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, 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, 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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The Coronavirus Diaries, 11th March 2022, Nuclear Holocaust?

Celia and I are planning to get out of the city and walk tomorrow. We’ve agreed on our destination, our start time, and that we’re taking packed lunches. The news continues to be unremittingly grim, and I am hoping a walk and greenery will be restorative. Will Putin press the button and end all our existences? I find I am making plans, while at the same time wondering if I’ll be alive. The phrase ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die’ makes a lot of sense right now.

Not that refugees are getting much opportunity to do much of that, especially those refugees who are trying too reach friends and family in the UK. Our government continues to plumb new depths. One back bencher claimed Lincolnshire (one of the least populated counties in England) couldn’t take more refugees. Another MP offered the kind suggestion that would be refugees could register to pick our fruit and vegetables. They’re all heart aren’t they? Lose your home, the life you know, trek across Europe bringing what you can carry, fearful, exhausted, heartsore, and be sent from pillar to post by UK representatives who wonder why when you left to escape the bombing you didn’t have all the certificates they ask for with you. After all you might be a terrorist. Terrorised would be the correct word.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th December 2021

We’re getting good at this, and into something of a rhythm. I know it will be broken in a couple of weeks when the whole Christmas thing is at its height, but today Celia and I again headed out with boots, packed lunches, backpacks and waterproofs to a neighbourhood in London unlike our own.

Celia is the Walks Directions Chief, and today we did the walk backwards. I would have struggled with this, so fortunately my part was simply printing the route and putting it inside a plastic folder. While I was breakfasting the rain was hammering against the windows, and the wind was shaking the trees. A walk seemed unlikely. Then miraculously it stopped raining, the wind dropped and I changed my nightwear for leggings, several top layers and two pairs of socks.

A few weeks ago we were surprised to find ourselves watching a German Shepherd having a hydrotherapy session in a building we had thought was selling wine. Today we met a standard poodle called Lily who is having hydrotherapy at another facility following amputation of a hind leg due to cancer.

Lily

She wasn’t the only dog we saw. Along the river path there were lots of mucky, wet dogs. Dogs running with their owners, dogs rushing down to the water to chase the ducks, dogs sniffing at interesting things in the grass. Some of the owners smiled, a couple said hello. Others looked straight ahead as though we didn’t exist. Lily’s owner was the friendliest and chatted for several minutes about her pet’s ordeal, courage and the benefits of hydrotherapy. Her leg was amputated just fourteen short weeks ago. She’s nine, a sweetheart, a hero and her owners obviously love her to bits.

We set off from Hammersmith station, crossed Hammersmith Bridge, and spent a fair few minutes hearing coxes shouting at teams of rowers through loud hailers. Some of the crews were flying along, aided by the flow of the tide. The path was neither one thing nor the other, semi asphalt and quite tiring to walk along. The little fungi we saw was huge, as though to make up for lack of variety. It was a relief to leave it and walk on fallen leaves at the edge of the nature reserve we had managed to largely miss. Swans and geese gathered at the edge of the water. Why there, and in such numbers Celia wondered. Maybe that’s where people feed them. A flat had a model of a cow on the balcony. A goose sat sentinel on a tree.

It began to rain. Rain was not forecast. We grumbled a little, but not much, which was fortunate as it soon stopped, started again later, stopped again. We read plaques on benches, looked at door knockers, read information boards, admired Gustav Holst’s and Ninette De Valois’s houses, recrossed the river at Barnes, and had lunch in a shelter looking at an empty bandstand.

The notes told us to look for a sculpture of storks on a nest. It didn’t say why the sculpture was there. Anyway, we found it; then a sign to a food market where I bought some biscuits, Celia bought some radishes, Celia used the loo and I met Lily. To my mind, this was the point where the walk picked up and became more interesting.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 2nd December 2021

My work took me out into the cold of the day. I didn’t make any money, today was prep, taking photographs, making the most of the blue skies. Rain is forecast tomorrow. I walked between Park Lane and Bayswater, traversing Hyde Park. London is rich in parks, and although I have visited Hyde Park many times, I can’t truly say I know it. It is vast. I walked through bits I knew, then bits I didn’t recognise to more bits I knew. It was lovely.

After Bayswater it was back through the park to Belgravia, a part of London I don’t like much. It’s all big white houses which look alike to me. A bit of luck as I left the park, the Horseguards, Lifeguards in their red, were making their way back to their barracks and stables. These are sights I missed during lockdown. The daily panoply of pomp with beautiful beautiful horses.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 29th November 2021: Omicron Days

The woman intent on her ‘phone did not deserve the black Labrador politely nudging her leg to ask her to throw his ball. A less polite dog would have looked around the circle of grass and seen there were other humans paying attention to their dogs, throwing things for their dogs, talking to them, patting them, and left her to her little screen in search of a new significant person. Me perhaps.

Celia and I had finally found a spot to eat our respective lunches. She had a neat plastic box with sandwiches and bits and bobs, I had a falafel wrap I bought in a branch of Sainsbury’s just after we left Wandsworth Cemetery. We’d walked some way since then, following the Wandle Trail which is bizarrely almost devoid of anywhere to sit. There was one bench and it had a nice view, but it was in the shade and yesterday was cold. Just how cold I think we both realised when we stopped moving and sat down to eat our lunch. I’d vetoed a couple of places Celia had suggested. Somehow lunching with a view of a depot of refuse trucks on the opposite bank did not meet any of my criteria for fine dining. Then there was a depot of builders’ lorries. Fortunately Celia spotted the bench in sunshine just away from the path and we settled there. While we ate, a man, a woman and a child turned up and started planting bulbs beside us. This being Wandsworth not Walworth they did not speak to us, nor we to them. I was in Battersea today, also part of Wandsworth, and only one person responded to my smiled hello. A young couple with a baby and another black Labrador – black Labrador ownership seems very high in Wandsworth which has to be an indication of at least some good qualities – looked at me as though I might be an axe murderer disguised as a woman at the edge of her prime having a very bad hair day. The one person who spoke to me had two dachshunds. Wandsworth is also rich in this breed of dog.

The forecast for the weekend had not been promising. If you only had one word to describe it that word would be cold. Add sleet to Saturday’s forecast, and you’ll understand why we thought Sunday the better day for our excursion. The cold combined with increasingly short days steered our attention to a shorter walk closer to home. The Ramblers’ website turned up quite a few self guided routes, and we plumped for one between Balham to Wimbledon just over five miles long.

Balham has gone upmarket in recent decades. It’s a place of coffee shops, shops selling expensive baby clothes, a branch of Planet Organic. There is a branch of Aldi, another of Lidl, so not everyone can be well heeled, but it certainly gives off an air of comfortable middle classness nowadays. The charity shops are excellent.

We turned away from the tube station and into a network of roads I have never visited. Some very grand houses. We looked. I stared. Then in minutes we were down a track and walking parallel to the railway on a part of Wandsworth Common entirely new to me. The skies were blue, the dog walkers were out, we were wrapped up. All was well.

Celia got a cup of coffee and I used the loo at a café we both agreed we would not be visiting again. Then more Wandsworth Common, more blue skies, more dogs, and a bench to sit where Celia finished her coffee and we both watched a group (a flock? how many birds does it need to be a flock?) of pigeons having a communal bath, a tern watching them and looking bemused.

From the walk notes we learned the common was despoiled by Spencer family, as in the Earls Spencer, the current one being the brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they set out to exploit the common as thoroughly as they could, cutting down trees, extracting gravel, creating illegal enclosures. One oft repeated claim made by the landed gentry is that they protect and preserve the land. Wandsworth Common may be the exception which proves the rule, but somehow I rather doubt it.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 21st November 2021

I have just reached for what is probably my oldest poetry book, or rather the one I have had the longest, When We Were Very Young by AA Milne. Some lines from a poem in it I liked when I was a child were going round my head, but I couldn’t quite remember how it went. The poem is Puppy and I. When I reread it I knew why it had it been in my thoughts.

Celia and I went walking yesterday. It was a dull morning and it got no brighter as the hours went by, but that didn’t stop us enjoying our walk, and we met a lot of puppies. Puppies and adult dogs who were all expressing their joy in that uniquely canine way; a joy that is gloriously infectious. You’d have to be pretty jaded not to smile. My favourites were a young yellow Labrador called Zelda who would have liked to say hello only there were so many wonderful, interesting smells that she simply had to investigate first, and the older golden Retriever who on seeing Zelda, approached her on the leaf strewn path in a semi crawl, her tail wagging furiously, finishing with an ecstatic play bow.

We left Waterloo on the 9.30 train to Guildford where we changed platforms to travel one stop to Wanborough. A claggy footpath across a field left our boots (and my trousers, Celia seems a cleaner walker) filthy and heavy. I used my walking pole to keep me from slipping. Celia would probably have used hers too had she not left it on the second train. We spent a few minutes at the end of the next field cleaning some of the mud off. Then it was just a step to Wanborough’s Great Barn and church. The church was open and tiny. It looked as though it was still lit with gas lighting. We read the leaflet, mooched in the churchyard, gazed at the Manor House next door, a house opposite it, and then set off again.

The next section was up a slope, through an avenue of yew trees. At the top we faced a daunting task, crossing a dual carriageway to a central section and then another dual carriageway on the other side. The traffic was steady. We were joined by a man who was more comfortable with the crossing than we were. We all survived, but had the morning be shrouded in mist or low lying fog, I think I should have happily turned back.

Once across though we were in the Greyfriars Vineyard. The man strode ahead while we read the information panels and admired the view. We dawdled through the vineyard stopping to see which grapes were grown where. There was a sign to a shop. Neither of us felt prepared to buy a bottle of wine this early in the walk to carry home, but Celia had the bright idea that they might sell wine by the glass. We were so intent on this we missed the sign about the vet rehabilitation and hydrotherapy referrals, so were somewhat surprised to find ourselves looking at a swimming pool where a German Shepherd was being encouraged to exercise. It seemed reluctant at first, but toys did the trick, and soon it was reaching a paw out to the physiotherapist when she stopped to talk to its owner to nudge her into more play.

The shop was open, but alas wine not sold by the glass. Celia got into shopping mode and bought several champagne stoppers as Christmas stocking fillers, and we both bought small bars of organic vegan chocolate. The young woman who cheerfully invited us in despite our mud encrusted boots told us how the vineyard had been started as a hobby by two vets who had the practice some thirty ago.

A few squelchy bits of path followed, but nothing like the early field. Then through some woods, over a manicured golf course, more woods and past a house called Questors which looked like it could feature in an Agatha Christie novel, and onto the North Downs Way. We were heading for the A3, but fortunately we went under it rather than risking our lives crossing the carriageway. Before long we reached Watts Gallery where we ate our packed lunches at the picnic tables before going into the café for cake, and in Celia’s case, coffee. We managed to resist buying anything in the shop, though I rather fell in love with a coat I definitely don’t need.

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