come with brewing suggestions, and are personally signed! It tastes great (I was amazed by how much the leaves swell up in the pot).
Having previously gone on a bit about beer and CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, I feel it’s time to join the Campaign for Real Tea. Which doesn’t actually exist, but maybe the Renegade story is the start of a movement, coupled with the recent news that modern teabags are actually a form of single-use plastic, which of course we all hate, just like those throwaway cups. It’s not enough just to encourage people to rediscover the joy of tea, it’s also necessary to do it right. Firstly, no teabags – get a pot and use loose tea! Or a cunning little one-cup strainer like my sister uses.
Secondly, make sure the tea meets the water when the latter is actually just off the boil – the moment you cross the Channel from Britain to France or Belgium you’re confronted with waiters serving you a cup of hottish water and a teabag nowhere near the said water, and they are all totally unaware that the coloured water produced when the tea does finally meet the water is definitely not tea. For green tea, I gather that the water has to boil but doesn’t need to be quite as hot as for black tea – some people seem to hold the kettle high above them and pour in the manner of a fancy cocktail mixologist, to let the water cool just that little bit more.
Some people think I drink huge quantities of tea, but I don’t, I just drink a couple of bucketfuls twice a day – I seem able to down quite a lot while it’s still warm, while others sit and wait. Strangely, the same thing applies to beer – my first pint goes down pretty quickly, but after that I drink at the same pace as everyone else (well, almost). And I never go to cafés if I can help it and I don’t get on a train and instantly think ‘Must get a tea’ (train travel is far too enjoyable to seek a distraction activity anyway).
Rather bizarrely, I happen to have in front of me (no idea how I came by it) a print-out of British Standard 6008:1980, Method for Preparation of a liquor of tea for use in sensory tests – isn’t it great to know that tax revenue has been spent on researching the precise and perfect procedure for making tea? You need 2 grammes of tea per 100ml of water (to an accuracy of +/-2%), and it should brew for six minutes, which is far longer than I ever manage to wait. I could go off and write half a book while waiting. Milk is not essential, but can accentuate differences in flavour and colour, it seems. If desired, it should be poured first, to avoid scalding the milk), which is contrary to what most tea aficionados recommend, and the tea liquor should be at 65 to 80° C (a surprisingly broad range). The milk should be ‘free from any off-flavour’, which also seems a rather unscientific criterion.
Incidentally, I recently read that a quarter of the population are ‘thermal tasters’, who experience cold as sour and warm as sweet – I don’t think that applies to me. But I am accused of having an asbestos tongue. I remember when I was writing my guide to Uruguay noting that cancers of the mouth may be linked to drinking very hot maté (the herbal tea that everyone drinks there), but I drink black tea with milk (and I let green tea cool to the same sort of temperature), so I don’t think I’m at risk. I don’t like maté because it’s so bitter (or else it has to be served with so much sugar), which may indicate that I’m not a thermal taster.
But for those who do want their beverages at exactly the right temperature some new products are available. The Ember is sold in Apple stores (from £80) and is of course linked to an app on your phone to tell you when to take out your teabag (yuk). The Glowstone mug is a crowdfunded British venture, so I feel better about it, and it will keep a drink at the correct temperature for an hour – but it costs £129! I really think this may all have gone too far.
A friend (who will receive CART membership card 0002) recently visited the village of Shree Antu in Ilam, Nepal (just across the border from Darjeeling in India), to stay in community homestays (see this also) and learn all about tea. It sounds great! While researching the Uzbekistan book, I also came across this blog and this one by people who are travelling the world and reporting on the tea and coffee they consume along the way. Amazing how focussed people can be in this blogging lark. And now there’s a book too, The Life of Tea: a journey to the World’s Finest Teas by Timothy d’Offay (illustrated by Michael Freeman), published in 2018 – I trust they’ll follow it up with The Life of Pie….
Uzbekistan’s three great Silk Road cities are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (although the cities of the Fergana Valley were also important crossroads); they’re all different, and I’m not sure which one I preferred. I was intrigued by the different patterns of historical decay and restoration in the three cities.
In Samarkand the Registan was left to decay under the Soviets (one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg madrassa collapsing in the 1920s) and the surrounding area was cleared in the 1960s to build four-storey apartment blocks. In 1967 the regional headquarters of the Communist Party was built on the former citadel, then another medieval quarter was demolished and the sixteenth-century Mirzo baths were replaced by a big restaurant. All of Timur’s fabulous gardens have also vanished. The Registan did see massive restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and the remains of the Bibi Khanum mosque were rebuilt; across the road, the dome of the Bibi Khanum mausoleum is also totally new. In 1996 the houses around the Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur, were cleared and the quiet backwater that reminded Wilfred Blunt of an English cathedral close was replaced with a sterile park. The nearby Aksaray mausoleum has also been rather over-restored, by the look of it. German experts have been working in Samarkand since 1991 and have fixed the problems caused by poor restoration and heavy rain at the Tilla Kari madrasa (religious college) in the Registan, and are now turning their attention to the fifteenth-century Ishratkhana mausoleum, a little-known architectural jewel a kilometre or so south of the centre, so one can hope that this will be subtler work than elsewhere.
The latest problem is that private developers are demolishing houses to build hotels and apartment blocks, notably in the Tsarist quarter immediately west of the historic centre – this is also supposedly protected by UNESCO and the demolitions are clearly illegal, but the local government is if anything encouraging them.
In Bukhara, far more of the medieval city centre has been preserved than in Samarkand, although it has been opened up, and supposedly tidied up, by clearing many of the buildings between the main sights. The Soviets left the city to decay, and demolished all but three of the fifty-odd covered trading domes, so that it became unbearably hot to get around the city in summer and the population largely decamped to modern suburbs (in fact, Bukhara was one of the first cities to develop suburbs, as a result of the Arab conquest of 709, so this was history repeating itself). Fitzroy Maclean came here in 1938 and then in 1958, when he noted that it had been tidied up almost beyond recognition, with the ancient walls and gates mostly swept away and boulevards driven through the maze of narrow, winding streets, and was clearly set to become a tourist centre. Geoffrey Moorhouse made the same observation, also noting that the unrestored domes were topped by storks’ nests but that the storks (the national bird) had not been seen since nearby wetlands had been drained. There’s been a lot more restoration recently, unfortunately involving laughable plastic storks on rooftops, and it’s also been a bit gung-ho at times – in 2017 a wrong-headed decision was taken to lower the roads to their medieval level, destroying many archeological remains in the process, and causing part of a madrasa’s façade to collapse.
On the other hand, I was impressed by the new hotels which fit in very well with the traditional style – and some of them really do deserve their ‘boutique’ tag. Some of the city’s many disused madrasas are being re-used as hotels, restaurants and museums, but there are many more if you fancy investing.
The same is true of Khiva, the smallest of the three, which was largely abandoned when Urgench, 30km to the north, was chosen for industrial development. It was effectively a museum city by 1999, with the feeling of a ghost town – although it’s ironic that many of its madrasas and minarets were actually built in the early twentieth century. Now it’s buzzing with tourists, at least in spring and autumn, although it’s far too hot to visit in summer and too cold in winter. There are three hotels in converted madrassas (one in the old town and two outside) – they lend themselves really well to this recycling, with their monastic cells around a pleasant courtyard.
More on Khiva
In Khiva, I went to see the new train station (they’ve built a branch from Urgench, and now need to electrify it to extend the Afrosiyob high-speed trains here – sometime in 2019, I believe) which is about a kilometre east of the old town – and there’s a great traffic-free boulevard which will be lined with hotels and shopping complexes. I’m assured that this was an area of markets, not housing, and that a new bazaar is under construction nearby.
The Bradt guide to Uzbekistan gives a good account of the city’s amazing array of mosques, mausoleums and minarets – but it doesn’t really say much about its museums. There’s a 100,000 som (USD12) ticket that covers all 15 of the old town’s museums, but most of those museums are of very limited interest – so I’ll have to give some guidance. Still, it’s reasonable value if you visit a few of them. In the new town, the Nurillabay Palace has just been restored and reopened – it was only built at the start of the twentieth century, and there are a couple of galleries of below-average art. The only exhibit of interest is of historic photographs of Khiva under the khanate. For this they charge 50,000 som (USD6) – more than twice as much as any other museum or monument I’ve visited in Uzbekistan, apart from the Registan in Samarkand, which costs 30,000 som and is worth every one.
I did say in my previous post that there’s been a move towards abolishing separate charges for photography in museums, but I then noticed that this was less the case in Bukhara – happily, Khiva fell into line with the trend I’d spotted elsewhere – phew.
The current edition of the Bradt guide also issues a heart-felt plea for a restaurant – any restaurant – in Khiva to stay open out of season, and I’m happy to report that their prayers have been answered, and several places will be open all winter. This is despite the bone-crunching cold that people can already feel on its way – tourists are still enjoying mid-October sun, but the locals are huddled in their wonderful padded ikat jackets. I think I may have to buy one.
So – what possessed me to undertake Walking the Welsh Coast Path? The honest answer is that I simply don’t know. It somehow caught my imagination, billed as the first complete coastal path of an entire country in the world. I wanted to do it. Then I said I would and I did – or to be precise – I have half done it – Chepstow to Cardigan from March 13th to April 23rd 2017. The rest to be completed in 2018. For the purposes of this blog I’ve pulled out the highs and lows and added a few retrospective musings.
I planned to walk every day apart from Mother’s Day.I’d bought a book about walking the WCP – but it went from North to South and having decided to do it the other way round, it was not that useful. I knew I had six weeks at my disposal and when I sat down to work out the mileage I realised I’d only get round halfway in the time available. I did make use of a blog by Charles Hawes who meticulously logged his route clockwise round the WCP a few years ago. If you want to know the minutiae of each day’s twists and turns I recommend you look there! I also made a Facebook group of all my friends who like walking and/or live near to the route and invited them to join me or give me a bed to sleep in. The response was gratifying and generous.
Small rucksack. 2 prs of kwik-dry walking trousers Kwik-dry long sleeved walking top 2 T-shirts (only wore one) 4 pairs of walking socks 7 prs knicks 2 bras Pair of lightweight silk thermal long johns and top Warm fleece Sunhat Beanie Showerproof jacket Lightweight rainproof plastic poncho (used only twice) Walking pole
I didn’t take a map but followed the cleverly designed ‘Conch’ symbol of the WCP, which morphs into a dragon’s tail.
After a few weeks I bought an ankle support and also a tubigrip for my right knee which troubled me more or less constantly. I was knocked off my bike some years ago and badly twisted my knee. Physio had seemed to sort it out but I hadn’t asked much of my knee in the intervening time and the weakness revealed itself fairly quickly. The walking pole helped a lot to relieve the stress, particularly going down hill.
I knew I was heading towards spectacular coastal scenery in the Gower and Pembrokeshire beyond, but in the early days my only highs were places with baths where I could have a good long soak to let my muscles relax – Sue’s hot tub with the added bonus of prosecco just about takes place as my top high in the early days!! And anywhere with food. I was able to eat anything – ANYTHING I wanted and walk it off the next day!
It’s been years since I could eat chocolate and chips and cake without thought and not worry about weight. I lost half a stone, perhaps I built some muscle and strangely, my appetite regulated itself such that I still feel full more quickly since having completed the walk and have stopped overeating. Long may it last….
The first real high, location-wise, was Merthyr Mawr en route from Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (Day 7). It’s a delightful estate village that boasts several thatched roofed cottages (and a substantial domestic pig in a garden) a charming 19th-century church and medieval cross, and is surrounded by a host of Neolithic remains. The path leads through woodland and on to a vast array of sand dunes – the second highest in Europe it seems, yet practically unknown. I then walked along the beach all the way to the seedy amusement arcades of Porthcawl which had a peculiar charm of their own.
For the first nine days I averaged 13 miles a day, so the next high was a mere six-mile amble from Swansea to the Mumbles (Day 9) and a dinky village to explore full of coffee shops and independent retailers. The walk from Mumbles the next day to my cousin’s flat at Caswell Bay was also a breeze compared to the previous week and the scenery began to beguile me. The Gower lived up to its reputation. The route is varied with short sharp inclines and descents, through woodland and dunes, along fabulous beaches and substantial cliffs and with far-reaching views.
Also plenty of watering holes like the Three Cliffs Café at Pennard Stores (Day 11), which I’m told can get super busy in the summer.
The views from the Worm’s Head Hotel at Rhosilli (Day 12) are unrivalled too and the perfect place to watch the sunset.
There’s also an Old Rectory on the beach which is the National Trust’s most popular holiday cottage.
The six-mile stroll from St Clears to Laugharne (Day 22) was pretty and perfect for someone who may not like serious walking! It also ends at Dylan Thomas’ picturesque Boathouse where there’s a lovely café with sandwiches, cake and excellent coffee. And a small museum worth a look.
I also loved the section from Laugharne to Amroth (Day 23) despite an early stretch on the road. Lots of ups and downs but on lovely grassy paths which made a welcome change from muddy gullies. The path officially routes inland at Amroth beach but I saw the tide was out and decided to walk along the beautiful sands. Downside was that I had to cross a shallow river running across the sand to the sea. As it was the end of my day I got a bit gung-ho and simply strode boldly across it, without worrying about wet feet for the remainder of the day, but hadn’t reckoned on slipping. I fell lock, stock & barrel into the freezing water and to get myself up I had to roll over thereby completely immersing myself!
No-one on the beach took the slightest bit of notice of me, so having stood up again, I felt lucky that the sun was shining brightly as I dripped my way up the slipway to the nearest park bench where I brazenly stripped off to my underwear in front of an elderly couple ensconced in their car and looking out to sea as they munched their sandwiches. I didn’t dare make eye contact with them as I pulled a bag of dry clothes out of a plastic bag in the sopping rucksack and proceeded to dress as quickly as my damp body would let me. I was shivering by now, so made my way to a nearby pub which had a double-sided open fire where I was allowed to both dry my clothes and warm my body. Strangely, I suddenly didn’t fancy the two-mile walk to my bed and ordered a taxi. Was told to wait ninety minutes, so settled in for a drink and when time was up the taxi driver called and said he’d be another hour. So another drink was ordered..but they didn’t serve food..oh well! I fell asleep that night well and truly sozzled. But after all, I was celebrating having reached the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a well-established route, sections of which I already knew and was delighted to revisit. The conch symbol was often absent in this section and replaced by an acorn, the symbol of the much older and better established PCP.
Stackpole Quay and Estate (Day 27) are also worth a mention and perfect for a day’s outing especially with children. The National Trust do a great job maintaining this stunning location and run an excellent café at the Quay. Stackpole’s historic designed landscape is Grade I-listed, full of surprises and a tranquil contrast to the rugged coast. I passed through the Estate to St Govan’s, another lovely village with a pub and tea room. The next day, walking through to St Govan’s Chapel (Day 28) was also a delight as I passed along one of this coast’s most beautiful beaches at Barafundle, which was entirely deserted that morning.
The chapel is a small medieval church tightly tucked between the cliffs at the water’s edge. The day I visited a marriage proposal was taking place – not the first I suspect. A more romantic spot would be hard to find! I wasn’t so keen on the drone filming the event….
The ‘sheep incident’ was definitely one of the strangest things to occur along the WCP
It was a lovely day for the Freshwater West to Angle leg. (Day 31). It started with an egg sandwich slathered in laver bread (seaweed) butter from the fabulous mobile Cafe Môrwhich serves a variety of delectable Welsh-based treats including a vegan burger. We began walking through the dunes and then three sharp inclines and descents, passing lots of small inlets & bays. At the third one, having stopped for a brief rest, I saw the most peculiar sight. A sheep, seemingly stranded, perched on a large rock which had sheer sides from all angles, on the very rocky beach. Very much alive. No idea how she got there. I didn’t call the coastguard till half an hour later when I picked up a weak signal on my phone. They thought I was bonkers but I persisted sensibly and after sending them a geo-located photograph, they were convinced and said they’d notify the local farmers.
A few days later I received the following satisfying message! “The RSPCA responded to our call and attended the scene with the farmer of the land. They recovered the sheep and discovered it had gone down to the rocks to give birth so now has a lamb. Although the sheep is back on dry land at this time, the farmer has informed us that it is very fond of this location on the rocks and has been recovered several times without injury.”
Arriving, eating and staying at the Druidstone Hotel (Day 34) is always a highlight and did not fail to impress on this occasion. It stands at the sea edge above St Bride’s Bay and offers a range of accommodation from camping in the summer, a tiny eco-lodge, bunk rooms (I had the cheapest at £60 for two) right through to exec-type suites and everything in-between, including self-catering cottages. Even if you never stay – do go there for a drink in the basement bar or the terrace with its fabulous view over the sea and sands below.
The next night was also a culinary high – we dined at the Cwtch* in St David’s, the smallest cathedral city in Britain. Between us we ate lobster, rabbit and turbot. NB: Cwtch is Welsh for a loving safe place in a room or in people’s hearts.
Pwll Deri Youth Hostel (Day 38) is probably in the most spectacular location of any hostel in the UK. I walked alone from Abermawr and the scenery was majestic. The path eventually disappeared as I scrambled up and over the craggy Carn Ogof from where I spotted my destination in the distance perched on the side of the cliff.
I was very glad to have booked a room to myself and after watching the sunset from my bedroom window I had an early night.
I was proud of myself this once as I heard from the volunteer wardens the next day that since they’d been there, I was the only one who had actually come in and out of the hostel on foot. Everyone else was touring by car.
Early on I discovered official coast path signs reading “What! No Coast?” – they constitute what I came to call the Welsh Coast Path Con. Basically the WCP is a work in progress and it needs more work. For one reason or another the path is routed inland more often than one would hope and frequently through unattractive industrial areas, tediously lengthy outskirts of towns or along busy dual carriageways. So I took a decision early on to only ‘walk the coast’. After all, that was what I signed up for – right? So whenever I came to a shitty bit or an estuary where I was routed inland one side and then out to the coast the other, if the path was not in view of the water, I took a bus or cab or hitched to the bridge to walk to the other side. (For the record, this happened five times.)
Many of the lows came from the workings of my mind! There were plenty of days when I simply did not ‘feel like’ walking. And I did it anyway. Then there were the times I wanted to stop walking because I was tired or bored or lonely or in pain or…well, there was always a reason! Once I’d started, I found one strategy for keeping going was to count to ten over and over again. Usually after a few minutes or so, I’d get through the resistance. It was important though to recognise when it really wasn’t wise to go on. One morning I woke up with a fever, felt shivery and a bit dizzy and was expecting company the next day. After two hours of struggle I hitched a lift with a couple of potato farmers to the nearest village and asked at the lovely Marloes Village Store, Café and Post Office if I could settle in for a few hours, explaining that I was under the weather. They were super friendly and accommodating and produced great coffee and a baked potato for me even though it wasn’t on the menu. I spent four hours there resting and catching up on emails and doing the cryptic crossword. I felt disappointed because Marloes Head is one of the finest stretches of Pembrokeshire coast. Still, I can look forward to going back to complete it.
There was a sadness to the day I walked with David Gardner from Trefin to Pwll Deri (Day 38), as a couple of holiday makers were dashing around the area trying to find their elderly terrier Fido who had gone missing on the Coast Path the day before. I heard, a few days later, that he had been found and retrieved from the rocks below but had not survived. Dogs really need to be kept on the lead in this environment not only for their own safety, as there are loads of tempting rabbit and badger holes near the cliff edge, but also to protect the sheep which roam freely and at this time of year have vulnerable small lambs.
People have asked me lots of questions, some of which may have been answered already.
To the question “what did you learn’? I say that I learned that I have grit. I suspected as much but had never really tested myself. Now, on the other hand, I am acquainted with some serious walkers, including my beloved Tim Burford, and I’m sure they must be bemused by the outpouring of encouragement and respect and support and praise given to me on Facebook for something which to them may seem rather common-place and unremarkable. But for me, it was hard. And I came to the conclusion that while I enjoy walking for a day or so at a time … or even a tad longer, I am not at heart a real walker. I’d imagined that by the end of the 41 days I’d be feeling fitter and full of enjoyment of the terrain and scenery. The truth is I felt exhausted and franky blasé about ‘another nice view’ and dreaded the long hours (often seven a day) of putting one foot in front of the other. I learned that I can keep myself company with pleasure but that I like a regular dose of other people and mercifully, that is what I got.
So you might think I regret it. Not at all. My mind has an interesting trick of remembering the good times more than the bad ones. I’m grateful for that. So will I complete the walk? Absolutely! In 2018 I intend to walk from Chester to Cardigan anti-clockwise this time, to ring the changes, and will have the sea to my right for a change! And I’m not going to do it all in one go. I’ll do a week or so at a time and factor in rest days. And I hope people will join me too.
I’ve been asked “What did you think about?” Well, it’s no different to any other day except that more often I found myself thinking about the discomforts. The best strategy then was to focus on the sensations of being present beyond the aches and pains. The light, the colour, the wind, the sun, the sounds. I used all my senses to embrace the whole experience rather than focus on the bits of misery. I didn’t make any momentous decisions nor receive any great moments of enlightenment. But then, I hadn’t set out to.
Some people wondered “Why didn’t you get sponsored?”. That’s an easy one…I wanted to be free and not beholden to anyone. Nevertheless, a couple of people have said they’d like to sponsor me retrospectively and I’d be delighted if they donate to any charity of their choice. Thanks!!
My top walks
Below I’ve listed my top walks and then the ones I do not consider at all worthwhile unless you too are going to complete the whole route for whatever reason! In no particular order.
1. Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (7 miles) described above.
2. Caswell Bay to Oxwich (8 miles) Wild spring flowers in abundance – the route is varied with lots of ups and downs, far-ranging coastal views, wooded valleys and a long section through the dunes. Three Cliffs Bay is stunning and if you get there at the right time of day you can cross the river on the stepping stones. Then there are lovely marshes at the end.
3. Oxwich to Rhossili (11 miles) Shaded woodland hugging the coast emerges onto a broad close-cropped grassy path overhung by majestic stone outcrops with a great view of the Worm’s Head. Lots of remote beaches and fab rock formations. 4. Llansteffan to St Clears (12 miles) Varied terrain starting at the very end of the beach at Llansteffan. With an incoming tide we only just managed to reach the steps up in time. Wonderful, truly coastal, path along a well-maintained track with views back to the Worm’s Head and to Tenby ahead. We had a section through National Trust land with more great views over the Taf estuary towards Laugharne and up to St Clears. Then into a huge field where we stopped at a conveniently positioned fallen tree and ate our lunch at leisure marvelling at the lack of road between ourselves and the river and no people or boats to be seen for miles. We proceded past a goose farm where the farmer chatted to us about the strange types who follow the Coast Path. One died on in the bog, another was found wandering around talking to himself and was admitted to hospital. He advised us re avoiding said bog and said we were welcome to picnic by the nearby quarry with the locals in the summer. We hugged the edge of the field which was badly littered as it was also the high tide mark and then were taken into a lovely wood carpeted with celandine.
5. The whole section from Stackpole East to St Govan’s Chapel is superb. 6. St Bride’s Bay to Druidstone (8 miles) with lunch at the pub at Little Haven. 7. Solva to Whitesands Bay (13 miles) includes St Non’s chapel and Porthclais harbor with its National Trust kiosk selling yummy cakes. St Justinian’s has a section where the water looks like a boiling cauldron, the water being whipped up by the combo of tide, wind and current over the rocks known locally as the Bitches! 8. Whitesands Bay to Porthgain (12 miles) Varied terrain with some bigger climbs as the rocks and cliffs become larger and more dramatic. There’s an ice-cream van at Abereiddy and some lime-kiln remains to shelter for a nap! 9. Porthgain to Pwll Deri (8 miles), as described above.
10. Fishguard to Poppit Sands (29 miles) My old stomping ground as a young mother. Includes the wonderful Dinas Head, the Sailor’s Safety at Pwllgwaelod for fresh seafood, Cwm yr Eglwys – one of the prettiest beaches with rock pools and a ruined church, the stunning estuary at the Parrog in Newport and the Witches’ Cauldron, a spectacular blow hole near Ceibwr Bay. Finally, Poppit Sands with its dunes and lovely café and the EU-funded Poppit Rocket bus which ferries walkers back along the coast.
My worst walks
1. Chepstow to Redwick (16 miles) lots of walking along the levee and two detours over the M4 to avoid firing ranges.
2. Redwick to Newport (15 miles) Too many deviations inland off the coast, going round private properties, and lots more repetitive levee culminating in industrial terrain with power stations.
3. Newport to Cardiff (13 miles) Uninspiring back streets of Newport leading back to the levee. 4. Barry to Llantwit Major (14 miles) Too many miles walking inland again and then an unreasonably long bit along the edge of a muddy turnip field.
5. Angle to Pembroke (9 miles) Whilst Angle is very pretty the main body of the walk involves one prolonged view of the Milford Haven Refinery on the other side of the estuary.
There was also a significant amount of path on tarmacked country roads. No pit stops or nice places to rest either.
I decided to use miles as although they are longer, somehow in my mind, the fact that there were fewer of them helped me psychologically. Go figure! I needed all the help I could get and help I did indeed get both in the form of friends who joined me for as little as an hour to those who walked with me for days and, in one case, a week!!
407.7 miles completed between 13 March and 23 April 2017. 9.94 miles average day’s walk.
18/41 nights in B&Bs 3/41 AirB&B 2/41 in Youth Hostels 18/41 with friends
Fauna seen: Marsh Harrier (Oxwich Marsh) Red Kite, Pied wagtail, Egret and Grey Heron (Rhossili) Pheasant & Red Admirals, Brown Fritillary (Laugharne) Peregrine Falcon & Choughs (Trefin)
Georgia and Josh & friends in Cardiff who distracted me from my aches & pains for an evening and gave me and Joe a bed each to sleep in.
Cressida Leigh in Swansea who popped down to my hotel at very short notice so I didn’t dine alone.
Andrew, and Debbie who laid on a feast and brought me wine in the bath and whose dogs treated me to a foot lick massage, all this and in the ‘posh end of Barry’ no less (as informed by FB geolocation services!).
Sue Wright in Llantwit Major where I spent two nights which had absolutely nothing to do with prosecco in the hot tub each evening, Sue’s fabulous cooking and the lifts to and fro. It had everything to do with an enduring friendship!
Diana Benjamin, my cousin, who brought Mum down to stay in her Gower flat so I could take her out for Mother’s Day lunch and who also accommodated me on the sofa.
Janice Williams who scooped Karen and me out of the rain and took us back to her lovely farmhouse near Carmarthen.
Sara & Squidge in Martletwy – thanks to Squidge for the fine dining and chauffeur services..much appreciated from a man with clearly many other things to keep him busy!
Selena and Roger for trusting me with Llanteg for a night.
Sophie and David Wellan who gave me and Peter such comfy places to sleep.
Imogen and Stephen Castle who gave me a key to their home and included me into their family routine for three days including Stephen’s gig.
Stuart and AnneFreeman who waited up, cooked for me and put me in front of a cosy fire.
Charley and Seb Garman who had us to stay with their easy & fine hospitality, despite having a number of pressing things to attend to. And to Tanya for cake and lasagne.
Lesley & Peter Fletcher who welcomed us so warmly at their swanky Pavilion café at Penrallt Ceibwr.
Robby Coles who linked up with us at Castlemartin and provided his freshly baked bread and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
Thanks to those who accompanied me:
Joe Smithfor getting me going and keeping me motivated for the first four hard long days in an uninspiring landscape and drizzly, grey weather.
Selena Vane who popped up unexpectedly in Barry and walked a bit before inviting me over to her future mother-in-law’s for tea.
Andrew Derrick who stoically walked with me through a longish day of mizzle and kept my spirits up before catching a train home. And on my last evening caught fresh sea-bass for dinner. Yum!
Sue Wrightwho managed to fall over in deep wet mud within half an hour of joining me and instead of turning round, rolled in the wet grass to clean up (a bit) and gamely continued for a further few hours!
Karen Bellfrom Cornwall who came for a week! Great & cheerful company through the most drizzly and trying days.
Sara Lloyd-Morriswho walked and talked with me more than once and brought with her gin and freshly smoked salmon amongst other culinary delights.
Freddie Rileywho accompanied me to Laugharne where we had a picnic, courtesy of Robbie Coles, below the castle with the family, to celebrate Josh’s birthday.
Tim Burford who came for breakfast with me at Dylan Thomas’ old watering hole and joined me for Dylan’s Birthday Walk (as part of his research for the Rough Guide to Wales) and also linked up at Castlemartin military range a month or so later.
Sophie Wellanfor bringing Sky the dog, great chats and setting a pace when I was flagging
ImogenClarke who walked out of her comfort zone to get me on my way.
Julian Peckwho came all the way from Cambridge (and thanks to Katherine Ireson for graciously ‘lending’ him to me for two days). And Marc Bailey (also from Cambridge) for jolly company and not complaining about my snoring in the bottom bunk. And for lending me his rucksack.
Stuart Freeman who did a few hours with me over a couple of days and took me up a beautiful sweeping valley parallel to the coast before turning back across the mountain for home.
Al Brunker & Sara-Jane who joined us on the walk to the Druidstone – AND walked all the way back. Respect!! Oh yes, and who also provided home-baked fruitcake.
David Gardner for great conversation and his expertise in identifying birdlife.
Last but not least Peter Knight who with patience and good cheer accommodated my flagging energy and found the joy in each day.
The first place I went to research a guidebook was Romania, in the spring of 1991, and after writing two editions of the Bradt Hiking Guide I continued as author of the Rough Guide to Romania, still somehow trundling along with new editions to this day.
My first professional contact with the Rough Guides was when I went to Portugal in 1992 with a second-hand copy of the guide and sent back detailed notes, which they found useful enough to offer me a free book for my next trip – so when I went to Morocco at the end of 1992 I sent in a good load of information on Marrakech and hiking in the Anti-Atlas. When I returned to Morocco in March 2016 I took that 1993 4th edition (we also took a 2013 Footprint Dream Trip guide which was quite adequate for current info), and I was reminded how very good the RGs were in those days. My notes from that first Morocco trip led to my working on the RG to Romania, a satisfying experience at first as the country transformed itself (with countless detours and delays) from a post-communist mess into a more modern mess, but an experience that became depressing as each edition was cut, cut, cut – just as the tourist offer was expanding in volume and variety. The Morocco book had a particularly good Contexts section at the rear with extracts from literature by Moroccans and about Morocco – the sort of thing that’s ideal for long bus rides, but long since lost from guidebooks. For the most recent (7th) edition of Romania, researched in late 2015 and published in 2016, we had to endure a re-design of the text, breaking it up with extra headings so that – suprise surprise! – more information had to be cut (while finding space for all the new URLs, more detailed opening hours, both English and Romanian names for all museums etc). Hard and tedious work – and it was quite a shock to return to the 1993 Morocco guide, and then a month later the 1997 RG to Tuscany & Umbria, to see how much information and added insight they were able to give – even if we couldn’t really see the difference between the zellig designs in the various medersas, it was good to know about it.
To give a bit more detail, the text has been broken up into app-friendly nuggets – each given its own heading, followed by a line with practical details (often just a two-word street address) – then the name is repeated (in English and Romanian) in the text below. So on the one hand there’s pointless repetition, and on the other any nugget that doesn’t reach about 30 words has to be either puffed up with flannel or cut. Likewise, hotel and restaurant/café listings have to be 30 words, or be cut – passing mentions in running text are now banned. The upshot is that the redesign – which we were promised would actually save space – actually needs more space, and leads to the text being cut ruthlessly. Of course, as always in this image-hungry world, there are lots of glossy photos. And this is a book that has been trimmed in all the preceding editions – there was no fat left to lose, while there was lots of new material, especially in Transylvania. Space could be saved by using single instead of double quotation marks, by writing eg p.154-5 and 1946-7 instead of p.154-55 and 1946-47 etc (that adds up over the length of a book), but the design is sacrosanct. The Rough Guides have always taken a much more mechanistic and formulaic approach than other publishers I’ve worked with, but this time there really was almost no wiggle room.
The official view was that the redesign would actually save space, but there would also be ‘counterbalancing cuts’, though I have no idea what these were: ‘To achieve the desired extent in other titles, we’ve depended on the counterbalancing cuts mentioned in synopses, in tandem with the slight shrinkage naturally brought about by the redesign’.
I hate this not simply because valuable information is being lost, but because it’s a shift towards a more metropolitan style of tourism where people rush from one honeypot to another in search of third-wave coffee. The redesign did seem to work for Wales, but the thing about Maramureş and Transylvania is that it’s all about the villages, and often there isn’t a single specific sight. If we have to delete every place that doesn’t have the requisite number of cappuccino outlets it ends up like every other guide to towns and other tourist hotspots. Now we can’t even write ‘the road from A to B passes through C, where there’s a nice church and a couple of guesthouses, and a lovely unrushed rural lifestyle.’ – now it all has to be pumped up into full listings, or cut. So people’s livelihoods in sustainable, community-based businesses are jeopardised, and the tourist experience just gets duller.
Rough Guides (now part of Penguin-Random House) is progressively buying out authors’ copyrights, so that we now receive a fee rather than royalties. This shouldn’t have changed our status, but increasingly the payments department in particular is treating authors on a level with suppliers of office toilet paper, in a faceless bureaucratic maze where we’re threatened with non-payment if we don’t use exactly the right format for our invoices – and I was sent just one copy of the finished book until I demanded a second (an oversight, apparently). Authors are no longer expected to check the proofs – but thank goodness I did see them for indexing, as there were quite a few errors still in the text, given the last-minute rush after the lengthy to-and-fro trying to decide what really had to be cut. The fact that the layout and cartography are now done in Delhi didn’t help.
Given the general atmosphere of doom and gloom in guidebook publishing since the 2008 crash and the rise of smartphone apps to replace dead-tree guidebooks, we were a bit surprised that a new edition of Romania was commissioned at all, and there was never much chance of getting space for all the new tourism developments in the country – so I may have been unreasonable in trying so desperately to fit all the new stuff in while not hacking out too much existing text. No-one is as dedicated as me to going through text word by word (several times) to make it as tight as possible, but it was never going to work.
Anyway – the upshot of a process in which each edition looks prettier but contains less useful information is that over 80 villages were cut from this latest edition. From the Transylvania chapter these are: Moeciu, Fundata, Cloaşterf, Sâmbata Monastery, Cisnădioara, Răşinari, Săcel, Miercurea Sibiului, Slimnic, Ocna Sibiului, Sebeş (actually a fairly significant town), Lăzarea, Brâncoveneşti, Hodac and Gurghiu, Cernat de Jos, Zalánpatak, Băile Homorod, Vlăhiţa, Stejărişu, Buru, Ocoliş, Bucium Poieni, Beliş, Călata, Călăţele, Mănăstireni, Fildu de Sus, Hida, Cizer, Leşu, Beclean, Coşbuc, Năsăud and the whole of the Someş Mare valley (Sângeorz-Bai, Rodna and Şanţ) and the Bârgău valley (Livezele, Josenii Bârgăului, Prundu Bârgăului, Tiha Bârgăului and the Tihuţa Pass). But we’ve added the delightful villages of Richiş, Moşna and Alma Vii.
Now I’m not saying that some of these places didn’t need to make way for newer ones, or in a general process of streamlining, but I do want to make the information available in the somewhat more elastic space of the internet. I’m posting a selection of accounts of Transylvanian villages in this post – some updated, some not, and all shorn of their context. I’ll come to the rest of Romania in another post.