Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Poem for Europe - Home in Transit

The stopover in Zagreb, where I met Josip, was part of a longer journey, from Belgrade to Trieste. I wrote about Belgrade and this journey, which took place several years ago, in a story titled Mirror City, which is included in the book of travel articles Open Roads and Secret Destinations, published by Bibliotheca Universalis, Bucharest, 2016

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Cumbria Pastoral 2

Despite my fears of the cold I’m quite warm enough in the little tent, and sleep well. I’m up early and set off walking at 7am. One mile to the road end at Cumwitton, then two miles – this time along the right road – to Great Corby and Wetheral. Where I’m sure there will be a café. The moon’s still visible in the sky 

and the day feels so fresh, the sun so – new and quiet as if no-one has really noticed it yet, it moves through the sky, a peaceable blue, and an as yet undiscovered morning. Lucky me, to be able to share this secret and this light, with the sun. 

And this morning, early and privileged to share this time with the sun, the dew on the grass and fields, the fields with wheat, the fields with cut grass not yet collected and put in the deep-sided trailers pulled by the tractors with the enormous wheels that thunder up the narrow roads, the bare fields, stubble fields, and the fallow fields, with reddish-pink flowers and the regular grass fields that the cows graze in or sit in, cud-chewing, all of these are dew-covered and witness the early sun, that so few people have noticed yet.

And walking in this early morning, joy sidles into me, not suddenly but slowly, it moves into me, with the rhythm of walking and the quiet of morning, only a few cars pass. Beech trees and sycamores rustle in wind. Willow trees sprout from the hedges. Green beeches and copper ones and purple-leaved ones and hybrids of greenish brown. But the walking is hard. And I think – I have to come back, as well.

Great Corby has an old red-stone square, charming old houses. It’s not far to the level crossing and there’s a path running beside the train tracks, to Wetheral. 

A pedestrian walkway beside the rail bridge and the most wonderful view – Best-View Bridge – over the river Eden.

Then the small station. 

And I cross over the bridge and up to the Posting Pot cafe, adjacent to the Post Office.

After walking three miles you really appreciate your first coffee of the day. I’m amazed at how much better I feel after coffee and scrambled eggs on toast. Strength comes back to me and I enjoy walking now, another two miles along a small road that meets up with the river near Warwick Bridge.

From there, I take a bus to the small town of Brampton. I’m on a roll now, and I walk up a hill overlooking the town 

and then on along the Ridgeway, through a glorious wood of beech trees. 


I would have liked to walk further, but I know that once I’m back at Warwick Bridge, I have another 5 mile walk to get home. And on the way back, I go over the railway bridge to Wetheral again, just to see that magnificent view of the river.

Well, not just for that reason, but to get another coffee from the Posting Pot. And then a short walk to see Saint Cuthbert’s Well. 

And between Great Corby and Cumwitton there’s a signposted path which I take, to get away from walking on the road. But no-one seems to have walked this way in a long time, it’s hardly a path, it’s the edge of a field, covered with long grasses, plants and nettles. 

Towards the end of this 'path' it goes alongside a field with a horse in it.

Nearly home now. Just a mile and a half to go.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Cumbria Pastoral 1

I’d recommend Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her writing around the theme of walks, journeys and life stories is hugely enjoyable. 

Before I left home to go camping, a friend offered me a compass. I decided in the end not to take it with me (I have a detailed map, I’d hardly need a compass, so I thought!) But had I taken it and used it, then I might have realised I was walking in the opposite direction from where I believed I was going. I kept consulting the detailed Ordinance Survey map. Not a very good map I thought, it doesn’t show this road going off on the right, or the place shown on the signpost and I should have reached this fork in the road ages ago, surely?

I was up early that morning, heading for a campsite in Great Corby, Cumbria. As soon as the sun comes up over the hill the morning becomes warm and welcoming as the light arrives all at once, a layer of gold on the garden grass. And it’s still, no wind, a good morning for setting off. It feels like autumn really, that chill in the air, those lengthening shadows on the grass, the flicker of red among the long grasses, a docken leaf turns scarlet. And there are a few coy raspberries and brambles turning pinky-red before they become deep-purple glossy.

I’d spoken on the phone to the lady at the camping site and explained I was arriving by bus. Then your nearest stop to Great Corby she said will be Warwick Bridge. I’d missed an important piece of information though I didn’t know it then. The journey of a few hours, with gaps in between waiting for connections (giving time for coffee) was in glorious sunshine. I got off the bus at Warwick Bridge and found a small road signposted to Burnrigg. I checked with a passing pedestrian who assured me the road would take me to Great Corby. I should take the right fork after Burnrigg, the road would turn into a path and I’d need to cross the railway, and then I’d be there. It’s a couple of miles though he says, looking doubtfully at my rucksack.

But I was prepared for that, the sun keeps shining, the road is quiet, the path is lined with trees

and once I’ve crossed the railway 

I soon arrive in Great Corby, which is a loose arrangement of a few large houses with big gardens and I spy someone loading his car and ask him if he knows where the caravan site is. He does, and says it’s about 3 miles away in Cumwhitton. This is when I realise I clearly got something wrong, I remember the lady mentioning Cumwhitton but it had not really registered in my mind.

My pack is heavy but there are no buses and it seems I’ll just have to keep going. And then the man says that he’ll give me a lift, which he does, and I am so grateful for this. I check in at the site, put up the tent, have some lunch and decide I will walk back the way I had been driven, now unencumbered by rucksack and tent, to explore Great Corby and possibly Wetheral, on the other side of the river Eden.

And this is when I got lost though I didn’t realise it until I reached a signpost and couldn’t find any of these places on the map. It was only because the name of the crossroads was marked – Hornsby Gate – that made me realise that I had walked in the opposite direction to the one I intended to walk in. 

So I walked back.

Several roaring trumpeting tractors swing round corners with trailers of cut grass, dust rising from their massive wheels. 


Back in the village of Cumwitton, I visit the churchyard. All the gravestones look in one direction – towards the dales. In the other direction the view is blocked by old houses and tall trees. The older original stones on either side of the church are the same red-brown or ochre coloured sandstone as the church building itself. These tall thin stones, some of them lean forward or to one side, or both. Some are gnarled and near illegible with lichen and with some, the soft stone has rounded the edges of the letters, as if trying to make the occupant – or perhaps memory, who knows? - feel more comfortable.

The church bell chimes and it’s so loud and close and sudden, it makes me jump. Glancing over I think I see a motionless figure in profile, head slightly bowed, standing by the side of the church.

But it turns out to be green-verdigris stones close together and the round carved decoration of another slab, flush with the church wall and half hidden by a spindly obelisk. 

Graveyards are often peaceful – this one is. Perhaps it’s as much to do with what people bring here and leave at the church gate, as with the restfulness of the dead. We bring sweetness usually or melancholy, sadness, wistfulness and some kind of respect even if we do not know for what – giving it various names none of which define the mystery that we don’t know about – or say we don’t. A cloak of absence – a kind of self-forgetfulness, self-abnegation, covers the well-cropped, well-tended graveyard grass.

Further down the slope, the stones are smaller, shorter, most are shades of grey granite, one or two black. 

A white butterfly dashes past, in late afternoon sunlight.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

'There are more things in heaven and earth...'

The Forth & Clyde Canal

‘There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy’

Cloud formations were like brief sketches all the more striking for their few bold lines against the blue of sky. One looked as if a rope of cloud had been flattened twisted and smeared across the blue expanse. Another slim rope shot up vertically with one or 2 breaks or segment joins, like some eager celestial plant. Ah good sign I thought, I was up early to catch the bus into Edinburgh and from there, the train to Falkirk. To the Conference on UFOs and the Paranormal. I’m fascinated by unusual experiences – both my own and those of other people – that don’t fit into conventional interpretations of the world.

Afterwards we walked along the Forth and Clyde Canal. 


I would take Shakespeare’s meaning of ‘philosophy’ to be not just our ideas or even our beliefs but the totality of our understanding of what we call reality. This understanding anchors our sense of self, who we are as a being, to the world all around us that we inhabit – nature, social reality, our interactions with others. But sometimes the most basic assumptions of what our reality is and how it works can be not just altered but blown apart. This was the case with Sacha, one of the speakers who had had such an unnerving experience complete with a sense of unreality that she had spent the years since then, trying to find answers to what had happened to her.

Shakespeare did say ‘heaven and earth’.

And Rainer Maria Rilke said ‘Jeder Engel ist schrecklich’ (every angel is terrifying)

Alyson Dunlop gave instances, experiences – of her own and of others – of being helped by non-visible energies, that some call angels. All these are positive and uplifting. However, she encountered dark energies as well. Whatever your reaction to the names of Archangels – Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel – they can be called upon in time of need. Whatever your belief system, construct of understanding of the world or cosmos we inhabit. 

Innes Smith is intrigued by our belief systems. What makes us believe what we do? Although we may talk about evidence he says, what some call evidence is not accepted by others – it is not an agreed term. And sometimes professional scientists have dismissed evidence which is statistically significant, because they cannot reconcile it with their current belief systems.

The Romans were here a long time ago: part of the Antonine wall

Beliefs and perceptions are changeable. Unless we have coated them with a layer of glue – which can lead to the ‘this is how it is and I am right’ kind of thinking.

It seems to me it is possible that perception follows belief. How much of our perceived reality is a construct? After all, if we take the perception of vision, the brain interprets what is seen, it doesn’t simply record what the eye sees. This construct is necessary of course for us to participate in our lives as humans, in our groups, families, societies, friendships, and in the natural world too that we inhabit. And if we can consciously change what we believe – and that is perfectly possible, if we repeat for example, a positive statement, such as thankfulness or gratitude –  can we not then change our perceptions and then alter our feelings, thoughts and actions, and too, the effect we have on others?

Why do we believe what we do, what draws us to this belief or that one? Perhaps that’s a long and deep question. Perhaps we identify with one or another and so, like external territory that belongs to us, we will defend it – with ridicule of other beliefs, or emotional aggression or worse.

It seems to me that it’s best to wear our perceived reality loosely, so there’s room for alteration, so there is room in a loose weave consciousness, for light to come through.

And so much light to be grateful for.

The sky on the walk back home was also spectacular, with coloured clouds around the recently disappeared sun, and the full moon rising in the opposite side of the sky.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Kos Past and Present

This article (without the images) on Kos past and present appears in full in Scottish Review

Spending a few days on the Greek island of Kos has involved seeing a lot of ruins. The main one was the Asklepeion, a temple dating from the fourth century BC where healing and medicine were practised by Hippocrates among others. There are several Asklepeia in Greece, named after Asklepios the God (or demi-god to be precise) of healing dreams, and this is one of the largest ones. People would travel long distances to these temples and after ablutions, fasting and prayer to Asklepios, would spend the night there, hoping for a dream that would indicate a cure for their illness.
Steps up to the Asklepeion
Other ruins and mosaics were in the Western Excavations near the Odeon. 

And the ruins of the Ancient Agora, in Kos town centre, close to the harbour. This is a vast excavation area, including a lot more than a marketplace. The oldest parts date from the 3rd century BC and there are the remains of a shrine to Aphrodite and a later Christian Basilica dating from the 5th century. 

Once again, lying on the ground are massive stone pillars broken into pieces, and beautifully carved capitals. What is more startling is to come across mosaics, half hidden by the long grass. These are mostly fragments but there is one complete one of a rather pensive looking bird. 

What strikes me about these stone ruins is that they don’t seem to have aged at all. Perhaps it’s the quality of the stone or the dryness of the atmosphere or both, but these stones look as though they could have been thrown there just a few years ago. They’re surrounded by long dried grasses and prickly plants that scratch your legs as you walk through them – though some paths have been worn by numerous feet – and colourful wild flowers dotted among the grass. The dense growth of these fearsomely sharp and spiny yellow stalks are nothing like the feathery soft green vegetation that we call grass.

After admiring all these broken and scattered stone remains and braving the scratchy undergrowth, all in hot sunshine, I felt it was time to increase my knowledge in the cool interior of the Archaeological Museum in Plateia Eleftherias in Kos town centre.

platia Eleftherias, Kos town

But when I reached the outer gates of this building there was a handwritten note pinned to them, in Greek and English, saying that it was closed today (17th May) because of a national strike. As I walked away I noticed a small crowd gathering in the square just opposite the Museum....

You can read the rest of this article here

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Kos, the bird, and Saint Phanourios

Image credit:www.kosisland.gr

Kos is shaped like a bird, leaning down into the sea. Perhaps it's looking for food or for another of its own kind. It may be gazing at its own reflection but I think it's looking beyond that, right down into the depths of the sea, mesmerized by what it sees.

Northern coast

Near Kefalos, barley field in high wind

The brown eye in the centre of its head, in profile, is Mount Theologis. But I discover as I cycle along the road that this mountain is a series of pine covered peaks and the road to Agios Ioannis winds its way through them. Sometimes you look out over the northern sea sometimes the southern one, as the road climbs ever higher, in a series of switchbacks.

The bird's neck is narrow, it looks to be only about two or three kilometers wide and at one point you look out over the bay and you can see across the neck to the sea on the other side. 

South coast (right) and north coast (on the horizon)

Then the road slips round another peak and it’s the northern shore you see. Some visual illusion makes this sea look as if it climbs halfway up the sky, its horizon is higher than you are.  

At the edge of the narrow road the ground drops precipitously and at some points I have to look away, look straight ahead to avoid even looking at the sea because that is to be aware of the cavernous gulf that lies between me and it. The wind is fierce and makes a howling noise as if it doesn't like me being there, it moans and pushes me across the narrow road whose surface has partially crumbled away turning it into a track littered with small stones. I clutch the handlebars grimly because I know how dangerous stones on the road can be.

The end of the track is the headland and the bird's head, the end of the island where the two seas meet. It feels like the end of the world, stony, desolate, deserted. Something about this place makes me uneasy.

Now, back home and safe on my balcony, I think I recognise the feeling. Then, I did not, for that is part of its strangeness. You don't recognise it or yourself. It’s a feeling of creeping alienation and I've felt it before. This is Pan's world and it's not the friendly nature that we live with, that we've planted, tended, shaped and watered, encouraged to grow and delighted in its green flourishing.

I pedal fast back along the windy ledge of road and once I reach the switchbacks it takes no time at all to swoop down them and when I reach the pine wood and the little shaded water tap in a clearing by the side of the road with a row of colourful beehives just above it, it feels welcoming and protective. I am so glad to be back in the outskirts of Kefalos. 

The other road from Kefalos leads to this little church, in a landscape of spiny bushes, shrubs and wild thyme. It's as if no one has ever visited it since the ending of the last story and the door was closed. Something stirs a faint memory - of this other life, this other story. And  at the same time it's as if someone has just left, there are slim brown beeswax candles burning and a feeling of presence. Time vanishes like a burst bubble.

What you thought lost in the past, you rediscover here. This feeling is as different from the one in Pan’s domain, as it could be. This is welcoming, rediscovery, expansion of awareness and memory. The feeling of being blessed.

I wrote the above while I was sitting outside this church, underneath the little tree whose branches you can see in the photograph. There was a small white chair provided. 

And though there were many icon paintings in this little church, I only took a photograph of this one, as it caught my attention. 

I knew nothing about the saint and it’s only now, back home, that I look him up. It turns out that Agios Phanourios is ‘The Revealer’. An icon of him was first discovered in Rhodos (or Cyprus) in a pristine condition in 14th or 15th century AD.

Orthodoxwiki says:
'Saint Phanourios has become famous for assisting the faithful in revealing lost or hidden spiritual matters of the heart, objects, directing or revealing actions that should be taken, restoring health and similar situations.'

Another image of him:

Photo credit: omhksea.org

I went to Kos specifically to visit the Asklepion (which I’ll write about later). But it was beside this little deserted church at the southernmost tip of the island (or near the top of the bird’s head ) that I felt this sense of peace, presence and blessing.