Stage One – The jump – Harwich to Hoek of Holland – (travelling from UK to NZ overland and sea)

(‘Arrich to ‘Oek of ‘Olland)

Walking beside the beach (?) looking over to Harwich Port
Walking beside the beach (?) looking to Harwich Port

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

After arriving by train to Harwich International (at the port) I found my quaint Bnb five minutes away. Don’s dining room featured, amongst other treasures: Gainsborough-esque prints hung in golden curlicue frames from the wooden-panelling walls, an Australian-shaped clock on the mantlepiece, different-sized elephants trumpeting, a metal swan, a large wooden African mask, a teddy bear in velveteen dungarees eating from a felt honey pot (I could tell because of the little bees), a Greek vase, countless other vases from other lands, all topped by a little, old, framed photo of a curly, haired terrier, solitary and plucky on top of the shelf.

Beach huts surrounding the playing fields at Harwich
Fringe of beach huts containing the playing fields at Harwich

Harwich might be a bit bleak in cold weather but I was lucky enough to be there on a cheerful sunny day.

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Part VI – UK to NZ overland … The gathering

Contrails over Brighton Beach UK
Contrails over Brighton Beach UK

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Quick update: I have been granted an electronic NZ Endorsement, which I don’t need to print out. I trust the server will keep those records safe. Thanks, NZ Immigration!

Finishing up my summer teaching with Kings Education Brighton (I don’t know how I could have attempted this journey without Stephen’s support, thanks Boss DOS!) I moved to London for a couple of days to gather myself together.

A few chores and little shopping things: I wanted to get some currency, euros, roubles etc, just small change, so that if I needed a taxi or something on arrival in a country I wouldn’t have to panic looking for a bank. I found a cache of Money Changers nested close together around the Leicester Square Tube, near Covent Garden. It was raining. I went from window to window to compare rates and was informed that, yes, it was a good idea but I should have organised it three or four days earlier. They have to order in the different currencies. I could call back in the afternoon when they would have enough euros and possibly some yuan but unlikely roubles or zlotys. Every morning they start afresh.

Here is the lesson. If you want to go overland start thinking ahead. Minimum three months to get the ship and the visas and now, three days for the currencies!

Time for a quiet walk in a London park …

Regents Park
Regents Park

and an orange fog

fog from Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at The Tate Modern
In this installation from Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, at The Tate Modern, I could not see more than a couple of metres in front of me. It tasted sweet.
What would be ahead of me in my journey across the world?
Check out his https://littlesun.com/

and Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath with a British magpie
See the magpie?

to see a seminar in the How the Light Gets in Festival called Modern Crises and Ancient Gods. The speakers were Baroness Natalie Bennett and Roger Hallam (absent due to arrest), Sir David King and Sister Jayanti with moderator, David Malone.

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What the flight?!! UK to NZ Part V

An English woman, a New Zealander and an Australian walked into a bar.

Wait!

They were all ME!

Augra, Dark Crystal, The Resistance @ BFI, London
Oooops. That’s Aughra.
Victoria Osborne
This is me. Blocking really cool street art in Brighton

And, it being a Brighton bar, I had a delicious vegan roast lunch.

Seven Stars Sunday Roast Brighton
Perfectly cooked greens at Seven Stars. And the rest was pretty good, too! Sunday Roast Brighton

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Whenever I saw ‘Contact’ on an email I felt sick. It would be from my shipping company. I would not open it until I was in a safe place and able to deal with their harsh reality. I felt like a moth fluttering against a window; unseen and incomprehensible barrier. Why did their company take such an unreasonable line?

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Real Russia – the real support system for a trip OVERLAND from UK to the Antipodes! Part IV

Central contrail cuts the blue sky over the roof of a passing train
Contrail splits the sky over a passing train

Welcome to my flygskam overland journey!

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found Real Russia, or rather, to have the Man in Seat 61 tell me about them. After only a quick enquiry, Anastasia took charge of my visas while Christine became my ticket gurini, setting me up with a tracking page so I could see at a glance where I was up to. (If I could find the link.) Both were based in Russia, in the south, in Volgograd (former Stalingrad) so I wouldn’t be able to meet them this trip. But I am so grateful to them.

Anastasia gave me a good talking to about filling in the required visa forms (Belarus, Mongolia, Russia and China) ASAP. They’re all arranged via the Real Russia website. I spent two late nights in the school office, sweating over details like next of kin and employers, the dates of my parents’ deaths, my income and if I should be including my darling son’s passport number when he’s a grown man and nowhere near this expedition!

Also required in the forms were my accommodation. Aaaaargh! I quickly searched through Booking.com and found The Strawberry Duck Hostel (!) in Moscow and the Beijing 161 Wangfujing Courtyard Hotel – blearily looking at maps, negotiating dates and trying to understand different currencies. (As a result, both bookings contained errors which took a week or so to sort out later.) But I completed the forms, hit submit, and dragged myself out of the office and into my comfy little student room upstairs.

Phew. Made the deadline. The next step was a date with destiny (actually Bill) at Real Russia London to deliver my passport. I had to negotiate time off with my work which I was reluctant to do. I felt so grateful to Kings Education, Brighton, not only for giving me the opportunity to teach such a wide range of people, ages and cultures but also to live within the establishment. I had to work in reception once a fortnight or so but what a marvellous opportunity to save money for this epic journey!

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UK to Antipodes OVERLAND Part III … via TOTNES!

Welcome to my planning reports.

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Two bands of contrails across a blue sky
Contrails might only be the visible marks of a plane
but around that water vapour also fizzes the remains of burnt-up av-gas

In a somewhat nefarious manner I picked up the NHS application forms at a local doctor’s surgery where I had not made application before. The receptionist said (voice tinny through security speaker) it was against the rules at this outrageous time, seconds after closing, but she did reluctantly agree to slip the papers through the door. She opened it only a few centimetres to prevent my bursting in upon the doctors unannounced. It felt very clandestine. The next day I returned the forms, brazenly walking right up to the desk, the office now formally open. Signed, sealed, delivered. I have no idea why I couldn’t have been accepted in the closer surgeries. They didn’t like the cut of my jib, I suppose.

It would be a couple of weeks before I could get an appointment. I must reassure you, everything was honest and fully disclosed except I neglected to mention that pesky medical certificate for the shipping company. That would be between me and the doctor. When I got an appointment. If the forms were accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

On a journey half way across the world? Many, many things. Did I really want to do this? Could I take all the risks? By myself? Oh, I was nervous.

I needed a holiday, a little break. I would go to Totnes. Why Totnes? Because of Transition Towns!

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Flight or … ferry, train, freighter … UK to the Antipodes Part II

This is the story of my journey to a family reunion in New Zealand in January 2020. I’m in the UK. How to travel without burning av gas?

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way: https://ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Once I established my travel would be by train and sea, I turned, with some trepidation, to The Man in Seat 61. The Man lists each step of the travel.

I hasten to add the trepidation was not due to any doubt about his veracity and, in fact, I wrote him an email thanking him for making even imagining this journey possible. He wrote back, saying, ‘Enjoy your trip!’ I felt a long way away from actual travel. I didn’t even have a ticket or a visa or immunisations or those … unknown unknowns … like a destination.

First things first. Following his suggestions, I was almost certain I would be travelling from Singapore to Australia by freighter ship. These ships are cargo carriers; they’re already going this way, there’s no song and dance, it’s a working transporter. They take few passengers and those passengers are left to themselves, pretty much. Sounded ideal. The carbon is already spent before I got involved. I would just hitch a ride. (For something like $4,000 Australian dollars).

Agencies for cargo travel

To begin, The Man advises getting in touch with these lovely people:

http://www.cruisepeople.co.uk/

http://www.travltips.com/cruises/freighter/overview.php

or

http://www.freightercruises.com/

And, I’m not sure how I discovered these kind people:

https://www.globoship.ch/tour/grosse-asien-australien-asien-reise/

Reading through these websites reassured me that freighter travel was safe, comfortable and within my physical capabilities. I sent emails to all concerned and within a week had four quotes from Singapore to Australia.

They were all within much of a muchness but there were certain differences. It will depend on what you want to do and where you want to go as to what you choose. Yes indeed. Just where did I want to go in Australia? Fremantle? Adelaide? The next stop, surprisingly, was Sydney. Then the ships seem to loop back to Melbourne after that.

The Man in Seat 61 blithely recommends travel through several Asian countries to arrive in Singapore. So many different languages, borders and currencies – I imagined basic survival was going to be taxing – especially as a vegan!

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Flight or … is there any other way? OVERLAND (AND SEA) FROM UK TO ANTIPODES Part I

Sunset picks out air trails crossing rural France
Air over water?

OVERLAND (AND SEA) FROM ENGLAND TO NEW ZEALAND – Is it possible?

PART I

Pre-pre-planning or

WHY?

From the moment I arrived in Europe I knew I didn’t want to fly long distance again. Flying felt wrong.

Sunset picks out the trail of a solitary plane as it crosses rural France
A solitary plane crosses rural Saint-Julien-de-Crempse, Aquitaine, France
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Rivers

I’ve just been swimming in a chemically-treated, lightly-perfumed, over-lit indoor pool in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain. I loved it. On my way to the pool I pass this fountain.

Oviedo fountain fireworks – waterworks doesn’t quite describe the uplift and spray, does it?

It’s the centre piece of a roundabout which illustrates the cycle of water showering through it every minute. Round and round we go. Up and down, through the pipes, over and over again. Humans have used water, in more or less elaborate ways, to enhance our lives as long as we’ve been drinking liquid to survive. You do know you’re soaking in it? In my time in Spain I’ve seen fountains in plazas, roundabouts and parks. I’ve also seen viaducts.

Segovia viaduct built with no mortar

As I’ve said before, imagine having to work in a frock and sandals to make this big old drain run from mountain to castle for your Roman leaders.

There’s plenty of sculptures too, like this one in the city of Valencia, remembering the river that used to run through it.

Valencia remembers their river with a colossus striding over water

One of the most amazing things about Valencia is that for the last thousand years a group of Spanish farmers, or their representatives, meet, every week, on the steps of the Valencia Cathedral; the tribunal de las aguas. They’re there to debate water; who gets how much, when. You can see them on a Thursday. They don’t keep records and their decisions are final.

Tour guide in Valencia explains the democratic nature of water decisions on the steps of the Cathedral

Compare that to negotiations around the Murray Darling basin in Australia. Irrigation is the largest user of water from the Murray/Darling rivers. Admittedly white farmers haven’t been there for a thousand years yet but they are certainly having trouble working out equitable ways to share the water and keep a healthy river. Couple of Aussie blokes made a tv series about it, if you’re inclined to view a cruise down a river?

The farmers downstream in South Australia do not stand a chance against the farmers upstream in New South Wales and Victoria. There are regular scandals on the border of Queensland and NSW.

Cubbie Station, a Japanese and Chinese owned cotton empire, has a dam described as the same size as Sydney Harbour. Down the other end of the river in SA, Goolwa’s water sometimes slows to a trickle. There’s no regular meeting to solve this ongoing crisis. Just earnest attempts, bitter blaming and ecological desperation.

Back in Spain, Valencia went so far as to move their river away from the city.

Old Valencia river bed is now a running track

Now a lovely park featuring running tracks, modern architecture and playgrounds, the river bed flooded too often and the civic powers showed the flow who was boss and shoved it out the back somewhere.

Valencia tamed their river beds and turned their minds to the future

The same thing happened in Seville. The Gualdaquiver, once a bustling shipping artery, was split to control potential flooding.

Seville’s quiet backwaters

I suppose in Spain climate change may be working for humans because there’s been less rain than normal for many years.

El Torre de Oro – The Tower of Gold – built in the 13th Century – across the river Gualdaquiver

 

The public face of the river in Seville

On the other side of the Iberian Peninsula, I lived last year on the border of two provinces, Barcelona and Girona, in Catalunya. The border was a river, La Tordera.

Standing on the bridge looking out to the sea and the railway bridge on one side and up to the township of Tordera on the other

In the summer La Tordera dried up. You could walk across it. In the winter it was a full, flowing river. I used to take a photo every time I walked home. There’s no sound track on the following slide show. Do you want to listen to Al Green while you check out the pretty Spanish river?

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In the beginning of my little compilation, you can see the mouth of the river at Blanes beach. In the summer, the mouth is closed. As the waters build up through the cooler months, they breach the sand. Water will find a way.

With my back to Blanes beach, here’s the mouth of La Tordera in cooler days.

Also, the nearby city of Girona features a river bed dry and bare in the summer. The winter rains and their outpourings created marvellous reflections for tourist photos.

Girona quiet waters in autumn – not a marvellous tourist photo

This year I work in the Valle de Nalón in Asturias. When I arrived, El Rio Nalón was a mere trickle.

Tiny little Nalón in autumn

Nalón in the Winter

Now spring is here and the snows are melting in the nearby mountains.

Nalón in spring

Churning white waters fleck the brown flood that chunders down the river bed.

Rivers come and go as seen in two stories in the Guardian today. When Nature’s had enough https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/01/argentina-new-river-soya-beans and farmers have taken all the deep-rooted trees away from the water table, is it surprising that nature will take her own course?

But more achingly important is this story about giving nature a right to exist; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights

The idea of giving a river legal personhood is pleasantly close to finding Naiad or a River God swimming along the Yarra, or the Thames or the Seine. But remember, “No river, no people, no life.”

They know that in Cape Town, they know it in Los Angeles. Around the world it’s estimated 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water.

I don’t have to tell you, do I, that we’re all part of nature!

There’s a lot of charities about clean water; the tap project, charity; water, lifewater, water.com

The Source of the river Aube, one of the tributaries of the Seine, in the Haute-Marne region of France

When I stayed near Auberive, Champagne-Ardenne, France, I was fortunate to visit the Source of the river Aube, set in mysterious forest and retaining an atmosphere of magic. For about twenty metres around this area, the ground is wet and the steady seepage from below begins a flow that ends up joining the Seine. Here was a place it was easy to imagine a Naiad living.

Would we be more interested in protecting water if we returned to the days of worshipping? Would that be enough for us to form a human shield against the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola? Remembering corporations already carry their own personhood, like Deities!

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, hydro-electricity is looking a lot greener these days. And rivers are so beautiful that Don McGlashan wrote a song about them. Made famous by singer Hollie Smith, here’s a version featuring the composer, a casual rehearsal to swim in.

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Thanks for getting into this river of thought. What, and where, are your favourite rivers? Have you been involved in any water charities? Let me know in the comments section below!

Searching for Mervyn Peake in Sark

Arrrr, those pesky pirates! You know the sort; nasty, violent, GREEDY? Take what they want, arrrr, and care not one whit for the contentment of the many, nor even of the few wealthy owners, nor even for that super royal family to whom tax is most certainly due.

Peake pirate from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/ce/f1/86/cef186f038796cc4d647be6035063f1f.jpg

Queen Elizabeth I (arrrr) knew all about pirates and she didn’t like them. She’d seen too many ships disappear, together with her income, and she wanted the pestilence fixed. Looking toward the Continent, she could tell Jersey and Guernsey were populated and policed enough, but Sark, a teeny island, a craggy outcrop of rock, drilled through by the sea until it resembled Swiss cheese, was trouble. Sark, even now holding the honour of the most caves of the Channel Islands, was riddled with pirates.

Peake’s first published work was Captain Slaughterboard, written and illustrated by Mervyn himself

Queen Liz wanted Sark cleaned up. She gave the entire island of 4.5 square miles (Sark 2017 Official Map) to a Lord, The Seigneur, and charged him with protecting her waters and getting rid of the blasted bandits.

The Seigneur, in his turn, allowed thirty-nine of his closest armed friends to rent a cheap piece of Sark so long as they kept guard. All they had to do was keep it free of pirates and enjoy the sort of dreamy rural existence made romantic by HE Bates. It can’t have been easy, I’m sure. The early settlers might even have had trouble finding topsoil on that windy place. But they soon found enough to grow sheep, vegetables and send their children off to fee-paying English schools and eat delicious French food. They invented lazy summer holidays and horse-drawn tourist peace and all was well.

After a few hundred years came World Wars and German invasion. This was difficult but eventually the locals overcame the barbed wire and life went on in the same idyllic manner. But, what if, after 450 years of dutiful protection, the locals became complacent? What if they forgot their obligations to the crown and their duty to protect Sark? What if modern pirates began circling the island in their helicopters with their fancy new technologies? What would happen if the Sarkese didn’t realise they were under attack until it was too late?

Peake apparently knew Treasure Island by heart http://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ea29c77f532850e2945dc298b35da651.jpg

I was awarded the Titus Groan trilogy for debating at a small girls’ school in Dunedin, New Zealand. Even when staring at the pencil illustrations on the covers, I knew I’d been handed the key to another world.

http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com.es/2011/05/illustrated-gormenghast-anticipation.html

The Gormenghast books were satire, adventure and a description of enclosed society. Mervyn Peake, artist and writer (as much as those two roles can be separate in his life) conceived and wrote much of the trilogy when Peake and his family lived on Sark. Much has been written about his childhood in China and how that experience might have contributed to the strangeness of his creation, but having visited Sark, I think that’s where he found the core of Gormenghast.

The Peakes moved to Sark in 1946 and lived an arcadian lifestyle for three years as he planned the series. As a single man he had lived on Sark for four years before the war, in an artist’s colony. He was an eccentric fellow with a pet cormorant and a penchant for nudism. He became an art teacher and a war artist later. 

https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07779/Mervyn-Laurence-Peake

Seventy years on, I went to Sark in search of Peake, hoping to find evidence of his inspiration. He was the first world builder I’d ever encountered, in words or pictures.

“My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.”

To me, Peake was more than a friend. He was a soulmate.

Waiting to buy tickets for the ferry at Granville

To get to Sark, one must travel by sea. Port de Granville of France was not colourful. The buildings were grey, beige or cream or a clotted mix and the sea was slate grey. The sky was filled with ashen clouds. The boats were once white with an odd faded blue for contrast. As I waited for the ferry I watched the floating world go by. As the ferry prepared to leave, I watched two men and a clump of fishing rods bump out of the protection of stone walls in a surprising bright yellow inflatable.

This is not the ferry. A fellow traveller.

It’s difficult to imagine how those old sea walls could possibly have been built without the aid of cranes and heavy engineering equipment. I suppose each wall, built on the remains of the previous, becomes stronger over the ages, like nearby Mont Saint-Michel, a dramatic medieval castle-cathedral, which may also have influenced Peake.

Mont St Michel

Au revoir La France! A bientôt!

From Granville we sailed to Jersey. “In Transit” whilst at Jersey meant walking off the boat, waiting for customs to look at the passport, getting a new boarding pass, walking to the waiting room and, without sitting down, getting in the queue to return with treble the amount of people wanting to visit Sark. In less than an hour we were on our way again, past a proud fort crouched on the Jersey coast fringed with cranes poised this way and that. Jersey, as far as I could tell, was an island plagued with developers.

Jersey fort

On board the ferry, I stood on deck, leaning into a bend in the rail, loving the rise and fall, the spray from the ploughed waves stinging my face. The wind was icey but there was warm sun on my back and soon enough we neared Sark waters. Rocky waters. Great dark craggy outcrops jagged from the white water all around the cliffs. A black tidal mark or plimsoll line bruised the rocks just above the water where the waves have engraved a thinner waist for the island.

Black lichen high water mark around Sark

Extraordinary harbour walls featured steep steps up to a road, which wound through a tunnel in the cliff. I found it difficult to imagine the grasping hands and burning backs, tearing muscles and broken legs; the vision and the technology that had to be utilised to build these sea walls.

Maseline is the main harbour of Sark, where the ferry and the mail boat visit – and not every day. The weather conditions are extreme. The sailors must be very skilled indeed to negotiate their paying customers up and down the steep steps to the ferry.

I puzzled, how could those early tenants have tamed the fierce thundering waters long enough to build towering stone walls right into it?

Welcome to Sark

There, through that proscenium cliff archway, was a walk up the hill. You could catch a tractor ride if you preferred but I chose the lovely green twisty path, and on, straight up the dusty thin carless road to the Sark Visitor’s Centre.

Leading us up the Sark garden path

My first impression of Sark town centre was ‘English Country Garden’. It was all very picturesque and human scale, apart from the giant vibrant begonias in all the bridesmaid colours of the world. I had no idea they could grow that big!

Over-sized begonias in the Sark garden experience

Sark seemed almost too good to be true.

The information officer told me that not many people come to Sark to seek Peake. What? REALLY?! The only reason I came was Peake. What else could there possibly be?

On the way up the main road it was difficult to ignore the amount of shops for rent and closed businesses. One entire side of the street was empty. Shut. This was peak tourist season – the middle of summer – August. The information woman told me crossly it was because of the cost of electricity. Far too high. (And not one solar panel in sight.)

I trooped off to La Vallete Campsite (a couple of paddocks on the cliff edge of a farm) where I put up my borrowed tent. When I fronted at the campsite ‘office’, more a mud-room entry space really, Linda said she found all her emails blurred into one – which camper was I? What did I want? Exactly? Just a place to lay my weary head.

Incredibly grateful that Roseann, Olivier and Mike lent me their tent!

I was unused to camping, unprepared and unskilled. I chose a site close to the edge of the cliff, though fenced in on two sides with blackberries. It appeared someone had desecrated the corner with some toilet paper streamers. They had been rained on. I tucked them back into the blackberry bush with the tent-peg mallet, of which there were several on offer. I put the small end of the tent into the prevailing wind but who knew where the wind would blow next?

There were a few puffy clouds looking thoughtful and attractive about this intense blue sky while the sun beat down meaningfully. Several charming yachts were drifting below, parked in La Grève de la Ville like a school of tethered white and blue tuna.

What sort of pirates sail the high seas?

What to do next? Obviously I had to go to the Vicar’s Fête, one of the Sark calendar highlights. Apparently the Peake family had lived nearby in a housed called Le Chalet. While I struggled to decide what book to buy at the bookstall (couldn’t) the auction began. I assumed the auctioneer was none other than the vicar himself and he proceeded to give a progress report of the Fair. There was a loud cry of despair from two women next to me when they heard there were no cakes left. A chap muttered to the bookseller, ‘Well, I’m not surprised. There weren’t many to start with.’ Suddenly I looked left and right. Was I in an episode of Midsummer Murders? The all white and cashmere Vicarage workers were certainly over fifty years old (many harking back fondly to their seventieth birthday). A small gang of vaguely Gothic teens/early twenties lounged on the grass to prove the exception.

The Bank. Summer outfit.

As I left the Fête, I noted a few summer visitors – I suspect you wouldn’t get called tourists – harrying their children around on bicycles. Because there’s no cars and you can easily hear a tractor on the way, or one of the horse-drawn carts, children hoon about freely.

Up by the path to the lighthouse (now an Airbnb with no public access) I found a well-placed bench overlooking the yachts to my left and several rugged rock islets scattered over the waters to my right. The waves were rustling below, tickling the shore. I could hear seagulls crying out somewhere and behind me in the bush grasshoppers (or crickets) sang a high-pitch bed of noise.

With lighthouse to the right and La Grève de la Ville to the right, my dinner bench was a peaceful spot

As I ate my dinner I watched currents moving under the water. The current coming around to the right (towards Maseline Harbour) was smooth, in contrast to choppy scuff marks sweeping the current along. It was as though someone had come through with a big wooden spoon and made a curvy pattern across my sea view. A speedboat ripped across the water. Dark navy depths rejoined as the white zipline faded away. The water then had a nap, brushed wrong way in a pleasing curve around me and smoothed further out like a rainbow arc but all tones of navy stripes. Then came a flotilla of small jet boats – possibly fisher folk returning for their dinner? Possibly cocaine smugglers for cocktail hour?

Les Fontaines where there are definitely smugglers caves just out of frame

The next morning I skittered down steep stairs to La Fontaine Bay, a sheltered and rocky smuggler’s cove where the sun blasted down. A seagull in the distance tangled with a plane far too high, altogether there were far too many planes roaring overhead. There were two great caves on the opposite side of the bay. I thought the tide was out because the seaweed was still fresh wet on the rocks. I thought of Peake, and Titus, as he might have walked these rocks and pathways, and how the woman in the tourist information office said, ‘Well, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, is he.’

A local grandfather made the Epeguerie rock pool many years ago. It’s leaking now. And, look, there’s George’s boat taking a load of tourists around the island!

I spent a good part of the day in my togs staring in a rockpool instead. The rock pools were heaving with little fish. When I assumed the gazing position, rubbernecking into the shallow twinkles, two fish came to look at me as if they were watching telly. They watched me watching them. Another swam through. Quickly. Then another. One of the watchers changed position, coming a little closer. They all kept a steady eye on me.  A darker one took shelter on an outcrop, just under the surface. As a fragile cluster of guppy things swam by, the dark one up above slapped the water somehow, making a surprising snappy clapping. I took up various positions around this Grandpa-made pool, leaking slightly now, but still absorbing viewing.

I marched up to the nose of the island, Bec du Nez, where seagulls sit like complacent white crowns on royal lumps of rock, their soft feathers littering the sheep-gnawed grass around them. It’s called the common and the guide suggests counting butterflies. Too many flutter by and I take it the counting is a joke. Mostly quiet brown creatures, perhaps with a spot or a bit of pale and some colourful ones too with flashes of orange and yellow. I mainly walked around the Eperquerie area, eating far too many blackberries. I wanted to get to the historical society in time to enquire about the ruins up there and ask what that black stain is. I took a bit more of a stroll to examine the Buddist carving on a rock. Not sure why it’s there. And then a snooze in the sun.

Perhaps the Buddhist carving is simply for us to ponder while relaxing in the sun or, maybe, it is to protect the island from evil.

When I eventually regained enough strength to eat more blackberries I got back on track and hit town too late for the historic society. Turned off by the Sunflower Café but admired the Sunflower Project, a two acre field donated by the farmer to grow sunflowers and other plants for birds and insects. Very happy to see Shenanigans Café open where a friendly young lady from Cardiff lent me her charger, made me a coffee, and a cherry jam sandwich. They even employed a solar panel or two. All well with the world.

Although impressed by the ancient windmill, I was saddened the bakery was no longer used. In fact, there’s no bakery open at all on the island. Here’s an opportunity for someone to run the place the way it used to be. Or stick up a new windmill to get things cooking. (Could they afford the thousand-pound-a-week plus rent the owners are asking for the bakery on the main road?)

The windmill’s wings are clipped (off)

The next day I woke to the tent flapping briskly in the wind. I had a dream in which I was picked up (while still in the tent) and moved to a hall. In my dream hall, many people were sleeping next to each other. I woke up (in the dream) to find myself between two bickering young men. One stretched out, over me, to annoy the other and I slapped his arm lightly. He was upset but I didn’t care. A young doctor came to look at my prone self. She looked worried. They hadn’t been able to wake me previously. I reassured her that I was in fine fettle. I must have fallen into such a deep sleep because I’d been awake after I thought I’d lost my wallet.

This last bit was true. I wanted to see the famous Dark Sky so when I woke I jumped at the chance to wander over to the toilet block. But I didn’t need a torch. The sky was bright. There was a full glorious moon. As I watched she pulled an elegant cloud-veil across her face. I dreamily went to watch the lighthouse flashing around the bay. This was the sign-posted lighthouse, now closed to the public, certainly a working warning light so that was reassuring. No big boats about to crash into the cliff. When I arrived back to the tent I discovered my wallet missing. Panic. Flashed the torch everywhere it might have been. Raced back to the loo and the lighthouse viewpoint. Started planning survival strategies. Got back to tent, tried to avoid dew soaked tent flap, began sorting and found wallet straightaway. Thank goodness. Asleep immediately to dream the wind picked me up. But it didn’t.

It was all just the wind in the tent. 

La Coupée is a very thin and wind vulnerable connection between Sark and Little Sark. Note the droppings left by the most popular form of tourist transport.

The next day I walked over the steep, curving La Coupée, a road built and fenced by prisoners of war, to Little Sark. Believing strongly in discretion above valour, I decided not to climb down to the Venus Pool alone. Looked arduous and I still had time to return to the historical society. If no one hears you scream did you actually fall to your death off a rocky cliff?

At the peak, I lounged on a soft patch of vivid green with tiny stalks bearing little cups of crispy white petals. Sark. Blackberries, sweet as desire. Butterflies, light and mobile as an already forgotten thought.

Sun bore down in full force, sea birds wheeled around and overhead. Many spattered brown birds – herring gulls? No wonder Peake thought of angels when he came to write Mr Pye, his book actually set on Sark. The jagged landscape is covered in fluffy white feathers.

I was so KEEN. Arrived at the historical society office 12:25 with plenty of time before they shut. Popped in to the loo, no potable water there and came to stand in line at the Heritage Room. Or rather, I waited in the corridor. A man held forth to a small elderly lady. She did not see me but I sort of bowed to the gentleman to indicate that I intended to move into the room, was that allowed? He met my gracious greeting with a blank stare I took to be assent so I moved into the space. Glass cabinets and folders of information about Sark surrounded me. I looked up the meadow pippet in birds of Sark, as the meadow pippet is my favourite bird. I think I may have seen a rock pippet near the old mines. I could find, as I slowly perambulated around the room, precisely nothing about Mervyn Peake. Nothing about pirates or the dark plimsoll line.

Meanwhile, the man held forth about the crimes of the British education system. He used to be a headteacher. He despaired at the constant measuring to which children are subjected in the current British system. As does his wife, a sixty percenter, but working full-time. As it turned out, you wouldn’t believe it, he, Richard, came from Wollstonecraft (or somewhere), which is EXACTLY where the thin, elderly lady’s brother and sister-in-law reside. Extraordinary coincidence. After that they spoke about the exhibits in front of them, neolithic axe heads and other items of geological interest. I believe he may now be a geologist of some sort. They were getting on splendidly and I’d perused the flowers of Sark and the rocks of Sark and the moths of Sark and the interesting beads, possibly made from Baltic amber found around Sark, when I realised these two had just begun to warm up. I took my departure (unnoticed) and headed to the Post Office where I intended to buy and post postcards.  And there, at last, in The Gallery Stores and Post Office, I found Mervyn Peake and his creations.

All the Peake Offerings in the Sark Post Office and Gallery

After dealing with postcards I went back to request the nearest potable water tap at tourist information. While I waited I looked through a beautiful coffee table book, ‘Art for the Love of Sark’. This is the record of an inspirational visit to Sark by twenty artists from Artists For Nature (http://www.artistsfornature.com/projects/sark/) It is a remarkable venture and I urge you to peruse the website and buy the book, if you can. One of the artist members, Rosie Guille, runs a delightful little gallery on the main street of Sark where you can pick up the book, perhaps one of her own evocative paintings or practice the art yourself. Here is her online gallery: https://rosanneguilleart.com/

http://www.sark.co.uk/958-958/

Back in the Sark Visitor Centre, the kind officer offered me the still warm water from her kettle. She preferred to boil the bore water. They have a good water table. Don’t need to go down too far. I remarked upon the lack of visible water tanks and that bore water is, of course, finite. She felt not. A good water table is a water table for good. I continued in my strident, visitor knows best sort of way, surely that’s the problem in California? She said, ‘Sark gets more rain than California.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that a good reason for water tanks?’

Didn’t seem like a smooth conversation did it, so I bought up Mervyn again. I wouldn’t let him go, I just couldn’t, and I said what a shame it was there was no shrine to this great writer. She said, ‘There’s a lot of artists that came from Sark. They couldn’t possibly commemorate them all.’

I said, ‘Like who?’ She said, ‘Cheeseplate and Topless’, people I hadn’t heard of so I added, ‘Oh yeah,’ I muttered dismissively, ‘And let’s not forget Victor Hugo!’ 

One of the closed hotels features a bar honouring Victor Hugo

Wasn’t it amazing that Victor Hugo had only been on the island for two weeks and he had a cave and a bar named after him while Peake had lived here for seven years? ‘Oh, she said, ‘Hugo was here longer than that.’ I said, ‘Not according to the pamphlet over there … ‘ And she looked askance at me.

Well, they hedge their bets, don’t they …

In order to lighten the atmosphere I added that I had started to see Gormenghast as a satire about Sark itself, what with all that inherited fifedom, and the enclosed nature of the island. She hadn’t read it but agreed that although many people had wanted democracy in 2008, many had wanted the island to stay the way it was. Is that so? To swing it all back to Mr Peake and his glory, I said it was a shame there was nothing available in the tourist information shop about him and she said, ‘Perhaps there’s nothing of his available to sell?’ And I said, ‘Well, there is in the Post Office!’

After a desperate pause in which we both wanted to be polite, she said, ‘Did you know he used to live there?’ And I said, ‘No, really?’ (Which was a lie because I did know by then) and she said, ‘Before it was the Post Office, of course. They had some pictures up once, showing him painting there.’ After making all the correct admiring sounds I said, ‘I had heard when he first lived here, when he was freezing in a barn, he worked in the fields to get money and had a pet cormorant.’ She looked askance again, ‘Well, you know better than I do, for sure.’

So I said that she was lucky to have the books to look forward to, that they were wonderful and thanks for the water. I could have reminded her that the books were all available in the PO but you know, I’m proud of myself. I knew when to stop.

There was the dead bakery on the main road. CLOSED. Another shop on the main street, CLOSED. Then, on the way to Dixcart Bay, a great swimming bay, I passed a large fancy hotel. CLOSED. What was going on? Time for some research.

Sark, straight ahead?

The price of electricity has little to do with the price of politics in Sark. Turns out Sark does have a darker side. Sark really is too good to be true.

Under all those pots of petunias, pretty tree-lined laneways and those quaint seventeenth century stone buildings lies a squawling ten-year-old democracy, fighting a 450 year-old-fifedom. Or is it?

Shady laneway in Sark – around the bend?

The democracy was apparently born of twin media barons, David and Frederick Barclay, trying to buy their way into tax-free law-making power. Come on. Did Mervyn Peake write that stuff? (NB: There were twins in the drama of Gormenghast but they were victims. Cora and Clarice were killed by Steerpike, a young man thirsting for power.)

Peake certainly loved pirates as described by Rob Maslen in a fine blog post but I don’t think Mervyn would much care for these boys. The Barclay Brothers have caused a sort of disease, a kind of cancer, in the form of untended grapevines, empty hotels and falling down buildings holding up the land.

Vines in apparent summer disrepair

I really felt at home in Sark but what a beastly thing this duo of billionaires have done. They’ve bought a good percentage of the ancient tenements but have not yet managed to sway the democratic elections enough to get their chosen people in power to make the legal changes they require. They want to make their bit of the island a separate tax haven. They normally live in Monaco but they’ve built a showy castle on a their private mini-island called Brecqhou.

They’ve installed a helipad and roads and landed cars – against the rules, nay ethos, of Sark. They own all the empty shops and most of the main island’s hotels; those now standing empty. So there’s no work in those CLOSED hotels and no paying visitors. Which means the population of the island was half its normal summer number last year.

You can watch a Panorama episode available on You Tube that explains how these two media moguls have been trying to play monopoly and throw the board over when things aren’t going the way they like. (I’ve seen my sister do it. Definitely a thing.) 

The next morning was cloudy. I eyed the tumbling impending rain clouds suspiciously as I rushed to finish my breakfast before it came down again. I managed to bring everything over to the shed where there was a sort of veranda. I stretched the tent out over the ground and sipped my coffee while weak shards of sun stroked the damp nylon into submission.

Once I figured everything would not rot away if rolled up, I packed and left the stuff ready for the appointed pick up. I managed to walk the delightful garden dell path to the harbour five times that day. Once, when the friendly bank ladies thought George wouldn’t go out in this weather and I imagined I’d better take a look at this enclosed bay, Creux Harbour, to see how small and cute it really was, and how the water smashed up through the stairway.

While waiting for the Non Pareil to arrive I strolled around the picturesque Creux Harbour

I strode back up to find a phone which just ate my money and refused to connect with anyone. Luckily I ran into Rosie rather than have to face the Information Officers again. She put in a call to George for me and we were in business. Back down the windy path I went. On the way past, I couldn’t help myself, I popped into the smart corporate looking real estate company office. The smartly-attired business woman at the desk agreed there were a lot of closed shops on the main road and, yes, it was a shame.

I mentioned I came from Australia and there was an interesting phenomenon, started in Newcastle a few years back, called ‘Renew‘. The idea was that local officials would make empty, run-down shops or premises available to artists and small desktop computer type start-up businesses for peppercorn rents in order to bring life back into blighted areas. There was quite a lot available on the internet about it, I pressed on, Renew had been a great success. She agreed wholeheartedly, making no move to search her computer. She pretended to take a note in her diary and promised faithfully the Chamber of Commerce would be discussing it at the very next meeting.

I marched back down again and found the eighty-year old George and his son, Morgan, waiting in a jolly little boat, the Non Pareil. They took us from hightide Creux harbour, round the island with the most caves in the channel (Sark, remember?) and back to a low tide harbour. Here could be a clue for a renewable energy source – tidal power must surely be an option on Sark. Watch Morgan move the Non Pareil quick smart out of there!

George had met Mervyn Peake. He reported he was a very nice man. And George’d been in the tv series, Mr Pye, too. In fact nearly everyone on Sark had been involved!

Low tide at Creux Harbour reveals how those harbour walls might have been built!

When we went past the castle, George spoke unenthusiastically about the lack of community spirit of the Barclay boys.

George and his son Morgan take the tourists around Sark in all the weathers

These modern pirates, the Baron Boys – Barclaydum and Barclaydee – came in helicopters, spread fake news that makes German propaganda look like nursery rhymes and when they didn’t like the way their game of Monopoly was heading, they threw the board over so no one could finish the game. They made several families, true descendants of that first Seigneur, the friend of Elizabeth I, walk the financial plank. They bought up houses, hotels and disgraced the local Doctor Kindness himself.

The sad thing is that this isn’t a draft of the fourth (or fifth) Gormenghast book. This is life on Sark today. Unless the Royals, who happen against all reason, to be good buddies with the Barclay Media Barons – those very same Media Barons relishing once-private information about royals, celebrities and other saucy scandals – unless Prince Charles – whose architect pal built the pseudo castle on BB island with, I kid you not, real canons balanced on ramparts artlessly covered in Spanish stone, unless the Crown can come to Sark’s rescue somehow, it’s difficult to see how this stalemate will end. The Pirate Twins themselves are now old men kept alive by the wonders of modern medicine. What of their heirs? What will become of Sark in the long run?

If the parliament or the Lord (Seigneur) could somehow regain control of the tenements belonging to the main island, I wondered if it might be possible to let the Barclay Barons have Brecqhou Island on a long-term lease? Surely they did not sell the land freehold? If the community could retrieve the hotels and shops on the mainland, they could get their own economy functioning once more.

Sark’s situation put me in mind of another David and Goliath story, that of Cuba. There was a thrown monopoly board if ever there was one. In my humble opinion Sark urgently needs to bring in permaculture experts, as they did there (Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil) particularly those knowledgeable about burning rubbish and making renewable energy. The stench of foul smoke overhanging the harbour is awful. Sark clearly has wind potential, and the tidal variation is powerful. Sark could surely become self-sufficient in energy one day.

Is it possible the Barclay Twins, their heirs and the Royals could join the community to build such a forward-looking and clean energy exemplar for the British protected Channel Islands?

My dream? Where I was picked up by the wind? Have I been asleep all this time? 

Searching for Arthur Ransome; Coniston Copper Mine YHA, Lake District

Remember Swallows and Amazons? Tales of adventures and holiday intrigue by Arthur Ransome? Remember climbing Kanchenjunga, mining for gold and avoiding pirates? Remember protecting birds and sleuthing? So do I, fondly. So, this year I went sleuthing. I travelled to the Lake District in Northern England to climb Kanchenjunga in search of Arthur Ransome; journalist, novelist, sailor, spy.

Coniston Coppermine YHA with the Old Man Coniston (Kanchenjunga) up to the left and mining workings in front

 

That’s right. You read correctly. Spy.

Ransome was a British spy (codename C.76) during the Russian revolution of one hundred years ago. He also wrote the biography of Oscar Wilde which precipitated Lord Alfred Douglas to launch into a scandalous trial. In Russia, Ransome liked to play chess — with Lenin — and married Trotsky‘s secretary, Evgenia.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Arthur Ransome’s heart lay in North England, in the Lake District. As the train pulled in to Windermere Station I felt the same excitement and anticipation stirred up before meeting an old friend. This was where I’d spent my childhood – albeit while reading. There was no homing pigeon to let go but I felt I was coming home. I was determined to see the lake. Hefting my pack, I walked down the hill. And kept walking. After too much walking I was hungry for lunch and annoyed they called the town the same name as the lake when the town is actually called Bowness. The lake is far from the town.

The sun came out as I reached the water. The farms and forests made green-hued patchwork around the glinting lake. Struggled to find suitable food, bought fixings and, as fat swans too lazy to even stand watched me balefully, strolled on board a cruise of Windermere.

Lady Windermere’s umbrella with fat swan

The lake itself was just as I remembered – from the books and the screen version (only the first, haven’t seen the most recent) – Swallows and Amazons for EVER! The captain sat on his comfortable stool and sighed as chatty Chinese folk cheerfully ignored his interesting details about the length and depth of the lake.

People enjoyed the sunshine, both around the water and on it; lots of different sailboats and cruisers. There was a houseboat. I did not see a plank. It was lovely; the water’s edge, the forests and the remarkably few buildings. The place was incredibly preserved. Scattered buildings fitted into the theme with one or two modern outcrops that implied influential friends. The Lake District, a living National Park, features farms, tourism and some industry but there you go, it might have developed like Surfers Paradise if someone hadn’t protected it to some degree (surfing on Windermere is unlikely).

Gathered myself together. Found my bus. I could only get as far as Ambleside where I had to wait for an hour for the next bus for Coniston. Found supplies and then dropped into a pub for grog (ginger ale) and hot chips. Thank goodness I did because, after an excellent bus trip (the driver a Henna Dame, recently widowed and newly full-time on those curly stonewalled roads), I needed that fuel for the refreshing walk up to my hostel. My pack was heavy but the views were incredible. Note to drivers: Henna Dame supposed car hire firms kept big cars so punters would have to bring them back scratched. You will pay extra for any damage, of course.

The land was stunning and relatively untouched. I couldn’t believe how green and wonderful the forests were and then coming around a corner, I saw Coniston; a sliver of wonder, a slip of lovely, a slide of thought, a glimmer lake in place.

First glimpses of Coniston Water on the way to the Coppermines

I called in to Holly Howe YHA by mistake and, redirected, marched on up the hill, on the way to Dixon’s farm. Sheep yelled to each other. The Copper Mine YHA was nestled into the hills curving around behind it. With a well-stocked kitchen and dining area, it had a comfortable living room and a terrific view down the valley. The staff were relaxed and friendly, used to dealing with walkers, school groups and naturalists of all ages and stripes.

Evening view from YHA Coppermines

My shared room was labelled Old Man of Coniston. In the morning I got up, ate a hearty breakfast and sat on the front door step to tie my boots. The house martins flew across my vision, getting closer and closer, curving around the front of the building. Worried they were trying to get to their nest, I backed away and one did disappear into the eaves. The others continued to buzz me. We squatted in the sun while the young YHA host spread his map on the ground and pointed the Old Man out to me. It’s obvious after you’ve been up there.

On the way up the Old Man

As I climbed I recognised the lie of the land from Ransome’s drawings. I expected to see those little figures in shorts clambering up the slopes beside me. (I’m sure I saw a man in a squashy hat out of the corner of my eye. He ducked into one of the old workings.) The weather came and went. I felt shivery even in June especially through my sweaty shirt.

Old Mine Workings Old Man Coniston

There were friendly folk murmuring over their picnics, people walking their dogs and plenty of grass for the sheep to gnaw. A small dappled brown bird came along the path with me, a white patch on her rump showing as she flashed away to the side or flounced up ahead. She didn’t seem distressed or leading me anywhere, just hopping along. Like me.

The rocks were bursting through the green grass and there was plenty of bracken growing. But higher up, around the old workings, slate lay piled artistically. There must have been good reason; water, or those enormous cables needing housings or perhaps some kind of machine required flat areas. The closed copper and slate mines left more than their scars on the hills; their rusty remnants now crazy sculptures in the landscape.

The cairn at the top of the Old Man and a view down to Coniston Waters

It was thrilling to think that I climbed, walked and stood just where Ransome might have been. Perhaps once he sat right there and ate pemmican (corned beef) sandwiches. That might have been the very spot where he contemplated the S. A. & D.’s next adventure or the place where he found his ‘Homing Rock’ of inspiration.

Ransome’s Homing Rock and the cairn as he would have seen it

The Lake District inspired many writers. Potter, Wordsworth and Ruskin are honey for bee tourists, but for me, the only attraction was Arthur Ransome. He was the man who taught me to respect nature. He taught me about birds and taking responsibility for the care of the environment. I wondered about other walkers as I climbed Old Man Coniston. Were they for Ransome? I chatted to a father-son duo, both fans of Pigeon Post. (Later I bought a copy for the hostel when I discovered neither of the hosts had read it. You can read it when you visit.)

It was quiet on the Old Man as I sat in the sun. A small chirpy bird from below flew straight up very high, hovered a bit, and then dropped down again, chirruping and whirring as it sank. Looked like fun. Following a current? Far too small and chirpy for a bird of prey but then it might have sighted a tasty insect. But wait, this small, whistly, feathered thing did it again! It flew up as high as me, chirping all the while and then floated down. It was playing a game! Go up as high as possible and then drop down; wheeeeeee …

The chirpy bird turned out to be a meadow pippet, their mating flights called parachuting. It was the same bird – speckly brown – I saw flitting and flirting on the path. I know because I asked a fellow back at the hostel. He wore a tee shirt with a big black bird on it that said ‘Get Rooked’.

Fellow traveller on Old Man Coniston

The wind blew too cool for sitting still. I ran out of food. I thought I’d better go back down again. It would take a couple of hours. I noticed a fault line directly behind the big mining operation. Didn’t suppose there’s many earthquakes here but it looked strange in this setting. Not quite in the lie of the land. Which was jagged and unpredictable enough already.

Because I longed to see Ransome’s desk and red slippers at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, I spent the next day on the buses. I had to go via Grassmere where I leaped from the bus and into the Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. I felt huge and bulbous as we tourists stooped our bulky way through those cramped rooms imagining the smoke and coughing and poetry readings. How did Dorothy manage in long skirts?

Looking down on Dove Cottage, Grassmere

I queued to buy Grasmere Gingerbread and a wonderful cross between biscuit and cake it was. I wish I’d known how good because I would have bought another packet. Several. Kendal mint cake, another local essential, was good enough for the likes of Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hilary. I worried it would be like toffee but it’s more like a kind of delicious icing sugar fudge – not hard on the teeth at all.

Local vegan treats

From Grassmere I negotiated grumpy bus drivers and got myself to Kendal. I rushed into the museum ten minutes before closing. The Arthur Ransome room was depleted because some of the exhibits, and yes, those red Turkish slippers, were showing in a special exhibition at Coniston Waters.

Ransome’s chess board

Chess comment

But I was able to see bits and pieces; his chess board, a portrait by Dora Altounyan and some cartoons plus his very small desk. Sketches for Secret Water and Pigeon Post were framed on the wall.

Portrait of Ransome and two of his sketches

On my last day at Coniston Water I was not able to find a sailing school or someone to take me out in a boat, apart from the tourist launch. Seeing I’d already cruised Lake Windemere, I found a large empty rubbish bag near the camping ground and, together with other rubbish, collected some dog owners’ bags of pets’ productions left along the path. Perhaps they think they’ll pick them up on the way back? Note to dog owners: you CAN take it with you.

Even though Coniston was considered the quiet lake and it wasn’t school holidays, there were plenty of people around. Once I’d marched for a bit to shake them off, I found some peace and quiet. Apart from the canoeing school and the little launch there was a kayak powering along with a man singing happily in what sounded like Hindi. Fellow walkers murmured behind me. Baby canoeists cackled and halloooed like lost ducks. Real baby ducks puffed and fluffed behind their proud mother who seemed to travel backwards. Oak leaves shook and danced in the sunlight. I wished I could have been sailing. That’s probably where Ransome would have been.

The Ruskin Museum turned out to be more about Coniston than the titular hero. Work implements, especially those of mining and lace were front, and a room devoted to The Bluebird project, Donald Campbell and his fatal attempt at the speed record, centre.

Not sure why it was named Ruskin lace? I’d always been suspicious of Ruskin because he was mean to his wife although apparently that’s contentious. Apart from his wife, with whom he did not have sex, he also enjoyed romance with a Spanish lady and with another girl of ten years old. His apologists think there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him and he was just high minded and moral. He certainly liked nature, painted nicely and gave inspiring lectures.

Right in the middle of all this was ‘Mavis’, a sailing dingy renamed ‘Amazon’. She was the first boat Ransome sailed with the Altounyan children.

The Amazon herself in the Ruskin Museum

Banners on stands featuring quotes from Swallowdale and Winter’s Holiday told me I was in the right place. I made my way up the stairs and into the small room featuring the special exhibit, ‘Arthur Ransome, Adventures in Russia’. It felt like the tip of an iceberg without much rhyme or reason. For a start, the red slippers that started off the whole shebang, the gift from the Altounyan children, which caused him to pen Swallows and Amazons, were hidden under a shelf without a label. The accompanying notes were illuminating, although in the time I was there, reading avidly, several other visitors wandered in and out and didn’t even open their folders.

exhibition posters from the Ruskin Museum

His ‘Homing Rock’, the piece of Old Man Coniston he always carried – wrote with it on his desk – was there was bigger than I’d imagined and had a hole in the middle to keep it tied to him or his luggage somehow. Various intriguing documents were displayed, such as his passports, both in Russian and in English. There was some doubt about his affiliation when he returned to England but more serious concern when they thought his new wife Eugenia was smuggling diamonds.

Ransome happened to be staying across the road from the Winter Palace in 1917. I was taken aback by comments that suggested him naive or innocent. Ransome was deeply involved with the leadership of the Bolsheviks and I can’t believe he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He understood strategy extremely well. He predicted the revolution and passed that information to his masters at MI5 and MI6. When it was suggested that Britain should somehow intervene he said Russian people should be left to get on with their lives. (He might have lived to rue that day!) As more information is released more books are written about him.

Some of the many items about Ransome available in the museum bookshop

Ransome understood codes, he knew when to pry and when to lurk and he taught thousands of children how to do it too. They may have turned into spies, birdwatchers or sailors, campers, scientists or journalists, but Ransome knew what he was about. He was about climbing Old Man Coniston. Looking out at the misty sky and watching a chirpy bird chirruping as far and as high as he could go and then parachuting impressively down again. Living your life as high and far as you can and letting the wind fill your sails.

I touched Coniston Waters

What’s your favourite Ransome book?