Back in Essex

Another day in Wivenhoe. It has a draw for me. Today I wanted to walk to Arlesford Creek. There’s a circular walk. I did it. It was lovely.

Wivenhoe was also holding an art trail. It does this a couple or three times each year. I have always missed it. Because of the art trail the Norwegian baker was open and doing a good trade. She closed her shop over an hour earlier than advertised, presumably having sold out of her wares.

The church extension in Wivenhoe is complete and the stained glass window is superb.

It turns out Arlesford Creek was where they filmed the Essex Serpent. It’s on Apple TV which I don’t have.

Walking the path beside the River Colne I could smell the sea. Then the path led up through the woods above the fields before dropping again to the creek.

I met two cats called Ronnie and Reggie, and the dachshunds were at the window again.

It was a good day.

Here are some pictures.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th May 2022, Photos from the Weekend

Unfortunately I had accidentally switched my new pocket camera into video mode. I thought I had fixed that, but evidently I hadn’t so most of my photos from the first evening and Saturday are extremely short films. So we start with Sunday, my birthday as it goes, and our BnB, then our walk around Church Island and the bluebells with Cecilia. I don’t know if there’s an annual vote for most hospitable landlady, but my vote would be for her.

Then onto Belfast and the new bnb, where my favourite item was the coffee table made from a painted pallet set on casters.

Having not airbnbed before, I am unfamiliar with the styling guidance. We were surprised at the proliferation of fake flowers. Also signs with inspirational messages. Is this a thing? Cool table though. I want one.

The Titanic Quarter is photogenic, the wonderful exhibition is housed in a wonderful building. I use the word wonderful deliberately. A building and an exhibition which evoke wonder. So many of our words are overused and undervalued, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sound stale or everyday. I think Belfast City Council was both brave and far sighted to approve the plans for this building. It could have been safe (no bad taste joke intended); it could have been demure; it could have been a host of things it isn’t. What it is is bold, beautiful, and defiantly representational. That prow. That iceberg. The magnificent ship meeting its match. Like a tragic hero. To my shame I should have to look up the architects. Surely we should all know who they are?

I am giving this a bigger space because it says so much. In the distance we can see the building I have just raved about. Belfast Marina is to the left. Celia is on the right walking past the saddest exhibit: that long sculpture, looking like a fish someone has caught, represents the Titanic going down prow first. That perpendicular position tells you all you need about the horror. There’s another picture of the sculpture in the next gallery. You’ll see it was quite dull and overcast when we went into the exhibition.

When we came out, it was a different story. The day had morphed into a bright, warm, sunny afternoon. We wandered. We looked. We sat. We contemplated.

The walk to the centre took us by Big Fish. I am fond of Big Fish as you’ll see. I also love the 1950s Unite Building close by.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

Celia wanted to post her brother’s birthday card. No sign of a post box, but there was a postman in a stationary van. Celia waved to him and walked over as he started move. Is it just the one thing you want to post? he asked. Yes, she said. He reached out a hand. I’ll take it, he said.

In my head I could hear my mother’s voice. They’d only do that in Ireland, she was saying, probably correctly, proudly pointing out yet again how the country of her birth was far superior to anywhere else.

We were in Belfast. The centre, not the suburbs, a stone’s throw from City Hall. It was the end of the weekend we spent in Northern Ireland celebrating both our birthdays. Working backwards, yesterday we had been in the centre, meeting Fiona for coffee at the Linen Hall Library, a favourite venue of mine, then staying chatting for so long we decided to have lunch there and forgo our other plans. We had already had coffee at the Two Sisters coffee shop off the Cregagh Road. I also had a vegan brownie there and Celia had resisted a bag she would have liked to buy. If you are near this coffee shop I recommend you pop in. It’s lovely. The coffee is lovely, the goods on display available to buy are lovely, the staff are even lovelier. It’s spotlessly clean, welcoming and probably saved our lives on Monday when we first visited it bleary eyed after a bad night’s sleep in a cold Airbnb with inadequate bedding. We compared notes in the morning, discovering we had each struggled to get warm. each been convinced in the small hours we had Covid. There were no extra blankets, no hot water bottles. The heating system resisted our efforts to spring into action despite our following the instructions to the letter. Via email I requested help, blankets and hot water bottles. Someone would come to sort the heating later I was told. Twice more I requested blankets and hot water bottles, requests which bore some fruit as we found blankets on our return.

Not the best start to our only full day in Belfast. Still, we managed a good walk through a bluebell clad Cregagh Glen to the rath at the top, then back on the Cregagh Road we enjoyed a tomato and chilli soup at the café attached to the Museum of Orange History, and where my cousin Kathryn collected us for a drive round south and east Belfast which included visiting a property she intends to renovate. She suggested we spend the evening in the buzzy cathedral quarter. All we could think of was bed and an early night, both duly achieved. Thank goodness we both slept well.

We’d arrived in Belfast by bus from Castledawson at lunchtime on Sunday. Our very lovely B&B landlady having left us at the stop after also coming for a walk with us around Church Island in Bellaghy, a walk we had hoped to do on Saturday but it had rained most of the day, and was raining particularly hard at the time we thought we might walk. We caught another bus out to our airbnb, dropped our bags and headed straight out again to the Titanic Quarter and exhibition. I think it was only when we came outside again that Celia believed my assurances that I was more than happy to go the exhibition again. Since I visited it a few years ago I’ve wanted to return. Celia is now where I was then. I am now ready for visit number three. The exhibition does everything only the best exhibitions achieve. It informs, awes, makes you think, has an emotional impact.

It had been overcast when we went into the exhibition so to emerge to bright sunshine was an added bonus. Fortunately I checked my phone as we sat looking at the water. Petra had sent a message saying she could after all join us for dinner. However, she thought we were still in Bellaghy, and was intending to travel down to Co Derry. I called her to say we were in Belfast and Home was the restaurant, not a reference to our Airbnb. Disaster averted. Home is a great place. My friend Jo, who we were also meeting there, introduced me to it last summer. The food is excellent and the service friendly and professional. Celia was impressed by the level of customer service she was experiencing. We had a great evening. Lots of chat, lots of laughter. The craic, as they say, was good.

Jo and I have known each other most of our lives. By one of those freak coincidences she was buying vegetables in the supermarket near the airport at the same time we were shopping for provisions after Cecilia (our landlady) had picked us up on Friday. That woman looks like Jo, I thought. Then, that woman is Jo! She had been at a flower show in Antrim, and had left her car at a park and ride by the supermarket.

Friday the weather was amazing. Blue skies, warm sunshine. A contrast with the grey skies and low temperatures we had left behind in London. Saturday not so much. It started with drizzle and became rain. But we spent most of the day at the Heaney Homeplace, first at the exhibition and enjoying the new digital archive in the renovated library, having a snack lunch in the café so we weren’t exactly inconvenienced.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 26th April 2022, Birthday Surprise

Celia’s birthday today and the countdown to our trip to Bellaghy and Belfast via the glamour that is Luton Airport begins. Celia is out tonight with her husband and daughter but we met up this afternoon. Not perhaps the most obvious birthday celebratory gig, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

I have two small stools with seagrass woven seats. They were gifts from my godparents to my sister and myself back when the world and we were young. I presume my sister didn’t want hers and so it was left with my parents who handed it, along with the one that was mine, to me when I moved to this flat. The years have left their mark. The seagrass is broken in parts, the legs are looking scruffy. I thought I should like to get them repaired and spruced up, maybe to pass to the great nieces. The first price I was quoted was exorbitant, but the second was more reasonable.

A deal was agreed, and today it was time to hand over the first of the stools to John at his allotment which just happens to be at a site both Celia and I have peered at through the wire fence. We walked the short route in April sunshine and began a half hour of magic.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 22nd April 2022, An Away Day to Essex

I like Wivenhoe. I like Wivenhoe a lot. Today isn’t the first time I have swapped the grime and pollution of my beloved Walworth for the fresh air and calm of this Essex town. I never seem to visit it in bad weather. Someone did once tell me it’s the place that gets the most sun in the UK but I don’t know if that’s true.

It’s certainly friendly and there are a wonderful lot of dogs to greet and pat as you walk about. The Norwegian Baker isn’t open on a Friday but I found an excellent alternative with the Bolivian Baker. No photographs I’m afraid, everything has been consumed.

Today I went for a walk outside Wivenhoe, heading to Arlesford where B&J have some very lovely friends. No I didn’t visit them. For starters I don’t know their address. If I had I might have been tempted. I don’t think I saw the bit of Arlesford where they live. I did see a lot of houses, a lot of bungalows, one pub, a handful of shops. I was impressed by the railway station garden, and surprised by the safari, and Shaun the sheep, in the front garden of an ordinary house.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 15th April 2022: In Which a Sachet of Cat Food saves MasterB’s Dignity

Actually, dignity is probably not the right word. Anyone acquainted with the Boy knows that dignity is not one of his attributes. Saved him from being stuck under a car with Floyd for hours would be more accurate.

Floyd is a cat, as indeed is MasterB. Floyd, and he may go by other names, this is what I call him, has been an occasional visitor to our garden over the last few weeks. I suspect he is a street cat. He was in the garden when I went out to collect the cat dishes. MasterB accompanied me. I knew Romeo and Hartley were also outside, so drew them off to the end of the garden to allow MasterB some mooching time. I hadn’t counted on Floyd. I saw he was there, but I carefully ignored him. Hartley sat on my lap and I began the work of teasing out a new clump of knotted fur on his neck. I could see Floyd out of the corner of my eye. I could also see Romeo under a car watching Floyd. Floyd wandered off.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 12th April 2022

J sent me a text today asking if I had given up blogging. No I haven’t, but I have been busy. Still it was a good nudge. Yes, I thought, I’ll try to blog this evening. There were a few things I thought I might write about. Then I saw that Boris Johnson, Prime minister of the United Kingdom, had been fined for breaking lockdown rules, had made an apology, but did not intend to resign. How dare he? I watched the news. I am outraged. I am insulted. I am ashamed.

One woman interviewed described Johnson’s behaviour as ‘a bit naughty’. Since when did we apply the expectations we have of toddlers to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet? Johnson said he offered his apology with ‘openness and humility’ and that he ‘fully respect(ed) the outcome of the police investigation’. Oh yeah? Openness and humility are clearly just words to Johnson. Words that could be cake or carpets in this scenario for all it would mean. Ditto respect. I’d quite like to hear someone interview Johnson about respect. I take that back: I don’t like seeing Johnson in any shape, interview or form. Still less do I want to hear more of his lies and prevarications. Life is too short.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 25th March 2022

I am not going to talk about the war, or at least not much. Tonight’s news has awoken a flicker of hope that Ukraine may have withstood its powerful neighbour. Withstood may be too strong a word when you see the scenes of devastation in cities which were, just four short weeks ago, full of people going about their daily lives, returning to their homes each evening, cities which are now just so much rubble.

Rebuilding is going to be a mammoth task, not just the physical rebuilding of all those ruined buildings, but the rebuilding of hopes, of normality, of belief in the ordinary humdrumness of life. But compared to Afghanistan, compared to Syria, or Yemen, Ukraine may have a chance at normality sooner rather than later. Girls in Afghanistan refused the right to education were filmed weeping on a day they hoped to return to school. Their ambitions, their future, our future with them playing an active part in it has been placed on hold.

Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe has at last been freed, is back with her husband and daughter and is no longer wearing a tag. She spoke at a press conference a few days after she got back. Composed, gracious, assured, articulate, she was apparently insufficiently grateful for some, insufficiently grateful that it had taken six years to get her release, insufficiently grateful to a foreign secretary, now prime minister, who had not bothered to read about her case properly and asserted she was teaching journalism when she wasn’t.

Given a choice between that prime minister and Nazanin I know who’d I’d vote for.

Octavia is on the mend, slowly. Reinhild and Mark have tested positive. I had a PCR as part of the ONS survey. I tested negative. I hope it stays that way.

MasterB has decided he wants to be an outdoor cat. Each evening he meows piteously until I accompany him down to the front door. Then he takes flight. The nervous, unsure ginger who peers out into the street and decides discretion is the better part of valour has been replaced by a boy who, if there is no other cat about, and on occasion even if there is, is revelling in the smells and possibilities of the garden. Getting him in again is a problem. He’s outside now. I’m giving him until I have finished this post before I go in search of him. I really hope he’ll come in readily, and that i don have to catch him. It is wonderful to see him enjoying himself so much, and I don’t want to curtail or discourage that.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 20th March 2022

Octavia has got Covid. Triple vaccinated, she started feeling unwell on Friday, tested positive yesterday morning. We spoke last night and she was croaky. Today in a text message she says she’s feeling awful. Cases are rising again, yet all around precautionary measures are being cast aside. Fewer people are wearing masks on public transport. At the theatre last week the audience was asked to wear face coverings, but many people did not comply with the request. At the interval the foyer the jammed with people jostling for space. The safest place was undoubtedly behind the bar where perspex screens protected staff from contact with customers.

I sent Octavia a link to this piece by David Baddiel about cats. Cats are on my mind today. Not all cats, but MasterB who is currently outside in the garden, Hartley and Romeo the two garden cats, and the new cat on the block, named Treacle by Helena, who has joined the feeding regime, and has so far not been claimed by any neighbour. Also Freddy, aka Cat.

It’s eleven years ago tonight since he died. Reading David Baddiel’s piece moved me. Unlike Baddiel I came late to being owned by a cat. Freddy, a cat of Opinions, marched into my life, took over my home, ambushed my affections, stole Mother’s heart, and had Aunt wrapped round his paw. He was a joy, a tie, a distraction, a comfort, a worry. How I had lived so long without him became a mystery. He was macho, affectionate, demanding, imperious and a great companion. He loved eating or sniffing my cut flowers – carnations were his favourite – adored broccoli and would beg for noodles. He changed my life.

When I took him with me when I visited Mother she loved it. He knew the way from the car to the cat flap in her front door. He would announce our arrival by walking in and rolling on his back beside her. As her dementia increased he could calm her and bring her peace. She remembered his name when she forgot mine, though she often called him a little dog. She loved the way he knew her and showed her he loved her. He didn’t ask her awkward, difficult questions. He was beautiful. She loved watching him, admiring him. When others admired him she basked in reflected pride. So many of my good memories of Mother from that very difficult time are of her interactions with Freddy.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 13th March 2022, Time Out

Not so long ago, the pandemic I knew most about was the one in which my grandfather’s first wife died in 1918. Similarly, world war was something my parents spoke of as a lived experience. I learned about both in school history lessons. I didn’t really expect to live either. But we have been living with the pandemic for two years now, and global war is a definite possibility.

I feel I need to watch the news, despite the feelings of helplessness and grief it engenders. It’s something about bearing witness to the horrors being unleashed on the Ukrainian population. Emotionally, it’s draining. I have sent money, signed petitions, tweeted and retweeted. Yesterday, I took the day off from war. A luxury those in Ukraine do not have.

Celia and I set out for Coulsdon, and a walk we had found that was described as a surprising gem to find in the outskirts of London. It’s a peaceful, undulating, country route across flower strewn downland (in season), woods and fields and as a bonus, a church decorated with the earliest known English wall painting. What’s more all travel was within Zone 6. Neither of us knew Coulsdon. It would be a stretch to say we do now, as apart from the café (great) in the Memorial gardens and the toilets (vile) close by, we didn’t see much of it. We headed up hill to Farthing Down and Happy Valley, past some very attractive houses. About 400 yards into our walk we were lost. Not completely lost, but the instructions we were following did not match the terrain. We worked it out, but it was a good start in a way, as we increasingly found that the landmarks, fingerposts, numbered gates which were to guide us no longer existed. Compasses came into play.

Happy Valley is gorgeous. It is part of the Green Belt that surrounds London, a boon for those who live by it, and a barrier to further urban development. A barrier some want removed. A bit like the way climate crisis deniers and those who have long supported fracking say that with the current fuel crisis we should resume coal mining, drilling for oil and fracking. Heaven help us, for most of our politicians won’t.

Being out of the city was wonderful. The greenery, the dogs, the silence. We ambled, enjoying it all. Well, most of it. Not the mud. There was quite a lot of mud. Away from the Down some landowners make sure public access is restricted to a narrow strip between wire fences. We squelched, we slithered. The mud sucked at our boots and made our leg muscles tired. Thank goodness for the catkins, the twin lambs, for the primroses, and the buds. It was all very Robert Browning, though a month early.

Mud

We emerged from mud and woodland to a space, an enclave of neat houses and a quiet road. Children played on their bikes. Some of the houses had been done up with massive fences to stop anyone being able to see over them, security cameras and lights. Russian oligarchs perhaps. Certainly not neighbours where you’d go to ask if they had a screwdriver you could borrow.

We stopped for lunch at a dog friendly, walker friendly pub where they let us eat our packed lunches outside, and then we headed into the warm interior to finish our glasses of cider. The wind was cold, and the sections of the walk where we were in woodland provided us with welcome shelter.

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