Some folk say that
When cows lie down on the ground
Rain is in the offing
Some folk say that
When cows lie down on the ground
Rain is in the offing
The diligent bee
Continues its working day
A BAR OF SOAP reminded me of our first visit to Portugal. I am looking at a small, round piece of soap sealed in a transparent package labelled “Hotel Oslo”, which we would never have acquired had I not been a victim of pick pocketers on a tram in Lisbon. We had only been in Portugal for about four hours when we took a ride on a picturesque old-fashioned tram (route 28) in the Portuguese capital. I was on the point of taking a picture of a sign that told passengers to beware of pick pocket thieves when I became one of their victims. Amongst the valuables that were stolen from me was my driving licence.
Losing the licence was a disaster as we were planning to hire a car to visit several country places in Portugal. Without the licence, the car hire company was unwilling and unable to lend me a vehicle, but it was good about refunding the money we had paid. We decided that we would attempt to carry out our plans using public transport.
The first place on our itinerary was to have been a farmhouse in small rural place, whose name I do not remember, east of Coimbra. We travelled by train from Lisbon to Coimbra, which has two railway stations in the centre of the city. We discovered that there was a railway line from Coimbra to a spot near our planned destination. When I say “near”, it was really about half an hour’s taxi drive from where we were to stay. After lugging our baggage through the rain about 1000 yards from the station, where the Lisbon train arrived, to the other station from which we were about to depart, we ‘phoned the accommodation to which we were heading. They told us that they did not provide food, not even breakfast, and that the nearest restaurant was about half an hour’s drive from them. As we had no car and were planning to spend three days there, we began to worry how we would survive so far away from any supply of food.
Our next train was not due to depart for another two hours. I decided to walk back to the centre of Coimbra to see whether there was a hotel where we could stay instead of heading out into the ‘wild’. I rushed through the rain and found the Hotel Oslo, which had space for us and did not seem unreasonably priced. After reserving a room, I dashed back through the rain to the rest of the family, who were waiting on the platform. These were the days before we had more than one mobile ‘phone in the family, so I had to reach them to tell them about the Oslo instead of phoning them. Using our one ‘phone, we rang the rural accommodation and explained our plight. They were helpful in that they cancelled our booking gracefully and without cost.
Although not a de-luxe hotel, the Hotel Oslo was solidly built and extremely comfortable. It was located close to most of the sights in Coimbra, a place that had not been on our original itinerary. We spent four pleasant days in this delightful university city, and we were fortunate that, by chance, we were in the city at the time when the university students were starting a new academic year. By day and by night, we encountered groups of boisterous, happy students wandering about the city dressed in traditional capes.
Had my driving licence not been stolen, I know that we would never have stayed in Coimbra and that we would have missed seeing one of the loveliest places that we have so far visited in Portugal. As people say, every cloud has a silver lining. Although I was deprived of a lot of cash, I gained the pleasure of spending time in a wonderful place and witnessing some age-old traditions that added to our fondness of a country that we have grown to love.
The Hotel Oslo was, when we visited it, an old-fashioned style of hotel even though the 20th century building that housed it did not look archaic. Some years after staying there, we spent a couple of nights in the Hotel Mandovi in Panjim, Goa (India). This hotel had been built in 1952 by the Portuguese while they ruled Goa as a colony. It was built to coincide with the Pope’s visit to the Tenth Exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier, which are kept in Goa. They are ceremoniously displayed once every ten years, subject to the discretion of the authorities who keep them in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Although the Mandovi looks much older than the Oslo, they both have high standards of service and comfort that are old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. I am not sure whether we have kept any soap from the Mandovi as a souvenir, but you never know, one day we might find we have one lurking about somewhere in our home.
Falling rain drops
Relentlessly wetting the flat
Path beneath my feet
WE MADE THE MOST of the shortest day of the year, 21st December 2020, by leaving our house before sunrise, which was supposed to happen at 8.05 am but did not do so visibly because of the grey skies and incessant rain. We drove to South End Green (Hampstead) and parked just above the largest of the Hampstead Ponds (Pond number 1).
Despite the sheets of rain and the sombre sky, the houses across the pond were reflected in the water where swans and other waterfowl were taking a swim. We splashed along a waterlogged path to the next pond, Pond number 2, which is also overlooked by a few houses, whose inhabitants have an enviable view over the water and the slopes of Hampstead Heath beyond. We stood on a wooden viewing platform and heard a ‘splosh’ near us. It was a cormorant taking a dive. It emerged a few moments later further out in the pond. Several other cormorants could just about be seen through the rain, resting on a tiny island in the pond.
The Hampstead Ponds, three in number, are fed by streams that rise near the Vale of Health, which is about 440 yards northwest of the uppermost pond (number 3), which flows into the second pond and then into the first. These streams, along with those that flow into the Highgate Ponds, are sources of the water that flows in the now subterranean River Fleet, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
The idea of damming the streams to make the ponds might have been conceived as early as 1589 (https://guildhallhistoricalassociation.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-history-of-the-hampstead-heath-ponds/) but it was only in 1692 that the Hampstead Water Company leased the springs that now feed the ponds. The latter, which were used as freshwater reservoirs, were created by damming the streams in the early 18th century. The pond at the Vale of Health was created later, in 1777. Water from these ponds/reservoirs was supplied to users in north London via wooden pipes created by boring holes in elm tree trunks. The Highgate Ponds, which also supply water to the Fleet, were also created by the Hampstead Water Company.
In 1856, the New River Company acquired Hampstead Pond number 1 and the Vale of Health pond, which were by that time becoming less savoury as far as water quality was concerned. Four years later, the Hampstead Junction Railway Company opened what is now Hampstead Heath Overground Station. This was just south of a fourth pond, which was filled in in 1892. In addition, there was another pond in South End Green where a disused 19th century drinking fountain now stands. The pond was filled in in 1835.
Enough of the distant past. Let me tell you how South End Green fits in with my life so far. My mother’s brother, Felix, lived at number 130 Fleet Road. He bought it at an extremely reasonable price because it had a ‘sitting tenant’. Eventually, after the tenant died, my uncle lived on one of the building’s three floors and rented the other two to a couple of Nigerians, who became his close friends. He regarded them as if they were his sons and they looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father. For a long time, Felix occupied the top flat. He used to visit our flat for dinner regularly and we used to drive him home at the end of the evening. On one occasion, we arrived at his house, and after fumbling in his pockets, he announced that he had left his house keys locked in his home. We asked him what he was going to do. He answered in his South African accent:
“Ag, I do this often. All I need to do is ring my neighbour’s doorbell and they will let me onto their roof. Then, I cross over on to my roof. I keep a stick there so that I can break open my window and climb into my house. So, you don’t need to worry.”
Felix was always creative and inventive. When he grew older and infirm, he moved into the ground floor flat. He began using a stick when out walking. Once, when I was visiting him in a ward in the Royal Free Hospital, which is across the road from his former home, I was present when a physiotherapist visited him. She asked him whether he had a walking stick. He said:
“It’s lying beneath my bed.”
The physiotherapist looked at the stick, and said:
“Well, I have never seen one quite like this before.”
“Ag,” said Felix, “I took a bleddy broomstick and glued an umbrella handle on to it.”
Felix died a few months ago. We miss him greatly.
Sadly, South End Green was associated with other personal losses. Both my mother, and then many years later, her sister, ended their lives in the Royal Free Hospital.
The rear of Felix’s home once overlooked the LCC Tramway Depot. This was surrounded by the terraced houses on Fleet, Constantine, Agincourt, and Cressy Roads. The entrance to the depot was from the latter. This depot opened for horse-drawn trams in about 1887 and then the system was electrified in 1909. In 1938, trolley buses replaced trams travelling to South End Green and these were replaced by motor buses in about 1960 (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp3-8). Currently the route 24 bus terminates at South End Green, a route which I used when I was younger.
I used the 24, which passed near University College London where I studied between 1970 and 1982, for two main reasons. One was to visit my uncle Felix and the other to visit some friends, who lived in Constantine Road and others who lived in South Hill Park, part of which was built over the pond that was covered over in 1892.
Today, my wife and I enjoyed our visit to South End Green despite the relentless rain. After buying vegetables at a lovely open-air stall close to the station, we paid a visit to the Matchbox Café next to the cobbled area where the route 24 buses rest before setting off. As we waited for the barrista to prepare our hot drinks, we chatted with him through the hatch through which he serves the take-away drinks and snacks. Mirko was delighted to discover that we had visited his hometown Ptuj in Slovenia, which was once a part of the former Yugoslavia. He told us many things about his native place including that a castle north of the town, Borl (Ankenstein in German), was associated with Parsifal, one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table (more information: https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/01/an-arthurian-castle-in-slovenia.html). Incidentally, Mirko prepares good quality coffee and richly flavoured hot chocolate. His café is one of many reasons for visiting South End Green, even on a rainy December day.
WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.
We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:
“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”
The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.
We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.
The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm). On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.
We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings. Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!
THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.
At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.
In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent. After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.
We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.
The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.
That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian. I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.
With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:
“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”
“But, there is a problem,” I answered.
“And, what is that?”
“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”
The official looked at me curiously. I explained:
“I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”
“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”
I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.
From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.
Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.
Rain has fallen early
Wet footpaths glistening
Strollers walk briskly
Ev’ry rain drop
Creates a ring of rippling
Wet but of quite short life
Freezing windy rain falls
Yet flowers are blooming
Soon spring approacheth