Spring in the time of Covid (Part 3)

It got hotter and hotter, sunnier and sunnier. And then, randomly, there was a day of hailstones. Some thunder and lightening. A week of thick grey cloud. It started to feel as though the weather was as confused as the nation. Lockdown continued interminably… but with some relaxations, allowing friends living close enough to meet in the park. We even managed a couple of picnics. Amazing how such simple pleasures could feel so exciting; illicit, even, and to be treasured, never again taken for granted.

But whilst things started to turn a corner on Covid, a much more insidious and enduring pandemic raised its head. The season ended with a series of marches and protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. 2020 certainly won’t be forgotten easily. Whether it turns out to be a pivotal year for equality and sets the world on a brighter, fairer path, only time will tell. But we can hope, and listen, and learn, and be hungry for change.

Just as we can hope and agitate for positive outcomes across a range of other topics following this period of enforced reflection: whether that be on environmental matters, world politics, or our own working practices and life priorities. Good things need to emerge from the ashes.

But back to prosaic matters. We’re now able to drive – or Paul is (the DVLA is likely to object if I try!) – so can finally get beyond Brixton’s borders. Roll on summer…

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Black Lives Matter Plaza (Credit: Washington Post)

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Celebrating Together

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Almost Perfect

Spring in the time of Covid (Part 2)

And so the weeks and months rolled on… Happily, April and May brought lots of sunny days. And Paul and I got very competitive with our ‘Lockdown Food League’, so very many nice meals were consumed. We got a delivery of wine; I finally learned how to keep a sourdough starter alive (and produced several pleasingly well-risen loaves); my running times improved; the nation carried on clapping weekly for NHS staff and key workers; and stunning flowers bloomed everywhere.

Less positively, the £30 yoga mat has only had two outings in 10 weeks. But you can only have so many lockdown projects at once, right?!

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Spring in the time of Covid (Part 1)

Having spent the whole of Spring in lockdown, I thought I would create and save a few photo blogs for posterity. Over the last 13 weeks, I’ve pretty much explored every inch of the three-mile radius around my house, deepening my love of and appreciation for this pocket of south-east London. Whether it’s jogging in Brockwell Park, admiring the architecture in Dulwich Village, stalking the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace, counting the bluebells in Sydenham Woods, picnicking in Dulwich Park, or finding new murals and street art throughout…there’s been plenty to occupy the time. Yes, I’m dying to get further afield (I really wish we had a car!) and yes, I can’t wait for pubs, restaurants, theatres and galleries to reopen. But if I’m gonna be locked-down anywhere, I’m glad it’s here.

I’ve also loved seeing other people’s photos of their springtime activities in lockdown. Most of the pictures here (and in Parts 2 & 3) are my own, but I’ve credited where others have contributed. Including special appearances from friends in Greenwich, Leeds, Elephant, Cumbria…looking forward to seeing everyone again soon!

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Out of Decay

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First Leaves

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Poppies in the Park

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Bunny Watch (Credit: Jenny Hancock)

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Pollinating

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Until Further Notice

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Supporting our Key Workers

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Fleeting Magnolia

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Fallin’ and Risin’

Down on the Bayou

Whilst in Louisiana, I’d definitely recommend taking a break from the frenetic music schedule and heading into the wetlands. We had a truly memorable morning kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou in Manchec Swamp. You can easily organise transport through various companies. Despite a mixed weather forecast (you can never trust the forecast in this State!), we were treated to stunning blue skies, which showed off the clear water, green algae, cypress and tupelo trees in all their glory. Two alligators were spotted, along with white egret, turtles and a blue heron. The number of photos will probably make you sympathetic to Paul’s claims he was doing most of the work!

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Festing In Place

After surviving fire, rain and even Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Jazz Fest succumbed to the Covid-19 outbreak and was cancelled this year for the first time in its fifty-year history. A sad state of affairs. A great number of fans are, however, tuning into WWOZ (a fantastic non-profit, community-supported radio station in Louisiana), to listen to classic sets from the festival’s back catalogue in their gardens or living rooms. And some are going all out: dressing in signature garish Hawaiian shirts, barbecuing in hats and beads, baking beignets and cooking gumbo. Puts a smile back on your face!

It’s inevitably made me nostalgic for past Fests though. So I’ve dug out a few more photos (mostly my own, but with a few of the official ones thrown in). I’m listening to Trombone Shorty this morning and remembering jumping up-and-down excitedly to his closing set – after one too many frozen daiquiris – as the sun was going down over Tremé. Aaah…

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Pest and Buda

Returning to my archive to cover some trips that have been callously omitted. First off: the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Which I visited in 2012 with my dad. Remember 2012? When the world seemed bright and full of promise. London hosted the Olympics; the Mars Rover landed; the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee; a human* broke the sound barrier; Obama was re-elected…. Of course, some crap things happened too, but – on balance – a pretty good year!

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Anyhoo, late August 2012 saw us checking into a lovely hotel atop Castle Hill in historic Buda, on the west bank of the Danube. Now…I’ve discovered I can’t find my notebook from this holiday. So I won’t attempt to accurately recount the order in which we did things. And – possibly to most people’s relief – I can’t remember the names of any of the restaurants we frequented either. Although I do recall a very lovely goulash served in a hollowed out bread roll on the castle green. And the cake and pâtisseries from the famous New York Café on Erzsébet. The latter is lauded as one of – if not the – most elegant cafes in the world: a cavernous, ornate Italian renaissance building with stunning chandeliers, frescoes and marbled columns. A must, especially if you’re visiting the Jewish quarter in flatter Pest, a short walk across the Chain Bridge.

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Sticking with that area, then, a visit to Dohány Synagogue is well worth it. It’s the largest in Europe, with a capacity of over 3,000. A beautiful Moorish Revival structure, it’s the centre of Neolog Judaism. Not far away, I’d also recommend the Iparművészeti Múzeum – the Museum of Applied Arts, a stunning Art Nouveau building with bright green tiled roof and an interior comprising Islamic, Mogul and Hindu design. It’s full of interesting furniture, textiles and glass-works. There were also various manuscripts on display when we visited. Hungarian is a Uralic language, one of only a few non Indo-European languages in the world, and in the same family as Finnish and Estonian. So it was interesting to learn a little more about it.

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On one of our afternoons we also visited the City Park, packing our swimwear to spend a few hours at Széchenyi Baths. This is, I believe, the largest spa bath in Europe, with three large outdoor pools and numerous indoor medicinal baths. Built in 1913, the vivid-yellow Modern Renaissance building is fed by natural hot spring waters. In a city famed for its spas, dating back to the Roman settlers and expanded by the Turks in the 16-17th centuries, this is one of the most accessible and reasonably-priced spas, promoting a range of aqua therapies. It’s certainly a great way to chill out after a morning of heavy sight-seeing!

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On another day we found ourselves on Margitsziget (Isla Margarita), a pedestrianised haven in the middle of the Danube. The 2.5km long island contains the ruins of a convent, lovely gardens, an octagonal water tower hosting temporary exhibitions and some beautiful – and refreshing – fountains. It was an incredibly hot day when we visited, and we needed frequent stops for ice-cold drinks, ice-creams and slushies. I think on the same day we’d climbed the dome at Szent István Bazilika, to take in the views across the city. So had arrived at the park already exhausted. Szent István (St. Stephen) was the first King of Hungary, and his “incorruptible” right hand can be found in the church’s reliquary. Our trip actually coincided with St. Stephen’s Day (20th August), a national holiday celebrating the foundation of the Hungarian state. The streets were decorated; we saw an aerial show over the impressive Parliament Building; there were various craft fairs; and a huge firework display in the evening.

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The final two things I remember visiting in Pest were Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) and Vajdahunyad Castle. The former is a large crescent plaza with statues of the seven chieftains of the Magyars (the settlers of Hungary) and a tall column atop which the Archangel Gabriel sits, holding the Hungarian holy crown. The latter is found on the edge of City Park and was built in the late 19th century as part of a Millennial Exhibition celebrating a thousand years since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin (i.e. the founding of Hungary). There’s a very pretty boating lake around the castle, and it’s particularly attractive at golden hour, just before the sunset.

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Back over the bridge in Buda, there’s plenty more to explore. The ancient capital sits proud, looking down on the river and the modern city beyond. It’s Old Town streets are full of colourful houses, boutiques, cafés and little galleries. Uri utea (Gentleman’s Street) is a particularly nice thoroughfare, but it’s worth a longer wander around the cobblestoned area. As well as strolling the Várkerület District, home of Buda Castle.

The castle was first built in the 13th century to provide protection from the Mongols. Today’s 18th century incarnation is a Baroque Palace complex, containing the National Library, Hungarian National Galley and Budapest History Museum. The whole area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My favourite part of the Palace was the enormous Mátyás kútja (Matthias Fountain), outside of which we caught the end of a classical concert on an evening stroll.

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The wider Buda area also boasts Mátyás-templom, an 11th century church that’s considered one of the most unique on the continent. A mixture of Neo-Gothic architecture with a healthy dose of Romanticism and Orientalism thrown in, the building was host to the coronations of Hungarian Kings for centuries. During it’s varied history, it was used as a mosque for 150 years by the Ottoman Turks, and later owned by Jesuits, Franciscans and Catholics. Stunning both in daytime and illuminated at night.

There are a couple of important statues nearby. Holy Trinity commemorates the people of Buda who died from two outbreaks of the Black Plague, which swept Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The statue itself was meant to protect the city, following the first outbreak, but when the pestilence returned they built it bigger in order to make doubly-certain next time. There’s a also a huge bronze statue of Szent István riding his horse.

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The latter is located within the absolutely glorious Halászbástya (the Fisherman’s Bastion). So named because the stretch of castle wall on which it’s built was said to be protected by the Guild of Fisherman in the middle ages. By far my favourite spot in the city: the Neo-Romanesque fairy-tale castle has multiple white turrets, arches and lookout terraces with panoramic views over the River Danube and across to the Parliament Building. It was from here that we watched the fireworks and I could have happily wiled away the hot afternoons reading on the Bastion’s walls.

Oooh, I just remember we also went on a boat trip down the river. Not sure how this fit into the schedule, but there you go. Basically, I’d heartily recommend a long weekend in this handsome city!

*I remembered (i.e. googled) that this was Felix Baumgartner. FYI.

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The Legacy of Little Boy

Day 12 of our trip to Honshu. We disembarked the bullet train late morning and made our way to the most conveniently-located of all our accommodation on the trip: Hotel Granvia, a soulless glass edifice attached to the Shinkansen Line at Hiroshima’s central station. We had (rightly, it turned out) prioritised ease and accessibility over interest, given it was only a two-night stay. It was also, I have to admit, quite nice to have the option of a “Western style” breakfast for a change. As much as I was loving rice porridge, mackerel, rose-hip jelly, onsen tamasgo and other delights, I’d started to crave a bacon butty.

Dropping our bags at reception, we made our way effortlessly to the Peace Memorial Park via the city’s efficient tram and train network. So far, so good. But there endeth our insouciance. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: it was a tough afternoon. As soon as you see the carcass of the A-Bomb Dome, a quiet, persistent forlornness descends and refuses to be shaken. Even on the sunniest of days. I walked through that park with legs of lead, taking in the dreadful certainty and enormity of man’s propensity for evil.

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The museum, though excellent, is overwhelming and too much to fully take in on one visit. And in the cavernous, subterranean Peace Hall, I allowed tears to come, given words would not. Only the crowds of children handing out small origami cranes allowed, finally, a sense of lightness to return. Although their poems and songs, recited at the Children’s Memorial at the direction of their teacher, left me choked up again. It’s a strange irony that the atomic bomb was nicknamed Little Boy, given the thousands of infants who died, either at the time or from leukaemia in the aftermath. The Memorial is a fitting dedication to the young victims of the atrocity, adorned with hundreds of brightly coloured and patterned cranes.

I was pretty ignorant of the significance of the crane before our visit. The Japanese refer to it as the “bird of happiness”; with its wings believed to carry souls to paradise. Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded a thousand origami cranes, your wish would come true. Sadako Sasaki – a young girl who died from radiation-induced cancer ten years after the bomb – famously set about making a thousand cranes from her hospital bed using medicine wrappings, the paper from other patients’ get-well presents, and anything else she could scrounge together. Accounts differ as to whether she completed the task or whether her school friends finished for her, posthumously. But the story has become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times.

A bath and nap were needed next, before a calming drink on the 22nd floor of the hotel. It was only then that I felt able to discuss what we’d seen and how it had made me feel. I’m not naïve enough to have expected to be unaffected by the experience, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a gut punch it would be. Luckily, I had Paul to help me shake off the day and ground myself back in the present. Helped enormously by a fantastic barbecue fish meal and delicious range of sakes at Guttsurian near the port, later that evening.

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Our second day was spent on Miyajima Island, part of the Setonaikai National Park, just a short ferry trip from the city. This is where you find the Giant “Floating” Torii Gate, which adorns many a postcard. Arriving at low tide, we were able to walk on the beach up to, and under, the colossal structure. Mightily impressive. But much more of a sight to behold in the evening, partially submerged by the sea. More on that later!

There’s so much more to Miyajima than the Gate, however, and if you fail to go up Mount Misen then you’re really missing out. Our trip up the mountain started at Daishō-in Temple in the foothills, where you are directed to climb the pagoda and pray at the shrine for an end to nuclear armament. As well as the usual halls and statues, the beautiful temple complex includes a cave filled with 88 icons representing the temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan’s fourth largest island). Another unusual feature is the row of spinning metal wheels inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures) that line the stairs of the temple. Guests are encouraged to turn the inscriptions as they walk up, which – it is said – has the same effect as reading them. So, without any knowledge of Japanese, you can benefit from the blessings that the reading of sutra is believed to bestow.

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Having stopped to buy an antique sake jug from a market stall, and a freshly-baked Momiji (a maple-leaf shaped sweet bean cake, popular on the island), we next continued up through Momijidani Park to the cable car station. The journey up the mountain proceeds in two stages, with the second cable ride really quite high (and not a little hairy). Disembarking at Shishi-iwa, we continued on foot to the summit. I’m struggling to recall now, but I think it was about a 20-30 minute walk. En route, we stopped at Reikado to see the “eternal flame” – disappointingly not the one made famous by The Bangles, but one supposedly ignited by Kobo Dashi over a millennia ago. It was from this original flame that the one in the Peace Park was set ablaze. For more on the legend of Kobo Dashi, see my separate blog post Monks, Spirits & Fire.

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Atop the Observation Deck at last, we marvelled at the stunning views from Misen’s peak…and took many a panoramic photo of the shewn boulders, tree canopy and surrounding islands. With the sun beating down, I distinctly remember scanning my surrounds and thinking what a lucky bugger I was!

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Rather than return by aerial tramway, we walked back via the Daisho route. There are about three or four different trails you can choose from for your descent – I can’t comment on the others, but Daisho was very pleasant. Mostly shaded woodland, the path also meanders past a lovely waterfall. About an hour into the otherwise solitary ~1.25hr stroll, we passed a succession of hardy souls making the ascent, each one asking (with hopeful anticipation) if they were nearly at the top. Struggling to hide their disappointment on learning they were far from the half-way mark, one (I would say rather sensible) woman glowered at her boyfriend and turned on her heel, heading in the direction of the cable car. On a hot day, I would definitely advise doing it our way around.

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Back at the base, we treated ourselves to a purple sweet potato ice-cream (nicer than it sounds) and a beer (or shochu cooler, in my case) from the local brewery, before visiting Itsukushima Shrine on the water’s edge. By now close to high tide, we navigated the creaking wooden walkways teetering on stilts, admiring the gorgeous views out to sea. Consisting of a main hall, prayer building and noh theatre stage (on which people gather at dusk to watch music, dance and dramatic performances), Itsukushima has been a holy site since the 12th century. Compared to many of the other temples and shrines, there’s not too much of interest to explore here. But the wow factor follows sunset.

After sating ourselves with a delicious soba okonomiyaki, we returned to see the shrine and “floating” torii illuminated and dozens of lanterns springing alight. Dangling our feet over the pier, we watched the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon and the scene gradually become more and more magical. Free-roaming sika deer meandered across the beach, stopping occasionally to steal a guidebook or nibble crackers; and I sighed deep contentment. A wonderful (near) end to our holiday.

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Norfolk: Coast & Parks

A collection of shots from Burnham Overy Staithe, Holkham, Titchwell, Brancaster and Thornham from last November. We spent some time being amateur bird-watchers with Matt, the overly-enthusiastic but incredibly sweet intern at the RSPB marshes; hunted deer* in the grounds of Holkham Hall, a fabulous Palladian country manor; and walked for miles along the chilly but stunning coastline. Such a lovely part of the world!

*with cameras, not guns – to be clear.

Disclaimer(1): the photo below of the bittern with the fish is not mine. We did see this very bird at the wetland centre (Matt was extremely excited, as you can imagine), but I didn’t have my zoom lens with me. So this is nicked from a nearby twitcher.

Disclaimer(2): the photos of the water channels on the beach and the trees in Holkham are Paul’s.

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#unlockeddown

Not going to pretend that waiting out Covid is a great hardship: a fully-stocked fridge, loaded bookshelves, Netflix, running shoes, a pile of board games, WhatsApp and Zoom do not a wartime Britain make. Very privileged, and won’t be forgetting it. (Neither am I underplaying how truly difficult it is for some. Just acknowledging I’m one of the lucky ones.)

Even still…these snaps from crisp winter walks around our fabulous city made me a tad wistful. Looking forward to venturing beyond Dulwich borders once again. T-minus 10 weeks (give or take a month or two) to go. The heart will only grow fonder…

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